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Cinematographer P.J. Dillon Dishes On Working On The Falcon And The Winter Soldier - Exclusive

Anyone who's turned on their TV (or logged into a streaming platform) in the past decade or so has no doubt seen a fair amount of P.J. Dillon's incredible work. Before the renowned cinematographer began working on "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," Dillon served as director of photography on hits like "Game of Thrones," "Vikings," and "Penny Dreadful." He even worked with future Marvel Cinematic Universe collaborators Daniel Brühl and Anthony Mackie on "The Alienist: Angel of Darkness" and "Altered Carbon," respectively.

But even after such prestigious TV work, getting behind the lens for the Disney+ series alongside director Kari Skogland was an experience unlike any other. Looper recently spoke with Dillon, and he dished on what it was like to shoot "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," reuniting with Daniel Brühl and Anthony Mackie, and how COVID impacted his ability to work on the Disney+ series. 

Taking flight (and taking names)

We've seen half of the MCU turned to dust before. Yet the scene where the camera pans on Cap's bloodied shield is arguably the most chilling moment in the MCU. How did that scene come about? And how long did it take to film?

I can't actually speak about that one because I didn't shoot it. We broke because of the COVID in March of 2020, and then the production restarted in September, but I wasn't able to make it back because I was back in Europe. And for various reasons, I couldn't make it back. So I didn't actually shoot that scene. But it was something that everyone was aware was going to be a huge moment, but that's as much as I can say about it.

Were you a part of any of the conversations that sort of shaped what that would look like?

Not so much, not so much. I mean, I would have been part of the initial conversations, but when the DP that shot the scene would have scouted that location and worked the logistics and all of that out with Kari. So I can't really speak about it too much.

Anthony Mackie's flying looks flawless in the series. How did you get that final image? And did you hit any snags?

No. I mean, Anthony is a seasoned ... he's used to being up in those wires, so he's great. And for all of those flying sequences, we would have ... certainly for what we call the "hot potato" sequence in episode one, the first aerial sequence, we would have shot a bunch of stuff with real skydivers and then try to incorporate Anthony's work on wires shot against blue screen or green screen, into that stuff. But Anthony is really experienced at that and a great performer. So yeah, it was pretty straightforward, to be honest.

Balancing battles and history

So you've worked on massive projects, like "Game of Thrones," "Vikings," and "The Alienist." What were those experiences like compared to "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," especially in terms of all those big action sequences?

Every show has its own dynamic, so you can't ever really compare to side by side and make direct comparisons because as I said, each have their own dynamic. But what I will say about the Marvel stunt and action teams is they're so experienced, and they do such good work that it's a pleasure to work with them, to be honest, because the standard of execution is so high. And the VFX team, everything, is executed to such a high standard that really, it's a pleasure to work with them.

A lot of those series have major historical components as well, compared to a big modern-day MCU series like "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier." How do you approach cinematic world-building for such diverse time periods and locations, and what was the most difficult aspect of each?

Yeah. Again, each has its own dynamic because a show like "The Alienist," I would have originated that. I would have been in on the ground floor in terms of creating the look and doing the research and all that. Whereas a show like "Game of Thrones," I would've come in later, after the look of the show had been established.

And then for "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," even though it was a new show, there is a whole legacy there, from the movies. So that sort of fell between those two things. Where on the one hand, you're trying to create something new, but there is a whole body [of] work that's gone before it that you have to respect and honor.

So each has its own challenges, and each brings its own satisfaction in different ways. But I found the experience on "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" really rewarding. I really enjoyed the process. It was great to work with Kari. It was great to try to continue the look of the shows that have come before while also trying to create something new.

Getting the gang back together

You worked with Daniel Brühl on "The Alienist" and on "Altered Carbon" with Anthony Mackie. What was it like working with them on those shows, and what was it like to work with them again on "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier"?

Oh, it was great. I mean, they're both wonderful people and consummate professionals. And on a personal level, I got on really well with both of them on the previous shows. So it was great to get the chance to work with them again.

