Ole Bratt Birkeland referred to two visual sources to capture the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall in Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger. One was a book on fading country homes in Ireland, the other was a photography book in black and white about an English country doctor. Through his visuals and working with Abrahamson, the end result is the perfect Gothic ghost story.
Dr. Faraday is called to the sprawling estate when a maid “falls ill.” She hopes the doctor will release her of her duties. Once inside, Hundreds Halls is anything but the grand English Country home it once was. It’s now fading away into decay, and its inhabitants are a hollow reflection of the society they once led.
I spoke to Birkeland about how he framed the film and techniques he used to create the mystery that is The Little Stranger.
Walk me through that opening when Faraday approaches that house. The gates open and there’s Hundreds Hall Estate. What did you and Lenny talk about?
It was written clearly into the script, this introduction into Hundreds Hall. One of the things that we wanted to come across was how to present the landscape and place we’re in, but also, how do we introduce Faraday without having to explain a lot. There’s the shot of the medical bag and him. We wanted to present that he was out to do something, but we’re not quite sure what and also present Hundreds Hall as some mystery and past greatness. The first time you see it is on top of the hill, you go through the gate and we use this high angel looking down on him. It was a way to introduce the film that allowed us to perhaps not be too emotive but also tell us a story about who this character is and what he’s about to enter into.
And from that exterior and the grand past greatness, we then go down some stairs and into Hundreds Hall, but it’s this dark place in the basement. He sees Betty and then he goes upstairs, he’s looking up at the house from the bottom of the stairwell. It’s a whole different world.
One of the things we wanted to establish quite early but it’s also overt and yet subtle too is even though he’s the doctor, he’s shown through the servant’s entrance. He’s not shown through the front door but that one. Immediately that puts him on the same level as that of a servant. We wanted to distinguish that and how that was a different space and how it would maybe relate to what happens in the movie when we get to know what happens to him and that was the moment when he’s a servant and when his mum was a maid. So, that’s all about class.
Once he’s done his duty and treated Betty, he gets a chance to be an equal and is shown out the front door and it was important to have that journey and have that class differentiation. What we did there was try in a way was emulate a slow journey of how it gets brighter and more romantic as you come upstairs. But it still has that feeling of it used to be great and I still remember it as great. When you get to that overhead shot when he looks up, there’s the sense of the past coming to hit the present.
You go back to that shot later on in the movie and it’s younger Faraday and what he sees there from that point of view.
Again, it’s about keeping with the visuals reflecting the past and the present in a subtle way. We as the audience understand some of what Faraday’s obsession might be. It’s subtly about foreshadowing about what might come in terms of the ending. We kept trying to find not exactly the same shot, but similar angles repeatedly that we could not only foreshadow and have a sense that the house was looking at Faraday, but that the house was looking back at him.
That high angle became the sense that there was something in the house. It’s not just an objective high angle, it’s placed there to give you that sense. So, we kept having those angles several times. It’s not a natural filming angle because it’s not on the eyeline, but it gives you that sense of unease because you’re not sure who’s POV that might be.
Take us through shooting how you introduced each of the characters.
A similar thing happens, where we meet them and how they are presented becomes a reflection on who they are as people. You meet Roderick who is trying to do some work but he’s having difficulty because of his leg. You go to the kitchen and Caroline is there, she’s definitely doing some work, she’s clearly the person in the house who has the most ability to do something. When we’re introduced to Betty, she’s clearly pretending not to be very well. She’s also not in a very competent position and she’s not what you would expect of the last maid left in the house. When you meet Mrs. Ayres, she comes out of the dining room as if she is the matriarch of this place. She clearly doesn’t do any work, she wanders around. It gives us this sense of introduction without having to say anything about how each of these people reflects their social status and where they are within that family.
The mansion itself is big and there’s a sense of loneliness. Walk through the lighting aspect.
What we tried to do was create a sense that the light was always coming from outside. We wanted to allow the light to only ever have soft lighting come through so that it would never quite hit the corners. You’d walk around in this place and it was all naturally lit, but they’d never use any practicals because they were saving money. The lighting also allowed us to show the faded grandeur but at the same time not let us see into the corners which allow the mystery of what might have been.
When we shot the past, we wanted to show that there was money. It still wasn’t in its absolute prime but we had all the lights and we had those on and we tried to emulate the sunshine. So, we would contrast that against the faded present.
With that sense of faded grandeur, you can almost smell the dust and decay. What conversations did you have with Lenny and the production designer about capturing that?
We had two main references. One was a photo book about fading country mansions in Ireland. What was interesting about it was when you see these photos, they have that sense of different eras in the same photo. There’s a little fridge in there, but there are old taps. Also, all the color tones had the same tone to them. On the other hand, we had this book by John Berger’s A Fortunate Man and that was about a country doctor in England. He has some lovely black and white stills in there, but it gave us a sense of how to present something in a straightforward way. They felt like a real and truthful way of representing something.
We worked at how to truthfully present the space to it felt true to a place lived in. That was a combination of lenses and we’d never feel the light as if it were lit. It might be beautiful, but it’s still very truthful as if you walked in and this was the first time seeing it.
What, if any were the challenges of shooting inside that location?
There were a lot of mirrors. [laughs]. That in itself creates a few challenges. There are classic logistic issues such as weight issues and transportation and getting the right gear in when you needed it. As a space, it worked really well. We worked really hard to keep our mantra to try to light from the outside, it meant we could keep that interior free as much as possible to move around.
You talked about the books influencing you. Did anything else serve as influential?
A lot comes from the production design and Lenny and I talked. We tried to keep the lenses within a very small range. We’d seldom shoot wider than 18 and we’d very seldom shoot longer than 50. As I mentioned, the books, particularly Berger’s book became a big influence in how to try to frame something in a manner that felt naturalistic without being too stylistic. It became this thing where we slowly evolved the language as we started shooting.
We discovered that as we were shooting, we wanted to feel closer to Faraday so we ended up using a lot of Faraday whenever we wanted to be with him. It was something we discovered and explored as we were shooting.
I also had another book that I looked at that had lovely photos of the Deep South in the ’60s and it was something I used as a reference because there were a lot of tiny details and it also had a lot of brilliant greens. We knew it was a dark movie with dark undertones, so we talked about how to achieve a sense of poor processing so we underexposed it a lot in order to create more shadow tones and have that sense of slowly falling into black.
That end shot is haunting and tragic, but so wonderful.
That was shot in one day at the end of the day. We had to strip the whole house out of its previous furnishings and everything. We walked around with a handheld and found lots of different angles. We had the mirrors in previous shots and we wanted this idea of a splitting of the character, we ended up shooting that shot as a reflection. As we were shooting it, I moved the camera slightly, he became this double image and so we were seeing two of him and I thought it looked great. So, we went with it. It’s one of those lucky breaks you embrace and think it just breaks. We were never entirely sure it was going to be the last shot and being open to embracing those things is part of the joys of filmmaking.
The Little Stranger is on release