How 'The Eyes of My Mother' Cinematographer Rigged 'Crazy' Setups for Black-and-White Horror
Nicolas Pesce's Sundance 2016 sensation is a lesson in the art of black-and-white filmmaking.
When 27-year-old Nicolas Pesce's The Eyes of My Mother screened at Sundance, audiences either walked out of the theater or touted it as the breakout hit of this year's festival. The Gothic horror, about an isolated farm girl who commits grisly acts of murder, is not for the faint of heart; it boasts stabbings, torture, eye "surgery," and at least one count of necrophilia. Its striking black-and-white aesthetic and transfixing atmosphere render it a confident debut from the first-time director.
"More than 50% of our crew went to film school with us and were on the crew of the last movie I made in film school," Pesce told us at Sundance.
One of those people was cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, with whom Pesce forged a friendship—and working relationship—that outlasted NYU.
"I'm a huge fan of rigging. The act of putting a camera in a funny place is exciting for me."
The Eyes of My Mother is Kuperstein's second feature. He just wrapped production on his third, Jonathan, which he landed after the AD from The Eyes of My Mother referred him to Jonathan's line producer. No Film School caught up with Kuperstein the day of the film's theatrical release to discuss how the film industry is "all about who you know," his "crazy" rigging setups (including a Snorricam and a cable cam), and how to light for contrast in black and white.
No Film School: Is this the first time that you had shot in black and white?
Zach Kuperstein: Well, we did a short film about a year earlier that was a test run—a proof of concept—and turned it black and white just to try it. We liked the look of that. That was how we settled into making this black and white. Prior to that, I had done a bunch of student films in black and white. Sophomore year [at NYU Tisch School of the Arts] we have a class called Sight and Sound, where we shoot everything in black and white and 16mm reversal.
NFS: Did you have to change your conceptions of lighting to make this film?
Kuperstein: Yeah, absolutely. I think a huge part is that you can't rely on color contrast. It's all about creating contrast in brightness; creating depth in the frame with the brightness. It's actually a lot easier than doing color contrast. Color is one less variable to think about. It was much easier to light in some ways.
We were also able to get away with using harder light more often. I'm into using a book light, or something very, very soft to light a scene or a face, but with this, I could get away with just doing a softbox— which is still soft, but not as soft as a book light.
"One of our mantras was 'it's more about what you don't see than what you do see.'"
Where I wanted hard light, I had to make it deliberately hard light, with no diffusion on it. Where I wanted soft light, we didn't have to go as soft as I expected with it. That was the big adjustment. In many ways, that's easier, because it's less set up and less physical work.
NFS: What about natural light within the confines of black and white?
Kuperstein: We were always controlling the light, but with natural light, it was definitely about shooting at the right time of day. For the interiors, we would look towards the window that was bright but then send light in through a side window to rake across something, so it's not all coming from a window behind us.
NFS: Obviously, this is a film that's heavy on atmosphere. What kind of conversations did you and Nick have about how to conjure it?
Kuperstein: A lot of our visuals were based on taking our time and letting things fit and breathe and letting the audience sit in the moment. We are forcing the audience to endure whatever is happening in front of them. Part of that was designing frames that are visually appealing so that you want to keep looking, but you don't want to keep looking because of what you're watching. We had to find that contrast and used minimal cuts to keep people engaged visually.
It's also about not showing certain things. One of our mantras was "it's more about what you don't see than what you do see." We're letting the audience imagine for themselves what they want, which is often scarier than what's actually onscreen. That was for budgetary reasons, as well; we couldn't do the cuts and blood as well as we'd like. But also by not showing it, it gets a little scarier.
NFS: It also makes the images that you do end up showing, like a particular stabbing, very graphic. More graphic than it would be if you'd seen everything else.
Kuperstein: Exactly. And you don't even actually see the knife go in the wound. It's graphic, but you don't actually see the stab. You know? It's just the sound of it and the blood on her hand afterward that is more terrifying.
"We tried to make it not feel like an old movie and still have that modern slickness to it, although it's in black and white."
