How the ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’ Cinematographer Captured a Sense of Moody Noir

TheWrap magazine: Emmy-winning DP Christian Sprenger achieved the series’ tactile feel by referencing classics like “The French Connection” while shooting mostly on location

You may have heard the expression “what I really want to do is direct” in regard to actors, but there’s a considerable history of award-winning cinematographers (Janusz Kaminski, Freddie Francis, Chris Menges) also making that leap. But for three-time Emmy winner Christian Sprenger (“Atlanta”), the journey was far more accidental. When he was tapped to direct an episode of Prime Video’s “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” a series based on the 2005 Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie spy movie now starring Donald Glover and Maya Erskine, he was already serving as cinematographer for four of the eight episodes in Season 1. 

“Donald was originally going to direct Episodes 4 and 8,” said Sprenger, who worked with “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” showrunners Glover and Francesca Sloane and director Hiro Murai on “Atlanta.” “He and Francesca approached me at one point and said, ‘We think Donald might not be able to actually direct both of these episodes. What would you think about you taking Episode 4 from Donald?”

Donald Glover and Maya Erskine in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” (Amazon)

A director was born, via an episode that introduced two vital new characters, fellow spies played by Wagner Moura and Parker Posey, who befriend the titular Smiths. He was immediately faced with a cinematographer’s ultimate challenge: a lengthy meal scene. “As a cinematographer, I would feel nauseous thinking about how to shoot a 20-page dinner scene,” Sprenger said with a laugh. “But as a director, there was something so exciting about giving these actors these parameters, and we built it in such a way that we didn’t have any crew around, and it felt very real.”

Sprenger won all three of his Emmys for his work on “Atlanta,” so it was natural he’d join the Smith crew. “Everything that we have done together is definitely trying to embody his general sense of taste and style, at least from a DP perspective,” Sprenger said, noting that they initially did camera tests on film stock but decided this series was better represented by a layered digital appearance.

“Our post team basically built a bunch of conversion LEDs to try to match what we were shooting digitally to get that same feeling,” Sprenger said. “I think you’re giving the audience a little extra to chew on and murkier waters to swim through.” He noted that the show’s aesthetic hewed closer to a moody noir, especially in comparison to Doug Liman’s 2005 movie.

He and Glover often eschewed opulent soundstages in favor of real NYC locations, not to mention some key globe-trotting in Italy’s Dolomites and Veneto. “We all chose to travel and move our lives and our kids and everything to New York to make it there, so it would be kind of a slap in the face to not [shoot on location].” And he and the team referenced moody auteur styles for the sensual, tactile feel of the series, including William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” and Wim Wenders’ “The American Friend” (one of the least well known and most stylish of the Tom Ripley films). 

Donald Glover in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (Prime Video)
Donald Glover in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (Prime Video)

At times, he said, the “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” shoot felt as if they were stealing scenes on the run on the New York sidewalks — which, he added, “is how you end up having to shoot in New York a lot of times. But that was very much the goal. Even the sets that we did build, we painstakingly made every choice to make them feel like they were real townhomes or believable measurements of basements. I think it was just important to us to ground these characters so they seemed like normal, everyday people.”

So now that Sprenger has experienced the directing chair (hiring his longtime gaffer, Cody Jacobs, to be his DP), has he learned anything different about his longtime cinematographer gig? “I had some really profound takeaways where I was like, ‘Oh, even if we lose the sun, it’ll be fine,” Sprenger said. “And I looked over at my cinematographer, and I was like, ‘Wow, he’s so stressed out over this right now.’” He laughed. “I have to remember next time not to worry so much.”

This story first ran in the Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Gary Oldman photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap
Gary Oldman photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap


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