Studio 666 / BJ McDonnell, Michael Dallatorre, and Eric Leach

Episode #112

Studio 666 / BJ McDonnell, Michael Dallatorre, and Eric Leach


Director BJ McDonnell and cinematographers Michael Dallatorre and Eric Leach talk about making a low-budget horror film with some of the world’s biggest rock stars.

In the horror-comedy Studio 666, an exaggerated version of the Foo Fighters — played by the band itself — moves into an empty Encino mansion to record their latest album.

No sooner have they arrived when a demonic spirit awakens and possesses the soul of lead singer Dave Grohl, who maniacally pushes his bandmates to finish the album, and then murders them in a wildly gruesome fashion. (The red band version of the trailer can be found here.)

Director BJ McDonnell and cinematographers Michael Dallatorre and Eric Leach joined us for this episode to talk about spooky cinematography, working with famous first-time actors, and a COVID shutdown that threatened to kill the shoot, but saved it in the end.

Also mentioned in this episode are stories from our October 2022 issue:

In a special feature on horror filmmaking, three cinematographers — Autumn Eakin for The Invitation, Rob Hardy, ASC, BSC, for Men, and
Douglas Koch, CSC, for Crimes of the Future — dissect the chilling imagery they created. The story features an introduction by Michael Goi, ASC, ISC, cinematographer of more than 50 spine-tingling episodes of American Horror Story.

ASC member C. Kim Miles shoots the Showtime survivalist series Yellowjackets, alternating episodes with Trevor Forrest and building upon the pilot shot by Julie Kirkwood.

In the article “Nightmare Fuel,” ASC cinematographers recall how they created iconic horror imagery for 10 outstanding examples of the genre, including the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Descent.

AC explores innovations in virtual production with a behind-the-scenes tour of the “turntable” LED volume built for the ambitious Netflix series 1899.

This month’s Shot Craft looks at the effects of lighting and composition on dramatic tension.

A report on field testing the Arri Alexa 35 with cinematographer James Friend, ASC, BSC.

Follow American Cinematographer on Facebook, Instagram, Vimeo and Twitter.


Iain Marcks: All right, BJ, I wanted to talk to you as a camera operator who also directs, approaching the story from that side of things, because everyone approaches their careers from a different perspective. We all start from somewhere different, and we're all going to different places, you know? So, what's your story?

BJ McDonnell: Well, you know, for me, when I moved to Los Angeles, it was always to direct. But the thing is, when you're a young person that doesn't know any way to go, like my grandfather was an actor, and that's a whole different story right there. And he was passed away at the time, there was no like ins or outs of family stuff. However, I knew that you could make a living in this business, like doing the stuff that you love. So I ended up going to film school. I ended up getting out of that, becoming a grip, which is funny, it's where I actually met Eric, we were grips together. And then I started being a Steadicam operator, then becoming an operator after that point. And it kind of took me off of the path of actually what I came out to do, which was ultimately to direct movies, or music videos, or whatever. 

From left, director BJ McDonnell and Dave Grohl. (Photo by Andrew Stuart)

However, to me, the knowledge that I've gained as a camera operator has really taught me more about what to do as a director, because I've worked with some of the best — and some of the worst. I've seen what works, I've seen what doesn't work, it's taught me the set etiquette, it's also taught me what gear is going to work, how to do time management for like, what you know, we're going to do this over here, and I need this makeup effect over here. I know that's going to take four hours to get the makeup on. So we're gonna go shoot this over here, and this crane will work better than that crane. It gives you a knowledge of everybody's job on set, because you've been in the mix of it all, you're directly working with actors, and the directors of the movies, the camera operator and the DPs. So you get a well-rounded ultimate film school from being on set as a camera operator, which, once I started trying to refocus back to directing, I feel like that actually gave me so much more of like, you know, the knowledge and the tools of what I needed when I started to direct films. So ultimately, the best film school ever.

Iain Marcks: Do you consider yourself a camera operator who directs, or a director who sometimes operates a camera?

BJ McDonnell: No, I mean, for me, it's like, I know my position in which role I ever take. So if I'm a camera operator, I'm a camera operator. And if I talk to the guys directly, I'll say, Hey, look, you know, I think this is cool. But it's up to you. It's not in my hands, I don't get precious. Because you have to let those kinds of intentions go and say, you know, look, I'm the camera operator here. I'm working, you know, with the director of photography and the director to do my job, and I'll throw out ideas if they want, if they don't, great. I'm doing that job. 

