On the set of Amazon thriller “Homecoming,” Julia Roberts had one goal: Make “mad scientist” Sam Esmail happy. The “Mr. Robot” creator loves working with lots of moving parts, which included long takes that left Roberts watching her step.
“Just in terms of personal safety, I had to be pretty aware when they take the stairs that were there, because now they’re not there anymore,” she said. “But [the crew and I] just got so in sync. We were like a bunch of children trying to make their dad so proud … you get to the end of it and it’s like, ‘Cut.’ And you just see all of us would just like, freeze for a second, and we’re just waiting, waiting, waiting, and Sam goes, ‘Great!’ And then [the dolly grip] would say, ‘That’s not the real ‘great.’ Let’s go back to one.’”
It was an aerobic experience, Roberts said. “Sam kept raising the bar. And when we would accomplish these goals, he would just say, ‘Okay, how can I make a bigger goal that serves this piece and makes sense?’ And it was pretty extraordinary.”
“Homecoming,” based on the Gimlet Media podcast originally starring Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, and David Schwimmer, tells the story of a secretive rehabilitation center where therapist Heidi (Roberts) works with veterans readjusting to civilian life. In 2018 she believes she’s helping people; in flash forwards to 2022, we see that her memory of what happened at the Homecoming facility is scattered.
Eli Horowitz, who created the podcast with Micah Bloomberg, said Esmail’s strong aesthetic aligned with the aural drama. “I just knew that [Esmail] would bring in an inherently visual style to it, that there was no repressing that, which was exciting,” he said. “And then, the way he thought about the bone to the story was very in tune with how we always did.”
Emmy-nominated cinematographer Tod Campbell, who shot every episode of the series for Esmail after collaborating with the director on “Mr. Robot,” noted that while Esmail does have a style, “I wanted to really pull away from what we did on ‘Robot.’”
So, while Esmail’s style is present in “Homecoming,” the team also added homages to the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma. “We just chose the right scenes in the right moments in the story to do a little something that’s a little different,” said Campbell.
Here’s how those who made the series happen break it down.
“Sam and the Square”
In the flash forwards to year 2022, the aspect ratio switches to 1:1 (2018 scenes are shot in widescreen). “There was something claustrophobic and limited about that box aspect ratio that I thought fit what she was going through in that 2022 storyline,” Esmail said.
“‘Sam and the Square,’” Roberts laughed. “That’s what I would call my short essay about making this series. Because at the camera test, Sam says, ‘Oh, Julia. Get over here, you’ve gotta see this. You’ve gotta see this.’ And I go over to the monitor — and I don’t go to the monitor very much. And I come over and there’s nothing on the monitor, so I’m kind of waiting, and he says ‘Isn’t it incredible?’ And I said … ‘Well, it’s a black square.’ I’m waiting for an image to appear. And he’s, ‘Isn’t it unreal? This is what we’re gonna use for… ‘”
Not quite getting it, Roberts said: “‘Okay, you stay over here. I’m gonna go sit behind that desk and do anything you tell me to do.’”
Esmail was “heartbroken and crestfallen” that Roberts didn’t quite understand why he was so excited about the aspect ratio, but then he realized that “she shouldn’t care about that.”
Roberts also got a new perspective on it when she went home that night and told her husband, cinematographer Daniel Moder. “He thought it was super rad … Danny was already understanding [Esmail’s] interpretation, of just that kind of claustrophobic space.”
Campbell said he’d always wanted to play with aspect ratios on a job, but the process wasn’t easy. “I think it’s genius in terms of working with for her character,” he said. “I was pushing for 2:40, because I just think it’s so cinematic, but I think Sam was right in going 16:9. That way, when you pillar box from 16:9 to 1:1, you’re just cutting off the side. If I had been letterbox, and then gone to pillar box, I think it would’ve been too in your face.”
Sometimes, toggling between the two meant losing track. “I think at one point we did shoot something that was in the wrong aspect ratio,” he said. “We started rolling on it and then we all just realized, ‘Oh shit, this is not supposed to be 16:9,’ or vice versa… It was pretty nerve-wracking. It’s Julia Roberts and Sissy Spacek, and these guys have these very long scenes. The last thing you want to do is photograph it incorrectly and have to go back and do something again.”
