They only have eyes for you…
Most of the time that sounds like a good thing, but in the case of Smiley Face Killers, not so much. Those eyes are ones of a group of organized murderers. Smiley Face Killers is based on a theory about the real-life smiley face murders perpetrated in the Midwest from the late 1990s to the 2010s when over 150 young men were found suspiciously drowned.
As a strange wave of mysterious drownings of male college students plagues the California coast, Jake Graham struggles to keep his life together at school. Finding himself stalked by a hooded figure driving an unmarked van, Jake fears he may become the next victim in the killers’ horrific spree.
With horror greats like Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho), Tim Hunter (River’s Edge, Twin Peaks), and Crispin Glover [Featured Image] (Willard) involved, it’s hard not to be intrigued by Lionsgate’s latest release. One person involved who also greatly understands the genre is cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah.
When discussing his work on Smiley Face Killers, Michael says, “What’s awesome about making a horror film is that you are making your movies for an ‘expert audience.’ Horror fans see lots and lots of horror movies and they expect you to both be in a dialogue with the history of the genre and to do something new and cool and interesting.”
Michael expands on this idea more in a recent sit-down. He also talks about why the beach scene was so complicated and what it was like working with Ellis. Enjoy!
Dread Central: What can you tell us about Smiley Face Killers?
Michael Marius Pessah: It’s a horror-thriller written by legendary writer Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho, Less than Zero, Rules of Attraction) inspired by some dreadful real-life events. The great Tim Hunter (River’s Edge, Twin Peaks, Breaking Bad) directed and it stars Ronen Rubinstein, Mia Serafino, and Crispen Glover. It’s a sunny SoCal daydream that turns to an inescapable nightmare over the course of the film.
DC: What does preparation for a film like this entail? Do you storyboard everything out?
MMP: Preproduction on this film was atypical for me. I had filmed a teaser-trailer for the film with Bret, Tim and producer Braxton Pope a few years ago. We talked a lot about the visual style of the movie when we were developing that. However, when it came time to start principal photography on SFK I was still filming Saving Flora – a kids adventure movie! Jan Wielski started the movie off and did a fantastic job with all the Vegas cinematography.
Every director is different and Tim Hunter has an uncanny ability to understand the ‘chessboard’ of the visual space of a complex scene very deeply and quickly. He doesn’t storyboard, but instead we scouted very carefully for locations that has the dynamics he likes and I would work with the gaffer and the AD so that the technical pieces would be in place for us to move quickly.
On the day, Tim blocks the scenes in a way that makes sense for the actors and camera, and we just dive in from there. You need to be prepared to pull off complex shots at the drop of a hat, but sometimes this way is better and more organic than just trying to shoehorn a real-world scenario into a storyboard that was made in a place that was removed from the energy of the scene.
The beach scene and the car chase were major setups, and I’m really proud of the ominous mood we created and performances there. We filmed them very freely despite them being very technically complex with towers of lights and camera cranes.
DC: When working on a horror project, such as Smiley Face Killers, how is your approach different than non-horror titles?
MMP: What’s awesome about making a horror film is that you are making your movies for an ‘expert audience.’ Horror fans see lots and lots of horror movies and they expect you to both be in a dialogue with the history of the genre and to do something new and cool and interesting. There’s a line from Nosferatu to Psycho to Halloween to Scream to It Follows to whatever it is you are trying to do in the idiom. It’s a really great challenge, and fans in communities like Dread Central are always there to champion and critique the work.
Also, since horror films are inherently surrealistic, it’s an invitation to be expressive with lighting. Some of the best cinematography has been in horror films.
DC: Smiley Face Killers was written by Bret Easton Ellis, who has written classics such as Less Than Zero and American Psycho. Each of his films seems to have a very specific look. Did he have a lot of input on your work or was it mainly the director?