As a director, the hardest thing for me, and I think Mike and Eric both probably can see and I still have trouble, is I obsess over a certain shot sometimes or I'll want to do this one thing, you know, and it's like that, but then I need to let go and let the guys do their vision also, because sometimes I'm not always the be all end all. And I know that they're gonna find better shots or better compositions than... I'm sitting there thinking because sometimes you get wrapped up in it. 

That's where it's hard for me when I'm a director, is letting go of framing and things like that. But I've learned now that it's easier for me to just like, trust you. I have. And that way, I can focus more on the performance. And I mean, I know Mike and Eric probably a couple times probably wanted to strangle me. But, you know, it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

Iain Marcks: So, even after Studio 666 you've continued to work as an operator. Do you plan on making the jump to full-time directing?

BJ McDonnell: Of course, I'd love to take that jump but it's also... Look, I'm 20 years into camera operating, you know, and it's like if the directing thing took off, great, awesome. I'm still a camera operator, and I'm still down to do camera operating jobs. I have all those hours I've accumulated for retirement and I still want those. And if I can get both, then so be it. But you know, I don't look at myself as like I am this now, you know? Cool. I'm totally down for either job.

Iain Marcks: What do directing and camera operating have in common?

BJ McDonnell: You're telling a story through camera movement, that's what I think is a big importance to being a camera operator, as well as the director because you want to tell a story, not only through dialogue, but also through what's going on in the camera. And in the lens itself.

Iain Marcks: You talked about letting go of the camera and giving control of it over to your cinematographers. Can you elaborate on that?

BJ McDonnell: Yeah, well, that's the thing, you have to actually let go and let the people you hired, you have to trust what they're going to do, you know, and really, like I always go to Mike or Eric and say, What do you think, man? Do we do this? Or should we do that? You know, I always want the input there, of what I'm trying to explain through the camera work. I mean, there's always like, you always have an idea what you want to do. But sometimes, like I said, it's always easier if all of a sudden, you know, Eric or Mike, they see something they go, What if we did this? And you go, Oh, that's our awesome idea. Yeah, of course, let's do that. It's all teamwork at that point. 

I think it's better to collaborate with the people you're around. That goes not even just with the DPs, it goes with the rest of the crew. I think you get better results when you're surrounding yourself with people that you can honestly trust. And you have to really get all the people that are going to do the right job around you. And we've learned recently, it really takes the right people.

Iain Marcks: So, between Mike and Eric, who started the film and who finished it?

Michael Dallatorre: Yeah. So, I started the show. Got a you know, got a call from my agent saying what's up with this, there's a Foo Fighters movie, want to meet the director like this afternoon. And I was like, Sure. Read the script super fast. And I think we literally met like that afternoon or something like that. And because they were moving quick that I think the band had just finished recording the album at that house. And they were like, Okay, we got two weeks and a half of prep or something like that. And it was like, Oh, shit, you know. Funny enough, I'd never met BJ even though I worked at Panavision for 18 years. Maybe I saw him come in and out for his gear real quick and then leave. But we had never been formally introduced. Eric, I've met many times before. And yeah, we hit it off. 

I mean, I think going back to what you were talking about, I did have a few concerns. And one of my concerns was, are the rockstars going to be rock stars and tell us to screw off or come in four hours after call and then we're going to have to rush through stuff, which that was alleviated. They were super solid. They were literal rockstars, they came in and they hung out, they waited for everything. We never were like waiting on somebody to show up or anything like that and didn’t get attitudes from any of the guys. And then my other little concern was like, Can BJ let go of the camera, you know? And he did, which was great. Because he was also like, he's like my go to like, if I needed another little thing. I knew he could pull it out. But he was leaning on me to bring more to the table. That was great. Because he could concentrate on making sure the band was feeling comfortable and that action was happening right. What do we have, like originally it was supposed to be 27 days, 26 days?

BJ McDonnell: Twenty-seven days that we originally had for it. And that would’ve been impossible.

Michael Dallatorre: Yeah, so we got shut down on day 20 for COVID. And at that point, the rest of what we were supposed to shoot was like, How are we supposed to shoot this in seven days? But yeah, but yeah, that's how it started. I really enjoyed BJ’s enthusiasm. The funny thing is that everyone was like, We know we're gonna have a good time. But we also were like, We got to make this great. We gotta make this as good as possible. Because for us it’s like... Even I've heard Dave say it, they didn't think we were going to come in like all these crazy professionals doing like, the best job possible. And like, everyone that came in was like trying to make something solid and not not just fucking around and saying like, Oh, we're just goofing around with the Foo Fighters. It’s like, No, we're gonna make something cool. We're gonna make something fun. We knew what it was. There was no pretensions of like, Oh, this is gonna be whatever awards or this and that or blah, blah, blah. 

