Why ‘Apples Never Fall’ Bathed Its Dark Noir Tale in Sunlight
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Why ‘Apples Never Fall’ Bathed Its Dark Noir Tale in Sunlight

Why ‘Apples Never Fall’ Bathed Its Dark Noir Tale in Sunlight

Peacock‘s “Apples Never Fall” is a mystery filled with dark secrets and startling revelations, but it’s also one of the brightest, most beautiful series in recent memory, a sunlit noir that’s as superficially inviting as it is unsettling at its core. In keeping with the themes of novelist Liane Moriarty‘s source material — which tells the story of a seemingly perfect family whose lives unravel as what lies beneath the surface comes to light — the filmmakers created a palette and lighting style that are gorgeous and vivid yet characterized by rough edges hinting at the true nature of the characters and their world.

“The overall storytelling had to do with some horrible things that can happen in very beautiful places,” showrunner Melanie Marnich told IndieWire. “And that juxtaposition of something terrifying has happened with this family while we look around and there’s this saturated beauty. I think there’s a nice tension there. So we really wanted it to be beautiful (but) to feel humid, to feel very Floridian.”

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That world of upper-class West Palm Beach, Florida, gave Marnich her initial guiding principles for the visual style. “She was always really interested in a very glossy, bright, colorful palette, which was reflective of West Palm Beach,” cinematographer Robert Humphreys told IndieWire. Humphreys, who shot the first two and last two episodes of the seven-part limited series (the middle three were photographed by Laurie Rose), worked with Marnich and director Chris Sweeney to create a visual language that would provide that glamorous palette while still hinting at the darker tensions running underneath the story.

Humphreys found a cinematic reference point in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” which had the same combination of seductive beauty and increasing unease that “Apples Never Fall” required. Aside from that, his primary influences were other films about tennis, a sport that is central to the series’ action. “There was one in particular called ‘Borg vs. McEnroe’ that we really enjoyed,” he said. “It had an observational, handheld style that was not super glossy or super slick.” Humphreys found a similar observational approach in “King Richard,” and the two films informed how he approached camera placement and movement. “The ensemble cast took center stage, and we basically recorded their dialogue and action.”

‘Apples Never Fall’Jasin Boland/Peacock

In that tension between the glossy and the observational lies the strength of the show’s visuals, as Humphreys creates pretty, impeccably lit and colorful images (aided by Tony Fanning’s exquisite production design) but undermines them with a handheld style that creates a constant sense of instability; these characters may be living in a beautiful world, but it’s always in danger of crumbling around them. The handheld style had the added benefit of allowing the filmmakers to respond to what the actors were doing in the moment, something that was key in a show revolving around an ensemble in which reaction shots and supporting players in a scene were often more important than the primary action and dialogue.

Ironically, given the importance of the Florida location, most of “Apples Never Fall” was shot on Australia’s Gold Coast. Humphreys said it wasn’t as difficult to double the location as one might think. “I’ve shot in Florida a few times, and I’ve shot on the Gold Coast quite a lot,” he said. “They’re very, very similar. The climate’s similar, the light’s similar, the color’s similar.” The biggest difference was between the Gold Coast’s mountains and West Palm Beach’s flat landscape, which Humphreys said was taken care of with a few visual effects adjustments to take out the hills.

Robert Humphreys on the set of ‘Apples Never Fall’Vince Valitutti/Peacock

Visual effects were also used in some of the show’s many tennis scenes to help the actors look like expert players. “In some cases, the balls are put in later,” Humphreys said, adding that face replacement was used for particularly challenging moments so that professional tennis players could double for the actors, though not everyone needed it. “Annette Bening is actually a fabulous tennis player, so I don’t think she got much VFX help at all.” For Humphreys, the key to the tennis sequences was creating a sense of immediacy different from what one experiences watching a game on television. “If you watch tennis on TV, it’s video cameras with very long lenses filming from the baseline, but our tennis is very much in your face: handheld right near the actor, because you want to see their thought processes.”

Humphreys tended to use wide lenses in order to get as close to the actors as possible, not just in the tennis scenes but also in the less action-oriented dramatic moments. He feels that such an approach not only gives the viewer a more intimate sense of what the characters are thinking and feeling but also helps the actors forge a more intimate relationship with the camera. “They really feel like they’re in the moment,” Humphreys said. “They’re not like, ‘Oh, where’s the camera?’” Because there are so many characters and they’re all important, Humphreys says the storytelling was more editing-dependent than usual. “When you have five actors in a room talking to each other, you have to shoot a lot of coverage because if you hold a shot of that many people for too long, you end up with a lot of backs of heads.”

Although the imagery in “Apples Never Fall” is often stunning, Humphreys never wanted it to distract from the characters and always made sure the lighting was motivated in a realistic way. “If you look at a frame, I like you to know where the light is coming from, whether it’s a window or a practical lamp or a streetlight or something,” Humphreys said. “It makes the story feel more real and grounded and believable.” Given the strength of the writing and performances, Humphreys felt it was always best to be in service to the material rather than risk visual overkill. “It wasn’t the kind of show where you have long takes and you’re handing the camera off from one actor to another. I don’t like overly stylized photography.”

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