Being Mary Jane: Reflections on the Series
Above photo: Bonnie Blake, SOC on the set of Being Mary Jane with Anisa Mahdi, stand-in for Gabrielle Union. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Blake
By Bonnie Blake SOC
Mary Jane Paul, a successful TV news anchor on a new talk show is part of a growing American statistic–the single Black female. She may be a self sufficient powerhouse at work, but Being Mary Jane, on the BET network, gives the world a window into her private life and the struggles she has with romantic relationships, friendships and family. Gabrielle Union stars in the title role for the series, which is filmed in Atlanta, and which won the NAACP Image Award for outstanding television movie, i.e., the pilot for the first season which ran as a two-hour show.
Bonnie Blake, SOC has been the A camera operator for three seasons, working with DP, Michael Negrin, ASC. Bonnie shares some of the things that stood out for her from this experience.
Georgia on Our Minds
On Season 1, we used a real location in Atlanta for Mary Jane’s house, a beautiful mid-century modern home, one of those places with floor to ceiling windows all the way around the house. The entire entryway, the dining room, the whole living area—including the bedroom and luxurious bathroom—were glass, and looked out on a beautiful landscaped backyard with a gazebo and pool. We had to shoot day for day and night for night which meant many split calls, and because the windows didn’t gimbal we had many challenging reflection issues.
For Season 2, Gary Frutkoff, our brilliant production designer, meticulously recreated the house on stage—not just individual sets, but the entire house intact. The raised set was surrounded with a translight of the woods and layers of real trees. The characters could walk from room to room, and we had wonderful depth to all the shots with the rest of the house, yard, and pool for backgrounds and reflections. The front yard had a working driveway so the actors could actually drive cars in and out. There was a swimming pool in back and we did a beautiful night scene where Mary Jane swims the entire length of her pool. Also in the backyard, we shot a confrontation scene between Mary Jane and her best friend played by Latarsha Rose which required the grip department to build dolly track over the pool so that we could maintain slow dolly moves throughout the scene.
The Visual Motifs
Mary Jane has such a public life, always on display, and in the spotlight as a very ambitious, competitive newswoman under enormous pressure from her public and herself, to keep succeeding. The visual motifs were about capturing Mary Jane’s life in an observational style. Michael Negrin’s “Camera Style Bible” for the show included the idea that her life was lived in a fishbowl, so he would design shots that see her from the outside looking in at home and at work, in addition to traditional coverage.
One such beautiful scene was shot with two cameras on separate tracks from the backyard looking at the entire house through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The sets, lighting, and shot design allowed us to examine the contrast between her successful public life, and often lonely private life, by watching her decompress after a stressful day at work. The coordination of the lighting design with multiple lighting cues as she drives up in her Porsche, enters her front hallway, takes off her five-inch heels, set down her expensive handbag, then walk through the house turning on lights, lets the audience feel her becoming more of her own private self as she processes what’s been going on during the day. She is revealed through the windows and then disappears as we pan across the exterior walls, then she reappears through another window which was challenging for me and the dolly grip to maintain the framing and timing. The lighting cues for the dolly were flawless thanks to the work of our gaffer, Jay Yowler. Michael Negrin did a great job in designing lighting for both cameras for this ambitious sequence
Other Sets, Other Locations
For Mary Jane’s work life, we used the ninth floor of the Atlanta’s Invesco Building which also had windows surrounding the bullpen and the conference room. Instead of having a translight when on stage, we had the actual views of the Atlanta skyline, Piedmont Park and moving traffic for our backgrounds. Once again, we had to shoot day for day and night for night. Mike Duarte, our key grip and Michael Negrin used plastic NDs to cover the windows in order to help balance the exterior and interior lighting. Just like at home, Mary Jane’s world at work is also a fishbowl because her office walls are all glass. The outer office with all the workers shows the fast-paced TV news environment of work on her show. Hiding the reflections of lights, and two constantly moving cameras, continued to be a challenge.
On that same floor, Gary Frutkoff built sets for our fictional Satellite News Channel studio. We had used the studio facilities of Georgia Public Television for our first season and continued to use that location this year for exteriors. We used three video cameras in the studio, one on a jib arm and two on pedestals. The two Alexas with our A and B camera crews did tracking shots showing behind-the-scenes of this world. And–our pedestal camera operators became actors in those scenes while all five cameras were rolling.
Some of Mary Jane’s guests were “real” authors like Ron Finley, or “real” news anchors playing characters on the show like Good Morning America’s Gayle King. We also used this set for scenes between Mary Jane, her producer, played by Lisa Vidal, and her co-worker and good friend played by Aaron D. Spears. A small control room set was adjacent to the studio where we usually went handheld to capture the frantic pace of the producers directing “live” television.
We used plenty of actual locations such as the Atlanta Botanical Gardens for day and night exteriors, and interiors of a large party scene which depicted the wealthy prestigious community that Mary Jane and her family were members of. The field at Piedmont Park became a driving range for a fundraising golf tournament scene. We also returned to some gorgeous homes and restaurants in Buckhead, Inman Park and downtown Atlanta.