BJ McDonnell: Like you're trying to win Oscars. 

Michael DallatorreI mean, we'll get a couple of Razzies. Maybe, but you know what they're, they're well deserved.

BJ McDonnell: I'll take a Razzie.

Iain Marcks: BJ, what is it about Mike's work that made you want to work with him? I saw that you and Eric had worked together before. So there was some history there.

BJ McDonnell: Ideally, like in the beginning, I went to Eric, I said, Hey, dude, I got this movie, you know, and it's coming up. Eric got a really great opportunity to be the director of photography on SEAL Team [for CBS], which was really a good jump for Eric. And I was like, Look, man, don't think you have to, like turn down that opportunity to come do this movie. Because you never know. You never know where features are gonna go. You get a solid TV show, you're going with a solid TV show. 

And I was kind of like, Well, shit, who am I going to talk to? And then I ended up watching some movies and like we were throwing ideas around and I happen to stumble upon Brightburn, and as I'm watching Brightburn I'm just watching like the cinematography. I thought it was really really well done. And actually I don't even think Mike's name was up at that point for this yet. Actually, I think we had just watched it. And I forgot who said it. They said, hey, check out you know, this guy, Mike D, you know. And I was like, okay, and I looked on the resume, I was like, Well, shit he did Brightburn. So I was like, Get him in here. I was making sure he wasn't a total jerk because you know, you don't ever wanna work with assholes. So Mike was not an asshole. So we were very fortunate for that. And he and I really liked the fact I liked the planning, Mike is very meticulous about the planning of things. And we would talk about stuff. When I would get home, he'd send spreadsheets of the things that would show everything that we talked about, and like, just kind of like a really nice layout of like, what we were going to use, what kind of lighting. Just a really good game plan. And that's how that whole thing came about. 

So me and Mike, we were in the trenches and having a great time. You know, one horribly stormy, rainy night when we're shooting the end of the movie, the world shuts down. And we're like, well, it could be a week, two weeks- cut to seven months later, we ended up like coming back. However, Mike D was up for another show at that point because so much time had passed. And so me and Mike Dtalked it over and Mike's like look, I'm gonna go with this other job just because it's a big deal. And then I was like, okay, and then talked to Eric like, are you going back? SEAL Team was happening and SEAL Team wasn't happening. So Eric came back into the fold.

Iain Marcks: Eric, did you and Michael get a chance to talk before the handoff?

Eric Leach: We had a lot more conversation, just like in terms of what had been shot and how I'd been going because you know, I scouted the location early on too, and I’m sure Mike saw the same thing we saw. Firstly, I was like, this is a logistical nightmare. Because it was just with the lay of the land, it was all on the hill, just this massive house. Nothing was really accessible from like-a we looked at it from a lighting standpoint,a nd everything you want to do is next to impossible, where you just don't have time. 

And that wasn’t the biggest problem. You know, you're doing a small movie, we're not doing $100 million movie where you can spend all night for one shot, you know. It was more challenging, even with COVID stuff, because then all sudden, all the protocols and stuff you do on a set, you're so used to things and you show up and it's like, only three people can be on this set at once. One grip and one electrician and a props guy. Like, okay, but I gotta get out. Well, they knew the work was really hard to adapt to that. Because in the back of your head, all you're thinking is, you know, your plan of attack is based on what was seven months prior to COVID. It was very overwhelming to say the least. Because it was like you have to deal with that on top of trying to make the night. You know, we shot mostly nights. So that was what we did. 

Back to your question. Yes, we did talk and just to see like, what, what has been done and what worked. And they filmed quite a bit. And thankfully, he kind of went through the growing pains of the location like, well, this isn't work or this doesn't work or, and I mean, these hills were steep. It wasn't like these little rises. I mean, it was like, where the pool area was all the way to the top of the house was like, it was a good hump and you know, pushing the carts and all that, you know, everything you just see it, you're just like, wow,

Michael Dallatorre: Yeah. And luckily we had a lot of crew came, were able to come back, like our gaffer Jesse Jaraczewski who- Actually, Eric, you went to school with him, right? 

Eric Leach: Yeah, I then went to Columbia College. And actually, we found out... BJ and I found out that we both went to Los Angeles Community College at the same time, but didn't know each other. 

