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Vanessa McMahon

Vanessa is a novel writer, screenwriter, rep and a film producer. She shares her discoveries and film surprises. :-)



Interview with Director of Photography Jayson Crothers for series "Cruel Summer" (2021-)

Interview with Director of Photography Jayson Crothers for series "Cruel Summer" (2021-)

Interview with Director of Photography Jayson Crothers for series "Cruel Summer" (2021-)

Director of photography Jayson Crothers, known for his work on multiple films and series titles including Force of Nature (2020), Duke (2019), The Ghost and the Whale (2017), Cold Water (2013), Chicago Fire (2013-2018) and many more, is the lead DP for the series Cruel Summer (2021-), recently released in the U.S. on April 20.

Set in a small town in Texas, the story takes place over three successive ‘90s summers. As the beautiful and popular Kate Wallis (Olivia Holt) goes missing, awkward outlier Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) transforms into the queen bee and eventually, the most despised person in America.

Produced by Jessica Biel, the series recently screened as an official selection of SXSW. Additional cast includes: Sarah Drew, Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut, and Michael Landes; and the series directors; Bill Purple, Dan Willis, Laura Nisbet Peters, Kellie Cyrus, and Alexis Ostrander.

Crothers lensed episodes 2, 4, 5, 8, and 10 in Panavision Alexa Mini cameras and Primo Primes lenses. 


When did you realize you wanted to be a cinematographer and how did you go about realizing your dream?

JAYSON: I’ve always had a love for films, going all the way back to my childhood. I had a teacher in my first semester of college who saw that I was drawn to creating images with lighting and composition, so she encouraged me to enroll in a cinematography course. The first day of that class, holding a light meter for the first time, was a day that set me on my current path - it just clicked and made sense to me and it’s all I’ve done ever since. I attended Columbia College Chicago and later the American Film Institute - during my time in school I shot over fifty short films, trying to get as much experience as I could. Following school, I spent years shooting low budget independent features, always eager to get any opportunity to get on set and behind a camera. Regardless of the story or budget, I just wanted to be shooting as much as I could.


What were some of the films and series you first saw that were your greatest inspiration?

JAYSON: The film that first brought cinematography to my attention was Se7en. Seeing that first the first time and being so moved by its visual language was a big inspiration to pursue cinematography. To this day it’s still a film I revisit. Over the years there have certainly been a number of films that have had enormous creative influences on me, and to this day I’m still very moved and inspired by both a number of films and tv series.  

Can you tell us about the work you have done leading up to Cruel Summer?

JAYSON: I got my start shooting around two dozen independent feature films - these were invaluable experiences because I got to learn how to do a lot with very little, and because of the small budgets I had to learn to be efficient and fast. I had an amazing opportunity to move into television on the Dick Wolf series Chicago Fire, which I spent about five years doing. All the lessons I learned in low budget features proved invaluable, and upon leaving that show I found myself moving back to features for a while before Cruel Summer came along. I really enjoy being able to move back and forth between the worlds of feature filmmaking and television.

Do you prefer filming series or films or both?

JAYSON: I don’t have a particular preference, but both offer very different opportunities. With television there’s an aspect that’s a bit like theatre - in theatre you have the opportunity to continue to experiment and refine something because you are doing the same show over and over; the thing you learn from a performance one night can inform and improve the performance you do the next night. In television, since we’re often revisiting the same sets with the same characters, I have an opportunity to try things, learn from those endeavors, and then apply what I’ve learned a few days later when I’m back on the same set. With films there tends to be a more singular vision in terms of the creative intent - usually a director has a much bigger influence on how a film is shaped, whereas in television there’s a lot more people involved. Both are really great ways to collaborate and I enjoy them both equally for different reasons.

Can you tell us a bit about the series and what audiences can look forward to?

JAYSON: It’s a drama and a thriller that spans three different years from 1993-1995. I don’t want to give anything away because the real joy of the series is the journey of following the characters, thinking you know what’s going on, and then being blindsided by new revelations. It’s such an interesting story because it takes place in a small town, but it’s a national story, so it feels both very intimate and very big at the same time. The characters are very complex and every episode they reveal more and more hidden layers - our cast is one of the best I’ve ever had the privilege of working with and their performances were all amazing. Strong writing and fantastic performances make the show very easy to get invested in.  

Do you have a project you have worked on thus far you are most proud of?

JAYSON: I must say that Cruel Summer is one of my proudest projects thus far - I think the story is really compelling and the performances are amazing. Some other highlights that I’ll always be proud of is a drama called Leaving Barstow; it was one of my earliest features but I’m still very proud of the work we did and the film we made. Coldwater is another film I’m very proud of - it’s a drama about juvenile detention camps so it’s a hard story to watch, but we made a powerful film that people around the world really responded to. More recently I did a romantic comedy called The Thing About Harry; on the surface it’s a fairly straight-forward romantic comedy, but it’s a love story about two men and I’ll always be proud of being a part of that film and how many people it resonated with.

What have been your biggest challenges so far in your career? What have been some of the biggest rewards?

JAYSON: This is a challenging industry in general, so everyone who has a career in the entertainment industry has had to work hard and overcome challenges. It’s very demanding and since we all work freelance, it has periods of being very busy followed by periods where the phone doesn’t seem to ring at all. The hours are long and the commitment it takes when you’re working is intense - you need a family and friends (and spouses) who are patient because you might be wrapped up in something for weeks or months at a time. I also believe, since it’s a creative industry, that we can often be our own worst critics - when you pour a lot to yourself into something that doesn’t turn out the way you’d hoped, it can be easy to get down on yourself. Having said that, I absolutely believe it’s the best job in the world. I’ve had the opportunity to travel and see and do things virtually nobody else will ever be able to do. I get to work with a vast number of really smart and creative people, and I get to learn from each and every one of them. I’m enormously grateful for every day I get to do this because I get to make my living doing something I’d do anyways just for the fun of it.

Do you have a technique in your filming (like an artistic signature) where people can detect it's your work?

JAYSON: I hope not! I’d like to believe I bring a different approach to every project; each story calls for its own unique language and a key part of my job is to determine what that is and then execute that. What was appropriate for the last project I did won’t be the right choice for the next one, so I try to be very diligent in not repeating myself. Having said that, I think it’s inevitable that any creative outlet will show someone’s taste. I’m learning over the years that my tastes change, and I think I can see how those tastes have evolved over the whole body of my work so far, but hopefully the way something like Cruel Summer looks will be radically different than whatever I do next.


How has life since Covid changed your career for better or for worse?

JAYSON: Covid of course put virtually everyone out of work for a long while, so practically speaking it was hard because I’m used to working all of the time. On the upside, it allowed me a lot of time to reconnect with people (even if it was just virtually through zoom or on the phone) and to spend more time with my wife. Working under Covid protocols was certainly a new challenge, but it also brought the cast and crew together in a unique way - everyone was very diligent about keeping themselves and others safe, and we were all able to bond over mutual frustrations of working in masks and goggles every day!

What will you be working on next?

JAYSON: I’m considering a few different projects at the moment - being out of town for over five months meant I was away from friends and family, so I’m taking a little time to reconnect with people because real life is more important than anything else. Whatever I choose to do next I’m sure will have its own challenges that I’m excited to discover and solve.


Interview by Vanessa McMahon

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