Julie Kirkwood was starting to miss still photography. After graduating with a degree from the Center of Creative Studies in Detroit, her keen eye got her work at art galleries and graphic design as she criss-crossed the country with stops in New York and San Francisco, but she hadn’t yet found a way to make a living behind the camera when a friend of hers, a production assistant on a low-budget indie film, asked if she wanted to come along on his latest gig.
“He said, you want to do this? We made $50 a day and worked 20-hour days, and [it was when] I wasn’t sure what to do with still photography,” recalls Kirkwood. “I was on a film set and thought, ‘Oh, that’s the job I want.’”
While Kirkwood will occasionally takes stills nowadays, her work as a director of photography is the kind where you’re likely to pause a film at any point and want to hang it up on a wall. Employing darkness the way most use light, she has a way of creating images that last like a memory but feel you’re experiencing them for the first time, as if they were archival photos with burnished corners that come alive in the center. It’s only been natural since this distinctive style, where the underlying off-kilter quality of her camerawork belied the fragile psyche of its protagonists where the emotions are vivid, but the mental clarity less so in such films as Martin Donovan’s “Collaborator” and Todd Louiso’s “Hello I Must Be Going,” has lent itself well to horror, a genre in which Kirkwood is making quite a splash right in time for Halloween.
While “The Blackcoat’s Daughter,” her first collaboration with writer/director Osgood Perkins which won great acclaim on the festival circuit last fall (under the title “February”), still awaits release, her second, “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House,” follows up a hair-raising premiere at the Toronto Film Festival recently with a debut on Netflix where it’s bound to get more than a little uncomfortable watching alone in the dark the story of an isolated caretaker named Lily (Ruth Wilson) who warns up front that at 28, she’s not going to see her 29th birthday. Stuck inside a house where the phones still need cords and and an author of ghost stories (Paula Prentiss) seems to have consigned herself to becoming one of her subjects, Lily wonders in what realm she’s living in with the spectre of a past resident (Lucy Boynton) appearing more present than the reality she’s familiar with.
It’s a twist on the supernatural tale that proves refreshing in suggesting an inversion of the traditional relationship between the living and the dead, but also in its inventive lensing, which texturally denies one a firm grasp on time and allows you to get lost inside Lily’s head. The film is just one of two that Kirkwood currently has in circulation, the other being the return of “The Strangers” writer/director Bryan Bertino, “The Monster,” available on DirecTV before a bow in theaters, in which a mother (Zoe Kazan) and daughter (Ella Ballentine) fear the worst after their car’s battery dies during a road trip – and then confront the unimaginable during a thriller so deftly orchestrated you forget it’s mostly confined to a limited location.
During this busy season for the cinematographer who’s currently prepping a sci-fi feature to shoot this winter, Kirkwood spoke about the arresting imagery of her latest work, the benefits of reteaming with Perkins for a second film, and the patience it took to get the film’s startling opening and climatic shots.
My agent brought me the script for “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” when Osgood was starting to meet with DPs. When we sat down together, we were on the same page right from the start. I loved the script so much that the meeting was really about seeing if we connected in terms of our instincts, and how we saw the story. One of the things that I look for with directors is that there’s a similar taste, but I like it when I have about a 75% overlap and that other 25% is me pushing the director to do something different or the director pushing me to do something different. Oz and I have very similar taste and instincts, but not exactly the same, and that makes things interesting.
Based on his two films to date where the dialogue is sparse, are the descriptions for the visuals pretty detailed?
His scripts are quite specific, but he’s very open to the collaboration that happens with everyone involved – me, the actors, the production designer. In “Pretty Thing,” some of the keys to the visuals came from Lily’s voiceover. She talks about how we create our own ghosts by looking and not truly seeing ourselves. The idea of looking, looking, looking, trying and failing to see really informed how we shot the film. We showed some of the same images repeatedly, we held wide static frames, forcing you to look at the same image for a long time, we did slow pans where you feel like you’re looking around the house, and several very slow zooms to give the idea of looking more closely, leaning in or squinting to see better.
The opening image is so striking as you see a young woman emerge out of the darkness, yet still opaque, which is indicative of the unusual way you portray ghosts throughout the film. How did that come about?
