In the summer of 1987, Vicki Maloney (Ashleigh Cummings) is abducted by serial killer couple John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth). With escape seeming impossible, she attempts to drive a wedge between them in an effort to survive. Cinematographer Michael McDermott lenses Hounds of Love in Western Australia.
Hounds of Love is a work of fiction from writer/director Ben Young. It has it’s roots in a number of serial killer male/female partnerships and imagines the frail psychologies of those relationships. It’s a dark exploration of their lives during a period of heinous activity and one victim’s experience at their hands. It’s not very nice subject matter.
Young and I were put together by the talented producer of television commercials Maggie Speak quite a few years ago when I had returned to Perth after ten years in Sydney. We clicked immediately and began working together on commercials and music videos. Young already had a rich history in music videos and short films and we were both committed to the idea of a long form future. Young had penned a number of features and was continually trying to get one up through the traditional funding bodies. He had some success but Hounds of Love was the first one to really see the light of day.
Factor 30 Films’ Producer Melissa Kelly saw the potential of Young and the Hounds of Love script and together they were able to secure funding for the project through ScreenWest and Screen Australia. I knew Melissa prior to this film and it was a very neat and natural fit. Perth is a pretty small town and even smaller industry-wise, so everyone kind of knows everyone. We have something quite unique here that’s been seen by the success of some of our filmmakers and film technicians, musicians, actors, writers and artists. Also our surfers, skaters, motor sport drivers, cricket and footy teams do well. It is across the board really. I had worked with a large majority of the team at some time. Hounds of Love was almost totally crewed by committed, talented, local Western Australians.
We probably talked about every component at some point and camera/lens choice was in there for sure. Young and I had a strong visual connection by the time Hounds of Love went to funding. He and I would spend days in the car from time to time, well before we had the money. Driving the suburbs and rural environments. We talk about every aspect of the project while we looked for suitable areas and possible locations. We would drive and conjure how we might construct scenes to best serve the story. It was a great incubator for the project. We were in lock step with the vision and execution and we had decided, perhaps a little naively, that there was no way this film could not happen. Talk about the power of positive visualisation.
We discussed lots of lens options both spherical and anamorphic and went with the preferred Cooke S4s. We love the 2.40:1 aspect ratio though but did not want anything photographically too distracting to the story. So the 2.40 frame lines were switched on and that became our frame. I think the camera choice was pretty clear. I love operating and hold composition and movement very close. The ARRI Alexa balances beautifully and has an ergonomic substance. The Alexa Mini is heaven-sent for hand-held, Steadicam, rigs, drone and tight places. The work flow has been well navigated and is cost effective for the smaller budgets and the sensor does a great job of being film-like. I’ve never heard anyone say, “I don’t really like Alexa.”
We shot with an Alexa Plus, an Alexa Mini and had a Phantom Flex4k for a few scenes. All lenses were Cooke S4s except on the drone where we used a Compact Prime due to weight. All camera equipment performed flawlessly and was again supplied locally, by Cinemachine.
We were lucky to have Production Designer Clayton Jauncey (Looking for Grace, Last Cab to Darwin). I have a long working relationship with Jauncey, we communicate well and it is always an easy and enjoyable experience. Together with Art Director Louise Brady and the entire Art Department, they provided all the authenticity required to keep us firmly in the late eighties. It is easy to let little things go with a period film but Jauncey worked hard to keep us honest.
The house we used for a large portion of the film was a pretty good start but after Jauncey and team had finished with it, it was perfect. Their design gave us valuable detail insights into the psychologies of Stephen Curry’s and Emma Booth’s characters, John and Evelyn. Curry completely got where the director and I were coming from.
