By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
With credits including work for such hip hop and rock artists as Drake, Coldplay, Post Malone, and Usher, Jordan Oram is one of the hottest and most sought-after cinematographers in the music industry. Fiercely creative and driven by his passion for the moving image, Oram, however, is not content to limit himself to music videos and shorts. Stepping boldly into the world of feature film, 2021 saw the Toronto-born director of photography tasked with bringing his gift for visual storytelling to the latest installment of the Saw series.
Although SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW brings fan-favorite Darren Lynn Bousman back into the fold for his fourth time at the helm of a Saw film, this latest outing takes the series in a radically new direction. More of a thriller than a horror film, SPIRAL drops the over-the-top gore that was the hallmark of previous entries for taut suspense and character-driven action. In this interview, Jordan Oram explains the challenges of creating a new visual tone for the venerable franchise as well as his personal journey in the ever-changing world of cinema.
In over 20 years as a film journalist, I’ve talked to countless directors, actors, and special effects people. This is the first time I’ve ever had the opportunity to speak with a cinematographer. Unfortunately, even many dedicated movie fans only have a vague idea of what a DP or cinematographer does. So, to start, could you explain how you work with the director to shape the look and tone of a film–especially a film like SPIRAL?
I love it! Thank you for acknowledging us cinematographers because, in the digital era, I think people forget that the sole purpose of a cinematographer or a director of photography is to convey the visual identity of the psychology of a film and to experiment with lenses, cameras, lighting, blocking, production design, support, and collaboration. It’s the visual identity that the director enables the cinematographer to bring forth their vision on screen. So the technical proficiency that directors often don’t have in terms of what lights, what techniques, what lenses, what modifications to the light, to the lenses, to the camera – what instruments are being used in order to convey an emotion, a feeling, a mood for each particular scene or sequence in a film…[the cinematographer] allows the director to verbally communicate what is in their head and suggest the best plan of approach to bring forth the director’s vision. Some directors have a more pronounced visual language than others. Some directors are more technical and some are more psychological in terms of working with their actors. Cinematographers primarily work with the lighting and grip department to ensure all forms of production are facilitated. We manage five to ten people on the electric side who are responsible for lighting and powering everything on set as well as the grips who are responsible for all things laborious – anything holding light, anything that’s holding material in front of light to traditional production support whether there’s ladders or stands being built for people to maneuver on set quickly. That’s the director of photography’s job: to manage the operation of the production which is a lot more than people are aware of.
How did you come to work on SPIRAL?
SPIRAL actually kind of fell off the truck in my opinion. I was in New York doing a commercial, and my agent told me one of the directors for Saw had watched my music video work and was looking to work with a cinematographer who would challenge the traditional approach for their franchise, and I was called in for an interview by the director. I had done my research and watched all the movies before the interview and just explained to Darren [Lynn Bousman], the director, that, if I was awarded this project, I would challenge him as well to create something that was going to be remarkably different than what had been done in the last 16 years of the franchise. So it was kind of birthed out of availability and genuine interest that came from the production side.
Were you a fan of the Saw movies going into SPIRAL?
I was. Saw‘s definitely something I’ve been raised on. Everybody knows a trap! I’m not a major horror fan, but I’m definitely a fan of psychological thrillers. Understanding that, [Darren] was a director that I had watched for years before I was even in film. So to be able to have the opportunity to collaborate with someone whose work I respected, it was a no-brainer to do a project like this that would allow me to kind of create and craft a world in this franchise which was something many other cinematographers hadn’t been successful in doing. Deviating from [the other Saw films] alone was a big reason as to why I wanted to accept this project.
Did you ever feel pressured to maintain a visual consistency within the confines of the Saw films or were you free to put your own artistic spin on the material from the beginning?
To be honest, not at all. I tried to go as far away from what [Saw] had been in the past. That was my intention from the beginning because I had watched the other eight films, and I was particularly not amused by how they hadn’t evolved as time went on. So I wanted to take something that had been present for 16 years and bring it into a new world of modernness and give it a fresh breath of air. So we referenced films like Se7en, Fight Club, and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and we really wanted to challenge what this franchise could be as it was the first film [in the series] to be shot outside of a studio and primarily on location. We really wanted to make something that would be a fresh new take. SPIRAL is a Saw movie in 2021 so it had to be something that could hold up with all the other kinds of films that jar and evoke emotion from the audience.
What was it like collaborating with a veteran director like Darren Lynn Bousman?
Darren is one of the most fascinating filmmakers of our generation. He has a very unique mind. His brain is moving at a million miles a minute and to extract all that information from him and put it on the screen was a gift for me because I could slow him down and ask him genuine questions as to why he wanted something that was already done versus creating something no one could even think about. It was a great way that Darren and I were able to communicate. I wasn’t just giving him what he wanted. I was asking him what else he needed. So it was a great collaboration, and he taught me a lot about how to edit a Saw movie. There’s a formula that he had been following since he started with Saw II. So it was just really educating and once again seeking mentorship from an elder creator was remarkable for me.
What were some of the unique challenges in shooting SPIRAL?
I would definitely say the shooting schedule. We had to shoot all of our traps in the first couple of weeks of production. I wish we were able to shoot it chronologically because the story moves so much throughout the universe so having to jump back and forth through different points of view to establish the look and the time in which it takes place is something considerable that you don’t really see. Communication, ultimately, is always one of the biggest challenges because everybody has an opinion. Everyone has a view and everyone would like to get their message across. But, for us, this project was challenging the creatives to create a new world of the traps. That was very challenging. They had done so many traps in the past, but wanted to figure out a way to create something that was fresh and revitalizing for the franchise.
