October Spotlight: Director of Photography Karl Siemon Talks Grandpa, Razor Eaters, and Lots More

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October Spotlight: Director of Photography Karl Siemon Talks Grandpa, Razor Eaters, and Lots MoreKarl Siemon is a DP you’ve almost heard of thanks to a “little” movie called Saw, but if you’re a serious cult film fan, you should know him well thanks to an Aussie horror film entitled Razor Eaters (2003).

Now Siemon is handling the cinematography for actor/director Leslie Simpson’s first-time outing, Grandpa, and the results are chilling. Dread Central recently had the opportunity to do an email interview with the in-demand DP while he was shooting a film in Sydney, Australia, and the results are both fascinating and funny.

Dread Central: Hello, Karl. and thank you for taking time to chat with us about Leslie Simpson’s short film Grandpa. First off, would you mind telling us a bit about yourself? Your background, where you received your film training, etc.?

Karl Siemon: Cinematography is everything I love about the arts put together: writing, painting, light, color, drama, music…and the way these arts interact to create cinema is endlessly interesting and open to manipulation and exploration, even today.

In the spirit of this exploration, after film school I did some (many) questionable free projects, especially an ill-advised super16mm feature called Radio Samurai when I was 23 (way too young to call yourself a DP!) which can only be referred to as a “trial by fire”. We learnt a lot about how not to make a film, but we finished it, and we didn’t kill anyone, so I guess that’s somewhat of a dubious success. From there I got introduced to a very promising writer/director Shannon Young of Stygian fame, and we shot Razor Eaters together, along with Nick Levy (producer). That film had a great script, but it suffers from a low budget, which is a shame. I think it was shot (film and DVCAM) for $25,000AUD, which is ridiculous. At the time the DV revolution was reaching a zenith and we (at least, my friends and I) were all fired up by El Mariachi ‘s success – which convinced just about every snotty film-school grad that you could start a career with no more than a car loan and an Arri ST…Still, I am proud of some of the work in it, and I think Eaters stands up as a film which Dread Central readers might be interested to check out. It’s released in the US on DVD. Look in the bargain bins.

Around this time Paul Moder and Nick Levy (producers of Razor Eaters) called me from Melbourne asking if I wanted to shoot a short film called “Saw” they were going to do with James Wan and Leigh Whannell, who was also in Eaters. I didn’t want to do it, so I said no…which may have been a mistake :)…

I floated around doing some TV camerawork, shorts, music videos, and then over a beer one day I found myself hired as the DP of a feature film called Submerge, which has finally come out and is doing well on the US and International festival circuit now. It had its premiere in New York, at firstimefest – an indie launch festival judged by Christine Vachon. I couldn’t go over for the launch due to work commitments, but the producer Kat Holmes, director Sophie O’Connor and star Lily Hall all went, and got to meet my some of my film heroes all in one venue – Christine Vachon of course, Sofia Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Darren Aronofsky. Lucky bastards. Apparently they got to sit down and have a drink with them all, which is kind of typical: the DP never gets invited to these sorts of parties.

DC: How did you come to be involved in this project?

KS: I ran into Leslie Simpson at a BBQ on Melbourne’s Yarra River, and he invited us all back to this fantastic pad just around the corner which had a nice view of the city from the rooftop. Somewhere in a drunken, late night argument over philosophy, I think we both found a collaborator. We became fast friends, and then when the opportunity to work together came up, thanks to Tim Slawik (producer), we did. Actually I think I got hired because Les knew I would do it for free…

DC: What vision did the director have for the film initially? And how did Simpson’s approach to film differ from other directors you have worked with – if at all?

KS: Almost none! Just some childish babble about a vision of a shadow in a doorway. Getting into Leslie’s mind is like diving into treacle. So I worked particularly hard in pre-production trying to understand the confusing mess of signs in his head: arrows that lead nowhere, turnoffs that lead you back to where you started. It’s a mess in that head of his. A lesser person would go mad. I think he did that ages ago.

His view of the film builds, like most directors’ visions do, in pre-production, once you actually lock things in, like the house we were going to shoot in and the kid we cast. Then we talked a lot about the script and influences and I suggested some really good stuff, which he then stole and put in the next draft!

