It Comes at Night DP Drew Daniels on New Lenses, Old Dogs and Using Actors as Bounce Cards
As the end credits rolled after my screening of Trey Edward Shults’s It Comes at Night, a perturbed woman behind me angrily groused, “This is bullshit. WHAT comes at night?” In her defense, the mesmerizing trailer for the film from A24 certainly leads you to believe something is in fact coming at night — a concrete something, not a metaphoric something.
But no horrific, plague-mutated creatures ever arrive at the red door that separates the apocalyptic outside world from the isolated home of Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his family (wife Carmen Ejogo and son Kelvin Harrison Jr.). What does come knocking is another clan (Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, and their young son) seeking shelter, introducing the paranoia and fear that serve as the titular “It.”
With the film now out on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD, It Comes at Night cinematographer Drew Daniels spoke to Filmmaker about new lenses, old dogs, and using actors as bounce cards.
Filmmaker: How did you first meet It Comes at Night writer/director Trey Edward Shults? You not only worked on his first feature Krisha, but you also shot the short film version of that movie as well.
Daniels: How we met was very fortunate and random. I got a call from a buddy of mine who had done another short film with Trey and he was going to do Krisha the short film. My friend ended up not being able to do the short, but he owned the camera they were going to use and Trey was really counting on that camera. So my friend said, “I’ll let you use my camera if this guy Drew shoots it,” because he trusted me with his gear.
So I hopped on the phone with Trey and we started chatting about movies we liked and the Krisha script. Boom, two days later I rode my motorcycle from Austin to Houston and shot the film. Actually, the Krisha short was originally going to be a feature. We shot it as a feature.
Filmmaker: So when you wrapped the shoot that ultimately became the short film version of Krisha, you thought you had just wrapped a feature?
Daniels: Yeah. We shot enough to make a feature, but it would’ve been a very short feature. It just never felt thick enough. It felt like a very thin story. The style was already there. The ambition was there, but we didn’t have the right equipment. It was all handheld and static shots and zooms. It didn’t have the robust [visual] language that Krisha ended up having when we re-did the feature.
It took a while for Trey to edit that [first attempt] and realize that it worked better as a short. I think he worked on it for almost two years. Then I think it took him like two weeks to edit the first cut of Krisha [when we re-shot it the second time as a feature]. We made [the feature version] in nine days and actually had a lot of time to spare. We shot so quickly that we had time in those nine days to improvise scenes, a lot of which made it into the movie. On Krisha we just had total freedom. There wasn’t even a set time for lunch. Somebody would be like, “Hey, are we hungry?” and then we’d eat. There really was no assistant director. I had to like push people into the next scene. There were no producers telling us what to do. It was literally a bunch of friends sitting in a house making a movie.
Filmmaker: It Comes at Night is very ambiguous in its presentation of information. How much do you as the DP need to know? For example, there’s a scene where Will (played by Christopher Abbott) mentions having a brother – after previously telling Paul (Joel Edgerton) that he’s an only child. Will tries to explain away the discrepancy, but the audience doesn’t know if he’s telling the truth and it casts the entirety of his backstory into doubt. For a scene like that, do you need to know if he’s telling the truth?
Daniels: I do. I work best when I talk about the script with the director. I’ll read the script for the first time just to get a general impression. Then I’ll read it again to interpret it. Then I’ll go through it one more time with the director – we’ll sit down and go through every single beat of every scene. So yes, I definitely like to know that information so I know exactly where to place the camera, what to show, and what not to show. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the scene where [the two families] talk about who [left the house’s red door open]. We shot that in a very deliberate way. It’s a two-shot of Kelvin and Carmen on one side of a table and then a reverse of Riley and Chris Abbott on the other side, with Joel mediating between the two groups. There’s no close-ups in the scene until the very end and then there’s a really tight close-up on [Riley and Chris Abbott’s] son and a really tight shot on Joel. Because those are the only two close-ups in the scene you know that the look Joel gives this kid is important.
Filmmaker: Tell me a little bit about the location you used for the house where Joel’s family is sequestered.
