Interview: Director of Photography Paul Koestner on the Look of “Louie”

One of the few to see their names alongside Louis CK's in the opening credits of the acclaimed FX series, the cinematographer reflects on working within limitations to create...
Louie CK filming an episode of Louie with cinematographer Paul Koestner

When I first got in touch with Paul Koestner in the hopes of talking about his longtime collaboration with Louis CK, he humbly insisted, “All I do is hit the record button and try to keep Louie in frame.” But in fact, a better description might be that he’s able to press all kinds of buttons as the cinematographer on “Louie,” a show that’s done the near impossible by capturing New York in all its magical, frustrating, often mundane and occasionally grand glory in a style as unique as CK’s voice as a comedian.

CK, of course, has always been the primary creative force behind his own shows and films, writing, directing, starring and up until the current third season of “Louie”, editing the show (a responsibility that’s been ceded to frequent Woody Allen editor Susan E. Morse), not to mention a camera buff who owns the RED Digital Camera the FX show is shot on. However, Koestner remains one of the few names to accompany CK’s in the sparse opening credits, a place he’s occupied since first working with the comedian in the 1990s on pre-taped sketches for “Caroline’s Comedy Hour,” an A&E series that showcased stand-ups from the famed New York comedy club.

“Louie was one of the comedians writing and performing for the show, and I happened to be the guy who shot the pre-recorded segments during the day,” recalls Koestner, who has been behind the camera for most of CK’s projects, including various shorts and comedy specials, ever since. Recently, he was gracious enough to answer some questions via e-mail about his collaboration with CK and the evolution of the distinctive visual style of “Louie” while still making a show as messy as life.

After you worked together on “Caroline’s Comedy Hour,” how did you and Louis continue working together?

At some point, Louie, who was interested in doing his own stuff, asked me if I wanted to shoot something he’d written. I probably went, “Hell yes,” and that first film was “Caesar’s Salad.” After that I remember “Ice Cream,” and a series of shorts commissioned by Howie Mandel for a summer series of his [called “Sunny Skies”].

Projects popped up from time to time whenever Louie got an idea, and I have at least three feature scripts sitting on a shelf somewhere that he never got around to making. I owned a 16mm film package back then, and a hodgepodge of lighting equipment. About all we needed were my old pal Bill Wander and his Nagra [sound recorder], some healthy bodies, a van, and we were in business.

At some point, Louie sent me a script for his first feature, called “Tomorrow Night,” which he produced on his own. We shot it in Super 16 on black & white stock (Plus-X, I think), on a small scale as usual.

Somewhere along the way there were several seasons of “The Chris Rock Show,” as well as the sadly short-lived “Dana Carvey Show.” In each case, Louie was a writer and I was shooting the interstitial stuff. I’ve left a bit or two out here, but we’ve been floating around each other for a while now.

“Louie” is often said to have an “indie film” aesthetic, which obviously refers to its cost-effectiveness on some level, but since you mentioned “Tomorrow Night,” from what I’ve seen, the visual point of view is similar. Do you see the seeds of the visual language of “Louie” really being planted in that and the earlier shorts you made?

I think I’ll answer yes to that. Having been a witness to much of Louie’s work, I think we’re looking at the same intellect traveling through time. I don’t know if Louie would agree, but I see his signature in everything we do. He’s always tried to run scenes as long as he can, whether the camera remains inert or follows him through complex choreography. He’s been making trickier things happen in front of his camera, because it surprises the audience. Certainly, our camera movement has become more ornate as we’ve added devices to facilitate that aspect.

I think of season three’s first episode, where a street scene plays out to an expensive conclusion for our company – a crushed automobile. We did have a second camera running, but I believe Louie would have been happiest if he could’ve played the whole thing out in one shot. He wanted it all to end in a mangled mess right in front of us, with no smoke or mirrors.

Has watching him evolve as a performer over the years changed the way you shoot him?

I don’t think so. If anything, let’s say his evolution as a filmmaker has affected the way we do things. I wasn’t there for “Pootie Tang,” so I don’t know what he learned there, [but] it’s no secret that Louie greatly values the freedom he negotiates into his projects. Trade autonomy for cash and you relinquish control. There’s a compelling reason why his name is all over the credits.

One thing that has happened to us over the run of the show is that Louie has upped the ante with more complex scenes. We’ve begun to try new equipment, experiment with different techniques, and we’ve familiarized ourselves with the new technology. As we get more comfortable with our abilities, we experiment more.

Finally, Louie is trying more personally risky scenarios at a time when the public spotlight is being focused on him. He’s not so much fearless as willing to face his fears, and it’s exciting to watch from a safe distance.

