Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis—a frequent collaborator of Yorgos Lanthimos, responsible for the bright haze of Dogtooth and the cool blues of The Lobster, among other critically acclaimed fare—had never seen a single episode of Master of None when Aziz Ansari asked him to lens the third season of the Emmy-winning series. But the Greek D.P. read the scripts and took to them, hopping on the phone with Ansari to hear his very particular vision for the new season.
Ansari told Bakatakis he wanted to take the show out of New York City and instead shoot in London. He wanted to film the entire thing on 16mm. And he wanted to frame everything in wide, unsparing master shots, forgoing more obvious comedic inspiration and instead directly channeling filmmakers like Chantal Akerman, the Belgian director behind remarkably still, groundbreaking works like Jeanne Dielman.
“I didn’t believe that in the beginning, to be honest,” Bakatakis said on a recent phone call from Greece, recalling his doubts about Ansari’s new approach. But the cinematographer, who speaks with a thick Greek accent and has a blunt sense of humor, was intrigued by Ansari’s ambition. “He has a point of view, and he wanted to do something different.”
So Bakatakis jumped into the fray, wolfing down the show’s first two seasons and having near-daily phone calls with Ansari to discuss the third season’s look. Later he flew to London to film the show under a series of strict COVID protocols.
In the show’s third season, the narrative shifts away from Dev (Ansari, who faced a sexual-misconduct scandal between seasons) and over to Denise (Lena Waithe) and her partner, Alicia (Naomi Ackie). They live a life of domesticated bliss in a gorgeously designed home in upstate New York. With Bakatakis at the helm, the third season has a sumptuous, naturalistic glow about it, aided by the rich depth of 16mm film. Each episode consists of a series of elegantly composed wide shots, often centering on Denise and Alicia doing mundane tasks like cooking dinner or folding laundry (about as direct a nod to Akerman as one could get).
For Bakatakis, who was used to filming on location on many of Lanthimos’s films, shooting the house, which was actually a carefully designed soundstage, was the biggest challenge. “I was thinking it was going to be boring,” he said drolly, “but it was fun.” He set a series of limitations for himself to make the set look as natural as possible. When production designer Amy Williams was creating the home, Bakatakis asked her to build it closer to the dimensions of a real house rather than a proper soundstage, which would have wider rooms and higher ceilings to make filming easier. He also decided that the only lighting used would be provided by practical lights, like glowing table lamps, and exterior window lighting, amplifying the home’s dark but warm mood.
Once filming was underway, Bakatakis’s next great challenge was seeing through Ansari’s dogged goal of filming almost everything in wide shots. At the start of filming, he didn’t actually believe Ansari, who directed each episode, was going to hold fast to that vision. Ever the cinematographer, Bakatakis constantly asked the show’s creator if he wanted to nab a few close-ups. “He was very clear, like, ‘No. No close-ups,’” Bakatakis said. “There was a little bit of question from producers, but he was very sure about what he wanted to do.
“I didn’t know if it was going to work, but I trusted Aziz,” he continued. Ansari also upped the ante by doing very little rehearsal and very few takes, the cinematographer said, in order to let the actors feel like they were really living in the moment. “And he let them decide how many times they wanted to do it,” Bakatakis added. It was a much more naturalistic, actorly approach for the series, and a major departure from the first two seasons, which hinged on silly back-and-forth punch lines delivered by Dev and his three best friends (played by Waithe, Eric Wareheim, and Kelvin Yu). But the minimalist approach suited the new season, which takes a tender, sometimes saddening look at Denise and Alicia’s unraveling relationship.
Ansari kept the mood light on set by constantly playing music, Bakatakis said. John Coltrane was in heavy rotation, prompting the socially distant crew to stay upbeat. “He creates an amazing atmosphere,” Bakatakis said. Ansari, famous for his culinary obsessions, would also make meals for the crew, whipping up chicken korma and various Italian dishes. When production wrapped, Ansari gifted the cinematographer a small book of recipes that he made during the pandemic.
With the third season of Master of None in the rearview, Bakatakis is eager to work with Ansari again. Prior to filming, Ansari had tried to visit the D.P. in Greece, but couldn’t get past the airport thanks to the country’s strict COVID rules. Now that the rules are looser and the show has wrapped, Ansari is due for a proper visit. “We’re gonna have a little bit of a holiday,” Bakatakis said cheerfully. “We’re friends now.”
More Great Stories From Vanity Fair
— A First Look at Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon
— 15 Summer Movies Worth Returning to Theaters For
— Why Evan Peters Needed a Hug After His Big Mare of Easttown Scene
— Shadow and Bone Creators Break Down Those Big Book Changes
— The Particular Bravery of Elliot Page’s Oprah Interview
— Inside the Collapse of the Golden Globes
— Watch Justin Theroux Break Down His Career
— For the Love of Real Housewives: An Obsession That Never Quits
— From the Archive: The Sky’s the Limit for Leonardo DiCaprio
— Not a subscriber? Join Vanity Fair to receive full access to VF.com and the complete online archive now.