September 4, 2018
In Theaters

How to Block a Ghost Story: DP Ole Bratt Birkeland on the Unsettling 'The Little Stranger'

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Perspective, in more than one sense of the word, was central to Ole Bratt Birkeland's cinematography for 'The Little Stranger.'

Adapted from Sarah Waters's novel, Lenny Abrahamson's The Little Stranger is both a ghost story and an anti-ghost story, both mystery and anti-mystery. After Dr. Faraday (played with explosive restraint by Domnhall Gleeson) is called to Hundreds Hall, the run-down mansion of the Ayres family, to look after a sick housemaid, it turns out that she’s less sick than terrified, and the chief question becomes why? What’s going on in this house?

You wonder what’s going on throughout the entire film, as Charlotte Rampling‘s ailing matriarch and her life-frustrated daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) quietly battle via footsteps, ringing bells, slamming doors, and rune-like writing on walls, possibly caused by Suki Ayres, a daughter who died very young. You wonder, and yet you also don’t wonder: the story is all about psychic pressure, how it’s applied, and the toll that it takes.

It's also about the aftermath of World War II; Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter), the son in the family, has been very badly wounded and disfigured. And yet the film's real subject turns out to be simultaneously the answer to the film’s mystery—so that when the last moments of the film arrive, you might be surprised while also feeling somewhat confirmed, as if something you’d wondered about all along had been made blazingly plain.

The movie is still deeply chilling, in no small part due to the brilliance of its cinematography, which consistently places the viewer at odds with perception itself. No Film School talked to DP Ole Bratt Birkeland this week about how he created the film’s eerie mood.

No Film School: From basically the very start of the film, there's a feeling of imbalance and disequilibrium afoot. I'm wondering how you created that effect...

Ole Bratt Birkeland: Well, it was something that Lenny and I talked about quite a bit. We'd try and play with the genre, in a sense, that the camera was always slightly lower than you'd expect, or slightly higher than you’d expect, always trying to not be too, you know, conventional in our approach. So, we were always trying to play with the idea, you know: "What would you normally do here? Oh, okay, let's just move the camera a little bit over here. Let's make sure we're not always matching the eye line, directly." We were always playing with the idea of what an audience might expect versus what they were getting.

NFS: Does that involve a revision process at all? Did it take a lot of tries to get to that point?

Birkeland: We sort of settled on it early on. There's a few things that we sort of came into that we ended up liking a lot. For instance, we would add a little bit of handheld to certain moments. We also had very shallow depth of field when that happened.

We just sort of made it a little bit impressionistic, without necessarily trying too hard. It was just a slightly off-kilter way of making a point. We discovered in the first 12 days of filming that it seemed to really work, and so we kept doing it.

"We were always playing with the idea of what an audience might expect versus what they were getting."

NFS: How did you choose which moments to go handheld for? Was there specific actions you were choosing for that particular technique?

Birkeland: In a lot of our story, obviously, we wanted to be as close to Faraday as possible. In a way, it's Faraday's story. I don't know if you've read the book, but in the book, he's the narrator. In film, it's almost impossible to do, because how you do you become someone's point of view?

For our purposes, the question was, "How do we make sure that we are with Faraday as much as possible and make the audience feel that they’re with Faraday? And experience it, in a way, through him?" Where we used handheld a lot was in situations where Faraday would be, potentially, experiencing discomfort. That was a way for us to integrate a little bit of Faraday's subjective moments in with the feelings.

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NFS: Not to give too much away, but the story does involve characters with pretty serious physical injuries. What kind of special accommodations did you make, camera-wise, to bring their presence into the film?

Birkeland: Our aim was to shoot neutrally. Part of that was, again, to keep Faraday's point of view, in the sense that, if we present these things neutrally, then in a way, it's about our perceptions of them and what allows us to feel whatever we might feel. Also, Faraday is a doctor. Part of being a doctor is that clinical way of looking at wounds and damage. By taking an objective view, you're presenting it in a way that forces you to look at it differently, without trying to overemphasize it.

It also means that you're left with a metaphor, so you know where the monsters are hidden. We can clearly see where these people have scars. Is that where the monsters are hidden? That question makes us question other things.

NFS: That's a big strength of the film. It does leave a lot up to the imagination. One thing I noticed is that when, in particular, figures are being filmed, there's a lot of what I guess you could call chiaroscuro in the shots, and I'm wondering how you arrived at that as an approach.

