Charlotte Bruus Christensen is a delight to speak to, as she talks about framing the films she has shot in collaboration with directors such as Denzel Washington, Aaron Sorkin and now John Krasinski.
For A Quiet Place, Christensen fought to shoot on film to capture the softness needed to light the actors in post-apocalyptic gloom. Once she had Krasinski on board with film stock, she next needed to work out how to shoo with red light, a color not so friendly to the cinematographers. Whether immersed in a basement filled with water or perched on a 60-foot high silo, her framing of A Quiet Place adds immeasurably to the tension of the film.
Read our chat below:
This film is very different in the sense that the story is told with very few words. Let’s talk about what John told you and where you go from there?
The very first conversations were really early on. I got involved through Emily because we did The Girl On The Train together. I think it wasn’t that long ago and Emily called. She said, “My husband John has found this really interesting script that he’s really excited about and I think you should chat.” It was a year before we even started shooting.
It was really early on and before he started rewriting the script. The early conversations were about what is this film about? We talked about it being a movie about fear and living in this world where terrorism is happening here and there and you cannot predict it, you don’t know. There’s that fearful thing where your kid doesn’t want to go to Manchester or Chicago anymore for a concert. How do you deal with that as a family? How do you survive? The creature in that script represents that fear.
The early conversations were really about all of that and how we wanted the audience to identify with it. But also, first and foremost, it was about family, with the creature element added in. It was so rare to discuss it while it was being written and to be able to comment on it.
What were your inspirations to creating the tone and palette for the film?
There were so many. I went from John’s overall notes and what his vision was. He described it as a very poetic film. He really wanted that epic look of seeing the environment and seeing nature and the space they were living in. He was adamant about the loving family and wanting warmth in it, so that was really important. We discussed the color red and what it was going to mean in the film. We didn’t have too many reds early on in the film because once that comes in, we wanted it to really have an effect. Just having all those elements to play with, I started digging into how we’d create that warmth and what else is it going to take for me to express and communicate this wordless story? What does it mean to my work?
I soon realized distance was going to play a role. If you place the lens close to someone who was moving quietly, there was going to be a sound. Whereas if you place that lens further away on a lens further away, it would be silent. That was a huge thing for me in terms of telling the story and when to be close and when to be far away.
Milli is deaf and knowing that the storyline is the hearing aids don’t work so we needed to go inside her head and understand that they still don’t work. We chose a different lens for that in order to be closer to her. So, it was about considering the overall vision and thinking about the sound and how to serve that.
Isn’t red the worst color for cameras and using that to light a scene? Talk about how you worked with that and how you lit those scenes?
It is very tricky to work with red. for some reason, red is very hard to focus on. It looks out of focus or soft. We did a lot of testing so there was that challenge to figure out.
There were also the red Christmas lights that were the warning element in the movie. We wanted those to turn out red. Sometimes when you shoot those, they actually turn out white. We did some testing to figure out what bulb I needed and what works to get the perfect exposure when I needed to light their faces. We eventually figured out that it’s a matter of light wattage. There was just a lot of testing.
In the basement where red and black were prime colors, I needed to have a lighter element so that there was always going to be some part of the face that looked in focus in case the redness was there. We added candlelight which allowed me to rim Emily a little bit with the warmth of candlelight. It seemed that the eye had something to focus on. It was fun to work that out.
There’s a lot of night scenes. Talk about the cornfield and working on that farm.
That farm was a find. John and Emily found it. There was a farmhouse that had been untouched for 30 years. Finding a location like that was a huge thing. We went up there early in winter. They planned how to plant the corn and what height, what color we wanted it to be. It was tricky because we only had 30 days to shoot and during that time, the corn went from green to yellow. There was actually a lot of working with nature.
There were a lot of challenges in the night scenes because we needed to see the lights from the top of the silo, working with kids. It was a lot of planning there too.
What about the silo footage? Wasn’t that 60 feet high and you had to shoot from the top of there?
We went up with John. We shot that based on timing because of sunset. So, when the kids were there, we had to look at health and safety. We built the top of the silo inside a riding arena and did that scene with the kids there. I was lighting that and doing day for night. We wanted to see the farm and show that at night.
There was a lot of figuring out the continuity when we had the real-time scenes with John and the interior silo with the kids being in the corn. How do you light that? There’s no light inside that at night, but how did that work? It was a great challenge to figure that moment out.
I loved that you shot on 35mm. I think it added to so much of the scare and the grainy aspect rather than digital. We don’t see it often in that genre.
It was a desire I had early on. John wanted me to pitch it to him. I argued that the reference movies he showed me such as Jaws and There Will Be Blood they were 35mm movies. He wanted that same confidence. With the poetic family portrait and the warm interior and close-ups, doing close-ups on 35mm have a beautiful softness. I had so many arguments for it, together we went to the producers and wrote letters. It was a process to win that battle but because we were in it together, he wanted it as much as I did, I’m so pleased we did it on 35mm. It’s so simple and it’s not a fast-moving film. The visuals are subtle and 35mm supports that somehow.
Walk through shooting in the basement as it gets flooded and working in that environment.
We needed a water tank to contain the water. I had the camera on a crane to move freely. Again, the moves are slow, floating and gliding. Working in water is tricky. The darkness was important because it’s like a character in the movie. When he’s carrying her after the baby, it was pitch black. They had a sliver of light. Those pitch black scenes were easy to do.
When she wakes up the lights have fallen and it’s a red environment. The lighting changes throughout those scenes. When she sees the creature for the first time, it’s backlit with red and black and a little of the candlelight to help the red. It’s one of my favorite shots of the movie where you see the creature and it dips under the water. You just don’t know where it is and she’s trying to get to the baby. We had the red reflection going through the water going onto her face and that created the movement of the shot rather than the camera moving. It was one of my favorite scenes to shoot and light.