Are there specific things you’ve shot this season because you were emboldened by either more experience or new technology?

I hasten to point out that one man’s complexity is the next guy’s “just another day at the office.” Season three has seen a lot of automotive mayhem. And while some has yet to air, I’m not giving anything away at this point to say we’ve mounted cameras on careening cars, trucks, motorcycles, and other forms of transportation. This is typical American TV stock-in-trade, but for us, it’s a real challenge. We’re like kids emulating our elders.

I’d love it if we could have a Steadicam operator on every day, because Louie blocks lots of movement these days. Often handheld is adequate, but I’ve grown a bit tired of what I call “spasticam” footage. On other occasions, we’ve pushed our jib and dolly set-up to near ridiculous extremes, when what we really could’ve used was a Steadicam. We just don’t have the dough. For instance, in a scene with Parker Posey, we put our jib on a three-wheel dolly in a cluttered vintage clothing shop. As the Parker and Louie came into the store and down an aisle, we were booming and rolling and arcing through clothing racks, with inches to spare all around us. I just can’t say no if Louie wants to try something.

I’ll also mention an old-fangled technique tried on two occasions now, one that landed on the edit room floor last season and one that has yet to possibly air. Louie voiced the desire to accomplish a deep focus shot, and my mind went back to film school. We scrambled to acquire a set of split diopters, and I’m pleased to say that regardless of the outcome, we were able to do something past generations used to do to peculiar effect.

How was the look of the show established? I’m always impressed by how the show can simultaneously feel elegant and gritty at the same time and I wonder whether there were any influences.

First, the easy part, though it’s something of a confession. Our relationship is a bit unconventional in that we don’t get together ahead of time and watch films in his rumpus room or pore over pre-conceived storyboards. It’s rare that Louie references any other work while we’re in production. We just show up at the beginning of the season and roll camera. And I’m fine with that. Maybe that’s one of the reasons people say there’s nothing quite like this show. Maybe that’s where elegant and gritty merge.

There’s little question in my mind that Louie accepts, and embraces even, a certain amount of slop, which can happen when one employs improvisation with rehearsal-free spontaneity. This is not to say he has no preconception of a scene. He simply doesn’t usually share it with me. We have well-established scripts and he sticks to them until they no longer suit his purpose (and I guarantee you putting six or seven comedians around a poker table can mess with the purpose). He also appreciates tight camerawork. He simply doesn’t always require it to happen before he feels the urge to move on.

Louie sees life as an inherently messy thing. Or maybe I do myself and I project that belief on him. In any event, he seems comfortable with a bit of mess. What he loathes is artifice, which I think explains why he tries so hard to shoot scenes in “oners” [using only one take without editing] because life doesn’t come with convenient cut points. He insists on minimal lighting, preferring the real stuff that comes through the windows and out of the overheads to the stuff we drag around with us. It isn’t always perfectly pretty, but it isn’t phony either.

I did have to further familiarize myself with the Red One [camera] system I was introduced to during [Louie CK’s 2010 concert special] “Hilarious.” I actually tried to argue at the very beginning that we might be better served by a smaller high-def camera. Louie let me go off and test a couple systems with a bunch of different lenses, both primes and zooms.

My concern was in keeping up with the challenging pace of a TV series with a small budget and crew. Louie saw the bigger picture, which was the archival aspect of his work. He wanted this thing he was creating to stand up to the test of time, and he won the argument.

It’s been a challenge to horse a complex, ungainly camera package around the streets of New York and beyond, and I’m greatly appreciative of the advances gained with Louie’s purchase of an Epic [camera, also a RED] for season three. Technology marches on, and I expect to benefit from more of the same in the future, where today’s state-of-the-art is tomorrow’s doorstop.

You mentioned in another interview Louis doesn’t usually see a location before shooting there. Is it a challenge to figure things out on the fly? Does it give the show some of its energy?

To be clear, he rarely visits the actual space ahead of time. He is, however, routinely harassed by our production designer, Amy Silver, who has been a trusted muse and confidante of his for a very long time. She visits promising locations scouted by Jeff Caron and his stellar crew, who take gobs of photos. She, along with Adam and Blair Breard, our executive producer without whom Louie will proceed with nothing, scout this stuff out and make their collective case. I’ve taken to trusting their intuitions. If it works for them, I know it will work for me. On only rare occasions do I throw in my two cents.

Our MO is definitely a challenge, and an inseparable part of the Louie experience. I don’t doubt that it flavors the show. Whether it is necessary to his method, I can’t say, but there is for me always that special moment when Louie gets on set and looks for the first time at the space, and I see the wheels turning. Oh geez, now he’s heading to the wrong room, and it’s all coming together in his head. It’s sometimes a challenge to appreciate that he’s enjoying this creative process, the first investigation of a space he’s never been in and reveling in the possibilities. Then he decides, and we start moving gear.

