How 'Lucky' DP Julia Swain Created the Surreal on a Short Schedule

Brea Grant as May Ryer in 'Lucky'Credit: Epic Pictures

Written by Julia Swain

You can plan everything, but you still have to move fast.

Lucky is a feature film following a self-help author, May (Brea Grant), who encounters a mysterious man trying to kill her every night in her home. No one will truly help her deal with eliminating this intruder, so she has to find a way to deal with him on her own. I came on as director of photography alongside director Natasha Kermani.

She sent me the script—which I immediately loved—as well as a moodboard that was full of inspiring images from films I was a huge fan of and that tonally correlated with Lucky. After our initial discussion, we dived into pre-production.

We didn’t look at too many references, instead choosing to focus on the script and the world we felt we wanted to build visually. We knew we would have somewhat limited resources, but that didn’t keep us from wanting to push the envelope for such a unique script that was a blend of genres and profound themes.

The importance of true night

We had a 15-day shooting schedule and no chance for pickups after principal photography. We had to move quickly knowing we’d be seeing a lot of the world, so it was imperative that we were strategic with our time and resources. About 90% of the time, it was a single camera shoot, and on anamorphic lenses. And although we had plenty of daytime scenes, most of the film happens at night. As a result, each week we worked our way from normal hours to later and later call times, so at the end of each week we had a couple overnights.

For the look of the film to be the way it was intended, it was important to have true night. This allowed us to have a blank canvas for night, where we could push moonlight through and add ambient light.

We didn’t have to tent any windows and fake it—something I’m not a fan of unless you have the ability to do huge tents and have big crews to make it happen. All we had to do was add and shape light. Ultimately, true night was a huge time-saver for us.

May (Brea Grant) with Sarah (Kausar Mohammed)Credit: Epic Pictures

Creating the surreal through cinematography

Besides our light being a bit stylized, the characteristics of our camera choices on Lucky were also very specific. Such bizarre events occur on screen that, on the surface, make May and our audience question what’s real. But this ultimately points to deeper themes in the film. To capture the strange unraveling of the narrative, we wanted to push the visual world into the surreal as well.

For example, in the book signing scene, audience members in the library start to question May. Traditionally, the camera sits level to the horizon on characters during dialogue scenes; however, as she connects what the audience is saying with her current situation, we move the camera very slowly so that it becomes unleveled. It’s so slow that viewers don’t notice it at first, until the angle is more extreme. 

Officer Pace (Larry Cedar) and May (Brea Grant)Credit: Epic Pictures
In the third act of the movie, we make some realizations about what Lucky has to say and we take the surreal aspect to another level.

We knew we were looking at dealing with trauma through the lens of horror—and trauma can be a very vivid, memorable experience. When we see moments of physical trauma and we realize May is not alone, it looks very different. Our color is more saturated, the images are more vibrant and overall striking, which contrasts those of the beginning of the film where May’s world is seemingly more normal and neutral.

I really enjoyed helping create the visual arc around May’s psychology.

Making Lucky was such a wonderful experience, and I’m so proud of the work we did. Seeing the response to the film has been great. More particularly, those willing to take on a film that has profound themes and something to say have really taken to it. Since Lucky starts a bigger conversation, I think a lot of people have connected with it, and this means a lot to us.      

Lucky is now available to stream on Shudder. You can catch more of Swain's work on her website

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