Interview with Alumnus Chris Teague '06, Emmy-Awarded Director of Photography of 'Russian Doll'
BY Felix van Kann, October 10, 2019
With a total of 13 nominations, Russian Doll was a serious contender at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards. Among its three wins, Alumnus Chris Teague ’06 was awarded the Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series (Half-Hour).
Teague is an alumnus of the film program’s directing/screenwriting concentration and has become an award-winning Director of Photography (DP) in the decade since his graduation. With his roots in the New York indie feature film world, Teague has shifted his focus toward TV and Russian Doll is the third show he’s worked on. He DP’d the entire first season and was heavily involved in the creation of the show’s look. We talked with Teague about his career, future goals and lasting connections to Columbia.
What does this Emmy win mean to you?
CT: There are so many exceptional DPs working today that deserve recognition. I'm honored by the award and feel very lucky to have received it, and I hope it means I'll have opportunities to work on exciting new things.
You’ve DP’d the whole first season of Russian Doll. How heavily were you involved in defining the look for the show?
CT: I was very involved in defining the look, but I was fortunate to have Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler, who were truly leaders with a strong and specific perspective and vision which provided me with a great deal of inspiration. I also had exceptional partners in the production designer Michael Bricker and Costume Designer Jenn Rogien, who supported my work and who completely elevated the creative discourse.
How was your overall experience working on Russian Doll?
CT: I felt like we were in a dead sprint from moment one of prep on this show. There were so many decisions to make and so little time. When you're working on a new TV series you're often in an environment where many new people are working together for the first time, so it can often be challenging to quickly get on the same page. But somehow we were able to do that on this show. The material also required us to push boundaries visually, which was a lot of fun for all of us. I also think we were small enough of a production that we didn't have too many people watching over our shoulders.
Everybody is talking about the final sequence in 'Ariadne'. How hard was it to achieve this, and what makes the episode stand out in your opinion?
CT: Film production is always about chasing a moving target to some extent - locking down an actor, a location, a schedule and still being able to accomplish what you want creatively. In television this is even more true, and we didn't really know how we were going to bring the two Alan/Nadia pairs back together until we found the tunnel location in Harlem. It was exciting to find a space that fit exactly what we needed and actually opened up some new ideas about how to shoot that final scene. This episode stands out to me because I think it takes the season to a new level for the audience, which is often challenging to do for a series.
What triggered your interest in film? Has filmmaking always been your dream?
CT: After spending a few years studying English and Photography in undergrad, I realized that filmmaking might be a good combination of the two. I was also making short films with my friends at the time and enjoyed all aspects of the process, but it wasn't until I got closer to finishing undergrad that I considered film school as an option.
How did you come to Columbia and how would you describe your time here?
CT: I was drawn to the Columbia ethos of having story at the center of everything. I'm a technically minded person, and I wanted to go to a school where I wouldn't be tempted to bury myself in the technical aspects of filmmaking. My time at Columbia was a highlight of my life. I was truly immersed in all aspects of filmmaking, watching, discussing, and making movies in all my waking hours, and surrounded by exceptionally talented classmates who made me want to push myself as far as I could go.
You were a Directing/Screenwriting student. How did you get started as a DP?
CT: While I was at school I started shooting a lot of student exercises and shorts for fellow students. I had worked in film production a bit before school, so I had some basic technical skills. By virtue of being willing and somewhat capable, I became one of the go-to DPs in our year at school. That led me into shooting indie features along with corporate videos and whatever came along that would pay the rent. For a while I was also pursuing a directing career, but it was challenging to try to keep both careers moving forward. After a few years, my DP career picked up and I decided to focus most of my energy on that. However, now that I have more of an established career as a DP I am looking into writing and directing opportunities.
How did you transition into the professional industry? How did the Columbia network/faculty accompany you on this journey?
CT: It sort of depends on what you define as professional. I was working to make ends meet while I was still in school by shooting all kinds of short term industrial/commercial projects. It really wasn't until a few years ago when I got into shooting television that I've been able to shoot narrative work that I could survive on. My network through Columbia was invaluable through all of this. I was able to develop creatively and build a body of work by shooting Columbia shorts. The first feature I shot was directed by Tze Chun, a Columbia undergrad alum. I shot features with Columbia grad alum directors John Magary, Russell Harbaugh and Javier Andrade. I've been fortunate to work with professor Tom Kalin on a few short projects.
What does the future hold for you? What kind of projects are you looking to realize?
CT: I've been fortunate to have been able to shoot some great television projects in the past few years, but I'm also hoping to do more feature work as well. I'm interested in exploring different genres and styles. I'm open to almost anything as long as I can connect to the story.
What would you say is a Cinematographers biggest challenge both in pre-production and on set?
CT: I think the cinematographer is a conduit between the imagined and the real, so I feel that the greatest challenge for the cinematographer is to know and understand the script as well as possible, so that he or she may be able to bring it into the real world in a way that supports and hopefully heightens the dramatic intention of the written material and the director's vision.
And lastly: Where did you put your Emmy?
CT: I'm currently working in Toronto and it is unfortunately in a box in a closet, awaiting the moment that I actually have somewhere to put it.