An important aspect of Mary Jane’s life is her relationship with her parents, played by Richard Roundtree and Margaret Avery, her two brothers, and a niece. Her parents’ home consisted of two large sets on stage. The sets were also based on an actual house in Atlanta where we shot exteriors during the first season. Mary Jane’s older brother, played by Richard Brooks, was a recovering drug addict and his cramped basement apartment was also built on stage. That set and lighting design always played up the contrast between his life and that of Mary Jane’s as well as the struggles she had in trying to take care of her siblings and their children. We shot many heartbreaking scenes between Mary Jane and her niece, played by Ravin Goodwin, as Mary Jane tries to help boost the younger woman’s self esteem, and motivate her to get an education and the skills to to support her two small children.
We often used utilized handheld cameras in the brothers’ apartment and for the lively, seemingly improvisational family scenes at Mary Jane’s parent’s. This included a twelve-person dinner scene during the last episode. The style of the show also called for details of each character’s environment so we would build this into our shots. It was fun to do this, often on the fly, thanks to the skills of the focus pullers. I would also offer up suggestions as to how to start off our wide establishing shots like an extreme low-angle wide shot at a school exterior (without the benefit of a low angle prism) where we ended up starting on the blades of grass and tilting up to the school.
Shooting in the Rain
I started my career in New York but have been working primarily in California for the last twenty-three years. In Los Angeles, we usually don’t have lightning and tornado warnings that require the company to stop shooting for safety reasons. But in Atlanta we had to stop shooting several times even when we were on stage. These delays added time to our already long days and added extra pressure to get the work done on schedule. It rained the entire night that we filmed a complicated stunt scene. It was perfect weather for the scene, but challenging for all the crew members. Nate Havens (with his customary élan and sense of humor) did a fantastic job of keeping the camera department organized and on track even when our wet walkie-talkies stopped working. We did driving shots on a process trailer and then had three cameras with my A camera on a Technocrane. We ended the evening with a very challenging Technocrane shot, with no rehearsals, and the sun about to come up as it continued to pour. It was fantastic to finish the season with such a dramatic shot and a tribute to the vision of Salim Akil and Michael Negrin and the collaboration between all of the talented technicians.
Regina King and Rob Hardy were directors for season two along with executive producer Salim Akil who was our primary director and had established the style and tone of the show when he directed all eight episodes during Season 1. He often directed the camera crews in an off-the-cuff, documentary style which I found both challenging and rewarding. He expected us to pull a shot off in one take with last minute changes, and then have variations on the second take and move on. I felt like we really rose to the occasion as technicians–myself, the dolly grip, and the first assistant–quickly pulling off technically difficult shots. Season 3 included directors Neema Barnett, Oz Scott and Mario Van Peeples.
Working collaboratively with each director, Michael Negrin always translated their ideas into very compelling shots. He has a non-stop well of creative energy and enthusiasm to draw from, as well as years of experience. His attention to detail never waivered regardless of how many hours we had been working. I was impressed with his ability to invent new ideas whether we were shooting on our customary sets or on the wide variety of practical locations.
Reasons for Success
Even though Mary Jane Paul struggled to influence her family, friends and co-workers, Gabrielle Union had such talent, self-discipline and professionalism in creating this complex character that she was always an inspiring role model for me. Despite a taxing schedule with many long nights, and uncomfortable conditions, she was always prepared and easy to communicate with. Being the first audience for an incredibly talented cast is one of the main joys of my job and so it was also thrilling to work with all of the incredibly talented actors in the cast including the legendary Richard Roundtree and Margaret Avery.
I’ve worked with Michael a number of times and felt fortunate that he was able to bring me to Atlanta, along with our A camera first assistant Nate Havens. The rest of the camera crew lives in Atlanta; Alex Hooper, A camera/2nd AC, Delvin Careathers, utility, and Oren Malik, digital loader. On B camera we had Steadicam operators, Chris Campbell and Ian Forsyth, 1st AC, Bret Lanius, and 2nd AC, Agnes Rodriguez-Sebek. Season 3 brought some changes in crew: Bret and Agnes became the A camera assistants and Emil Hampton became the B camera 1st AC with Alex Hooper as 2nd AC. Matt Evans was the digital utility. Joe Elrom was our DIT for Season 1 and Jonny Revolt was our DIT for Season 3. The rest of our fantastic crew was a wonderful mix of native Georgians and transplants from LA and across the country. I had worked previously with our 1st Ads, Rick Johnson and Angela Gomes here in Los Angeles and was delighted to find that they were both now working in Atlanta.
It was also meant a lot to me to work with the talented husband and wife team of Salim Akil, executive producer/director, and Mara Brock Akil, executive producer and writer—they gave us such heart wrenching, relevant stories to tell that I felt privileged to be part of their production crew for BET’s first one-hour dramatic series.
After officially moving up to work as a union camera operator in 2000, her credits include: The Agency, Ed. Ticker, Century City, Monk, Dirty, Sexy Money, CSI: New York, Hawthorne, Bunheads, Blue, Five, The Goldbergs, Single Ladies, Being Mary Jane, and Walk the Prank. Currently she is operating B camera on an HBO original series Insecure.
She has also been fortunate to shoot many TED Talks in California, Canada, India, Scotland, and England.
Prior to the finale, Being Mary Jane was averaging 2.54 million viewers for the channel in live-plus-three day stats, a lift of 55 percent. Its 18-49 score has also been disproportionately strong. With north of 1.3 million viewers in the key demo, it has had Top 5 status on cable behind such juggernauts as The Walking Dead and American Horror Story: Hotel—and beaten buzzy shows such as Fargo.