The Mantle twins may be extraordinary gynecologists, but their world is descending into chaos. Beverly, the “baby,” can’t persuade an opioid billionaire to fund her revolutionary “birthing center” in Manhattan. Elliot has fallen so far into substance abuse that she may be hallucinating murders.
Dead Ringers, streaming now on Amazon, builds a six-episode miniseries filled with clammy dread on the bones of David Cronenberg’s 1988 movie. Created for television by Alice Birch, and starring Rachel Weisz as Beverly and Elliot Mantle, the story explores identity and psychosis with bloody intimacy.
The series is also a marvel of technology. Playing two roles, Weisz can perform without the previous limitations of double-exposures. The twins can walk through and around each other on sets, and even physically fight with each other.
Cinematographer Laura M. Gonçalves shot four of the six Dead Ringers episodes. Her previous work includes Pacified, which won the Debut Cinematography Award at Camerimage, and music videos for performers like Beyoncé. Gonçalves recently shot the HBOMax series Generation. We spoke via Zoom.
Filmmaker: When did you start on Dead Ringers?
Gonçalves: I met with Alice Birch and Sean Durkin on Zoom right after Generation, so probably May 2021. I was really into the scripts they sent me. I had just finished watching Alice’s Normal People, and I loved Sean’s The Nest. They were people I really wanted to work with, and the show was aligned with many things I’m fascinated with.
Jody [Lee Lipes] was already attached; he shot the first two episodes. He had worked with Sean on Martha Marcy May Marlene. I love Jody’s work, which is really important as a DP going into a series that someone else has started.
Filmmaker: How did you work with him?
Gonçalves: We connected right away. He had ideas, I had ideas. We talked about themes and references. We were very clear that the show would have some sort of visual evolution. That’s what excited me about talking with Alice and Sean as well. After the Mantles open their birthing center, the show would need to evolve visually.
Filmmaker: What does that mean?
Gonçalves: When the twins are working at Westcott Memorial Hospital at the beginning of the show, they’re in a traditional medical world that they hope to revolutionize. The Parker Mantle Center is an expression of their beliefs—a spacial representation, a physical manifestation of their dreams.
Alice and Erin Magill, the production designer, and I talked a lot about creating spaces that would allow us to tell that story visually. We needed to pay attention to how the environment would be observational and private at the same time, a kind of bespoke experience they wanted to create for their clients.
A challenge was that the center is a combination of several locations. The exterior was a carousel in Battery Park City with VFX added on, the atrium was a gym, the embryology lab was the old TWA terminal at JFK. We had about six sets that we used for different things. So, it was a collaboration with Erin and Alice and Sean about choosing colors, choosing practicals, putting an oculus in every room.
Filmmaker: My big question is, how did you handle one person playing two roles?
Gonçalves: “Twinning,” creating an illusion in camera, is a great example of movie magic. What I found interesting is how quickly the audience fills in the blanks. When you study twinning films, if the performance is good you don’t need to use the effect a lot. Rachel’s performance is so strong that viewers don’t need to see the Mantles together all the time. I had to stop myself from being greedy with twinning.
Filmmaker: Yes, but how did you do it? It’s more complicated than in the days they would do double exposures on film.
Gonçalves: Motion control. If you have any camera movement, you have to be able to repeat it. That technology helps the other departments as well. It’s crucial with sound and playback and the performance itself. We had a motion control technician with us every day, Dan Canfield. He had a system from Pacific Motion Control.
Basically what we did was shoot the A side based on whichever twin was informing the blocking. Usually it was Elliot, although it would depend on what Rachel wanted to do. So, the first twin would determine the camera movement. We’d do our takes with her, then Rachel would go and change into either Beverly or Elliot while we would select takes. We’d also shoot a plate so we could remove Rachel’s double in post. If we have background action, we have to shoot a plate of that as well. The background had to be very carefully rehearsed. When Rachel is ready we play back those takes and she performs the B side. She’s wearing an earpiece so she can perform against her previous take.
Filmmaker: You make it sound easy.
