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