How ‘Slow Horses’ Cinematographer Danny Cohen Filmed An “Anti-Spy Thriller”

·3 min read

Most spy thrillers rely on action-oriented scenes with flashy camera movements, but Slow Horses presented a different option that interested cinematographer Danny Cohen. In what Cohen calls an “anti-spy thriller”, the challenge was to pull back on the flashy moves to highlight the dialogue and acting.

Slow Horses follows a team of British intelligence agents sent from MI5 to “Slough House” after making career-ending mistakes. In the third episode “Bad Tradecraft,” which is the episode submitted for Emmy consideration, Lamb (Gary Oldman) and Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) have a clandestine meeting on a bench next to the river.

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Most of the series is shot at night, which Cohen says is actually easier to manage. With the ability to “sculpt the light” without having to worry about cloud coverage blocking the sun, he found it easier to enhance the gritty atmosphere of the series.

DEADLINE: What drew you to work on Slow Horses?

DANNY COHEN: What really attracted me to Slow Horses, is that it’s kind of an anti-spy thriller. We weren’t trying to make London or the characters look sexy and beautiful, so it lent itself towards a much grittier, harder look. I don’t think Gary Oldman’s character ever changes his clothes and Slough House hasn’t been decorated since the cold war…. The direction the cinematography needed to go towards was to make London look hard and rainy and cold and miserable, and I think all of that adds to the atmosphere.

DEADLINE: So the third episode, “Bad Tradecraft”, is the one that was selected for consideration. What excited you about the cinematography of that episode?

COHEN: For me, one of the really interesting scenes was with Jackson Lamb and Taverner. So Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas are sitting on the bench by the canal at night, and what was quite exciting was it’s a very long bit of dialogue for two people who aren’t moving. They weren’t walking and talking, they both sat down. It was one of the things that isn’t very normal fair on this sort of drama. I think there’s always the urge to make the camera over excited and try to create some kind of drama, but I don’t think we had to do anything in the sense that we already have two fantastic actors delivering the lines, and the lines are really good. It’s not about flashy camera moves or crane moves, and I think there was only one that we did. The scene opens with the camera on a boat, drifting down the canal as she arrives at the bench, but that was about it as far fancy camera work, and we just let them do their thing.

And what’s always fun about shooting stuff at night is that you can really sculpt the light. It’s actually a lot more straightforward because the light can change quite quickly during the day. You can sculpt the light to give them an edge and let a bit of their faces fall into darkness, which gives a really strong atmospheric feel.

I don’t know the exact timing of the scene, but it’s gotta be between five and 10 minutes long and that’s crazy for two people just to sit on screen for that long, but it’s an exciting way to let the story play out. We can do amazing things with cameras and cranes and drones, but if the material is exciting and the actors are great, then why overdo it?

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