Fincher Upstairs, Raimi Downstairs: DP Zach Kuperstein on Barbarian
On a rainy night in a rundown Detroit neighborhood, Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her Airbnb rental only to find the abode double booked and Keith(Bill Skarsgård) already nestled comfortably inside. That’s about all Barbarian’s refreshingly cryptic trailer gives you, along with a few glimpses of the subterranean terror that awaits. So, that’s all I’m going to give away about the plot as well, other than to say that whatever you expect from Barbarian after its first act is most decidedly not what you’re in store for.
With the movie in theaters, cinematographer Zach Kuperstein spoke to Filmmaker about recreating Detroit in Bulgaria, employing budget-friendly gear and creating a visual style defined as “Fincher upstairs, Raimi downstairs.”
Filmmaker: Let’s start with the logistics of the shoot. How much time did you spend in Detroit, Los Angeles and Bulgaria?
Kuperstein: We were in Detroit two days, then just one day in L.A., with a few days of prep around it, just for the scene with Justin Long driving down the Pacific Coast Highway. Then we had 31 days in Bulgaria, mostly around Sofia.
Filmmaker: Did you shoot at Nu Boyana Film Studios in Sofia?
Kuperstein: We only ended up shooting one day there. That studio was originally proposed, and they were offering an area called America[n Villas], which is a backlot suburban neighborhood. It looked cool at first, but as we looked at videos of it and maps to try to figure out if it would work for us we slowly realized that it wasn’t ideal for a lot of the angles we had planned. If you looked down one end [of that backlot set] it just kind of ended, and if you looked down the other end the other backlots and buildings were right there. They also proved to be pretty inflexible about any kind of construction or alterations to the buildings, even painting. So, our line producer suggested we build the set from scratch in a field. They found this agricultural laboratory where I think they do research on tomatoes. There was a road that was already paved for one section and a brick building on the property, but we were able to cover it with facades. We had a lot more flexibility there and could really start from zero. We did shoot one day at Nu Boyana [for the flashback sequence with Frank, (played by Richard Brake) a former owner of the hero house]. We used it for a neighborhood and also for the exterior grocery store and parking lot.
Filmmaker: Where did you build your set interiors?
Kuperstein: At Sofia Studios Complex, which is just a big, empty soundstage. All the interiors were built from scratch for the hero house. The top of the silo was actually a set construction as well at another studio. There was a lot of talk around doing greenscreen for that, but I was pretty opposed to that. I felt like the green would spill on everything and it would be a nightmare in VFX. Getting the plates would also be difficult and expensive. The goal was really a darkened city horizon line in the background that’s supposed to be city lights in the distance. So, we took some black fabric and ran it 270 degrees around the silo top set, poked holes in the fabric, shined lights through the back of it and it looked great.
Filmmaker: How specific did you get on those lights you were shining through? Were they pretty uniform or did you say, “We’ll use a warm sodium vapor look for this section to be streetlights, then we’ll use something more neutral here because it’s a skyscraper in the distance?”
Kuperstein: We did exactly that. We had a bunch of different lights around the backdrop with different colored gels in different sections. We also put a little bit of red gel on a couple of spots to make it feel like there was a red light somewhere, just to pop out different spots of color.
Filmmaker: You were gelling lights? So, you were using non-LED sources?
Kuperstein: It was a split. We used a lot of 2K tungsten lights just because it was cheaper and easier to have a bunch of them. We did have some SkyPanels in our package, so we did use a couple of those and change the color on them.
Filmmaker: Were the different rooms in the sets connected?
Kuperstein: The center of the set was the entire first floor of the house—the living room, the bedroom, the bathroom, the laundry room and then the door to the basement. For another set we built stairs down into the basement, which was at ground level, and that set had the basement, the first secret hallway and what we called “the tiny room,” which was the green-colored room with the bed, the bucket and the camera. Then separately we built that very long staircase [that leads further underground], which was a battle for a couple of weeks in prep about how big the stairs should be. [Director] Zach Cregger was insistent that he wanted to not see the bottom of those stairs when we looked down. So, it needed to be as long as we could possibly make it to ensure that the flashlight didn’t see the bottom. I was like, “Can we just build it to the top of the studio?” And everybody was not down for that idea. (laughs) There was a lot of back and forth on that about how big the stairs should be. The idea was that those stairs should feel endless.
