“Ninety Percent of the Lighting Was Done Pretty Much How You Would’ve Done It in 1979”: Cinematographer Eliot Rockett on the Period Horror Film X
“The story can’t just change midway through,” exclaims a pretentious adult film director incredulously in X.
It certainly can in a Ti West horror film, where one of the joys is often the shift from the methodical pace of the opening to the blood-drenched mania of the finale.
Set in 1979, X finds a group of ambitious but inexperienced filmmakers heading to a remote Texas farm with dreams of making the next Debbie Does Dallas. However, the troupe fails to inform their hosts – an elderly couple who rent the crew their bunkhouse – about the purpose of their visit, with gruesome results.
After initially intending to shoot in the States, production relocated to New Zealand last Spring, at a time when the country was a Covid-free haven. X marks West’s first horror movie in nearly a decade and reteams the writer/director/editor with his The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers cinematographer Eliot Rockett.
With X in theaters and available on demand, Rockett spoke to Filmmaker about wonky zooms, old-school lights and unusually cooperative chickens. The film also hits physical media on May 24th.
Filmmaker: Ti West has written a few of his films with specific locations in mind — In a Valley of Violence and The Innkeepers are two examples. The latter was scripted around shooting at the crew hotel you stayed at while making The House of the Devil. With X, circumstances conspired to push production to New Zealand, which certainly wasn’t the original intent. Did you get to be part of finding the farmhouse property where most of the film takes place?
Rockett: Ti and the production designer Tom Hammock went down there around Halloween of 2020, and they started that whole process of searching for the locations before I got down there. I got into New Zealand at the end of December and had to spend a few weeks in (Covid) isolation. The farm they found only had the house so Tom was well into designing the barn and bunkhouse by then, which he built on the property. The lake that we used was a completely different location that was 20 or 30 minutes away. We used two different locations at that lake – one part where we could be on the shore looking out into the water and another part where we could be out on the water looking back at the shore.
Filmmaker: Did you do stage builds for any of the interiors, or were you able to actually shoot a lot in the existing farmhouse?
Rockett: The house worked practically for almost everything for X. On Pearl, which is a (prequel) we shot immediately afterwards at the same location, we actually did end up building a number of the house’s rooms on stage for various different reasons. But for X, really just the basement was on stage and then the dressing room at the strip club at the very beginning of the movie was also on stage. Then when they walk out of the club and get in the van, that club exterior is just a facade that was in a parking lot that was built up against two shipping containers.
Filmmaker: Oh, that’s a false front that they just painted? I love that shot where Brittany Snow’s character walks out of that mural on the building and then the camera booms up.
Rockett: When we boom up and you see the roof of the strip club, that’s all VFX. In the distance, that was Wellington (in New Zealand). It wasn’t Houston (like in the film’s story). So, the oil refineries and those things were added in later.
Filmmaker: You were in New Zealand shooting in February and March of 2021. That’s about the time that vaccine availability opened up for a lot of people here and the Covid numbers finally started to tick down a bit, but we still weren’t in a great place. So, you go over to New Zealand, you quarantine for a couple weeks and then you’re basically shooting with no masks. It must have felt like some alternate reality.
Rockett: Yeah, it was weird. You went through two weeks of managed isolation, which is just sitting in a hotel room with the parking lot available for you to walk around in circles and food given to you three times a day. You can’t do anything else. Then once they let you out, there was no pandemic there at the time. They had gone through a pretty heavy lockdown and managed to eliminate all the local cases of Covid in the country. You walked into Wellington and it was just like a city that had never stopped. It was very surreal. It was great, but I also felt kind of this weird survivor’s guilt or something for everybody I left back home.
Filmmaker: I looked over the crew list for your camera and G&E teams and it’s mainly locals – almost all of whom worked on the Avatar sequels in New Zealand. Were you able to bring any of your team with you?
Rockett: It was just me. We hired locally out of Wellington for everybody. There was definitely a large portion of people that had worked on the Avatar movies. We very fortunately started our production just in time for all of those people to get off those movies and become available. And a lot of them were like, “A movie on location for six weeks using real things and real people in real places? Not being on a greenscreen stage for two years? That sounds great. Let’s do it.” (laughs) I think we probably caught a bunch of people that normally wouldn’t be involved in this scale of a movie, but we just got them at a good time. We had a lot of super talented people that ended up on the crew.
Filmmaker: I saw X in the theater the day it came out without knowing much about it. I had no idea going in that Mia Goth played both the role of the young actress Maxine and the voyeuristic elderly neighbor Pearl. Walk me through how you created that effect. What were some of the tricks that you used?
