HBO’s ‘Perry Mason’ Season 2 Cinematographer: Fresh Look at LA Noir
“Perry Mason” cinematographer Eliot Rockett talks to IndieWire about honoring the show’s first season while taking it in new directions.
In its first season, HBO’s “Perry Mason” was nominated for an Emmy and an ASC for David Franco. cinematography with a great atmosphere, which avoided the desaturated look so common at shows of the time, and evoked the 1930s by referring to early color still photography. You might have thought it would be hard to top the look created by Franco and shifter cinematographer Darran Tiernan, but the new season of “Perry Mason,” premiering March 6, is even more vibrant and immersive thanks to subtle color shifts and a subjective approach to camerawork.
When the gritty origin story of defense attorney Erle Stanley Gardner premiered in 2020, cinematographer Eliot Rockett was one of his fans. He’s now joining the series — along with showrunners Jack Amiel and Michael Begler — for Season 2, shooting the premiere and alternating episodes with Tierman and John Grillo. “I thought the first season was great, so there was a certain level of anxiety,” he told IndieWire. “They were big shoes, that’s for sure.”
In initial discussions with the producers, Rockett learned that they wanted to keep what they felt worked in the first season while expanding the visual language to create greater connections between the audience and the characters. “Hopefully the evolution is gradual,” Rockett said. “I don’t want anyone to turn on ‘Perry Mason’ this year and think, ‘This isn’t the same show.’ lovely.”
Still, Rockett feels variations are inevitable, simply by filtering the show through the sensibilities of new collaborators behind the camera. “When new people come in or the show changes hands, you’re not going to do things like everyone else,” he said. Tim Van Patten (director) and the DPs did something very special last season, and as much as I want to respect that and move forward with that, I have to admit that I’m a different person. The directors will be different, the writers will be different, the presenters will be different, the whole thing will be different.”
In Season 2, the show is still drenched in film noir-esque shadows, but overall it’s not as dark—details in both the production design and the actors’ gestures and looks are easier to make out, resulting in movie-like scenes. which sees Mason’s co-worker Della Street meet a new love interest that crackles with subtle tension. Rockett’s new color shifts, featuring yellows in the highlights and cyans in the shadows, broaden the show’s palette and create a warmth that envelops the viewer, making this season of “Perry Mason” less distant than the first.
According to Rockett, this was all planned after his initial conversations with the producers, though ultimately it’s less about intellectual strategies than personal taste. “I just have my personal aesthetic to fall back on,” Rockett said. “I understand what the showrunners or writers or directors say they want it to look like and I try to digest it as much as I can. But what comes back is simply influenced by what I think looks good and what the frame should look like. Decisions are determined by how you see things, regardless of the project, and that’s how you get work. People can look at the work and say, “This person makes images that resonate in this way, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
Courtesy of the Everett Collection
Rockett’s suggestion of a continuous approach from project to project may surprise those who have followed his varied body of work; last year he made two films for Ti West, “X” and “Pearl,” equally exceptional in their craft but completely different in impact and style. One was an homage to ’70s exploitation films, the other was a vivid evocation of classic Hollywood melodrama – and now Rockett is in pre-production on the third film in the series, Maxxxine, set in the 1980s. Los Angeles and promises to incorporate a completely different set of influences.
“It’s like being in the kitchen and making a pasta dish with red sauce one night and a Japanese-style tempura or something the next night,” Rockett said. “It would be two very different dishes, but the way you cook it would be, ‘Well, this is what it tastes like to me.’ It’s all based on the idea that you don’t just use the camera to record what’s happening in front of it. Hopefully you will add to it and create cinema. And you have to take into account the history of it and what different people are doing that are successful, but the point of it is to pay attention to your personal aesthetic. You have to stick with your gut about how it all feels, because once you start second-guessing it, all hope is lost.
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