Jonathan Furmanski is the cinematographer who lensed every single episode of HBO Max’s cult crime comedy series Search Party, which returned for its fourth season this month.
What made you want to get into filmmaking?
Jonathan Furmanski: I’ve wanted to go into film since I was very young, though I can’t say I knew anything about the film industry except that there were producers, directors and actors. It all just came out of a love of going to the cinema and watching VCR’s and TV… I just devoured as many movies as I could find. Then I ended up going to film school, which is where I fell into cinematography. It was somewhat accidental but in hindsight it makes perfect sense. I was just completely enamored with cameras and camera technology, film stocks and lenses, and learning about all of the different tools and creative ways to put things together. It really happened when in film school we were split into groups and in mine no one really wanted to do any of the camera stuff so I just ended up doing it really on my own. It just snowballed from there.
Were you always interested in behind the camera work or did you start out thinking you would go into acting or directing?
I think that most people go to film school – or at least when I was there – to be a writer/director. But in my personal experience that was really just out of ignorance of not knowing what the other jobs were. Like a lot of people at the time, I went into film school with the idea of being like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee but it became really obvious really quickly that my talents were not in writing and/or directing. And so it felt like it really just worked out for me with the camera stuff, we sort of just found each other.
What are some of the films that sparked your passion for filmmaking?
Jonathan Furmanski: The seeds of it all definitely started with things like Star Wars – the thrill and excitement of that experience as a kid. But then when I started to see movies like 2001, although still a kid I could understand that there was something poetic about the visual language being used by filmmakers like Kubrick. I started to take the idea of being a filmmaker more seriously then, just by knowing that there were more serious things going on in film. My parents were very good at taking my sister and I to art movies like Fitzcarraldo and 2001 when we were very young.
Can you explain your role as a cinematographer from pre to post filming?
That’s a tough question to answer for me, strangely enough. The simple answer is that the cinematographer is responsible for what everything looks like and what the visual language is of a movie, TV show, music video or commercial. It’s creating a visual experience that reinforces the story, whether that’s drama or comedy or whatever. But more specifically you’re involved from the beginning in terms of creating the visual atmosphere and mood and your working in conjunction with the director and producer and department heads, then taking that all the way through to the finishing of the movie, not just the filming, but working with the colorist and visual effects artist and making sure all of that work creates one big cohesive and visual expression for the audience.
How would you describe your cinematic style? Would you say you have a distinct style or that you adapt according to the project?
Jonathan Furmanski: I like to think that I can adapt to whatever the requirement of the project is. That said, I know that there are certain things that are just not in my nature to do. I think of myself as a naturalist. And when I approach something – whether that’s something that’s supposed to have a little bit of a horror feeling or comedy or drama – I kind of always start from a naturalistic approach and then hone that and modify it to fit the specific genre. Conrad Hall always feels very real and grounded even when it gets to the fantastical elements like the dream sequences in American Beauty, he keeps it feeling like you’re still actually in the world, so I try and do something that approximates that more than going into the more expressionistic looks.
What was the inspiration behind your work on Search Party?
When we did that pilot we were still figuring out what the show was, not just in terms of the photography but the story of the entire season, which had not been mapped out yet. We just knew someone was missing and this goofy collection of friends was going to try and figure it out. But what we talked about a lot was the idea of keeping things “off kilter”. We knew there were going to be these mysterious elements to it so we wanted to have this sort of voyeuristic feel. In Dory’s mind, where she feels a little bit rudderless, we thought about how she could also feel a little “watched”, so we referenced a lot of Kubrick and David Fincher, to try and keep it just a little bit off-balance. At the same time Search Party is equal parts drama and comedy, and so we didn’t want to do anything that undermined the comedy aspects to it, so it was about trying to keep that all cohesive. Later we noticed that each season had a different feel, like season 1 was a little bit like Scooby Doo as they go off to try and solve the mystery within their little friend group, but then season 2 took a little more of a Hitchcock skew, courtroom drama for season 3, and season 4 I don’t want to give too much away but it gets into some realty crazy territory.
Is there a certain methodology you have specific to comedy? How did you maintain the comedic aspect in Search Party whilst allowing it to also be a crime/thriller?
One of the things that we also talked about was trying to find a way of not relying on typical comedy conventions. Historically comedy was about shooting it wide, keeping it bright, and don’t move the camera too much, just let the comedy speak for itself. We didn’t want to sacrifice this greater visual language for the sake of the comedy, but at the same time we didn’t want the visual style to undermine it. So for example when we have the four main characters at the table we would be making sure we have a frame where we can see what everyone is doing. Because actors like John Reynolds and John Early do every take a little differently and you never know what your going to get out of them. So it was basically about giving them the room and being a little bit looser with what we were already doing so that they could basically do what they wanted. And then in the moment where we got out of that and Dory was maybe sneaking down the hallway, then we could dive a little bit more deeply into creating something more dramatic without it feeling like we were taking a big turn in one way or the other and having it feel schizophrenic. Unless we wanted that… sometimes we did!
What is your future dream project?
Jonathan Furmanski: For a long time I’ve really wanted to do a classic slasher/horror movie … like Halloween and Friday the 13th. I love those movies and I think they look like a lot of fun to make and I would just love to be apart of one. I think it would be pushing me out of my comfort zone a bit, but also just a really fun experience.
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