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Shutter Angles

Conversations with DPs, directors and below-the-line crew by Matt Mulcahey

“One Light Has to Win”: DP Michael Simmonds on Halloween Ends

Halloween EndsHalloween Ends

Pronouncements of finality by slasher franchises have always been amusingly premature. Final Chapters. Final Fridays. Final Nightmares: You can’t keep a good (or at least a profitable) slasher down for long. While Halloween Ends—the 13th film in the franchise—probably won’t be the last we ever see of Michael Myers, it certainly does feel like the conclusion of director David Gordon Green’s chapter of the story.

Set four years after Halloween Kills, the new entry finds Myers long missing from Haddonfield and Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode attempting to move on with her life. She’s relocated from her remote survivalist compound into town, dipping the tiniest tip of her toe into the dating pool with some grocery store flirtation with sheriff Will Patton and working on a memoir whose conclusion will bring symbolic closure. However, if you’ve seen the trailer, poster or any other horror movie, you can guess that Myers isn’t quite done with Haddonfield yet.

With the movie out in theaters and streaming on Peacock, Michael Simmonds—the cinematographer behind all three entries in the David Gordon Green Halloween trilogy—spoke to Filmmaker about how the prolific Green entertains himself on set, the struggle to keep the pumpkins in the opening credits from looking like Madballs, and why you don’t want your color contrast to end up as a fruit salad.

Filmmaker: When I first read about two more Halloween sequels, the idea was that they’d be shot back-to-back in North Carolina. That’s ultimately not what happened.

Simmonds: Our first Halloween movie was shot in Charleston, South Carolina. That’s where David Gordon Green and (Halloween Ends screenwriter/executive producer) Danny McBride are based. They had always been North Carolina guys, but when we did Vice Principals, North Carolina (temporarily) lost their tax incentive. They kind of all fell in love with Charleston. They moved their business down there. We went back to North Carolina for Halloween Kills and shot in Wilmington. We did the third one in Savannah, Georgia. For all of them there were some rumors of shooting back-to-back, but it never could be figured out. 

Filmmaker: John Carpenter’s original film was set in small-town Illinois but was shot in Southern California. For your trilogy, you’re using three separate cities for Haddonfield. Was it difficult to create a sense of continuity?

Simmonds: We shot all ours on East Coast coastal cities, but Savannah and Charleston are very specific looking. We were always trying to hide that and get rid of the moss, find roads with sidewalks—things that felt more like generic America, because those cities are very unique.

Filmmaker: You shot your first Halloween on Alexa Super 35-sized sensors with Cooke anamorphics. Did you carry that through both sequels as well?

Simmonds: Yes. On Halloween Ends, the LF was very readily available, but I chose not to go with large format. I just stayed with the standard Alexas because I thought these movies use each other’s footage within them and they’re always cutting to old stuff. I figured I should just keep it simple.

Filmmaker: If you had gone large format, would that set of Cooke anamorphics from the first film even have covered the sensor? 

Simmonds: It would’ve been an issue if I’d jumped to the LF. I would’ve had to use something else. There are more options now [than when we shot Halloween Kills], but back then it was definitely a limited playing field [for large format anamorphics].

Filmmaker: I read something about Hawks being used as well.

Simmonds: Anamorphic and zooms are always a challenge. On the 2018 [Halloween], I had a spherical zoom with an anamorphic backend adapter. It was functional and it was very easy to use, but it wasn’t very distinctive looking. On Kills, we had a bit more money and had a better relationship with the rental house. I was able to get some Hawk amorphic zooms and I used those. I wasn’t that happy with the results. When I went to do Halloween Ends, I went back to using spherical zooms with an anamorphic adapter.

Filmmaker: What didn’t you like about the way the Hawks looked? 

Simmonds: They had too much weird stuff going on in the top and the bottom of the frame. Specific parts of the lens were in focus and other parts were not. With those lenses, if you put somebody in the upper third in the corner it just falls apart. Even at the middle f-stops it was an issue.

Filmmaker: Haddonfield and the effect of Michael Myers on the town are very much a central part of Halloween Kills. During the daytime exteriors, the shots are full of the dated strip malls that mark a lot of Midwestern small towns that are crumbling out of the middle class.

