Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth about recreating those I Love Lucy sequences for Being the Ricardos.
Why make one movie when you can make four? Being the Ricardos is divided into multiple sections, with each one adopting its own visual aesthetic: the on-camera interviews set somewhere around the late ’80s/early ’90s, the black and white I Love Lucy recreations, the ’40s era introduction between Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), and the centerpiece hell week when Ball is labeled a communist and her pregnancy shatters the minds of her studio exec overlords.
Early on in pre-production, writer-director Aaron Sorkin and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth determined that each portion demanded a separate universe, suggesting films within films. The decision allowed them to play, chasing emotion rather than Hollywood accuracy.
Currently, we’re living in a moment when films gladly flaunt 4:3 aspect ratios — The Witch, First Reformed, Ida, A Ghost Story, American Honey. When looking to replicate the I Love Lucy segments, the TV box screen seems like an obvious solution.
Yes, obvious. Easy and uninteresting too. Cronenweth determined the Academy ratio, and the era-appropriate lighting that went with it was also inaccurate to how Lucille Ball experienced those sequences on the stage and in her mind.
“In some movies, it serves very well,” he says. “And other times, it’s kind of like a trick for no good end. You do it, but I don’t know that it actually translates into a specific emotion or frame of mind where the director and the cinematographer wanted you to go.”
Cronenweth never wanted to distract the audience. He didn’t want them to fall into the I Love Lucy recreating gimmick. These moments are not meant to be magic tricks where one filmmaker proves their might in masterfully mirroring an iconic scene. The audience should never feel apart from what Ball is experiencing while performing.
“We never wanted to confuse it,” Cronenweth continues. “It’s not supposed to be the show. It’s only supposed to be her manifestation of it when she’s problem-solving. It’s only ever in her head, but we allow you to look into that and utilize that and then pay homage to the show itself.”
When in doubt, turn to the script. The cinematographer looked at what Sorkin had on the page and considered his objective. What were these I Love Lucy moments communicating to those watching the movie?
“I don’t think the intention in the script was ever for you to believe it’s the show,” says Cronenweth. “We could have shot it a whole bunch of ways. We could have shot a television; we could have watched people looking at it; we could have gone out of our way to actually emphasize that. But it didn’t read that way. It clearly wasn’t that way in Aaron’s mind.”
When shooting the past, you will always struggle through the same questions. And just because you came to one conclusion on a previous movie project doesn’t mean you’ll come to the same conclusion on the next one. Each movie is its own beast.
“This is a quagmire that everybody has to deal with when you’re doing a period piece,” he says. “Do you actually photograph it the way it was, or do you modernize it? [I Love Lucy] was photographed by a gentleman named Karl Freund. He’s an ASC member. He shot 160 films. He created the incandescent meter. He won an Oscar in 1937 for The Good Earth. He shot Key Largo, The Thin Man. He directed The Mummy. So, he was like a savant and known throughout the industry as a technical wizard. And that’s why Desi reached out to him. I don’t believe he had done television. And so, Desi gave him these challenges of lighting a show.”
As you see in Being the Ricardos, Desi Arnaz could not settle for pre-established methods. If you told him it could not be done, he would delight in proving you wrong. But to do that, he needed a master craftsman. He needed Karl Freund.
“Desi wanted to shoot three cameras at the same time,” says Cronenweth. “Three film cameras. And he wanted to do it in front of a live audience because he felt like the cast performances were better when they were performing to people. It’s a challenge allowing an audience enough room to see the performers, but still light the show as beautifully as it can be lit, and cosmetically as it can be.”
A swell of admiration swims through Cronenweth’s tone as he discusses the breakthroughs achieved by Karl Freund. You can almost hear the pull to mimic those accomplishments, and you can imagine the strength it required to resist imitation. What Fruend did on I Love Lucy changed everything.
“So, Freund had to figure out a system of top lighting,” he continues, “eliminating shadows. Through this process, by the time it got to your television, it would build contrast. If you saw the set, if you were standing on the set, it would look enormously flat and bright, but by the time you saw it on your 1952 television, it looked reasonable.”
Karl Freund’s revolution deserves celebration, and the desire to do it through emulation is not necessarily an incorrect impulse. It’s just not the urge that would benefit the film Aaron Sorkin was trying to make and not the one that would help this particular story connect with its audience.
“I could have recreated that,” says Cronenweth, “and had 12 shadows on the wall and top-lit and did all that. But this is my philosophy. I’m not presenting this movie to an audience in 1952. I’m presenting this movie to an audience that watches Game of Thrones with dragons flying through the air, and Lord of the Rings, and all these things. They’re so highly educated compared to the audiences of the ’50s that I think you owe them more than that.”
In the end, Cronenweth looked to Karl Freund to solve his problem. The question became, what would he do in Cronenweth’s place? Not the other way around.
“If I’d done it identical,” he says, “I think it would’ve been lost. The audience wouldn’t understand it. Karl was a genius and the most progressive guy at the time. He certainly wouldn’t shoot it today the way he did then. So, why would I want to do that? They were doing the best they could with what they had then.”
If Karl Freund was Aaron Sorkin’s cinematographer, what cameras would he use today? He would choose 8K. He would go RED.
“I chose to use the RED Monochrome camera, which is a RANGER with a MONSTRO chip in it that’s dedicated purely to black and white. The pixels have all been changed. It’s light and dark, and it’s beautiful, beautiful quality. I added a little more contrast and a little more highlights, and better lenses. I think it’s close enough. It’s in the world, but it looks contemporary.”
Being the Ricardos gazes toward the past, but it doesn’t get lost in it. Jeff Cronenweth wouldn’t allow it. While the characters remain to history, Aaron Sorkin sought to align their story with our present. It starts in the script and stays with the cameras and the lighting choices. This is our movie, and it’s the movie Cronenweth hopes Karl Freund would make today.
Being the Ricardos is now streaming on Amazon Prime.