‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ Cinematographer on Using ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ as a Roadmap of Tone and Shot Style
SPOILER ALERT: Don't read if you haven't seen The Haunting of Bly Manor and are streaming on Netflix now.
It's not just the beginning of a track that "The Haunting of Bly Manor" shares with "The Haunting of Hill House".
Mike Flanagan's and Trevor Macy's horror anthology had to have tonal continuity between seasons, though each featured different characters, locations, and time periods - not to mention the new season, which also blends genres a bit with a deep love story. While much of this tone was captured in the scripts and during the performances, sharing style and camera language was also imperative for both seasons, says cinematographer James Kniest.
"If ever there was a mandate, it was' looking back at 'Haunting of Hill House' - that was the roadmap that had been set," Kniest told Variety. "That was the discussion point to begin with, if and how we were want to do something different. "
The Haunting of Hill House was Flanagan and Macy's 2018 Netflix debut, inspired by Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel of the same name. It followed the Crane family over two periods of time: Today, the Crane siblings are adults who return to the infamous (and eponymous) Hill House because the events of their childhood still linger in their lives. These childhood events - especially the night in the early 1990s when they escaped the house - are represented by flashbacks. "The Haunting of Bly Manor" is the second part of the anthology, published two years after the first, and is inspired by stories by Henry James. This book ends with the present, and the entirety of the events unfolds as a story told to a wedding reception. These events, which take place in the 1980s, are from a young American woman named Dani (Victoria Pedretti) who offers nannies to two young, orphaned children at the Bly Manor title to learn that the house is dark and sinister History and that those who die there have their souls trapped there. To keep her young wife from being taken over by a ghost, Dani sacrifices herself, leaving the love of her life to tell the story.
"Mike's work has so many layers. He gives people a lot of food for thought to make up their minds. We just want to always feel like this is potentially believable - never imagination - so that the viewer can keep busy and question what they're doing sees whether it is really real, whether the character imagines it or whether it is the viewer, ”says Kniest.
Kniest, who previously worked with the producing duo on their 2016 feature film "Hush", came to "The Haunting of Bly Manor" for the sixth time of the season and stayed with the show until the end. He took over for the cameraman Maxime Alexandre, who shot the first five episodes and part of the finale that had been moved up in the production plan. Using the previous season as a guide allowed for a consistent point of contact for both season two cameramen. However, Kniest notes that that doesn't mean he couldn't put his own stamp on the show.
"They started the show with really, really static, symmetrical camera positions and things like that, and then, as you can see throughout the season, it gets a bit more fluid and agile which I think helps the story flow." he says. “I always try to give the camera language a fluidity, especially for editorial purposes, so that we can put the recordings together better. We took some crane shots, dolly shots - the camera moves a lot. Especially since there are a lot of people moving around the mansion and the mansion itself is an amazing character in history. "
The story of the mansion is given a special, somewhat independent episode that Kniest also shot. The eighth episode of the season is a deep dive into the tragedy that happened there and created the ghostly lady in the lake who now not only haunts the grounds and terrorizes the residents, but ultimately keeps the residents to themselves. This episode was shot entirely in black and white and is starting to more thoroughly integrate footage that compromised focus between characters in the same frame in order to better "bind them together" and to indicate relationships.
“We kept checking how much to show. I think that's an important aspect that Mike brings to the table. He wants to give people enough information to make them think, but not give too much away, ”says Kniest.
While Kniest admits to having stepped into such a complex show halfway, he had to keep rereading the scripts to keep track of where the characters are at any given point in time and place, but the vast amount of production offered some too unique characteristics challenges.
“The sets were spread across several different studio stages: we had the upper floor of the mansion in one facility and the lower floor in a completely different one. So sewing the top and bottom together was a bit daunting at first, "says Kniest," but we do it a lot - and we do it with a techno crane. We could be with [the actors] and watch them down the hallways and stairs. "
In addition, there were many visual effects in the post that Kniest had to anticipate and therefore properly illuminate. A prime example of this are the disappeared faces of characters who got stuck with Bly and "slowly disappears into the unknown because they lose their confidence," he says. "We had quite a few marks on the actor's face and masks that were plain."
And of course it wasn't easy to adjust to remote post-production during a pandemic. "We stopped filming just before the COVID pandemic broke out, so much of the post was done remotely via iPads and the like," he says. “I lost a bit of sleep because it was something extraordinary in terms of color and contrast choices. It was a little daunting not knowing how to translate it to someone's 60-inch TV. "
But getting into the story at that point, Kniest said, was a perfect match for his own preferred aesthetic - "darker but still a bit beautiful," as he puts it - because then "things take a darker turn and begin to reveal themselves." The pre-Kniest episode explores the housekeeper Mrs. Grouse's (T'Nia Miller's) intricate connection to the mansion. Once she understands her fate, the story will be opened in a wider way for the audience.
“One of the things that I questioned was the hidden flashback sequences. Traditionally, as cameramen, we want to make it look different with lenses or lights or tricks or whatever, and [here] it was always like: "No, no, let's not do that." We don't want it to look cheesy. We don't want to reveal it, ”says Kniest. “There were some minor changes made, but they were subtle. Much of this, in my opinion, was carried by the actors themselves, both in the day and in the mail - their performance and punctuation, their behavior, their body language. For me, that's what it really sells - no stylistic tricks with camera and lighting. "
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