“Let Logic Steer the Ship”: Michael Simmonds on Shooting Halloween (2018)
In his book Making Movies, Sidney Lumet wrote that he once asked fellow director Akira Kurosawa why he’d framed a shot in his period epic Ran in a particular way. Kurosawa replied that if he’d panned the camera an inch to the left he would’ve seen a Sony factory. Panning an inch to the right would’ve revealed an airport. I don’t know if Halloween cinematographer Michael Simmonds has read Lumet’s book, but after chatting with him I’m confident he would appreciate that anecdote.
Simmonds, whose diverse credits range from the horror sequel Paranormal Activity 2 to the acclaimed documentary Project Nim, likes to demystify the process of filmmaking. His production stories strip away the notion that movies are made through a series of divine artistic inspirations. Instead, he asserts that they are forged through compromise, collaboration and necessity. Simmonds spoke to Filmmaker about how those elements yielded the best Halloween film in four decades.
Filmmaker: The new Halloween ignores the plots of all the other sequels and serves as a direct follow-up to John Carpenter’s 1978 original, with a traumatized Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) facing down Michael Myers 40 years later. I just rewatched Carpenter’s film and was struck by how much of the violence and scares play out in wider shots with minimal edits. How do you update that style for contemporary attention spans?
Simmonds: I talked to the DP of the original Halloween, Dean Cundey, while we were prepping the movie, and we talked a lot about functionality of shots. Like the original film, I think our Halloween is extremely functional. So I wanted to stay true to that spirit of the original, but our Halloween needed more edits. We couldn’t match the pacing of the original. I’ve worked on a few art films over the years and I know that a commercial audience cannot handle that pacing.
Filmmaker: The original Halloween — as with most of Carpenter’s films — was shot in anamorphic. How soon in the process did you decide to follow suit?
Simmonds: I don’t think it was ever even in question. When I talked to Dean Cundey, he said, “Well, you’re obviously shooting anamorphic.” (laughs) It literally didn’t even come up as a conversation.
We did talk about which lenses to use and, unlike the first Halloween, we were going to have to sometimes run multiple cameras at once. So I chose Cooke anamorphics because there’s more of a standardization of quality with the Cookes than with other anamorphic lenses. So they’re easier to match.
Filmmaker: Those Cooke Anamorphic lenses also have a version called the SFs (Special Flair) with a coating that encourage lens flares. Did you use those?
Simmonds: We opted against the SFs. We tested them and (Halloween director) David Gordon Green was not into the Special Flair. It’s a unique look, but David didn’t want those Spielberg horizontal flares. We did accidentally get one of the SFs when we shot our pickups. (laughs) So there is some Special Flair photography in the pickups just because one of our lenses happened to be from that series.
Filmmaker: I watched an interview you did for the Go Creative Show, where you talked about this interesting prep process of acting out scenes with David Gordon Green at his house. Tell me about that.
Simmonds: I’m super dyslexic and it helps me to [get a scene up on its feet]. So we would act out scenes together and we’d start blocking them. Then we’d go to the locations and act out the movie again on location and that’s kind of how we figured out how to make the thing.
Filmmaker: When you’re doing that, are you using a viewfinder app on your phone to give you approximate lenses and camera positions?
Simmonds: I actually think those viewfinder apps are the antithesis of detail. I know what a 50mm looks like. I know what a 75mm looks like. What you really need to do is explore the dialogue in the scene and figure out the blocking and the movement of the camera. And you have to think about the actors’ motivation — what they might do (on the day) and why they would do it, and you have to fold that into the camera plan. If you’re taking photos [with a viewfinder app] just because you like a certain background or think you’ve found a cool shot, you’re digging a deeper hole for yourself on the day.
Filmmaker: In that same interview, you said that for any scene there’s a two-day version, a one-hour version, and a one-shot triage version. Do you decide which scenes get which version in prep or do you start each day with all three versions in your head and then let the schedule dictate which is appropriate?