Once you have a location, you can plan out shots, and things about the location give you ideas as to how to approach each scene. That said, we found the perfect house right at the start. It was an incredible location that had everything we had been talking about already there. Pastel walls, old Victorian rooms adjoining a totally modern kitchen extension. It was clearly meant to be. Most people will assume that the kitchen scenes are shot in a different house to the rest of it, and we play with that – there is a “barrier” between the old and new – but it is actually the same house. Weirdly enough, all of that was in the script before we found the house, so we were very lucky with that. As was the idea that the kid would always be represented by color, whilst the parents would be the color of the walls, almost as if the house and the parents were…hmm…let’s just say “similar shades”…

As to the second question, Leslie’s approach, if he even had one, was to basically demand unreasonable requests from over-taxed crew. At least, he did that whenever he was on set, which was about half the time. He was acting also, so I had to constantly thrust the monitor in front of him and get him to watch it. He also had Efisia Fele as a trusted “director’s eye” for the scenes he was acting in, and it was great to work with her. She knew so well what the film was about and what Leslie was wanting. Over the course of the whole shoot, I only saw him lose his temper once, but that was enough. He has an absolutism about every single thing that is going to be in his film and I like that. It makes the work more final and correct somehow – “uncompromised”, which isn’t actually a word, but makes sense. At the end of the day, there’s no point in shooting something that isn’t right, so I’d rather struggle to achieve something complicated rather than roll over and say “that’s close enough”.

I have worked with a few directors, and as a DP on longer form projects you have the privilege of working very intensely with these often interesting people, and at the same time have access to add things that come from yourself also – ideas, images, symbols and cool storytelling tricks – you get into the film, and then into their lives, their passions, even their darkest shit, their world becomes yours and it’s weird coming out of it, because you feel as if you’ve been a different person, or actually, some kind of symbiotic Siamese twin creature (another film idea…anyone?) and then afterwards you are so sick of the person you can barely talk to them, because talking to them is like talking to a demented and deformed version of yourself. At least that’s how Leslie looks to me now. We probably ought to catch up for a beer soon.

October Spotlight: Director of Photography Karl Siemon Talks Grandpa, Razor Eaters, and Lots More

DC: After talking with Simpson and reading the script, what vision did you then have for the film?

KS: Hopefully the director’s vision! Well, a mixture of mine and his I guess. I remember doing a lot of the hard yards whilst Leslie chewed on his crayons. We talked in depth about themes and mood. We had long discussions about the rather odd choice of not doing any close ups of the adults, not even mid-shots, and how that would restrict or inform shooting and editing choices, particularly the idea that we would be looking up at them a lot: all the adults are seen from the kid’s perspective, which are quite ugly angles on actors and didn’t make Leslie any more attractive…Claudia survived the process but I think that’s just nature’s gifts.

DC: Describe the film in your own words.

KS: It was a lot of work.

DC: In terms of visuals, Grandpa seems to be a film full of light and dark, almost to extremes. And especially when Grandpa is around. Was this part of Simpson’s vision or yours, and for us photographic novices, how did you achieve some of the effects seen in the film: Grandpa’s appearances, the bedtime scenes with Luke and Milo which are dizzyingly off-balance?

KS: It is very dark in places. Leslie demanded that, particularly towards the end of the film. I’m curious as to whether it’s going to hold up in a cinema, as we’ve gone pretty far towards black. The windows and doors, in contrast, are almost always completely white. That was Leslie’s intention all along. He started with the idea of this cauterizing light coming from everywhere, as if the world outside is nothing but a white maelstrom – hmm – spoiler so better stop discussing that.

The bedtime scenes come from an early discussion with Leslie about dis-orientating the audience at that point. The kid is, well, let’s say “sleepy” by this scene, and a whole stack of weird shit starts happening. So there’s lots of racking in and out of focus, and dis-continuous fractured moments, but really the credit for this scene should go to some very creative suggestions by Leslie in editing, with our editor Peter J Bennett and sound designer Simon Rosenberg.

