Marshall Adams knows cinematography, going by credits that include CSI:NY, Grimm, Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad’s side-story El Camino. But to know that it would make him an Emmy nominee, for the first time in his career? He’s still familiarizing that wonderful reality. As revealed on July 23 by industry trades, Adams is one of five names up for the Outstanding Cinematography for A Single-Camera Series (Half-Hour) award for his work in Servant, particularly the episode 2:00 in the show’s Season 2. He was also the credited DP for episodes Loveshack and Goose.
Servant, from Tony Basgallop and M. Night Shyamalan, revolves around a family employing a nanny to look after a fake baby and the rash of possibly supernatural events that follow upon her arrival. Adams’ photography is the sole accolade that the show may receive on September 19.
This is your very first Primetime Emmy nomination. Let us know how you feel!
It was very exciting! I was very happy to hear it. I was working on another series at the time and I got a cryptic text from a friend of mine, who basically said, “Congratulations!” I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. And then of course, I got a text from [M. Night Shyamalan] immediately and saying, “Congratulations.” Then I figured out exactly what’s going on. Of course, I had to look it up and see what was happening. But, yeah, it was very exciting, and I was in the middle of working, too. In the middle of lighting setups, I was checking links, the Emmy website, trying to see what was going on. Anyways, it was pretty fun.
I bet it’s better than caffeine, though. Right? Like, it’s a good booster.
It was! Especially, you know, I’ve been in television quite a long time. So I’ve done a lot, a lot of different TV shows. It was, it was nice. Very exciting.
Congratulations, again. I know that you submitted the opening sequence of the episode 2:00. Going a little bit deeper into it, may I ask why did you choose it?
One of the great things about my starting that series on that particular episode, was one I got to work with Night as my first director. I really got to see the show and feel the show and learn the visual language of the show directly from him, which was great. The second thing was it was the introduction of the attic. It was the first time the attic was going to be seen. Those things combined really kind of pushed me in that direction, and also we shoot with Night in sequence. That first shot was the first shot I ever did with him. The second shot was the second shot, the third job was… it literally went in sequence. A big part of it for me was kind of discovering and learning and developing the kind of look for the attic, for the first time. I wanted the audience to kind of feel a little bit of that, too, to feel the travel up there, the discovery of the space, and really get a sense of where it was going and what we are in for, you know, for the rest of the episode. The rest of the season, pretty much.
I really love the tension in it, with the low angles and low lighting. And it’s a new location so we have that “Ooh, what’s behind the door?” element and all that. Was there anything you’ve done in the past or multiple works in the past that prepared you for working with Night? Or do you go in fresh with every project?
I would say I think that the past work that I had done on Better Call Saul and on El Camino are kind of what got Night’s attention. It’s a very similar style and a lot of ways to his own, you know. He comes with, with a feature background, he has definitely a feature film kind of approach to television, which is something that, you know, I’ve been luckily doing with Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould on Saul. I think that the two approaches kind of meshed well together. I did some very dark stuff on both on Saul and El Camino that I think Night responded to. I think that was the reason that he reached out.
And I would say that definitely on Saul we don’t waste a lot of movement. We don’t dolly moves that we don’t need to do, we really find the best angle to tell the story. And same for Night, it’s all about story, everything has to be story-driven, you don’t try not to do cool shots because you think they’re cool. Shots become interesting and cool because they are story-driven. And always kind of go back to the script — if you don’t have a specific idea for something, then you can always kind of dig back through the script and find something.
But Night’s approach is very deliberate. We storyboarded the whole episode, that was the very first thing that we did for four days together before he would have a single meaning. He really wanted to break the whole thing down and know every shot that we were going to do. It was a different approach, something I’ve never been party to, but it was a great way to work. And we didn’t vary from it much at all, we really didn’t! We really stuck by it. Once he, you know, we kind of worked it out and talked it through, he really knew that was what he wanted. We tweaked a little bit during prep, but by the time we got to the floor and start shooting. The storyboard was king.
I also had the pleasure of interviewing production designer Naaman Marshall, and we touched on about how to make claustrophobia interesting. While people tend to say think outside the box, for this case we are inside the box. So how do you make “in-the-box” storytelling interesting from your perspective?
I think a lot of it kind of comes back to the production design, and that show is so well kind of thought-out early on. And even the fact that we’re gonna get trapped in and it was going to become the place of pretty much all of the storytelling, for the most part. You know, they thought through all of the different spaces and the layers of kind of new versus old, and how the third floor was gonna be the area that wasn’t restored and hadn’t been remodeled and had a lot of these older kind of layers and stuff going on. There was a lot of thought gone into it in prep. And, you know, I luckily inherited that space. And the fact that [d.p. Mike Gioulakis] had shot the first season and done such a beautiful job with it, that he was a tough act to follow. So, the set, you really can’t look in a direction on that set without seeing something beautiful. It really kind of lends itself to the photography, which is great. We have to be a little bit careful not to get too wide on some of those spaces for some of the claustrophobia feeling, but it was over time that Night really kind of developed that, you know, things got tighter and tighter and tighter.
