With The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has established a reputation for crafting brooding dramas that are meticulously designed and executed. “I have very specific tastes,” he acknowledges, “and I don’t want to blindly try to find the right angles and moves on the set when I could do a lot of that work beforehand. If I don’t feel or know exactly what the shot is saying, I get really uncomfortable, and I’ll start playing with the camera until I find a shot that says something to me. However, there are times when we’ll position the camera as planned in our storyboards and the shot won’t work. And in those cases, we have to figure out a solution. That’s why it was great to collaborate with Roger Deakins [ASC, BSC] on The Village he’s very open and can easily adapt to those situations.”
Shyamalan had actually approached Deakins about an earlier project, but the cinematographer’s busy schedule precluded his involvement. And although Deakins had just enough time in his schedule to photograph The Village, his commitment to another project (The Ladykillers) limited the time he had for preproduction on Shyamalan’s film. “Because Night works out so many shots and so much staging during preproduction, I really wish I’d had more time during the prep,” says Deakins. “I’ve always thought the camera’s placement, movement and framing are the most important aspects of cinematography, but I tend to make those decisions instinctively rather than intellectually. If I have an idea for a shot or blocking, it’s usually something that just feels right to me; it’s not something I can necessarily intellectualize.
“Night’s storyboards are very detailed, and they rarely change on set while shooting the film,” he continues. “I occasionally found them a bit restrictive and the adherence to them a little extreme. Joel and Ethan Coen storyboard their films just as thoroughly, but on set those [ideas] can and often do change. But with Night, the film is basically shot before he actually gets on set. It’s an interesting way of working and very brave, because he shoots very little coverage.”
Details about The Village’s storyline were being tightly guarded when AC interviewed Deakins and Shyamalan, but the tale, set in the 19th century, centers on the inhabitants of a small village nestled in the woods of New England. The townspeople maintain a somewhat tenuous equilibrium with their surroundings, which include some mysterious, unseen creatures. Shyamalan explains, “I had read [Emily Brontë’s] Wuthering Heights, and I found that kind of pure emotional angst, where people are allowed to feel and make speeches about emotions, very compelling. I thought, ‘What if I juxtaposed that kind of angst with something that threatens these characters?’ I thought a period Exorcist kind of movie would be very cool, so I tried to find a balance between a scary movie in the woods and Wuthering Heights. The film has a scary, fairy-tale aspect the idea of Hansel and Gretel stumbling upon a woman who puts them in an oven is scary stuff! That kind of darkness mixed with absolute innocence [creates] a kind of eerie beauty that really appealed to me.”
Much of The Village unfolds in one-take shots long masters that wait several beats before initiating a slow push in on one character or through several linked shots that could only be assembled one way in post. Shyamalan recognizes the risks posed by this approach, but notes that “as a director, I need to take a stance. In doing so, I’m bound to be wrong some of the time, but in the end, you’ll definitely know you’ve seen a story told by me because I’m not using my head, I’m using my gut. You will definitely feel me in the movie. I don’t do traditional coverage per se, where meanings and statements are created in the editing. With that method, the personality of a scene, sequence and ultimately the whole movie is often decided and/or found much later on. That certainly works for many filmmakers, but it’s just not my thing.”
“Night definitely has a different idea about shooting, and it’s very minimalist,” observes Deakins. “Often we weren’t even in front of an actor when he or she was talking, and sometimes you don’t even see the actor who’s talking. Night creates a world through the way the camera moves, and it doesn’t necessarily involve shooting a whole scene the way you would on most films. It’s much more of an abstract, impressionistic view of a scene he doesn’t need to see every actor and every expression in every moment for every scene. He chooses to see a scene or certain aspects of it from a specific viewpoint. The Village was definitely shot so that one shot would link to another, and then to another. It’s great if it works, and it’s certainly very efficient. We only shot for about 45 days, which was pretty good given the difficult weather conditions we were working in.”
Expanding on Shyamalan’s scene construction, the cinematographer adds, “We rarely see the sets in a wide shot, only in pieces. Night is essentially constructing the characters, the ambience and the whole story out of pieces. If you read a scene in the script, you’d probably see an overall view of it in your mind, but that wouldn’t be what’s in the film. Night’s vision is based on one particular viewpoint. In fact, the camera may even move away from the action at some point and not dwell on a whole chunk of it. He might play two pages of dialogue as one long, handheld shot of the backs of two characters’ heads as they’re walking, and it works perfectly. Then he might have the camera come around into a close-up on one character at a certain moment. We often used that sort of longer development shot.”
There were a few instances on The Village where the filmmakers deviated from Shyamalan’s storyboards. “There’s a sequence where we had done an exterior earlier in the day that had a beautiful kind of dull light, and when we had to do a matching interior shot for the same sequence, it was incredibly sunny and bright outside,” recalls Deakins. “The first shot of the interior scene involved bringing a girl into the room as she steps up into a close-up. We had storyboarded the shot one way, but because of the light outside, that’s not how we ended up shooting it. As a reflection of the girl’s confused state of mind at that moment, I suggested it would be interesting to have the camera hang at her close-up position and just hold focus on the foreground and let the background play out of focus until she comes into the foreground. That seemed to be a good way of portraying the moment, and it also helped with the problem of the exterior being too bright.”