Disembowelment and Doggie Cams: DP Sandi Sissel on Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs
If there are two characteristics defining director of photography Sandi Sissel’s work, they are versatility and realism. Sissel began her career in the documentary field, shooting countless hours of footage for NBC and ABC News as well as 60 Minutes, and she has continued working in the non-fiction form on dozens of highly acclaimed films for PBS (Before Stonewall, Witness to War), HBO (Jane Goodall: Chimps So Like Us), and Disney (Endurance, for which Sissel received a BAFTA nomination). Concurrently with her non-fiction work, Sissel has forged a career as a superb narrative cinematographer; her acclaimed feature debut, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay!, applied her documentarian’s eye to a fictional story and served as a transitional film into a career that would encompass comedy, horror, action, and second-unit work on enormous studio productions like Master and Commander. She’s worked on sitcoms (The Wonder Years), IMAX films (Roving Mars), and as a special effects photographer (Daredevil) – in short, there’s virtually no type of cinematography she hasn’t tried.
Sissel’s key strengths – her background in social realism and her ability to tackle varied tones – served her well on Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991), a horror film that contained healthy doses of comedy and political commentary along with the gore. The story follows a black teenager who discovers that his family’s evil slumlord is holding a number of abused children captive in his basement, a premise that allows Craven to both literally and figuratively return to one of his favorite themes: the often aberrant nature hidden underneath placid surfaces. Operating on multiple levels, the film works as both a timeless fable – the story of children battling evil parent figures is told in a manner reminiscent of a Grimm fairy tale – and a prescient bit of political commentary; sadly, the movie’s vision of the haves stuffing the have-nots underground and trampling on them seems as resonant now as it did when the movie was released, and there’s an unsettling irony inherent in the film’s incorporation of news footage of America bombing Iraq during the first Gulf War – footage that doesn’t look all that removed from more recent global events. Sissel perfectly balances the multiple agendas of the screenplay, heightening the film’s surrealistic, allegorical aspects with highly stylized lighting while also bringing her eye for more realistic detail to the material focusing on class struggle. Her work is beautifully presented on a new Blu-ray edition of Stairs that contains multiple interviews, making-of featurettes, and a commentary by Craven. I asked Sissel to reflect on her work on the movie as the Blu-ray was hitting the streets.
Filmmaker: Where were you at in your career at the time you shot The People Under the Stairs? How did you get the job, and what was your initial response to the script?
Sandi Sissel: Although I had worked as an operator for several years I was still early in my career as a DP on narrative films. When Wes contacted me about shooting The People Under the Stairs he referenced my work on Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay, Michael Mann’s miniseries Drug Wars: Camerana and John Cole’s Rising Son. Of course I was familiar with Wes’s work but had yet to do a film in the horror genre. When I first read The People Under the Stairs, I was struck by the mixture of horror and satire. It was also interesting that Wes wanted to do a film with African-American actors as the good guys pitted against the evil slumlords. I must admit that on the first reading I missed a lot of the references to horror and instead read it as a narrative.
Filmmaker: At what point did you begin formulating a visual strategy in your mind – do you think about that on the first reading of a script, or do you just read for story the first time and then read it again to start thinking about your visual approach?
Sissel: It took several readings and some time with the production designer for me to really begin to find the visual approach. It also helped immensely to see other films that Wes had written and directed. He is a very studious filmmaker who knows his genre and his audience well. He is also extremely collaborative and hires people who are open to creative partnerships. After talking about his ideas for the film he left me to design the camera moves and the lighting design. He rarely objected to my thoughts.
Filmmaker: How did the two of you decide on the look of the film?
Sissel: There were scenes from my work that Wes complimented and we also spent a good deal of time scouting and working closely on the set designs with the production designer Brian Jones. We shot the main floor of the house and the upstairs hallways first. Those were under construction early on in the process so I was able to go over to the stage to work on ideas for lighting and camera moves. We wanted to find a very moody feel for the film and I decided early on to shoot at 500ASA and work wide open on the Zeiss lenses whenever possible. The tones of the set allowed for this approach.
Filmmaker: I know you started in documentaries. How does that background inform your fiction work?
Sissel: When you work in a cinema verite style it is common to enter a location, size up the characters and tell the story from inside the action and not outside. This is often accomplished with the camera very close to people and, more often than not, handheld. When I began doing fiction films I often used the same techniques and enjoyed moving the camera a lot. Because I had been a Steadicam operator I also knew the different feelings from working handheld, with a Steadicam, a dolly or a crane. The tools I chose were always about advancing the story. It also helps to have various options when the budget is limited.
Filmmaker: Something I don’t think people are always aware of is the importance of the cinematographer in terms of a film’s performances. What do you see your role as in terms of working with the actors and putting them at ease?
