Deep Fried Interview: You’re Next cinematographer Andrew Palermo
In the last decade, the three dominant trends in studio horror films have been the torture cycle initiated by Hostel, the spate of slasher remakes and, most recently, the flood of supernatural found footage flicks. The first repulsed with its sadism. The second cloyingly grasped at nostalgia. The third bored by ignoring most of the tools in the filmmakers’ arsenal in favor of a “realistic” aesthetic with scares predicated on pieces of furniture scooting around on their own.
You’re Next, given a wide release by Lionsgate in early August, is an antidote to everything that’s made slogging through these horror cycles an unpleasant chore.
The plot finds a bickering family’s wedding anniversary party interrupted when home invaders sporting disquieting animals masks lay siege to the clan’s remote mansion. The attack reveals a few secrets about the family members, most surprisingly the survival instincts of one sibling’s grad student girlfriend (played by Step Up 3D’s Sharni Vinson).
The movie is often tense and occasionally gruesome, but there’s a sense of humor and an aura of fun that only come from being manipulated by a team of filmmakers with obvious affection for the genre and a willingness to subvert its conventions.
An integral part of that team is You’re Next’s director of photography Andrew D. Palermo, who was nice enough to agree to be Deep Fried Movies’ first interview victim. Palermo is currently in post-production on a documentary about the lives of youths in the isolated Missouri community of Rich Hill. The doc has a Kickstarter campaign to raise completion funds so check it out here and see if it’s something you might want to kick in a few bucks for.
And get your butt to see You’re Next before it’s out theaters. If fans of unique genre efforts don’t support these types of films while they are at the multiplex, we’re in for another five years of killer moon rocks, demonically possessed teenagers and the utter terror of Chaise Lounges mysteriously sliding across suburban living rooms.
Deep Fried Movies: Let’s start with the standard Director of Photography question – What camera/lens package did you use?
Andrew Palermo: We shot on the Red One MX with Arri Zeiss Ultra Primes. The lens choice came after a lot of research and not finding an affordable option for light sensitive anamorphic lenses. We settled on the Ultra Primes because they are sharp, fast, and lightweight. As far as the Red – the Alexa wasn’t yet out, and Red had just released the MX sensor, so at the time [Ed. Note: You’re Next was shot in early 2011] it was by far the best digital camera option on our budget level.
Deep Fried Movies: During pre-production you and director Adam Wingard watched a host of big studio films (everything from Scream to the John Woo action movie Face/Off) to try to figure out what exactly makes a big budget movie feel like a big budget movie. What were some of the tricks you came up with to add production value?
Andrew Palermo: There were a lot of lessons learned in that period. I think it really informed the style of the film before the assault [of the masked home invaders]. Adam’s previous film, “A Horrible Way to Die,” largely used handheld [camerawork.] And I’m certainly not knocking it. I love that film. It was what made me want to work with him, in fact, and I’m a big fan of Chris Hilleke’s photography in it….[But] we really wanted [the early portion of You’re Next] to look in control and so that led a lot to dollying, Steadicamming, car mounts, and a couple of well placed crane shots. There are only two crane shots in the whole film, and they both play [in early establishing shots of characters driving] to the mansion. Adam sometimes would want to urge me to get it a little looser [in the early scenes], and I’d have to push back a bit and say, “Not yet, not yet …” cause I knew we were gonna get crazy once the shit hits the fan.
Additionally, Adam was really looking to John Woo for ideas on how to pull off inserts more successfully. I’ve never been a particular fan of them, I think on a personal level, I prefer films that try to get more out of their shots – but I really came around in thinking about all the advantages they’d offer us for this particular film. I think our most successful scene implementing these lessons is the fight in the kitchen [between Vinson and the villains toward the finale]. That scene had the most setups of any one scene. After watching a dry rehearsal a few days before, I came away with a very specific, almost storybook like, shot-list that we executed with as few takes as possible per action. We got it, and moved on with very little coverage.
Deep Fried Movies: In interviews, Adam has talked about Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien serving as the inspiration for the gradual reveal of Sharni Vinson as your film’s heroine. What was your approach visually to get audiences to the point where they accept the initially unthreatening Vinson as an axe-wielding survivalist?
Andrew Palermo: Well, first off, Alien is one of my all-time favorite movies, so I was excited to steal from it in any way. A lot of the slow reveal comes from the script, which I really have to tip my hat to the writer Simon Barrett for being patient within the story. It’s interesting how Sharni’s character emerges as our hero, but when it gets insane, she really starts to take charge. There are a couple of shots of her that I’m low and wide, and pan up her like a big heroic statue or something. One of those is in the front room [of the family’s home] where the conversation about who should run for help takes place. I think it’s Adam’s favorite shot in the film.
