Deep Fried Interview: Black Rock cinematographer Hillary Spera
A trio of estranged friends (Kate Bosworth, Lake Bell and Katie Aselton) retreat to an isolated Maine island from their youth to reconnect. However, their cathartic trip down memory lane is interrupted when an accident places them in violent opposition to a group of recently discharged soldiers hunting on the island. Imagine Deliverance with a gender twist and you get the idea behind Black Rock, an indie horror thriller with an emphasis on character and a naturalistic aesthetic atypical of the genre. (continue reading)
That departure from genre norms shouldn’t be surprising considering Aselton (who also directed) comes from the world of improv-heavy relationship comedy (The Puffy Chair, the FX show The League) and Black Rock cinematographer Hillary Spera works extensively in documentary.
Spera was generous enough with her time to speak to Deep Fried Movies about her love of the Arri Alexa, the peskiness of mosquitoes and how her affection for 1970s American cinema influenced the look of Black Rock.
To start, can you give a little background about yourself?
I was born and raised in Vermont, and have been obsessed with photography since as long as I can remember. My mom tells a story that I would force her to stop the car and take pictures of things I saw when on family road trips. I still do the same thing. It takes a long time to get places.
I got into filmmaking haphazardly through still photography. When I realized that my college didn’t have a photography program that I liked, I tried out a couple film classes and immediately fell in love with the combination of images and movement. My former plans to go to vet school were forgotten. I then interned at Boston Camera Rental Company and worked there for a year after graduating (from college) while (also) working locally. I moved to New York almost immediately (after that) and shot everything and anything I could get my hands on. Film was still the dominant format, but HD was coming up fast so I learned everything I could technically about both realms. There’s definitely a huge nerd part of me that loves taking things apart to the guts to figure out what makes it all run and fixing things.
What were some of the factors behind your choice to shoot Black Rock on the Arri Alexa?
It was really the only choice. I was of course impressed by the way that the camera performs in low light and its robust build. Coming from shooting film, the Alexa’s build and its accessories are very intuitive to me. I prefer working with it over other cameras currently available, and I knew I could rely on it to perform when it was put through the shit. I can’t say it ever struggled – in the mud, sand, rain, cold, on a boat in the ocean, in a tree, mounted to an ATV, or assaulted by mosquitoes. It always showed up ready and willing.
Overall, I love working with the Alexa because I think its color space is gorgeous, and very similar to the range of film. This would be crucial for Black Rock since we were shooting in an unpredictable natural environment with a lot of night exteriors, very sunny day exteriors, and everything in between. The post process is very straight forward. We had a DIT on set that was able to apply a general LUT for dailies, and then we shot LogC for the uncompressed 2k ProRes camera original files.
You often employed two-camera set-ups. What tips can you give about the best way to utilize – and light – multiple cameras?
Lighting for two cameras is a nightmare, but our gaffer Wyatt Garfield killed it. (When you’re) shooting cross coverage, there is always slightly a compromise.
On narrative features, I actually prefer to shoot the majority single camera so it was important to me that the film look like a one-camera movie. My camera operator and frequent collaborator Jeff Powers (operated) the second camera, and we spoke at length about ways that we could maintain that one camera look (despite covering with two cameras). We never doubled up on the same angles, and often we were headed in different directions to shoot landscapes and other ambient plates that would later help set the tone of the Black Rock environment.
Director Katie Aselton has talked about Deliverance being an influence for Black Rock. What were some of the other films you looked at for reference?
Deliverance was definitely an influence on Black Rock. Katie and I both watched it multiple times in reference to both aesthetics and story, and discussed it frequently. I was really interested in the relationship between nature and the characters (in Deliverance), especially once the action heightened. It was similar to the way that the characters of Black Rock have to rely on their primal urges to survive. We planned that the cinematography would reflect this too, through becoming more handheld and intimate as the three women seem to blend into the foliage and move intuitively amongst a landscape that they had previously stood out from.
1970s era filmmaking was hugely influential on my approach as well. It is also my favorite era from an aesthetic standpoint. Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, Deer Hunter, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the work of (cinematographers) Laszlo Kovacs, Vilmos Zsigmond, and more recently Harris Savides, Lance Acord, are all influences to me. Naturalistic and intuitive filmmaking is what I am drawn to.
Black Rock is a very naturalistic film for the horror/thriller genre. Can you talk about the overall aesthetic?
Neither Katie nor I wanted to make a film that was over the top or campy. We both felt that what is scarier is what feels real, so we set out to make something that was as close to reality as possible. There are very few (special effects) in the film. The stunts are real, the blood is minimal and not overly gory, and the characters’ physicality is realistic. Everyone did their own stunts, and their physicality was not supposed to be expert, but it became increasingly carnal. It helped that we shot the film primarily in order.
What were some of the hardships you faced by shooting all exteriors in a remote location?
We came face to face with just about everything: rain, mud, sand, cold, mosquitoes, salt water, tides, spiders, and all in between. You would think the lack of (electricity) would have been the largest challenge. Turned out to be not so. We got very skillful with the use of mirrors (to bounce sunlight). But nothing could have stopped those swarms of mosquitoes.
Can you talk a little bit about the way the look of the film shifts once the male characters arrive?