Gonçalves: It is easy.
Filmmaker: Well, there’s a scene where Beverly is brushing her teeth in front of a bathroom mirror. Elliot opens the door and walks across the room and around Beverly while eating a hamburger. You see her reflection in the mirror behind Beverly’s. The camera’s moving as well. I couldn’t figure out how you did it.
Gonçalves: There are a couple of ways. First I have to mention Kitty Hawthorne, Rachel’s acting double. I think this could have been her first job out of drama school. Rachel, of course, knows the dialogue for both parts, but Kitty knew it front-to-back as well. She would also remember what Rachel did performing the A side. When we shot the B side, Kitty would switch roles and repeat Rachel’s earlier performance from the multiple takes. She had an earpiece so we could give her sound cues.
For that bathroom scene, Eric Pascarelli, our VFX supervisor, had a way of doing it without a green screen. We shot Elliot first. She comes in with the burger and walks around. While she’s moving, Kitty ducks down out of frame, then would pop back up at the proper moment. For the B side Beverly’s just standing there, and Rachel is responding to her performance as Elliot through her earpiece.
Filmmaker: Did you have to redo twinning shots?
Gonçalves: Some scenes we would run out of time. We would shoot the A side and never get the B, then rely on coverage. But no, we usually worked things out.
My favorite shots are when they are in bed, caressing each other’s face. Those took a really long time because they had to line up perfectly and the timing was so key. Cueing her: “Now you touch her face, now you bring your hand down.”
Filmmaker: Were there other techniques besides motion control?
Gonçalves: With the motion control we carried you can pan and tilt and zoom. If you want to do any lateral moves or something like a push-in, then you need a Technodolly, which is a programmable crane.
Eric Pascarelli had worked with Jody on I Know This Much Is True, so he had experience with twinning. He was so great helping us line things up. His VFX work here is beautiful, seamless. In episode four, we had a scene where the Mantle parents visit the birthing center. We used the Technodolly for a big, sweeping shot through the atrium. Eric thought that was a good opportunity for face replacement, because Elliot didn’t speak in the scene. It was good to know that in situations like that we always had an out.
Filmmaker: I don’t want to focus too much on trick shots because it makes your work seem like solving a puzzle. I was really impressed by how you covered the dinner scenes, which were long and intricate, with a lot of characters delivering lines.
Gonçalves: I think every episode except for number three had an eight-page dinner scene. They’re all dense with dialogue. You just have to chip away at them. We would zone shoot them, have two cameras on dollies doing one side of the table and then the other. We would do Rachel’s stuff separately.
We had to follow screen directions—be on one side of the line for this person, that side for another person. In episode five, [director] Karyn Kusama wanted a really slow push in on Michael McKean during his speech, a oner down the length of the table. A lot of work in that one. Both twins are in the shot but you only see Beverly’s face.
Filmmaker: Jennifer Ehle gives a fantastic performance as an amoral philanthropist. Tell me how you worked out the scene where she delivers a cost–benefit analysis of the Mantles’ work.
Gonçalves: That was Karena Evans’s episode. She’s a really visual director. In prep we figured out what dialogue we wanted to shoot from where. Then we planned where to add coverage: the reaction cutaways, the side angles. It’s an ideal situation when you can do that. We came up with that vision when we saw the location together.
Filmmaker: Did you pull anything from the David Cronenberg movie?
Gonçalves: There are a few nods here and there. The way we cover the death scene is almost shot-for-shot from the original. There’s one twinning shot in both—One’s on the bed, one’s standing up—then a single shot, followed by a close-up of blood dripping off the table. Sean and I thought, let’s just do an homage to the original.
The biggest callback is obviously the red scrubs the twins wear. You’d have to be a real geek to get the others. In the original movie there’s a beautiful octagonal lighting fixture, so I had the art department make an octagonal shape in the ceiling of the observation room. There’s a speech in the movie with two candles on a table, and in ours I made sure there were two candles on Genevieve’s table.
Filmmaker: That’s a deep cut.
Gonçalves: I know, right? But it was very intentional.