While Scream is currently holding number one on the box office chart, there were a few other horror titles that were released this past week, including Saban Films’ The Legend of La Llorona and Screen Media Films’ Stoker Hills starring horror icon Tony Todd (Candyman). The synopsis for the latter is as follows: In the secluded town of Stoker Hills, three college students find themselves in their worst nightmare when they set out to film a horror movie and are kidnapped by a serial killer. Their only hope for survival is the camera they left behind and the two detectives looking for clues in the footage. There are many aspects of Stoker Hills that make the film worth watching, one of those being the cinematography by John Orphan. Orphan approached the look of the film with the viewpoint of, withholding information in the darkness is much scarier than showing the audience everything all at once. In the below exclusive interview, Orphan goes into more detail about how darkness almost became another character in Stoker Hills, working with director Benjamin Louis, his extensive commercial work and much more.
What first attracted you to the Stoker Hills script?
What first attracted me to the Stoker Hills script was that it really gave me the creeps. I love being scared and the script really unfolds in a way that it’s hard to predict what’s coming next. It also really lends itself to the kind of images I like to create.
What were your early conversations with director Benjamin Louis like? What was his specific vision for the film? Did that vision end up sticking in the final edit?
Ben had been in preproduction on this film for a long time and really had a very well thought out idea of what he wanted this film to feel like. Because there are two distinct point of views in this film – the detectives working the case and the kids trying to film stuff with a small camera, we needed those worlds to feel jarringly different. We talked a lot about older Fincher movies from the 90’s and the photography of Robert Frank. The initial goal was to use darkness as a tool to keep everything slightly un-nerving. I think we were able to achieve that.
Stoker Hills seems like it has a darker vibe to it, lighting wise. Is this true? Did shooting any of the day scenes becoming challenging because you didn’t want things to be too bright?
Stoker Hills definitely has a darker vibe to it. We toyed with the idea of having the darkness almost being a character. Withholding information in the darkness seems to be much scarier than showing the audience everything all at once. As far as shooting during the day, Stoker Hills has almost no day exteriors, so chasing the right time of day was never an issue. I think there are a few driving scenes during the day and Ben and I are really partial to the long shadows of late afternoon, so we waited for the perfect time to shoot those scenes.
We hear you worked particularly close with production designer Derick Hinneman. Why was that? Do you normally work closely with the production designer or was it only on this film?
Yes, Derick Hinneman and his team were integral in making this film as scary as it is . Derick, Cara Cirrincione and Susie Haubner are all really amazing artists and gave me sets to light that were already pretty terrifying. I do usually work closely with production designers, but Stoker Hills was particularly fun because Derick is also a photographer and really understands light and kept landing these set pieces that were perfect for how we were lighting.
Stoker Hills uses both found footage and regular cinematic techniques. When jumping between the two, did your approach change?
The main difference between the found footage and the coverage of the detective’s point of view was the use of anamorphic lenses. We shot all of the detectives storylines anamorphic and all of the kids found footage spherically. The film jumps between these two aspect ratios (2.40 and 1.78). We also colored them very differently in post. The found footage colored to resemble a low-quality video camera.
Is there a scene in Stoker Hills you are particularly proud of? Why?
My favorite scenes to shoot in Stoker Hills all took place in the villain’s underground lair. The location was really perfect in everyway for the script. Long, damp, dark hallways and tiny windows for us to light from. Ben didn’t want to show the villain’s face until the very end of the film so anytime we see him before that, he is mainly blanketed in shadows. As a result, gaffer Jorge Hernandez and I needed to be strategic about placing light and shadow when filming those scenes.
Is there something about the making of Stoker Hills that audiences might not realize after watching the film?
An interesting fact about that location – it is in the basement of an old warehouse in Downtown LA and I believe it was used many years ago for meat packing and slaughter as well. The place had a distinct iron like (blood like) smell to it. We shot there well before the pandemic started, but the set medic strongly suggested that we all wear face masks to avoid breathing the stale air. We did. Little did we know how soon we’d be wearing those masks again.
It’s also worth mentioning that you have worked on a lot of commercials and music videos for bands like Filter. Besides length, what are the major differences between working on those vs. films?
I think that independent films and music videos have a lot more in common than most people think. I think both of those worlds require everyone involved to have the ability to improvise, to adjust to challenges quickly, to ‘be like water’. What’s great about that is, sometimes, many times in fact, really wonderful surprises can happen that no one planned for and they end up really making the scene great.
What has been your favorite commercial to work on?
I think there are two actually – I did a spot for Audible with director Denzel Whitaker and another for RVCA with director Laura Seay. Both of those were a lot of fun. Both really brilliant and creative directors.
Is there a director or showrunner that you haven’t gotten a chance to work with yet, that you would like to?
I’m just a fan of anything dark or dramatic. That’s the type of cinematography that naturally comes out of me. So, directors who are telling stories that require that style are the people I’m most looking forward to meeting.
Thanks to John Orphan for taking the time to speak with us. You can learn more about him on his official website.