Written by Jason Clark, The Wrap
Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, ASC has collaborated with two-time Oscar nominee Rian Johnson on every feature the latter has made, from 2005’s junior-noir “Brick” to the sci-fi mind-bender “Looper” to the striking “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” to last year’s “Knives Out” sequel, “Glass Onion,” and admits that “Poker Face,” Peacock’s sly fox of a mystery (for the uninitiated — envision a gender-swapped “Columbo” doing time on a fairly malevolent “Love Boat” that instead stays docked in different cities), is just part of a larger theme in their careers.
“Strangely, I had been a ‘Columbo’ fan since I was a kid,” Yedlin said. “And I think for Rian, it’s actually a more recent thing. Near the beginning of the lockdown in 2020, he had been talking to me about [the show] in the abstract. And then he suddenly actually had a full script for the pilot.”
What resulted was a 10-part detective series with Natasha Lyonne playing a saucy right-place-wrong-time sleuth who finds herself running from goons and solving local mysteries, ranging from a BBQ entrepreneur embroiled in some shady business, old-folks home residents exacting revenge on an old colleague, Hollywood makeup artists caught up in a murder plot, and even washed-up actors sabotaging each other during dinner theater, with nearly all the roles played by familiar faces of stage and screen, some of whom have even played opposite Lyonne in other projects.
“I think that idea was to embrace that storytelling and each of these episodes is a reset,” Yedlin said of their process, working as cinematographer for both the pilot and the “Escape from S–t Mountain” winter-storm chiller with Lyonne tangling with the likes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (a Rian Johnson staple) and newly minted Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu. “We thought, let’s kind of just use that to just tell the best story possible and not try to enforce any kind of photographic rules.”
And the nostalgic look of “Poker Face,” praised by viewers for its 1970s aesthetic, is also not an accident. It greatly helps that Yedlin is not only a first-class cinematographer but also a self-taught coder who has created his own homegrown system for determining the look of his projects via color and display, and even has his own website complete with various tutorials that are catnip for the younger set.
“In about 2004, it started to feel like we’re going to be forced into this digital thing, and whether it’s going to be ready or not is a different thing,” he explained. “But the thing was: How can we do this the best we can, even if it’s not even the preferred method?’ But now in terms of tech, we can learn just how much data we are capturing and collecting. So now it is just a question of, ‘How do you sculpt the data that you got and prepare it to be viewed?’”
The partnership with Johnson has paid off, especially since the duo rarely make the same kind of film twice, even when it’s a hit sequel to a blockbuster, or even a literal “Star Wars” universe blockbuster that looks vibrantly like an Akira Kurosawa film.
Added Yedlin: “It comes from Rian’s creativity, he’s just a brilliant visual storyteller, even comparing ‘Glass Onion’ and ‘Knives Out’ even if you use the same sort of problem-solving principles, you’re going to automatically get a totally different look, because you’re talking about sun-drenched Greece compared to windy New England.”
And specifics are key, which helps when your director of photography is also deeply proficient in color-grading, even in an episode shrouded in darkness and a bit of a visual departure from the previously aired installments.
“A great fine-grain example [of this] is in episode 9, ‘Escape from S–t Mountain,’ which was actually the first one shot, and Rian had this big visual concept that it’s dark, and Joe should be bathed completely in the red of brake lights,” Yedlin recalled. “But on the other hand, he has no visual rules, and he’s not enforcing how I’m going to do it. He lets me come up with stuff. And then he gets excited about the details. It’s this unbelievable confidence and brilliance on his part.”