Cinematographer Eric Koretz on Shooting The Final Stretch of "Ozark"
June 1, 2022

written by David Phillips, Awards Daily

Cinematographer Eric Koretz may have been a little late to the party when he joined Ozark for its final stretch run, but that doesn’t mean his role in helping the show close out wasn’t full of significant responsibility. Eric not only shot episodes 8, 9, and 10, but also the show’s much discussed (and debated) finale. In our conversation, Eric and I discuss the significance of getting the closing moments of this iconic show right, as well as the personal touches he brought to Ozark’s signature look that also allowed him to put a visual stamp of his own on his episodes.

Awards Daily: How did you come to the show?

Eric Koretz: It was kind of out of nowhere. I got a call to see if I was interested in joining Ozark. I interviewed with Shawn Kim, who’s the ADP. He had started the show. I came on halfway through the (final) season. Shawn and I had never met before, but we had known of each other. Ari Issler who is an operator on this show, we had worked together a bunch, and he had operated for me on a bunch of projects, so he was familiar with my work. So I met with Shawn, and then I met with Jason Bateman, and it happened pretty quickly.

Awards Daily: You mentioned that you came in halfway through the final season. I’m just curious, feel any pressure? (Laughs)

Eric Koretz: Sure, pressure, yeah. Well you know there’s always pressure on TV. In some ways there was pressure and in some ways it was easier, because they had already done seven episodes. I came on for the second half, because it was divided into two parts. They were already in rhythm and it was just up to me to come in and walk in step with that rhythm, and make it my own but still make it the Ozark way. It was a unique experience, I’ll tell you that.

Awards Daily: You were obviously following a template in terms of the cinematography and the visuals.. When you step into that place as someone who is continuing something that has already begun, I get when you say that’s easier when you know what is expected. When you refer to making it your own too, what particular choices did you make to bring that part of yourself to it?

Eric Koretz: You use the word “template,” but I think Ozark is unique in that the only mandate is that – we have a joke: there’s no sun in Ozark. (Laughs) We take out the sun and it’s a dark show. But there’s still hints of light. They’re not completely in shadows all the time. They kind of play through the shadows, in and out. So, I don’t think any DP could truly just copy something and then move on for the show. For me I just had to bring my own lighting flourishes to it, but keep it in that Ozark world in a lot of ways. Every DP has different tricks in their bag as to how they light. I would just employ some of those tricks and rely on my gaffer and key grip to tell me how they had been doing it and then sort of mix those things up and make it my own. 

Awards Daily: There is that sort of bluish tint to particularly any outdoor sequences but even some of the interiors too. That is the thing that I always think about with Ozark, it brings to mind the color blue. The movie Heat does that to me. Is that something that you recognized? The sort of bluish tones?

Eric Koretz: One thing that is for sure is that Shawn had developed a LUT at the beginning of the show. What a LUT is, for those people who don’t know, is a “look-up table”. For each camera, you use a color correction system. You shoot something, you test it, you change the colors, and then you have an overall look that you apply to each image. That was already established and that added some green and blue into the color tones and we’d augment that with however we would light. So, it was there as you’re looking at it and then you would just make it more or less so depending on what the scene calls for.

Awards Daily: When you are inside of Omar Navarro’s house, it’s this amber/goldish tone. Usually on film or television that sort of tone brings a feeling of warmth. It doesn’t on Ozark. It brings forth terror. How did you make that contrast work? 

Eric Koretz: That is interesting. I’ve had directors in the past ask me what colors do you see for for this project. My philosophy is that you can make any color mean anything you want as long as you apply a film language to that. Obviously the Cartel scenes are not a warm fuzzy series of scenes. So, something that would normally be looked at as a warm scenario that normally denotes happiness and pleasantries, how do you make it ominous and foreboding? You do that with contrast and lighting. You do that with angles. You do that with camera movement. The combination of those things makes it more foreboding and gets you away from that warm, fuzzy feeling.

Awards Daily: There’s a different vibe to the Missouri Belle as well. Different shades and more movement. How did you approach the Belle? 

Eric Koretz: For one, overall, we’re always looking to employ contrast into the scene, because Ozark is about light and shadow whether it is in the characters or whether it’s in the imagery. So we are always making sure that’s there, whether it’s color contrast or negative contrast. And then like you mentioned, there’s a lot of movement in the Missouri Belle.I think that helps. That informs the story too. You never really linger anywhere in the Missouri Belle, except maybe their office, which is more dark and in shadows. I think that movement creates an energy. 

Awards Daily: So, you got to kill Javi. 

Eric Koretz: I personally didn’t. (Laughs)

Awards Daily: The thing that I love about that shot is that it’s almost a silhouette. 

