Casting Light On A Conspiracy: Behind-The-Scenes On White House Plumbers

White House Plumbers is a limited series on MAX that focuses on the infamous Watergate scandal from the perspective of the two men that organized the break-in. We had the chance to talk with Cinematographer Steven Meizler and Gaffer Derek Gross about how they captured the style and feel of the show's 1970s setting. The two filmmakers discussed their process, including a few specific techniques that showcased how they used Rosco DMG Lighting fixtures to bring their vision of White House Plumbers to life.

What do you consider first when shooting a period piece and making sure that specific period comes across visually?

SM: For a period piece, the production design, the costume design, and the locations really dictate the authenticity of the period. Luckily, for White House Plumbers, we had a very talented team, including Production Designer Anastasia White, Costume Designer Leah Katznelson, and Location Manager Stephen Grivno. Locations, to me, are especially important and I get a lot of inspiration just spending time at the location. For White House Plumbers, we shot the majority in upstate New York, but we did spend three weeks at the end shooting in DC, and we scouted there a few times during prep. as well. Stephen did a great job finding locations in NY that fit with what we shot in DC. 

DG: To add to that, from a purely lighting side, we spent a lot of time making sure that what we were looking at on the screen really existed back then. There are a lot of new LED fixtures out there in the wild, and we did a lot of work to keep everything period. We brought in a dozen street light bodies to cover over the new LED modules during street scenes, my fixtures lead rebuilt lamps so that older fluorescent units worked on our dimming system, and, to top it all off, the overhang at the Watergate office building has totally switched to 5600K LED units. So, I had a team cutting and taping Rosco Full CTO gels onto each fixture for two days before we started our week of overnights in DC. Trying to keep everything to the proper color palette required a lot of organization.

How do you go about framing and shooting one of the most iconic political scandals in American history? What matters most to you when telling this type of story?

 Justin Theroux & Woody Harrelson in White House Plumbers on MAX.

SM: One thing that was important on this production was to come up with a different perspective of Watergate since the story has been told so many times. White House Plumbers concentrates on the masterminds of the break-in, so it was important to show the relationship between Liddy and Hunt. This led to one of our motifs, which was having a two-shot of Liddy and Hunt as much as we could.

You mentioned in an interview using German Expressionism as an inspiration for the lighting on The Queen’s Gambit, did you have something similar for White House Plumbers?

SM: For White House Plumbers, the inspiration was 70's political thrillers like All the President's Men, The Conversation, and especially visually The Parallax View. All of those Films really leaned into the darkness of the corruption happening at the time, so our lighting was gritty and dark.

The lighting setup for a hallway shot using two DMG MINI lights (L) & the resulting production still (R).

DG: Our DMG heads gave us the ability to have the soft look of modern lighting while getting back the ability to control the shape of the light that you see in older films that use large fresnels. We used custom honeycomb grids for all of the DMG MINI, and SL1 units, and we had 4x4 grids from our key grip, Matt Staples, to help control what often these days is large bounce-style replacements. The color accuracy of the DMG Lights let us keep all the skin tones under control and allowed us to use diffusion materials like muslin to add warmth and softness to it.

You mentioned a few Rosco DMG lights there. What was your DMG Lighting package?

Filmmaker holding DMG MINI.

DG: We had three DMG MINI lights, two DMG SL1 lights, and six DMG MAXI lights in double yolk configuration. We were also lucky enough to borrow/test a first-generation DMG DASH for some effect work. We fell in love with it and kept finding new uses for it during the run of the show.

Yeah, you were one of the first crews to use DMG DASH after it was released. Can you describe how you used it?

HubSpot Video

DG: We first brought it in because we had a lighting effect that we needed to accomplish for Liddy. In the show, there is a moment where he holds his hand over a candle to show how tough he is while he gets burned. We wanted to have some interactivity to start the work that the VFX would be doing in post - flame, smoke, blistering, that sort of thing. I’ll admit that I had originally poo-pooed the DASH as being a prosumer light, and not really what I was looking to use on set. But knowing that it had the same effects built into it as the rest of the DMG line, I called and asked for a demo unit so that we could build a set piece around it. Its “Firelight Effect” was perfect for the moment we were trying to create.

SM: We used it a lot, specifically as an eye light. It is so fast and easy to set up. We also used it for insert car work by just putting it on the dashboard. Having that magnet on the back is really helpful.

Justin Theroux's eyes lit with DMG DASH..

DG: Once we had our hands on that DASH for a few days, we couldn’t let it go and we ended up holding onto the unit for the rest of the show. The fixture's size and battery also let us do things like leave it in an oven or a fridge to mimic a working unit. And, as Steven mentioned, the DASH with its DOT Round Diffuser works amazingly well as an eye light. Since then, we always have plenty of DMG DASH fixtures on hand – especially the new CRMX units – for whatever our shoot needs. 

The full season of White House Plumbers is available to stream now on MAX. If you’d like to see other examples of Cinematographer Steven Miezler’s work, you can visit his website: stevenmeizler.com. To stay up-to-date on what Gaffer Derek Gross has been working on, take a look at his IMDB page.

If you are interested in learning more about the fixtures that Derek and Steven used while shooting White House Plumbers, please explore the DMG Lighting page on the Rosco website.

About Lacey Colter

Marketing Manager - Film/TV/Broadcast: Lacey Colter has been working in the entertainment industry since 2015. She started in production before transitioning to a cinema lens manufacturer and now covers the film and television market for Rosco. She has spent years of her career interviewing a variety of industry professionals.