The fact is it’s not all that unusual an experience for me. Most of my career has been on the periphery of conventional episodic production. In the hurry up world of corporate/documentary/day work, a whole lot of jobs start out with questions like, where are we going to do this thing? Then how are we going to do it? It’s just more entertaining when it’s on the set of “Louie.”

Do you have a favorite episode that you’ve worked on or particular shots you’re proud of? I suspect as logistically challenging as it may have been, your familiarity with water — [Paul is the author of the book about sailing, “On the Wind and a Prayer”] — may have made “Miami” a favorite.

Gosh, I like so many scenes for so many different reasons. I love the fact that we work with so many talented actors one doesn’t get to see often enough, and watch them knock it out of the park. And while I’m all in for a fart gag, I’m mostly drawn to the poignant stuff. I remember reading the script for “Bully” and going, “Wow, this isn’t your average laugh fest.” Then “Blueberries.” I mean somebody give Maria Dizzia an Emmy  — she’s back in season three, hooray! And Doug Stanhope in “Eddie.”

My favorite episode to date might be “New Jersey/Airport.” Aside from watching Steven Wright do his thing, and the crazy ménage that never consummated itself, there is Louie’s heartbreaking scene with Pamela [Adlon] at the airport. I love that woman.

Technically, it’s hard to beat pulling off the shot of the water jug getting thrown out of the window in “Dogpound.” [At 4:40 in this clip.] Once again, Louie insisted that there be no cutting, and all I could think was “Good damn luck to us.” And he pulled it off. I didn’t shoot that shot, by the way. That was my [assistant cameraman] Alex Martin, a strapping young cameraman in his own right, carrying that handheld shot through to its conclusion while I was nursing a hernia incision. I was on the street getting the superfluous cover shot, and deserve no credit for the accomplishment. I would’ve broken the scene up to save us the trouble, so shame on me.

I was tickled with [something simple we did in] “Travel Day.” We had to shoot some stuff on a passenger jet. We shot it at MacArthur Airport out on Long Island. In the scene the plane is supposed to be in flight, with Louie wedged next to a large fellow named Dennis, when extreme turbulence convinces them and the rest of the passengers the plane is going down.

Needless to say, our craft was sitting on the ground. And we had little time to use it before it had to take off on a real trip. It was an overcast day, and we had only one large-for-us HMI [lamp] sitting out on the tarmac for whatever use we could put it to.

Louie wanted to know if there was some way we could heighten the sense that this plane was getting rocked around. The single HMI was going to be of no use, as far as I was concerned. Here’s what we did. I was in the seat ahead, handholding the camera on a flight pillow perched on the headrest. We asked our real pilot, there I guess to watch the plane, if he had any control of the interior cabin lights. He did. Then Adam, our [assistant director] indicated to our passengers that when he smacked against a wall of the plane, it meant the plane was experiencing turbulence and they should react accordingly, while we blinked the lights off and on to simulate an electrical disturbance. I also shook the camera in synchrony with the actors’ movement. We worked out a little timing and choreography, and were off. This was simple, simple stuff. And it worked like a charm.

It’s funny you thought Miami might have appealed to me from a water-lover’s perspective. Aside from the added stress of being away from home with a crew partially assembled locally (they were magnificent), on a short schedule where one rainy day would’ve put a serious crimp on the festivities, I was particularly concerned for the camera in the case of the ocean scenes. None of us had much experience with cameras in the water, the surf was rough from recent offshore weather conditions, and we ended up with a rental rig foreign to us, with no local technician to babysit. We figured it out in the pool, but not before we came frighteningly close to giving Louie’s [RED] Epic [camera] a chlorine rinse. So yeah, nothing but fun and games in Miami.

By all accounts, Louie’s a cinematography nut. Does that make it easier to work with him or more challenging if he knows exactly what he wants?

It’s fantastic. Certainly there are all sorts of successful director/cameraman relationships, but it’s always satisfying to have that shared knowledge, which helps you get through the day with fewer corner of-the-room meetings. For some reason, I get a kick out that moment when we have to swap out lenses for the next shot, and we look at each other to decide which focal length makes sense. I guess you can’t have that kind of fun with a zoom. It’s also really gratifying to watch playback and see Louie crack up over what we’ve just shot.

If anything, Louie’s enthusiasm for the work inspires me to take bolder chances. I’ve spent a lot of time working on very conventional, formulaic projects, shooting stuff designed by committee. It can get scary trying something you’re not used to doing. But he’s never come back to me and said, “Dude, you really screwed me when you did that thing you did.”

