Interview: Severance Cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné

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ComingSoon was given the opportunity to speak with cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné, who discussed her work on the Apple TV+ series Severance. Gagné had an early and significant impact on the look of Severance, especially because her working style with Stiller is one of open collaboration. They are a strong creative match and love many of the same movies, particularly 70s cinema.

Additionally, Gagné served as sole cinematographer for all 9 episodes, acting as a creative throughline for the show’s striking aesthetic. Maintaining that aesthetic for 9 episodes straight — each one 40-57 minutes long —is a towering feat. The work paid off. Severance was renewed for a second season on April 6, two days ahead of its lauded season finale, and the show currently sits at a near-perfect 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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Jeff Ames: What led you to the world of cinematography?

Jessica Lee Gagné: Oh, that’s a big question. Well, when I was growing I would work and play in my dad’s video store and I would go to the movies to watch a lot of films, mostly American films with my family. That was a pretty big part of our life. Subconsciously I think I was training myself to make movies. I didn’t know it was a thing to make movies. No one in my family was artistic and there was no production experience of any kind. So, it took me a while to realize this was a real career. I decided I wanted to study film when I was 17 when I read the program at college that you could study this.

Cinematography came later when I was at university in Montreal when I was about 20 and realized that I was very much obsessed with cameras and aesthetics and I couldn’t get out of that.

Was there a cinematographer who really impressed you and informed your style?

When it clicked that I liked cinematography, which was halfway through university — before it was more about directors for me — Gordon Willis was my biggest love in terms of cinematography. His work, especially with [Alan J.] Pakula for me was just defining of cinematography. It really imprinted something in me.

So, with your style specifically, how have you evolved over the years leading up to Severance?

When I first started, my mind was focused on doing as much as you can — and do it! Actually do it and you’ll get better at it. I was really subconscious about my work at first because I wasn’t getting the results that I wanted and didn’t know how to use the tools. I started working as a cinematographer right off the bat. I didn’t do anything else.

So, my first movie and short films — I was involved with a lot of short films — they were trials and errors and really about learning how to do stuff. I always went in not really knowing how to do things. I acted like I knew how to do it, like I had a certain confidence and that allowed me to do it. But it took many projects to get to where I am now. I didn’t shoot many music videos or many commercials. I definitely didn’t go down that path. I wanted to make movies. It’s what drove me to be in this industry. So, I started making short films that became longer films. And the fact that I was actually doing that helped accelerate my path in the fiction world, and have a certain confidence while doing it.

I think a lot of young cinematographers don’t want to do anything unless it’s perfect. I was like, “I just want to make movies.” I feel like my mistakes are all there. You can see all of them. But those mistakes have made me the cinematographer I am today. I appreciate every single thing that I’ve done.

Did all the time you spent working on films make working on Severance easier? 

No one has ever asked me that, but it changes everything. I was never intimidated by the length or size of projects, because everything led up to the next one. Every single project brought me the next one or sometimes really weird connections. The fact that I kept growing and growing and pushing myself, I was constantly comfortable with it. Escape at Dannemora was the first time that made me intimidated mostly because of the star power, but the size of the sets weren’t intimidating because I had worked in India a big movie with big sets with hundreds of people. Sometimes there were around three hundred people on set.

I kept having these amazing experiences come to me and I think it’s because I was channeling wanting to work on American movies since I was ten. I grew up watching American stuff and I knew I wanted to make these kind of bigger projects because they were imprinted on me as a child. Now, it’s interesting to kind of rethink what I want in terms of authenticity. But it’s what I’m comfortable with, it’s what I grew up watching.

People don’t really see that in me, they see this person who comes from an Indie world. I worked with a lot of really obscure filmmakers but I never really connected or felt like I had a strong connection until I worked with Ben [Stiller], because he channels where I really wanted to go as a filmmaker. This might be too intense of a conversation [laughs], but it’s where I’m comfortable. I’m very comfortable with this kind of storytelling. I just see it.

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What were some of the challenges you faced on Severance?

Covid was the number one challenge, I would say. We started Severance before Covid, I started in October of 2019. I had just finished Mrs. America. We had done the New York portion and I went straight to researching visuals for Severance. That was also hard, not having a break. The machine starts to ramp up and we were about a month away from shooting and then Covid hit and no one knew what was happening. That process, and then coming back to work with crew who were afraid — no one knew what was really going on. And then having to be in an environment where you’re shooting and dealing with the stress of testing every day, wondering, “Oh my gosh, am I going to test positive, I’m not going to see anyone on these days, I’m going to be isolated.” The whole isolation portion of Covid was the hardest part of Severance. It affected everything we did.

I read you based your visuals for Severance on “Office” by Lars Tunbjörk. Can you talk about that?

I do a lot of visual research, it’s part of my process. I’m a visualizer. I’ve always been like that. When I find the visual I want, I know right away. I feel the same way about cameras and lenses. When I put the lens on the camera, I do this research at the beginning on my own. I have a feeling inside and it all lines up. I get really excited.

I went to this photo fair and I found Tunbjörk’s book. Up until that point — that was in the fall of 2019, it was before I started working on the show in September – and I texted Ben right away and I’m like, “Oh my god, this is it. I get it right now.” I hadn’t really gotten it and when that came through it really opened the door for office photography. I also started looking at Lewis Baltz who has a book called “Sites of Technology,” which is super interesting. You can see a lot of the aesthetic in Severance in there. And then Lynne Cohen came to mind, which is a photographer I thought was really cool when I was in school at Concordia. She was a brilliant photographer.

A lot of these visuals came through when Ben, Jeremy (the production designer), and I bonded over these weird images. Like, “Oh my gosh, wouldn’t it be cool to have a space that has a water fountain,” I don’t know, whatever, but it was really fun to explore. It was like a new language.

Working on all nine episodes, did that make it more difficult to find unique ways to shoot these spaces?

Well, at first I didn’t want to do Severance, but one of my conditions was that I needed to shoot all nine episodes [laughs]. Ben wasn’t sure about doing them all and then Aoife [McArdle] came on and they split them up – Ben did six, Aoife did three – and I was like, “Whatever happens, I need to shoot every episode.” I knew someone needed to be there visually the entire time. There were a couple of scenes I didn’t do that a friend of mine named Matt Mitchell came on to do, because Ben and Aoife shoot at the same time. I would choose which scenes I would do with each of them based on importance and then sometimes Ben could override that, but ultimately I wanted to do as much of it as possible. That was to make sure the show was continuously evolving and that it made sense linearly as a whole piece.

To go back to your question about being intimidated by a bigger show like that, in terms of episodes and volume of work — that is everything that drives me to do television. I’ve done I don’t know how many short films, nine movies and this is my third series and I am excited about the challenge of evolving throughout a show. Putting the audience through a journey and having them grow visually throughout the whole thing. That’s hard to do that when you have five different directors and three cinematographers, which is what happened on Mrs. America.

Shooting all nine episodes made it easier, I think. Ben and I learned a lot from it. It wasn’t always easy for either Ben or Aoife, and maybe I was being selfish, but ultimately I believed it was what the show needed.

Are there any visual motifs you want audiences to pay attention to as they watch Season 1?

I just did an interview and have talked about this once or twice, but something interesting that happened on Severance — and I don’t know if we ever fully said anything to each other — but we knew so much what this show was going to look like and once we started doing it, it was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s Severance.” We knew the interior world was very security-based aesthetically, but I also don’t think I realized how much the outside world was security-based and driven. There’s this constant “You’re being watched” aesthetic inside Severance, and I think we accomplished that really well. And on the outside world, there’s so much there … it’s just different.

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