After allowing Ana Lily Amirpour to fully express her vision with A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night in 2014, cinematographer Lyle Vincent returns to SpectreVision and has unlocked, enabled and elevated the work of Adam Egypt Mortimer with Daniel Isn't Real. Ahead of our screening at Chapter, we sat down with the DP responsible for plugging into it's complex look and talked about helping to achieve this and more!
‘Daniel Isn't Real’ is your first collaboration with Adam Egypt Mortimer and your third feature with SpectreVision, all of which have been as diverse as compelling, with that same variety pointing to SpectreVision's engine creativity. In your experience, what defines a SpectreVision film?
It's always elevated. They're obviously horror fans and they pay respect and homage to the horror aspect but they're always going for an elevation and a visual approach, where the stories are just as important as the characters. They bring you into a world by creating worlds. They have this love of material, which you don't see a lot of. They have this love of genre cinema that you don't see in many places. I really like collaborating with them!
Can you tell us about reading the script for 'Daniel Isn't Real' for the first time? What interested you about it and Adam Mortimer’s vision?
The script came to me and the first thing was the layers, which I really liked and the psychology and how it kind of played with you and the expectation and then switching around and catching you off guard. It had a lot of elements to it. When I talked to Adam he was just so prepared. He had such a concise vision for it and all the different stages he wanted and exact film references. He had a huge visual style book that he had already written, which was very specific on everything and that really attracted me to make this project.
One thing that attracted us to each other was the fact that there is this kind of spiritual element to Daniel Isn't Real as well. There's this Buddhist element. I've been a mediator and Buddhist for over ten years and saw that in the script and he really appreciated how I gravitated towards that. We were on the same plane and could really get along that way and everything was easy. There wasn't a lot of back and forth, it was just like now this is what we're doing. I think that comes across in the film because it wasn't an easy film to make. It was really low-budget but we had such a short-hand and such an understanding of the visual style, which I attribute to preparation but it was also this kind of like mind-melding that was happening.
How soon after reading the script did you have a clear idea of the camera’s, lenses, lighting and photographic techniques you wanted to propose using?
One of the first things we thought was that this should be shot on film and that this should have a texture and an organic quality, especially because there's so many visual effects and make-up. I think that what happens a lot, with digital shooting, is that it becomes too sharp; everything in focus or the contrast too high, the sharpness too high and you kind of feel the artificial, so we both came to that right away. The budget was incredibly challenging because we went down the road, a very long way, of shooting on film. It almost happened and Kodak was going to give us film, we almost had a camera and then we didn't. There was just no way that SpectreVision and the producers could come up with the money in any way and they were very much into supporting that but in the end it just wasn't feasible. We even came close to shooting in 16mm, but then we learnt about this thing called live grain, which is a film grain simulation, like a high end one. I also got my long time collaborator Tom Poole, the colourist, on board on the film and once I had him in place, they gave us a good deal being a low budget movie. After that we used really old lenses, the crystal express lenses from Panavision, which are very old lenses from the 80's, that have a lot of imperfections that are not sharp by any means. They have a lot of character you could say.
That's interesting. Was that your first time using those lenses?
No, no. I was using those lenses on A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and a few other smaller projects, so I was very familiar with them and I've used other lenses like them. Those three things right there kind of got the look we wanted. Adam was very critical because at the beginning he was so adamant on film. He was like, "I don't care, just get any camera you can get. Shoot it on film, who cares", you know? But then once we tested the camera, live grain plugin and the lenses, he was like, "Oh yeah, that's it, that's it right there!". I'm very happy with where we ended up.
What collaborative choices did you end up influencing Mortimer to make for its theme?
