Super 8 Dream Sequences and Jump Scares: DP Brett Jutkiewicz on The Black Phone
It’s fitting that The Black Phone, an adaptation of Joe Hill’s short story, was shot in Wilmington, North Carolina. Forty years ago, it was the fertile imagination of Hill’s father—Stephen King—that birthed the city’s film industry. Needing a sprawling estate for an adaptation of King’s novel Firestarter, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis settled on an antebellum plantation in Wilmington. Pleased with the experience, De Laurentiis made the coastal town his America base of operations, shooting three more King films there (Silver Bullet, Maximum Overdrive and Cat’s Eye) and constructing what is now EUE/Screen Gems Studios—the very soundstages that The Black Phone called home decades later.
Wilmington’s horror pedigree extends beyond King to I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Conjuring and Halloween Kills. Cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz is now firmly entrenched into that history as well, having shot the last Scream film and The Black Phone in Wilmington.
During an off day from lensing the newest Scream in Montreal, Jutkiewicz spoke to Filmmaker about Hill’s tale of a kidnapped teen attempting to escape his abductor, “The Grabber.”
Filmmaker: You wrapped the fifth Scream movie in Wilmington in November of 2020 and then you were right back there for The Black Phone a few weeks later. When did you start work on the latter?
Jutkiewicz: It didn’t come to me until after Scream. We wrapped Scream just before Thanksgiving, then I got the script for The Black Phone from my agent, read it and thought it was really interesting. I first talked to the director, Scott Derrickson, probably around mid-December, then I was there at the beginning of January starting prep. So, it was pretty quick from interviewing and getting the job to being back in Wilmington and starting to shoot.
Filmmaker: With Scream not being out yet when you landed the job, do you know what made Scott think of you for this?
Jutkiewicz: To be honest, I don’t know. I think my agent suggested me for the job and Scott responded to my work. I don’t know what he had seen at that point when we first spoke, but we did talk about Ready or Not. We just had a really great conversation and got along well and he responded to some of the initial ideas I had after reading the script.
Filmmaker: Did Scott already have a clear idea of what he wanted the film to look like?
Jutkiewicz: He had some reference imagery and general ideas, but what he said to me in the initial interview was that he was really looking for a cinematographer to come in and develop the style with him and really put their own stamp on the visual language of the film. That was one of the reasons, aside from knowing Scott’s previous work, that I was excited to work with him. He sounded very open to collaborating and developing the look of the film together. In our first call, he did talk a lot about the darkness of the basement and wanting to create an environment down there that was oppressive and imposing. He also talked about capturing the period in a way that felt correct and was really rooted in the story. That was something that was important to him.
Filmmaker: Scott has talked about the late-1970s setting being inspired by his childhood in Denver, which has a different feel than the 1980s suburbs of Spielberg.
Jutkiewicz: Scott and I did look at some things from the ’70s that we both liked, some of the great New York films from that era, but we weren’t trying to match what a ’70s film looked like when it was shot in that era. It was more about finding a tone that felt right both for the period and for the story that we were telling. I didn’t want the movie to look faded, with low contrast and low saturation. We talked a lot about Scott wanting the corners of the basement to fall off so that you might feel like there could be somebody in any corner at any time. We wanted to keep the blacks black, so I knew going into it that I didn’t want to do any low contrast. I shot some test footage out there in Wilmington and worked with my colorist Nat Jencks, who has done a bunch of movies for me in the past, and we played around with some different looks and eventually developed this LUT that maintained the contrast while reducing the amount of color in the image without desaturating the image. We selectively shifted the colors so that the palette of the LUT was more limited. You weren’t getting the full color spectrum, but the colors that were there were not being desaturated.
Filmmaker: For those dark basement corners, did you expose a little brighter so you’d have more info in the digital negative and then use the LUT to push down the image on set?
Jutkiewicz: I usually use one show LUT, but I’ll have versions of the same LUT that are a third stop pulled down, a half stop pulled down and two thirds of a stop pulled down. When I get into those situations where it’s really dark and I want to preserve a little bit of that information, I’ll use the darker LUT. I did that in a lot of the basement scenes. We were still exposing pretty low, but I was pulling it down with the LUT a bit just to preserve a little more information if we wanted to dig certain parts of the frame out in the DI, which we really didn’t wind up doing that much. We got pretty close just using the LUT on set to what the final image wound up being.
Filmmaker: This is the third interview we’ve done for a horror film and you’ve used different lenses for each. It was Cookes on Ready or Not, then Panavision anamorphics for the last Scream. You went with Hawks for this one.
Jutkiewicz: I’d tested the Hawks before but never used them on a movie. Actually, I don’t think I’d ever used them, period. One of my early conversations with Scott was about aspect ratio. He always imagined the movie in 2.39 and was interested in anamorphic glass. We wanted something that was small and light, because we were doing a bunch of Steadicam work and some handheld work. I remembered liking the Hawks when I tested them before, so we tested them again for this and they just felt right. We thought that they had a nice look for the period and were a little softer, not too sharp, and had some interesting characteristics to them built in.
Filmmaker: Did you just use the Lensbabies for the scenes where Finney (Mason Thames) is drugged and abducted by The Grabber (Ethan Hawke)?
Jutkiewicz: Yeah, I think we just used them when he gets thrown into the van, then a little bit in the basement when he first wakes up down there.
Filmmaker: I always thought of those as just being tilt/shift lenses, but on their website they have a couple different kinds of effects they offer. Do you remember which specific one you used?
Jutkiewicz: I think the one that we used was the Composer Pro, which is the only one that I’ve used in the past. I have heard that they have other lenses for specific effects. I like them just because they’re small and quick to throw on and just grab a shot and move on. You’re not dealing with the more complex swing/tilt system and lenses. They’re made of plastic, but it doesn’t really matter because the image is so distorted. It’s not like you’re looking for pristine glass anyway.