Michael Dallatorre: Yeah, but having the guys that have already been there and knew the lay of the land. I talked to the best boy at the last screening. And he said his best day was 35,000 steps, and that was the best boy. So it's crazy. You know, they're much in better cardio shape and everything but then it's just more of just getting prepared for like, what's going to happen by that point. We had like, a nice little teaser trailer too. So we kind of knew what was going on. We had something that Eric was really able to continue. And it's to me it's seamless, which is great.

BJ McDonnell: Yep. Both Eric and Mike both like, you know, the transition, like the lighting everything, like it really is seamless, which is really great. Because sometimes you can kind of tell.

Iain Marcks: So when production started back up, were you able to get more days added to the schedule?

BJ McDonnell: Yeah, because we didn't know what the protocols were gonna be. We literally had like, what seven days left? Something like that. 

Michael Dallatorre: Yeah. Seven.

BJ McDonnell: We were basically like, Okay, so from going from 12-hour days to now it's like, it's 10. That's it. We didn't know how testing was gonna go, how long it was going to take to get through things, like know what if... We were the guinea pigs of post-COVID coming back to work, we were still figuring it out. So we had to add, you know, more days. So we eventually came back like for about three weeks.

Eric Leach: I remember thinking like Wow, but also thinking about what you guys had left...

BJ McDonnell: It was too big.

Eric Leach: -would’ve required a lot more time that was scheduled because that would’ve been crazy. I started thinking about it. Like I don't know how you guys would have ever finished it.

BJ McDonnell: So basically, the pool sequence in the movie, for a movie like that it was really massive, and I think what they wanted what was it they wanted to shoot like two days, it was like barely two days to finish that whole thing.

Michael Dallatorre: It was two days to do the whole pool, and I think you guys shot like a week. A week, maybe five days.

BJ McDonnell: Yeah, it was quite a bit. 

Michael DallatorreThat's with, like stunt rigging and we were planning on like, Okay, if the rig has to stay up, which way can we shoot while they break the rig down or they break the rig down and the next day we shoot the other direction? Because I was like in two days, how do we do it?

BJ McDonnell: There's no way we would have been able to do it. Let’s justbe honest, I mean, honestly, I guarantee had the pandemic not happened me and Mike would have been like, Well-

Michael DallatorreWe'd ask for a couple more days and maybe.

BJ McDonnell: Yeah, we would have had to be like- There would have been a meeting, as they say, so yeah, that's, you know, luckily, when we came back and everyone knew was going to take a lot more time, that is how we actually got it. There was a lot of moving parts.

Iain Marcks: Eric, how much time was devoted to protocol? Like, did it, did it slow you down?

Eric Leach: No, because we were filming nights, primarily in August. And the nights were fairly short still. And the way they had the testing set up, like we'd roll in — it was Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or something like that — we roll into the parking lot. And they're like, the first time I ever had a COVID test, like they handed me a cup in a parking lot. I'm like, What the hell is this for and like, like, you gotta spit in this. Like, in this cup in my car, like what we now have to spin the cups and, and then they would shuttle us up to the set, and probably where, everything was pretty well organized and put together as we knew we were going to do and the guys would come in, we do it. And we moved to the next bit. And it was, you know, because do we even break for lunch? I don’t even remember.

BJ McDonnell: We didn’t break for lunch just because we knew we had to keep going. 

Eric Leach: Just basically like went through it. And the shocking thing to me, I think, BJ probably feels the same way, I don't think I've been on a set where it was like really kind of like, Okay, we went in for 10 hours, we did what we need to do, everybody was on point everybody was like clocked in, we're going to do XY and Z. And here it is.

BJ McDonnell: Well, yeah, we didn't walk in and go, What are we going to do? for five hours, and and we wouldn’t talk about it forever. You just sit there and watch the clock, tick, tick, tick. I mean, that's now you can from the get go from the first part with Mike, I tried my best to make sure I have shot lists down because I knew I had six guys that aren't actors. And we had to make sure that we could get every single thing we needed, because we had to cover every single guy. Just doing that alone just takes a lot of time. And as Mike knows, it's like, okay, as soon as I saw what we needed, I was like We're moving on, and it was literally one or two takes and I'd be like Moving on. As soon as we had something that I thought was going to be that was good. 

You know, unfortunately, you have to balance that time schedule, and it carried over into even post-COVID like, had all the things shortlisted and everything and storyboarded. You know, I felt like all in all, from the from the beginning with Mike and also with Eric, I think that we had a very tight ship. We all came in, we knew what we had to do, we all knew there was no time to bullshit around, that we needed to go, go, go, but also keep a perfect look of a feature film.

Iain Marcks: Okay, so let's talk about shooting the band and the challenges of working with a big ensemble of non-actors.