Daniels: That place has a long history. At one point it was an artist commune and when we shot there I think it was a writer’s retreat. It was a sleepy, bizarre place. In the attic there was this really cool room with all these beautiful sculptures that had been collected from who knows when and where — just a giant archive of sculptures. There were some weird spirits in that place.
Trey had some rules that we tried to adhere to in terms of lighting the house as realistically as possible. We tried to light as much as we could with practicals and with lanterns. Every time Trey saw a movie light working he would say, “Drew, what is that light doing? What’s the motivation for that?”
Filmmaker: So you had to justify everything you used?
Daniels: Exactly. Usually our LiteMats or whatever we were using – we used a lot of LEDs – were dimmed down to like five percent. The house was boarded up, so we had to push HMIs through these tiny little cracks between the boards. We’d have four or five HMIs sitting maybe three feet outside of a window pushing light in at different angles, A lot of our time shaping the light was spent opening up little tiny cracks in those boarded-up windows.
Filmmaker: When I saw the film in the theater the blacks had noise that almost felt similar to 16mm film grain. How did you walk that fine line between an appealing film-like grain and blocky digital noise?
Daniels: Originally we wanted to shoot this on film. It felt like a movie that should be on film, but we weren’t allowed to, so we ended up going with the Alexa. In a way I think it might have ended up being for the better, because we kind of treated the Alexa as if we were shooting film and pushing it a stop. We shot a lot at 1280 ISO, wide open, and still underexposed. We were definitely pushing the boundaries. There are some moments where I wish that I had added a little bit more light in retrospect after grading the movie. We also added [digital] grain overtop of the whole film just to give it a continuity. There are certain scenes where we pushed the grain even a little further towards the end of the movie. We wanted to make it feel like the movie was deteriorating as the characters’ relationships were deteriorating. And also the aspect ratio starts to squeeze down as the film progresses.
Filmmaker: Really? Totally did not pick up on that.
Daniels: Yeah, it’s a very slow squeeze. It starts at 2.40:1 and by the end of the movie it’s at 3:1. Trey was really into this idea of using the wider screen to make the movie feel more claustrophobic, which is interesting because a lot of times people use widescreen to open things up and make it feel less claustrophobic, like if you think of a widescreen western. Later in the story, we also started using a little bit longer lenses and we started going handheld. That was an interesting experiment and you never know if it’s going to work until you do it.
Filmmaker: What lenses did you shoot with?
Daniels: We used Panavision Primo lenses for most of the spherical work and we also used a Primo zoom. Then we had a couple of random Ultra Speeds and Standard Primes, which are these vintage Panavision lenses that they pull the coatings off of so you can get this hazy, washed out look with bloomy highlights. We sometimes used those if it felt right, but generally it was the Primos.
We tested a lot of lenses and ended up with the Primos because they handled the flares a lot more elegantly than the vintage lenses, which tended to bloom in a way that was distracting. So it really came down to shooting with more modern lenses for the practical aspect of it. Modern lenses are also a lot easier to work with. When you use those older lenses the camera assistants are constantly changing out everything so a lens change takes three minutes instead of 30 seconds.
Filmmaker: Because the lenses in the older sets aren’t uniform sizes?
Daniels: Yeah. On a modern lens everything in the set just lines right up when you change lenses. I just did a movie and we used these vintage anamorphic lenses and each lens was totally different, so lens changes would sometimes take up to five minutes. That’s just one of the prices that you have to pay to use those older lenses.
Filmmaker: Let’s look at a few shots. This first grouping of frames shows different scenes lit primarily with these practical lanterns that the characters carry around at night.
Daniels: Our gaffer Andrew Hubbard and his team gutted all of those lanterns and re-rigged them with LiteRibbon so that we could change the color temperature and brightness. A lot of them were hardwired to batteries and we’d hide the wires. On these table shots, the wires were right behind the lantern running down the table. Sometimes we would maybe hide a little light stick on the opposite side of the lantern [away from camera] just to bring up the exposure or get underneath the actors’ eyes a little bit more. The shot of Chris and Joel at the top left is literally lit with that one lantern. For some scenes we would add another light because we’d want some sort of subtle ambiance in the room before a character entered [with their lantern], but I swear in the digital intermediate we would end up grading that (ambiance) right out. It just felt fake. It wasn’t as honest.
