True to Life
Inspired by Stephanie Land's memoir of the same name, the 10-episode Netflix limited series Maid centres around Alex (played by Margaret Qualley), a young single mother who finds work housecleaning after escaping an abusive relationship and brushes with homelessness. Behind the scenes, Quyen Tran, ASC served as cinematographer for episodes 1, 2, 9 and 10 and directed episode 8; Guy Godfree, CSC was behind the camera for episodes 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8, and Vincent De Paula, CSC shot episode 5.
Partnering with Panavision Vancouver, the filmmakers worked with Panavised Alexa Mini LF cameras and Panaspeed optics. Tran recently shared her reflections on developing the visual signatures of this true-to-life story.
Panavision: How would you describe the look of Maid?
Quyen Tran, ASC: In developing the pilot and look of the series, director John Wells, showrunner Molly Smith Metzler and I wanted to focus on realism and keeping the world grounded. Since it's Alex's story, we wanted to see the world through her perspective. Long, uninterrupted performances coupled with moving masters from her point of view allowed for subjective camera placement and movement, with the intention of inviting the viewer to viscerally experience what she's going through on a daily basis.
Were there any particular visual references you looked at for inspiration?
Tran: The houses and locations are themselves characters in the show. The residential work by Todd Hido and portraits by Gregory Crewdson inspired us to focus on each of the characters in the show as they fit into their surroundings. Colour palette and lighting choices specifically spoke to whether an event was in the present or past.
What brought you to Panavision for this project?
Tran: I've collaborated with Panavision since my film school days, having been a recipient of the New Filmmaker Grant. [Marketing executive] Mike Carter has been supporting my projects from student films through documentaries, indie features, TV shows, etc., so Panavision is always my first call when I sign on for a new show. I've always been a fan of the glass, but service is just as important for my crew and me.
What optical characteristics did you see in the Panaspeed lenses that made them the right match for Maid?
Tran: I knew we'd be shooting large format, and the Panaspeeds' close focus and 24mm and 29mm focal lengths were essential in designing the subjective camera work. I wanted to be up close and personal with Alex, operating handheld, so prime lenses that also delivered natural tones without filtration were key. Knowing I'd be shooting a lot of night exteriors as well, fast apertures were also a requirement.
How did you communicate with your fellow cinematographers Guy Godfree, CSC and Vincent De Paula, CSC over the course of production to ensure there would be a unified look across the episodes you were each shooting?
Tran: I've known Guy for many years, so I was familiar with his dedication to story and naturalism, and it was very easy to pass the baton to him. I also built a look book for Guy and Vincent and the other directors, which production designer Renee Read printed out and bound together beautifully. Both Guy and Vincent did a phenomenal job honoring the story and the look of the show.
How did Maid differ from other projects in your career?
Tran: Every project is different, but I tend to gravitate towards stories that are challenging in some regard. Maid tackles so many difficult yet important issues; I’m proud of this show because of the social impact it's had on many viewers. That's always so rewarding after pouring so much effort into telling a story. Maid was the first show I shot during the pandemic, and I was spending months away from my family, so the fact it’s touched the lives of so many viewers makes me very emotional.
What inspired you to become a cinematographer, and what keeps you inspired today?
Tran: Having started my journey as a photographer, I knew I wanted to take the next step into moving images after the tragic events of 9/11. What keeps me inspired today are my children, my husband, other filmmakers and of course the observations I’m fortunate enough to make every day.