BJ McDonnell: I knew that we're not dealing with professionally-trained actors, even like, Hey, we got to make sure you hit your mark. Or if you're holding this in your right hand, make sure that in the next take you're not holding it in your left hand, that was a bit of a learning curve for them. So I knew that I would need to get least the wide shots, but I needed things to be able to cut away to just in case something didn't line up. That's why I felt I needed to cover every single band member to make sure we had every moment that was in the script, and that we weren't locked into something.

Micheal Dallatorre: Yeah, it was like, Okay, let's see, everyone's in the scene, wow do we not make it Dave talking to the band are like the same thing. So every single time we covered we were trying to cover them, we're like, how do we do this differently? How do we come into the room that we've been in half the frickin’ movie, again, figuring out without doing that, and you know, sometimes Tom would hit and we'd like, okay, cool, just cross-shoot people. And it was like this, that’s only way we're gonna get out of this- six guys. I mean, that the song that we performed, what was the actual length of that song was like 11 minutes? 

BJ McDonnell: Twelve minutes.

Michael Dallatorre: Twelve minutes long. So we would do some takes of the whole song. And it's like, alright, we got to move on. But then you know, our operators were awesome. We were able to find cool shots and keep it fresh without it feeling like the same shots every single time and looking the same direction every single time. That made it challenging, but I think it was a good creative thing. Because when I look at it, I'm like, a great that nothing looks the same to me.

BJ McDonnell: The hardest thing about that room, it’s just a four-wall room, you know what I mean? Everywhere an instrument is, you're always going to have a band member at that place. And so I was always like, we got to always try to keep this looking different, because they're not going to move away from where their amps are, or Taylor's not going to get up and move his drum somewhere else. I would it be weird for us to reset, like, oh, They moved all their gear around, because that never happens. Like I come from a band background. And once you find your spot, you're in your spot. 

Also, when we did [color correction], Eric did a little bit of tweaking and some of those scenes to make it feel like it was a different time of day. So not only with Mike D trying to like, get the different angles, but we also tried to make it feel a little bit different lighting-wise in certain areas, like in color correction. So it felt like a different part of the day.

Iain Marcks: Eric, would you like to elaborate on that?

Eric Leach: Yeah, I mean, it was just kind of like putting it how the Edit was and like look at a time of day, scenes preceding and following and just kind of like okay, well, as much as it does get different you do find yourself kind of in the same areas at the same time because Taylor's at the drums and Dave’s standing there talking to him, you could have just been like, We'll just make it all like flat across the you know- the color could be whatever. When you cut from a scene prior to that, where it's like, clearly it's sunny and different time of the day and then you come in there and kind of just kind of let it transition itself into the evening and back into the day and wherever so it doesn't feel like the same thing. And also, I think kind of keeping with the mood in the film, is it gets progressively darker because you know when you first come in there It's a little different vibe than when it is by the time Taylor gets it.

Iain Marcks: Visually speaking, much of the film is played pretty straight, like, the world of the band is pretty normal-looking, and that makes the horror elements really stand out.

BJ McDonnell: No, totally. And again, when we first started getting into this, we always knew that it was more about the comedy aspect of it first, and not that we were trying to light it- Like told Mike American like when we were talking about like, I don't want this to be lit like a comedy, like we need to... The main tone of the whole thing from the get-go was just Let’s make it a consistent-looking movie. Let the comedy play out. That's the Foo Fighters kind of style of like, they're how they act towards each other in the dialogue. Let that be the comedy. Let's just keep this more like, let's legitly make this look like a movie that shouldn't be with this kind of humor. You know what I mean? Because like, we've all worked on the comedy movies, and I was like, oh, brighter, you know, is better. Like the wider the lens is funnier. This is like, no, no, let's just treat this like an actual horror film, you know, and just light it properly and make it look as best as we can with that.

Iain Marcks: Let’s talk about influences. Like this movie really comes across, not just as an homage, but a love letter to horror movies.

BJ McDonnell: For me, it's like, you know, we knew we're making a movie with the Foo Fighters to be funny, and we knew it was gonna be bloody and gory, so that's going to have his own touch to it, but it's always kind of fun to give a nod back to true horror fans because sometimes the true horror fans aren't going to want to see a Foo Fighters movie they might not like the Foo Fighters who knows but the true horror fans are gonna go, oh The Exorcist! The shadow people that are in the movie, it's The Fog. The book is The Necronomicon. And Eric like when we reveal the book you know, it was so cool because we had the smoke in the drain and all that stuff and it was like that big epic moment when they finally find the book which is completely rip off Sam Rami’s Evil Dead 2. Why not? 

