Last November, I received a call to shoot a portrait of
Jessica Lange for American Horror Story.
The brief was that they wanted a George Hurrell-style glamour portrait
of the actress for use as a prop for the show.
As is often the case in my job, the timeline was short: I received the
call on a Tuesday, met with the production designer on Wednesday, shot a test
image with a model that evening, and the next day shot the actual portrait, to
be retouched and turned in by Friday morning.
To assist me, AHS sent me a reference image: a 1937 portrait of Carole Lombard shot by
Hurrell, which, as a big fan of 1930s and 40s films (and Carole Lombard in
particular), I’d been aware of for years.
That seemed to be good sign. When
I met with the production designer, he ran through what they needed for the
show and then dropped the amusing little bomb that Miss Lange herself had actually
been photographed by Hurrell – twice. Then he handed me a printout one of the shots. No pressure.
Fortunately, I’ve studied Hurrell’s lighting for years, and
while I would never profess to approach his level of mastery, I had a pretty
good handle on how he achieved what he did.
In fact, a few months before, I had done a portrait of actress Teri
Wyble (who guest starred on The Walking Dead last season) in that 1940s glamour
style for a movie industry magazine. When
the production staff looked at my website, they had seen that very shot.
Actress Teri Wyble by Jason Kruppa (2014)
The evening after the meeting, I shot the test with a model
friend, made notes on all my settings, and sent the image in to my contacts at
AHS. They approved and we were ready to
go. The shoot was set for 6pm the
following day at the show location.
I met the art director at the dirt road entrance to the
location and followed him in my car back to the main set, near which was a
smallish red tent where they had constructed a black box for the shoot with a
raised platform and a backdrop they had painted. I set up my lights, camera and laptop (we
were shooting tethered to review the images as we went), then shot a quick test
with the art director, a lovely middle aged man who looks nothing like Jessica
Lange. Then we waited.
Around 7pm, Miss Lange had finished her lunch break and was
ready to shoot. Hair, makeup and
wardrobe accompanied her into the tent, we all introduced ourselves, and then we
got to work.
After she got settled in the chair on the platform, and hair
and makeup applied last minute touches, she looked at me behind the camera and asked
– I knew this was coming – “So have you figured out Hurrell’s lighting?” I read this as a mixture of playful tweaking
and genuine curiosity; the production designer and I assured her that we’d
studied diagrams of Hurrell’s setups and that what we had in place was pretty
similar. She then told us about one of
her shoots with Hurrell, where she lay on her back with her hair spread out and
a large beauty dish over her. She said
he showed her the negative 8x10 afterward and recalled that it looked “horrendous.” “Don’t worry, darling,” she remembered him
telling her, “I’ll retouch it and it will look beautiful!”
Jessica Lange by George Hurrell (1981)
Camera on tripod, I got my angle set and worked at directing
the actress’s expression and the angle of her body relative to the camera. The production designer gave suggestions, and
the others in the dark little tent commented as we went along. Every few shots, Miss Lange would step down
off the platform to look at what we were getting. “I can do that better,” she would say, or “I
know what to do now.” Even though she’d
been working all day, the atmosphere was relaxed, and she was dedicated to
getting this right.
Half an hour and 24 frames later, we were done. Seeing the expression on Miss Lange’s face,
one of the voices out of the shadows behind me declared, “That’s Elsa Mars,” as
I clicked the shutter. We all reviewed
the image on my laptop and everyone agreed: that was the shot.
Miss Lange shook my hand and thanked me, and I wished her a
good evening before breaking everything down and packing up my car. Once I got home, I sent the camera RAW image along
with a few notes to Pratik Naik, the pro retoucher I hired for the job. Ninety minutes later, Pratik sent me the work
he had done, and I proceeded to do some additional dodging and burning to create
the overall Hurrell mood. Around 2 in
the morning, after taking breaks, drinking a lot of coffee, and making some
more adjustments, I sent a jpg of the completed image to the AHS people for
approval. I grabbed a few hours sleep
and checked my email at 8am. The
production designer gave me the green light, the AHS staff member who had
initially contacted me sent me a gracious text to thank me, I uploaded the
finished high resolution tif…and went back to bed.
Final shot of Jessica Lange, November 2014, by Jason Kruppa
Later that afternoon, I got a call from the production
designer saying that Ryan Murphy, the show’s creator and the person who had
suggested the shoot, decided he wanted a different pose and a different wig for
the shot. We needed to reshoot, and I
was to stand by until the show’s schedule and Miss Lange’s schedule could be coordinated
to make this happen.
being what they are, the AHS people had to do the reshoot themselves,
presumably on set and presumably with Ryan Murphy directing to get exactly the
expression he wanted. (I’m extrapolating
this from seeing the final shot on episode 10 of AHS; Hollywood doesn’t have to
tell me its business, after all).
Below is a diagram of the lighting setup: three lights, with
the hairlight gridded, the background light with a standard reflector, and barn
doors on the key light at an oblique angle to Jessica Lange, to keep the focus
of illumination primarily around her face.