The day after Thanksgiving has become known as a day of mayhem in the bargain shopper world, and Casey Tebo’s new horror film, Black Friday takes this to another level.
Ahead of the Fantastic Fest premiere this weekend, we spoke to the film’s cinematographer David Kruta about his work on both Black Friday and Edoardo Vitaletti’s much-buzzed-about The Last Thing Mary Saw, which he also worked on. They’re two very different films, but both with all the makings of cult classics.
Dread Central: Can you talk about how you got involved with Black Friday?
David Kruta: Black Friday was my first major project since the start of the pandemic and I was locked away in my house not knowing how long it would be until we could go back to work, so I was a bit surprised to get the call from director Casey Tebo. He had reached out to me many years prior about a different project, that despite having some amazing potential somehow never got off the ground. He was a fan of my work in general and I was familiar with his work on Happy Birthday, and I think we hit it off immediately because we both have a blunt, no-nonsense way of communicating that allowed us to quickly trade ideas. Black Friday’s story also lent itself to being fairly well contained, which during a pandemic is an excellent quality.
DC: What did pre-production look like for you on Black Friday?
Kruta: This was one of my favorite movies I have shot, especially from a prep perspective. Due to the pandemic, my schedule was wide open, and I was able to spend a lot more time than normal prepping the project. Because the film takes place almost entirely in one location, we could physically walk all of our sets at any time and discuss blocking, lighting cues and more with the luxury of time and physical presence, instead of reference photos. I used this opportunity to improve my general prep process as well, creating hundreds of pages of diagrams, references, notes, and even a website that aggregated all of this work so any crew member could access everything they needed at any time. Casey was able to storyboard everything with the location in mind, and I was able to produce some mockups in Photoshop to illustrate everything from what building doors into part of a set would look like, up to how tall our creature growing out of the roof would be, which helped a lot with eyelines later on in the film. Being able to collaborate with the art department and creature makeup folks in real-time was a huge bonus.
DC: I know you can’t give too much away, but is there a scene in Black Friday that you are particularly proud of?
Kruta: I can’t get into specific detail, but there’s a fight scene about three quarters of the way through the film where our hero discovers something upsetting right before he’s attacked by one of the shoppers. He gets away and we follow them in a cat-and-mouse game as they hunt and evade each other through the aisles of the warehouse. We were running out of time on set and really had to speed through the coverage and I was worried about how the sequence would turn out, but it came out great! It has a ton of energy, some funny moments, jump scares, and vibes of Alien or Predator, while still living in our world of Black Friday.
DC: You also have another movie coming out on Shudder next year, The Last Thing Mary Saw. This film has a lot different look than Black Friday, because it takes place in 1843. Can you talk about what techniques you used to make the film look like that time period?
Kruta: I can’t speak about my contributions to a period film without highlighting the work of our amazing production designer, Charlie Robinson, and costume designer, Sofija Mesicek. Without the relevant art and wardrobe to shoot, I would have had nothing to work with. Along with director Edoardo Vitalleti, we did a lot of research into the era – one surprising fact for me is that candles were left burning all night, and there was always a fire going somewhere in the house. This allowed us to motivate light at all times, and working with Charlie, we determined where candles should be placed for each scene. I supplemented the candlelight with battery-powered Aputure MC units I could control from my phone while sitting on the dolly, and where we didn’t have that luxury, I could use the 2500 ISO mode on the Sony Venice to expose real candles for dramatic effect. I also used a Pearlascent filter to soften the image and bloom the highlights, as we were going for a painterly effect.
DC: Because The Last Thing Mary Saw has such a specific look, was it more challenging for you than Black Friday?