Simmonds: There’s this quote, “Rembrandt in the morning and house painter at night.” The less experienced director will try to change that phrasing. They’ll ask, “How do we not be a Rembrandt in the morning and a house painter at night?” But the experienced director knows it’s inevitable and you have to schedule your day (accordingly). That said, there are scenes that I know cannot be triaged. For instance, car photography can’t be triaged because setting up the process trailer and all that stuff [is going to take time]. But there are other scenes that are actually better if I know I only have 45 minutes to shoot them. I learned a lot of that from Caleb Deschanel [cinematographer of The Natural and The Right Stuff] when I was at the Sundance Directors Lab. One exercise he does is, “How would you film a scene if you had to do it with one shot?” Thinking about that shows you what the important pieces of information are in the scene.
Filmmaker: What were the difficulties of lighting Michael Myers’s white mask? Did you do a camera test to see what type of light worked best on it?
Simmonds: We had a test day planned, but then we said [screw] the test day, and we decided to shoot a scene instead. Test days are a complete waste of time. Test days are things for producers to see what jackets or haircuts they approve of and stuff like that. So we took the budget for the test day and with the same [crew size] that we would have used we filmed the scene in the movie where Officer Hawkins [played by Will Patton] is in the deli playing pinball, and we also shot a couple of B-roll shots. That was our test day.
As far as lighting the mask, you know going in you can’t have frontal light on the mask. It’s going to have to be side, top and backlight. Lighting the mask is tricky, and you have to allocate time on the day to figure it out. That’s another thing camera tests don’t really tell you — how something will look in the context of the space [it’s being shot in]. How’s the mask going to work with a balloon light? Well, it doesn’t work very well with a balloon light. But you have to figure that out on the day.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk a little bit about the opening scene, which introduces a pair of podcasters interviewing Michael in this giant checkered courtyard at a sanitarium.
Simmonds: During preproduction we were looking for the high school location [where Strode’s daughter goes to school] and during that same week we were also looking for a jail location for the opening scene. In the script, the jail was written to resemble a Hannibal Lecter-like maximum security dungeon — a place where people are thrown and never heard from again. We were having trouble finding the right location. The prisons were too clean and sterile. They looked more like college dorms.
Then we went to check out a military academy as a possible school location, and it happened to have that giant checkerboard, which I guess is common with military academies so the cadets can stand in the squares. It was a location that was completely meant for something else, but once we saw it we just starting jamming and throwing out ideas. We kept looking at other prisons, but that military school kept beating out all the other choices so that ended up being the setting for what I think is a very memorable opening.
Filmmaker:That opening scene ends with a high-angle zoom into Michael. It’s the only zoom I remember from the film.
Simmonds:That shot was completely David’s. And because Halloween was a low-budget film, instead of shooting that on a stabilized head, we put our camera operator Paul Daley up in a giant scissor lift that was shaking like hell and David loved it. David’s a big fan of 1970s American cinema — like Conrad Hall’s work — and that was a shot that he specifically asked for.
Also, a little technical thing — anamorphic zooms are very hard to come by, and that shot is actually done on a spherical zoom with an anamorphic back (adapter). I really didn’t like the look of that lens because I felt it didn’t match the Cooke primes. So it didn’t last that long. That shot is actually one of the few in the movie that we used that lens for.
Filmmaker: In terms of lighting, my favorite scene is when the father and son hunters come across the crashed transport bus. It’s set on an isolated, foggy road at night.
Simmonds: Fog only reads when it’s backlit, toplight or sidelit and it’s very hard to maintain. So some shots have tons of fog and some shots have less. I like to think that the audience doesn’t care too much about that in the end, but us OCD people making these movies get really worked up over fog. It’s extremely uncontrollable.
For that scene we found a brand new stretch of road that was being built in North Charleston for a Volvo factory. It wasn’t even on Google Maps yet. We put up two giant Condors with these remote controlled LRX units and then we lined the whole street with what we called the “black tube of death,” which is a long trash can looking thing that emits smoke. We didn’t have enough money to crash the bus so we just started the scene with it already rolled into a ditch. (laughs) We shot that whole sequence — with the exception of the car interiors (with the hunters) — in one night and it was extremely difficult. It was definitely the hardest night of the whole shoot.
Filmmaker:There’s one particular shot that stuck out to me where the young hunter is creeping up to the bus in a wide shot. The inside of the bus is lit with blue, and the kid is silhouetted against the tree line by the bus’s headlights.
