Exclusive: Cinematographer Jimmy Matlosz Discusses the Look of the Survival Horror Film F.E.A.R.
The horror/thriller F.E.A.R. was released digitally this week in the U.S. and Canada by New Era Entertainment, the new distribution arm of genre sales agent, Devilworks. Set in the desolate regions of the Pacific Northwest, F.E.A.R. follows a young family who faces a group of bandits that steal the last of their supplies. With time running out, they must form an alliance with the outlaws to protect their children. The film stars Marci Miller, Jason Tobias, Danny Ruiz, Cece Kelly, Susan Moore Harmon, Justin Dray and was written/directed by Geoff Reisner and Jason Tobias.
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When a terrifying pathogen is released, one family will fight to save their children against a band of marauders, hellbent on revenge.
To get an inside look at how F.E.A.R. was made, we spoke with one of the film’s creative talents, award-winning cinematographer Jimmy Matlosz (Oedipus, Who Killed the Electric Car?). Below Jimmy goes in-depth about everything from shooting in a blizzard to what his favorite scene in the film is.
Dread Central: F.E.A.R. stands for “Forget Everything and Run”. Can you explain what this title means for people who aren’t familiar with the movie?
Jimmy Matlosz: Since I didn’t write the film I can only speak from my own perspective and that which I learned from Jason Tobias who wrote the film. My understanding is it came from the two meanings of FEAR as an acronym, Forget Everything and Run or Face Everything and Rise, but I believe with this film you could easily apply all three.
Fear as defined and the acronym-based themes, the characters are living in fear. It’s a pandemic film; we don’t need to use our imaginations too much to imagine the possible future based on our own past. As for the other two, our characters do both at any given time and the need for survival. It’s not all about running, nor fighting as with any conflict in life, we must choose our battles wisely and choose our defense more wisely.
That said, and since I love metaphors and I spoke to Jason about this. This whole film could be a metaphor for a family with a child battling a sickness. These situations can tear a family apart, and then bring them together while the sharks come feeding (the sharks being the doctors, insurance, bills and such). That is what I went with in my head when filming this movie. This is where I connected with the actors and the dialogue and drama; this is what spoke to my soul as a cinematographer. Jason never let on if that was his true intent. His answer was truly more coy, like “Art has many interpretations, I’m glad you got something meaningful from my writing.” Of course, I am paraphrasing, but that is what I heard in my head.
DC: From the F.E.A.R. trailer, it looks like a lot of the film takes place in pretty harsh weather conditions. How did these conditions affect your job?
JM: First shot on the first day, we were in blizzard-like conditions. 18” of snow had accumulated and it was coming down pretty heavy, at breakfast. I spoke to my crew who I had never worked with before about what I hoped to achieve and how I would support them any way necessary, Producers Lucas Solomon and Blair Pennington voiced the same as did directors Jason Tobias and Geoff Reisner.
For me, I have worked in some very harsh conditions and I will take snow and cold over the heat of the desert any day. So the snow was the best gift a cinematographer could ask for. Soft, light snow as a real effect, which would be impossible to create on our budget, just enhanced a scene that was very intense. The negative side effect was that when we scouted the location it was bright, sunny, clear blue skies with plenty of light inside the barn we were staging the action in. The snow meant we needed to light the interior and we were not prepared for that.
Luckily Lucas owns the big gnarly Toyota Tundra. He pulled the generator and lighting gear closer to set, while Gaffer RJ Jackson and his crew wrangled lights and cabling to power the set. In the meantime, Ali Sayago was busy building a dolly and laying track because I planned a compound move from the scout. Camera assistants Laura Jansen and Jacob Fuller kept the camera dry, clean and nailed the focus every single time. It really came together like clockwork and to my knowledge we were only about an hour behind schedule, everyone kicked major ass and I do believe this set the tempo for the rest of the shoot. We were family and a team that could accomplish anything!