NFS: Did you look at any horror films or psychodramas to mold your intentions for this one?
Kuperstein: Yeah. There were a lot of films that Nick recommended to me about serial killers. They weren't really visually what we were looking for; they were more tonally similar. It was about trying to get inside of the mind of the character. We looked at Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which I thought was a really terrible movie, but it was really intense.
Then there was The Skin I Live In, an Almodóvar film. Then, later, we looked at a black and white sequence in Hannibal. We looked at that for what we wanted textually out of the black and white. We tried to make it not feel like an old movie and still have that modern slickness to it, although it's in black and white.
NFS: What were some things that you did in order to bring that contrast out?
Kuperstein: We worked so heavily with the production design. We created a contrast-y light; harder light, more negative fill. We captured in color—with color information—so that we could later isolate the colors and adjust the contrast. It's similar to the way you would use a color filter in front of a black and white negative, but it also gave us more subtle control. With that in mind, we worked with the production design to create a lot of kind of absurd color contrast on set just so that we could have the isolated colors.
The couch that's in the living room is a bright orange, for example. There's a dress that [the main character] wears that has green and white stripes. By making that dress green instead of black, or by making the couch orange, we can then, in post, select just the couch and adjust how bright it is. Then, there are patterns on the walls and things like that; we looked to try to get a lot of deep contrast in the textures in the house.
NFS: What did you actually shoot on?
"When making shorts, stay close with those directors and try to maintain those relationships—not just as filmmakers, but as friends."
Kuperstein: Yeah. The reason for that was kind of similar to what I was saying about Hannibal: trying to get that slick, modern aesthetic, but in black and white. We chose modern lenses that are pretty new, but Cookes that are kind of soft. We're not shooting with the master Anamorphics that are pristine. They kind of fit in this weird in-between time, so the audience is unsure of when the period is.
NFS: Earlier, you said you wanted the audience to linger with some of the shots. My favorite shots were when you lingered in the car at the very beginning, when the farmer goes out to the road to save the woman. Then, again, when the body's being dragged and the camera seems to be on that tarp. How did you place the audience directly inside of the story with these various rigging setups?
Kuperstein: I'm a huge fan of rigging in general. The act of putting a camera in a funny place is exciting for me. Figuring out how we could put the camera in an unusual position with my key grip, Andrew Naugle, was just fun. I just want to do something crazy with the camera and then try to fit that into different scenes.
Kuperstein: There was a shot that got cut, actually, where the camera is rigged inside of the refrigerator door when [the main character] opens it. That was something that we had come up with early on in the process, but we didn't really know where to put it. We kind of stored the idea. Then, when it came to a scene that was like, "She opens the refrigerator," I thought, "Oh, cool. Maybe this is the right moment for that." That was how a lot of those things ended up happening.
The long shot of the father in the car and then going into the bathroom originally got scripted as four scenes. We're like, "What if we take advantage of the momentum of his reveal... seeing the door [left] open. What's it like from his perspective?" Letting that build over the course of one shot was kind of a fun way to do that. It was fun to try to figure out how to execute that. Andrew, my key grip, was in the car actually operating on the inside. The Best Boy, Mike Kim, took the camera off of Andrew's shoulder, passed it to my shoulder, and then I operate the rest of it going into the house. That pass off was something we worked a lot on.
We did a few unusual things. There are a lot of overheads in the film. There are a number of different ways that we executed that. In the very first scene where we go up over the truck, that's just a drone. People often ask about how that was achieved, but we just post-stabilized it and it kind of works for that static vibe that we were trying to get.
"We used Artemis and took photo boards of everything in excruciating detail for every single scene on location with stand-ins."
Then, the stuff in the woods: that's a couple of speed rails across two stands and the camera rigged between them, going up real high. There were some shots in the bedroom that are just on a dolly. It was a few different ways of getting the overhead stuff, depending on how high we needed to go and whether it needed to move.
