What do Mel Gibson’s Agent Game, Shudder’s The Last Thing Mary Saw and Screen Media’s Black Friday all have in common? Cinematographer David Kruta. After taking a hiatus from feature films for a few years, David recently jumped back into the narrative game with these three upcoming features. These films may all be very different: Black Friday is a horror creature tale, The Last Thing Mary Saw takes place in 1843 and Agent Game is a secret agent version of Mad Max: Fury Road, but that variety is what David enjoys most about the industry. With each new project being a different challenge, that he takes on full throttle.
Next up for David is Casey Tebo’s Black Friday, which is delighting genre lovers at this year’s Fantastic Fest and is being released by Screen Media in November. In the exclusive interview below, he goes in depth about his work on Black Friday, The Last Thing Mary Saw and much more.
Devon Sawa recently said Black Friday relies heavily on practical effects instead of CGI. Does this make your job easier because you can actually see what you are working with?
Absolutely! Practical effects and “real” creatures make everyone’s lives easier (except for maybe Bob Kurtzman who stayed up late perfecting the costumes). It helps us frame the shots better and be able to react to the actors, as well as light them properly. Other actors are able to interact with the creatures or effects, so what you see on the screen is about as real as it gets. I’m all for using VFX to enhance a film, but if you can do it practically, I rarely see a reason to do it differently. It’s also a ton of fun to see an actor come out from their trailer in a full rubber monster costume and hang out like a normal person – imagine a demon or an orc checking their phone and drinking coffee.
What were some of the challenges, individual or collaborative, you encountered working on Black Friday?
Black Friday was mostly challenging due to its scale – I had to oversee a large G&E crew as well as multiple camera crews, a large amount of lighting setups and lighting cues, collaboration with costumes and SFX during their prep processes such as discussing what colors and textures the creatures would be, or how we would light the “Hive”, a practically-built mass of breathing creatures and goo. Overall, the level of organization is what kept me occupied most of the time, and I could only have done it with the support of my operators John Kopec and T. Acton Fitzgerald, 1st ACs Chris Hebert and Nolan Ball, gaffer Ben Heald, and key grip Dave Romano, who were able to distill and distribute my plans and notes to their teams and execute director Casey Tebo’s vision.
You filmed Black Friday during the pandemic. How did that affect the shoot?
This was my first major project during the pandemic and I won’t lie, it was a challenge. Filmmaking is a tightly-knit, collaborative business, and the Covid protocols made it difficult and slow to accomplish things. Normally, my crew and I stay in close proximity, actors are worked on by hair and makeup people, and we can use our expressions to convey meaning. With restrictions in place such as social distancing, mask wearing, and regular testing, it slowed everything down and there were plenty of instances of having to repeat yourself so you could get a point across, and you can forget about anyone hearing you if you’re wearing a face shield at the moment. However, I was and am grateful to be working, and happy to report that with the supervision of our Covid team, we had no positive cases during our production.
A lot of critics/fans have pointed out that the horror genre seems to have a different set of rules when it comes to shadows, angles and quick cuts. What do you think of this?
In a way, genre films allow you to get away with a lot more when one is asking your average viewer to suspend disbelief, because they exist in a truly made up world. However, I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules to lighting, shooting or cutting genre films. Upending expectations can make for a scarier or more interesting film because the usual tropes aren’t there to give you clues. I do think some of the best films take the rules and throw them out the window, because that novelty and surprise in seeing something different is part of the enjoyment of the film, and I say this about all genres, not just horror or sci-fi. If anything, I would challenge more filmmakers to think outside the box and really consider how they can take advantage of this amazing medium. If you haven’t seen it yet, Sorry to Bother You by Boots Riley is one of my favorite films in recent memory that did an amazing job playing with the medium in a surprising way.
What attracted you to The Last Thing Mary Saw script?
I had taken a hiatus from feature films for a few years but was itching to get back in the narrative game, and my agent sent me the script and said I had to read it. On paper, the project looked great – there was an excellent producing team attached, the cast was strong, and the timing was right. But it only took the first page for me to be hooked. A great script is a great script, and between the meticulous attention to detail in its historical accuracy, the meandering and often surprising storyline, and the excellent dialogue (or complete lack thereof), it kept me on the edge of my seat until the last page.
Did you do storyboards for The Last Thing Mary Saw? Do you do storyboards for any of the projects you work on or is that a thing of the past now?
Unfortunately, we did not have time to do storyboards for The Last Thing Mary Saw. We had a very short prep and the best thing we could do was build a comprehensive shot list with references for specific shots or scenes. That said, I love storyboards and will work with anything from stick figures to Artemis app photoboards with virtual stand-ins to collaborating with a storyboard artist. Each project has its own needs so what works for one might not work for another, but more often than not I am a fan of storyboards as well as a lot of prep including overhead diagrams, lighting plots, and more.
Because The Last Thing Mary Saw takes place in 1843, did you use any special lenses to make it feel more like that time period?
We shot on the Sony Venice with Cooke S7 spherical full frame primes, and we used a Pearlascent ¼ or 1/8th filter at all times to soften the image and diffuse the highlights. This is a modern camera system and new lenses, and we didn’t want the film to look “typical” of period pieces. If you were there in that time period personally, it wouldn’t look aged or sepia toned! Our look came through the production design by Charlie Robinson, costume design by Sofija Mesicek, and the lighting, and finalized with our wonderful colorist Anthony Raffaele.
What would you say is your signature style as a cinematographer?
I’m not sure if I have a signature style – my priority is to always tell the story in the best way that I know how, and a one-size-fits-all approach would limit or eliminate my options entirely. I love the variety that can be found in this industry, and each new project is a different challenge. That said, I do gravitate towards stylized projects, because I am interested in the medium as a means of escape and expression. I do enjoy shooting documentaries and they have their time and place, but my passion is crafting beautiful imagery while telling compelling stories in the narrative space, and despite there being some similarities in my work, I would say it has less to do with a signature style and more to do with the evolution of my artistic sensibilities.
According to your IMDB you just wrapped on a Mel Gibson thriller called Agent Game, is there anything you can tell us about this movie?
I’ve watched the cut and I can say it’s going to be a wild ride – like an anxiety inducing, pulse pounding, secret agent version of Mad Max: Fury Road. It starts out with tons of energy and never lets up. Director Grant S. Johnson had a clear vision and methodical approach that allowed action designer Lee Whitaker and I to capture an insane amount of stunts, explosions and firefights. It was an absolute “blast” to shoot and I can’t wait for it to be released.
What are you currently watching on Netflix?
A bit unfair to limit it to one platform when there are so many options these days! I did recently watch and loved Stowaway by Joe Penna, and as a big Formula 1 fan, the Schumacher documentary was a welcome addition to the content surrounding the sport. I also loved False Positive by John Lee, but that’s on Hulu, so I hope that’s ok to mention.
Thanks to David Kruta for taking the time for this interview.