Australian Cinematographer Hossein Khodabandehloo on his latest short film ‘Shepherd’s Pie’

We chat to cinematographer Hossein Khodabandehloo about his latest short film Shepherd’s Pie for director Jake Shannon – interview by James Cunningham

3. A scene from short film 'Shepherd's Pie' - DOP Hossein Khodabandehloo
A scene from short film ‘Shepherd’s Pie’ – DOP Hossein Khodabandehloo

AC – What was the acorn of the idea behind Shepherd’s Pie?

HK – The director, Jake Shannon and I were having a random chat revolving around the controversy of Cardinal George Pell and the ‘me too movement’. We soon realised that the crux of our conversation was grooming. There have been a number of popular and potent public figures who have been ‘outed’ as predators and abusers. Michael Jackson, Kevin Spacey and Cardinal Pell were originally highly regarded in their fields, but as a different truth about these individuals has come to light, their perception in the public sphere has been changed forever.

That conversation really opened a can of worms for the two of us as it was a topic that not many people wanted to confront. We really wanted to explore the reason someone would do such a thing and how it impacted their love ones. We knew it was an extremely touchy topic and we decided to take a more abstract and metaphorical route in exploring this truth. Through the old tale of a farmer and a sheep we set out to tell a satirical yet uncomfortable story. 

In essence, we hope that while creating a wry tone that will linger long after the film ends, the reveal of farmer’s sexual intentions will not only leave the audience feeling conflicted and uncomfortable, but the more sardonic members may find a way to revel in its absurdity.

AC – What factors do you take into consideration when choosing cameras and lenses to use? What did you decide and why? 

HK – When it comes to camera and lenses, it’s a bittersweet relationship. I generally tend to be pragmatic with my camera choices and it is usually dictated by the budget I have to play with. When it comes to lenses on the other hand, it is the polar opposite. I love vintage glass and the unique characteristics that they have, especially on modern sensors. These glasses aren’t always very affordable to rent and I would go as far as to say my whole set up is dictated by my lens selection.

When it came to Shepherd’s Pie, that was exactly the case. After an extensive look at lenses, I decided to shoot the film using the Canon K-35 and the RED Helium. Both the director and I felt that the images had to have their own unique characteristics and flaws that reflected the story on screen. I felt that the K-35s were just the right lenses to do so. The Helium sensor has a slight contrast and it worked well for the story we were telling.

Shepherd’s Pie has a dark undertone to a seemingly normal rural life. I wanted the images to be both beautiful yet displaced. I chose to shoot the film on a low aperture to give the images a dreamy feel and of course, a massive headache to my camera assistant Darcy Gooding. The K-35 renders the colours beautifully and it had an amazing fall off, and bokeh. The lenses were quite fast and it had some chromatic aberrations on the lower t-stops which was exactly what I was looking for in representing the story on screen.

Initially, I was slightly worried with my decision to spend a fair chunk of the budget on the glass. Those worries were quickly dispelled when I framed up the first shot of the production. Everyone was happy with it and I knew the film was going to look great.

9. A scene from short film 'Shepherd's Pie' - DOP Hossein Khodabandehloo
A scene from short film ‘Shepherd’s Pie’ – DOP Hossein Khodabandehloo

AC – What was your collaboration like with your production designers, from your point-of-view as cinematographer? 

HK – I have a tendency to frame wider shots and I use the environment around the characters to tell a story. As such, the collaboration with the production designer, Imogen  Walsh was pretty important. For instance, the family dinner scene was riddled with visual metaphors brought to life thanks to the production design that went into the dinner room. Throughout the characters conversations, we see the awards in the background, hand woven tapestry and various props that really gives the film a strong rural feel.

We had a great location and that helped a lot in terms of the general look and feel. From there, we experimented on a few things that would work on screen and ultimately, we moved a few things around on the actual shooting days to really bring the story to life.

AC – Were you working from any specific cinematic or visual references?

HK – When I read Shannon’s script, I knew the film had to be explored visually through its tone. The location, lighting and props were equally as important as the acting on screen. I felt that the script had an empty and isolated feel to it and I really wanted to explore it visually without being to overt.

As such, I payed homage to the film Revolutionary Road (2008, cinematography by Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC), which has a moody feel with strong colours and textures. More importantly, Deakins is a master at conveying emotion through his visuals. At certain times, I could feel the loneliness and isolation in his film and it was exactly those moments that I drew inspiration from.

With that said, I was also very conscious of paying ‘too much homage’. Instead of trying to emulate other films, I paid more attention to Deakins’ visual emotions and I added my own spin to it.

2. A scene from short film 'Shepherd's Pie' - DOP Hossein Khodabandehloo
A scene from short film ‘Shepherd’s Pie’ – DOP Hossein Khodabandehloo

AC – Can you speak about your crew in the camera department? Did you operate the camera yourself?

HK – I was pretty lucky to have a solid camera department. Personally, I do not like to micro-manage my team and I encourage them to be proactive. On that note, I foster an open set and I am always open to opinions and ideas. My team understood the top line approach I wanted to achieve, and they went on their roles autonomously. We had a lot to get through in three days. Certain scenes needed a multi-cam set up and it helps when everyone was in sync. I’ve worked with Konrad McCarthy (grip and second camera) for a while and he knew my style in and out. My camera assistant Darcy Gooding was constantly on his toes and my gaffer, Hannah Palmer, understood the mood that I wanted to visually portray and she would put her own style to my lighting approach.