DC: What did pre-production look like for you on F.E.AR.?
JM: Lucas sent me a text on New Year’s Eve 2018: “Are you busy in January?” Now, Lucas is the kind of guy when he asks if you’re available you just say, “Yes!” You know he will take care of you. We met nearly 15 years ago and have worked on a lot fun projects together, but never a movie. We exchanged a couple of additional text messages about the film and the starting date of January 14th.
He did reinforce that we were shooting on Alexa. He knows my taste in camera and I was all in. I believe I scouted with Jason a week later. There was one additional scout with both Geoff and Jason and that was it aside from emails and phone calls. We talked about some of our favorite films and styles we liked. Jason had a mood deck, which included The Assassination of Jesse James (one of my all-time favorite films) and I knew we were jiving on the style and plan. Jason had this film very well planned out and Geoff took that planning to a whole other level, with very astute attention to detail, but more so the acting. Of course, there were some growing pains and learning curves between us all because we all come from different backgrounds, but after that first shot on the first day, it was all good.
DC: F.E.A.R. is a postapocalyptic survivalist movie. How do you think this film differs from others in the genre?
JM: F.E.A.R., as I stated in my interpretation earlier, has a heart and soul. The family dynamics or even just the kids remind me so much of my own. But, more so, Jason put a lot of attention into those family dynamics and how people may really act in unthinkable situations; the desperation, and keeping it dramatic, and being respectful of the genre.
You also couldn’t go wrong with Marci Miller, who plays Jo. She was everything and more; just a pleasure on and off-screen to work with. Admittedly though, I haven’t seen as many of the post-apocalyptic films, but I’ve seen my fair share and more recently when we were making F.E.A.R., I kept referring to Bird Box. Now I may be burning some bridges by saying this, but my mantra on F.E.A.R., was, “Well we’re better than Bird Box’!” Tongue in cheek of course. And our shooting budget was about 1% of that film. And what I meant by that mantra was that the drama I saw through the lens was more tangible to me and the story more relatable. So, for me, the goal was to make it look better than a $20m show. I guess that is up to you to decide how I did.
DC: Do you have a favorite scene in F.E.A.R., cinematically? Why does it stand out to you?
JM: Honestly, it has been a while since I have seen the film. I know that sounds weird, but it happens. And so, I have to go back to the dramatic scene in the barn with the snowstorm. With all the chaos and being the first day, both Jason and Marci nailed it as did the crew.
Secondly, would be the scene shortly after when Jason and Marci are having a more intimate dialogue-based scene just outside the barn. We shot it a week after the blizzard scene and the temperature was below 20. The actors’ hands were blue, but the performances again were solid, and again my crew nailed it with setup and workload.
As I am recalling the film in my head, I do recall one more scene in the living room of the house toward the end, with Marci and CeCe Kelly, who plays her daughter in the film. Throughout various scenes of the film, I would bump Laura, my AC, over to the Easy Rig operator and Jacob, our second AC, would pull focus. By this point, we had a lot of practice and confidence in these two. So we made an attempt to have Laura follow the action in a 360 move around the room, with mother and daughter, while operating the remote head. In this configuration, I adjust the pan and tilt remotely, giving a 3rd dimension to what would be a Steadicam shot. We rehearsed a few times without the rig on Laura, then geared up for the shot. Laura was amazing, going high and low, dropping to a squat and jumping back up again and following the actors in a 15×20 space with debris and furniture in the way. Cinematically it really heightened the intensity of the scene without relying on fast cuts and sleight-of-hand, it was also a challenge to light it in a 360 to avoid camera shadows and still make it match the rest of the film. It really was the most challenging shot after the one on day one and something we led up to throughout the three weeks of production.
DC: Geoff Reisner and Jason Tobias directed the film. What did your working relationship look like with them?
