“The Afterparty” has placed all sorts of lenses on its murder mystery wedding romp in Season 2: the generic conventions of rom-com and film noir, specific directorial styles like Alfred Hitchcock’s and Wes Anderson’s, and even whole modes of filmmaking as in Feng’s (Ken Jeong) found-footage episode peppered with vertical iPhone videos ready for TikTok.
The sheer number of different visual styles the show needs is a challenge, but so is creating a “normal” look for the present-day interrogation scenes with Danner (Tiffany Haddish), Aniq (Sam Richardson), and Zoë (Zoe Chao). Working out the feeling of that grounding “home base” look was as challenging as crafting the show’s most extreme visual styles, and in both cases required cinematographer Ross Riege to do a lot of calibrating in order to get it right — and then keep it straight.
“We’d shoot something (in the) present day, and then the next scene would be a black and white nori scene, and then the next scene would be a Hitchcock scene. We’re all trying to keep track (of what’s ahead), which we got better at as this season went along,” Riege told IndieWire.
It helped that the shoot began with series creator Chris Miller directing two of the biggest stylistic swings of the season: Episode 3, where Travis’ (Paul Walter Hauser) film noir take on the run-up to the wedding of Edgar (Zach Woods) and Grace (Poppy Liu) turns everything black and white, and the penultimate episode, in which Edgar’s mother Isabel (Elizabeth Perkins) has a true Technicolor melodrama woman’s view of what happened the night her son was (potentially) murdered.
But doing something that heightened comes with its own set of traps. Riege, Miler, and executive producer Anthony King all discussed the genre shifts as needing to never be one homage or have one specific stylistic tick, as that would make “The Afterparty” look like cheap imitation and not in conversation with all the different ways that film has of telling a story. Heaven forfend that Film Twitter ever gets hold of a magic wand, but “The Afterparty” team proceeded from a philosophy of what would filmmakers working in each particular style want to do if they were compelled to make an episode of the show rather than insert specific, winking references.
Riege would build collages of reference images for each episode for the production team to review. “And then we’d go through it and be like, ‘Not that, more of this.’ And then it became a document that we could reference and that I could share with crew as I brought them on. But we all needed to bring our unique interpretation of, ‘What does it mean when you watch a Wes Anderson movie?’ for instance. It really became a method filmmaking approach to each episode versus just literalizing everything,” Riege said. “That way you’re not just replicating something, you’re making something new in a head space that you’re temporarily residing in.”
When it came to thinking about noir, Riege turned to lesser-known B noirs as well as “Casablanca” in order to create a look that felt appropriately shadowy and yet also wedding party-ready. “I use Shot Deck a lot and, you know, sometimes you discover a new movie by the references you pull. In this case, it was a movie called ‘T-Men’ and I asked Chris, ‘Have you guys seen this?’ And I don’t think they had seen it either but I loved the stills from that,” Riege said. “Then there’s obviously ‘Double Indemnity’ and so many movies from that era that, once you splatter a huge board of images, you’re like, “Ok, I get what the common threads are here.’”
The challenge of the melodrama episode was, of course, replicating what the three-strip Technicolor process does to color, and was as much a question for the camera department as it was for the costume and hair and makeup departments and for colorist Dave Hussey. Riege and Hussey started talking early in the process of testing. “We were laughing about the best way to replicate (Technicolor) would be to take three monochrome cameras with filters on them and then merge them together,” Riege said.
Short of that, they had to be incredibly deliberate about the color palette for the episode and test all of the characters’ looks so that the color would eventually behave in that bold, heightened way that can make even the suburbs look sexy in the hands of Douglas Sirk. “The kind of powder blue in Elizabeth’s robe was a conversation and a choice. And when we did hair and makeup tests, you know, you can put deep red lipstick on her. But once we put this awkward curve and are separating the colors out, what does that red start to look like?’ Riege said. “We had to look at a lot of those specific things.”
It speaks to how flexible “The Afterparty” is about genre that, even with a Hitchcockian episode in the mix, the Technicolor episode is still just as obsessed with “Vertigo” as everybody else is. “We did try to find every place possible to put in some of that green from ‘Vertigo,’” Riege said.
Still, much of the work for the Technicolor representation of Isabel’s agita, including the most red-drenched Scrabble board of all time and some very Hitchcockian silhouettes, was a long-term collaboration between Riege and Hussey. The first thing Hussey told “The Afterparty” team was that they couldn’t achieve the right look right out of the box. “The reality is, is we were going to have to do a lot of secondaries, but (what we could control) on set was obviously the color palette that we’re shooting,” Riege said. “And then you look at the way the camera moves or doesn’t move in a scene.”
Indeed, the mid-episode confrontation between Edgar and Isabel would be legible as a studio system throwback even just from the way that Riege and Miller compose the frames and anchor the camera in place, letting Elizabeth Perkins swan through shadowy corridors with the same verve as the orchestral strings on the soundtrack. “After the first day of shooting that genre, which was in her bedroom, we sent (the dailies) to Company Three, and Dave started doing a couple test passes on it. And we were excited to see the first set of test passes. We were like, ‘OK, this is, this will work. It’s doable.’ But probably when all was said and done, that (test) was barely 50 percent of the way there.”
Still, the hardest genre looks that Riege had to create were the most normal, invisible-seeming ones. The present-day sequences needed to ground the audience but not be, as Riege put it, vanilla. “On a typical show, when you’re setting one look of the show, you want to have a direction or a theme that you’re leaning into. And I feel like with the present-day stuff, so much of it serves as a home base, as opposed to the genres,” Riege said. “(We wanted) to make it feel real and filmic, but not too pushed one way or the other, especially in terms of the way the camera’s participating. (The biggest challenge was) giving it a voice.”
The voice of the present-day investigations necessarily needed to distinguish itself from the show’s first episode, seen through Aniq’s rom-com lens. The genre is a carry-over from Season 1, but Season 2 had to put its own stamp on the episode and keep it distinct. For Riege, that involved leaning into the conventions of Hallmark movies and the visual language they use to make something look sweet.
“You really recognize what all the different pieces of the filmmaking world are,” Riege said. “It’s so fun to see all the tiny details that people have thought about. In my world, (to shoot the rom-com) I’m doing a lot of interfacing with set decoration in terms of like, well, we need more twinkle lights in the background.”