You know there's a lot of little like throwback kind of things in there and like it's funny because somebody goes when was when Dave coming out in the pool like sort of like Friday the 13th. It's like not the kid and the mom and the boat but like it is that slow motion shot of Dave coming up out of the water. You know, we referenced a lot of things that we wanted to get like even the scene with Rami and Whitney with the blood. My main goal right now is to try to like, beat Wes Craven and beat Nightmare on Elm Street with Johnny Depp in the bed. Obviously, I don't think we beat it because that's an amazing shot. Still, to this day. I still like that. So awesome.

Eric Leach: There was that camera above the bed, too, that got obliterated as soon as that thing- And when it was like you see the shot like oh, that's cool. And as soon as it started, it was gone. It was like and then it just started dripping off the lens. You could see it in the dailies. It's kind of funny, but I don't think you use the shot the overhead shot and everyone got into-

BJ McDonnell: That overhead shot is not in the movie because it got completely destroyed. As soon as that thing exploded. It just went poof, it was just red and gone. But we did eventually use the final shot of the scene.

Eric Leach: That’s right. Yeah, the one that got obliterated I remember it was pretty funny. Because we're like, yeah, we'll see what happens.

BJ McDonnell: Yeah, exactly. It's funny. It's like we when we did that shot with Will Forte, you know...

Iain Marcks: The delivery guy. 

BJ McDonnell: Yeah. And that was you Mike. We had that gag... it had to have like six people to make it right. 

Michael Dallatorre: Oh, yeah. 

BJ McDonnell: And, and they were all in the shot. We had to do a plate shot. It was crazy. Because right right before we went, they were, like, Three, two... because like that had to hold the body up and the guy and everything. There were six people in that shot, they go, Three, two, one! And on one, all the effects artists had to dive out of the way to try to get away from like that thing. So they weren't crossing it for the shot. And then the head blows up and everything like that. But it was just funny, like seeing how many people it took to get that effect to work.

Iain Marcks: Alright so, how does this approach extend to the look of the film?

BJ McDonnell: Yeah, I mean, guys, I mean, I get I can just say like, I think, you know, before these guys answer, I just always went to it as I wanted it to look like a bigger film than it really was. But also kind of keeping the horror vibe and a bit of texture. Like I wanted to have a more Super 16 kind of feel. So it still pays homage to the old 80s horror, because it's not this movie's not Hereditary, and it's not like The Witch. It's not like that deep meaningful horror, which I love those kind of movies. This one's more Friday the 13th I mean, so it needed to have that kind of old school 80s- you know, not just the tone and the vibe of the way it should look, and that's why I felt like the Super 16 kind of grainy texture feel would be perfect for it. And I just said, Hey, guys, I want to make this very cinematic, and not what the guys would think of just people wandering around with camcorders making a movie, this needed to be an actual legit movie.

Michael Dallatorre: Yeah, I mean, I'd say for me, I had just come off shooting Books of Blood, which is more of a psychological thriller. And then before that was Brightburn, which to me was very much a slasher movie. So it almost becomes very instinctual, that sense of threat and sense of tension. When we were in the house with BJ we'd be like, Hey, we could start here. And then it's a slow push into this and that will create this tension. For us it was great because it was it was very much one of thoss, That's cool, and we could do this, and it became very much one of those things where like when you when you are really able to click with other people the ideas they're not like like a solitary or like a singular idea like all the pieces start connecting and that's that's what was happening. 

You know, and there's there's a lot of the shots in the movie that are actually like longer shots, which we later realized actually worked out really well for us, because sometimes not seeing what's gonna kill you is more scarier than seeing what's gonna kill you. The whole Jaws thing. Because also it was it was very much because we were able to play in the sense that we were able to experiment with things and not worry about like, well, that's going to be stupid, or the studio is not going to like that.

BJ McDonnell: That's the one thing we didn't have. We didn't like a like a Studio studio at that time on our backs to say, well, we can't show that now we're gonna do this. And that's and that's the only option you're gonna get.

Iain Marcks: Does anyone have an example of a crazy idea that worked out?

Michael Dallatorre: I mean, there was a lot. [Laughter] There are a lot of things that I typically like on studio projects, I was like, Oh, they're not gonna let us do that. And they did. I mean, everything from from chopping Will Forte’s head off. And makingthat scene just kind of very dark and mysterious to even just like, like the band stuff like going back to coverage, just like, oh, it's coverage. But it also we were trying to be very purposeful with the stuff as opposed to just be like, just get the coverage because you want it. I was able to take the time. Definitely the funnest kill for me was Taylor's. It was both practical visual and just developing that scene and the tension within that scene. So those are I think that's a good example of one.

