CINEMATOGRAPHERS BEHIND THE CAMERA: Q&A with DOP Thimios Bakatakis and Actor/Director Aziz Ansari
A Slow Cinema and Modern Day Mashup In Aziz Ansari’s Master of None S3
Take a peek into the creative minds behind Master of None season three with actor/director Aziz Ansari and DOP Thimios Bakatakis
Earlier this year, Netflix audiences were graced with a surprise new season of Golden Globe and three-time Emmy Awards winner, Master of None. The comedy-drama series, which was loosely based on actor/comedian Aziz Ansari’s real life experiences, takes a new turn for its third instalment.
Season three sees Aziz move away from the lead acting role and instead take his talents behind the camera as director. Shot on celluloid film, with dailies processed, scanned and graded at Cinelab London, the latest season takes on a cinematic feel with heavy influences from slow cinema greats such as Chantal Akerman, Ingmar Bergman, Bela Tarr and Yasujiro Ozu.
In this interview with LBB’s Sunna Coleman, director Aziz Ansari and DOP Thimios Bakatakis share their creative decisions, favourite scenes, biggest risks, and the reason why you should watch weirder stuff.
LBB> Congratulations on a third season of Master of None! Aziz, you have directed a handful of episodes in previous seasons, but what was it like to have the opportunity to direct the entire production this time around?
Aziz Ansari> This season was completely different as it was one self contained story and we really approached it as a film. I also really wanted to challenge myself and push the show and its visuals in a new direction. Directing all of them also helped me maintain and develop a cohesive aesthetic.
I was equally excited and apprehensive. I wasn’t sure if we could really do what I wanted in terms of never moving the camera or shooting traditional coverage. Not to mention the whole pivot story, narrative and not utilising myself and the cache of the character I play. But as we saw the dailies and as I went into the edit early, I realised it was working and my excitement kicked in.
LBB> This season was shot entirely on celluloid film. Thimios, as the DOP, what were some of the creative and technical elements that led to that decision?
Thimios Bakatakis> When I joined the project, Aziz had already decided to shoot on film for its cinematic qualities which was a nice surprise for me because I grew up shooting on film. I was also excited to create something that is a little different to what normally trends on Netflix.
From the very first meeting with Aziz we connected well and he had a very clear vision for what he wanted to achieve. I really like him as a person. He is so easy to work with and gave me a lot of freedom to do my thing. We shot on a 416 on 16mm for its texture and nostalgic look. It’s also a lot easier to pick up and play with colour contrasts on film.
We collaborated with film facility Cinelab London on this project who I’ve worked with several times and I was very happy, as always. They provided so much support and the team is absolutely brilliant. I think for this project in particular, it might be the best result I’ve ever had on 16mm.
LBB> What qualities do you feel that celluloid film can bring to a story that differs from something digitally shot?
Aziz> I loved the look of 16mm when we did tests and I had always wanted to shoot on film. I also really liked the vibe it created on set, where it felt more a special thing that we were rolling film and everyone had to focus. If I can continue shooting on film, that would be my preference. There is a life to it that simply can’t be explained or recreated.
Thimios> I think it depends on the project. Digital recordings can often have a sharpness to them that makes you feel like the scenes are happening right then and there in front of you - like the feeling you get when you watch the news. But on film, there is a bit of a filter between you and the actors - the scenes look almost like a painting. It has a softness to it. For Master of None we wanted this combination of really natural, raw acting with the mystical quality of film.
LBB> What was the inspiration and creative vision for this season?
Thimios> We used references from old film such as the work of Chantal Akerman and Bergman.
Aziz> For the story, I just got really into the idea of stripping away everything people associate with the show and honing in on this relationship with Denise and Alicia. The scripts and ideas we explore felt really fresh and exciting, and the notion of filming them in such classical, simple methods felt like the change I wanted to bring to the show.
LBB> So what was it like to step away from the acting role Aziz? Do you feel that your acting experience influences the way in which you direct?
Aziz> What was so surprising was how different it was being solely a director and not an “actor/director.” It was just a richer experience for me, directing wise. I enjoy acting, but ultimately in Master, I’m such a part of every decision that acting almost feels like an afterthought sometimes.
I do think my experience acting helps make me more of an “actor’s director” but you also realise what a super power it is to direct yourself - you’re inside the head of your lead actor! Ultimately I felt so blessed to have Naomi and Lena as my leads, they are a director’s dream.