Speaking of traps, what was the most complicated sequence to shoot?
The most complicated sequence? That would be the end of the film. There are so many moving parts. You have to consider the timing of the police officers coming into the space, [the] reaction from Sam Jackson’s character, the reaction from Chris Rock’s character, the fight sequence at the end. That was a whirlwind. That was the first week of production that we shot – we shot the end of the film at the beginning which made it very challenging to put the characters in a place where you can understand where they’re coming from and where they’re going.
Was SPIRAL shot digitally or on film?
We shot this digital on Sony Venice cameras with Cooke S7 lenses primarily because of the shooting style. We wanted to be able to capture as much content and deliver a nice juicy negative. I wanted to shoot it on film, but it was just something that we weren’t able to do with this timeline. It wouldn’t have worked for how we wanted to approach the language of the film.
How do you feel about the movement away from film to digital?
It depends. I think it has its perks because you’re able to shoot more content. I do miss what it feels like to be able to shoot on film for many projects because it allows everyone on set to be more present with what is happening in front of the lens. Not as many people are at the monitors and everyone’s characteristics of choice change. Your division factors change. You don’t shoot as many takes – you rehearse it and block it a lot more versus now, with digital, you kind of shoot everything because you can. I think we’ve been a little spoiled in the last few years of filmmaking, but it’s a good tool. It helps us.
Your journey in filmmaking is somewhat unique in that you didn’t go to film school. How did you become a cinematographer?
I actually started out in this industry as a production assistant for a day, and I was working on this project in Canada with a cinematographer. I was really inspired by the level of work that he put into the material, and I just wanted to learn. I had a mentorship for about three years, and I went into the grip department. I understood how to grip and light and did that for about five years before I decided to become a cinematographer. I’d been a visionary creator for many years prior to being a cinematographer, but the choice of being able to collaborate with directors and have my own singular vision from the technical side of things allowed me to really consider my collaboration of value and an asset to production because I wasn’t trying to take jobs away from directors that I was willing and wanting to collaborate with. I found a niche in my community where I could fill voids in a much more effective way – I didn’t have to be the main person at the point of contact. I could bring something different to the table and still have a job and be able to employ and hire other people.
As a cinematographer, who do you consider influences?
That’s a very good question. I would say Emmanuel Lubezki [Sleepy Hollow, Children of Men] is one of my biggest inspirations, Bradford Young [Arrival, Selma], Chayse Irvin [BlacKKKlansman], Darius Khondji [Se7en, Delicatessen] and obviously, Roger Deakins [Fargo, The Shawshank Redemption]. Some of the filmmakers who are challenging the status quo are the ones that I tend to drift toward as well [in terms of] real-life human emotion and interaction. I’m taking a lot more influence from it because it’s something that I can’t reference from another point of view. It allows me to find what my point of view is and be quite literally consistent with it because I can draft my own versions of things that I’m witnessing whether it be a photo that I take on the side of the street or hanging off the side of a bus in Thailand. These are things I can reference through my own personal experiences and bring forth into the projects that I can collaborate on. It just allows for authenticity.
As a visionary creative, would you like to write and direct your own film at some point?
I’ve been asked this question many times. I do think that there’s a career in which I will start directing in the next couple of years. Right now, I’m really enthralled and invested in gaining respect from the community first before I start to create my own projects. I’m really enjoying collaborating right now with other people from the technical side of things so I’ll never say no.
You’re really renowned for your work in music videos. How is feature film work different?
I got into this industry to make movies, so when I approached making music videos, a lot of my work has a very enriched style in the sense that it evokes emotion. It’s inspirational. It’s informative. It’s evoking a human emotion. I enjoy it because it allows me to really think with a lot more intention. It allows my collaborations to be more authentic and original because now I’m not just capturing content that’s going to live in your mind for three minutes. I have to sustain your attention for hours. So the conversations that we have are ultimately more drawn out and have a lot more roots grounding them to the psychology of why you’re making decisions and how those conversations can then affect my technical approach to my lighting, to my camera choice, to my crew that I hire. It’s a lot different. The length at which you’re creating has to be able to sustain consistency over a much longer period of time, so you can’t pull all your tricks in every scene. You have to approach film with a lot more patience.
Unlike previous Saw films, Spiral is driven by a cast led by people of color. There’s a real revolution in horror going on right now and it’s being led by Black creatives like Jordan Peele and the popularity of films and TV shows like Get Out and Lovecraft Country. What are your thoughts on people of color at last making real inroads into the genre?
I think it’s remarkable. It’s been a long time coming that Black people get to share space that has been primarily occupied by people not of color. It’s a fresh new take on a genre of film that we’ve seen in the past. It’s an interesting approach and a completely different visual experience. I think films like Get Out challenged what people considered to be a psychological thriller from a place from which evoked a concept of reality but also of a formality that hadn’t been seen before. These are stories that we need and allow us to see a fresh new perspective. In SPIRAL, we took a chance even with the soundtrack. It’s a lot more grounded in today’s culture than the previous films. I think there’s a really good synergy between the executive production and the casting. They got the right people for the job and it allowed the franchise to [be] reborn in a way.
Finally, do you have any advice for young people interested in pursuing a career in film?
Absolutely! Lose your ego, and if you don’t ask, the answer is “no.”
SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW is now available on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-Ray & Digital from Lionsgate.