With the never-ending list of streaming services now available, it’s hard to keep up with all the original content that is being created. One streamer that has begun to specifically target horror audiences is the Fox owned Tubi, which is free if you don’t mind a few commercials. They have a multitude of horror titles, both popular and obscure to choose from as well as original content too. One of their latest original films being Steven R. Monroe’s Unborn starring Jade Harlow and Ella Thomas. The official synopsis for the film is as follows: An expecting mother suspects that her unborn baby is possessed by the demonic spirit of her dead mother while her wife questions her unstable state. Adding to the intensity of the film is the cinematography by Michael Street, who is no stranger to this genre. He has worked on films such Her Deadly Boyfriend, The Nanny Murders, Kill Thy Neighbor to name a few. To learn more about the look of Unborn, we talked exclusively to Michael below.
How did you first get into cinematography? Was there a specific moment that you knew you wanted to do this?
That’s a very good question. Honestly, I was living in Northern California and working odd jobs, trying to find what I wanted to do with my life. Some people I knew when I was younger had moved to Los Angeles. One of them was shooting a music video and invited me to come to Los Angeles to work on the music video as an intern. I decided ‘why not’. On the day of the shoot I started hanging out with the grips because they had all the cool toys. They were using a hydraulic dolly and crane. It was my first experience being on a set and I loved it. After lunch I noticed the camera was on the crane and there was a person on the wheels controlling the camera. At that moment I said to myself ‘I want to be the person behind the camera’. I ended my day helping the camera department. So after the shoot I went back to Northern California and started working as a Grip and an Electrician. About a year later I decided to go to the Academy of Art in San Francisco and educate myself on cinematography. After that, the rest was history. My third year at the Academy of Art I won some cinematography awards for a short film I shot on Super 16mm. That cemented me as a cinematographer and I’ve never looked back. I still strive to educate myself to this day on cinematography, and find inspiration in my fellow peers as well as the ever-growing technology.
What attracted you to the Unborn script?
What attracted me to Unborn was the fact that it’s not a conventional story. It’s a female, mixed ethnicity couple who are having trouble bearing a child. It’s a very real and modern story in that regard, but then the horror twists the couples’ journey into body possession and into a satanic cult. I really enjoyed the writing of the script and the concept of the story. Also, the fact that Steven Monroe was on board and this was going to be part of Tubi’s original content, I was sold. As a cinematographer I am always looking for stories that are unique and I am always looking to work with creative filmmakers. Steven has a camera background, so the visual language is very important to him. So as a cinematographer I had creative license and the team work between Steven and I was fantastic. We are definitely looking for another project to collaborate on. I am looking to shoot more well written scripts, unique content, and genre bending material. It’s what a cinematographer strives for.
What did preproduction look like for you on the film? Did you storyboard anything out etc?
We did not storyboard any of the movie. Steven and I are both seasoned filmmakers and we know what goes into shooting scenes. We both know how important locations and blocking with the actors are. After we scouted our locations, Steven came up with a general shot list. I took his shot list and interpreted the notes into the Shotlister app. We basically mapped out the beats for the scenes and I used Shotlister to add technical specifications such as lenses, equipment we were going to use to move the camera, as well as noting what was special effects, visual effects and practical. I always share my shot list with the Gaffer and 1st Assistant Camera. Communication for me is always key with my team and the people I work with. During pre- production I shot camera tests using materials such as clothes, colors, fabrics, and textures. I took these tests and ran the files through different applications as well as creating LUTs in Davinci Resolve. I would share these tests with Steven when we would discuss the found footage look. We shot the movie in 2.39 Anamorphic with the Red Komodo. For the found footage we wanted it to look like 4:3 16mm film and 16×9 beta video. Once we had our locations, discussed the angles and the directions we were going to shoot in, I created the shot list and locked in on a look for the found footage. We felt we were in a good place going into the movie. Perhaps that’s why our shoot ran smoothly from a cinematographer and director standpoint. All we had to do was execute our plan.
What did your conversations look like with Unborn director Steven R. Monroe about the look of the film?
As far as the look of the film I had complete creative control. Steven has a background in cinematography, so there are things he really wanted, such as shooting night scenes during blue hour so we can get some great sky detail. The elements I added such as the silhouettes, the lens flares, the color palette in the lighting, that was by my design. Steven allows for creative freedom and loves a beautiful looking film. He would constantly joke about these great shots we were getting and how they were going to be on my next cinematography reel. And the funny thing is, he is so right! We definitely discussed having a darker, moodier film, but also the material calls for it. One thing Steven emphasized was to not make this look like a movie of the week. He wanted this to be very cinematic, push compositions and visual boundaries. I think we did that and then some. I am really happy with the look of the movie and happy people enjoy it. It’s one of my favorite films I have shot.
What was the hardest scene to film in Unborn? Why?
