Director/Cinematographer Jean De Segonzac Talks Law & Order: SVU & More

ATM: Why has law enforcement episodic drama been the main scope of your work?

JS: This is a very good question and a sad one. I was a DP on a homicide on the street. After working 2 on a show, I was asked to direct. I would say 1 out of 4 directors had any chops. I was like I do not need these nit wicks. I started out directing police procedural homicides and worked on OZ. My first television movie was about Dennis Rodman. The second one was about the world freezing over called Ice. The main protagonist was a detective. I do not know why. There is always a sheriff, cop, detective, or some law enforcement on the show. I worked also on Bloodline for Netflix.

This best friend and partner are detectives. I did work on Battle Scar and Goliath. Where there any detectives there? Probably. I was on a show called Boss, which is about the mayor of Chicago with Kelsey Grammer. There was no detective there, thank goodness. You get pegged in this business quick. It is hard to break out of. I did a straight to DVD about a giant cockroach. It was completely silly and up my alley. I love comics and comic book aesthetics are fun. You can do crazy lighting and effects. It seems to always gravitate to cops and fireman.

ATM: Have you ever thought about going to law school?

JS: No, I cannot read anything that sounds boring. Law school sounds boring to me. How about yourself are you about to make some movies?

ATM: How do you feel about the progression of the cast presented on Law & Order SVU?

JS: It is interesting to look at them throughout the 20 years. People grow old, mature, and grow up. It is interesting to see everyone’s life develop. Not just the actors, but also the crew. The crew has stayed the same. A lot of marriages have occurred that are crew related. Mariska met her husband who was a guest star. She did not know the guy and met him as he came as a guest star. One of the producers is married to one of the makeup artists. Life happens during these shows. I worked on the Americans for the first season. I was disappointed that I did not get hired for the next seven seasons. They had young girls on the show and to see them grow up for seven years must have been amazing. It is a great experience when you work over a period on a T.V show.

JS: How does your cinematography push the boundaries?

ATM: Before this, I shot documentaries for 20 years. I shot them on a handheld camera. I traveled the world shooting documentaries. My daughter was born in 1999. My wife told me I could not travel anywhere anymore. I put the word out there that I wanted to shoot narrative. I thought the narrative would be a little more of an artistic challenge. A friend called me to tell me Nick Gomez is making a movie called Walls of Gravity. I sent my reel to Nick and it was all documentary stuff. It was National Geographic, Frontline, Nova, HBO, and some independent stuff. He said I had the job. I was dreaming of dollies and cranes. Nick said we are going to shoot it like your documentaries.

This movie was made for 40 thousand. It was shot handheld. One shot looking one way and a commentary master looking the other. This got me a lot of notice. A lot of bad mimicking came from it. A lot of films after this were handheld and doing 360 and 180 moves. I did a lot of scenes in this that looked in all directions. The crews would have to hide behind the buildings because it would look in every possible direction.

This made an impact. At this point in my life, I am not doing it that much. I am doing television. On a show like Boss, this was the style. A lot of shows want the moving shots and master shots, but they also want coverage. They are not going to be happy with close-ups and coverage. The medium insists that you provide them with what they want. I do what I want but I still have to think about what the executive producer wants to do for their show. I must respect this and give them what they are looking for. It is fun but there are some limitations.

ATM: Express memorable facts about your father as a journalist.

JS: He was brought up in France but learned English. He was fluent in English. Before World War II, he was a sports reporter in England and Scotland for a French paper. After the war, the publisher for the paper sent him back to London as their political correspondent. After 10 years in London, they transferred him in Washington DC for 22 years. He was a correspondent for a paper named France Soir. I was born in England and stayed there for five years. I do not remember any of it. I grew up in Washington, DC. I went to French schools. We always thought we were going to go back to England, but we never did. He did go back in 1978 when he was forced to retire. I did my college at Rhode Island College of Design.

ATM: What were life elements that your father taught you and key things you observed from him?

JS: He taught me everything to a point. He liked the rub shoulders with the high and mighty. He was a big shot in Washington, DC. He was friends with President Kennedy. My mother went to dinner a lot at the White House. He knew all the people in Washington, DC. They were constantly going out. I hardly ever saw my parents. They went out to dinner parties and cocktail parties nonstop. He was into his own world and not interested in kids or anything to do with the house. The guy never washed a dish in his life or made a pot of coffee. I had a kind of allergy to all his highfalutin friends.

The guy could talk to anyone and make things happen. This was always a good thing. For my chemistry, I tend to be shy of the image I have been dealing with my whole life. He was the opposite. He was very gregarious and outgoing. He could not stand silence and always talked. I prefer silence. He was the man of the world. He was a man of curiosity.