Filmmaker: Did you have rules about flying away walls in those sets so that you could maintain the sense of claustrophobia?
Kuperstein: Yeah, absolutely. We did have walls that could fly away just so we could get into the sets more easily, but we didn’t want to have any cheats where the camera could go in a place that it wouldn’t be able to go [if the spaces were real]. There’s only one shot where we had to break that rule, which is when Tess comes out of the shower and finds Keith [Skarsgård] at the kitchen table. The wall on the opposite side of that had to get removed so that we could dolly along there, but everything else was done practically so that it felt like you were really in those spaces, and it didn’t feel like a set. That was definitely a fear of ours going into designing the sets. Trying to make it feel as real as possible was a challenge, because the house is an Airbnb and Airbnbs don’t feel lived in. It was hard to give the house more character to make it feel less like a set when the space isn’t really supposed to feel lived in.
Filmmaker: That’s a good point and that balance is crucial to the first section of the movie, in the same way that Keith has to feel potentially dangerous but welcoming enough that it’s believable that Tess wouldn’t immediately bolt.
Kuperstein: Exactly, and I think that balance in the first act is really important. Zack kept reminding me throughout the process that the audience is going to anticipate that Keith is the bad guy. So, we play him as the nice guy as much as possible and make the house feel warm and inviting.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about your prep process. I read an interview with the director where he said you went on location and photoboarded the entire film a couple weeks before the start of principal photography.
Kuperstein: That’s my approach to every movie. I treat prep in phases. The first phase is just getting to know the director and forming a common language together. Before we went to Bulgaria we watched a lot of movies and had a document where we would exchange thoughts on them. Then we built an overarching language for the film that was pretty clearly David Fincher upstairs, Sam Raimi downstairs and this movie Angst for the flashback. After we had our visual ground rules, we got into detailed shotlisting when we arrived in Bulgaria so we could do it together in person. At that point they had already made the decision to build the location on the farm and had started building some of the sets and laying out where the facades were going to be, but we hadn’t decided yet which house was going to be the hero house. In the script there was a church at the end of the block where the final scene took place, but on our very first day there I looked in the direction where the church would be built and there was already a silo there. I said, “Can we just use that and rewrite the scene?” Zach loved it, so it became a silo scene.
Filmmaker: When did you shift from shotlisting to photoboarding?
Kuperstein: Once we were in Bulgaria we jumped into the shotlist and went through the script beat by beat, in order, and applied our visual ideas to it. We did that for weeks until we finished the shotlist and that took most of the time of prep while we were finding other locations, the sets were being built and we were figuring out all the logistics of the schedule.
In the last two weeks of prep we switched over to photoboarding and that was the final phase. We went to all the locations. I like to do it with the assistant director, so they get a sense of how we’re processing the shoot day, and then the AD also becomes the stand-in. Our fabulous AD, Todor “Toshko” Chapkanov, was an absolute delight to work with. He made me laugh every single day—such a good attitude but also knew a lot about filmmaking and was able to add a lot to our shotlist and photoboards and make productive suggestions. The photoboards are done with a director’s viewfinder app and that way we know exactly what lens we’re going to be on. I like to do that because often a director and I will shotlist a close-up, and the director might think that means armpits up and I might think it means chin up. It’s good to agree on that beforehand so we’re not having that discussion on set. We can bring those photoboard images to set and I can give then to the camera department and say, “Can you set this up? Here’s the exact lens. Here’s where the camera is going to be.” Then I can go work on the lighting, Zach can work with the actors and it all flows a lot more easily because we’ve made a lot of our creative decisions in advance.
Filmmaker: Tell me more about this “Fincher upstairs, Raimi downstairs” dichotomy. The style of early Fincher is much different than something like Mindhunter. Were there specific Fincher projects you looked at for inspiration?
