In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, America Divided, the EPIX Original limited docu-series executive produced by Common, Norman Lear and Shonda Rhimes, features narratives around inequality in education, housing, healthcare, labor, criminal justice and the political system — all woven into an eight-story, five-part series. The show follows high-profile correspondents as they explore aspects of inequality related to their own biographies. Correspondents include Common, Rosario Dawson, America Ferrera, Zach Galifianakis, Norman Lear, Amy Poehler, Peter Sarsgaard and Jesse Williams.
Cinematographer and co-creator of the series Lucian Read journeyed across the country from New York City and Chicago to Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to speak with people who come from all corners, filming with the Canon EOS C300 Mark II and Canon Cinema Prime 30-300mm Lenses. Read shared his behind-the-scenes story about filming the series and how he and his production team were led by their mission to tell an incredible story in a way that no one has ever seen before.
PH: How did you get involved with the series America Divided?
Lucian Read: I am actually one of the co-creators of the series. I had two partners at the time and we’d worked on Here’s Living Dangerously on Showtime. We decided we wanted to develop our own project. Here’s Living Dangerously was a climate change series and we were thinking of another big issue we could tackle and what direction we wanted to go. We went into the long development process and after two years we were able to fund the series. It’s definitely a celebrity correspondent driven series. Initially, we wanted it to be about economic inequality, but the series ended up being much broader than that covering other topics such as gender inequality, environmental justice and more.
Over two seasons we were fortunate enough to get celebrity correspondents, some including Norman Leer, Nick Offerman, Amy Poehler and Zach Galifianakis. We tailored the stories in a biographical sense and cast based on guiding principles. The casting was key because we wanted to find the best people that had a personal connection to the topic and location to tell the story.
PH: What type of pre-production prep goes into a documentary series?
Lucian Read: The nuts and bolts were that we would pitch the stories to the network and they would help shape them. We wanted everything to stem from the stories and then go from there. It’s good to have structure, but sometimes it’s good to choose stories — and stories that really touch on different issues. We chose stories in July 2017 to go live in May 2018. Last summer, we pitched a story on sexual harassment that had a strong gender component. They wanted to do it in Washington, D.C. What was a compelling investigative story became a headline-stealing story. You never know the timeliness of some of the stories you end up telling.
PH: How difficult was it traveling all across the country to film?
Lucian Read: Travel isn’t difficult in terms of production staff and crew. We had a pretty easy time picking up people in the places where we were working. So we didn’t have difficulty with that. The difficulty came into play when it came to scheduling the correspondents. You end up talking with managers for extra time. And since we were doing a lot of storytelling, that has the potential to get difficult and multi-layered. Then you have to factor in the talent actually being able to be available for that entire process. I’d compare scheduling to dealing with a Rubix cube at certain times (laughs).
Over the course of a series, two-thirds of the correspondents ended up giving us more time, which we really appreciated and it was super exciting. We really stayed true to choosing stories and casting people who have a natural personal connection to that story. I think that was the key to getting people to come back and give more time. They also were able to get comfortable with the process and the crew. Oftentimes, people came back. We also had a lot of flexibility because I had Rick Rowley by my side, who could executive produce and also act as a DP. I didn’t have to worry about having to do all of it by myself. If we needed something shot for a day, we can get it done.
PH: What challenges did you run into?
Lucian Read: As mentioned before, I think scheduling was the toughest challenge for us. But since the stories were controversial and confrontational, we did have people who didn’t want to participate. Some we obviously would’ve really like to have participated.
We also shot the series in the winter, which is always asking for trouble since we were all over the country. We experienced everything from canceled flights to waking up and there’s a foot of snow on the ground. We shot in Houston for one of the stories and you’d think it would be comfortable throughout the year. We were in for a surprise when we were hit with a 14-degree day. Nobody was prepared for that.
Lucian Read: I started out as a photojournalist and from the beginning, I only shot Canon. When I moved into film and motion, it was a natural move for me to make. The two big high production value series we’ve shot were both sponsored by Canon. I’m very fortunate to have those tools at my disposal.
From a technical standpoint, the form factor is important for me. I shoot raw camera. I don’t use rigs. I use just the body and the lens. I can be very hard on cameras so the resilience (weather temperature, moisture etc.) is super important. You’re in and out of spaces, so you don’t want a big camera either. That’s very important and was also super helpful to me.
The image is beautiful and it’s super easy to work with in post. Definitely no complaints on that side. The build and performance of the camera are great as well. I’ve established a 20-year relationship with Canon and these are just a few examples of why it’s always my go-to.
PH: Did you shoot with any special techniques? What were they?
Lucian Read: On both seasons we have a very particular shooting style. I go for very naturalistic. It’s important to choose locations that are out in the world, lots of restaurants, community life. I also shoot handheld, realistic style. I like shooting out in nature because it’s what I’ve been doing for a long time. I also think shooting more real than real visual language for interviews is crucial for storytelling. We also do a lot of drone work getting you in and out of scenes at times. I tend to prefer a more helicopter style.
What I really try to do is to integrate the current tools — aerials, yes! Gimbal, yes. It matches with the C300. I want to use the equipment with intention. You can do four shots in a half an hour. Big tripods, long lenses. Classic.
PH: Anything else you'd like to add?
Lucian Read: Clearly, it takes a team of very talented people to do all of these things: very talented producers, editors, DP and others part of the project. I’m super grateful to have a bunch of people by my side to create such an incredible series.
Photo credits: Divided Films