“We Didn’t Have to Add Too Much Creepiness”: It Follows DP Mike Gioulakis
Many a book and an infinite number of film studies thesis papers have noted the link in ’80s teen horror films between sex and death – though the actual inspiration for that correlation likely has less to do with Reagan-era conservative mores than the target audience’s bottomless appetite for nudity and gore. The connection between a character’s carnal desires and their demise has never been more explicit than in the new horror film It Follows, in which young Detroit suburbanite Jay (The Guest’s Maika Monroe) finds herself stalked by a murderous supernatural force following a sexual encounter. The force can take the shape of any human and can only be stopped by passing the curse on to another person via sex. But what makes It Follows such an exceptionally unsettling film is that the equation of “sex equals death” has nothing to do with moralizing or even with satiating the audiences’ baser instincts. Instead, sex serves as a metaphor for the encroachment of adulthood and with it self-awareness of mortality, making the terror of It Follows not just physical but existential.
Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis talked to Filmmaker about shooting amongst the ruins of Detroit, the influence of John Carpenter and It Follows’ instant classic of an opening shot.
Filmmaker: You came up through the ranks of grip and electric before becoming a cinematographer. How does the time you spent in that department inform the way you work as a director of photography?
Gioulakis: When I started working it was actually a battle for me to figure out whether I should try to shoot more [as opposed to working in grip and electric]. But I feel like it definitely gave me a good foundation for lighting to be able to work under different gaffers and [cinematographers] and it was a great experience to see the variety of different ways that they lit. It gave me a catalogue of lots of different lighting approaches, which has been a very helpful resource to have.
Filmmaker: You served as gaffer on John Sayles’ 2013 film Go for Sisters. What did you add to your catalogue of approaches from that experience?
Gioulakis: He was amazing. I love his films. First of all, he’s an amazing writer, and his approach and his on-set demeanor is just so calm and warm. He’s all about the performances. Go for Sisters was definitely a different style than It Follows — it was a much more naturalistic look — but it reminded me to just try to light simply. [Go for Sisters] had a pretty tough schedule and a small crew and working through those kinds of [conditions] is helpful in going on to the next thing.
Filmmaker: Outside of the work of John Carpenter — whose presence can be felt in the score, the widescreen compositions and the bravura tracking shot that opens It Follows — what were some other sources of visual inspiration for the film?
Gioulakis: [Director David Robert Mitchell and I] talked about a lot of different references. He’s obviously a fan of John Carpenter and a lot of horror from the ’70s and ’80s, but most of our visual references were not in the teen horror realm. We talked a lot about Paris, Texas, Blue Velvet and Rear Window. We’re both big fans of the still photographer Gregory Crewdson and David had him in his look book from day one. [Crewdson’s] photographs have the same kind of surreal suburban imagery that we wanted for It Follows.
Filmmaker: The film takes place outside of a Detroit that is both dreamlike — unfolding in an unfixed period of time in a world almost completely void of adults — yet instantly recognizable to anyone who spent lazy summers in the suburbs. How did shooting the film amidst the crumbling decay of that city influence the look of It Follows?
Gioulakis: It definitely very much informs the look of the film. I hadn’t been there before, but David grew up outside of Detroit in that area where we were shooting, so we had all these locations that David was familiar with. Locations mean so much, especially when you’re in a situation where you don’t have the means to alter the location too much.
Filmmaker: It’s definitely the right part of the country to shoot in if your film calls for mammoth, graffiti-covered abandoned buildings. What can you tell me about the building used in the scene in which the character of Jay wakes up bound in a wheelchair while her new boyfriend explains the rules of how the film’s titular “It” will be stalking her?
Gioulakis: The exterior for that scene was shot at an abandoned mental institution. We didn’t have to add too much creepiness for those shots. (laughs) The interior was shot at the [abandoned] Packard Plant. About a week before we were scheduled to shoot that scene there was a murder at the location we originally wanted to shoot in and the city wouldn’t let us film there. So we had to change locations to the Packard Plant.
Filmmaker: You storyboarded most of the film?
Gioulakis: David and I met 12 to 15 times over the course of a few months and he would come in with storyboards that he’d drawn and we’d go through the movie shot by shot. He definitely has a clear vision of what he wants. Hopefully a decent percentage of what David had in his brain ended up on screen.
Filmmaker: Even with all that preplanning, can you think of some fortuitous digressions on the set?
Gioulakis: One of my favorite images is the scene where Jay is lying down in the back seat of the car with the door open and there are flowers in the foreground. [see above] We got there on that day and David added that element of her picking those flowers when he saw that location.
Filmmaker: You shot most of the film on an ARRI ALEXA, but employed a Red Epic as well. What circumstances called for switching over to the Red?
Gioulakis: We shot about 90 percent of the movie on ALEXA. We did do a couple scenes on the Red Epic because of its size – mainly the scene where the camera is rigged to the wheelchair and for the underwater shots in the swimming pool [for the climax]. Getting an ALEXA M, which is their smaller Epic-size equivalent for the ALEXA, would’ve been too costly.
Filmmaker: What did you select as your lenses?
Gioulakis: We chose a set of Cooke S4’s and we had an Angénieux 24mm-290mm and an Alura 14.5mm-45mm zoom. I would say maybe 80 percent of the film was shot on the [Cooke] 18mm. I think we only used our primes higher than the 50mm once. The goal was to see with as much depth of field for the majority of the film as we could get away with — kind of the opposite of the shallow focus [look] — and use the wide frame as a way to create tension.
Another big part was trying not to cheat perspective in terms of distance. If a person is 100 feet away, rather than punching in on a 200mm lens and now that person fills the whole frame, the idea was to keep them a small dot in a wide frame and having the movement from a realistic perspective create suspense. We do break that rule a couple times, but for the most part we try to adhere to that.
Filmmaker: It Follows employs an eerie series of zooms and pans to create the unsettling sensation of something inhuman and unfeeling creeping toward the film’s characters. What were your rules as far as moving the camera?
Gioulakis: David and I discussed at the beginning having objective, locked-down camera positions where the frame or a pan were independent of what the actors were doing and then contrasting that at certain points when we’re handheld with Jay or seeing things from her perspective. For the objective moments, we would use pans and zooms. In those moments we wanted to take the human presence away from the camerawork as much as possible and have it be sterile and robotic.
Filmmaker: How did you pull off those long, steady pans in the film?
Gioulakis: Unfortunately, we didn’t have anything fancy like a remote head, which would’ve been a good tool to use. So it was me on a fluid tripod head just rehearsing a bunch and trying to do the best I could to have the move not feel human. (laughs) That’s really what it came down to, just rehearsing. Same thing for the opening shot too.
Filmmaker: Since you mentioned it, let’s talk about that long opening shot. It Follows begins with a formally framed image of a tree-lined suburban street. The camera then pans to catch a girl bolting out her front door, tracks parallel to her as she runs and then, after she stops in the middle of the street, slowly creeps toward her as she stares in horror into the distance past the camera.
Gioulakis: David and I always wanted to do it in one shot from the very beginning. That was actually one of the last shots we did on the film. I think it might have been our last day of production, actually. We shot it with a very stripped down crew. It was just pretty much 50 feet of dolly track, the dolly and two guys pushing the dolly. It was a little bit less than a half-day of shooting. We set it up and we started rehearsing during daylight, trying to nail down the timing and then we started rolling when the sun started going down. We got it maybe a couple takes before it was dark. We didn’t use any lights. We had a practical on in the house, but that was it. It was just really about shooting it at the right time of day.
Matt Mulcahey writes about movies and interviews filmmakers on his blog Deep Fried Movies.