Filmmaker: Scott Derrickson first started making movies as a kid on his dad’s Super 8 camera and also used it for the home movies in Sinister. It seems to be a format he has a lot of affection for. You use Super 8 in The Black Phone for a few dream sequences.
Jutkiewicz: From the very beginning, Scott was like, “We’re shooting the dreams in Super 8.” I think it’s even in the script. That was how he saw it and was locked in when I came on board. I was happy for the chance to shoot film. We tested a couple of different speeds, all negative film—50D, 250D and 500T. We used a combination of 250 and 500, depending on how much light we had. A lot of it was day exterior, so we were on the 250D quite a bit.
Filmmaker: Is contemporary Super 8 any cleaner or less grainy than what Scott had in mind from the older stocks he grew up with?
Jutkiewicz: Oh, it was plenty grainy. (laughs) Obviously, we color graded it, but we were happy with the look coming out of the camera. There was not any lack of graininess and dirtiness, even though it was negative film as opposed to reversal stock.
Filmmaker: How was it exposing Super 8? Had it been a while since you relied solely on your light meter?
Jutkiewicz: I actually still use my light meter on everything. It’s something that I got used to, because I learned on 16mm film and my first couple of features were on 16mm. Being part of that transition from film to digital, I still can’t let it go and totally trust the monitor. I think that also goes back to the early days of digital, where the monitors were just not that great. That problem doesn’t exist as much anymore, thankfully. You have a DIT, their monitors are calibrated and what you’re seeing on the monitor is pretty much what you can expect it’s going to look like when you get into the DI. But I do still use my light meter a lot just to roughly set levels before getting the camera up. The Super 8 was a little nerve-wracking at first, having not shot film in some years and going back to when there was no monitor. It really was just setting the exposure based on the meter. It took a little bit of getting used to again, but once I did there was something so freeing about it. It reminded me of making the earliest movies that I did on Super 16 with a tiny crew. There’s no video village, just your eye on the camera.
Filmmaker: The original Halloween is one of my favorite horror movies. That was shot in California in the summer, meaning leaves had to be brought in since the film is set in the Midwest in the fall. Did you have to do the same since you were shooting in Wilmington in the winter?
Jutkiewicz: We definitely had some leaves brought in for certain places. It was February and March when we were shooting, so everything was pretty much off all the trees.
Filmmaker: Was that gnarly dead tree in front of The Grabber’s house actually part of that practical location or did production design create it in that yard?
Jutkiewicz: I think that question is a compliment to the art department and the production designer. Yeah, they fabricated that and put it in the front yard of that house. It was quite big.
Filmmaker: Walk me through the lighting of the main basement set where Finney is held captive.
Jutkiewicz: A big thing that Scott and I talked about was that, because we are spending so much time in the basement, we needed to make it dynamic and not feel like it’s the same every time we’re in that space. I believe that there was a line in the script that said, “The only light in the room is coming through the single tiny window at the top of the wall.” I thought about that for a little while and eventually pitched Scott, “What if there are lights in the basement, but The Grabber controls them from outside the door?” Scott really responded to that idea and Patti Podesta, our production designer, built these great fixtures around the room. It was a way to introduce a different look to the space, but it also adds to The Grabber’s control over Finney.
To differentiate between night and day, we went with a warmer, sodium streetlight look at night, which felt right for the period and for the mood of it. Then day is more true white, slightly cooler light and I would play with the position of the sun based on the time of day of the scene or where the action took place. We just tried to find ways to make it feel different every time that we were in there.
In terms of the units, we used SkyPanels outside of the window for the sunlight. We couldn’t really get enough light in just through that window without making the window itself seem crazy bright, so we also used Astera tubes hidden in the rafters. We’d play them at 5600 to extend that daylight or, if it was the sodium night look, we played them warmer. Above all of the practicals, also hidden in the rafters, we had little tungsten Fresnels that were probably 300 watts with some opal on them to extend the light from the practicals. Overhead, we had bleached muslin for ambient bounce, though we didn’t use it all the time. We only had one fixture in the ceiling and that was specifically for a shot where Ethan comes in and Finney says, “I’ll scratch your face” and The Grabber looks up and goes, “This face?” Scott wanted him to be in this hard, overhead light for that moment.
Lastly, I had the art department make little 2’ x 2’ squares from the same material as the set walls and used that as either a bounce fill or an eye light. I’ve found before that by using grey bounce instead of white bounce you can get an eye light or a fill without really spreading the [bounce light] all over the room. It just has a different kind of feeling to it. I would also put little Leko slashes on the floor or on the wall for eye lights in certain places.
Filmmaker: I saw a Scott Derrickson quote about jump scares where he said, “It’s a little bit like telling a joke—you either have a knack for it or you don’t.” After making a few horror movie, do you feel like you have that knack?
Jutkiewicz: I certainly would not call myself a master by any means, but yeah, I think I’m getting better at it, just through the process of working on these kinds of films and learning a lot from the directors. I would say Scott definitely has that knack. He knows what’s effective. We had a really great collaboration in coming up with the reveals and how those scares would develop. We designed shots that were longer takes, then we would reveal [the scare] at the end of it. It was less about just cutting to something. We wanted to develop shots where we build the tension and it leads us into the scare. A horror movie is still just making a movie. As a cinematographer, on any movie I’m trying to pay attention to what the emotion is of the scene, what the emotion is of the characters and how I want to present that to the audience. I certainly think there’s a technique to jump scares and a lot of that is spearheaded by the director, but it’s still just people and emotions and creating a feeling through the visual language.