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Ryan Purcell on Balancing Visual Beauty With Terror in “The Stairs”

Saturday, September 4, 2021 | Interviews

By RACHEL REEVES

For years, shiver-inducing creepypasta tales have circulated regarding mysterious staircases found in the middle of the woods. Leading nowhere, with no discernable explanation or identifiable party responsible for their construction, it leaves the purpose for these stairs completely up to sheer speculation. While most discussions regarding these stairs have long been relegated to Reddit threads and chatroom chatter, the new horror film THE STAIRS offers a potential explanation.

Directed by renowned stunt coordinator Peter “Drago” Tiemann (Prospect, Z Nation), THE STAIRS follows a group of friends on a hike through the Pacific Northwest woods. While the expedition starts out normally enough, things quickly take a turn when the group stumbles upon a staircase miles away from civilization. Along with a cast that includes Kathleen Quinlan (Apollo 13), Brent Bailey (Doom Patrol), and Trin Miller (Captain Fantastic), THE STAIRS also showcases the talents of Seattle cinematographer, Ryan Purcell

Expertly capturing both the beauty and terror of the forest in THE STAIRS, Purcell has recently snagged “Best Cinematography” distinction from the Horror Hotel International Film Festival and the European Cinematography Awards. To learn a bit more about Purcell and his work on THE STAIRS, Rue Morgue sat down with the cinematographer to discuss the project, the challenges of shooting outdoors, and the perks and pitfalls of the Seattle film industry. 

How did you first get involved with THE STAIRS and what attracted you to this project?

Well, I’d worked with Drago the director on a couple of different jobs where he was the stunt coordinator and I was the DP. So, we knew each other and had kind of been through the trenches a little bit in terms of setting up shots, figuring out what worked, and looking at the monitor together, you know, that sort of stuff. So, when I learned that he had a project coming up I was just like, “Oh, I’d love to work on this project.” And I just contacted him. He said, “Yep. Great!” They were trying to pull everything together and eventually they settled on me as the DP. It went from there pretty quickly once it got going. It actually all happened very quickly. 

While Drago has worked on many different films in many different capacities, THE STAIRS is his feature directorial debut. Because of that, I’m curious, what were those early conversations with him like regarding the film’s look and visual direction?

I think our biggest concern was the nightwork. We tossed around a few different options for that. At one point I was like, “Can we do a day for night?” But, I just didn’t feel comfortable shooting day for night with all the flashlight stuff required in the script. So, we kind of moved away from that. Then it was kind of like, “Well, how are we going to do it on our budget?” So, I wouldn’t say that we were specific about the look, but we were open to what the look could be given our budget.

With a lot of these little jobs and smaller budget movies, you’re not so much imposing your will upon them, but you’re kind of just being open to what’s possible with them. For example, when we had the outdoor space where we were able to shoot a lot of the monster stuff, we knew where our access road was and that was basically where we would be able to easily put power in and run our generators. We were looking in this certain direction mostly so that we could have the generator in the road and use the lights in the back as edge lights and backlights. Things like that, that’s how we sort of had to work with our budget. We just had a certain amount of stuff that we were able to do given what we were working with, and, of course, we’re trying to make that look as good as we can with a limited crew and limited resources.

There are some really stunning and authentic Pacific Northwest locations in this film. Were you at all involved in scouting and picking these locations?

They had actually lost their location shortly before I jumped on board and then they’d done some location scouting in these other areas. When we scouted together, they had ideas of where things might happen, where we could stage certain scenes, but they were open to a certain amount of discussion about staging and how things happen within the scenes. An example of that would be the “nest.” We found these big nests built in this park and ended up just staging the scenes there. They were just…found, right near where we were shooting out in the middle of this park. I’m not sure we ever met him, but there is apparently some guy running around this park and just building these structures. Jason, the writer said that he saw him around the set one day, but he ran off before we could talk to him. I never got the chance to meet him, but we did find a couple of these nests when we were scouting. 

And, at the time we were like, “Boy. This is pretty cool! And also kind of creepy.” So we just basically said, “We’re going to use these somehow in a scene.” And that scene wasn’t written, but we knew they were going to be in a scene. Then, we just had to convince the first AD that we had enough time to add an extra scene or two. [Laughs] We ended using them for a couple of shots which I think really helped set the mood. It was a pretty great production design that didn’t cost us anything but helped set the stage and convey that something a little other-worldly and creepy is happening here. 

Whoa! That’s really interesting because that’s kind of the whole premise for this film, right? Just like how people have reported mysterious staircases leading to nowhere out in the middle of the woods, it sounds like you and the production crew organically came across something very similar. 

That’s a really good point. Yeah, like our own sort of natural human-created spot. That is kind of funny. [Laughs] I hadn’t thought about it that way. 

It really adds a whole new layer of authenticity to this story!

Yeah! I think that in those scenes, it is those locations that really help set the stage. In this scene [one particular scene], they wanted to set it in this one particular place, but I wanted to find a place that had a little more vibe to it. The thing about the woods is, you go a hundred feet this way and it can be quite different. So, we found another location that was pretty close and had this log in this snag. Because of that, we were able to hide some of the action behind it and I think that scene turned out really well. It’s actually one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Part of it is that we’re coming to it through these big trees and into this little clearing that is kind of desolate in its own way. It also allowed us to hide the woman in the yellow dress a bit from our sight. 