We had a lot of special rules you could say, how we shot the perspective of Luke and how we shot Daniel. Daniel has his own lenses, which were not older ones, they were newer Panavision lenses and they were a longer lens. We also had rules of the angle we shot him at, so for instance we would never shoot over anyone's shoulder on to him, unless it was Luke. It had to be if Daniel is in the frame, Luke had to be in the frame in that way. There couldn't be another character's shoulder or another character's point of view, because it's those subtle things that set up a visual language and it works subconsciously and very effectively. We also did things where we stacked the two characters together, over-lapped them and of course we looked at Bergman's Persona because that's how he did that as well with the two women character's, how they were stacked together and overlap each other to make one entity in a way. We strived for that as much as we could. Basically our main aim on Daniel was over Luke's profile. For example Luke is talking to someone else but Daniel is always through the profile and cut through the silhouette, so it's almost like they're one thing. That was a very interesting approach.
Another thing we did was there's a hand-full of times in the movie where it kind of cuts wide and its objective, I call it the Buddha head vision, or all of a sudden you're out of Luke's head, you're not in Daniel's world, you're just objective, which is what we shot that with; a spherical lens.
You touched on it briefly earlier, the film's design was conceptualised with a forty page style document that everybody involved in making the movie had access to. How much of that collective vision relied on realistic expectations with your emotional intentions and being able to drop ideas?
That was the great thing about working with Adam. He was very open to any idea at any time! It didn't have to be from me, it could have been from anyone and I like to work like that too. I like to have a very free and open collaboration with anybody. It could be a P.A. or the dolly grip, it could be anybody on set. I want to hear anyone's idea and it could be amazing, it could be something you never thought of, you know? I'm not into being too strict or dogmatic. I mean, I think it's great to have a blueprint and to have something like Adam made, that kind of frees you up in a way. As long as everybody is open, which Adam was. It kind of frees you up to be able to explore those new things and happy accidents and serendipity, which I always love. To capture those moments is actually more in line with what were our original intentions were. I really like working that way and Adam is very supportive of that and very tuned into that.
What was the biggest challenge around depicting an imaginary character? How did you communicate what's subjective and what's objective?
Well, that's the cool thing about the script and the story, it always keeps you guessing that, which I really wanted to support. I really wanted to ground the photography in a way that the lighting was heightened but was still motivated and realistic and that you felt grounded in the world. I felt the same for the camera work, I didn't want for it to be overbearing to where it called attention to itself.
Then there's a section in the movie where Adam really wanted to make it, he called it max subjective, which was kind of extreme angles and more trickery with the camera and longer lenses, more movement with the hand-held camera, more lens flare, that type of thing. It kind of really put you in the head and inside the paranoia. It's effective for pulling you into what the character is at that moment in the story, so it's telling the story, not doing it for the sake of doing it, it's doing it for the sake of the storytelling. Then at the end, it kind of evens out and you get a little bit more of a classical, more composed, a bit more steady cam, more dolly's, that type of thing to kind of wrap it up and that's how you kind of feel the weight of everything. Before that, you just don't know what is real and what's not. Are you in his head or are you not, or sometimes you are, sometimes you're not.
How often were you challenged by having to light and shoot scenes that take place in near-total darkness, yet the audience still needing to see something?
We talked about that afterwards, too. Even if we had gotten the film camera and the film for free on that, we would have been limited because we literally did shoot almost in no light. We used this new camera called the Sony Venice, which is incredibly sensitive in low light and it just screwed us up. We thought that we weren't lighting but we were, we were lighting in a very specific way. We were using very small lights and practicals, kind of letting everything go and adding a little smoke. I added smoke as much as I could. I do it with other movies, too, it's the kind of a thing I do over and over again. I like to, like you said, get just enough light, so it doesn't feel lit but you can still read things, you can still feel things. Usually what I do is I use black material a lot and hit the light through or against it to bounce back off. The standard thing is to go onto white or muslin, or something off-white or coloured but if you go off of something that's black it gives just enough and it doesn't spread everywhere. It also feels natural and the light doesn't have a direction. I'm always interested in non-directional light and I feel like that's what it's like in a very dark place, you know? You don't know where the light is coming from.
How involved were you in the post production? Were you present during Daniel Isn't Real's CGI phase?
I wasn't involved in the CGI but I did do the colour correction. I was able to sit down with Adam and my colourist Tom Poole and we really dialled in the look and we really finessed the look of the visual effects then as well. We also added the look of the live grain during that stage.
