Winning Best Australian Short Film at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), cinematographer Sean Ryan shoots horror film The Moogai for director Jon Bell – interview by Vanessa Abbott
Psychological horror short The Moogai is a film about a young mother, Sarah, who becomes terrorised by a malevolent spirit she believes is trying to take her child. Sarah’s husband Fergus desperately wants to believe her but as she becomes more unstable, Fergus is increasingly concerned for the safety of their family.
Written and directed by Jon Bell and produced by Causeway Films (Kristina Ceyton, Samantha Jennings, Taylor Goddard) and No Coincidence Media (Mitchell Stanley), The Moogai is a uniquely Australian genre film. The film shot over five days in January, has recently finished post-production and will soon begin its festival circuit. Cinematographer Sean Ryan sits down with us to talk about the film and his process from start to finish.
AC – What a great way to start off the year with a short film, how did you become involved in a project like this?
SR – I had some mutual friends with the producers who connected us when they caught wind that Causeway were making a new short and were in need of a cinematographer. Jon Bell looked through some of my previous drama work and found sensibilities that would be appropriate for telling this story. Then, after an interview, I eventually got the call that they would like to offer me the position on the film, which I very gladly accepted.
AC – Once you were brought onto the film what were the next steps?
SR – Well, at that point, it was mid-December and we were set to be shooting mid-January so we really hit the ground running, especially since we were going to lose time over the Christmas break.
Finding locations became a huge priority so Bell, Bethany Ryan (production designer) and I were visiting a lot of houses trying to find our hero location in which a lot of the film takes place. We had to find somewhere that would be suitable for the scenes we planned on shooting day-for-night, which was not easy. The location needed to allow us to tent any windows or glass doors and allow us to light through them. Ryan also had restrictions on what she would be able to bring in, so we needed a house that had enough suitable decor and furniture already present.
The house we settled on ticked these boxes and allowed our production designer to make a few adjustments and additions to have it feel as if our characters were the ones living there. The house happened to be a bit more aspirational than the story needed so we were careful what parts we showed to make the on-screen world feel a little smaller.
AC – During this fast paced prep what sort of conversations where you having with Jon?
SR – Once I’d gained an understanding of how the film came to be and why Bell had chosen this particular story to tell, we moved into specifics of how the film should look and feel. Bell has a background in writing and a lifetime of cinema appreciation which led us to discussing references from a wide range of sources and periods. The style of David Fincher was something we often came back to, as we were both fans of his deliberate camera work and refined approach. We also looked at the way the camera moves with his characters, almost like it’s locked onto them, which is something we borrowed for a few shots.
Two other films were Prisoners (2013, cinematography by Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC) and Sicario (2015, also Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC) both of which I’m a fan, both also played a part in influencing the look of The Moogai. All of which stayed relevant through production and was the starting point for our colour timing when we got into the grading suite with the talented colourist Fergus Rotherham. We also observed a few photographs and paintings that evoked a particular emotional response from the viewer, the kind of response we aimed to emulate with particular imagery in our film.
AC – Then having to execute these ideas, what kind of technical considerations did you have to make?
SR – We knew we were after a contemporary look and wanted to work in an aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Anamorphic lenses didn’t seem quite right and come with too many image artefacts for our liking. Knowing we’d need fast glass for our night exteriors we opted for an ARRI Alexa Mini and a large set of Panavision Super Speeds and Ultra Speeds from Panavision in Sydney who were really supportive of the project. I really like the edge softness of these lenses and the control you have over the image depending on your chosen T-stop.
AC – What was your approach for these night exteriors?
SR – The final portion of the film takes place on the side of a road and then moves into a neighbouring field. We couldn’t find a location that had these two things next to each other as written, so we split the two and found a spot where the locations were only about 100m apart so we could still shoot them in the same night. This night had quite a lot of moving parts and was one of the larger lighting setups for the film. It’s never easy doing a long night especially when every department is a little stretched. Thankfully our gaffer Noel Franco was on top of it and our small team were able to run a knuckle boom with an M40 as our moonlight, which gave us just enough level to light a space big enough for thirty people to be spread out in a field. Then, using a few heavily diffused sky panels off to frame right just to bring out their faces, we were good to go.
On the same setup Kris Wallis our key grip built his 24-foot crane in the field. I chose to ride on the crane to operate the camera, and I’m glad I did. Having not ridden on a crane before it was really nice to not be operating remotely. Having a high perspective to also assist the assistant director layout our extras in the field was really helpful.
After this setup we were then meant to drive our knuckle boom about 200m zig zagging through a carpark to get it closer to our next set. We were short on time and the boom had been playing up so instead we left it in the paddock it was in and at full height we could just poke it over a large group of trees and get a direct line of sight to our second set which was a real stroke of luck and big time saver.
AC – What were the other main challenges you faced during production?
SR – There’s a long night driving sequence in the film which was something that concerned me at a script level. We needed to shoot a rural night driving sequence with car interiors and exteriors showing the car swerving off the road as the driver is falling asleep at the wheel. What made it difficult was the very short section of road we had available to shoot on allowing for the stunt manoeuvre of the vehicle. We also had to consider the involvement of a six-week old baby with restricted shooting times, and not being able to have the baby present in the actual moving car.
I considered using car mounts for the camera and lighting the actors faces either from inside the car or rigging lights externally but then we would need to have some sort of consistency with our wider coverage, which limits you to uplighting people to hide lights which is a look I’m not particularly fond of.
I then remembered a similar scene in Nocturnal Animals (2016, cinematography by Seamus McGarvey BSC ASC) so went back and revisited this to see how they’d approached it. Their approach was to shoot all of the car interiors using simulated travel and because the road they’re travelling on is so remote and free of any artificial light you forgive seeing only black outside the windows, which I realised would allow us to use this technique and not need any visual effects to extend the backdrop. The actors were lit extremely dimly which helped sell how dark it was outside. That also gave them freedom for the wider car-to-car coverage not to light the characters and allow the use of stunt drivers. Using this ideology allowed us a lot of flexibility to do all the interiors in a controlled environment and get some really great driving footage with a precision driver, without needing the actors present.
AC – Looking back did you achieve what you set out to do? Is there anything you would have done differently?
SR – I’m really happy with the end result and look forward to the film getting out and finding its audience. People like our first assistant director Killian Maguire, and production manager Tara Borg, had a huge impact on The Moogai. It really was a great team and felt like everyone was working towards the same goal which is a nice feeling to have. I need to also give credit to my camera department headed by first assistant camera Jono Heighes with additional focus duties by Anne-Sophie Marion and second assistant camera Danielle Payne. Without them there’s no way we would have been able to move as quickly as we did and that would have resulted in a very different film.
I’m thankful to Jon Bell and the producers for bringing me on board and am looking forward to taking on more narrative projects in the future.