Most filmmakers probably want to do exactly what Sean Ellis does, which is to tell all kinds of stories, and tell them in nuanced ways, with absolutely gorgeous imagery, supported by stellar casts. The fact it's all done on film stock is an added benefit.

Ellis' new film at Sundance 2021 is Eight for Silver, a reimagining of the classic werewolf tale that stars Boyd Holbrook as a pathologist on the trail of monsters in the late 1800s. He learns an act of brutal violence against a Roma caravan has left a small village in the grips of a curse, with one unfortunate family at its center.

Ellis wore several hats on the project, including cinematographer. His background as a fashion photographer and commercial director (he's worked with Vogue, Cartier, Stella McCartney, and more) enabled him to create shots that are as stunning as they are stifling, beautiful and sinister all at once.

Eight for Silver is a movie horror fans should be delighted to discover, atmospheric and complex with a refreshing take on the lycanthropic monster.

Ellis spoke with No Film School via phone prior to the premiere of Eight for Silver. He shared his thoughts on the creative process, the importance of immersion and collaboration, and how to create terror. Enjoy the wealth of knowledge he shared.

Editor's note: the following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: I wanted to talk first about how much you took on for this film—writing, directing, DPing. Obviously, those roles play a lot into each other, but what among them was the most challenging and why?

Sean Ellis: I think all good filmmaking is a challenge. It's all challenging. I guess the writing is, for me, probably the part I like the least, just because it's the part that's almost so uncollaborative at that point. I like being on set, where I can collaborate with actors and crew. For me, writing is about imagining a world and then translating it into word. And then as a filmmaker, you translate the word back into the image.

So as a writer I'm always starting with my imagination of what the world is and what is the story, and then I have to translate that into words, the boring part and the lonely part and the bit that takes quite a long time. But as Stanley Kubrick once said, "The cheapest part of filmmaking is one man at a typewriter," or one woman at a typewriter. And that is true in the sense that the person writing is not wasting any budget if they have to change complete scenes around and to make the story work. That's basically your job.

So there's a distinct hat that's being put on as a writer when you do that. But I guess because of my visual background, it always starts from the story, imagining the story, and then imagining the scene visually, and then I write them. And then, yeah, hopefully, you're on set and that's where you can really start to create. Yeah, I guess that's the bit I love the most.

NFS: Can I ask what you shot the film on?

Ellis: Yeah. We shot on ARRICAM 35mm film cameras. We shot with an ST and an LT. Generally, the ST was the A camera and the LT was for handheld and Steadicam. And our film was processed at Silverway lab in Paris.

50895263402_666a1f8bfd_kProgrammer Ana Souza and director Sean Ellis at the virtual Premiere of 'Eight for Silver' by Sean Ellis, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: © 2021 Sundance Institute

NFS: I did want to talk about how beautiful the film was, because there were so many times as I was watching, thinking, "Oh, that's a beautiful shot. That's a beautiful shot. They did this in a really interesting way." So can you talk about developing the film's visual language, the eeriness of it?

Ellis: You enjoy horror films so, as you know, a lot of it is about trying to create an atmosphere where you can convey a feeling. Obviously one of those feelings was a sense of isolation, and also a sense of cold isolation. When I started writing, I think it was, "Exterior, forest, winter trees." So immediately when you start doing that, it's already shaping your production design, it's already shaping your budget.

I think my producer sometimes was joking at me. He's like, "You always write 'Exterior, rainy, dark.' What can't you write 'Exterior, beach, Bahamas'?" So maybe on the next one, I'll start, "Exterior, beach, Bahamas," and see how I get with that.

But yeah, I think, obviously, it was trying, first and foremost, trying to create an atmosphere, and a lot of that comes from designing the world that your actors are going to inhabit and designing that world so that not only do they believe it for when they're standing in front of these crew and these cameras, which obviously make an actor's job kind of difficult, you want your audience to believe it because they have to believe your actors. So basically, one of the first things my job is is to make the actors believe the world that they're in. If they believe the world they're in, then I think as an audience member you'll believe the world that they're in because the actors believe they're in the world. So there's this weird knock-on effect where you're trying to build the world from the ground up. It's an interesting process.

