We chat with Superhost cinematographer Clayton Moore…
What starts out as a perfect weekend getaway quickly turns south in Shudder’s latest horror feature, Superhost. The official synopsis reads: Travel vloggers Teddy (Osric Chau, Supernatural) and Claire (Sara Canning, Nancy Drew) share their experiences in and around vacation homes with their subscribers while maintaining a moderate level of internet fame. When their follower count starts to dwindle, they pivot to creating viral content around their most recent host, Rebecca (Gracie Gillam, Z Nation). With all eyes turned towards their “superhost,” Rebecca, they slowly start to realize something isn’t right and as they investigate further, they unlock a horrifying truth.
Adding to the intensity of the film is the cinematography by Clayton Moore, whose previous credits include It Stains the Sands Red and Z to name a few. We spoke with Clayton and had him break down the many looks of Superhost. Read the exclusive interview below. Superhost is available now on Shudder.
How did you first get connected with Superhost? What drew you to the script?
I’ve worked with Brandon for years and I have been bugging him to let me shoot one of his features for a while. He’s always been open to it, but scheduling and such just never seemed to work out for us until Superhost. The script spoke to me because it is so relevant to our current on-line culture. With so much of our lives moving into apps and sharing personal spaces like homes and cars with strangers, the script makes you stop and ask “what if?” and I was excited to explore that “what if”.
You have collaborated with Superhost writer/director Brandon Christensen numerous times. Because of this did he let you experiment more with the look of this film?
Yes, Brandon and I go way back. We’ve worked on many commercials, short films, and music videos together. We certainly have developed an unspoken shorthand over-time and I know what he likes and doesn’t like. At this point I’m pretty sure we can read each other’s minds. He comes to each project with a strong vision in his mind, but he’s always open to new ideas as well. That being said, we came to an agreement on the look of the film pretty early on and quite easily. Knowing what Brandon likes lets me start picturing the look of the film as early as my first reading. From there I might venture out and show him some crazy ideas out of left field just to give him some new perspectives, and I have an idea of what he will or will not respond to. With Superhost it always felt like it needed to be grounded in reality as far as the visuals. I didn’t want to push anything toward being overly stylized; there are no ghosts or goblins or demons in this one. Superhost is a film about people and the darkness they hide within them.
What did some of your initial conversations with him sound like?
Our initial conversations mostly revolve around the tone of the script. From there we decide how to visually depict that tone. We really do talk about everything, from lighting, blocking, camera movements, locations, casting, etc. And then in our discussions we talk about how all those different factors and decisions will influence the others until we find what we think will be the best fit in each category to help establish the tone we are trying to portray. We create a visual language if you will. It’s a very fun process to be honest, because in my experience, not all directors are as thorough as he is. Brandon is a huge David Fincher fan so we will often sit down together and watch some of Fincher’s work for ideas and inspiration.
A lot of the film takes place in the woods. Did this setting present any challenges for you, lighting wise?
Shooting in the woods can be a blessing and a curse. In this instance it certainly was both. It was nice in that when we weren’t concerned about continuity we could go out and just find whatever spot looked nicest and shoot a quick scene. On our longer days it was a challenge to maintain consistency of lighting throughout the day. This is especially true in the fall when the sun is lower and the days are shorter. As the sun would move and we’d need to shake up our overhead diffusions and bounce boards, suddenly a tree would be right where we needed to put a stand or a frame. A lot of this can be figured out on the location scout to an extent, and for a few scenes we had that luxury. But sometimes, we were just out there making the most of the situation we were in.
Sometimes you get lucky and get just the right little dapple coming through the canopy overhead, or you’re positioned just right to get a gorgeous golden backlight. The biggest thing is to plan ahead and be as ready as possible for things to change, because they will. And most important of all, just be careful, move slowly so that nobody gets hurt.
We shot the film in the mountains, around 7500ft elevation. So that was another factor; working at altitude and on steep rocky slopes at times which was both exhausting and potentially dangerous. There is one scene in the film that takes place on a ridge overlooking a huge scenic vista. It was incredibly difficult to move our equipment up there. We had to hand carry everything up a very steep narrow trail, and even make multiple trips all before we lost the sun! Despite all that, In the end, shooting the scene up there was totally worth it all because it was so beautiful, and it was the perfect location for this very intimate scene between the two lead characters. We absolutely couldn’t have pulled it off without our incredible crew.
Was there a shot in Superhost that doesn’t look complicated, but actually really was during filming?
