Toby Oliver: To Live and Work in LA

May 13, 2020
After building a stellar career in Australia, the cinematographer moved to LA and soon landed the Get Out gig, which led to numerous Blumhouse gigs, and now, Netflix’s Dead to Me: Season 2.

Everynight… Everynight, Looking for Alibrandi, Tom White, Last Train to Freo, Forbidden Lie$, Lockie Leonard, The Combination, Beneath Hill 60, Spirited, Beaconsfield, Wolf Creek 2, Carlotta… these are some of the highlights of Toby Oliver’s career behind the camera before he inevitably headed stateside, where Australian cinematographers have long been in demand.

“I’ve been in LA getting onto seven years ago now. It wasn’t a goal of mine for years,” he tells us on the line from Los Angeles. “The last three years leading up to me actually moving over here with my family, it became in the forefront of my mind. In 2011, I was invited over here through Canon, who I was doing some work with. They invited me up to LA for the launch of a new camera, the C300. And that was just my first longer trip to LA. That’s where the idea started building up in my head.”

The big break must have been landing the Get Out gig. How did that actually happen for you?

That came about because when I first got over here, I got the green card in the lottery, actually. When I came to America, I didn’t actually have work lined up. A job came up through Blumhouse with Greg McLean, who I’d worked with before [Wolf Creek 2]. I did The Darkness with Greg, and that got me in the door. It was a couple of years later that Get Out came along. I was basically put in touch with Jordan Peele through Blumhouse who were producing it for him. It was a fortuitous because I had that connection with Blumhouse. And that’s just part of moving to the United States. But it was a great collaboration because Jordan Peele was a first-time director. He had to lean on me as the DP a bit to make sure he could get the film made the way he wanted. It was quite collaborative.

When you first read Get Out, could you tell that it was something special?

Oh yeah. Straight up, especially as I’d read a few genre scripts and worked on a few horror movies. It really stood out as something very, very special. I was pretty keen to try and get on board with that one. You could tell straight off after reading the first 20 pages.

You continued working with Blumhouse….

I did four movies for them [Happy Death Day, Happy Death Day 2U, Fantasy Island]. And three or four re-shoots. That’s quite a lot of work for one production company. But they’ve been really good to me. They don’t pay top dollar, not by any stretch, certainly not at the beginning. But it’s not about that. It’s about working and doing fun projects. They let directors pretty much direct the movies how they want. For better or worse. Usually pans out reasonably well. And the DP goes along for that ride. They can be a lot of fun even though they’re low budget.

We’re speaking with you today because of your gig on Dead to Me Season 2 for Netflix. The Dirt was a Netflix production that you worked on. Did that help get the Dead to Me gig?

I just hit it off with The Dirt director, Jeff Tremaine, we made a really good team. Again, he was a first time narrative director, even though he’d done lots of Jackass and stuff like that.

I think it’s hard to say whether that helped me get the Dead to Me job. Probably not because they’re such different projects on opposite ends of the spectrum. With the Netflix people it probably helped because they would certainly run their eye over the crew choices. But I don’t think it made much difference to the showrunner and the filmmakers.

Did they hire you to bring something different to the series?

I think that the DP that did the first season [Daniel Moder] wasn’t able to come back. The reason I ended up doing it, was because I was doing a movie called Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, a comedy with Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo. The connection was Gary Sanchez Productions, which is Will Farrell’s company, and they’re involved with Dead To Me. We had a producer who was on both and she basically came up to me when we were shooting on Barb and Star down in Mexico.

I watched some of the first season. I read the first script. It was really high quality, really great writing, terrific. And a different genre from the horror stuff that I’d been doing for quite a few years.

For me it was a good lurch in a different direction. Which is kind of what I’ve been wanting to do for a little while, just kind of spread out. Broaden the base a little bit in terms of the types of projects I was doing.

It doesn’t mean that I’m not going to revisit horrors and certainly thrillers. They were a lot of fun and I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t be working on those kinds of projects in the future. But I just wanted to make sure I didn’t get pigeonholed in one little box.

And is there an evolution to the look of the show?

A little. It’s a different, you’re a different DP. You’re bringing your own sensibilities as myriad decisions are made every day. But the general brief from the showrunner is that it should reflect and respect the first season, and not be deviating too crazily away from that.

I was looking to refine that a bit. And certainly with that, making sure the actresses looked good in the second season. Just a few things, try to get a little bit more camera movement into it. Although ultimately the showrunner has the final say. And in the end, she [Liz Feldman] didn’t really want it to deviate too much from what had gone before. It ended up being a case of just adding, adding on to what had been said in the first season.

Have you completely adjusted to the way of working in the US? [Camera] operating was the biggest one. I hung onto that for a while. I was still operating on Get Out, and we actually had to hire what’s called a shadow operator. You need an operator for every camera. I do miss operating. I haven’t been operating for the last three years. I might try and figure out a way to get back into a little bit more, because I do find it’s great in certain ways because you’re just doing the one job and not DPing at a monitor. You do lose a bit of that sort of mutual, hands-on sort of connection with what’s actually being shot in the moment.

I recently spoke with another Australian DP, Nicola Daley, and she said that working at a [equipment] rental house was really important in terms of her career. What was your journey in terms of entering the industry?

I did go to film school, Swinburne in Melbourne. But then after three years of film school, I actually did the same thing; I went and worked at rental house, Lemac for three and a half years. And that that gave me a whole different kind of grounding than what I’d got out of film school. And I think maybe those two things together, the sort of art-based angle I got out of film school, combined with a very practical industry and technical base that I got from working at a rental house. And then that sent me on my way.

The Australian government recently removed Australian content quotas for free to air TV and Foxtel due to Covid, and there’s currently a consultation period on an options paper about a way forward with quotas and the various tax offsets in place to trigger Australian production. Do you have any thoughts on this?

If they decide, ‘look, we don’t need the quota, the industry is going to be fine’, we won’t be fine, we’ll be gone. Broadcasters are in it profit, it’s cheaper just to simply buy shows from America or Britain. The quotas are expensive for them. They have to produce Australian drama. It’s expensive. If they can still get advertisers and just put on American shows, then they will. It doesn’t mean there won’t be any Australian production, but it means that it will be reduced dramatically.

The cultural argument in Australia is real. If you don’t have some protection for local content, there simply won’t be any. It won’t be seen as profitable to do for certain shows. Maybe there’ll be certain reality shows, but certainly there’d be a lot of stuff that just wouldn’t survive. And I think with movie production, which doesn’t have a quota, but incentives like the 40 percent rebate, even that’s not enough. Looking at it from here, there is not a hell of a lot of production going on. And I think that’s part of the reason why some of us like myself and quite a lot of other practitioners have left to go to LA or London, because we want to work. And in Australia, you’re lucky to be working on a movie once every couple of years.

Dead to Me: Season 2 is currently streaming on Netflix.

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