There was talk on tone and palette and Jauncey has a terrific sense of camera and light. We wanted to have a sense of asepticism that goes largely unnoticed but quietly gets under your skin. We wanted an understated style that completely supported and placed the story without drawing attention to itself. I guess we were going for an unsettling, natural look, with a muted sophistication anchored in a base reality. Is that a look? I don’t know…
References can be tricky things sometimes. We talked about a few films but really only as a serving suggestion, whether for tone, a visual style or execution. Animal Kingdom (2010) and No Country for Old Men (2007) were good for some scenes, as was American Beauty (1999) and Snowtown (2011). But they were really just motivational tools. We did not want and knew it was never going to look like any of those films. We wanted to encourage Hounds of Love to have its own visual life, again, with story being the master.
In my department I was fortunate to have a very supportive, dedicated and capable camera department headed up by 1st AC Melissa Ozich. The department included 2nd AC Andrew McKenzie and Sam Winzar managing dallies and data.
I had worked with Ozich a lot before this film and Winzar too. They are both always assets. As was McKenzie, who really got a taste for the circus. We shot in February, which gets pretty hot but everyone took it in stride. I have to say, every department really gave so much to the film and we had such great camaraderie under sometimes trying conditions. Grips Department, headed up by Greg Stirling with Clint Lawrence, were, as usual, outstanding and brought so much to the picture. As did Gaffer Perry Sandow who came with a lifetime of experience with Best Daniel Spriggs. All those people always deliver. The entire crew delivered.
I wasn’t really involved at all in post except for the grade. I had had my ride with Young and Hounds of Love for the time being and now it was post-production’s turn. I would catch up with Young during the stages and check in on the edit from time-to-time. That was in the extremely capable hands of Merlin Eden at Siamese and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the way things were going. Sandbox Post Production were totally committed to supporting Young and stopped at nothing to clean up any sniff of a post late 1980s Perth.
Ian Hale from Backlot Studios in Perth provided the amazing venue for the grade in their state of art cinema and it was an absolute pleasure with Colourist Billy Wychgel. He has complete respect for the efforts we go to on set. Wychgel had graded a couple of John Butler music videos I had shot and he was always on the money with how we wanted things to look. With Hounds of Love, we didn’t want anything too treated, that would distract. He could see what we wanted to achieve and why and then brought something to the table with his skills.
There are some scenes that I like more than others but not much more. The performances are so brave and strong that I end up watching that more than anything. I liked the way we moved the camera and the subtle, non invasive approach to lighting. The images were always meant to have that base reality and I think we achieved that.
Achieving the director’s vision for Hounds of Love came pretty naturally. We felt very much the same look wise. I was obviously very keen to get how he saw it in his head on to a screen and he’s such a good communicator so it made it fairly easy. We would block out the scene as we had discussed mostly then Young would work with the actors. When the shot was ready for him to see, he would say, “…yeah, that’s exactly how I saw it!” Young had such an intimacy with the story by having written it that his vision was very clear. The whole process went extremely smoothly.
It’s a very confronting film, hopefully made more so by the images. It was sometimes difficult to resist leaning towards an aesthetic but that would not of helped the film at all. Despite that, I feel it does have a beauty in its honesty. It also made composition more of an anchor and I am very happy with where our frames settled. It’s almost exactly how we hoped it would turn out. In many ways, its exceeded our expectations.
Ashleigh Cummings, Emma Booth and Steve Curry gave it their all and the performances continually blew me away. It was a real treat to photograph Hounds of Love and witness their commitment to the film and its characters. The entire cast were great to work with. We were surrounded by such amazing people all round. 1st AD Andrew Power authored and navigated us through a pretty tight schedule with such care, grace and good humour. While we knew we had a bit to do in a twenty-day shoot schedule, a measured approach by all was crucial. I cannot really think of anything that did not work. If there was, we must have been able to fix it quickly. I think we had an hour of overtime for the entire film.
I have a few things that might hopefully go my way. One is a US film with Young and there are a couple of Australian projects forming too. We will see what happens.
Michael McDermott has over eighteen years as a cinematographer, based in Sydney and Perth.