“Instead of Fighting Those Limitations, I Had to Learn to Embrace Them”: DP Pierce Derks on In A Violent Nature
Sundance 2024 Midnight selection In A Violent Nature puts a twist on the slasher film by sticking with its killer rather than its victim. Shot in woods of Northern Ontario, much of the film consists of one figure navigating that locale rather than advancing the story in the tried-and-true methods associated with the genre.
Below, cinematographer Pierce Derks discusses the difficulties of shooting in such a remote location and how, with limited equipment, the crew found a setup that achieved the look that they wanted.
See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Derks: I was on a different version of the film before as the behind-the-scenes documentarian. That version faced unforeseen setbacks that led to the production being prematurely paused. As they reviewed the footage, they realized the hiatus was a bit of a mixed blessing because what they had been shooting wasn’t really the movie they wanted to make. When they set out to finish the film, they planned to revisit every scene they had previously shot with a fresh perspective. Unfortunately, due to scheduling conflicts, the DP of the original shoot, Andrew Appelle, was unable to return for this new block of production. Since I was on the original set and had an intimate knowledge of the project and its challenges, I was asked to take over shooting this new version of the film.
Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
Derks: It was very important to have the film’s visuals feel organic, in regard to both lighting and movement. We’re often following the main character of Johnny through the woods, so we were very conscious about having the camera feel like it was still tethered to the environment. We never wanted something too robotic or floaty but also didn’t want to drift into full shaky handheld territory. It was a fine line of finding movement that felt natural and alive with a certain level of synchronicity to the emotion of each scene.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Derks: For this project we watched a lot of works from Alan Clarke and Gus Van Sant during preproduction as tonal reference, along with a lot 16mm media. Personally, I took a lot of inspiration from the 1995 series Neon Genesis Evangelion. I just think the 1.33 aspect ratio is used so beautifully in that show, so a lot of shots from that were floating around in my mind either consciously or subconsciously when composing frames for 1.33.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Derks: I’d say the biggest challenge that reared its head every day were the locations. We filmed in the rural woods of Sault Ste. Marie in Northern Ontario. The location was so critical to the story, but the downside to filming there (besides black fly season) is trying to get to and from the set. By the time you try to load in a traditional camera kit, grip and lighting package it’s basically lunch and everyone’s wrecked. We had to figure out a minimalist setup that we could hand-bomb in and still have enough energy to finish the day. It was restrictive, but instead of fighting those limitations, I had to learn to embrace them.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Derks: We shot the movie on the Canon C70. I chose it because we needed a camera that was compact enough to fit our specific needs but also didn’t compromise on image quality. Since we were using a lot of uncommon rigging and stabilizer setups, having a camera that was lightweight but also had built-in NDs and internal raw recording was a lifesaver. I put together a kit of vintage Canon FDs as our primary lenses; they have a lovely slightly impressionistic quality without ever feeling clinical. Their size and weight along with ease of adapting to the C70’s RF mount made them ideal for the project.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Derks: For this project one of the ideas was to keep daylight sequences looking natural with a certain amount of grit and rawness. We still found ways to shape the light but never wanted to modify it so much that it started to look or feel like we were shooting in a studio. On the flip side, I pushed the man-made lighting that Johnny encounters to have more of a sickly and harsh vibe, leaving an invasive feeling on the surroundings, providing a deliberate contrast to all those earthy tones.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Derks: It might have been the “yoga” sequence on the cliff. It wasn’t necessarily that difficult from the camera side, but man it was a herculean effort from the prosthetics make-up team, including Nash and Fletcher Barrett, to get all those pieces together on the day to sell that memorable scene.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Derks: I’d say a lot of the look was baked in on set with lighting and exposure choices. When we first went into the grade, we were presented with options of some more stylized modern horror looks. They looked cool and had a nice vibe, but at the same time they weren’t really the movie we shot. We wanted to keep the natural tones that we found on location without trying to artificially inflict a mood on the
audience. Our colorist, James Graham, was fantastic at helping to balance things out and subtly enhance the tones that were in the negative rather than outright replacing them.
Film Title: In A Violent Nature
Camera: Canon C70
Lenses: Primarily vintage Canon FD primes
Lighting: Aputure and Fiilex LEDs, tungsten practicals
Processing: Custom LUT applied to LOG Cinema Raw LT files
Color Grading: Graded at Alter Ego in Toronto