Variety Artisans Inside the Frame: ‘Ripley’ DP Robert Elswit Breaks Down Shooting and Lighting Freddie’s Murder

The fifth episode of Netflix’s’ “Ripley” takes a darker turn when Tom Ripley’s (Andrew Scott) perfect life is interrupted.

Having found the perfect apartment in Rome – Dickie Greenleaf’s – he receives an unexpected visitor, Freddie Miles (Eliot Summer). Freddie suspects all is not what it seems, and soon Tom ends up murdering him. Rather than dispose of the body, Tom waits until it’s dark.

More from Variety

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the limited series follows con artist Tom Ripley who befriends a wealthy shipping heir, Dickie Greenleaf, played by Johnny Flynn.

Lighting was important. It needed to reflect who Tom was and the world he lived in which was very contrasted. The black-and-white aesthetic would give the audience a sense of anxiety, tension and mystery.

Cinematographer Robert Elswit sat down for Variety’s Artisans Inside the Frame and discussed getting inside Ripley’s mind.

“He’s kind of trying to figure out what to do, and his plan is, ‘I’ll put Freddie in Freddie’s car, and drive him someplace, and drop him off.'” Elswit continued, “We’re on a soundstage at Cinecittà in Italy and the wonderful David Gropman has built this extraordinary set that is Dickie’s apartment that Ripley has rented pretending to be Dickie Greenleaf, accumulating all of the various clothing and accessories that Dickie Greenleaf had at his villa, and now he’s moved them all into the apartment in Rome, and he’s just finished killing Freddie, and he’s trying to figure out what to do.”

Working on a soundstage made it easier for Elswit to light the scene transition, which involved him turning on practicals and making the light come through the windows.

When Tom carries Freddie’s body, the other transition is the location switches from a soundstage to a palazzo in Rome. As Ripley puts Freddie’s body in the car, a second unit stepped in to film the sequence as he travels down the Via Appia Antica.

The biggest challenge was lighting that exterior night shoot — the streetlights were non-existent, and there were also no building lights.

“I needed to have big units very high and far away, lighting from above,” said Elswit. “I needed distant lighting in both directions, very far away, providing backlight in both directions.”

Elswit used LED boxes held up by construction cranes to “pretend it’s moonlight or ambient moonlight” to make it look real. However, with the LED boxes so high, they ended up creating a soft lighting effect on the top of the trees lining the street. “It’s completely unrealistic,” Elswit said.

Normally, he would have worked with the post-production team to darken areas within the frame and fix it.

Fortunately for him, director Steven Zaillian wasn’t interested in giving the series a naturalistic look to the night scenes. Rather, he wanted a painterly effect. “This goes back to his way of bringing Caravaggio into the movie,” Elswit said. Zaillian wanted to create a painterly feeling of what a night exterior painting would’ve looked like in the late 16th century. “They tended to exaggerate the night light that came from the moon and the stars,” said Elswit.

In fact, Zaillian like the artificial aspect the LED boxes created in lighting, and Elswit didn’t need to do any cleaning up of the frames. “He liked that the trees glowed at the top. He liked all the things that seemed artificial about it because it reminded him of what night exteriors looked like when they were painted by Caravaggio or baroque painters,” said Elswit.

Overall, the lighting style of the series was an homage to the chiaroscuro lighting technique where high-contrast lighting utilizes a low-key lighting set-up to achieve contrast.

In this case, “It’s what the priest says when he’s looking at the Saint Matthew paintings at the church. “The priest says, ‘It’s the light, it’s always the light.’ There’s a thing about black and white that you can exaggerate which is so wonderful about shooting in monochrome.”

“Where the light is coming from is why things are light or dark and the shape you give it,” Elswit added.

Watch the video above.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.