Then, there's one shot that's a Snorricam, which is a camera rigged to the actor. When the murderer is going from the barn, or when [the main character] is pulling him from the barn to the house, that was built out of PVC pipe. I just went to Home Depot and got home PVC pipe and built this whole frame that holds the camera behind his head. That was kind of fun, but difficult because we couldn't put any shoulder straps on him because he had to have his shoulders bare.
Then there was actually a whole scene that ended up getting cut out of the film where we used a cable cam in the woods. I went to Home Depot and got some cable. I may have spent, like, $100 on it. It ended up getting cut out of the film, unfortunately, but I think the shots were cool. It worked out really well visually, but story-wise it ended up not making sense.
NFS: I'm sure you had a pretty limited production schedule. How were you able to rig all of this in such a limited amount of time?
Kuperstein: Yeah, it was only 18 production days. There were a couple ways we were able to do that. One, having limited coverage. There aren't that many shots in the movie. I don't know what the number is, but it's very low. If you divide that by the number of days we shot, it's not like we did that many shots per day. For each setup, we could really take our time. I think we averaged about 12 or 13 shots a day. That gave us just enough time to really focus on each shot individually.
Then, pre-production and having all those conversations about what we were going to do in every moment in advance. When we got to a scene, there was never a question of how we were going to shoot it. Nick and I already knew. We did that using Artemis and taking photo boards of everything in excruciating detail for every single scene on location with stand-ins. We knew exactly which lens we're going to be on, what height the camera's going to be at, where exactly it's going to be. Then, I was figuring out how exactly we're going to rig it and planning the lighting in advance.
"It was 18 days of shooting, but it's like ten years of pre-production really to get there and execute quickly."
I've known Nick for ten years. We did a short film a year before this; then, we had a year to talk about it all. We also had a week on location. We lived there, and every single day Nick and I would go out and make storyboards. The crew came a day before [production started], so we were able to walk through a lot of the setups and our general plan for everything.
All of that pre-production makes it much easier when you actually get on set. It was 18 days of shooting, but it's like ten years of pre-production really to get there and execute quickly.
NFS: That's meticulous. I'm really impressed. Were you able to stick to the plan?
Kuperstein: The script got rewritten so many times; it was still being rewritten as we were shooting it. It also got rewritten once it was edited. It was a challenge trying to keep up with Nick's creative process and developing the story as we were shooting it. It's not like it was improvised at all; he just kept finding new things and realizing, "Oh, this doesn't work and this does work."
There were ten pages of the script that ended up getting cut out two days before we shot. That was a huge relief, but then right before our last three days, we had a weekend, and Nick came to me like, "Hey, I want to add these 12 scenes." So the last three days were a real hustle, but it was something that we were still able to figure out because of the language that we had together.
NFS: You definitely must've relied on your rapport to be that resilient.
Kuperstein: Yeah, absolutely. I think we both trust each other immensely. Nick is not without direction, but he is very much willing to let me kind of go with an idea. If I'm trying something and he doesn't like it, I trust him that it's not working. I think we're both easygoing in that sense. If the other person's trying something, we'll do it.
NFS: As an NYU Tisch graduate with a few features now under your belt, do you have advice for aspiring DPs who are hoping to shoot a feature?
Kuperstein: I would say it's always all about who you know. When making shorts, stay close with those directors and try to maintain those relationships—not just as filmmakers, but as friends. When they make their first feature, you're going to be first on the list to shoot it. You want to be close to those people so that you can keep tabs on when that first film is coming out. Not in a manipulative way—just, like, you're friends and you inevitably find out about what your friends are doing.
But I wouldn't try to rush into shooting your first feature. I was trying to do that prior to shooting my first feature. I got a lot of scripts that were really bad. I was not enthused about them, but I was like, "Oh, I should just do it to get a feature under my belt." They ended up not working out for a variety of reasons, like, either I wasn't interested in the project or they ended up hiring somebody else. Oftentimes it was somebody who owned a camera. I hate owning equipment; I feel like if I can get the job just by who I am and what I bring to the table as a DP, then I'm going to do a better job and the film will be better as a result.
Don't try to expedite shooting your first feature because when it happens, it'll be right. That's a better scenario than trying to hurry it up and do something that isn't right.