In terms of the visual effects, I work in a studio where I do a lot of After Effects, you can do amazing things with it, if you understand how it works and spend a little time on something. I didn’t have time, so I just put some funky filters on it, some lightbursts and stuff that are randomized. I just kept adding until it seemed to work…it was really late at night when I did it and I just wanted to go to sleep!

DC: There’s a lot of subtle imagery throughout the film, and some magnificent, ambitious camerawork, which marks Grandpa out as a statement of intent rather than simply a ‘debut film’ – especially for a no-budget horror, would you agree?

KS: Thanks. The statement of intent was intentional. I think if Leslie was going to do his first short, it really should be something that stands out. Kind of the point of a short is to say, “Hey, here’s my aesthetics, my sympathies, my idea of what cinema is. What do you think?” And hope that someone else out there likes that idea. I mean, Leslie was never going to make a fluff piece, some one-trick/one-liner type thing. His sensibilities are far too esoteric for that. Grandpa is the kind of film that I like also, so the camera work was informed by what was written in the first place. We both knew what we wanted from it. Leslie just needed someone to carry the camera. Oh, and take the lens cap off, which he doesn’t know how to do. I think the Steadicam is kind of cool. We had the crazy idea of doing a complex Steadicam in a short film that only had four days to shoot. Might have been a bad idea, but we did it anyway. It took 20 takes to get the camera and actors in the right positions, and most of the reflections and shadows avoided or out of frame. It’s also an HDRx (High dynamic range) shot that goes from exterior to interior. Impossible to do with anything prior to the Red Epic, without iris pulling of course, so that was cool.

DC: And what is really going on in the film?

KS: Well, I’m pretty sure of what was going on inside the camera, but I’ve no idea of what was going on in front of the lens. Something about a toy bear or something. I’m pretty sure it’s meant to be fairly unsettling: there are scenes in it which remind me of Harrison Ford’s line at the end of Raiders – you know “Marion, don’t look! Keep your eyes SHUT!”

That’s why I shot the whole thing with my eyes closed. Turned out to be the right decision too as I still have my face.

October Spotlight: Director of Photography Karl Siemon Talks Grandpa, Razor Eaters, and Lots More

DC: What were the primary influences for the look?

KS: Having a shocking sinus headache the first day of shooting, and being hopped up on major painkillers. And also Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, The Tenant, and anything that Leslie’s satanic film repertoire could dredge up. Also a large part of what influences the final look is the budget, location, and the crew’s stamina on set. We had a really solid crew, who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of overtime and when it should kick in, so that dictated what the photography could be as well! My gaffer was Sanjay Malkar, a DP in his own right, who deserves a special mention for the effort he put in and the experience he brought. He’s from Bollywood, and was fantastic to work with. As was my camera team: Matt Scott, who came with his Steadicam, and of course my 1st AC/focus puller Rudi Siira, and 2nd cam op and assist Thomas Formosa-Doyle, not to forget Josh, our data wrangler.

DC: How much flexibility did Simpson give you? Or did he have a very strict or clear idea of what was needed?

KS: Ha! Flexibility is not known in Leslie’s heaven and earth. Maybe as an actor, but not as a director. He’s a real fanatic. Interesting thing is, everything we shot is in the film. At least in the 18min version (whoops). We didn’t do any coverage whatsoever. It was – this is the shot. No other. Not even likely. If it was a hair’s width out – it was not even shot. Move the camera. Do this. Do that. It was like working with Attila the Hun. He actually considers himself the re-incarnation. He told me once.

DC: How did your degree in Fine Arts inform your process for camerawork?

KS: Fine Arts is a good grounding support for a DP. You learn a lot about composition, angles, light, color, movement, especially being able to pre-visualize what something is going to look like – it’s vital I think. As much visual exposure as you can get, from whatever sources, galleries, photography books, other films, it has got to inform your camerawork. Camera assisting and focus pulling are important training also – cinematography is a weird art form, because it’s intensely creative but it’s also a highly technical job. And you need to know how to use cameras and lighting in the first place, in order to do anything good with it. I’m still learning both I think, and I think I always will be.