I remember when we did Anthropoid, and we built the church. When the actors walked in and saw that church, one of the actors said, "Jesus, you built the church. You built the church. There's a ceiling." Normally you only build to one level, and then there's green screen. But for them, as an actor, they could look up and they could see the top of the set. It does inflict a sort of realism to the process for them. They're not looking up and seeing a blue screen, or they're not looking over and seeing where the set runs out. It was a 360-degree set.

So yeah, I think creating those worlds for your actors, if you can do it, it's really helpful for the process. And again, we did it with the manor. We literally took over that manor. We let the production designers go in and they'd redone all the walls and the floor and the paneling. They did everything to the design that we had approved. We tested the color range and the schemes, and we did the same with costumes. So when the actor turns up and they're in that room and they're in that costume, the only thing they've got to try and forget is that there's a camera there.

NFS: I love Anthropoid, too. It's such a great film. I believe you mentioned your photography background, and I would assume that that background helps you craft those very beautiful, specific, unique images. Can you talk a little bit about how that experience is benefiting you as a director?

Ellis: Well, I think as a director... You're either a director that's interested in actors and the way that actors do it, and you kind of leave the visuals up to someone else, and therefore you trust a cinematographer to come and do the visual side of things, or you're a director that has a definite say in the look of the film, and so the discussions will happen with your cinematographer. On the last three movies that I've directed, I've served as the DP, just purely because I know exactly what I want, and I know how to get it, because obviously, I know how cameras work. I can load my own film. I can go to a location with just me and a camera and shoot something. Because of my background, I've grown up with composition and exposure and lenses and film stock so, for me, all that's sort of second nature.

So the idea, or I would say sometimes the issue that directors have, is they have an image in their mind, but they don't physically know how to get that image because they don't know what to physically do with the camera and film stock and the lens in order to achieve the image that they have. I've often heard that. The directors go, "You know, it's not how I imagined it." Sometimes when I first started there was that definite thing where I had something in my mind, but I'd look at the monitor like, "Yeah, it's not how I imagined it." But because of budget and time restraints, generally, you just sort of put up with it and you go, "Okay, that's it."

But I think what I found was I was able to get a very close, approximate resemblance of what's in my mind because I know what's in my mind is a fairly long lens with, for instance, the background completely out of focus, and I know that I want to pull focus to something that's further in the background. I roughly know what lens I need to actually achieve that, and I roughly know the sort of distance I'm going to need for the focus pull on that, and I go, "Okay, so that's going to work like this." So I think once you've got that photographic knowledge, it helps the image in your mind become a reality.

NFS: With this film, I noticed that you held off on the monsters for quite a while, in terms of how much you saw of them.

Ellis: The Jaws theory.

NFS: Yes, the Jaws theory. I saw that you use a little bit of practical effects as well as CG, so I was just wondering how that developed as you were working on the film or the idea.

Ellis: I'm always a little bit less is more, and I think that if you're able to suggest, and the audience fills in the blanks, I think it's always going to be better. But I think also at a certain point I think the audience kind of wants that. They want that visceral moment at the same time. So I guess it's finding a balance where you're teasing them enough and making their mind work enough, but at the same time, finding a way to give them what they want, but maybe not in the way that they expect it.

So yeah, pretty much most of it was designed that way. Originally, it was going to be a full animatronic beast, and also I was going to show very, very little of it. But I think what happened as we were going along and we started to look at the edit, I think that the beast kind of—it did look a little bit wooden at some times, so we were like, "How can CG help us here? How can we make it more realistic and more impressive?" We used two companies. CGEV in Paris was in charge of the wolf, and Unit TV in England, in London, were in charge of the changing of the beast. They worked sort of separately. They didn't really see what each other was doing until right at the end where we showed each other's work. So yeah, I guess it was an interesting way of having to look at what you've got and figure out just how to make it better and what CG can do.

I think what I've noticed with CG is it's only as good as the idea. I think, ultimately, I think it's just another tool. I might as well swap the word "CG" for "camera." It's just another tool. It's how you use it.

But I had a very nice time working with both those companies and really just developing it as we went along, where you go, "No, that doesn't look very right," and they go, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, it doesn't," so they go, "What about this, if we tried this?" and you go, "Oh, that looks nice," and then, "Yeah, let's go in that direction." So yeah, it was kind of interesting. And then even for some of the reshoots, I don't even think some of the reshoots we had the animatronic beast on set because they had the asset, and they were so good at placing it in certain places within the film that at a certain point, you go, "Okay, well, there's no point in actually having the animatronic there. We've gone past that point now." I mean, I think the animatronic beast is in the film. It's still in the film in a couple of places and pretty much all the autopsy stuff, apart from the tentacle stuff is all in-camera. That was all practical.