Simmonds: That shot is actually a perfect example of something I like to talk about, which is trusting in your team. That shot was completely stolen in the moment by our operator Paul Daley. That was not planned.
Another shot like that is the profile shot of Michael putting the mask on for the first time [at the gas station]. The A shot was in the car shooting through the back window. At the last minute we threw the B camera in there as well — the lens barely got on the camera before the slate was coming in — and sometimes that’s how the best shots of the movie happens, with the camera being thrown onto the shoulder of a hungry operator at the last second.
Filmmaker: The original Halloween opens with an iconic Panaglide tracking shot. You have a similarly complicated Steadicam shot that follows Michael from one house to another as he dispatches two victims without a camera cut. At what point did the idea come up to pay homage to the original with an extended tracking shot?
Simmonds:That long Steadicam shot was described in the script. We also took some of the budget that we saved by not having a camera test and put it toward a half-day Steadicam test. We set up some basic lighting and spent three hours one day in prep practicing that move.
Filmmaker: What was the hardest part of that shot to get right? I love the bit when Michael’s face is reflected in this big bay window on the porch of the second victim’s house.
Simmonds: That was actually the hardest part, that big bay window. I took a huge gamble and said “I think we can get (the reflection practically) on the day,” which we did by hiding a light inside the pumpkin and then dimming it up when he leaned in. It worked way better than I expected. We didn’t have to do any VFX on that one.
We also had to make sure that the shot wasn’t boring. That’s another thing Dean Cundey said to me — “You can’t just follow somebody from behind for five minutes. You have to tell a story with the shot.”
Filmmaker: Cundey’s moonlight in the original is incredibly blue. How did you approach lighting your night exteriors?
Simmonds: I never use the term moonlight. I’d rather just refer to it as ambient light. Is it coming from the moon or is it coming from a streetlight? I don’t really focus too much on that. When a lot of DPs first start out they can’t think about light unless there’s a lamp in the room. I never even think about justification of light.
Filmmaker: There’s a moment in the film when a babysitter opens a closet door and Michael Myers is standing there.
Simmonds: For that I just remember being in the room with David and [production designer] Richard Wright and saying, “I don’t know, where do you think[(Myers] should be? Maybe in this closet?” (laughs) Decisions often occur in a very humble way.
Filmmaker: But what I liked is that it mimicked what I was talking about earlier from the original film — scares playing out in wide shots with minimal edits.
Simmonds:To be honest we only had maybe two days in that house and we had so much work to do. There’s a scene of the [babysitter’s] boyfriend arriving. There’s the kid watching TV. Then there’s the kill scene upstairs. You have to be very efficient in your storytelling and lighting.
Filmmaker: Let’s finish up with Laurie Strode’s house, which is this remote place in the woods that she’s turned into a survivalist compound. Once Michael arrives for the final showdown, Laurie shuts off the lights in the house and turns on these big flood lights outside. Were you taping lightweight things like LED light blankets all over the ceilings so you could easily adjust the levels?
Simmonds: I used a lot of LEDs like that on the movie in place of Chimeras, but for that particular scene I used old school stuff like Pars, Mole beams and Lekos so I could shoot them from high and skip-bounce them off the floor using little pieces of white muslin to create the illusion of darkness, but with some light pollution that looked like it was coming from those outside floodlights.
Actually the idea of the film ending in Laurie Strode’s compound was due to a logistical problem that come up at the last minute in prep. Originally it was supposed to end at the house of Laurie’s daughter [played by Judy Greer], but due to some zoning law or something it would’ve been impossible to film that many nights in the residential neighborhood (where the daughter’s house was located). Then somebody — I think it was David’s assistant — said “What if it happens at Laurie’s house?” We knew Laurie’s house location very well because we filmed on that property during Season 2 of Vice Principals.
That was the genesis of the ending. So then you say, “Okay, now we’re going to see Laurie’s house way more. So maybe she’s not just a recluse living in the woods. Now maybe she’s a prepper.” Then the gaffer shows up and says, “I think Laurie should have floodlights on the roof.” Then we say, “Well, if she has flood lights outside she would obviously turn out the lights inside so she would want to be able to see (without reflections on the windows).” That’s how those decisions get made. We just let logic steer the ship.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.