Eric Koretz: I love lighting things in silhouette. I think one thing – Jason Bateman would say it – there doesn’t have to be light on the characters. Playing the characters in shadow sometimes says more than shining a light on them. When Ruth steps up and shoots him, like you said in your article about the ending, she steps up and shoots him as he’s speaking. It’s just the suddenness of that moment. Really the only characters that are in light are in the background, Marty and Wendy and Clare. To them it’s like the spotlight is on them now. Suddenly their whole world has just shifted. I think it’s almost like a theater shot. Amanda Marsalis, the director of that episode, just staged that so beautifully. That’s one of my favorite scenes in the whole series.

Awards Daily: I talked to Amanda last week and we talked about the suddenness and that she really gave Alfonso a lot of credit for the physical aspect of his acting. He didn’t do the lingering death scene he just went down.

Eric Koretz: He is an incredible actor, and an incredible physical actor. He has quite a few physical scenes at the very least that episode and previous episodes too. He dies very well (Laughs). You never want to see an actor play up the “ohh I’m dying, I’m dying.” He did that very well, multiple times because of the dream sequence when Ruth shoots him as well. That was impactful too, where it just pop pop pop and he just quick spins and he’s down. He’s great at it. 

Awards Daily: I love the foreshadowing, her visualizing killing Javi. You often see when characters visualize killing somebody they won’t actually follow through. I read a review -mone of the few negative reviews – referring to Ruth’s killing as impulsive. She drove from Missouri to Chicago to kill someone. Not impulsive. (Laughs).

Eric Koretz: Yeah, it’s funny you mention negative reviews. I was talking with Jason and someone else was talking with him and he was like “Oh yeah, my father hates the show. It’s too intense for him.” Jason said “Well if there’s people that hate it, then that means that we’re doing something good. If it’s for everyone then it’s not for us.”

Awards Daily: Ben’s last ride is a really heartbreaking bit of footage. The use of Tom Pelphrey’s face and honestly his brow as much as anything and his eyes, anything from there up tells you everything that ‘s going on inside of him. 

Eric Koretz: What an incredible actor he is. I have to say my mom made me promise that he was still alive before she saw the show so she was very disappointed to see the final ending. She kept telling me “Ben’s still alive, I know it. They’ve cut away.” In multiple scenes he can just bring that so incredibly well. He really didn’t even have to build up to those moments. I didn’t want to just have one light on him without changing. I wanted the light to reflect in and out sort of like his character. He’s really unstable and then sort of at the end it comes through. The light starts coming through a little more and then fading out as he comes to the realization that he’s gonna die and that he’s doing it, as he puts it, for Wendy basically. We use a lot of interactive lighting on that, LED panels that are reflecting the scene. They are actually reflecting physically an outdoor scene that they are driving by and that’s bouncing on the window. Then we have just a little bit of kiss light for him just to bring him out of the shadows a little bit. I was trying to make that moment a little more impactful – not that it needed to be more impactful with his performance – but you want to augment what he’s doing in ways.

Awards Daily: The other half of it, you have Nelson driving the car, who is perfectly inexpressive, exactly what you would call for the character. I love the contrasting of those two f people in very different emotional places. 

Eric Koretz: Nelson is just a shadow character, right? He’s sort of the grim reaper every time you see him until he isn’t. I think it’s important for light to inform on the characters just as much. You want the light to perform and  inform on their performances as well. 

Awards Daily: When you get into the finale, there’s a lot of really high quality relative close-ups. Maybe there’s some distance but there is definitely the desire to capture what is going on in the characters’ faces. Wendy is a more expressive character. Marty, is much more like everything is just below the surface, but simmering. Obviously Julia as Ruth, is as expressive as it comes. Did you have any different approach when singling out those characters? 

Eric Koretz: It sort of depended on the moment. I love close-ups on all of them for actually all of the reasons that you mentioned. I think when you hold tight and close on all of their faces, even with Marty’s face, even when he’s not expressing, there’s sort of an emotion and expression. If you’ve been watching the show for a while, you’re reading into it like what the fuck is he thinking? Wendy and Ruth are totally different. In terms of just lighting, it’s always per what’s happening in the scene. We don’t beauty light in Ozark. It’s about what’s happening in the emotion of that scene. I light to that specifically.

Awards Daily: One thing Ozark does that I think is somewhat rare in television is it shows you characters thinking. Which isn’t always the easiest thing to do. You have to have expressive faces. You also have to have attached yourself to the characters in ways that you know what the gears are doing to some degree. I think in particular that’s the case with Marty. What is going on in his head and letting that play. Ruth will explain. Wendy will explain. Marty often doesn’t explain. What is the difference there? 