That said, I think it’s a mistake to think of a DP as a “technician”. There are a bunch of other technical people there to help with that, and you have to know how to direct them, but at the end of the day, a role of a cinematographer should first and foremost be a creative one, otherwise what’s the point?

DC: The final scene (trying to avoid any spoilers here) – the director wanted it to be shot in-camera. How difficult was it to get that shot? I’ve heard camera obscura was a nightmare; then a green screen was used – without giving too much away, how did you do it?

KS: I did suggest a camera obscura type rig, where we would do a kind of double-exposed image, and we talked about Méliès and mirror rigs where we could part-light the grandpa character and shoot his reflection as an image in-camera. The trick of the obscura, or in this case – another lens “in-line” between the camera lens and the reflecting glass – was to turn the image upside-down but still have the background right side up. But in the end we didn’t have the kind of precision kit needed to build it, and although it would have been cool, we opted to join the modern world for the grandpa shots and just use green screen. It still works, it’s just not as cool as a “how-they-did-it” story. I do like in-camera tricks. They look different somehow. Everyone is used to green screen now, even people who just eat popcorn. So it’s a bit over-used, and kind of sad when there are actually fantastic tricks you can do with lenses and mirrors, recorded in camera, just the way Méliès used to do. Filmmaking is still about trickery, but green screen is kind of the one magic trick everyone knows how to do, unfortunately. Kids are doing it in school.

DC: What are some of your favorite films?

KS: There are too many to mention. Everything I see influences me. My top five films are Spoorloos (1988), a near perfect film, Chungking Express (1988), it just breaks my heart every time I see that, Dancer in the Dark (2000), Angel Baby (1995) – a very awesome Australian piece with Jacqueline McKenzie and John Lynch, it is simply unforgettable; Wings of Desire (1987) of course… everything by Kusturica – Its actually easier to talk in terms of directors and their bodies of work – Stanley Kubrick, Polanski, Clint Eastwood, Hal Hartley, Wenders, Scorsese, Lean, Aronofsky – particularly The Fountain , Coppola (both of them), Ken Loach, Kusturica, god, stop me when I’m getting boring. There’s tonnes more I can’t remember right now. And that’s just the directors. The DOPs, that’s another list altogether.

DC: Have you worked a lot in the horror genre? If not, what do you think of it as a DOP?

KS: Not so much, which is weird as horror is my natural state of being: most of the scripts that I write are horror scripts, psychological not slasher. I’m fascinated by good horror and love the jump when someone really surprises you out of your seat. Good shocks might be a cheap trick, but they are difficult to do well. Like comedy, horror is about the setup, the timing, editing, right balance of dark and light. Since you ask me from the point of view of DP, I would have to say that horror gives you the opportunity to really go dark in lighting, to fill the frame with blackness and get really noir and high contrast, to play with how light illuminates or obscures action and faces. It’s a very freeing genre in that respect. It can be frustrating though when sticky sugar-syrup fake blood gets on the front element of the lens. That stuff is horrible to get off.

As an audience and a fan however, I love that lingering icky feeling when you walk out of a great horror film, it’s unsettling and foreign, and you go back to your normal, relatively safe life a different person: someone more inclined to slink back into the sun.

DC: What is one thing no one knows about Karl Siemon that you think they should (everyone I interview gets this question)?

KS: I have a thing for Sherlock Holmes adaptations. Am obsessed actually. I like them all. He’s just such a great character. From “House” to “Elementary,” to the UK’s fantastic “Sherlock,” I’m addicted. It’s a three-pipe problem…

Grandpa is currently making the film fest rounds so keep an eye out for it in your area, and in the meantime check out our Grandpa review here. Also be sure to “like” Grandpa on Facebook and follow Leslie Simpson on Twitter for updates.

Milo is a troubled kid. He’s having night terrors, little accidents, and his only friend has lost an eye. Luke, his father, is blind to Milo’s problems. He’s overworked, underpaid, and up to his eyes in debt. They live in Grandpa’s old house, not so much an inheritance as a millstone round their necks. But something is changing. And Grandpa keeps watch.

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