I have to imagine that shooting almost entirely outdoors comes with its own perks and challenges. What were some of the challenges you had to overcome on this shoot?

Well, it kind of really splits between the day and the night work. I think we had two days that were interiors if you count the box truck, but the rest was mostly outside. For the daylight stuff, we were relatively lucky with the weather. Since it was mostly sunny, we just tried to clean it up a little bit. We obviously had to move quickly and I only had one lighting person for the day stuff. That means we were mostly bouncing a few things or creating a few shadows here and there. I was also on the Dana Dolly and creating some movement that way. So, we couldn’t do too much to really put our stamp on things other than just try to stage it so that it would be the most attractive. 

But the nightwork had its own challenges. We’d be cabling through the dark and trying to get our edge lights in while also trying to stage scenes so they’re facing towards the road. That way when you’re shooting, you’re looking into the darkness. Plus, you’re up all night. Then our weather kind of turned and we ended up having a fair amount of rain. But, that’s also why I think the box truck was a great cover set. We managed to save a day, day and a half just by shooting inside that truck. That’s kind of the challenge of it. They are very different challenges, shooting in the day versus night, but the nightwork was definitely harder.

There are a lot of really beautiful drone shots and intimate conversation moments that happen between the characters in this movie, but one of the aspects of the cinematography that really stood out to me were the action sequences. How did you adjust your shooting style to capture that frenzied, terror-laden, heightened emotional state that the characters found themselves in? 

There’s obviously a lot of walking through the woods, so we used a lot of Steadicam to set the stage. If there’s something that’s a little bit more ominous, like when they’re approaching the stairs or something like that, it’s all about creating a feeling. Even when it is just a walk-and-talk, or with the nests, we’re trying to create a little bit of tension. And then, when the monster does appear, while it’s not always, we would often go into a more handheld shooting style while running through the forest. Keeping it loose and handheld on the coverage as well gave a little more energy to the image.

 It really just came organically. It wasn’t all a part of the plan in some sense. Sometimes, it just felt like the scene needed a little bit more energy that the handheld style can give it, but sometimes we did just stick with the Dana to keep some creepy movement until the scene explodes. We really tried to work on that balance between when things are scary and when things actually go crazy. Building up to that moment when things sort of go nuts, then we would get into the handheld mode and really have a lot of freedom. 

You’ve worked in Seattle for a really long time on a lot of different projects. What is the filmmaking community like there?

Well, I’ve been here so long I feel like I’ve seen a couple of different filmmaking communities come and go. You know, there is a lot of great people here, but a lot of people have had to go other places because the market is just not quite vibrant enough to support a deeper crew base. So while we’ve had great talent here, I do think it’s really a training spot for people. It’s kind of a bit unfortunate that people can’t really get enough work here to make it work and then they have to go down to LA, you know? So, it’s a little tough in that regard. 

There are projects being made up here though, and a fair amount of projects. That’s one reason that it is a good place to get your feet wet in the business. Since people with ambition usually head out of town, that means when the town does get busy, all of a sudden there’s not enough crew. The crew ecosystem can get overwhelmed pretty quickly. And then all of a sudden it’s, “Where are my assistant camera people? Where are my grips?” That gives new people a chance to jump into it. There are some great films being made here with some great talent, but it’s also a small market. Because of that, there’s a bit of a glass ceiling on things. 

But, I’ve enjoyed it. When I worked here in the ’90s, there were a lot of big Hollywood movies coming into town and that’s where I really started. It has mostly been supplanted by a lot of other production areas since then, mostly because of incentives. Our incentive here is pretty small and Seattle is a pretty rich town that doesn’t really need the film industry. They’re more like, “Well, it’s such a pain to have our roads shut off.” So, they don’t really care that much. There are some signs that it’s changing. There’s this new studio that just opened up in town and there are a few bright spots, but the incentive really needs to triple if we are to have any kind of vital and vibrant business. 

You’ve worked on quite a few horror projects over the years. Is there anything particularly unique about shooting genre films? Anything you love about working on horror projects?

Well, I think sometimes you can be a little more expressive with your lighting, your framing and your style. You know, it’s hard to get too weird for some movies, and with horror, you can do what you like as long as it fits. So, in a horror film that has say, grub daddies, climbing out of the woodwork all of a sudden, it’s not like it has to feel like a real moment. I don’t have to keep my lighting supernaturalistic in those moments and I can play around a little bit more. Genre films give you that kind of an edge. 

Despite everything that has been going on for the last two years or so, it’s been a really great time for horror. Has there been anything you’ve seen recently that you’ve really enjoyed?

That’s a good question. I watched The Dark and the Wicked and thought that was pretty great. I also watched that movie Crawl with the alligators. I really enjoyed that one. It was sort of like if Steven Spielberg had done a crazy alligator movie. I really loved the way that it kept ratcheting up the stakes. I appreciated that about it. And, sometimes you think of these lower-budget movies as not having a point of view or a real directorial vision, but that one really felt like it had a point of view and it was elevated in a way that some of these movies aren’t. I also loved Midsommar. I thought that was just great. Although it’s of course been out for a while, there is no expiration date on good films. That’s for sure. 

THE STAIRS is currently available on VOD via Cinedigm.

Rachel Reeves
Rachel is a record store nerd from Boise, Idaho with an obsession for horror soundtracks and all things creepy.