Filmmaker: Did you have conversations with the actors so that they would aim the lanterns where you wanted or did you let their movements with the light come naturally?
Daniels: They actually got to interact with the light quite a bit. Some of them were much better than others. (laughs) Joel was incredible at it. He really had a lot of fun. Sometimes you could tell it was a little frustrating for some of the actors because they were trying to concentrate on their performance and then they also had to make sure that they were lighting the scene because they might be holding the only light source.
In the scene where Chris Abbott’s character breaks into Joel’s house early in the movie, Joel was going down this hallway with a flashlight on the end of his gun and that flashlight was literally the only light in the scene. For the shots that pull Joel down the hallway, we had a little piece of bounce card taped to the Steadicam sled so that it would bounce [the flashlight] back and light up Joel’s face. There are parts later in that scene where Joel has the flashlight pointed right at Chris Abbot’s chest and we taped muslin to Chris’s chest or taped a muslin bandana across his forehead for bounce. (laughs).
Filmmaker: Muslin comes either bleached or unbleached and the unbleached gives you a little bit warmer bounce light. Do you have a preference?
Daniels: I went with unbleached. I usually go with unbleached because it just feels more natural. There’s seldom anything in a house that’s pure white. If it’s unbleached muslin, it has that natural warmth that maybe a [light bouncing off a] wooden floor might have. Another thing we actually did was take muslin and tie dye it different colors — different shades of green and brown — and use that for our 4’x 4’ and 8’x 8’ bounces.
Filmmaker: Next are a pair of frames from Kelvin’s nightmare sequences. How did you make those scenes feel slightly different, yet not immediately give away the unreality?
Daniels: We used anamorphic lenses for the dream sequences. The Primos [we used for the rest of the film] were just so clean. They’re very normal, realistic, honest lenses. There’s some kind of magical quality to the anamorphics that doesn’t feel quite as realistic as the spherical [Primos].
Filmmaker: Next we’ve got shots from early in the film of Kelvin and Joel burning a contaminated body. When I see a shot like the one on the right – with the flames reflecting in Kelvin’s gas mask – I always wonder if it’s one of those set-ups that seems super simple but ends up being a nightmare to get just right.
Daniels: That was a happy accident. We didn’t plan for it. That shot was actually surprisingly simple, but overall the gas masks were a big pain in the ass. And everyone’s gas mask was different. Kelvin’s gas mask just happened to have the right curve to it so that for this shot the firelight reflected but we didn’t see the reflection of the crew, which was a big issue for a lot of the gas mask stuff.
The shot on the left is an example of a thing that Trey and I like to do where the camera starts behind somebody and then pushes in past them and becomes their point of view. It really puts you right into the character’s eyes. That is one of the shots that tells us that Kelvin is the main character of the movie and that we’re going to see a lot of the movie through his eyes. Nobody else really gets shots like that.
Filmmaker: This is a shot of Joel’s dog barking toward the woods as the camera slowly zooms in overtop the dog’s head.
Daniels: Trey and I love zooms. Like anamorphic lenses, a zoom creates an effect that your eyes can’t. It’s a privileging camera move that builds a certain kind of tension. You often see zoom shots for point of views even though it’s technically impossible for your eye to zoom in.
Filmmaker: How was the dog? Would he stand in the right spot to let you get this very formal, centered frame?
Daniels: No. (laughs) Definitely not. There’s probably a person hiding right behind that tree in the frame talking to the dog. For the shot where the dog runs off into the woods we had to cut to a different angle and use a totally different dog, because the dog that we got was so old that it couldn’t even run. It was laughable. You would literally laugh if you saw that dog run.
Filmmaker: So the dog had a stunt double?
Daniels: Yes, that dog was so old that it had a stunt double. Working with the dog wasn’t easy – but it never is.
Filmmaker: I’m a sucker for formal compositions and this shot of Kelvin in the attic is one of my favorite images from the film.
Daniels: When we went up in that space for the first time we were just like, “This is a shot we have to get.” The geometry and the symmetry of it were so cool. We shot that on our widest lens – which was something like a 14mm – and there’s no lighting, just what’s coming from that window.