ATM: Why do you think SVU as a show that deals with high sex crimes has become comfort food?

JS: Woah. My daughter was eight when first working the show. All her friends when she got older would watch it. This is all they did even though I thought it was inappropriate. The kids were obsessed with it because they are obsessed with it. They are curious about how people behave.  This was why I got interested in movies. This is why I went to movies as a kid and as a teenager.

I never did anything with my father. He was away or off with his adult’s friends. I was extremely curious about what life was about and how people behaved. Also, how men or women were. I went to the movies constantly to the point of obsession. My mother’s idea of punishment was to allow me not to go to the movies. So, the movies were a way of learning about life. It is the same for kids today when they watch the show Special Victims. One of Natalia’s friends were flipping out because they watched Angels in America. They thought the movie was amazing and that it explained everything about AIDS and gays.

ATM: How did your early style of cinema verité help you work on?

JS: I have a good ear. I could not understand the language even though I filmed in many countries. I could anticipate when something was about to happen or when someone would say something interesting. I spend three months shooting in a Bellevue emergency room. I spent a lot of time with cops, SWAT teams shooting these documentaries. People say “I know how it is. No No this is how it happens.” I have experienced all this stuff doing documentaries. I did these documentaries. during the 70s, the 80s, and 90s. Things have changed, but the way people behave does not. I have observed a lot of people’s behavior. I have been caught staring at people a lot. It is a terrible habit. I have been reprimanded for it, but I cannot help it, I have an interest in people.

ATM: How do you control the camera to deliver your work on FBI and Blindspot?

JS: I have done this for many years. I have created a drama where there is not. Sometimes there is not any, and people are just talking. It is a writer’s medium, but also, they forget it is a visual medium. There is a built-in urgency because you have to keep going. I am always looking for the pace, keeping the camera moving, and keeping it interesting. My job is to tell the stories. It keeps the ball rolling. Not were the beats.

ATM: What are the prime characteristics that a cinematographer or director needs to acquire?

JS: That is a tall question. The way I see it is patience, at least as a director. Basically, the good doctor. You must be able to listen when people are asking questions, especially the actors. You must listen to their concerns. They often ask questions and you are not sure what is behind it. It is best to ask another question. “What is going on?” “What do you think?” “What is it that you are looking for?” An actor might come over and say, “Hey, what do you think of this hat?” It is best not to answer what you think about the hat because you do not care about the hat anyway. You need to ask the question. Why? What do you think about the hat? I say, “It is fine you do not have to wear it.”

I had one guy who insisted on wearing the hat even though he was playing a police captain that was indoors. I had to get the consultant to tell him to not wear the hat. I told him later there was a scene outdoors where he could wear the hat. These are the silly bits that go on it. When I say you are the good doctor is no one flipping out at you. There are many directors that yell and scream.

ATM: What are the similarities between the cinematographer and a director even though these are opposites?

JS: Traditionally, the cinematographer is dealing with the light. Most of the time this is the case when you are the director. I feel like the camera is mine. You can do whatever you want with the light if it tells a story. If the mood is wrong, then I am going to say something. I am interested in what is going on with the camera. I am responsible for telling a story. So, if I block at a certain way, then the story is going to be told better.

ATM: As the author of the light, how does your authorship manipulate the scenery for a film and television?

JS: There is a woman I have worked with who is fascinating and on top of lighting. If I do lighting, then she comes to say, “can I move this person over.” She is helpful to me as a partner in putting these things together. Her enthusiasm is great. If I design or request a shot, then she is still going to figure it out.  She is not going to try talking me out if it. If it is going to be quicker, then I would do it. I would like to work with someone who will help me achieve what I want.

ATM: During the latter part of the 20th century and until now, why do you believe produce shows that showcase the lives of people working in the police field?

JS: This is a good question. I really do not know. It has to do with drama, and everyone is looking for drama. Police have a little more traumatic environment involving the ambulance, doctors, and emergency rooms. They have lives where they do not know what is going to hit them. This is why there are a lot of cop shows, medical shows, fireman shows, ambulance, hospital, emergency rooms, and lawyers shows. I wish the creatives would come up with more interesting things. They have because there are amazing things going on in television right now.

Things like Stranger Things still involves a sheriff. In all these shows, I have done many of them. I did one that was a silly monster movie. It was still a detective. The Wolf enterprises like stories with a beginning, middle, and end. They like the stories and are least interested in the personal aspect of the detectives. They open them up for Mariska in the Special Victims Unit. If you look at Law & Order, you never knew anything about the detective’s private lives.