Organized by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work that we think deserves accolades. In partnership with HBO, for this edition, we examine how cinematographer Ben Kutchins, composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer and casting director Meredith Tucker created a darker and more complex vision of Hawaii for guests and the staff of “The White Lotus”.
Writer/director Mike White isn’t the first TV showrunner to create a thriller where any character could be either the killer or his prey, but his choice of setting provided the limited series with both its biggest draw and its biggest challenge. Hawaii is, we are constantly told, a bright and relaxing tropical paradise.
To make the White Lotus feel like a luxury resort where a terrible fate lurks just around the corner, the filmmakers of the limited series had to create a palpable undertow of doubt, darkness and mania that none number of Tiki Bars, breakfast buffets, or plunge pools can dispel. The challenge of creating the messy undercurrents – while serving White’s unique brand of comedy – would be central to every craftsman’s work on the series.
For cinematographer Ben Kutchins, the test was to create a visual look that finds literal darkness and compositional unease in this natural paradise. Composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score had the task of destabilizing the audience, preventing us from falling too far into identifying with the characters and instead focusing on all the ways these people lack center. Casting director Meredith Tucker had to find actors who could display the same depths in themselves that Kutchins and de Veer brought out from the surroundings: actors who could nail the dark Mike White humor that so often stems of our deepest vulnerabilities.
In the videos below, you’ll see how Kutchins, de Veer, and Tucker have all found ways to unearth the anxiety and ferocity that lurks just beneath the sun-kissed surfaces of “The White Lotus.”
The cinematography of “The White Lotus”
The look of “The White Lotus” was a tricky balance for series cinematographer Ben Kutchins to strike. “How can I represent this [location] in a way to you as an audience member that encases you in its beauty in a satisfying way, but also [captures] its dangerous element, and do it in a fun way? said Kutchins. “How can I do all of these things simultaneously?”
Kutchins was certainly familiar with darker tones, having previously worked in the deep, murderous blue of “Ozark,” but for “The White Lotus” he had to play with contrast and color in a way that was otherwise Instagram-able. the Hawaii setting looks like a truly ominous place.
Kutchins managed to bring out the shadows of both the natural landscape and the hallways of The White Lotus hotel itself, deliberately pushing landscape shots to find slightly off angles or ways in which the natural beauty of Hawaii can hover over the figures – a message from the natural world that most of them can’t seem to hear. In the video above, watch how the cinematographer collaborated with White to make the world seem subtly offbeat, not quite dialed in, making it impossible for real estate bro Shane (Jake Lacy) or the manager of the Armond Hotel (Murray Bartlett) to let the small human slights pass.
The score of “The White Lotus”
Veer’s Cristobal Tapia score caused a minor Twitter sensation in its own right, as its sound was unlike anything else on TV. That’s because de Veer didn’t want his music to come from a character’s emotional state, but rather to focus on how the resort’s guests are disconnected from not just the lush landscape they’re visiting, but also of their own sense of self.
To that end, de Veer avoided leitmotivs and themes that would tell the audience who we should feel for at any given moment. Instead, de Veer said, “the sounds were really coming from the jamming [on] all these percussions. I went for a traditional sound, so playing big native flutes and little South American guitars and all that African drumming.
In the video above, watch how this eclectic instrumentation creates an overall sonic palette of messy, chaotic, almost joyful tension that perfectly captures the show’s dark, comedic tone and fatalistic narrative drive. It continually amplifies the weight of an insult or failure, a chorus of monkeys pointing and laughing at their frazzled human cousins. “It brings more dimension and perspective to what’s going on, and maybe it adds to things that aren’t there, but could be there,” De Veer said of how the score is used in the series.
This sense of things that are half there, that could be there, driving the characters crazy, is key to how “The White Lotus” maintains suspense over its six episodes. The score continually selects a thread of anxiety that we feel, inevitably, will break.
The cast of “The White Lotus”
Finding actors who can nail that particular Mike White mix of dark humor, observation, and human frailty is something Meredith Tucker has been doing for some time. Tucker, who worked on previous white projects like “Brad’s Status” and “Beatriz at Dinner,” came to “The White Lotus” with several key roles already written for specific actors. White had Jennifer Coolidge in mind when creating the grief-stricken Tanya, for example, and envisioned Molly Shannon as the cheeky stepmother Kitty from the get-go. So Tucker consciously built a cast that could elevate the show’s delicate tone around existing plays.
One of the hardest parts to pin down, Tucker said, was Armond. In the video above, Tucker explained how she saw Murray Bartlett’s audition, she recognized someone the audience could latch on to and who could go to the depths that Armond eventually sinks into. “I think using his natural Australian accent, I think it really worked,” Tucker said of Bartlett’s audition tape. “He did this head cock and it, like, smile, not change his veneer, but you could tell the claws could come out at any time. It was like he was baring his teeth slightly and you knew he had the ferocity to go where this character was going. Whether it was with Armond, or with the suspicious and compassionate Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) or with the brooding and hurt teenager Quinn (Fred Hechinger), Tucker found actors who could go wherever the characters went, and let us see all the steps along the way.