Iain Marcks: That's the one with- Well, I don't want to spoil it, but it has something to do with the drums.

BJ McDonnell: Yeah, that was a good one.

Iain Marcks: Eric, how about you?

Eric Leach: Yeah, I mean, I think going back to like, I guess I was listening there to Mike, actually, the three of us. I've never really actually sat down and been like, talked about it. So I'm kind of like, really? Oh, yeah. Okay. And I totally forgot what I was gonna say. Just going way back when you talk about like, the homage and stuff too. And like, one thing that sticks out was when we did the Caretaker. And I remember when he stands up at the pool, and he takes that hat out, and he flips that hat out. And I think about this one time, this other movie that BJ and I did where we did another shot where a guy with a glove flips his glove out. And it was like a very impactful thing. It was super cool. And you know, when you see him doing it, like, oh, we should start, why don't we start on his hat, he flips the hat out, and then we'll follow it up. And just before he puts it on, we cut to the back of his head, he puts it on and it's like this big hulking guy. They're like, What the hell is going on with this blob just turning into- you know, like, what's going on here? And also, during that whole scene to just thinking of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Imitation is a form of flattery. And you sometimes you see stuff that you really, that sticks with you from way back. Like I always love that. I think it's great. And that, you know, those are the movies that you grew up with. And you kind of build your palette on things that really like stood the test of time with you,

Iain Marcks: Right that Raiders scene you're talking about is the one where they open the ark.

Eric Leach: We went to Jim's house with his pool and we had the puppeteers with the skull heads and the fabric draped and we were in a pool and they filmed it. And they ended up using those as elements. So we kind of see it like, that was based off an actual element. It wasn't a computer. Well, as far as I know.

BJ McDonnell: No, no, I mean, they enhanced it. But like when we were talking about how we're gonna get these spirits to go around, I always was like, you know, Dude the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark is so awesome. And for that time when they made those, it's amazing. So we literally ripped it off. Because they shot a lot of it, like they like the spirit in Raiders coming up and yelling that's obviously an actress, but like the other spirits going around, they have these puppets with these dangly like white cloth things that they put in a pool and moved that around and like kind of a cloud tank kind of a deal. And that's it. I mean, honestly, we just full-on ripped it off or like, let's go to our buddy, Jim, who's the producer had a swimming pool with a window. And so we just set the camera up and did every single shot. So the ghosts would fly like in relative relation to each shot, we got enough elements to do that. And that's how we actually created that whole sequence.

Iain Marcks: So all of these visual references that we've just talked about, they work a little bit like like shorthand, don't they right, for people who know and speak the same visual language?

Eric Leach: Yeah, I mean, we have known each other for like 20 years. So we've worked on a movie together operating and all the stuff we've done together. And we've had a lot of hours sitting around talking to each other about like, what we like with this and that. So it's a little like, I think that the content of the movie itself, based on who was around, I think it attracts those kind of people that are interested in that kind of content. They want to do this, when people come to the set like, See what we’re doing today, they're going to saw somebody and half of this chainsaw rig that comes out of the bed. And you're like What? I love my job! This is awesome. You know, I mean, and I think there's certain types of people that can come to work and appreciate that and appreciate Will Forte, taking eight guys to get his head chopped off, you know, because most people go well, that's just ridiculous. But I personally... and I know that the other two guys, we're all sitting here going. Yeah, that's pretty awesome.

Iain Marcks: I saw that Dave Grohl has a story credit. Was he or anyone else in the band involved in the filmmaking process other than being in the movie?

BJ McDonnell: I mean, that's the thing. It's like Dave really... he trusted us like he would like we were like, Alright, here's what we're doing, Dave, we're gonna do this. We're gonna do that, you know, he's like, Oh, that's awesome. You know, whatever. He was, like totally into it. He never was, Well, no, I think they should do this or that he wasn't that kind of guy at all. He actually put all of his trust in everything that we were all doing right there. Because I think he realized that also that we weren't just like a bunch of dudes that had just bought Red cameras and decided we were going to make a movie, he actually realized that everybody that was there on the set actually has a has a resume. And that we had like a lot of really great people that were making films. So he really put his trust in all of us with what this project was and, and he listened to everything we had to say. And you know, he basically gave us free rein to like, direct shoot, everything like what we had to do he put it all in there. I got him drinking Rockstar energy drinks, which is probably bad. So, you know, we all got we all got to kind of be creative in this movie. I think that we all every one of us, you know me, you know, Mike, Eric, the whole rest of the crew, like even down to, you know, costumes and things, we everybody got a chance to put their finger on this project and show the work that they can do. And I think everyone is pretty proud of it

Michael Dallatorre: Yeah. And the whole band was the same way. Like I remember talking to Taylor and Pat one time when they were watching one of the shots that we I think we did with Dave. And I remember Pat going, Dude, did you guys... like it was like, the first time he looked at the monitor, like, week two or something like that? Yeah, he was like, Dude, that looks so good! It was like, Yeah, what do you think we’re doing? 

