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“Veep” Shows Hollywood How Things Are Done in D.C.

VEEPProducer Stephanie Laing has worked with the best of them on comedic TV shows like “Tracey Takes On…,” “Little Britain USA” and “Eastbound & Down,” but she’s never quite run a show like HBO’s “Veep.” Reminiscent of “The Office” (another Brit-born comedy), the mockumentary series follows the antics of a fictional Vice President played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who won an Emmy for her stellar performance. “It’s a different kind of challenge than I’ve ever had before,” says Laing. “It’s an English-written comedy with English directors and edited in the UK, but it’s an American comedy when it comes down to it.”

The show’s cast and crew formed a tight family-like unit early on and they now refer to themselves as “Veeples.” Laing sees this bond as a testament to their strength, as many crewmembers have returned to the production since the pilot. “Everyone keeps coming back to work with us again,” she says. Cinematographer Jay Feather is one of those alumni, joining the show after the first three episodes were shot by Jimmy Lindsey. Feather had recently done second-unit work on “Eastbound & Down” and “Banshee” but was excited when the opportunity arose to lens “Veep.” He now considers the experience unlike any other series he’s been a part of, and he has mastered his technique to suit the show’s fast-paced production. “The challenge has been to find the right balance to properly light each scene with justified and motivated lighting while still allowing the directors to have their freedom with the ensemble cast,” explains Feather. “Our unique prep period per each episode allows the cast and crew to tackle our high page count on the day of shooting. We average 12 pages per day, but our record stands somewhere around 17.”

The people handing over those dialogue-heavy pages include “Veep” Creator Armando Iannucci and Writer Simon Blackwell (both of whom co-wrote the film In the Loop) and another half-dozen of very funny Brits working in the UK to develop each new season. In July, the team flies to the show’s production headquarters in Baltimore for a week of rehearsals for the first half of the season. Then there’s a typical prep period of four to six weeks that includes guest directors coming in to prep rehearsals for each episode. When September hits, everyone is up and running to shoot an average of five days per episode until January.

“We rehearse a lot, which is not typical in production of American comedy, probably not even on the dramas,” Laing explains. “For every episode we shoot, we rehearse a day and a half. The week is cut up into a couple rehearsal days and usually on Wednesday we start shooting.” Thanks to cast and crew’s well-orchestrated efforts, there’s now a misconception floating around that the show is improvised. In fact, the writers spend months on end creating the hilarious scenarios for Vice President Selina Meyer and her team of misfiring misfits. The show’s writing process continues through rehearsals, and scripts are often further developed while episodes are being shot. “We may end up with a script full of alternates,” admits Laing, “but every joke is written and rewritten to perfection.”

VEEP 2“Veep” is an all-handheld, two-camera show, so a lot of choreography is needed to perfect its documentary look. Shots often show two or more characters having a conversation in the foreground while two more characters in the background have scripted dialogue occurring simultaneously, and the cameras catch parts of the background conversation to link it to the foreground characters. All this takes a lot of finesse to look totally unrehearsed — and every crewmember, including Key Grip Matt Blades, knows to stay on their toes. “Because of how fluidly the scenes move,” says Blades, “I am always paying attention to how the scene is developing, and I try to stay ahead of where the camera is going to look next so that my guys are ready for what needs to happen effectively and efficiently.” 

To make sure that the show’s depiction of West Wing was accurate, Iannucci visited the real deal in D.C. “Many times you see a Hollywood version of the West Wing,” says Production Designer Jim Gloster, “but we wanted it to be what it is: a fairly dull and drab building. There are some elaborate rooms there, but mostly it’s just white hallways with offices shooting off of them. Space is at a premium there, because if you have an office in the West Wing then you’re somebody. So a lot of times they pack four and five people in these tiny offices with stuff everywhere. That’s the atmosphere we’re going for on the show.” Whenever possible, the production uses big lights through windows to re-create natural light and allow the architecture of the sets shape the lighting. 

To maintain the show’s look and atmosphere, Camera Operators Spencer Combs and Sean Maxwell continually use two ARRI ALEXAs. As a cinematographer who likes to push the envelope, Feather says that the ALEXA has allowed him to light to the ratios he finds pleasing while still holding detail at the extreme ends of exposure. “At the beginning of season two, I added more contrast,” the DP explains. “I look within the location to find where justified light would come from, and I light big sources from outside, which gives the actors the ability to move around freely with still having the ratio I like. This show relies on really strong operators and I think both of them nail the tone we’ve set in prep.” Laing voted for using ALEXAs because every time she’s been on a show with another shooting format, she’s wished that ALEXAs were chosen. “There’s a lot of freedom and ease with the ALEXAs,” says Laing. “The weight, even with the bigger lenses, keeps it manageable for fast handheld work.”

The necessity to move quickly doesn't relieve the production crew from their responsibility to produce high-quality images. With ensemble scenes, multiple locations and tight schedules, all departments are challenged to always be ready to fly in with a light or a plant. “It’s a real contest in the close quarters of many of the practical locations we shoot in,” says Blades. “My goal is to keep things moveable and flexible so that Jay [Feather] gets what he needs to keep making beautiful visuals and, at the same time, give our directors and our cast maximum freedom on the set. Our gaffer Peaches Dolan, Jay and I try to keep the sets as uncluttered with gear as possible. If we know this means a big pre-rig, then we arrange for it, because on the shoot day it can make all the difference. It’s important that we stay flexible so that if a better idea comes up, or we have to reshuffle the schedule, we can make it all happen seamlessly.” Whatever chaos ensues with the characters on screen, the “Veep” crew’s well-oiled machine will continue to keep audiences laughing all the way to the next election. President Meyer for 2016! 

 

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