Eric Koretz: I think with Marty a lot of times, just giving the actor space and letting him emote and seeing their expression says a lot for the story. Is it intentional? Yeah, of course. I love slow cinema and giving the character space. I think oftentimes a great actor can say more without speaking words than they can with speaking words. I think what’s great about Ozark is that we really assume and know that the audience is intelligent and has a visual language and will pick up on things whether it’s consciously or unconscious in those moments. When we’re composing a shot and giving the actor space and they’re just thinking, there’s intention behind it but it’s also up for the audience to interpret what they’re thinking. I like that more. You don’t have to be didactic. There’s no one answer to what they’re thinking and what the story is. I like giving the audience the choice to figure out for themselves what’s going on in the actors’ heads. The actors are always in that moment leading to some conclusion, subconscious or not. I love that.

Awards Daily: Perhaps the scene that people are the most emotional about is obviously Ruth’s death. That had to feel like a serious responsibility to get that right. Julia Garner’s stillness, and I’m still not going to give you the begging or any of that, stays true to character all the way to her end. When you approach that scene, you’ve got Navarro’s sister on one side and you’re doing this ping-ponging, moving from one to the other. When you were shooting that sequence and thinking about this is the death scene in that show, even bigger than Ben’s, how did you approach doing that scene?

Eric Koretz: Aw man, first off we were shooting on the last day of the last of shooting ever of Ozark.  So that was emotional in itself and just added to that moment. Approach-wise again with lighting, Camila’s coming out of the shadows, Ruth’s a little bit more in the light. She’s facing the light in a lot of ways. We still wanted to give some glint of hope that maybe she will get through this and talk her way out of it. And then you realize, oh, actually, she’s fucked, that’s not going to happen. Because we knew they were such incredible performers, we wanted to really let the moment stand on its own and let them perform in that frame and not put too much movement into it from the time of her death and have the movement come afterwards. That’s sort of the release, when you realize actually after all these years and she’s gone now. What does that mean?

Awards Daily: I love when you say that you wanted to give the folks watching that tension that maybe this won’t happen. There’s a moment when Camila looks at Ruth and there’s a moment of respect. Like you are a hard ass and I respect that. It’s just this isn’t your day. I love that you made sure you caught that expression on her face. I know it’s what the actor brings to it but if you don’t shoot it right, the people watching at home don’t feel it.

Eric Koretz: That again goes back to giving space to the actors and letting it play out, because they know these characters so well. You don’t want to overdo things and get in the way of what’s going to come out emotionally, especially in a scene like that where it’s simple. She’s going to walk up. They have a moment where there is respect, but they’re both badasses and someone’s gonna die. 

Awards Daily: You still killed my son.

Eric Koretz: Yeah. Even though I probably don’t really like my son very much and he’s a piece of shit. (Laughs).

Awards Daily: Obviously then there’s the final scene. Some people are throwing Sopranos comparisons which I think is a little obvious but whatever. When people get upset with the ending I say to them you do realize that one of the main themes of this show is that everybody that gets near them gets hurt and they somehow – they’re not unscathed – that would be inappropriate to state that…there’s emotional weight and the fact that you’re always running for your life is not the greatest way to live. I think it has been misinterpreted by some that way because they wanted it to play out differently. I love the way you give the investigator his moment to have his speech and he says “You don’t get to become the Kennedys” and all that, and then Wendy says “Since when?” and the way Linney delivers the line. You give Mel his moment and then you come over to Wendy. Talk about that transition.

Eric Koretz: I fucking love that line because it’s true. Look at everything that’s going on right now in politics in the world. I think that’s the moment that you know Mel’s not going to get through this. I agree with what you’re saying. If you give the audience just what they want, it doesn’t serve the story. Everyone wanted Ruth to live and Wendy to die and maybe a mix to happen to the rest of the Byrdes. Chris Mundy is an incredible writer and he knows these characters so well. I think it’s the perfect ending for the show. It sends them off like the Kennedys but in the same sense you know their future is not going to be a good future. Jonah’s not going to go the road of Valedictorian to saint. Everyone’s gonna go down the wrong path. It’s not a happy ending for the Byrdes either. 

Awards Daily: That’s what I thought too. There are some folks who focused on it as some sort of wish fulfillment fantasy for the Byrdes. It reminded me of people who thought that Boogie Nights had a happy ending and I’m like he’s stuck! (Laughs). Just because he has people who accept him he’s still stuck in that life. They’re not getting out of their malfeasance; they just have to try to navigate through it for the rest of their lives. What a difficult life that is.  By doing this, you have really become a part of television history. This is a show that is going to be on the short list: Soprano’s, Breaking Bad, Ozark. It has to feel good.

Eric Koretz: It’s sort of hard to have a moment where you think about that, because television history is not a quantitative thing. It took a while for it to come out, and just waiting for it to come out, you know the first part and then waiting and waiting and then suddenly it’s out and it’s like ok it’s out now. I was very happy to just have it out in the world. One, so people would stop asking me how it ends. (Laughs). Two, before I started shooting Ozark it was my favorite show. Top three up there with Game of Thrones and others but Ozark was definitely my favorite show. So to be able to shoot that and end the series and do the final episode was such an incredible blessing. Having an experience like this again will be hard to beat that’s for sure.

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