The 1:1 aspect ratio also led to Campbell’s favorite shot in the series, when DOD investigator Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham) goes down a flight of stairs. That might not sound compelling, but he frames the descent within the square ratio, dropping the camera down the stairwell with a graceful elegance. “Oh my god, it’s ‘Vertigo,’” he said. “I’m so in love with that shot. It’s literally the desktop to my computer.”
Walking Around Homecoming
Campbell said one of the first things the crew developed was Episode 1’s epic one-take shot, in which the camera follows Heidi around the facility while she talks to her boss Colin (Bobby Cannavale) on the phone. However, the set was a massive two-story installation built across two soundstages at the Universal lot, built by production designer Anastasia White. The shot required literally taking the roof off the set and using a giant 70-foot technocrane.
Esmail, Campbell said, “wanted to track with Julia the entire time, while she’s describing what the space is like. We wanted to see that, be a part of that with her. So, that was like the big thing and we discussed that shot ad nauseum.”
The team also hid digital stitches to create the shot, a technique that Esmail and Campbell used in 2017 to make an episode of “Mr. Robot” look like a single take.
“I want to say there were five parts to the one-er,” Campbell said. “We had to meticulously stitch and match the screens of the beginning of one shot and the end of the other, which is really difficult.”
Campbell praised the crew, especially a dolly grip by the name of Mango, for being superheroes. “I went into this making sure we had all the right technicians available to us to do some of the stuff that we wanted to do… Nothing felt undoable, knowing that I had literally this A-List crew behind me who could awesomely figure out how to do it,” he said.
[Editor’s note: Spoilers follow for “Homecoming” Episode 8, “Protocol.”]
Episode 8: Heidi Gets Her Memory Back
In a season full of cinematic jaw-droppers, it’s easy to pick what might be the series’ most striking moment: Heidi regaining her memory in Episode 8, “Protocol,” and the 1:1 frame exploding to a wider screen for a “Vertigo”-esque visual treat.
Esmail said that as they approached the scene, “it’s kind of impossible. Obviously, I have the best of the best, I have Julia Roberts, right? I’m supposed to tell Julia Roberts, okay, now, look into the camera and all your memories are flooding back, Go! I mean what the hell does that mean? What does that look like? What does that feel like?”
The cinematic solution, Campbell said, was what’s commonly referred to as a “comp zoom or a dolly — you’re zooming and you’re dollying either in-or-out, zooming in-or-out or dollying in-or-out… I gotta give it to the camera assistants to be able to keep the focus, and the dolly has to be perfectly in tune with the zoom. This guy Serge, my ‘A’ camera focus puller, they figured it out. It was a lot of R&D on it — the man figured it out so it would just be perfect so we wouldn’t have to do any visual effects to it.”
The process included working with White on the shot’s background, which she painted “so it had those lines, so you could really feel the effect of her world expanding now. Where she’s grasping the full memory of it all.”
Over the course of nine takes, Campbell added his own personal touch: lights that pan through the background as the frame expands. It wasn’t a popular choice on set. “Everybody was like, ‘What’s those weird lights going on in the background?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, man, it’s memory coming back.’ I don’t know what you want me to say. I just think it’s cool,” he said. “Effects hated it at first, AV hated it. Everybody hated it,” he said. “I looked over at Sam, I was like, ‘We can do one without it.’ He was like, ‘Nah. I think we have it.’”
While filming, Esmail didn’t tell Roberts exactly what would happen on screen. “I think he would think that I would consider that in my performance,” she said. “So I have to act my little heart out and then discover later that, oh, I could have left all the work to Sam.”
Esmail doesn’t see it that way. “She’s also so good at those moments of realization,” Esmail said. “The attention to detail she gives to every performance — he keeps a scene alive, just in between lines, every line but every turn. She’s always doing something and she’s always telling a story.
“We’re trying as filmmakers to reflect what’s going on with her,” he said. “And she should just be thinking about how she’s going to reflect what Heidi’s going through in that moment. And that’s like, a big moment, and how do you even tell an actor to do that? ‘Okay, in this moment, all of your memories are just going flood back all at once.’ And action. Yeah. But then, that’s why you get Julia Roberts.”
“Homecoming” Season 1 is streaming now on Amazon. Additional reporting by Chris O’Falt.