Rockett: We had a consistent double, this woman named Alice (May Connolly), who was really great. Her physicality and even her facial structure was very similar to Mia. So, whenever Mia was playing (the younger character) Maxine, Alice would go through like two-thirds of the makeup for Pearl and, vice versa, when Mia went through the full six hours of makeup to become Pearl, we’d have Alice in Maxine’s costume. That meant that everything that we did that involved both characters had to be shot over two different days (with one day for Goth in the Maxine coverage and then one for the Pearl side). For example, when Maxine has lemonade with Pearl in the kitchen, there’s a couple of shots where you see both of them in the same frame and those were just traditional lock-offs where we shot Mia on both sides of the table and composited those together. If there’s an over the shoulder or something like that, it’s Alice’s shoulder as the double in the shot with whatever character Mia was playing. We also had a woman in her 80s named Margaret who was our body double for some of the nudity that was done for Pearl. She wasn’t used that much, but there were a few shots here and there, like when Brittany sees Pearl down on the dock and she’s standing there naked and we see her from behind. That’s the body double.
There were a few times where it was more complicated. There’s a shot where Pearl gets into bed with Maxine and that was a combination of all these different elements because we had to have Mia’s face in the foreground as Maxine and also Mia as Pearl in the background getting in the bed and actually touching Maxine. So, we shot Mia in the bed and then we put Alice in the same position so that (in post) we could put Mia’s head onto Alice’s body in that shot. We also had this great guy, Brendan Dee, running our QTake (video assist) system. He used to work as a compositor at Park Road Post and he would do temp composites for us when we were doing that stuff, which was super helpful. It was just a lot of really meticulous planning over the course of the production to figure out how we were going to execute those things.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk a little bit about the preproduction phase. I saw an interview with Mia where she said that she did five weeks of rehearsal and some of that was testing various incarnations of the makeup. Did you shoot a few different tests as the makeup evolved to see how it would look on camera?
Rockett: You know, we did not really shoot tests per se of the makeup on the Venice. The makeup did evolve over a period of time, and we were monitoring that and looking at it. Pictures were being taken of it, but not like traditional camera test sort of things at all.
Filmmaker: Did you have any surprises when you started shooting where you were like, “Well, I can’t put light on the makeup from this angle or it’s not going to quite play?”
Rockett: I have to say the makeup job on Pearl was so convincing that it was like looking at an actual person. Weta did an amazing job. If Mia as Pearl had come in and sat down in a restaurant next to you, you would not ever have questioned that it wasn’t a very old person sitting next to you. There were no giveaways at all. It was done super well.
Filmmaker: In the movie you’re approximating both a 1970s 35mm look and a 16mm porn film look on the Sony Venice. How did you create those looks?
Rockett: It kind of goes back to The House of the Devil. When I shot that for Ti, the intention was to make this period movie where not only was the story set in a different period but the actual artifact of the movie itself felt of that period. That was again the approach that we were taking this time. The entire movie should feel like it was found in a time capsule. In order to do that, we used a lot of period light fixtures, like old HMI fresnels and older tungsten units. There was a very judicious and occasional use of an LED tube here and there for a little bit of fill, but 90 percent of the lighting was done pretty much how you would’ve done it in 1979.
Then in terms of what we did in the camera, we did do a number of tests for that. We started in L.A. at Technicolor to talk about LUTs and the look and the color rendition. Those conversations continued in Wellington at Park Road Post, where we further developed two different LUTs: one for the 35mm look and one for the 16mm. We folded all of our dailies processes into our on-set workflow through our DIT Martin Le Breton. We were adding a grain layer and a little bit of defocus along with the LUT into the dailies so that we would have a very accurate representation of what the movie was supposed to look like in the end.
Filmmaker: Did you use any on-camera filtration other than NDs?
Rockett: We used a little bit here and there, some Glimmerglass. The 35mm part of the movie was shot with Vantage MiniHawks, but for the 16mm stuff we acquired a 1970s Kowa zoom so that there could be hand-zooming and it would look like the Angenieux zoom that RJ (the film troupe’s director/cameraman ) has on the Eclair camera in the movie. The 16mm look definitely has a quality about it that comes out of that old funky zoom.
Filmmaker: How much of the sensor did that zoom cover?
