Best known as the cinematographer for Nerve, Paranormal Activity and most recently Halloween, Michael Simmonds talks to Mandy News about his experiences working within the genre of horror and the challenges he faced as a cinematographer.
Please introduce yourself and tell us how you became involved with the camera?
I don’t really have any romantic stories about how a camera was given to me. I do remember receiving a camera when I was a kid and my mother scolding me for wasting the film which has probably had some sort of lasting effect!
I developed an interest in photography at an early age. I went to the School for Visual Arts in New York City. I knew I wanted to be a cinematographer by the age of nineteen and I’ve never deviated from that course.
How did you get involved with the Halloween project? It’s probably been going since before you started out!
The contacts you make in life, you never know how they affect you later in a roundabout way. For instance, I did a film called Paranormal Activity 2 about a decade ago and maintained that friendship with Jason Blum and the gang at Blumhouse.
All through my parallel life, I was making independent films and I knew David Gordon Green’s producer, Lisa Muskat – we know each other socially and she recommended for Vice Principals. Then those two lives criss-crossed. David was hired to do Halloween and met with Jason. David said, “I’d like to get Michael involved.” Jason said, “no problem, we’d love to have him,” and that’s how that happened.
In terms of it being such a stalwart of the horror genre – one of the classics – what was the process of making it look new, yet paying homage to the predecessors?
Well, for the writers James Fradley and Danny McBride, that was the goal – to be a homage and a sequel. They’re cinephiles and movie junkies and love horror. I contacted the original DoP, Dean Cundey, through his agent. He’s a legend, who has worked on Back to the Future, so I called him up to talk about the cinematography on Halloween.
We talked about functional camera work and why not to be trendy, to think about the micro-story you’re telling at every little moment and be functional in nature. I like to think I approached it in the same way they approached the first one. Obviously, the pacing has to be different for a modern audience. Halloween would be considered arthouse pacing by today’s standards.
It’s all about the shifting of camera perspectives: what the audiences see, what the characters see, what the audience doesn’t see and Michael’s perspective. I think we really brought that to the new one. We avoided any backstory with Michael because the audience doesn’t really want to know that.
With a franchise like Halloween, you really have to distill what the actual franchise is. Paranormal Activity is found footage in a house. What is Halloween? It’s a masked person terrorising a family – we don’t understand why and it’s a shifting perspective, it’s stalking.
What’s your preferred kit and what things do you carry in your tool bag, regardless of style?
Well, one feature of Halloween is that it has to be anamorphic. The first one is so specifically anamorphic. To destroy that would be to do a great disservice to the storytelling and, again, the logic of what’s in the frame; who sees Michael, who sees what. Anamorphic tells the story better. To have the wide aspect ratio means more information on the screen at once.
The reason I specifically used Cooke is that it’s a cleaner anamorphic. They are a more consistent lens set. I used Cooke so I could run two cameras at once. The sets match very well from one to another. For instance, Panavision has the most beautiful anamorphic in the world. Each set is so distinctive.
By the end of the shoot, I saw the beauty of the anamorphic Cooke zoom. As far as the camera goes, it was probably a couple of Arri Alexas and one mini. I’m very untechnical and I’ve shot entire movies without knowing what the camera was that we used.
As far as lighting goes, we use some LRX systems – they’re like shiny LED remote things. They’re very manageable, they can go on the cranes and change colour.
What are the challenges in shooting a horror film? How it reads off the page can be different to how you shoot it… How do you know if it’s scary?
You’ve brought up the exact point! Is what I shoot scary? When you shoot a comedy, you laugh, when you shoot a drama, you emote but when you shoot a horror film, you really don’t know what you’re getting.
A horror film is by far the most mathematical of all the genres. For instance, you’re in this scene where Michael Myers is in the courtyard. This guy holds up his mask behind his back. Is it scary? I really don’t know. We try to deliver the build-up of tension. The music really does the heavy lifting and the audience participation fills in the gaps. I’m scared of shooting horror films for that exact reason as the reality is that they’re actually very technical.
To continue that idea…what is dark? It’s a kind of artistic expression, so it’s hard to be constantly photographing things that you can barely see, and understanding what the audience understands. That’s your daily challenge.
What are you working on – or going to be working on – that you’re allowed to tell us about?
I can talk about anything! I wrapped on Halloween then I took some time off to be with family then jumped on a quick documentary with James Marsh.
We did Project Nim together and he did Man on Wire. We did this Prince documentary and I’m currently filming a movie for Netflix starring Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt for Henry & Rel - who directed Nerve. It’s a big budget film.
What advice do you have for young, up-and-coming cinematographers who want to get on in the film industry?
There are so many answers to that question. When I do lectures, I have sheets and sheets of advice but the first piece of advice is: when leaving an answerphone message, repeat your number twice and spell your last name. This advice is so basic and often not done.
Out of every film class, only one student has ever come up to me and said, “what can I do for you?” and I rang them up and said, “I need help archiving all my negatives from photography.” He came over, we hung out and he asked for my advice, so I wrote him a letter to get him into the AFI, the American Film Institute.
People often want me to help them with jobs and they don’t take the job. Never turn down work, don’t quit, always show up, always be the first there. Match the level of enthusiasm of the director, if not trump it, you know?
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