Kuperstein: For Fincher, we looked at Mindhunter and Se7en as our two points of reference. The main takeaway was that we wanted to have all the camera movement motivated and have it feel in sync with the characters. We wanted camera movement that [the audience] is not aware of and doesn’t feel too punctuated. Then Raimi is just all over the place with the camera. Evil Dead was the most extreme version of that, but Zach also had me watch Drag Me to Hell. That movie is just wild with the camera movement. It’s constantly fast push-ins or canted angles. There are so many cuts—very scene must have a dozen shots in it. Lots of wide lens stuff. An example of that style [in Barbarian] is the moment where Justin gets the tape measure pulled out of his hand. For that—and for the POV where he’s got the knife and flashlight in his hands looking down the hall—we were on a 15mm lens super close to him.
Filmmaker: Let’s get into the lenses. Break down the package for me.
Kuperstein: We had the Zeiss Supreme Primes and the 21mm was our widest. We couldn’t get our hands on the 18mm, and they hadn’t come out yet with the 15mm. So, we mixed and matched for the rest of the set. We used the Tokina Vista 18mm, the Zeiss CP.2 for the 15mm, and then the Laowa 12mm, which was a crazy lens that I really liked. We tried to save that for the flashback stuff.
Filmmaker: Those Tokina and Laowa lenses are pretty budget friendly compared to the Zeiss Supremes. Were you sourcing everything in Bulgaria? Did that limit your selection at all?
Kuperstein: That was a limitation for sure. I tried pretty hard to get the 18mm Supreme Prime. We looked internationally, but they just weren’t available. Our rental house was Magic Shop in Sofia, and they were great. I met the ACs for the first time there and they had a great relationship with the rental house. They let us do a lot of testing there early on in our prep process. I think they had just gotten the VENICE, and they did order and ship in a couple of extra accessories. I really like the extended viewfinder eyepiece, so we got that from L.A., but the lenses all had to come from Magic Shop. They had a pretty good selection and some really cool older lenses that I liked, just not for this project.
Filmmaker: Was the dual ISO a big draw of the Venice so you could shoot 2500 in those basement tunnels?
Kuperstein: Absolutely. When I read the script, I knew that it needed to be all flashlights in the basement. I chose the Supreme Primes because they are pretty fast and very clean. I hadn’t shot with the VENICE before, but I’d heard great things and the 2500 ISO seemed like a necessity. I did some testing in prep and sent some stuff to my colorist Sam Daley. He looked at 2500 up to 10000 ISO and he was like, “Go to 5000 if you need it, but don’t go to 10000.” I’d say we were mostly at 2500 for the tunnel scenes, but the 15mm and 18mm were a little slower, so we had to bump up to 5000 when we were on those lenses. Everything had to be shot wide open in there just to make sure we could see the actors’ faces.
Filmmaker: In the tunnels there’s different sources of light for different characters—Georgina has an iPhone and Justin has a flashlight. Did you actually just use an iPhone flashlight?
Kuperstein: It was just an iPhone flashlight. It kind of had to be, because the phone was going to be in frame so much. I was very concerned about [Justin Long’s] flashlight in prep. I wanted to make sure that we had one that was a good-looking prop but was also bright enough and controllable so we could dial it in. Either the set decorator or one of the prop guys—I can’t remember which—suggested this LED puck light that’s maybe three inches across called the Ape Labs Coin. It was battery powered and remote controllable. That was super helpful, because we were changing lenses and ISOs and needed the flashlight to be different brightnesses at different times. The art department found a flashlight, pulled out the guts of it and mounted that puck light inside. There were a couple of times when the battery died on it and that was a pain, so after that we were cautious to keep it off when we could.
Filmmaker: I watched some of Angst (1983) on Tubi and it’s profoundly disturbing. The way the camera moves is unlike anything I’ve seen before. How did you replicate that look?
Kuperstein: We did talk about doing some Snorricam stuff [where the camera is rigged directly to the actor], but in the end it was mostly Steadicam. I kept telling the Steadicam op, “Get closer. Uncomfortably close.” They were often tripping each other, because that lens is so wide that they were right behind the actor. We used mainly the 15mm and the 12mm for that.
