In today’s cutthroat film market, when a movie becomes a commercial and critical hit, the conversation quickly goes to ways of expanding the IP. In the last few years, this seems to be happening the most in the horror world, a few examples being: Scream, Halloween, SAW, Resident Evil, and The Conjuring.
Another title worth mentioning is director Anthony DiBlasi’s Last Shift, which has become a genre favorite for many because of its slow burn and epic finale.
In 2014, when Last Shift was being made, DiBlasi didn’t have a huge budget, so some ideas were left on the table, creatively. Although it was made with the intention of a theatrical release, it never made it to the silver screen in the United States. So when DiBlasi met Luke LeBeau, who was starting the horror distribution company, Welcome Villain Films, the idea of reimaging Last Shift quickly became a reality.
The gritty look of Last Shift was very specific and DiBlasi knew he wanted for his latest horror film, Malum. The filmmaker brought on cinematographer Sean McDaniel, who already had a history in the horror genre. The duo also had previously collaborated on the short, Grummy, which DiBlasi produced. McDaniel describes the look of Malum as naturalistic that quickly takes a grimy gothic turn.
We wanted to learn more about how Malum was shot, so we spoke to McDaniel and discussed everything from what flashlights worked best to using his high school MiniDV for some of the scenes.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: Let's start with the origins of your involvement with Malum. At what point were you brought onto the film? Was the film just an idea or was there already a script?
Sean McDaniel:Anthony had mentioned that he was working on a reimagining of Last Shift and had teased some of the direction it was going. I was already a fan of the first movie and that new direction was definitely highlighting the aspects of the film I wanted to see expanded upon. I read the script closer to production and really enjoyed it.
NFS: Why do you think director Anthony DiBlasi asked you to be the cinematographer of Malum? What about your previous work do you think he was drawn to?
McDaniel:Anthony and I met on another project that he was producing and I shot. The directors on that are dear friends of mine who are also very close with Anthony. Our paths finally crossed on that project and I really enjoyed working with Anthony. I reached out to him about his next film and I guess he liked my work well enough on that short.
NFS: Did your ideas about how the film was going to look change at all from pre-production to when the locations were locked in?
McDaniel:The main location in the movie is an abandoned police station and the team found that real location before I was on the project. From the start, I knew this was where we’d be shooting. I had pictures and videos from their preliminary scout, so I started with those before official prep began. Once I was in the actual station with Anthony and the rest of the team it did change things.
This was a large four-story building that was a little bit of a labyrinth. Some sections had multiple routes to certain rooms and then others would seem like they did but, really only had one way in. It was an interesting location and really offered even more space than we needed. We had to really comb through sections and pick the best spaces for our scenes. The best part for me was that it had a lot of this green tile on the walls instead of that normal white cinderblock you’re used to seeing in this kind of space.
That alone gives a unique look and makes it easier to bring more darkness into the scenes. Also, the story sets up that this is the last night the police station is technically open, so it gives us freedom with lighting. It makes sense that a lot of the lights would be off in sections not used. Or the bulbs would be older and therefore have color shifts. We took advantage of that and built different color shifts into different parts of the station to help the mood of the scene and also to provide a kind of color map for locations, so the audience remembers them as we return throughout the movie.
DP Sean McDaniel on set of 'Malum'Credit: Courtesy of Sean McDanielNFS: A few of the scenes in Malum are primarily lit by flashlight. What was the biggest obstacle that arose with this choice of lighting?
McDaniel:The first thing is just finding the right flashlight. It has to look like an officer’s flashlight while also serving our purposes for lighting. The tricky thing with that is that most flashlights nowadays are too good. They have really broad beams and are really bright which doesn’t help scenes in small spaces stay dark and moody. We did find a flashlight that had a more “classic” narrow beam, which helped keep the space it illuminated smaller.
After that, it was really just about lighting the rest of the scene around the flashlight. We would let that light level be the starting point and modify based off that.
NFS: When a scene is supposed to be lit just by a flashlight, are there normally other lights that are involved?
McDaniel:It really depends on what you’re going for. I think an audience member will feel that’s the only thing lighting the shot but in most of the flashlight scenes, there are other lights in play.
For me in order to be scared there needs to be some level of understanding of what you can and can’t see. So if you can’t see anything, I’m not sure the audience really knows what to be scared of. But if you can see in from of the character a few feet and the far corner is pitch black, then you have something to focus on and an expectation of where to be scared, which we can then lean into or subvert.
So in most of the flashlight scenes, we do have some subtle lighting happening to give depth and context. There is also a crew member walking around with a bounce board for the actor to pass the flashlight across to light their face from time to time or a small jem ball really dimmed down that was operated on a pole, moving with the actor.
NFS: A lot of the shots in the film are framed in hallways, doorways, and locker rooms. What was the desired goal for these types of shots?
McDaniel: We really wanted to always keep in mind the location when we’re alone with Jessica [Sula]. We want you to feel close to her as an audience but also don’t want you to forget that there’s this big space that she’s alone in. There are plenty of places for things to be lurking.
'Malum'Credit: Welcome Villain Films
NFS: You shot some of the scenes on your MiniDV from high school. I bet that was a pretty full-circle moment. Why did you decide to shoot with it? Were those the opening “self camera” looking footage?
McDaniel: Yes, it was definitely fun to dust off the old MiniDV camera. It was the same one I used through high school and some of my undergraduate filmmaking days. You can see some of that in the trailer, footage of the flock that seems to be recorded by someone within the flock itself. It really came down to story logic. What kind of camera would this person have used back then? How did they get it?
We landed on this format as fitting that story logic and it just made sense to use the real thing instead of trying to fake it with the production camera. Those MiniDV cameras are so small that even just the look of operating it wouldn’t work with a larger camera and the type of digital zoom is very specific. It was a little more difficult to digitize the footage compared to back in the day, but I think it was definitely worth it to match the appropriate look.
NFS: What other types of cameras and equipment did you use for Malum?
McDaniel: The majority of the movie was shot on the ARRI ALEXA Mini LF with ARRI Signature Prime lenses. Shooting on a large format was one of my first suggestions. It allowed us to create a wider field of view that I thought would really enhance the film. Being able to see more of the world around Jessica in all of the shots felt key to building tension and really placing her in the station.
It would be really easy to overshoot close-ups in this movie and I wanted to stay away from that. With large format, even when we’re shooting what feels like a close-up, we still see more of the world around her. It gives the viewer context of what they can and can’t see so that hopefully it keeps them on edge.
Also, I just know the ALEXA sensor really well so I trust how far I can push things. This movie has a lot of dark scenes and I knew we’d be in good hands with this camera. The miniDV was used for those found footage-type elements and then there’s also a little bit of GoPro for body cams and security camera footage.
NFS: Light blue/turquoise seems to be a reoccurring color in the police station and throughout the film. Why did you pick this color in particular?
McDaniel: The turquoise tiles were what was there and that honestly felt like a really lucky find. I mean my first thought when I see tiles like that is the bathroom from The Shining and you can’t go wrong borrowing from that movie.
Ours are paler and have a more clinical look which also fits the tone of the film. The flashlight also has a bluer tone that we leaned into. I knew I didn’t want it to be warm and the blue fit better than a neutral white light. Green and blue also just work well for contrasting deep red blood, which there is plenty of in this movie.
Malum is out in theaters on Friday, March 28th, 2023.
You can find out more about Sean McDaniel here.