Emmy Award-winner Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) stars in a terrifying modern tale of obsession inspired by Universal’s classic monster character.
By James Cunningham.
Trapped in a violent, controlling relationship with a wealthy and brilliant scientist, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) escapes in the dead of night and disappears into hiding. But when Cecilia’s abusive ex (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) commits suicide and leaves her a generous portion of his vast fortune, Cecilia suspects his death was a hoax.
In Blumhouse Productions latest thriller The Invisible Man, based on the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells, a series of eerie coincidences turns lethal, threatening the lives of those she loves. Cecilia’s sanity begins to unravel as she desperately tries to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see. Jason Blum, a current-day master of the horror genre, produces The Invisible Man for Blumhouse. The Invisible Man is written, directed and executive produced by Leigh Whannell, one of the original conceivers of the Saw franchise and shot by the multi award-winning Stefan Duscio ACS.
Duscio worked with Whannell on his last film Upgrade (2018) which the pair shot in Melbourne in 2017. “We had a great time working together and really enjoyed creating a unique visual language for that film,” says Duscio. The pair employed a great amount of in-camera motion tracking to the lead actor during action sequences in Upgrade, and Whannell was interested in evolving that for The Invisible Man, which obviously features a character you can’t see.
“Our initial discussions focused on the problem of making a suspenseful film centred around a person being pursued by someone who may or may not be there,” says Duscio. Together, the pair watched films that they thought might be stylistically relevant including Prisoners (2013, cinematography by Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC), Personal Shopper (2016, cinematography by Yorick Le Saux) and A Ghost Story (2017, cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo). Also films that the pair thought were masterfully made such as The Exorcist (1973, cinematography by Owen Roizman ASC) and Hereditary (2018, cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski).
“Collaborating with the director and the art department on The Invisible Man was very thorough and intensive,” says Duscio. “I was booked for more pre-production than I’ve ever done on a movie, about ten weeks. We had time to do a lot of location scouting and workshopping sets together. We all wanted to make a clean, contemporary thriller. Using art direction and lighting, we were able to give Adrian’s house (Cecilia’s ex-boyfriend) a cool steeliness, and contrast that with James’ house (her adopted dwelling), which was warm, familial and comforting.”
Duscio was very excited to be using the ARRI Alexa (LF) Large Format and Signature Primes on The Invisible Man. “I’d used this combination on a few commercials and after reading the script, I felt it really suited a modern thriller,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of what Roger Deakins and Denis Villeneuve achieved on Prisoners and Sicario. I felt this film needed a similar approach in both clarity and naturalism.”
“We were very interested in Cecilia’s highly paranoid point-of-view, and suggestively filmed empty spaces, letting the camera hauntingly linger on mundane corners of a room,” explains Duscio. “We also framed characters in an unusual way that would suggest someone else could be inhabiting the negative space in the frame. Focus might push past a foreground character, into an unlikely area of the frame.”
Some of these techniques might feel ‘wrong’ or unusually composed to a cinematic eye, but Duscio’s aim was to create unease and tension. He also hoped it would engage the audience, and encourage them to search the edges of his frame for any movement or hint of our lurking predator. “It was very challenging to design coverage for these scenes,” he says, “and required a lot of imagination on behalf of our cast and crew to trust that these sequences would be suspenseful.”
Duscio was lucky enough to work with many of his frequent collaborators on this production, in Sydney. “I shoot most of my commercial work there, so I have close working relationships with many crew there,” he says. Matt Hoile was the cinematographer’s gaffer and Mick Leslie was grip. “I have frequently worked with them as a team over the last ten years. We’ve shot everything from fashion and car commercials to music videos and short films. There’s a wonderful short hand with them. Their professionalism and ease on set can be a very calming influence on me when things become stressful. I feel like anything I ask of them is achievable, and hopefully they’ll have been through worse situations.” Similarly, the camera department consisted of many old friends who Duscio had worked with. Simon Williams, Jani Hakli and Sally Eccleston were first assistants camera, with Andrew Johnson, Justin Besser and Pete Barta shared Steadicam and B-Camera duties.