NFS: I think all of that is generally good advice for anyone wanting to make a monster movie, creature feature. Just having that flexibility is really important.

Ellis: Exactly. The advice I would say is if you write, "A monster attacks a boy in the woods," okay, how do you film that, right? But if you've got two kids and one says to the other, "Don't go through the woods," and he says, "Why?" and he says, "There's a monster in the woods," it's costing nothing, but your audience already has got the idea.

"Don't go through the woods," and he says, "Why?" and he says, "There's a monster in the woods."

Again, it's talking about that cerebral idea of being able to place an idea in the audience's head, and then where do you take that idea? I think it just comes back to maybe less is more, in some respects, and the idea and how you present the ideas. You can get really creative, and that's what I loved about this film.

Working with the crew, they were so creative and so collaborative. It was lovely just to be able to design the movie from the ground up and, again, have that time because we shot in two blocks. There was a year gap where we edited what we had and looked at what we had and discussed what we had and discussed its weaknesses and saw what its strengths were. Then we were able to go back and rewrite new scenes and develop it in a much further way which played to its strengths. So yeah, having that time is crucial. But generally, you don't get it in filmmaking. Normally, you have the script, you go and make it.

NFS: I think those were my main questions. Is there anything that you wanted to discuss I didn't ask?

Ellis:I think what's interesting is everyone seems to be obsessed with camera quality right now. They're going on, "Oh, it's 4K," or "It's 6K and 8K," and you've got people like Netflix dictating what cameras can and can't be used for their content. I think this is really putting the cart before the horse. I'm just like, "I'm sorry, but I don't seem to remember anybody telling Picasso what brushes he could use." I mean, I get it. I understand why it's happening. I understand the business side of it, and I understand that people are selling TVs and buying cameras, and I get that, but I think you can be bamboozled by this kind of, I call it the "quality war."

I think back to when I shot Metro Manila on a Canon 5D. It was no problem back then. The story's still the story. I think whatever time you spend researching cameras or camera stuff, you should spend just as much time researching story development because I think that's where... If you can marry the two and say, "Well, here's what I can do with my budget and I can shoot it on this, but this is what I've designed as a story," I think that's where filmmakers should be. I don't think they should be too obsessed with this camera war that seems to be going on right now.

NFS: It's a lot of marketing, as you mentioned.

Ellis: Yeah, exactly. Again, people buying HDR TVs is probably behind a lot of it. But let's not forget, 35mm film has been around for over a hundred years, and it's served us properly for those hundred years. There's no reason to stop using it now.

NFS: Yes. That's what I was going to say. Especially for someone like you who is still relying on those "old-school methods."

Ellis: Yeah. I think there's a bunch of directors that are hanging onto it, and I think there's a bunch of new directors that see what it is and aren't interested in the data things, the sort of, what do I call it, the vinyl experience. It's like the thing. It's like having the vinyl. It's not about playing music on your computer. It's about having the thing. And I think film is very much about that.

I like to research and I like to develop a technique where I test it beforehand so I know exactly what I'm doing when I'm on set with the camera.

For me, what I love about it is that there is a discipline to it that I'm just used to. I like to research and I like to develop a technique where I test it beforehand so I know exactly what I'm doing when I'm on set with the camera. And then using film sharpens everybody's focus. You call "action" and you call "cut." I like that discipline.

I think far too many directors have got into this habit of just shooting thousands and thousands of hours of footage and not... I hear horror stories of editors just literally skimming through the footage. Can you imagine? Because literally there's not the time to look at it. I think there's a discipline there about figuring out what it is you want, instead of just running and gunning and hoping that you've got something. That's my approach anyway.

NFS: And I think it's valuable because it is that... It ends up being more deliberate and a little bit more thoughtful in a lot of ways, I think.

Ellis: We hope.

NFS: Well, I think this film is evidence of that because, again, it's beautiful, it's thought out, and I think you've got some great performances also.

Ellis: Thank you. I won't take credit for those. I'll hand the credit over to the actors themselves, but thank you.

Can’t take part in this year’s festivities? Check out the rest of our 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverage here.