JM: It was truly a pleasure to work with both of them. They have a long history together making at least one film previously together: Terrordactyl. It was all very collaborative. Both Jason and Geoff would map out blocking and such every evening. They both quickly grasped how I liked to set up the camera and move for various shots, opening almost every scene with a compound camera move. So they always gave wiggle room for change.
Geoff would mostly take lead on set. This way we all had one voice to listen to, while Jason and Geoff would often talk any questions and thoughts between themselves. But also, Jason was a lead actor, so it just had a nice flow. The best and most brilliant part was the willingness of everyone to block out and rehearse the scene in full throughout the entire film. This was really kept in check by our rock star 1st AD Xavier Puslowski. This created that well-oiled machine and kept the lines of dialogue and camera work open. I wish I could tell the reader there was drama but there wasn’t; we all got along thick as thieves.
DC: Can you talk about what sort of camera and equipment you used for the film?
JM: I was so lucky that Producer Blair Pennington was advised by some genius to buy the gear he did to make this film, starting with an Alexa mini-open gate, Zeiss CP2 prime lenses, and Tiffen Glimmer Glass filter. And the most amazing part: the Arri Maxima remote head. The first time I saw a lightweight remote stabilized head, I knew what I could do with it and how I wanted to work with it.
So this was like Christmas morning every day on set. I know Roger Deakins uses a similar setup, but again our budget was so low comparatively. This gear set up was a dream come true, and it allowed me to realize some very complex motivated camera work, allowing me to deliver a film that all of us can be proud of. About 90% of the film was shot using the Maxima head. I did shoot some B roll during production with a Black Magic URSA Mini with Canon EF lenses. And of course, there is a drone in there too.
As for Lighting, both Blair and Lucas owned a fair amount of what we used, which was all Arri LED. My main package was one S120, two or three S60’s, two S30’s, and two L7’s. We did rent an additional 2 S120’s for the night scenes, but not the barn scene which was the most challenging for sure to not only light but to maintain the look as our small lighting package had to emulate what the sun provided prior to sunset. Once it got dark, I had lights pressed against cracks and holes in the old barn to emulate the intensity we had seen with the Day for Night interior I had started with. I had to inform Jason and Geoff where we could and couldn’t look as the night dragged on. It got to a point I think where we couldn’t see walls above the knee. In the end, I think it worked well, the LED’s not only delivered a consistent color to match daylight, but also enough intensity to create some very strong highlights. This was my first application of all LED lighting for a narrative. My concerns of skin tones and anomalies were quickly quelled on set and in looking at dailies. A little hazer and diffusion goes a long way to sculpt and create a vibe as well.
DC: What was the most challenging part of working on this film?
JM: Budget is always the most challenging part, but more so that relates to time. I mean, in looking back, I can’t recall the feeling of being throttled or restricted. Maybe in the barn fight scene, would have been great to have more than one day. It all went so dang smooth. We even had relatively short days of 10 hours not including lunch which was an hour. Fridays were often shorter days, due to location limitations, so maybe the drive home on Friday and returning on Monday? We did stay on location, in summer camp-style bunk rooms, so maybe having a hotel room would have been nice. After three weeks of the bunk bed tango, I think most of us were done–not in a bad way, just in a bunk bed summer camp sorta way.
DC: Are you personally a horror fan? If so, what horror films have stuck out to you in the last few years cinematography-wise?
JM: Would you hate me if I said, “No”? I mean I get it, but it’s not my genre. This is a better question for my daughter. Straight-up horror that is. I mean Jaws is still a top favorite film but that is because of the acting and characters. The Shining is such an amazing classic on every level. I know old films… Um, I did like Hereditary. Does that count? Because I guess When A Monster Calls probably doesn’t?
DC: Is there a specific director you would like to collaborate with that you haven’t gotten a chance to yet?
JM: Danny Boyle is probably one of my favorites. Such a variety of great work. I really like Shaka King; he has so much promise. Oh, of course… Kathryn Bigelow!
You can learn more about Jimmy Matlosz HERE.