Hold That Thought
Cinematographer Darren Lew brings a philosophical bent to Netflix’s Maniac.
Michele K. Short/Netflix
Majoring in philosophy at New York University might not seem the most direct path to a career that involves cameras and lighting, but it worked for cinematographer Darren Lew.
"You have to be a critical thinker, whether you're reading a script or a treatment for a commercial," says Lew, who shot all 10 episodes of the Netflix limited series Maniac, a surreal comedy-drama about clinical trials of dream-inducing pharmaceuticals. Adapted from a Norwegian series of the same name, it stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill.
"In philosophy, you have to read critically and with a lot of thought," Lew says. "I had four years of 'reading gym,' very dense and interpretive. That reading workout has allowed me to read a scene and think about it in that way to determine what I want to do with it visually."
The storytelling in Maniac is itself pretty dense, hopscotching from the trial lab to the lead characters' pasts and then to various dream scenarios, among them a 1940s séance in a mansion, a caper involving a stolen lemur and an encounter with an elf princess at a mountain lake.
Lew drew on color theory in art and psychology, and he figured out many of his shots in rehearsal. He chose to use the same camera equipment and movement styles, regardless of the setting.
"It seemed too much, too distracting, to use different lenses for different environments," he says. "We let the acting, costumes and production design go crazy."
A Los Angeles native, Lew moved east to attend NYU; he later apprenticed with fashion photographer Steven Meisel and portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz, whom he met by approaching her when both were in a a furniture store.
He went on to shoot commercials and shorts, music videos for the likes of Beyoncé and David Bowie, Alex Gibney's segment of the Freakonomics movie, the first episode of Netflix's Bloodline and the supernatural feature Jamie Marks Is Dead.
For Maniac, Lew reteamed with director Cary Joji Fukunaga, with whom he'd worked on HBO's True Detective. Since Maniac, he's completed all eight episodes of the Netflix comedy Living with Yourself.
"My objective is to make projects that stand apart, that people will think about for a long time — like The Sopranos and True Detective," Lew says. "They stand the test of time."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2019