That was actually kind of one of the interesting moments in that first [moment] I did on episode four, that the audience kind of gets to inhale a new space, and like, “Wow, you know, there is more room, I can breathe for a second!” But pretty soon, we kind of squish it all down again, and you’re back to not being able to breathe. But I was extremely fortunate, you know, obviously, to get to work with Night – but also Naaman did such a fantastic job on that show. That attic was just incredible, and every part of that house is just an amazing wonder to work in. It’s beautiful. That’s a large part of it. You know, the photography can be everything you want it to be if the set is there. It’s hard to really get those emotions across without the production design. So I was very lucky, in a lot of ways.
Obviously, there has to be some sort of like visual Bible for people to follow. But did you find any opening at all to put a little bit of your own spin into the overall scripture? Or did you respect the process so much that you would follow it?
It’s a bit of both. I definitely wanted to tip my hat to all of Mike’s great work in the first season, and even in the beginning of the second season. You know, he and Night really kind of brought that show to a new medium, to really kind of develop the visual language together. I thought that that Mike did an amazing job, lighting it and really kind of getting a sense of the outside versus inside, and the fact that we were always kind of seeing stuff from the inside and whenever we’re occasionally going to get to go outside but very rarely.
But I’m also firm believer for as long as I’ve been in this industry that if you if I start trying to imitate somebody or emulate somebody, I become a poor copy of them. To a certain extent, I have to do my own thing anyway. It was a combination and to get that new set to kind of develop a look for the attic. And because it was such a different space being at the top of the house, with the skylight that it had, and the windows that face the street. There was definitely some freedom to kind of develop my own thing up there, for sure. But, you know, I definitely didn’t want to vary — I mean Night wouldn’t have had it, anyway — from the look that Mike developed and that they’ve built together. So it was an honor to be there, and to get to do my own thing to a certain extent also.
So is there a particular example that you can recall, where we can look at it and go, “Yep, that’s Marshall?”
I would say, yeah, there probably is some up in the attic. Mike has a very kind of soft, top-light approach to a lot of the spaces down the stairs, which I definitely used for some things like the scene that they in the dining room where the two of them are having dinner. Mike had built these custom lights that kind of go up above the living room and the dining room. I use those also, you know, the stuff that he had built, but, but also use some of my own ideas and brought some of my own approaches to some of that stuff. Because that top lighting can be great for containing the light, but can be a little difficult on some of the actors sometimes. You have to be a little careful of it, which obviously Mike had done in the first season. But again, so…. So again, it’s a combination of both, I definitely use the lot of the stuff that he had established, but also brought on some of my own stuff. It’s a good combination.
Looking at the nominees in your category right now. I feel like it’s almost an even field, as in like, there are also a couple of other first-time nominees. Could you share your thoughts on your competitive edge you have over the other nominees?
I think part of the reason that it got some attention was because it is very different for the half-hour genre, you know. I don’t think there’s ever been anything like this show in the half-hour category, it’s a horror show that has a kind of dark look that would always traditionally be in a one-hour drama. Competitively, I’ve been in this industry a long time, I’ve never been a big one for awards. I think the nomination is absolutely incredible, and I really appreciate the vote of confidence in you know what I feel like I’m doing and still fine-tuning even now for 35 years. I think any of the nominees could easily take this category and it would be well deserved. They’re all very different looking shows, and they all bring their own kind of style. I think it’s fantastic. I’m not super competitive when it comes to that stuff, but I’d love to have an Emmy, absolutely! I’d love to bring it back actually and let everybody on the grip and electric and camera crew, you know, hold on to it and enjoy. It really was a team effort. It’s an honor, it absolutely is, especially at this point in my career.
That’s very nice. Now before we part, is there anything else you want to share?
I hope, someday, it will be like [Donald A. Morgan] and you get three nominations straight for the same Emmy. Holy smokes! Wow, talk about being on fire. That’s amazing. I thought that was very interesting. It’s very cool. You know, it’s been a heck of a journey. I started at the bottom, I was a grip, an electrician and a camera assistant, and I came up through the ranks and really kind of learned it from the bottom up. I think there’s a lot of value to that, on some level you really kind of learn from the people that do it well. It was a great way, I think, for myself to come up, to go about learning the visual process.
But also, I was very lucky that I had a person on my crew who is married to somebody who worked on Breaking Bad, so they brought me in as a day player, and then eventually it worked out. And that has been an incredible gift, learning from Vince and Peter, and everybody involved in the show. That really kind of honed my skills in preparation for getting together with M. Night Shyamalan, and being able to kind of hold my own to a certain extent and bring some of my own ideas. It was an invaluable way to learn. That’s for sure.
Seasons 1 and 2 of Servant are now available on Apple TV+. The show has been renewed for Season 3.