It's a film that uses saturated colour to psychedelic effect and plays like a neon nightmare. How did you come up with the colour palette?
We really wanted it to evolve during the movie. In the beginning we wanted a cooler look for sure and then it kind of moved to oppressive or isolating. It was kind of cooler and drabber and then as we introduce the element of Daniel, things feel more electric and we use a little more neon type colours. His colour was this kind of like bright purple that we use a lot. As things got more into that layer stage with the manic or the max subjective area we started using a lot more red. Well, even before that we had hints of red, especially when there were scenes of Daniel but we definitely played up the warmer and the redder aspect as we got into that later period.
Your last film with SpectreVision was 2014's 'A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night', quite literally a feminist horror film of our dreams, whereas 'Daniel Isn't Real' features a commentary towards toxic masculinity of our nightmares. How closely related do you think both films are?
I never thought of it that way. I mean, I always had thought about those films in separate ways but it is interesting how they are like that, it really is. Adam and Lily are similar but very different. Adam is very sensitive to those issues and would bring any issues that he was dealing with, such as toxic masculinity and how we were going to shoot a sex-scene and how females were portrayed in the movie and how inclusive we were being, not just in the movie but in hiring people on set. He was very in tune with that, which I really thought was amazing. Like I said before too, he wanted everyone to know, "Ok, this is why we're doing this and this. It's that time in the movie where we're dealing with this", you know? Everything was very aware whereas Lily on the other hand downplays the feminist side of everything. She always says, "Oh, I don't make feminist movies", even though it is and she's channelling it but she's not as hyper aware of it in a way, you know what I mean? She's just doing her thing. She's just making her art and she's not worried about what anyone thinks. Of course it is a feminist piece but she wasn't going into it that way. It wasn't like, "Ok, this is what we're doing", it was like, "Lets just make an awesome piece of art and embrace the moment we're in". She's very into being in the moment and doesn't like to plan ahead as much. She plans ahead but not as meticulous as where Adam has everything laid out and of course he's open to all those things that are going to happen and happy accidents and the things that make things organic as you go along but Lily on the other hand doesn't want any of the shot lists, she just wants to be in the moment completely.
How much do genre films provide you with a freedom of imagination of going to extremes, beginning where others would normally stop?
I think that the beauty of the genre film is that, yes you're working in a genre, so you have to respect everything that came before it and you want to work within the framework that's laid forth. The fun of that is also playing with the boundaries of that. Working with SpectreVision especially, that kind of frees you up in a way, because it is such a world building aspect that it really opens you up for creativity. Just like Adam's rules, it's almost like you set rules on yourself, you almost become more creative in a way, because if anything and everything can happen it's like you almost become overwhelmed with it, where as if you constrict a little bit, it kind of focuses it in and it opens new possibilities. We're paying homage, we're still in the genre but we're pushing the envelope, we're pushing a little bit each time, each time we're pushing a little bit more. It's great!
Do you a favourite memory working on Daniel Isn't Real?
There were so many great moments! Originally in the script, when Luke and Cassie have their first kind of date, it was originally going to be on a boat, literally. They were going to steal a working boat in New York harbour and they were going to drive it around. We were actually going to shoot this at night and be out there but then the weather went bad and it wasn't safe to do it. We were just like, "Let's figure out something else" and it ended up being the scene when they're in the bus yard with all the school buses. We really just kind of came together and figured out how to solve the issue and made it better. I think it was just a great moment of everyone coming together and using their creativity and their intuition, seeing everybody's best come forward, you know? It could have all went to shit and Adam could have been like, "It has to be this. This is what the script says!", or the producers say, "This is a loss. We have to re-write this and take this out", but everybody was like, "No, let's figure out how to make this work". Adam and SpectreVision were flexible and open, being able to adapt and I think that's what film-making is all about.
Interview by Luke 'Menace' Bailey
See a special advance preview of 'Daniel Isn't Real' showing Sunday, at Fractured Visions. Tickets https://t.co/ToaWwFvy7i