Rockett: It cropped it hugely. We put that lens up and there was like a circle in the middle of the image, but we knew we were going to matte it to 4×3 so it didn’t matter. Even if (some vignetting) snuck in on the corners of the frame, that didn’t matter either. It was like, “That’s just from the funky old zoom that RJ has on his camera.” That lens was a real beast to track down. That was something that we went back and forth on with Imagezone in Auckland, who provided us with our cameras. They were tracking things down all over Australia. That zoom hadn’t been used in a million years and the focus was so tight that the focus motor was always jumping off. The whole thing was an AC’s worst nightmare, but it looked great.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about some specific shots and scenes. What lens did you use for the shot in the van where the camera is on the dashboard looking back and the van looks like it’s about 40 feet long.
Rockett: That’s an Arri Ultra Prime 8R. (https://www.arri.com/en/camera-systems/cine-lenses/ultra-prime-lenses/ultra-prime-8r) It’s an 8mm rectilinear lens. It’s something I discovered a few years ago. I said to Ti, “There’s this crazy lens that’s so wide it should be a fisheye, but it’s rectilinear so it has this unreal perspective.” He was like, “I don’t know, man. That seems really gimmicky.” Then we got down there and we started messing around with it and there ended up being like three times in the movie when we used it. We also used it above the shower looking down on RJ. It has this feeling like you’re really far away, like you’re floating above him. So, it found its way into a few places.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the night exterior sequence where blood spurts on the van’s headlights and everything turns 1970s Italian horror movie red. Was that one of the situations where you broke out the LEDs or were you cutting gels and sticking them on the lights?
Rockett: We cut a bunch of gels and stuck them on the lights. We had either a couple of Par cans or 750s, I can’t remember, and we just kept adding more red gel to them. We also had a big red bounce to the house side of things that filled everything else with (that color).
Filmmaker: There’s a shot toward the end where there’s a TV with an evangelist on it in the foreground and then Maxine and Pearl and her husband Howard are in the background near the front door of the house. Is that a split diopter?
Rockett: That’s actually the 8R again. It’s a crazy lens. When you start using it with things in the foreground, it starts to get these distortions and a perspective that’s very unexpected.
Filmmaker: Did you just crank out that televangelist stuff in one afternoon?
Rockett: Yeah. It was largely referenced from a documentary called Marjoe. We developed a LUT that was very similar to our 16mm world. It was just black and white, but with the same amount of grain. I think we shot that whole thing with the Kowa zoom, if I remember right.
Filmmaker: Ti compared the alligator in the lake to the shark from Jaws in terms of difficulty. What was the hardest shot to get the alligator to work?
Rockett: Oh man, when it eats [redacted for spoiler purposes] in the water. We would go over to this swimming pool that was close to our production office and the effects guys would be in there with this alligator head that had manually operated jaws. They’d have a stunt girl in the pool practicing that shot over and over again of it coming out of the water and grabbing her. It’s virtually all practical. We had to sink these decks into the lake so that the effects guys could stand on them. Then we had a 20-foot Technocrane floating on these plastic barge pieces that they use to build docks, trying to line up shots in the middle of the night in the freezing cold. (laughs) It was an adventure.
Filmmaker: There’s a pitchfork-to-the-eye close-up that, in my book, goes right next to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie in terms of cringiest eye-related trauma. How’d you create that sequence?
Rockett: For one of the shots, we used a 24mm probe lens, kind of a prosumer thing. That was another lens that I brought down that I was like, “Ti, you’ve got to check this thing out.” It’s like a 15-inch-long probe lens that’s only about an inch in diameter and it will focus super macro. We stuck the probe through a hole in the barn right up next to the actor’s eye to where his iris was almost filling the frame and then we pulled it away. We ran that shot backwards (to make it appear as if the camera is careening toward the actor’s eye). Then for the (eye impact shot) we had a rig built that had sliding tines and a head with an eyeball in the socket that the tines could stick and then pull out.
Filmmaker: Last one. If there’s an animal-related shot, I like to ask about it because there’s often an entertaining story involved. So, you’ve got a shot at a gas station that starts with a close-up of a rooster, which then wipes the lens as it walks out of frame. Then you rack focus to the hero van as it pulls in to the parking lot. Was it hard to get that rooster to do what you wanted?
Rockett: I’ve had chickens in the past and I was like, “Ti, this is going to be such a bummer because chickens are just going to do what they wanna do.” It was the end of the day, and the clouds were rolling it. Someone held the chicken, because we start on a close-up of its head, and then at the right moment they just let go and the chicken walked out of frame. We only did like two or three takes and in a couple of them the chicken did pretty good stuff. And I was like, “Oh, I guess we’re done. That was way too easy.”