While the plot of "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" certainly tells an important story, so does the cinematography. What does your process look like when it comes to using things like lighting to enhance and work with the story?

As a cinematographer, I'm always very conscious that what I do in terms of choices for lighting and color and lens choice, all of those aspects of what I do need to reflect the emotion of the scene. So it's not just that you turn up and try to light something to make it brighter, to make sure you see the actors. You do all of those things, of course. But what you try to do is try to make the choices you make, reflect the emotion of the scene.

I'm not sure if that quite answers your question, but [it] is certainly my goal or my intention in every scene I shoot to try and make sure that what I do respects what's happening in front of the camera, you know?

Back to the Bayou

The beauty of this series is that each character is so fleshed out, and they have inherently different stories to tell that all weave together seamlessly. How did you go about framing different characters to tell their respective stories?

When you say framed, do you mean in terms of the lens choices we made or just the interest generally?

Just sort of everything, altogether. Yeah.

Well, for example, with Sam, the Louisiana Bayou stuff, we would have tried to take a very naturalistic approach to try to make it seem warm and familiar and not look like a superhero movie, so much. And Kari's great with that. She's a very visual filmmaker, so she's a big influence in trying to create a visual style that reflects the character's reality. So yeah, we would definitely have taken specific visual approaches to the different characters.

And what were some of the things that you focused on with each character? If you can think of a few?

Well, again, with Sam, it was definitely to try and ... with the Louisiana stuff again, to try and make it feel warm and more like a drama than a superhero-type situation, if that makes sense. And then, with the early stuff for Bucky, we tried to make it cold and austere, to try to reflect what was going on in his character at that time, at the beginning of the show. So I mean, they're the two examples that spring to mind immediately.

Framing the shot

Are there any scenes you wish you could have extended or changed in any way?

Not off the top of my head. I think it all sort of sits pretty well. I can't think of anything I'd want to extend particularly.

It's a really beautiful show. I wouldn't be able to think of anything either. We all know that the minute the finale drops, everyone will binge the series again the next day. So what should viewers look for in the second go-around that maybe they missed on the first watch that might enhance their experience?

Wow. I don't know, really. I'm not so sure. I mean, the thing that I really liked about the show overall was just the relationship between Sam and Bucky, you know, and I think that has layers that probably need to be uncovered with repeat viewing. 

Are there any instances you can think of where the way that you shot a scene might surprise viewers?

Well, I suppose the one that has provoked the most reaction is the scene with Bucky in the [therapist's] office, where we took a quite unusual visual approach to that. That would be maybe the one that would stand out for me.

When it rains it pours

What was the most difficult location to film for "The Falcon? and the Winter Soldier"? And were there any scenes that took longer to shoot because of technical or even COVID issues?

So I shot the first section. And when we broke for COVID, I didn't come back to shoot the second block.

Oh, okay, [you didn't come back] at all. Okay.

I wasn't able to at all. But I mean, the bulk of the show, we had shot the bulk of the show by the time I finished in March, whatever. But we did run into some ... So initially, we were meant to shoot in Puerto Rico. And because of the earthquake situation there in early 2020, we actually weren't able to go there. So that would be one of the standard ones. But on any production, you have situations with [the] weather, or there [are] always things that make it difficult, but part of our job as film technicians is to overcome those challenges. You know?

Definitely. Did you have a favorite location or scene?

I'm not sure. I think my favorite scene is the fight sequence at the beginning of episode five. I enjoyed shooting that. I'm happy with how it turned out. It wasn't the most pleasant location to shoot in, and we actually had some difficulties in shooting that in that we had really bad weather. So it rained for a couple of days. And the location we were shooting in, the ceilings, the rain was coming through the ceilings. So it was challenging, but it turned out well. So that'd be the one, really, I think.

And which characters were most interesting for you to hone in on?

I mean, definitely Sam and Bucky, but Zemo as well. I love that character. I like Daniel, just on a personal level. But just that character is so entertaining to me that I enjoyed that. But also Isaiah, that's a wonderful character. So yeah. So, Isaiah, I think, and Zemo are the two, but for different reasons.

Every episode of "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" is available on Disney+.