I think the hardest scene to shoot was the gun shoot out in the garage between the two detectives. Not from a technical standpoint, but from a production logistical approach. We obviously wanted to be very safe during the detective shoot out scenes. When there are weapons being used on set you always want to make sure everyone is aware and safe. It takes time to be safe, and we did not want to rush those scenes or situations. We had the detective shoot out as well as the doctor being hit by a car, in the same day. On top of that I had to match on another day the sequences of Ella running to save Jade. So we had to shoot match time of day, and that is always tough for the production because there are so many logistics. On top of that we had a company move to shoot the exterior of the palm reader location. So that day was a day we all had to be on our game, move efficiently to get the day done, and be safe as we captured the shootout, as well as the car hitting the doctor which was a visual effects composite. So we had to shoot matching plates. I would not have it any other way. I love those scenes
Do you have a favorite scene in the film?
The climax was definitely the most fun to shoot. We spent the entire shoot day on the climax and I loved incorporating the work lights into the scenes. We wanted the scene to feel that John Fletcher had made a makeshift birthing bed in the barn, and he used work lights to light the birthing area. These work lights were great because not only were they a great prop, but they provided back light for the characters as well as backlighting the sheets around the birthing area, and the work lights were perfect sources to create lens flares. I feel the lens flares added an intensity to the horror and added a reality to the scenes. I went into those scenes with an organic approach, and hand held every shot in the climax. Steven did a great job directing the action, the deaths, and the violence. Jade, Ella and Kevin did a great job bringing intensity, reality and emotion to their characters. Everyone was in sync and brought their A game. On top of that there was a slight wind that was blowing that night, and it made everything feel magical. The actors’ hair was blowing at the right moments, the sheets around the bed were flowing, and it all felt so right and perfect. There was a unique energy around that night.
Looking at your IMDB, you have done a lot of darker more horror/suspense type films. Would you say you specialize in this genre?
Honestly. I just love shooting good stories. I love drama, and not just as a genre but the relationships between people and the human struggles that we all face. I tend to shoot in a darker visual tone, so darker subject matter gravitates towards my work. I love horror, I love suspense and I love action. It’s fun to create a world visually and bring a story to life. At the end of the day my job is to make the tangible, to create a frame that an audience can connect with. Maybe it is an emotional scene between two people, or the fear of a dark force taking over someone’s life, or a fight sequence. In a script I look for elements that I can take and enhance visual. At the end of the day the darker subject matter seems very appealing visually. I studied film noir, German expressionism and modern art, so when I can bring my influences to a story, it tends to lean on the darker, grittier side of filmmaking.
Do you have a signature style? If someone were to watch all your projects side by side, would they see any similarities?
I pride myself on the fact that I do not have a signature style. I know some cinematographers, when you see their work, you know who shot it. I like being a chameleon and being able to create visual palettes that are unique. I can shoot a romantic comedy, I can shoot a gritty indie drama, I can shoot a stylized horror film, and they will all feel unique. I take a script and let the script help me dictate the visual language. Of course I do have my own signature techniques I bring to almost every movie. During my undergrad at the Academy of Art I took experimental film classes, and actually started shooting on Super 8mm, Super 16mm and 35mm before I shot digitally. So I took elements from shooting on film, creating in-camera effects, and I applied that to when I shoot digital. I tend to flare or fog the lens if it’s right for the story. Sometimes I use these techniques for stylistic purposes, or sometimes for a storytelling device like in Unborn. In another movie I shot there is a close up of someone with the hood of the car in the foreground. The actor pretended to turn on the car. The Gaffer and I created a subtle lens fogging as if the headlights were being turned on and flaring the lens. No one will ever notice this but it’s these little subtle tricks I always bring to my cinematography. I did a similar thing in Unborn. For the climax I wanted it to feel really intense and I wanted to incorporate a lot of lens flares and the characters go deeper down their journey. I had lights off camera that I would aim at the lens and at specific moments the lights would cause flares. I increased this effect as the story went on. In the climax I used work lights in the background to have a constant effect.
Are there any directors or showrunners you would like to work with one day that you haven’t gotten a chance to yet?
There are definitely a handful of directors and showrunners I want to work with. I love what Blumhouse is doing as far as horror. Anthony Sparks is someone I have had on my radar for a while. Ever since Queen Sugar Anthony has been someone I would love to work with, and now he’s collaborating with Blumhouse. My fellow AFI Alumni Yoko Okumura is also someone I want to team up with at Blumhouse. She’s an amazing talent and just a really cool person with good energy. Gigi Sual Guerrero is a talented filmmaker as well, and Blumhouse has an eye for talent. I like the fact that she promotes herself as a Latin filmmaker and I am all about diversity in visual storytelling. Luis Prieto, who directed Shattered and was released by Lionsgate is another talented director I want to team up with. We have had brief conversations in the past, and I plan to circle back with him. Another show runner’s work I really like is Chris Mundy, who is behind Netflix’s Ozark. I think what Chris did with Ozark is amazing and I am excited to see what he has after Ozark.
Many thanks to Michael Street for taking the time for this interview.