Deep Fried Movies: Can you talk a little bit about the way you mix color temperatures? The interiors of the house are warm oranges, the exteriors are cool blues and the basement lighting is fluorescent green. The colors often bleed from one environment into the next.
Andrew Palermo: I’m a big fan of mixing temperatures. Not drastically – or it looks too 90s for my taste – but some. It feels real to me. When you walk on the street, or pop into someone’s house everyone has different bulbs in every lamp (poor interior decorating, in my opinion). Warmth was a big thing that we strove for within the house. We wanted it to feel safe, inviting, and, well, like a home. In contrast to that, the outside needed to feel dangerous, unknown, and scary.
Deep Fried Movies: With a few exceptions, the movie is confined to a single location. How did you prevent a film with one dominant setting from feeling visually monotonous?
Andrew Palermo: Near the halfway mark of shooting, we’d ask ourselves “How can we make this different?” or “What haven’t we seen from this room?” Frankly, we all grew so tired of being in that house, it was a form of therapy to try different things within it. For instance, the overhead shot as the family all runs up the stairs when they hear Barbara Crampton’s character scream out [Ed. Note: Crampton plays the family’s matriarch] came from watching everyone go up those stairs hundreds of times and thinking to myself “What’s a new way of seeing this repeated action?”
Deep Fried Movies: You’re Next was shot in a historic home that required false walls to be put up for effects in order to prevent damage. What were some of the other technical challenges of the location?
Andrew Palermo: Fake blood was a real issue. We wanted the effects to be practical, and [special effects artists] Mike Strain and Lino Stavole did a great job, but they were really limited, not just budgetarily but where they could use it. Some of the wood within the house was sensitive, so we had to cover it up with plastic. When Amy Seimetz’s character has her throat cut, the walls, floor, and ceiling were all covered – so the shots were determined by what I had to avoid. [Production designer) Tom Hammock did an absolutely wonderful job with the house, though, and he really gave me a feast for shooting. Not to mention it was just a great, old, beautiful home with a lot of character.
Deep Fried Movies: You’re Next opens with a slasher-esque kill scene. Because the movie essentially shifts gears into the realm of wry dysfunctional family comedy for the rest of the first act, how important was it to establish a tone with that opening scene that would carry all the way until the horror elements resume?
Andrew Palermo: I love the opening sequence. It’s some of my favorite photography in the film. I wanted it to feel swift, and efficient. The camera is very deliberate, and the tension is a nice undercurrent throughout. It has a classic horror feel to me as it’s assembled. It feels almost like something you’ve seen, but not entirely so. Some of the slow-motion work gives you a sense of photography to come, as well as the handheld.
Andrew Palermo: That shot is a classic move – low and wide makes people look huge. We wanted these dudes to look badass and formidable. It’s particularly funny to me considering how that scene ends up for the Tiger Masked Man. It’s one of the few times I used a 16mm lens in the film.
The Shot: As Crampton does dishes at the sink, the reflection of one of the home invader’s masks becomes visible in the kitchen window.
Andrew Palermo: This shot came from exploring how to pull off something creepy in this scene as scripted. Adam’s first idea was to reveal the mask within a shiny object in the kitchen, but it just wasn’t working. I walked around the space a bit, and eventually noticed that shooting it from the outside, and having the killer move close to the house was really eerie. I think I shared this one Twitter a while back, but it’s really the only scare I can take credit for. All of the others are Simon, Adam or the producers Keith [Calder] and Jess [Wu]. This was one of the few that had to be found creatively on-set.
The Shot: Scrunched down behind the basement door, Vinson realizes an attacker is approaching when the shaft of light streaming through the door’s keyhole is eclipsed.
Andrew Palermo: I always had wanted to do a shot like this. Keyholes are so ingrained in the language of cinema. We put a 1K lamp outside firing straight into it, and light Sharni just with some small LEDs. Haze played a big part in the image as well, which helps you see the light. I love it when the Lamb Masked man crosses the light and disrupts the beam.
The Shot: Our heroine Vinson rigs a small digital camera to repeatedly trigger its flash to distract one of the home invaders as part of a basement booby trap.
Andrew Palermo: This was a really difficult setup, with a simple solution. Because of the way the sensor works on the Red (and all digital cameras currently), it doesn’t handle flashes well. I first tried to figure out a way to make it work through a DMX controller and a flash to no avail. I tried different rates of strobes, still nothing – looked terrible. Eventually, I thought “Why not a really powerful flashlight?” That way, we could turn it on, and then turn it off – which to our eye would nearly be the same speed, but in actuality much, much slower than a camera flash, and thankfully, it worked. They ended up doing some little tricks in the edit to enhance the whole scene, which were great.
[Above] Palermo (left) and Wingard (right) pose for a photo taken just after picture wrap on You’re Next. (Photo courtesy of Palermo)