When writer/director Patrick Penta pitched his feature film Subferatu to cinematographer Craig Melville, he described it as Das Boot meets Gilligan’s Island, with Nazis, time-travel and vampires – by Craig Melville
I said, “You had me at Das Boot!”
Subferatu is a story of seven modern-day Americans who set sail for what was supposed to be a three-hour cruise. Inexplicably, a storm off the coast of Puerto Rico sucks them into the Bermuda Triangle and lands them in a WW2-era German submarine. The craziness doesn’t stop there. Inside the submarine, the Nazi crew think it’s 1945 and have just learnt that Hitler has been killed. The crew are on a mission to sail into New York harbour and defect to the United States. And as you might have guessed by the title, there’s a vampire on board too.
For a micro-budget film, this project was an ambitious undertaking. Typically, low-budget filmmakers are encouraged to set their stories in easy-to-access locations and to keep the production simple. However, Patrick Penta was keen to try the opposite, figuring the more ambitious and quirky elements of the movie would stand out in the crowded independent film marketplace.
This approach came with its challenges but also some great creative opportunities. The key to pulling it off was creating a convincing submarine set. Rather than hiring a soundstage, employing a production designer and a set construction team, Penta found a commercial basement on the outskirts of suburban Seattle to use as his studio. Above it was a pawn shop and next door was an adult DVD shop. The less-than-prestigious location meant Penta could save money. With these savings, he bought himself several months in the basement location where we would construct the submarine set. Along with producer Tom Hillman and a carpenter from Texas known only as ‘Rodeo’, they constructed the entire submarine set complete with engine room, mess area, sleeping quarters, command deck and a torpedo bay.
Filming took place over nineteen days, eighteen of which were inside the submarine set. The customers walking into nearby shops were probably wondering why there was a bunch of guys dressed as Nazis hanging around the car park.
Each day of the shoot was an ongoing art project to move pipes, gauges and valves around the set. We only had a limited crew, so we really had to embrace the ‘do-it-yourself’ approach. There was no dedicated grip or gaffer so we had to plan ahead with lighting so we could move quickly through the coverage in each scene.
Everyone pitched in, painted sets, glued gauges and pipes to walls and generally doubled as art department. In the mornings we’d dress sets, light and plan our shots. Then after lunch, the actors would arrive, and we’d shoot until late into the evenings.
Our visual reference was the classic Wolfgang Petersen submarine film Das Boot (1981, cinematography by Jost Vacano BVK) which is very dark, gritty and claustrophobic. In Das Boot, the actors are often hit with really harsh light and look extremely sweaty and greasy. We wanted to bake in this look as much as we could by using strong colours and lighting choices, constantly spritzing the actors to keep them sweaty looking, and hazing the set. We also shot through multiple Pro-Mist filters to break down the image and add halation to the practical lights scattered in the background.
I shot single-camera handheld on my Red Helium 8k with a pair of Sigma zooms which had the advantage of being able to open to T2.0 to maintain shallow depth-of-field. I operated and focus-pulled myself , which wasn’t always optimal. However the documentary-style approach meant we could move relatively quickly and stay true to Das Boot.
Considering Subferatu was made with less money than many film’s catering budgets, it was impressive to see it come together as well as it did. And, now, I can say I’ve shot a vampire-submarine-Nazi-horror film.
Craig Melville is an award-winning Australian director and cinematographer known for his work with John Safran and The Chaser. He is now based in New York.