Birkeland: Well, it was a combination of things that Lenny and I talked about. In these kinds of period movies, there's a tendency to either romanticize things or heavily stylize things. We felt that we wanted to give a documentary feel to the way light falls in these large spaces, but at the same time, allow that light to not quite penetrate into the corners of rooms and faces. Even though it's natural light, it doesn't quite reach all the corners, so you can't quite see what is happening there.

The inspiration for that came from a book called A Country Doctor by John Berger, which has a lot of beautiful stills by John Moore, a Swiss documentary photographer, beautiful black-and-white stuff. And so, what we are trying to do with that is create this humanity in the photography, without its feeling like a documentary to us. You know, Lenny does documentaries, and we wanted to sort of emulate some of the humanity in those pictures, and at the same time, really give them weight that allowed us to feel that this is a place that has a lot of history. We didn't want to overemphasize it through stylization.

"We can clearly see where these people have scars. Is that where the monsters are hidden?"

NFS: The mansion itself is a really complex and fascinating setting. Could you tell me a little bit about the complexities of working in that particular location, both in terms of the way the lighting was handled and also the physical activity of filming there?

Birkeland: We were incredibly lucky to have found this location, which had a lot of the things we needed, but then, Simon Elliot, our production designer, took it in hand and made it into this amazing gothic mansion. He used a lot of mirrors and reflective surfaces throughout.

That meant that in terms of our lighting, most of what we did was light from outside windows for daylight and practicals for other interiors. Because of all the mirrors and reflective surfaces, we then ended up having to be quite clever; every shot presents a multitude of reflective surfaces. We always have to double check ourselves, to make sure we didn't see something in the third reflection or in the fourth mirror and so forth. 

Also, it really did mean that you get a chance to be in a place that has the atmosphere of the place you're filming, whilst you're filming it. That helps enormously just in terms of shooting. It also adds to the atmosphere in front of the camera, I think.

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NFS: A lot of the shots seem very carefully arranged, in terms of the way the figures are sitting or standing or positioned in a room. How did you work with the actors to create that composition?

Birkeland: A lot of it comes through working altogether, both with the director and the actors. A lot of what would happen would be: we'd do the rehearsal on set and then Lenny and I would work with the actors to determine what would serve the story best. Blocking becomes a matter of dealing with the practicalities of the location. Also, how do we emotionally create what we want in the scene? Do we want to separate Faraday from the other people? Do we want to put them in close proximity? Do we want to have high tension or low tension? We would go through all of these things and place the actors according to the emotional context of the scene.

"It was really important for us to make this house have an atmosphere and an ambiance, so the audience would feel often that the house was watching."

NFS: Did the actors offer feedback as you were doing this?

Birkeland: Absolutely. It was a very collaborative set. The actors obviously had their own interpretation of things and within that, Lenny would steer us all in the right direction. In general, the actors were incredibly open-minded. As long as we all felt that we were moving in the right direction for the emotional context of the scene, it always came very naturally to everyone.

NFS: There's a tremendous amount of geometry in the film—angles from doorways or window frames—and there's a tremendous amount of symmetry. I'm wondering how you arrived at that symmetrical feeling through the film and what you saw as its purpose in the visual statement the movie makes.

Birkeland: One of the things that is really important, I think, is that it’s Faraday's story, and we're trying to be close to him. But in a way, what we also wanted to bring into the story was how Hundreds Hall is a character in itself. It's part of the fabric of the film, and without it, the story wouldn't have its meaning. It was really important for us to make this house have an atmosphere and an ambiance so the audience would feel often that the house was watching.

When appropriate, we tried to put our characters in the space as if the space were as much a part of the scene as the characters themselves. The geometry frames and leads the eye, you know, without, hopefully, being too on the nose.

NFS: Do you think there was a conflict between the characters and the house itself?

Birkeland: In what sense?

NFS: Both visually and also in terms of their presence in the movie and their dramatic importance. Because certainly, the setting was as interesting to me as the characters in the film. I'm wondering if while you were shooting, there were discussions and deliberations about the strength of the house, like you were saying.

Birkeland: The thing that we always tried to do was make sure that, as you say, the house had relevance to everything that happens. Due to the slight ambivalence of the story and the outcome, the question becomes, "Is the house part of the people, or are the people influencing the house?"

Faraday wanted to be in the house, and be with the house, but is the house creating that or is he creating it in the house? And to those questions, I guess, there are no true answers.     

For more information on 'The Little Stranger,' click here

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