By RACHEL REEVES
In the new Tubi Original film UNBORN, a pregnant woman begins to suspect something is terribly wrong with her unborn child. After noticing an odd image picked up on the sonogram, a series of inexplicable events begin to lead the new mother and her wife down a dark and dangerous path. Following in the spiritual footsteps of films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Brood, and Beyond the Door, UNBORN successfully reiterates why the mystery and miracle of childbirth has so solidly nestled itself into the horror genre. Naturally wrought with both beautiful and harrowing potential, UNBORN effectively explores these two divergent ideas simultaneously.
Directed by Steven R. Monroe (I Spit on Your Grave, The Exorcism of Molly Hartley), UNBORN is a strong entry in Tubi’s new line of original content. Well-known within the horror genre for its healthy back catalog, UNBORN also proves that Tubi is taking its new content just as seriously. Boasting a small but mighty cast, the film stars Jade Harlow (Cowboy Bebop) as Rachel, the expectant mother, and Ella Thomas (NCIS: Los Angeles) as her supportive wife, Amber. Along with Harlow and Thomas, it is the deliberate and beautiful cinematography from Michael Street that truly brings UNBORN to life. An accomplished and talented creative, Street’s ability to manipulate light and a keen eye for impactful framing adds layers of strength to UNBORN’s narrative.
In celebration of UNBORN’s recent debut on Tubi, Rue Morgue sat down with Street to dig into the look and visual style of the film, what it was like working with the cast, and how cinematography can aid and support a film’s narrative.
What initially attracted you to UNBORN and how did you first get involved with the production?
I love shooting psychological thrillers, horror, anything that adds or amps up the dark drama. So once I knew that [UNBORN] was a horror film, I met up with Steven Monroe the director and I looked at some of his previous work. We have a relationship with a production company called Cartel, so the three of us just linked up over the script. Then Steven and I had a meeting, he signed off on me to be signed off on and from there we were diving into pre-production! It was a very quick process.
Once you were officially signed on as the film’s cinematographer, what were your initial goals for the film’s look? Did Steven have any specific input or ideas for you?
So, Steven has a camera background. He actually started as a camera assistant back in the day. So for us, it was very easy to talk about cameras, lenses, and composition. And our first conversation was about the aspect ratio. We definitely wanted to shoot in a 2.39:1-2.40:1 aspect ratio. We also wanted to use anamorphic lenses. We wanted that anamorphic cinematic look. Steven did not want this to be shot in a 16:9 TV format. He really wanted it to feel like a movie that you’re going to watch on the big screen.
So that was our initial conversation. And then I did some tests and I chose the Atlas lenses. I showed him some references and then from there, we were doing camera tests. I would shoot camera tests and send them to Steven which is kind of how we found the food footage look. Steven wanted a Super 8 mm fill for those scenes, so I did some camera tests and I built some LUTs [a preset color look for video footage]. When we were actually shooting, I changed the aspect ratio to a 4:3 aspect ratio and I shot with this older Canon Zoom. It just kind of gave an ugliness to it where it was not as sharp and detailed.
Then I worked with the DIT [Digital Imaging Technician] and in between scenes, I would go in there and we would color the found footage to get the layers that we wanted. I did that as well with the survivor interview. But Steven was very open as far as the visuals and allowed me to kind of create what I wanted. He loves the twilight look in the sky for night scenes, so we actually shot a lot of the night scenes at twilight so you can really get the sky detail. I also added a lot of the color contrast, the desaturation, and I incorporated the Atlas lenses by using lens flares. As the movie progresses and our characters go deeper down this dark tunnel, I started incorporating lens flares till the end where it’s in like, every shot.
How does that stylistic and visual progression fit the narrative and mirror what the characters are going through?
By the middle of the movie, the characters go to this ranch and that’s where a big twist is with the survivor played by Kevin McCorkle. And so at that moment, I believe, that’s where the story really changes. And that is also when I really started incorporating the lens flares. We start getting the detectives involved around there and murders start happening and there’s a shootout. So, at that point, when [redacted to avoid spoilers] other people are silhouetted, there’s the sun, the big lens flare, and she’s also having contractions. Every time you cut to her face and she is going through contractions, there’s a lens flare. You try to make the image become a little bit more raw as these characters are going deeper down this dark path.
The emotional heart of UNBORN really lies with the character of Rachel, who is played beautifully by Jade Harlow. Over the course of her pregnancy, we as an audience really see her go through some tough physical and emotional moments. What was it like working with Jade and helping her navigate that performance?
Jade is actually really amazing. She is an amazing human being with good energy; a complete professional. Anything you ever want from an actor, that’s what Jade is. She had to wear that prosthetic nearly all day and she never complained. She just got into her character and, it was very professional. I’ve shot intimate scenes a few times now and we just approach it very cautiously. Everybody respects everybody’s space. We usually close down the set and sometimes it’s just myself, the director, and maybe the focus puller in there. That way the actors can feel comfortable in their environment.