I enjoy operating my own camera and I do it as much as I can. There are times when I choose not to – Steadicam, gimbal etc. – as a specialist is needed. As mentioned, I tend to shoot on wider lenses and I really get close to the actors. I get to feel the actor’s emotions and this helps me make important decisions as a cinematographer. 

In terms of Shepherd’s Pie, I ended up changing quite a few shots after going through the blocking on set. This was only possible as I was running around with the camera and I understood the emotions that Shannon was trying to convey. 

AC – How did you choose locations and how did you approach lighting in each location?

HK – Both Shannon and I knew that location was key to this film and we wanted it to be as authentic as possible. As such, we decided to shoot in real locations as opposed to a studio. I personally wanted environments with strong characters. We spent quite a bit of time scouting for the right location and we struck gold when we found an amazing privately-owned farm in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria. It had everything we hoped for, a unique and homely living quarters, an interesting barn and a beautiful backdrop. Having everything in one location made life a little easier.

The film’s tone is rather dark and I approached the story with a low-key lighting style. Different scenes had different colour temperatures that reflected the character’s mood. I didn’t want the lighting to look staged and I prefer soft lights. On that note, I have an obsession with lighting my sets top down and I made sure that was adhered to. I feel that there is something magical about having light sources from the top. Maybe it comes from the time I spent as a military officer. The only light source I had in the jungle was the sun and moon. I guess I got used to that. 

Like many other cinematographers, I like to have full control of my lights and I start lighting my scenes from pitch black. In this case that wasn’t always possible due to time factors as well as the logistical challenges of filming on location, especially exteriors. As such, I used and built on available light in certain locations and lit others from scratch whenever I could. 

I suggested that production happen on a series of overcast days. This naturally gave me beautiful exterior shots and it made lighting interiors a little easier. The light was already naturally soft and I was able to build on it during the interior day scenes. The night scenes proved to be more challenging. I was able to light the barn, bedroom and end scene from scratch but I didn’t anticipate the looming bad weather. It was very windy and cold. Everyone could be seen with a hot drink in hand at all times. I also had to rethink some of my ambient lights as the c-stands were swaying really badly. My hat goes to everyone for being patient in that weather!

8. A scene from short film 'Shepherd's Pie' - DOP Hossein Khodabandehloo
A scene from short film ‘Shepherd’s Pie’ – DOP Hossein Khodabandehloo

AC – How involved were you in post-production? What was your intention going into the grade? What was your approach to colour?

HK – I have a long standing relationship with Shannon and as such, I had some input in post. Our editor, Damien Magee did a great job in piecing the story together while finding the right tempo to it. Throughout the editing process, I was invited into the suite to give my feedback. There were no egos and I felt that this open process really helped mould the film to be the best version that it could be. 

When it came to the grade, I had a specific look that I wanted to achieve. I usually shoot my images as accurate as I can. This instance was no different. I approached an old colleague and friend, Jamie Manners CSI to grade the film. The general look and feel were already embedded into the different scenes. I really wanted heighten to the emotions through colour. The different scenes had different feels; warm, cold, natural. The overarching similarity they had was the sense of grittiness in the grade. This was something that I really wanted but was also very mindful off. Too much of it would be off putting. Thankfully, I had Manners and he did his magic. He didn’t need much guidance and he knew right off the bat what I was looking for.

AC – Do you have a favourite shot or scene in Shepherd’s Pie?

HK – I have both a favourite shot and scene. My favourite shot would be the night shot of the barn. We see Abe (played by Roy Barker) opening the doors, switching on the lights and bringing the sheep in. I felt that everything in that shot worked out really well. It has a beautiful texture to it and it reminded me of old paintings. 

My favourite scene would be the end scene where we see Sarah (played by Francesca Waters) getting into her car to leave as Abe chases from behind, begging her to stay. She whispers something inaudible into Abe’s ears as she leaves. Both the audience and I don’t know what was said and many different scenarios pop in to my head. I like the fact that the audience are given an option to put their thoughts into it.

1. A scene from short film 'Shepherd's Pie' - DOP Hossein Khodabandehloo
A scene from short film ‘Shepherd’s Pie’ – DOP Hossein Khodabandehloo

AC – Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, would you change anything or what might you have done differently shooting Shepherd’s Pie?

HK – There were a few things that went well, namely the crew’s ability to improvise on the spot. Budget is always a strong deciding factor. Even if I could look into the future, the majority of the production would have remained the same. In hindsight, I would have paid more close attention to the weather. The nights were pretty intense as it was borderline hailing. Had I known; I would have definitely pushed them to a later date.

AC – What are you working on next, Hossein?

HK – In the immediate future, I am working with a few directors to get their short narratives off the ground. There are a few interesting ideas and I am very interested to see them come life.  In the long run, I am collaborating with a few creatives to bring a television series and feature film to life.

Hossein Khodabandehloo is a cinematographer working in the advertising industry.

James Cunningham is editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

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