There was a lot of discussion about how to shoot the ghosts, and you see Lucy Boynton’s character Polly in a few different ways throughout the film. Ghosts have been done a million times in a million different ways, so we talked about and tested many variations to try to do something new and interesting. We tried shooting on film with a mistimed shutter to get the highlight smear that comes from film moving through the gate, we shot through plexiglass to distort the image, and some of it was just shot normally so we could test motion blur software and selective blurring— though the goal was to keep it as analog as possible. We even briefly talked about shooting underwater – we didn’t go too far into that. [laughs] I went to Panavision in Toronto and shot a bunch of tests. The end result was a mix of shooting through plexiglass with motion blur trails done in post.
When we shot Polly’s story in the house with her groom, we wanted a slightly different look from the rest of the film, so the house is mostly empty and the look is a bit colder. When Polly appears in Iris’ bedroom as a ghost, it was shot normally but with incredible makeup work by Marissa Clemence that made her very pale and gave the appearance of veins showing through her skin.
Whether it’s Lily or Polly, you’re often alone with one character. What kind of relationship does that create when shooting?
It allows for a little more freedom with the camera because you’re not having to cut back and forth to cover dialogue. Lily is in her head a lot, so there’s a lot for the camera and lighting to do in terms of adding tension and suspense. We wanted the audience to feel her isolation, fear, and vulnerability— and also allude to the cycle she’s in that she can’t escape from.
The film tends towards a darker color palette, which I’ve noticed in your work, though in this one, gold stands out, and not just because it’s the color of the sweater Lily wears. How did that scheme come about?
Gold is definitely a color that kept coming back in the wardrobe and production design. I think it began with the sweater, but then that beautiful mustard/gold phone arrived through the props department, and how could we not use it? We wanted to go with a different palette than “The Blackcoat’s Daughter,” while still keeping it within a small range— this film has even less color than “The Blackcoat’s Daughter.” My taste is dark, so if given the option, I will definitely go dark. [laughs] Especially in stories like these two where the tone is dark— the more that I can help the actors get across the tone of the scene, whether it’s to build tension or to hide something with the camera and the lighting, that’s the goal.
There’s a particularly striking shot when you see Lily in front of a television in the darkness where the light behind her is the static from the TV. Did you actually get to choose what kind of static that would be?
Yes, our production designer created several options for the static scenes– the shape of the static, the color palette, and the speed were all variables we played with. We picked our favorites and as Ruth changed the channels, the static would change on set, as a practical effect.
What lenses did you use on this?
We used Leica Leitz primes because they’re a little bit older, a little bit softer, and it just didn’t feel like the right movie to use a very crisp modern lens. We were shooting on the Alexa, so I wanted something that would take the edge off a little bit. The idea was that while the time period of the film isn’t mentioned specifically, the story is rooted in the past, so older lenses felt right. My gaffer and I also decided to light the entire film with incandescent lights— no LEDs, no fluorescents, no HMIs— for the same reason.
Since you shot this on soundstages as opposed to a real house, do you actually have any say in the production design beforehand to figure out some of those incredible angles you get in the film?
The layout of the house was very specific in the script because we needed a two story house, with the moldy spot in the wall in the hallway to be below the laundry room. The entryway was an area that we spent a lot of time in, so we also wanted to get that just right. We looked briefly for a house with a layout that worked and we just weren’t finding anything quite right that was big enough to film in. Since we spend the entire movie there, we had this incredible set built in a warehouse in Ottawa that had so many beautiful angles to it.
“The Blackcoat’s Daughter” was Oz’s first film of any kind. He’d obviously been around movies and on film sets since he was very young, but directing was totally new and he was learning every moment from the first day of prep. It was physically very difficult. We had a short schedule, many different locations, and we did full night exterior shoots when it was 40 below zero outside. In the beginning of the shoot, we were dealing with almost too much snow falling and then it warmed up so much over the course of our shoot that we were worried about having any snow left for our final exteriors. For a first film, there were a lot of obstacles. With “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” he knew what to expect going in. We had a longer schedule, a bigger budget, and we were on a soundstage. Oz obviously had more experience the second time around, so it was a lot easier in a lot of ways. And as far as our collaboration, we knew how to work together, we knew each other’s taste and we had a shorthand from the start.
Was there a particularly challenging day on “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House”?
Our entire crew got very sick at one point, so people were dropping like flies and that was difficult. The eyeball shot…
The one that kept me awake at night…
[laughs] Good! Good! That was interesting because we had to have the camera inches from Ruth Wilson’s face and then we had to light up Lucy Boynton, so she would reflect brightly in Ruth’s eye. The focus was so razor thin that if Ruth moved even a millimeter, her eye would go out of focus. So that one took some time.
“I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” is now available on Netflix.