We just really made sure when it was time for those scenes that we just respected everybody’s space and allowed the actors to be comfortable and just be ready when they were ready. Jade is just such a professional. She wrote to me actually after the movie and told me that this was the safest she’s ever felt working with a crew and with a cinematographer. [She said] that she felt safe and comfortable in front of the camera and that she knew that I had her best interest in mind. She felt very confident and comfortable and it was a great experience. We actually still write to each other now just congratulating each other on our work since UNBORN. I would love to work with Jade again. She was fantastic.
We also get to see a lot of Rachel’s partner, played by Ella Thomas. We see them encounter a lot of different obstacles as a couple and the diverse emotions tied to Rachel’s pregnancy. Oftentimes, these moments are very simple conversational-style scenes. How can you set those scenes up for success and help keep them engaging visually?
Intimacy scenes seem to work best when there’s not a lot of coverage. When you only shoot a few different angles and you don’t overwork the actor and make them repeat and repeat lines. For a lot of their scenes, it was very basic. We would slowly move the camera. As far as when their relationship and emotions are getting stronger in those scenes, when they were connecting and coming together, the camera is getting closer to them. We only cut away for a closeup of Amber and then a closeup of Rachel. That’s pretty much it. We don’t cut away to other things or overshoot a scene. I believe that allows the actors to stay fresh and stay connected.
We also keep it very quiet for those scenes and just allow them to kind of find the scene and be comfortable with each other. We had to believe as an audience that they were in love, that they were married. And for us, it was simplicity. You set the frame and let the actors do their thing. You don’t intrude on that. For those kinds of scenes, I also try to light from the windows. I don’t put a lot of flags and stands around because I know that can be distracting, especially when they’re trying to become intimate.
I have to imagine when shooting a horror movie like UNBORN that there are moments where you are internally thinking how cool something you’re seeing through the camera is, but also having to remain focused and professional. What were some of the most exciting scenes or moments for you on this project?
I would say the climax, to be honest with you. Jade shot all night long with that prosthetic. We hadn’t even applied sweat, she’s actually sweating. And then there was this weird, mystic breeze that was blowing all night. Everything was flowing. All the curtains were flowing. And when Ella (who plays Amber) was running for the door, she had her back to the camera and, as she turns around, her hair just started blowing. That was natural! All these weird, magical moments.
But at the same time, we had to shoot the story and see the climax. There was so much going on. Kevin had to wear a prosthetic around his neck because [redacted for spoilers]. You can only do those things a few times so setting that up takes a while. I think we did that maybe two times, three times at the most. Timing everything out, making sure it still looked good, allowing the actors to still be in their moment because those ladies had to go through that all night long and just be so emotional.
We spent the whole night shooting that scene. The whole climax was done in one night. Just allowing them to stay connected for eight, nine hours, it was fantastic. But the whole time I’m trying to stick work lights in there to create the lens flares because at this moment I want a lens flare in every shot because it’s the climax and everything is building to this moment. There was a lot. It was also a cold night, but I love that scene. I love the whole climax.
Tubi has gotten into the original content game recently. What was it like working with them on this?
Tubi was pretty amazing, to be honest. I received a phone call from the line producer Kami Norton and she said she was going to line produce this movie, it was a Tubi Original, and it was horror. She put me in contact with Steven, we talked, we had a great interview and then he showed Tubi my work. Steven had his two cents to say, but the next thing I know, I was signed off on and ready to go. They were very hands-off as far as the creatives. They were like, “Hey, we trust you. This looks good. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
Steven had made another movie for them so he had that relationship and they really trusted him. They then signed off on the actors, they signed off on the costume design and we hit the ground running. We were totally open to creating whatever we wanted. And when we got to post-production, it was kind of the same thing. I had a couple of color sessions at Roundabout and then a week later, they had signed off on the movie and it was released. It was very hands-off and it’s a very open, creative platform which is great.
What is it that you love about being a cinematographer? What keeps you picking up the camera day after day?
It’s definitely the camaraderie on set, working with the same people, building those relationships, and everybody bonding together to tell the same story. I shoot photography just as a hobby. A lot of it is nature photography and travel photography, and I love capturing natural light. I love making a powerful image and saying a lot with just light, color, and composition. Framing up a beautiful image is something I strive for and I just love visual storytelling. I love working together with people, creating, and developing a world an audience can get lost in and escape for two hours while enjoying the ride.
UNBORN is currently available to stream via Tubi. You can check out more of Street’s work in director Jordan Ray Allen’s upcoming film noir, The Montgomery Murders.