MMP: This is my third collaboration with Bret Easton Ellis. Previously, I was fortunate to work with him on the series The Deleted which he also directed. He is an incredibly visual writer and his aesthetic is something that’s built into the DNA of everything he writes. It comes through in the prose of his books – go back to Less Than Zero and his visual themes are there from beginning. So between having worked with Bret in the past, my understanding of his oeuvre, and all of the visual notes written right into his screenplay I had a very good sense of the dreamlike atmosphere he wanted to create.
While filming, it was very much Tim Hunter’s set and Tim put his own fingerprint on the script – he has his own ingenious way of visual storytelling. It was really fun being a part of such a collaboration – there’s no other job in the world quite like it.
DC: What were some of your sources of visual inspiration for Smiley Face Killers?
MMP: Iconic SoCal beach movies like Point Break and Lost Boys were a good reference for the vernacular we wanted to pull the rug out from under. The pulpy colorful work in Dario Argento’s Suspiria for the gore in the film and Se7en was a reference for its relentless sense of doom – both in interiors and exteriors. Additionally, I mentioned earlier, Bret’s writing comes with a visual lexicon built in.
DC: Can you think of a particular shot with this film that really challenging? What did you do to overcome it?
MMP: The beach scene was complex overall. We filmed it over two nights, and beaches are never easy places to film at night. The tides shift, it’s tough to get power and generators out there, and to move the camera on the sand. And then there is the question of how to light a large dark ocean….
There’s a sequence of shots that takes Ronen Rubinstein and Mia Serafino from a party on the beach to a romantic moment of them by the water. I was inspired by a shot in The Natural where Caleb Deschanel, ASC silhouettes his characters against the ocean. To accomplish this, our production designer had many real fires placed across the beach – we were able to control the brightness with a gas spigot – those fires created a beautiful natural orange glow. I set the camera and lighting levels to a place where the fires would work the best. Then I placed a Beebee lighting crane on the beach to create moonlight for our actors, and several big HMI lights as far out on the fishing pier as I could to skip light off the water.
Our amazing steadicam operator, Twojay Dhillon, executed a move that carries the characters from the warm light of the fires, through the moonlight of the Beebee and into a silhouette created by the light from the pier. It was one of the shots where you really only had the time to place the lights once and hope you made the right educated guess about where things go. It worked perfectly, and the actors gave a really lovely performance in that scene
DC: How closely do you work with the editors on your projects? What is that relationship like?
MMP: I generally try to stay away from getting involved in the edit. The director is getting flooded with notes during that time and you just need to have faith in the process. However, I very closely supervised the color grade of the film with colorist Quinn Alvarez at Apache Color. Color grade is a place where the visual arcs of a film can be refined. I think it’s very important for cinematographers follow the work all the way from pre-production through post-production.
DC: You also worked on TLC’s Evil Things. What is the main difference between working on a series like that and Smiley Face Killers?
MMP: Evil Things was a horror anthology series, and it was a blast to work on. Each episode was a new cast of actors, a new story, and a new visual style. The showrunner, Patrick Deluca, directed most of the episodes himself and we had a great time trying out new ideas in each episode. What was consistent throughout was that each episode needed some very effective jump scares. I don’t think there’s a way to do a jump scare that we didn’t try at least once in that series!
One thing Patrick and I did, that I’d suggest new horror filmmakers try, is to work your way backward in a scene from the scare… in other words stage and shoot the scare first. That way you can time and block the actors and camera in a way to give you the most frightening jump – sometimes there’s some trial and error in positioning things correctly. Also, it gives you time to really dial it in… it’s the payoff shot in the sequence and you want to have time to get it right. When you have that shot filmed perfectly, you can work your way backwards and film the top of the scene in a way that naturally leads into the scare you just designed.
You can learn more about Michael Marius Pessah here, http://michaelpessah.com/.
Have you seen Smiley Face Killers yet? What do you think of our exclusive interview with Michael Marius Pessah? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram! You can also carry on the convo with me personally on Twitter @josh_millican.