There are a few actually. Brandon, and I love to move the camera in ways that help drive the narrative forward. Because of this, we discussed having many dolly shots, and one of our visual rules we established early on was that the camera would either always be a rock-solid lock down, or have very purposeful, precise dolly moves. Due to the limited space in the location, and the limited crew we quickly decided that a large heavy camera dolly wouldn’t be feasible. So, we opted for a smaller, lightweight option called a Dana Dolly. This actually allowed us to use the dolly in places where we might not normally have one with a crew of this size, like on the side of a mountain, or out in the middle of the woods or crammed into a corner of a room somewhere. These smaller dollies are a lot easier to move around, but a little less than ideal when it comes to complex, big sweeping movements, or precise positioning of the camera. So, trying to get some of the longer dolly moves was very challenging because you need to keep the dolly track low to avoid seeing it in the shot.
There is a long, slow dolly move of Sarah Canning working on her computer at the table late at night that appears very simple, but it wasn’t. We had to stack apple boxes on top of this tiny doll sled in order to get the lens to the proper height. The higher we went, the more unstable the dolly would get. As I push the camera on the dolly, I also had to pan against the motion of the dolly to keep her framed up. I would rehearse the moves a couple times, and I would have to start out looking like a pretzel wrapped around the camera and then ‘unwind’ myself as we ran through the shot all without making small bumps or corrective adjustments against the motion of the dolly. And we also shot pretty much wide open so my 1st AC had to really be on his toes as well. These shots were incredibly difficult, but also incredibly rewarding when we got them!
You worked with cult horror favorites The Vicious Brothers on It Stains the Sands Red. What was your favorite part of working on that film with them?
That was such an incredible experience for me; I learned and grew so much from it; both personally and professionally. They had just come off of their biggest film yet in Extraterrestrial and we set out to do this tiny little film out in the middle of the Nevada desert with pretty much just the shirts on our backs. Even though the budget was miniscule to them, up to that point I considered it the biggest and most ambitious project I had worked on yet; so I was stoked! The biggest takeaway from that film for me was that how far sheer determination and will can take you. The budget was low, but it never felt that way due to the unwavering drive of Colin and Stu to make it as good as it possibly could by using what we had to maximum value. It always felt so much bigger than it actually was. We shot in November, in the desert, so our days were hot and our nights were freezing cold. It was a pretty short schedule, and every day we shot all the way up till the last possible second before we would lose our light completely. It was both exhausting and exhilarating and I could write pages and pages about some of the stories from that set.
Colin Minihan of The Vicious Brothers has been tapped to write and direct the upcoming Urban Legend reboot. If given the opportunity, would you be interested in working with him on that? Were you a fan of the original?
Yeah, absolutely, that would be an incredible opportunity if it came along. I’d definitely be open to that! I don’t recall ever seeing the original, though I’m sure my sister rented it at some point because she was a big fan of Joshua Jackson.
What would you say is your signature style as a cinematographer? Meaning, if someone were to watch all the projects you have worked on, would they see reoccurring themes with the cinematography?
I hope so! I’d like to think I have established a style to my work, though I approach each project with fresh eyes and an open mind focusing on telling the story rather than molding it into any one specific style to try and put my mark on it. I think good cinematography should be invisible to an extent. If I had to identify my style though, I’m generally a fan of big soft sources, color contrast, unique off-balanced compositions, and any sort of dolly moves. But I think, looking back at my body of work, even though I try to give them all their own unique look they might all share the same ‘source code’ if you will and that would make them identifiable as my work.
You work on a lot of films in the horror genre. Why is that? In your opinion, is that genre harder to shoot then other genres?
The honest truth is that most of the opportunities I’ve been presented with have been horror scripts! Maybe its coincidence or maybe I’ve built myself a little niche? I don’t know if I would say they are harder to shoot per se. All films and genres have their own unique challenges, but horror is certainly the most fun! You might have more challenges when shooting horror in that there can be a lot more moving parts between camera, blocking, stunts, special effects, and visual effects as opposed to a period drama with 2 people having a conversation in a café.
What are you working on next?
I’ve read a few scripts and am hoping I can announce something soon. One of them that I’m particularly excited about would be a pretty big change from the scope of Superhost. Hopefully it gets greenlit! In the general sense, I’m always looking to collaborate with new people and explore working in new genres. I’d love to branch out and do a period piece or a sci-fi script at some point. In the meantime, I also write a little. I’m writing a script of my own, inspired by my experience and anxiety as a new father! If it turns out good, maybe I’ll get to shoot my own script someday, that would be awesome!
Many thanks to Clayton Moore for taking the time for this interview. You can learn more about Clayton here.