Filmmaker: The first shot of the flashback tracks back with Frank once he leaves the house, then the camera gets into the backseat of the car and drives off with him. Did you use a gimbal for that, then hand off from one operator to another in the car?
Kuperstein: Yes, that was a gimbal that was handed off. That was the very last day of shooting, so we had a lot of time to figure it out, but we also didn’t have the car until pretty late in the game. We found out at the last minute that the window was really narrow and there wasn’t a lot of space to get the camera through. We built the VENICE in Rialto mode, where you separate the front half of the camera from the back, to see if we could balance that on an RS 2 [gimbal]. Our 1st AC Ivelin “Ivo” Metodiev, our 2nd AC Luciano Ivanov and our Steadicam op Tomislav “Chocho” Mihailov did a really great job putting that rig together and getting it balanced. That shot had to be on the 15mm because that was the lightest lens we had. The rest of them were pretty beefy. Then there was a problem where we realized you couldn’t take the handle of the RS 2 and hold it to the side to pass through the window. The handle had to be on the bottom and that was going to be way too tall to fit through the window, but the battery for the RS 2 is in that handle. So, at the last second Ivo reached out to his network of ACs in Sofia and found somebody who had a battery adapter so we could power the gimbal off something else (and swap out the RS 2handle for one that could fit through the window).
Filmmaker: It’s cool that you were able to use affordable gear to get amazing shots. An RS 2 cost less than $1,000.
Kuperstein: They’re very effective. Also, for the opening of that shot I really wanted it to be very static. We were trying to figure out how to do that. Do we set it on a stand? I didn’t want to just have somebody holding it because I didn’t want any bounce. So, we built a stack of apple boxes and rested the RS 2 on them. The first pan was done with the RS 2 still on the apple boxes. Then the camera slides off the apple boxes and we follow Frank over to the car. I was in the backseat of the car ducked down, so you didn’t see me when the camera went past [the car’s rear window], then the operator passed the gimbal through the window to me. Because we were in Rialto mode, the rest of the body of the camera was attached by a cable and that rig was being carried on the back of our best boy grip Petyo Petrov. He just hopped up onto the car and sat on the window and held on while the car drove way. We weren’t going very fast, so it was safe. I just loved the crew there. It was such a pleasant surprise to find such amazing talent there and people who were really dedicated to the film. I would love to work with any of them again.
Filmmaker: You didn’t get to take any crew, right? No ACs or ops or your gaffer.
Kuperstein: Exactly, just me, Zach and the producers and actors. Everyone else was from Bulgaria.
Filmmaker: The color in that flashback feels like an old still photography stock. Did you make a LUT specifically for that sequence or did you get that more in the DI?
Kuperstein: We did build a LUT for it and it ended up not being the right look. It was a little too neutral. [In the grade] I was just like, “Make it super saturated.” Sam pushed it really far and we fell in love with that vibrant green, yellow and blue. Also, the rest of the movie has a little bit of film grain on it, and we were going to put that on the flashback as well. But Sam said, “Why don’t we try video noise instead?” It looked awesome. It really delineated that section along with switching to a 4:3 aspect ratio.
Filmmaker: I was reading an interview you did for The Vigil where you talked about the low-fi tricks you used on that movie, things like putting Sternos from catering under the lens to get heat distortion or taking a casserole dish from the church where the crew ate lunch to rig in front of the lens. Do you have any similar stories for Barbarian?
Kuperstein: Some of the camera rigging was a little bit janky. There were some low angle handheld shots that we wanted to do in the tunnels so we built a little butt dolly—a pancake [apple box] with some casters on it—and used the Ergorig’s low mode suspension bungee armed off the front of that dolly just so the camera could be half an inch from the floor. Petyo would push me around on that, or he had a rope attached to it and he would just run and pull me. That was a fun way to get faster moving stuff low to the ground.
Filmmaker: Do you save these things? Do you have a closet full of butt dollies and casserole dishes?
Kuperstein: I do still have the casserole dish. That’s probably the only thing I’ve kept. I cook with it often. (laughs)