THE WHITE LOTUS: Creating a Hawaii No One Should Visit, Lensed by Ben Kutchins
December 28, 2021

by: IndieWire Crafts team

Curated by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work we believe is worthy of awards consideration. In partnership with HBO, for this edition we look at how cinematographer Ben Kutchins, composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer, and casting director Meredith Tucker created a darker, more complex vision of Hawaii for the guests and staff at “The White Lotus.” 

Writer/director Mike White is hardly the first television showrunner to create a whodunit where any character could be either the killer or their prey, but his choice of setting provided the limited series with both its biggest draw and greatest challenge. Hawaii is, we are constantly told, a bright, relaxing tropical paradise.

To make the White Lotus feel like a luxury resort where a terrible fate lurks just around the corner required the limited series’ filmmakers to craft a palpable undertow of doubt, darkness, and mania that no number of Tiki Bars, breakfast buffets, or plunge pools can dispel. The challenge of creating the messy undercurrents — all while servicing White’s unique brand of comedy — would be at the heart of each artisan’s work on the series.

For cinematographer Ben Kutchins, the test was to create a visual look that finds the literal darkness and compositional unease within this natural paradise. Composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score had the task of unsettling the audience, keeping us from ever falling too far into identifying with the characters and instead focused on all the ways these people lack a center. Casting director Meredith Tucker had to find actors who could display the same depths within themselves as Kutchins and de Veer were bringing out of the environment: actors who could nail Mike White’s dark humor that so often comes out of our deepest vulnerabilities.

In the videos below, you will see how Kutchins, de Veer, and Tucker all found ways to unearth the anxiety and ferocity lurking just beneath the sunny surfaces of “The White Lotus.”

The Cinematography of “The White Lotus”

The look of “The White Lotus” was a tricky balance to nail down for series cinematographer Ben Kutchins. “How do I represent this [location] in a way to you as an audience member that locks you in to its beauty in a satisfying way, yet also [captures] its dangerous element, and do that in a fun way?,” Kutchins said. “How do I do all of those things simultaneously?”

Kutchins was certainly well versed in darker tones, having previously worked in the deep, bruising blues of “Ozark,” but for “The White Lotus” he’d have to play with contrast and color in a way that made the otherwise Instagram-able setting of Hawaii feel like a truly ominous place.

Kutchins was able to bring out shadows from both the natural landscape and the corridors of The White Lotus hotel itself, deliberately pushing landscape shots to find slightly off angles or ways in which the natural beauty of Hawaii can loom over the characters — a message from the natural world that most of them don’t seem to be able to hear. In the video above, watch how the cinematographer collaborated with White to create a sense of the world being subtly off-kilter, not quite composed, making it impossible for real estate bro Shane (Jake Lacy) or put-upon hotel manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) to let small human slights go.

The Score of “The White Lotus”

Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score caused a minor Twitter sensation in its own right, as its sound was unlike anything else on TV. That’s because de Veer didn’t want his music to stem from any one character’s emotional state, but rather to focus on how the resort guests are disconnected not only from the lush landscape they’re visiting, but also their own sense of self.

To that end, de Veer avoided leitmotifs and themes that would clue the audience into who we should be feeling for at any particular moment. Instead, de Veer said, “the sounds really came from just jamming [on] all these percussions. I went for a traditional sound, so playing big native flutes and little South American guitars and all this African percussion.”

In the video above, watch how this eclectic instrumentation creates an overall sonic palette of messy, chaotic, almost gleeful tension which perfectly mirrors the show’s darkly comedic tone and fatalistic narrative drive. It continually amplifies the weight of an insult or failure, a chorus of monkeys pointing and laughing at their frazzled human cousins. “It’s bringing more of a dimension and a perspective to what’s happening, and maybe adding to things that are not there, but could be there,” De Veer said of the way the score is used in the show.

That sense of things that are half there, that could be there, making the characters crazy, is key to how “The White Lotus” maintains suspense over its six episodes. The score continually picks at a thread of anxiety we sense, inevitably, is going to break.

The Casting of “The White Lotus”

Finding actors who can nail that particularly Mike White blend of dark humor, observation, and human frailty is something Meredith Tucker has been doing for a while. Tucker, who has worked on previous White projects like “Brad’s Status” and “Beatriz at Dinner,” came onto “The White Lotus” with several key roles already written for specific actors. White had Jennifer Coolidge in mind when creating the grief-addled Tanya, for instance, and envisioned Molly Shannon as brazen mother-in-law Kitty from the start. So Tucker consciously built a cast who could uplift the series’ tricky tone around the existing pieces.

One of the hardest parts to nail down, Tucker said, was Armond. In the video above, Tucker discussed how she saw Murray Bartlett’s audition, she recognized someone who the audience could latch onto and who could go to the depths that Armond eventually sinks to. “I think using his natural Australian accent, I think that really worked,” Tucker said of Bartlett’s audition tape. “He did this cock of the head and this, like, smile, not changing his veneer, but you could tell that the claws could come out at any moment. It was like he slightly bared his teeth and you knew he had the ferocity to go where that character went.” Whether with Armond, or with wary, compassionate Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) or with sullen, hurt teen Quinn (Fred Hechinger), Tucker found actors who could go wherever the characters went, and let us see all the steps along the way.