Eric Leach: We’re making a movie! 

Michael DallatorreAnd we keep saying play and do other stuff like that- we didn't have that much money. And it's hard to play when you don't have a lot of money. What it does is I feel for me, it makes me more creative. And what is it? Well, yeah, you know, we figured things out a little bit. Okay, well, we can't do that. This actually turns out to be cooler, and that's kind of we're coming from a couple bigger films to a smaller film that wants to be in that realm of those other films. It's like, Oh, I know how to do that, now. I don't need all these big things, but I can achieve that. And sometimes you're like, well, we can't do that, because that's not gonna work. So let's figure something else out that still gives us the emotion and the tone that we want. But we can afford.

BJ McDonnell: Like the first day, we were supposed to try to have a shot with a Technocrane And we got, like totally canned on that one. Of course, the shot did not work. But we had to we we figured it out later on, we did it again. And we did it. It was fine. But it was like we had we had the crane and the gear we wanted, we would have knocked it right out and gone, like straight ahead. But that was just kind of the example. Like the kind of struggles we were up against with getting the certain things that we needed to get to get and achieve certain shots that we you know that we- But we got it.

Michael Dallatorre: And again, saying like how Eric was saying the house was like, it's like four tiers, it's on the side of a hill, and all the windows are facing the hill where typically we would just even put a light on a stand outside the window. You couldn't, because there was a 30-foot drop. Yeah. And you couldn't put a condor there, because it was on the second tier and the lower tier, you couldn't get a condor in because it just was a hedged driveway. Even if you wanted to do a basic thing, like a light outside the window, it just was-

Iain Marcks: So you just didn't put lights outside those windows.

Michael DallatorreCorrect. Either that or we menace-armed them out, just enough to get us up, out and over. But a lot of places where I wanted, I'd always be like, That's where I want the light. And it's like, okay, that's not happening.

BJ McDonnell: It's a 100 foot drop.

Eric Leach: The 100 foot drop. So there'd be times I remember walking like, Can we put out like- No, we can’t do that. Not gonna work.

Iain Marcks: BJ, you said something about wanting the picture to have like a vintage-film-like quality. Was shooting on film ever an option? 

BJ McDonnell: I mean, honestly, we knew we needed to shoot digitally like to say, Do we have that? Let's just look and see if we have that we can go, Okay, cool we got it. That's the one great thing I think is about digital that’s fantastic. It was more about the glass that we're using. But knowing that when we were going to color the movie that we were going to add more of a 16mm kind of Super 16 grain to this make it more of like that kind of a feel. So I really relied on the lenses and the lighting and things that I knew that we were going to have properly in place going into knowing that when we colored it, we're going to enhance it a little bit.

Michael Dallatorre: Yeah. And I kind of... having been Panavision for such a long time and spent countless hours with [ASC associate member] Dan Sasaki screwing around with lenses and testing some of his prototypes. I kind of like, knowing that BJ wanted that look, I went for a lens that was going to give us a little more contrast so that when you did add the noise and the grain it pops a little bit more. And then we also needed the speed a lot of times. Some of those areas at the house were just very difficult to light. So we actually ended up doing the Panavision Zeiss Super Speeds with Arri Alexa, I basically just use the same package I used for Brightburn

Iain Marcks: Mike, what did you do at Panavision? 

Michael Dallatorre: Well, I started in shipping. Then I was on the prep floor for probably like nine years. And then I was in marketing as the New Filmmaker program manager. That was my side job and on weekends and everything like that, that's when I was shooting. So you know, that was just paying the bills, but it was great. Very supportive people. They're very much my family and I still go there. I think every project I've shot has been a Panavision project.

Iain Marcks: Well guys, thanks so much for taking the time to hang out and talk about your work on the movie. It's been a lot of fun to hear all the cool stories from the set.

BJ McDonnell: Yeah. Thanks for having us. I was stoked when you reached out. I was like, this is awesome.

American Cinematographer interviews cinematographers, directors and other filmmakers to take you behind the scenes on major studio movies, independent films and popular television series.

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