Sissel: I was both the DP and the A camera operator on the film, so I had a very close relationship with the actors. Wes was always open to improvising our plans on the spot depending on the input of the actors during rehearsal. Luckily I had already worked with Ving Rhames, Everett McGill and Bill Cobb. Wendy Robie was also a delight. We moved the camera a lot and the actors were up for the task. Perhaps our biggest challenges were lighting very dark rottweilers and using them in tight spaces. The dog wranglers were very helpful.
Filmmaker: The People Under the Stairs has a very precise and tricky tone, in that it mixes horror with broad satire and uses both to make some extremely unsettling points about America’s economic imbalances at the time (and now, unfortunately). Were you concerned about striking the right balance, and how did you reconcile the disparate tones in your lighting and camerawork?
Sissel: Wes and I did not go out of our way to address those issues visually. We knew that we were dealing with a spooky environment and that included child molestation as well as economic disparities. Wes even included video images of the “shock and awe” from the first Gulf War. It may sound a bit odd to say, but in many ways we shot many of those scenes very realistically. It was not until we shot in the basement and the walls that horror took over.
Filmmaker: How did you and the production designer work together on the main house set where the movie takes place?
Sissel: Brian Jones did an incredible job designing the main house and the basement sets. My gaffer Bruce McCleery, my key grip Joe Celeste and I worked very closely with Brian. Whenever there were lighting or camera move issues he re-worked the sets for us. Certainly the basement, the walls in between the stairs and the crawl spaces were the result of a group endeavor. We wanted to be able to do long runs with the camera whenever possible and that meant hiding lights. Often we asked for spaces to be created to add lights to shine through slits in the walls. We also liked the low ceilings but needed room for my camera operator George Butler to be able to run with a “doggie cam” that he designed or the Steadicam operator Dan Kneece to be able to fit through. These were all jigsaw puzzles. The use of various kinds of smoke and debris added to the illusion.
Filmmaker: There are a lot of scenes in the movie that take place in extremely confined spaces…what kind of lighting package did you have, and was it difficult to get what you needed into the areas where you were shooting?
Sissel: The movie was shot in 1990 so we used a very typical lighting package for the stage. Luckily Kino Flo was beginning to expand their lighting instruments and we took full advantage of them in the basement and between the walls. We also employed a lot of par lights. Kodak had introduced 500ASA stock so we were able to work at a very low light level. Often we shot both indoors and outdoors at T1.4 – T2.
Filmmaker: How did you handle camera movement in the tight spaces?
Sissel: We were never afraid to do handheld or to use a device called a “doggie cam.” I had used a version of this with Michael Mann on Drug Wars. It was basically a post with a video monitor attached to one end and a 35mm eye-mo camera on the other end. Although it was not a “Steadi” rig it did allow for running with the camera at a low angle. Joe Celeste improvised many rigs for us outside on the roof of the house as well which we did on a practical set. He and Jamie Young rigged climbing devices and an ingenious pulley system.
Filmmaker: What kinds of lenses were you working with?
Sissel: At that point in my career I worked with Arriflex. We shot with two Arri BL4s and used Zeiss superspeed lenses. We also had an Angenieux 10 – 1 zoom and a Canon 300mm lens.
Filmmaker: You built the set for the interior of the house on a stage, but I’m assuming that the exteriors were all location work. Where did you shoot the neighborhood stuff, and how did you tie it together with your interiors?
Sissel: The interiors were all shot on stage but the exterior house was in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles. The apartment neighborhood was in South Central. Wes was always interested in having a “cutting piece,” as he called it that tied the stage in with the location. Brian was very good about incorporating those pieces. In many cases you could see these pieces in the window on stage. My gaffer was also very careful about matching the light. We shot all the stage work first. Having so many days on worked in our favor. We always shot with two cameras and for the large action sequences we had even more.
Filmmaker: The film also has a fair amount of gore and special makeup effects. How does that affect your job as cinematographer?
Sissel: As I mentioned before, I had conveniently skipped over a lot of that on my first readings of the script and one day when we got our call sheet on set it included a disembowelment scene. Wes laughed at me when I was a bit taken aback. Our special effects supervisor Peter Chesney was very experienced and added a lot to these sequences. I found myself calling for more gore at times and there is nothing scary about shooting these sorts of things in person. It can be in fact very funny. There were some dangerous stunts and some very unusual rigs. We always ran a very fine line of being dark and spooky and yet seeing what was important to see.
Filmmaker: Tell me a little about post. Did you do much in terms of the color timing or any of that to manipulate the look of the film?
Sissel: David Orr and Bill Pine of Technicolor did a terrific job of timing the movie. We were in general very pleased with our dailies and so it was a matter of matching everything in the end. Almost all of the effects were done on set. When you see one of Wes’s films finished it is always exciting to see it as he intended. There is no sense of terror on set, so that is all in his genius in writing and in post. I am indebted to my crew for their collaboration on this film and it was certainly, at the time, the largest work I had ever done on a soundstage. I learned a lot from working with Wes, not only as a master storyteller but as a genuinely kind person.