Adrian’s house was a mix of three real locations that the filmmakers combined to make one. The character’s home needed scale and wealth, and the audience needed to believe it belonged to a tech millionaire. For this reason, Duscio and the filmmakers extensively searched to find an austere space that could feel threatening and cinematic. “Floor to ceiling glass windows were both beautiful and challenging, as it meant they were giant mirrors when filming night interiors, and made hiding crew and lighting difficult,” says Duscio. “We also tried to film many dusk for night interiors, to try and take advantage of the beautiful ocean vista out the windows. The challenge was to darken those dusk skies in post-production to make it feel believably night.”
Early in pre-production the decision was made to build James’ house on stage, as there were many complex scenes and stunt work to achieve. Also, with the ability to remove ceiling pieces and walls, this gave Duscio freedom for lighting and camera work. “My gaffer Matt Hoile and I are big fans of ARRI Skypanels,” says Duscio. “We created several soft boxes above key rooms. Surrounding windows were illuminated with a mix of space lights and traditional tungsten fixtures. I tried to motivate as much of the lighting for day interiors from the windows as possible, and tried to use the interior soft boxes very sparingly, to try and avoid that ‘studio’ feeling. I often tried to ask myself how we would have lit a room on a practical location, and not rely on too many studio luxuries.”
To limit his use of greenscreen, Duscio worked with 4K video rear-projection and Rosco soft drops out the windows. This gave the cinematographer more freedom to compose frames without worrying about excessive green screen coverage. It also meant he could capture the look in camera. “A lot of my favourite filmmakers are using rear projection and LED walls on much bigger productions, so I was excited we were able to dip our toes into that world,” says Duscio.
Whannell has been a wonderful collaborator for Duscio and continues to involve the cinematographer in the post-production process, which he really loves. In addition, he has shot four feature films with editor Andy Canny, so Duscio enjoys a close working relationship with him also. “I always trust his wise advice,” says Duscio. “I am currently working with Company 3 colourist Tom Poole on the final digital intermediate (DI) of the film which has been a real pleasure. Poole has a very instinctual and natural approach to colour, and we’re imbuing the film with a cool silvery patina. We’re also embracing a film print look, meaning we’re playing with very smooth roll offs in the shadows and highlights.”
Universal Pictures, the film’s distributor, have been very supportive of The Invisible Man, and this means the filmmakers get to master the film in Dolby Vision and IMAX formats as well. “It’s very fortunate we shot in 4.5K on the Alexa Large Format to support these deliverables,” says Duscio.
“My favourite sequence in the film is an action sequence where Cecilia is escaping an institute in the rain,” explains Duscio. “It was very challenging to light and shoot, as it involved multiple rain machines, long Steadicam setups, gunfire and motion control. It’s a stark mix of sodium vapour and minty fluorescents, and both Whannell and I are proud of how this particular sequence has turned out. Shooting scenes like this rely on a crew’s full concentration, creatively and logistically, to achieve as there are so many moving parts to get right.”
“My biggest regret was not having a full-time second camera crew throughout the whole production,” says Duscio. “I underestimated the scale of this film, and thought we could get away with a more single camera approach, with limited second camera work, given how singular the point-of-view of our protagonist was. The film ended up being more complex than that, and we needed many inserts, pickups, second unit work, as well as regular B-Camera work. Lesson learned!”
Having said that, while Duscio had many tough days on The Invisible Man and much to achieve within the schedule, he is ecstatic with how the film has turned out. “Whannell wrote a fantastic script,” he concludes. “We all pushed hard to make the film both cinematic, and thrilling.”
Stefan Duscio ACS is a cinematographer with a love of visual arts. He’s known for his work on commercials, music videos, short films as well as feature films ‘Backtrack’ (2015), ‘Jungle‘ (2017) and recently ‘Judy & Punch’ (2019).
James Cunningham is editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.