‘Spoonful Of Sugar’ Cinematographer On Creating The Film’s Warped Perception of Reality

Spoonful Of Sugar

Last year Mercedes Bryce Morgan’s feature film debut, Fixation instantly garnered attention from critics and horror fans as it explored the dangers of departing reality and the consequences of looking deep into one’s psyche. Mercedes’ second feature, Spoonful of Sugar, explores some of those similar themes, but in unhinged suburbia with LSD, making the twist and turns even more unpredictable and shocking.

The official synopsis reads, “A disturbed babysitter experiences a sexual awakening while using LSD to alternatively treat a seemingly “sick” child from a family with dark secrets of their own.”

When the creatives of Spoonful of Sugar began conceptualizing the look and feel of the film, the normal tropes of filmmaking were quickly thrown out the door, beginning with the cinematography. To get a certain trippy vibe, cinematographer Nick Matthews did everything from putting Vaseline on the camera lens to shooting at 3 frames per second. All these techniques and experimentations led to a visually stunning, mind-bending ride. We talked with Nick about all this, his fascination with darkness, and much more in the below Q&A. 

Dread Central: How did you first get connected with Spoonful of Sugar?

Nick Matthews: Honestly, that felt serendipitous. I had just relaunched my website and cut a new reel—all aimed directly at continuing to shoot dark, gritty, and haunting horror and psychological thriller films. I reached out to one of my friends and collaborators Natalie Metzger of Vanishing Angle to catch up and turns out she was in the middle of producing the film. And at that moment they were still looking for a DP.

As soon as I read the treatment and saw the visual selections in the mood reel, I was hooked. Then once I read the script and spoke with Mercedes, I knew I had to do this film. There were specific references to many of my favorite photographers and filmmakers, including Gregory Crewdson, the brutal imagery of Sally Mann, the psychological terror of Lynn Ramsay, and the singular approach of Stanley Kubrick. We were aiming to make a movie that felt subjective and terrifying. Something where the visual language was the key component of the storytelling rather than an afterthought. It felt like someone had made a treatment and script just for me.

DC: Were you familiar with Mercedes’ work before signing on to the film? Did you go back and watch any of Mercedes’ previous titles to get a feel of her vibe as a director?

NM: At the time, I wasn’t familiar with her work, but I always look through a director’s previous projects. I want to know that the filmmaker compels me to keep watching. Her short-form work was dazzling and provocative, and once she sent me a screener of her first feature, Fixation, I really felt a deep connection with her stylistic approach. We had the great fortune of shooting a music video together right before we launched into making the film, which gave us a common framework to take on the film together.

DC: Did you get inspiration from any other horror films for Spoonful of Sugar?

NM: We shared about 25 films with each other to start the conversation. I also lent Mercedes about 20 photography books that I felt might inspire new visual ideas and approaches. 

Here are a few of the horror/thriller films that were on our watchlist: Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Possession, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, Ida, Cache, Naked, Angst, Safe, Killing of the Sacred Deer, Swallow, Rosemary’s Baby, Nymphomaniac. And here are some of the photographers whose work we referenced: Stéphane Coutelle, Todd Hido, Sally Mann, Gregory Crewdson, and Edmond Teske as common ground in finding that aesthetic. 

DC: Were there any shots you had planned that didn’t end up working out, but after pivoting, you liked the results better?

NM: Mercedes had this idea of shooting an entire scene with a spinning top-down shot that slowly zoomed out from our lead characters. Because of budget restraints, we couldn’t afford a remote head to pull that off with the 24-290 zoom lens. We struggled to devise a solution that would also work in the tiny A-frame house location. So we ended up devising this truss build with a Lambda head and rope to create this very old-school way of unspooling the camera. It’s one of my favorite approaches to a scene in the film. We wanted to try and cover the big emotionally complex scenes with longer takes and less coverage to let them punctuate the film and stand out, and this was one such example.

DC: We heard you put Vaseline on the camera lens and also taped your glasses to the camera to get the desired look. Is that true? Are there any other odd techniques that you did in this film?

NM: LSD and psychedelia are part of the narrative, and we shot those scenes with a variety of techniques to play with space and time. To visually explore that theme, I wanted to create fragmented compositions in a variety of ways. I keep a little bag of modifiers with me on every job—a mixture of odd pieces of glass, crystals, prisms, diopters, etc. But after showing Mercedes a few of these, I had the idea of using my own glasses because one of my lenses has a stretching effect similar to anamorphic. We taped it to the matte box and while it was an instinctual idea on the day, and it looked just right.

Elsewhere we shot this surrealist erotic fantasy that places the audience into the character’s imagination. We were using a large amount of blood to rain down on the characters and the camera. We shot it at a high frame rate with a lot of strobing white and red light that I wanted to feel like orgasmic bursts of color that feel primal and murderous. As we were starting to frame it up, it just felt too present tense, so we painted the lens with Vaseline as a way to heighten the surrealism of the scene.

DC: Can you talk about how different your shooting techniques were during the normal sequences, compared to the drug-fueled sequences in Spoonful of Sugar?

NM: To create a warped perception of reality, we used some crazier techniques for the LSD sequences. This involved shooting at 3 frames per second and a 270-degree shutter for a dreamy step printing effect for one of the pivotal tripping scenes. Additionally, we did a range of shots where we spun the camera as a way to transition into the sequence. In addition to the previously mentioned Vaseline and my taped glasses, I even ended up breathing on the lens in between every take on one scene to visually recreate the out-of-body experience of the characters.

DC: Do you feel like when you shoot a horror film there are a different set of guidelines to follow?

NM: I’m fascinated by pervading darkness—both in a metaphysical and literal sense. I want to explore the pathos, violence, and absurdity of the human condition.  I’m interested in what makes us primal animals and how that plays out in the macabre and the erotic. I think we’re all scared of the unknown and imagination is the greatest way to incite fear. Horror films give us access to those emotional states and moral quandaries in a way that no other genre accesses. 

Horror is an inherently visual genre. The camera often has a voice and atmosphere is key to the way the audience is shocked and bewildered. For me as a cinematographer, that is a dream. Ultimately, every film is about telling the story in a way that compels the audience forward. But few other genres are so accepting of the levels of darkness, decay, and grit that I want to photograph.

DC: Did you learn anything from shooting Spoonful of Sugar?

NM: I learn new techniques and approaches in every film I craft. For this, I used a color palette that I’ve been so afraid of in the past. Tonally, the film moves from softer light with deep shadows to shafts of light and color separation for surrealism. We used a distinctive and limited palette of ambers and lavender blues after being inspired by a few photographers. I ended up using this lavender tp fill in the shadows by using LED bulbs in clamp lights covered with my gaffer’s “grandma’s silk pillowcases”!! Additionally, we tried to shoot as much daytime work at dusk in a way we would light to create a more surreal feeling.

DC: What are some of your favorite horror films? Why?

NM: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Shining, Evil Dead 2, Possession, White Ribbon, Alien, The Brood.

All of these films are visually unforgettable and I’ve rewatched them all time and time again. They jolt and bewilder me with each new watch.



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