Simmonds: David wanted to tell the story of a town that’s been poisoned. Michael Myers is no longer there, but the events of Halloween Kills have screwed up the Good Samaritan nature of what the town once was. I’m happy you pointed that out because I didn’t know if that was noticeable to the audience, but that very much was our intent, to find things that looked dilapidated and dying. The idea is that it contrasts with the beginning Hitchcockian sequence, which takes place in a more affluent period for the town. Now, it’s become a well that’s been poisoned.

Filmmaker. I absolutely think you convey that idea, but I love that you didn’t feel the need to make the entire film in that muted palette. You make the point effectively early on, then once we get into the night exteriors the movie is full of saturated color. I’ve seen a few of your films—Nerve, Project Power, White Girl—that have the same use of bold colors and color contrast. Is that something of a trademark for you?

Simmonds: You have to understand that I’m 45. I graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 2000. At the time, you could not talk about cinematography without talking about Chris Doyle and his work with Wong Kar-wai. Using contrasting colors like Chris Doyle was something I was always trying to do. For example, there’s a scene [at Lindsey’s bar] where this dude is playing pool [in blue and pink neon light] and behind him in the background there’s a guy in the kitchen [bathed in green light]. That’s a real David Gordon Green thing. David will be like, “I want this shot to be about that prep cook in the background.” I don’t know if those things are even noticeable to the audience, but David’s very whimsical with things like that. He’s very much like, “I need to have my fun, too.” I’ve done scenes with David where he’s like, “I want to see if I can tell this story with only the camera moving left to right on a dolly and not panning.” And I’ll say, “That’s impossible.” And he’s like, “Let’s try it anyway.”

Filmmaker: Do you determine all the colors well ahead of shooting the scene, or do you like to be open on the day about what you’re going to use?

Simmonds: Well, I know a lot of the times what the colors will be, and I know where I want the light, but I don’t always know yet which light I want to win. And by winning, I mean what’s going to be the dominant source that’s going to hit the actor. You want to avoid a shot looking like a fruit salad. There needs to be a dominant source, then a secondary source. One light has to win.

Filmmaker: When you mentioned David Gordon Green trying to entertain himself, it made me think of the scene at the garage where the guy is watching Van Damme in Hard Target. Were you involved in that decision?

Simmonds: You know what, often I am involved in the stories for things like that, but that particular one got past me. I don’t know how Hard Target got in there. I assume it’s a Universal film and it’s something that they were able to clear. They probably came up with five suggestions, and David chose Hard Target.

Filmmaker: There are a number of shots in the film that recreate images from John Carpenter’s original. For example, in the death scene of Nurse Deb, she’s pinned to the wall while the killer quizzically stands back and cocks his head, similar to Bob’s death in the 1978 film. But what I like about those callbacks is that they’re not merely fan service Easter eggs. You’re visually commenting on the transference of evil from Michael Myers.

Simmonds: Halloween has a hardcore fan base. Those people want callbacks, they want the legacy of Halloween to be honored through the framing and the cinematography. We’re often echoing moments and shots from the other films. We watched those scenes for inspiration, but I’m not on set with like a storyboard trying to match them exactly.

Filmmaker: Right, but I like said, what I thought was smart about those callbacks is that they’re not simply for nostalgia’s sake. It’s not like the Star Wars universe where you’re like, “Oh, hey, it’s that random creature from the cantina!” There’s a specific relationship between Michael Myers and the character of Corey in this film, and you’re creating this link between them through those callbacks. 

Simmonds: Yes, 100%. I think the moment where we did that best was in the 2018 film, at the end of the movie where Michael throws Laurie out a window and she falls. Then Michael looks down and Laurie’s gone, and that’s a complete reversal or inversion of the 1978 ending. When you’re making a franchise trilogy, there’s a limit to how much we can explore the story of Laurie and how much we can explore the identity of Michael. You can’t get too close to it. The audience thinks they want to know, but they really don’t. We have to create new characters and new stories, but it still has to be a Halloween movie. We try to honor the style and framing of the earlier pictures to tell our story.

Filmmaker: The opening title sequence, which features pumpkins emerging from each other like nesting dolls, is another image that functions on two levels. On one level, it’s a clever, visually distinct iteration of the original film’s title sequence. But once you’ve seen the movie, you realize, again, that it’s thematically linked to this idea of transference.