“Louie” airs on the FX Network on Thursdays at 10:30 p.m.

2 Comments on this post.

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  • Paul Koestner
    22 August 2012 at 8:06 am -

    Stephen Saito has flattered me with this article and I wanted to thank him for it here. He kept my voice intact, and only improved its timbre with his measured editorial strokes.

    If I may, I’d like to clarify a couple things so that I might offend no one. Blair Breard is our magnificent producer, but I’m sure she’d blush at the notion that Louie would be paralyzed without her guidance. Let me state the obvious: Louie is an amazing talent, and he could do what he’s doing with any chosen group of competent support personnel. That he chooses to do so with us I think says something about his make-up (he is loyal – to a fault in my case), and I hope I’m not being presumptuous in saying that we as a group feel honored that he chooses to work with us. Louie does not consult Blair for every breath he takes, but from the standpoint of our little show she is our admiral, our standard bearer, our piccolo player and our mom back home.

    As Stephen now knows, I loathe speaking for others, though I presume to do so here. Many folks imagine that because I’ve known Louie for so long, I know him particularly well. As I mentioned in the interview in a somewhat facetious fashion, that is not the case. In fact, I don’t even know if he has a rumpus room.

    See, that’s not true. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t. To this day I sometimes wonder why he keeps me around, and I’ve kind of decided it’s because he knows I’ll try as hard as I can to get what he wants without the ego that often accompanies august reputations (thankfully, I am thusly unencumbered). Plus, I’m as uncomfortable on large, ungainly shoots as he is, I think. The bottom line is, I’m easy to push around.

    One last thing: I don’t want to make it seem as if our show is improvisation-driven, or to suggest that Louie keeps us entirely in the dark as to what will happen. I believe that in my misguided attempt to excuse the occasionally rough look of our photography I overstated the technical challenges. While we rarely do technical rehearsals (Louie likes to roll right out of the gate), we pretty much know what’s going to happen in front of us. Louie even gives us extra takes when we screw up royally on our end, so don’t let me get away with the, “Well see, the reason it looked like that was ‘cuz…” kind of bull. But really, he does seem to like a little mess here and there.

    As a service to Stephen’s work here, I’d be happy to answer any further questions you have through this forum.

    Paul

  • Paul Koestner
    6 November 2012 at 8:16 am -

    Hey David,
    Let me say I consider it my responsibility to read any script I’m lucky enough to receive ahead of time. As the DP, I need to start somewhere, and the script is a great place.
    Whenever I find myself reading a script, it seems natural to be visualizing it, as if it’s a movie playing in my head. I don’t imagine it’s much different than the act of, say, reading a novel. The thing comes alive in your mind, which is why I suppose a book works in the first place. It starts as ink on a white page and ends as a shock to the cerebrum.
    In the case of a script, where I’ve been hired to at the very least aid in the visual interpretation, I suspect I take a more proactive role in that mental process. I imagine the possible ways a scene might play out. What kind of gear might be employed? Might we use a long lens to follow a street conversation using compression as a visual mechanism? Might we use a Steadicam? Will we use lots of coverage or do it in a “oner”?
    Many of those decisions are based on the relationship between the director and the DP. Some directors are “actors’ directors,” caring about little more than performance. Some are much more technically inclined. Some work off storyboards, or at least shot lists, and some work much more, shall we say, organically.
    Louie is a fascinating amalgam. He largely eschews pre-visualizing with his crew, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t thought out in his mind how he’d like a scene to play on the screen. And while he rarely sees remote locations ahead of time, it’s clear to me he often shows up with a clear vision in his head as to how a scene will cut.
    And yet I’ve also seen Louie throw out a preconceived plan when he’s inspired on set, and that, I think, happens often. So to answer some of what you’ve asked, when it comes to him and me, I see my main job to be one of responding to his vision, and to put in motion the people and paraphernalia required to make what he sees in his head show up to his satisfaction on our monitor. I’m also prepared to give an opinion if he asks for it.
    Finally, there is no question that Louie has influenced the way I see things, and therefore the way I go about my work. He’s willing to take huge personal risks, and he’s unafraid to buck standard notions of how stories should be constructed. It’s great being around someone with the confidence to go about it the way he wants, and let the cards fall where they may.
    This has been a dream job for me, but even the bad ones will teach you something about the process if you’re lucky enough to hang around to see how they turn out. It’s like when I find myself stuck watching a bad movie. I can always deconstruct the editorial process, or imagine how they were lighting it and how I’d do it differently. I guess I’m saying every shoot is an education.
    Thanks very much for the question, David. If I got it wrong, let me know and I’ll try again.

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