October 31, 2018
in theaters

'Suspiria' DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom on the Complexities of Shooting a Horror Masterwork

Luca Guadagnino's 'Suspiria' is more emotional and scary (and emotionally scary) than you might originally realize.

A literal interpretation of a nightmare, Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria is less a remake than a distant cousin to Dario Argento's 1977 giallo classic of the same name. Sharing welcomed similarities in plot and grotesqueness, Guadagnino's period piece deviates from its predecessor in location, backstory, length, and philosophy.

The story of an American Mennonite who attends a prestigious dance academy in Berlin only to find it run by a devious coven of witches, Guadagnino's Brechtian—the story plays out over six acts and an epilogue—depiction of a country in turmoil is an exacting approach to pulpy material. Young women suffering from adverse reactions to their instructors' witchcraft consult Dr. Josef Klemperer, an elderly gentleman who specializes in mental health. When students go missing, their disappearance is credited to a presumed participation in the Red Army Faction (RAF). The witches hold democratic meetings in which a vote is conducted to select the next evil headmistress. Say what you wish about the far-fetchedness of the story, but the film is determined to prop up its creepy plausibility. 

In its story beats and careful plotting, the film feels like Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

If the original Suspiria was considered too opaque for viewers pressed for an explanation of the story's fantastical elements, this new interpretation is a more formal slow-burn. As film critic J. Hoberman wrote some years ago in The Village Voice, the 1977 edition was a movie that "makes sense only to the eye (and even then . . .)." Guadagnino's take is more lived in, as if knowing that the psychology of horror movies has a direct relationship with the horrors of the mind.

In its story beats and careful plotting, the film feels like Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, a film that also incorporated "cabin fever" into the explanation as to why we all go a little mad sometimes. The character of Dr. Josef Klemperer resembles a red herring....until he doesn't, and the casting of Tilda Swinton (in one of her two roles) is indebted to Freud's belief in the uncanny, another nod to Kubrick's 1980 haunted hotel yarn. Klemperer provides the emotional backbone here, providing the film with an unexpected, almost cruel emotional pull by film's end.

For every physical act of contortion depicted in Guadagnino's Suspiria—and boy are there a doozy—the film answers with an emotional one, culminating in a statement on lost loves and children's resentment toward their parents. Whether a den mother or a paternal one, the domesticity of horror is alive and well in Suspiria.

As Suspiria gets set to open nationwide in theaters this weekend, NFS spoke with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom about his working relationship with Guadagnino, shooting dance sequences, and the power of the color red, 

No Film School: I believe this is the second feature in a row that you've shot for Luca Guadagnino. How would you describe your working relationship?

Sayombhu Mukdeeprom: I like how Luca constructs a scene. Between him and his editor Walter Fasano, they are perfect companions. [My job] is to translate his words into a technical term. I love how he makes thing happen so that I can film them. 

NFS: What kind of camera did you shoot with?

Mukdeeprom: The ArriCam LT. Why? Simply because I shoot on film. A film camera gives me a better reaction to what happens in front of the camera.

NFS: Of course, Dario Argento's original film is known for its highly colorful, gothic imagery. Your film takes a very different approach. What kind of discussions did you have about the visual palates for this version?

MukdeepromTo me, this Suspiria is so much different from Dario's. That why I was running after realism rather than idealism. My first word to Luca after my long period of determination was "Luca, I don't see any color [in our version]" (color referring to primary color as was used in Dario's Suspiria). So we started to discuss and talk about how Berlin would look, how the Markos Company would look, etc. We watched some Rainer Werner Fassbinder movies and a few others. We were in agreement on how somber Berlin should be and how the environment would put a pressure on people. I was more interested in creating the world the characters live in rather than the look pf the film. 

"The challenges came from the complexity of the scene. There could be too many people, complicated movements, blocking, limitation of time, etc."

NFS: The film features numerously exceeding quick and expressionistic flashbacks to Susie's home life in Ohio. What kind of discussions did you have with your crew regarding the lighting of those sequences? How did you choose to differentiate them from the rest of the film? .

Mukdeeprom: With my crew, we discussed more about the technical side of things: What kind? How? How far? How tall? Things like this. I don't think I was trying to differentiate them from the rest. But later I found that a small difference in perceptual brightness [as portrayed in these scenes] provides a great, different feeling. And for the scenes in Germany, there's a warmer, desaturated feel to the imagery.

NFS: Was it important to establish a recurring visual identity for each location?

Mukdeeprom: In terms of white point, during color grading, I don't think we tried to make one warmer or cooler than the other. That is to say that I'm referring to the air surrounding them (the actors). But what makes one warmer than another is the art color scheme. Also, I admit that I was more for "how it feels" rather than "how it looks." So there may be some color inconsistency that was acceptable to me...and it came with great pleasure. It also meant that the importance to differentiate each location was less.

NFS: As a cinematographer, what kind of challenges does capturing dance sequences present? Is your camera more at the mercy of the choreography already constructed or is there a concentrated balance and synergy between the dance and the camera moves?

Mukdeeprom: The challenges came from the complexity of the scene. There could be too many people, complicated movements, blocking, limitation of time, etc. Definitely, I'd prefer them to lead my camera, however, as I don't want my camera to be seen unnecessarily.

NFS: Taking that further, if we were to look at the gruesome "body contortion" sequence as an example, how is your camera working to capture each brutal twist and turn so that it complements the horrific physicality on display?

Mukdeeprom: I think a swish pan and the perfect body movement  synchronized with the camera movement was the key. Plus, of course, good editing and good sound produced a great achievement as well.

NFS: The color red is quite prominent throughout the film, not just as a representation of blood, but of the witches presence throughout. In what kind of ways, including factoring in the grand finale, did you find new opportunities to deploy the color red?

Mukdeeprom: To me, red is purer than others colors. Red is the purest one actually. Whatever color we try to use, we end up with red. We didn't shoot those scenes in a red light, but we did grade it red. This way we could add red into specific ranges rather than all ranges, like red gel would have ultimately done.      

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