Simmonds: Richard Wright, our production designer, has normally filmed those things, then in post a special effects company enhances them. He did a practical version of this one that was pretty cool, but it’s not in the movie. I think a visual effects company did the whole thing on this one.

Filmmaker: It looks really good. I assumed it was a visual effect—just because how the hell could you do that practically?—but the texture of the pumpkins and the lighting are incredibly realistic.

Simmonds: It took a long time to get right. I know David was going nuts over it, because no matter what we did it kept looking like a Madball from the 1980s. We finally got to a place where we liked it.

Filmmaker: Let’s go back to the opening scene, which you described before as Hitchcockian. Did you find that amazing spiral staircase in a practical location or is that a gargantuan set?

Simmonds: No, that’s a real house. It’s in Savannah, and I think they have weddings there. It’s a grand old plantation house, but I don’t think anyone has lived there for a while. In the original script, the kid accidentally stabbed himself or something like that, but when we walked into that space, we said, “Well, obviously we’re going to use this staircase.” Generally, when you location scout, you see maybe three options [for each location], then choose one. Whenever David and I scout each location, we think of it as if we had to shoot the scene in that location. No matter what—even if the location is completely wrong [for what is in the script]—we very rarely just hop back in the van and go to the next option. We like to explore how to tell that story in that space. When we came into that house in Savannah, we go, “Obviously, the staircase is going be the centerpiece. Now how do we rewrite the script and rework the camera [plan] to tell the story of an accidental fall?”

Filmmaker: Unlike much of the rest of the film, which has that color contrast we talked about, this opening scene is more monochromatic with a yellowish hue.

Simmonds: I guess I was trying to make it look like something Harris Savides would shoot, and I say that very humbly. Why did I do that? I don’t know. I couldn’t figure out a way to motivate a secondary palette into that location. 

Filmmaker: Break down the scene on the overpass in front of the billboard, where the high school marching band kids are bullying Corey. Did you use the existing lights of a practical billboard, or did you rig up some SkyPanels for those uplights?

Simmonds: We rigged some SkyPanels on it. For the streetlights in the distance, we turned off the real lights that were above the actors and about halfway up the light poles we rigged these lights called Cobra Heads so I could control the color and dim them. They’re connected to our smartboard. We put a bunch of SkyPanels on the billboard and I motivated from there. 

Filmmaker: How about the scene on the roof of the radio station, which has a red neon sign and a signal tower that also flashes red light?

Simmonds: That was an abandoned building that production design and the art department tricked out. Richard Wright is David Green’s go-to production designer, and he’s practically a producer on these things. That’s all his design. Jess Royal, the set decorator, designed the front of the station. That neon sign was real, and I think it probably broke the second we stopped filming. It was barely working while we were filming. The radio tower is digital. To light the scene, I had a big lift with some red lights where the tower would be pulsing.

Filmmaker: For the tubes rigged in front of the station, were those just Asteras?

Simmonds: Those were fluorescents with gels on them. Asteras are expensive, and I also think they’re quite overused. They’re great for separating things in the background, but I don’t think they’re great to see on camera. The color palette is quite limited as opposed to a party gel.

Filmmaker: Were the tighter shots on top of the station’s roof done at the practical location?

Simmonds: Yes, and it was very cumbersome. There’s no parapet, no ledge, so we had very minimal crew up there. While we were shooting up there, another unit was shooting the DJ downstairs. Paul Daley shot all that second unit.

Filmmaker: To finish up, tell me the story behind the shot where Michael and Laurie are reflected in a pool of blood during their final showdown. This was something you found on the day?

Simmonds: I was operating the camera, which I don’t do that often. It’s very difficult for the camera operators, because they don’t get to explore. They have an assignment they have to achieve. As a DP, if you get to jump on the camera, you have the opportunity to screw up, to explore and roam. I was on a shot of Michael and Laurie’s hands, and I caught [that reflection] out of my left eye. I took a chance and tilted the camera down [to that pool of blood]. I was like, “Oh, that’s going to work.” Of course, there was dolly track and all this other stuff in the shot, so you have to spend five or ten more minutes sweetening it, making it filmable.

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