By RUBEN DIAZ
Director Brandon Christensen (Still/Born) puts two travel bloggers in a beautiful home that quickly turns into a hellish nightmare in the horror film SUPERHOST now on Shudder. The film stars Sara Canning (Vampire Diaries) as Claire and Osric Chau (Kings of Con) as Teddy, a couple who run a travel vlog that’s seen some success. However, things are shaky, and they need to turn the subscriber numbers around. Claire’s determined to make the following video the one that reverses their fortunes, but Teddy’s got other things in mind — proposing. At a new, luxurious rental getaway, the couple meets Rebecca (Gracie Gilliam, Vampire Diaries), the young woman who rents out the home. Rebecca’s weird but seemingly harmless. As Teddy prepares to get down on one knee and Sara becomes more focused on making this video the best, Rebecca decides to have some sadistic fun. We sat down with cinematographer Clayton Moore (It Stains the Sands Red) to discuss how he manages to create glorious tension in the most subtle of ways.
What was your road to becoming a cinematographer?
Growing up. I was a huge fan of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. I grew up in the late 80s into the early 90s. I call it the golden era of cinema. I know others would argue that, but to me, it is. Those kinds of big movies and stories inspired me.
When I was growing up, I’d make little stop motion films for myself. It was never more than a fun hobby. It wasn’t until I got a little older that I realized people could make a career out of doing that. Once I got to the point where I was about to graduate high school, I started thinking about what I would do. I said, ‘Well, I could probably pursue this.’
How did you pursue a life in film and television?
I went to school for visual FX and compositing. Then, I finished a degree…and quickly discovered that I didn’t love staring at a computer all day. So, I moved back home and got a job at the local television station as a cameraman. But, I’d always had an interest in photography and cinematography.
At the time, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is a big responsibility. I have to go out and shoot things on my own and make sure all the settings on the camera are correct. I’d have to interact with people and tell their stories using a camera. It was a little nerve-wracking at first, but I took off with it. I fell in love with it. To me, that was the best sort of film school I could ever hope for. I hit the ground running and figured it out as I went.
Every day I’d see the news and see my work. So, there was a reward for my work. I’d see the results immediately. I would see my mistakes as well. It was such a great way to learn the ins and outs of how cameras work, how people work on camera, or how to use a camera to tell a story and lens selection. I loved all of it.
What came next?
So, I used my experience at the TV station to get a job in Las Vegas at a bigger station. Once I established myself in Vegas, I started looking into production companies and getting into more of the creative side of things. I worked at the station for a couple of years before landing a job at a production company. I got experience working with clients, talent, and directors. I got editing experience under my belt. After the economy crashed in 2008, I was laid off, and I found myself in a freelance situation by necessity. Ever since then, I’ve been a freelance cinematographer.
You get to see some cool stuff that the average joe wouldn’t be able to experience. This career’s taken me around the country, where I get to see all the behind-the-scenes stuff of a production. I get to explore things that I love to do.
There’s nothing more exhilarating to me than being on set, you’ve read the script, you’ve planned all that you can, and it’s all going well; it’s looking like you saw it in your head, and you nail a take. You’re one of the first people to witness it and experience that magic.
How did you become part of the SUPERHOST team?
Brandon and I go way back, more than ten years now. We crossed paths from working in Las Vegas together. His career grew, and mine grew. I’d done a lot of short films and commercial work with him. I’d always been bugging him to let me shoot one of his features. His first two were shot in Canada, and schedules didn’t line up. So, he produced It Stains the Sands Red. Brandon was responsible for getting me onto that project. When SUPERHOST came about, he wanted to shoot it in Vegas. It was a short conversation, ‘Do you want to do this movie with me?’ he asked, and I said ‘Yes.’
From that point on, we shared notes on the script. We would talk about the tone, what things would look and feel like. Then, we’d drive up to the area and look for interesting locations. Finally, we discussed how to cover certain scenes in the script. It was easily a couple of months.
How did the script evolve based on the house?
Initially, Brandon found a house that he wanted to use. It would’ve been cool, it was a very modern house, but the deal fell apart at the last minute. So we ended up with the house in the film, which I loved even more. It had more of a lived-in feel. He had written some scenes around the first house, so we adapted them to the place we used. But it wasn’t a huge stretch. It all adapted pretty easily.
How does your history with Brandon inspire the process?
I know what he likes, so a lot of times when he comes to me with a project, he already knows what it looks like in his head. My job is to serve his vision, but I throw some ideas back at him to see what sticks. For example, he likes to use dollies and blocked-off shots. All of that gives the work we do together a much bigger feel. Having worked with him over the past decade, I inherently know what he’ll like or reject. So, I’ll work within that framework and bring some of my ideas into that visual language that we’ve established. It might be as subtle as the contrast ratio, framing, or color when we get into post-production.
How do you make the subtle scary?
With Stains, it was much more stylized because it was such a frantic film. With SUPERHOST and the way Brandon directs, he likes to control the pace. He’s such a good storyteller. Another thing, too, I think good cinematography should be invisible. It should be there to serve the story. If you put too much emphasis on flash, it distracts.
SUPERHOST is a simple script about these people in a remote location. I wanted to keep things subtle and let the characters tell the story. Visually, there were some small things that I tried to do as far as light and shadow ratio on the faces, how we framed things like that shot where we’re following Rebecca as she walks around the outside. We wanted to be looking through things or past things.
How did you come up with the different looks of the narrative camera and in-movie camera?
We knew early on that one way that we could differentiate between the two cameras; the ‘found footage’ I would call it, that would always have a little more energy, continually moving. Anytime we were in the narrative camera, we would be locked down or on a dolly. The movement of that camera would be very intentional. It was more about how frantic do we make those cameras. But we didn’t want to be full Blair Witch. We wanted it to be pretty stable. So we shot it on a different camera with a little less quality that would help it stand out, and then in post, we’d beat it up a bit more. We made it have a little more of a flat look. We didn’t worry too much about lighting with that camera. There were a few moments where they set up their camera with a ring light.
We experimented with adding effects to make it look more different, but it didn’t look right. At the end of the day, the subtle difference with lighting, contrast, and coloring was all it needed.
Lastly, What other cinematographers inspire you? But you can’t say, Roger Deakins; he’s a given.
Of course, he who shall not be named is one. I love Lubezki’s (Gravity, Birdman) work. I love Bradford Young (Arrival, Solo). The stuff he does at such low light levels is impressive. Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club, Gone Girl). Gordon Willis (The Godfather Trilogy). So many.
SUPERHOST is available now, exclusively on Shudder.