The film is broken into two specific parts and Katie and I decided to shoot them in two separate styles. When the girls first arrive at the island, and before they meet the male characters, the look is more traditional: the camera is on sticks or dolly. Then, the (introduction of the male characters) sets off the second visual phase of the movie in which the camera becomes more athletic and handheld. It is also the phase in which the characters become more an active part of their environment, and adapt to it. So, the camerawork mirrored that. The operating and lensing become more intimate.
With the exception of the occasional warm ray of sunlight peeking through, much of Black Rock shares the muted palette of the rocky, gray environment the characters are in. Even the blood seems a less saturated shade of red.
Together with Erin Staub (Production Designer/Costumer), we made a plan to have the colors of the wardrobe and production design reflect a sense of natural camouflage. We wanted the characters to wear colors that would later blend well with the landscape. We also scouted areas that would work for our color palette. I became very familiar with different types of forest and foliage. Some were too bright green, which we knew would stand out from the rest of the film.
Black Rock’s colorist Alex Bickel (of the Color Collective), really aided with this aim in post. He was able to maintain and regulate our intended palette throughout. One scene in particular – the final battle in the wide open space of the island – had to be shot over two days, so it was a challenge to maintain the same look with varying daylight. Also, this was the one setting that was completely wide open without tree cover and naked to the changing elements, so it was a real challenge to make it all match. Another post challenge was maintaining contrast and color within the muted color scheme, and not affecting the actresses’ skin tone. Alex was able to find a way to preserve our naturalism without compromising. He did an incredible job.
In terms of the blood, both Katie and I agreed that our choice in color was not bright red or gory, but instead a deeper dark red with some brown tones in it. I think we both found that more real and, at least in my case, more disturbing.
Below, Spera details how a few images from the film were created.
This frame comes at the midway point of a long pan. It’s a walk-and-talk with no coverage that lasts more than a minute.
This was actually kind of a challenging shot. It was a 270 degree pan, on an Angeniuex Optimo 28-290mm zoom lens, and it was a oner. My partner in crime and 1st AC, Tom Fitzgerald, did a great job pulling focus. The success of many challenging shots throughout the film is largely due to his incredible focus pulling abilities. We’ve been working together for almost 10 years.
We chose the location specifically for the shot. It allowed us to show off both the physical space between Katie (frame left in the image above) and the other characters, but also it functioned for me as an (opportunity) to show how all of the characters stood out like a sore thumb from the natural setting.
The establishing shot of a campfire scene between the female protagonists and the male antagonists. The camera slowly dollies left to right.
I love lighting scenes with real fire. The Alexa could handle shooting with a fire (as the key light), so we went for it. In fact, I think I even used ND (filters). We had a flame bar buried under the actual fire, fairly standard set up. I don’t prefer using flicker boxes, if it’s possible to avoid them. They never look natural to me. We had some HMIs buried deep in the forest to provide a low level moonlight glow and give depth to bite into within the image. To me, the key to lighting an effective fire scene is not over-lighting it. Let it have the integrity to go dark and and breathe. At least, that’s my taste. We started shooting this scene with over 100 feet of open beach and by the time we wrapped, the tide had come in so much that the crew and gear were all standing in water. That was another constant challenge while shooting in coastal Maine. Never turn your back on the tide. It’ll sneak up on you.
A tracking shot through the woods as one of the hunters pursues one of the heroines.
All of the tracking shots in the woods were achieved by mounting the camera to an ATV, and then driving it through the rough terrain with the actors running alongside. It would not have been possible without my incredibly talented Key Grip, Garrett Cantrell, and his ability to mount that camera virtually anywhere. All told we had dolly moves 30 feet up in a tree, multiple ATV rigs, multiple dolly moves on the bows of a variety of boats and water vessels, double hood mounts, and a ton of other support. I was able to operate the camera while Garrett drove the ATV. The terrain was incredibly rugged and not at all cleared, so the actors had the hardest job. Running at top speed through this type of dense landscape was difficult and pretty dangerous. I am incredibly impressed at how fast they moved.
After a failed attempt to swim to a distant boat, Lake Bell and Katie Aselton regroup in an old tree fort to discuss their next move.
One of my favorite scenes in the film. I wanted moonlight that had a soft ambient base, with some harder highlights that the actresses would pass through while going through their action. Also, it would provide a nice backlight to the real steam that came off their bodies when they undressed. It was cold that night!
I also tend to go for more silvery moonlight than traditional blue. I just find it more natural. (We tried to) simulate the sense of letting your eyes adjust. I like the sense of contrast and revealing elements of the image, rather than seeing everything. I love leaving a lot of the image in shadow with some parts to bite into.
The traditional approach for this type of movie would be to make the surroundings foreboding and ominous. It feels like you were going for something more lyrical with your establishing and transition shots of the island.
Northeast Maine during the spring/early summer had some very dramatic, psychological sunsets and sunrises. Since we were mainly on nights, my camera operator, AC and I often slipped away to capture the overwhelmingly epic sunrises over the ocean while everyone wrapped out. A few of them didn’t make the cut, but it was a nice embodiment of the moments that one feels when they are camping or in nature – private, rare glimpses that the rest of the world isn’t frequently able to observe. I was looking for landscapes that would encapsulate the moody, otherworldly elements of the Maine coast. Some that would play as oppressive and others that were softer and would represent a more intimate connection to nature.