Ahead of the season finale, we caught up with Penny Dreadful’s resident Irish Director of Photography John Conroy to talk about Penny Dreadful, how it was like to work with Eva Green and what’s in store for him.
Many Penny Dreadful fans are amazed but unaware of how each episode comes to life through the production process. Could you tell us about yourself and the role you play in the show’s production?
Basically I read the script, listened to John Logan’s & The Directors vision. I Interpret that through working with the Art Department, VFX Department, then through Lighting, Framing & Camera moves with my own aesthetic. There are a lot of technical issues that manifest themselves in order to achieve this. The Mirror Maze & Train sequences in the Wild West being good examples. I spend most of my prep problem solving so when we shoot we can hit the ground running so everyone can express themselves without too much compromise.
The Director of Photography job is widely considered as one of the most challenging position on a film or television set. What’s the difference between working as a DoP on film and on a television series? And which to you prefer to shoot with: film or digital?
Challenging yes but hugely rewarding on a show such as Penny. There is no difference between TV & Movies in my mind in reference to standards, however, there may be when it comes to time allowed & the amount of coverage you have to do. Also Film is more of a Director’s Genre whilst TV is more biased towards the Showrunner. I have no preference over Film or Digital. I’d shoot on super 8 if it meant I could light. It’s all about the light. I do find it funny though when I hear about people talk about grain & the lack of it in Digital. When I was working mainly with Film, people were obsessed about getting rid of grain in Film stocks…. go figure.
You have played various roles in numerous productions. You’ve been a clapper loader, focus puller and camera operator before venturing into Cinematography. What attracted you to become a Cinematographer? How does having technical flexibility in the equipment and varied job experience help your creative process and experience as a DoP?
I started as a Clapper Boy & wanted to be the best I could be, then Focus… the same rule applied. On all my positions in Film I never thought about anything else but the job I was in. Something happened on The Bourne Ultimatum & Sweeney Todd where I just sparked a real interest in Lighting & Operating. Once that happened, I switched as I knew it would be all I could focus on. I think film is an art form firmly based on craft. I’m so happy that I put in the Hard Yards when I was younger as I can really express myself with all that latent knowledge in my memory banks.
The film and television industry is a highly competitive field. What has been your most challenging experience working in the industry as a DoP and how did you overcome it?
Every Film or TV Show has its problems. The Smoke for Sky 1 probably caused me the most headaches as we shot in real fire with real toxic black smoke & water all the time too from the hoses. The opening line in the script was “Every Fire you’ve seen on TV is shit compared to this one”. We had to train in Gatwick, wore a BA when we shot in The “Shouts”. The Actors wore face masks which reflected the lights & I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face in the smoke. I think I went on fire 8 times!
Do you prefer being the DoP on a film or television set?
No preference. Just glad & privileged to be asked to shoot someone else’s dream.
You have a very varied filmography! Is there a specific genre that you prefer working on? Which of your projects are you most proud of and would recommend fans to check out?
I’m very proud of all of them. Luther, Fortitude & The Smoke are up there with PD for TV & The Sea, Parked Wild Decembers & Weekender are movies I’m very proud of with what we achieved on tiny budgets.
Your father Jack is a veteran Cinematographer too. Did he serve as an inspiration growing up? In general, who inspires your creative process? Is there anyone in the industry that you admire and are influenced by as an artist?
There aren’t words to describe how important Jack is to my career both past & present. He is a huge talent, generous with his advice. He’s The Best & my one true inspiration.
Now let’s talk Penny Dreadful. You’ve worked on a lot of film and television productions but how did Penny Dreadful come about for you?
Karen Richards. Before PD 1 was aired, there was a screening for Sky Atlantic & a “Fortitude” teaser was shown before it. Karen remembered me from our assistant days. Karen championed me & other Irish DP’s PJ Dillon, Owen McPolin before me. She does so much for Irish talent. More than anyone Irish actually.
Penny Dreadful is mysterious, funny, erotic, and frightening among other things. Have you always been a gothic or Victorian era fan? What sets Penny Dreadful apart from your other projects?
John Logan. He’s the difference. He’s brave & honest, brutally sometimes but I like it. It’s important to be able to take his criticism as well as his praise in the spirit of being all for the integrity of the piece. He’s an Enigma that I feel privileged to have shot for.
As the DoP, you work closely with the episode director. In Penny Dreadful’s case, you have served as Director Damon Thomas’ DoP. Do you find your experience as a DoP is better when a Director has substantial technical knowledge, or do you prefer to have the prime input on the technical details?
That’s not really important to me. It’s their personality that counts. Both Damon & Paco are really good men.
For the fans, one of the joys of watching Penny Dreadful is the sheer feeling of watching a classic work of literature in motion. For you, as someone who is part of the whole production process of bringing forth a quality show, what has been the most rewarding thing about working on the show?
Shooting John Logan’s writing & seeing it come alive with our unparalleled cast. A great support from Production, Karen Richards, Stephen Burt. Harry Boyd & Ray Kenny 1st Ads. Jonathan McKinstry’s & Phillip Murphy’s Design & Art Direction. Gabriella Pescucci’s amazing costumes with our great crew, in all departments, without whom we’d be wandering in the dark.
What has been the hardest and longest episode/scene to film on the show so far?
They all have their challenges & set pieces, so hard to distinguish. Mirror Maze a nightmare though. Nearly impossible to keep the camera from being reflected. We did it in the end. No CGI in that scene.
You’ve worked with Eva Green a lot. How’s it like to work with her? As a colleague, what do you think makes her special and separates her from her peers?
Eva is one of the hardest working, most talented & committed actors I’ve ever seen. Not much more to say other than that. She’s a lovely, generous person too.
What’s your favorite moment and episode from all 3 seasons so far?
Shooting the start of this year’s episode one with Eva. Also Dracula’s lair & the Natural History Museum in Dublin. All of it if the truth be told.
If there’s one frame or shot from the show that you would like Penny Dreadful to be remembered by, which frame or shot would it be?
Eva at her window at the end of episode one this year, reciting Tennyson.
Penny Dreadful fans are very passionate and you are one of the cast and crew members who are active on social media. What can you say about the fans and do you have any message to them?
Keep watching please. We really appreciate every viewer. None are taken for granted.
What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers who wants to work in the film and television industry?
Never give up!
As an integral player in the process of filmmaking, how do you want to be remembered and how do you prefer your body of work to be seen?
As a Good Hardworking Man. Anyway, anybody can.
Apart from Penny Dreadful season 3, what’s in store for you next?
Shooting a new Drama for Sky “Jamestown” & a Movie about Oscar Wilde, “The Happy Prince”.
Without spoiling anything to fans, what can we expect from the show’s season 3 finale?
Thank you for your time, John! We wish you the very best!