Cinematographer Oliver Curtis on Bringing Intimacy and Opulence to “The Buccaneers”
With director Susanna White’s The Buccaneers, an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s unfinished final novel set in the 1870s, Apple TV+ adds a period drama with a modern spin to its lineup. If any 19th-century chronicler of the era’s mannerisms can withstand a contemporary update, it’s Wharton, whose insight into upper-class idiosyncrasies on both sides of the pond ring true, even set to a modern soundtrack and present-day dialogue as is the case here.
The Buccaneers turns on the fallout of intercontinental marriages of convenience between five wealthy American heiresses and Englishmen long on family trees but short on cash, beginning at the nuptials of Conchita (Alisha Boe) and Richard (Josh Dylan), a love match overshadowed by an intractable culture clash. Despite the pair’s difficulties, Conchita’s four best friends take inspiration from her good-on-paper marriage and follow her from New York to England, where they vie to pair off with aristocratic, eligible young men.
The heart of the story isn’t in the girls’ subsequent marriages but in their determination to retain their American joie d’esprit, rendering them glaringly incompatible with their grim British hosts. For cinematographer Oliver Curtis (Stay Close, Vanity Fair, for which he was nominated for a BAFTA), who worked on the first two episodes, the contrast was a natural setup. “The theme of the clash of cultures from these vivacious, energized, young American women coming over to musty old England to meet their potential suitors has got a natural kind of transformative quality. You’ve got the color, light, and energy of their New York life, and then the dour, desaturated world of old England,” he said of the humor and heartbreak of the meeting of these two worlds, which informed the series’ lighting, camera movements, and framing. “It’s all about forward movement in people’s lives. It’s a playful show, full of light and color. The cinematography had to reflect that.”
Conchita and Richard get set up at a lavish country estate and have a baby, but their family life is anything but blissful. Jinny St. George (Imogen Waterhouse) pairs off more quickly than her sister and their friends, but to Richard’s even less fun older brother. Nan St. George (Kristine Froseth), the show’s heroine, has the most appealing marriage prospects, but she’s too preoccupied with a shameful personal secret to fully enjoy them. As the Brits and Americans get tangled up in each other’s lives, Curtis’s camera work shifts. “Once we’re here in the UK, the worlds enmesh and disrupt and then infiltrate each other, so there are moments of stillness and quiet,” he said, best exemplified over a terrifically awkward, stilted English welcome dinner of soup. “But once the girls are running riot at the country house, you really get a sense of their energy and lack of respect for the mores of the time and the innate conservatism of the characters they’re living with.”
Curtis’s cinematography balances the grandeur of the girls’ lifestyle with a more personal sense of what’s really happening in their lives. “There’s always an expectation that in a period drama, certainly for television, that you’ve got to present the opulence of interiors — these big wide ballrooms, corridors, candlelit rooms, and so on. But what I think is important in this show is character, its close-up, its portraiture,” the cinematographer explained. Using a large-format camera, the Alexa LF, and Arri’s vintage DNA lenses, Curtis was able “to meld those two things — the sense of intimacy and expression within a big close-up, without losing the sense of the environment in which the characters found themselves.”
Par for the course for Wharton’s realistically complicated relationships, nothing that works out for this wild American crew could be chalked up as a straightforward love story. Instead, The Buccaneers is marked by a constant sense that something is always befalling somebody. For Curtis, it was important to keep a sense of energy in the camera, and he and his team typically ran two to ensure they captured the performative nuances inherent to an ensemble cast drama and to foster a sense of fluidity around the actors’ performances. Ultimately, he said, “it’s all about forward movement in people’s lives. They’re emotionally changing all the time. I hope that comes across in the show.”
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Featured image: Episode 1. Kristine Frøseth, Alisha Boe, Josie Totah, Aubri Ibrag and Imogen Waterhouse in “The Buccaneers,” premiering 8 November 2023 on Apple TV+.