Kruta: I have yet to work on a narrative project that isn’t challenging in some way, and most tend to be similarly but differently challenging. Black Friday was mostly challenging due to its scale – I had to oversee a large G&E crew as well as multiple camera crews, a large amount of lighting setups and lighting cues, collaboration with costumes and SFX during their prep processes such as discussing what colors and textures the creatures would be, or how we would light the “Hive”, a practically-built mass of breathing creatures and goo. Overall, the level of organization is what kept me occupied most of the time, and I could only have done it with the support of my operators John Kopec and T. Acton Fitzgerald, 1st ACs Chris Hebert and Nolan Ball, gaffer Ben Heald, and key grip Dave Romano, who were able to distill and distribute my plans and notes to their teams and execute director Casey Tebo’s vision.
Mary was challenging in a much different way, mainly, the lack of resources and time. Indie films are their own beast, but can be so creatively rewarding. We had a very specific look in mind after spending weeks compiling paintings and photographs, with every scene painstakingly shot listed. There were a few limitations at the location, so we had to figure out how to shoot around them, such as one of the bedrooms doubling for another, and cleverly hiding that fact by blocking actors in a hallway and staircase so the audience wouldn’t notice, for example. In a way, the restrictions of the location as well as lighting budget helped us keep the look consistent because we only rented equipment that served a very specific purpose. In a way, I think the most challenging aspect of shooting Mary was several moments where director Edoardo Vitaletti and I trusted each other to take the risk of lighting some very important scenes with just candles – my favorite of which is when several characters approach from the darkness of night, and all we see are four orbs of candlelight floating through blackness, only revealing their faces when they get close to us. It took me until months later in the DI before I stopped worrying!
DC: Edoardo Vitaletti both wrote and directed The Last Thing Mary Saw. Can you talk about your working relationship with him?
Kruta: What I love about working with Edoardo is his mix of vision and curiosity. He does thorough research and knows his subject in and out before writing the script, which translates into tiny details making their way into the final product—even down to the accent of the characters, or how candles are placed in a room. He knows when he is right and has conviction in his decisions and directing, but also knows when he doesn’t know and relies on the people around him to fill in the gaps. Above all, he is a great collaborator, and brings out the best in the people around him. I feel like I can do my best work around him.
DC: Variety said, “The soft candlelit look of DP David Kruta’s imagery casts a claustrophobic spell” in the review for The Last Thing Mary Saw. Was that the effect you were hoping to achieve?
Kruta: In my very first meeting with Edoardo, I described to him how I saw the film looking gloomy, as if impending doom was right around the corner, or the calm before the storm, grey skies on the horizon, getting ready to unleash hell. We were in agreement from the start, wanting to feel like everything was suffocating our characters—their clothes, their environment, their religion and customs. Our references leaned heavily on paintings with large swaths of darkness illuminated only by small points of light, which we achieved with candles and negative fill, and daytime was meant to appear as if our characters had a shadow cast over them. I’m thrilled by Variety’s take on it.
DC: Is there a specific director who you would love to work with? What project made you notice him/her?
Kruta: How to answer this succinctly? We are living through a golden age of content and there are so many incredible films being made that it’s hard to keep up. However, two that struck me recently are Swallow by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, and Censor by Prano Bailey Bond—two wildly different films that both deal with inner struggle and turmoil. As a cinematographer, it’s an interesting challenge to depict someone’s thoughts and emotions through the visual medium of film. If you can make the audience squirm because of how a character is handling their situation, instead of just blood and guts, that to me is very exciting.
DC: Are you personally a horror fan? If so, what are some of your favorite films in the genre?
Kruta: Of course I’m a horror fan! More broadly, I am a fan of genre films, because these are places where one can let their imagination run wild. Film is a visual storytelling medium, and in no place is this more pure than in genre, where you can tell stories about inner fears by using a monster to personify them, or to show morality as a literal struggle between good and evil forces, or to manifest the desire to explore by sending a crew into space (at least for 90 minutes on a screen). Some of my top horror films are The Thing, anything Alien-related, Event Horizon, and The Evil Dead—which I guess shows my affinity for practical effects, creature films and sci-fi/horror crossovers.
The Last Thing Mary Saw premieres on Shudder in 2022. Screen Media will release Black Friday in November 2021. You can learn more about David Kruta here.