LBB> How has your directing style developed from season one to three? What lessons have you learned that you will be taking forward?
Aziz> Season one and two I was really into long steadicam shots and more '70s cinema, a lot of Gordon Willis cinematography, etc. Season three I got super into slow cinema - Ozu, Chantal Akerman, Bela Tarr. I was so interested in the idea of taking slow cinema techniques and applying them to this modern story and I’m thankful it seems to have worked. The idea that you can make something that’s influenced by such work as Turin Horse or Jeanne Dielman - that are arguably a bit tough for mainstream audiences - and have it trend on Netflix, that’s pretty wild and fun to me.
The lessons that have stayed with me have been to surround yourself with the best you can. Always work on your scripts. Embrace your actors and glowingly receive whatever they give you and try to adapt your story to fit what they bring, don’t push them the other way.
LBB> This season was produced during a global pandemic. How did this impact filming?
Thimios> Unfortunately we did have many limitations around what we were able to do. Depending on the size of the room, we had to limit the number of people inside. We had to social distance the whole time which was a very unusual experience on a film set. It was tough but it was better than not shooting safely! I was grateful to be able to work during Covid.
Aziz> Originally we were supposed to do 10 episodes, with the other five being a story featuring me. We were fully cast and ready to film in April, but then after Covid, everything changed. We had to postpone the other story because those scripts were not “Covid-friendly” for a variety of reasons.
However, Moments in Love was probably the most Covid friendly script you could ask for - it was mainly two people in a house, so we got back to work in autumn with social distancing, masks, testing, etc.
LBB> How else did you spend your time over the pandemic? Did you find any opportunities to work on other passion projects?
Thimios> When I returned back home to Athens after travelling for work I had to quarantine for 14 days. Luckily I have a place on an island nearby so I decided to spend some time there. After my self-isolation I decided to stay and enjoy the island. I’d never had such an extended period of time to do nothing but appreciate the nature around me. It was amazing, actually.
Aziz> I cooked a lot, worked on the scripts some more, watched a TON of films, read books, and wrote another script that I hope to make soon.
I also want to make the other half of season 3 when Covid issues permit. If I can keep directing scripts I’m excited about, I’m thrilled. And I’ll act if it feels right, or if I truly want to just direct, I’ll give Riz Ahmed or Dev Patel a call.
LBB> Looking back over the production, what were your favourite moments from filming this season?
Aziz> When we shot the first IVF injection scene, it was originally thought to be multiple setups and Naomi and I realised that it should be one setup with Alicia walking out of frame and coming back in. It was really nice because we realised we’d crystallised our style of film making for this project and it felt that we’d gotten to a point where we’d gone past simply aping our influences and formed our own style.
Thimios> Episode one, part two. We mostly shot the series in order so the very first episode is where I got to do most of the experimentation. But also, when I watched it back, I particularly enjoyed this episode.
LBB> What was your reaction when you viewed the whole series finished? Did it turn out how you were expecting?
Thimios> I loved it. Aziz’s decision to choose this film language was a risk but a great idea. And I think it paid off. It was a great way to get the message of this particular story across.
Aziz> When I write, I have a certain thing in my head, and some people say when you direct your script the goal is to get that vision from your head. My goal is to surround myself with collaborators that help me make that version in my head pale in comparison to what we actually end up with, when all our talents combine and we trust each other, and as a director, I just try to guide the ship. That’s what thankfully happened with Moments in Love and I am so happy with what it turned out to be.
LBB> Any other creative insights you would like to share?
Thimios> Aziz created a lovely atmosphere on set, selecting music for us every day. The choices really helped set the mood for the scene ahead and we all loved this input. Especially during Covid times, it was a way to bring us all together.
Aziz> Watch as many films as you can, whenever you can. Watch older stuff, weirder stuff. Don’t watch what everyone else is watching. There’s a reason Scorsese is probably our best working director and he’s also seen more films than anyone I can think of.
Cinelab London Services – Master of None Presents: Moments in Love:
Dailies schedule - Shot in late 2020/Jan 2021 during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Once industry safe protocols were established to begin shooting again
Super 16mm shoot over 30+ days
31,000 feet of film
Film Dailies Colourist - Paul Dean, Head of Scanning and Grading
Film processing of all footage
Series released on Netflix in May 2021
Credit: LBB Online