By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Taking place in a single location over a twelve-hour period with one central actor, THE VIGIL was primed to be a challenge for any filmmaker. Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein was up to that challenge and met it head on: armed with plenty of experience, creative problem solving, and a keen eye for non-traditional camera enhancements. No novice in the horror genre, he also shot Nicolas Pesce’s achingly beautiful black and white debut, Eyes of My Mother. Kuperstein sat down to chat with us about the practical ways he solved unique on-set puzzles, his personal relationship to the film’s history, and the satisfaction he gets from hearing an audience scream.
At what point in the development of THE VIGIL did you join the production?
It was a few weeks before production. Maybe a month before is when I first heard about it and read the script, and got to meet [writer and director] Keith Thomas over the phone. We had a phone interview before Zoom interviews were a thing. It was great and we really hit is off. He was in Denver at the time, but about to come to Brooklyn for the shoot. Keith is so energetic and enthusiastic about the genre, and about Judaic mythology. His fantastic energy grabbed me right away on the phone. That sold me on the project, and I also thought the script was interesting and unusual for horror. I like horror films, but I also like films that are not strictly one genre. Seeing something that was Jewish mythology, instead of Christian or Pagan mythology was fascinating. At the time I had lived in Crown Heights for nine years, among the Hasidic Jews. It was a cool opportunity to jump into their world for a while. Instead of seeing them as just neighbors, and seeing their traditions on the street, I could see inside of their homes and the ultra-Orthodox community.
There is some tension, in a good way, in staging what is essentially a folk horror film in such an urban setting. Was this a challenge you wanted to specifically take on?
Yeah. Seeing Keith’s lookbook was really helpful. He had some interesting references that were not just movie references. He had some paintings. There was a certain distorted and supernatural quality to the images he was drawing from that inspired me. It allowed us to go more extreme with some of the distortion for the look and feel inside the house. Outside the house was a very different feel. That was something I was more familiar with, something I saw in the street every day. With those two worlds and that distinction we wanted to create as much separation as possible. We decided to use two different sets of lenses. The stuff before he gets to the house is Atlas Orion anamorphic lenses, and those were cleaner and more straightforward and lacked distortion. The bokehs are simple ovals, with nothing crazy about them. This exactly what we wanted to set the stage for normalcy. Which is a horror trope.
But when we get into the house, and for the Holocaust flashback in the beginning, the rest of the film is shot with Kowa anamorphic lenses, which are old Japanese glass. They had a really unusual distortion I hadn’t seen in other lenses, where they were pulling and squeezing the edges. With that we were able to make the space feel concave, as opposed to convex, which is the opposite of what your intuition would be. We used that to frame Dave [Davis] at the edge of the frame, and make him feel squeezed and trapped. And then when doing a pan, especially on the 40mm, create a stretching of the space from edge to edge. That wasn’t expected. As we separated the two worlds and looked at distortion as a key element to the visuals, the lenses became an easy choice. Then it became about doing everything practically and creating as much layering and distortion in the frame as possible, using glass pieces and heat waves to make it warpy.
Can you tell us a bit about the practical effects? The film is chock full of them.
There are so many effects that have a story about how they came about. A lot of it was just problem solving at the moment, and brainstorming with the crew. With the distortion effect I had a little bit of experience using Sternos under the lens. Those are those little burners used in catering. Those are great for creating a heat effect because they generate a lot of heat without a flame. If you use a lighter or a candle you will see the flame, but if you just want the heat waves you can put the Sterno right under the lens. You’ll get that warping effect. I was always looking on the street during prep, and across the street from my partner’s place I found a cabinet that had a piece of old glass in it. I was constantly on the lookout for old glass. I used that for the opening scene where we see the rabbi on the street. Looking through the glass created a little movement and a nice, warp-y effect.
When we were shooting the Holocaust flashback, we were shooting in a park in Queens and our lunch was at a church nearby. I was talking to the gaffer and the key grip [Joel Kingsbury and Paul Wallace] about the warpiness not being as extensive as we had hoped. There was a kitchen area in the church. I went in there and started looking around. They had glass pitchers and casserole dishes. I ended up stealing a glass casserole dish. It was so clear, but had this great curvature on it. We brought that to set and it was perfect. That stayed with us for the film and I still have it. That’s what you see when the body rises out of the sheets. We found a way to rig it in front of the lens and get it to move around.
The video tape stuff was a whole other thing. We found ourselves wanting to do that practically. There was some discussion of if we should green screen the TV. That would look horrible. I had a miniDV camera, which is actually my first camera from when I was a kid. We shot with that and then transferred it to VHS, which we then put on an old TV. But we needed a VCR. We were scouting one day, and I saw a VCR sitting on the road, like in the trash. I took it home, and it worked. That became the VCR and part of the workflow for the TV effect. Then there was the lightbulb explosion. That could have been a lightbulb that we turn on and off really quick, or something like that. But a light blowing out has a very different look, which is hard to emulate. To blow out a bulb you need over voltage. Two weeks before we shot I had installed in my bathroom a new lighting fixture. My roommate went to get the lightbulbs for it and he mistakenly bought low voltage bulbs by mistake, instead of low wattage bulbs. They were 12 volt bulbs that were regular size, and fit in a light socket, but they are meant to be battery powered. He accidently experienced that if you put it in, and turn the lights on, it blows out. Well, that’s convenient! So we rigged something up like that. I took a 12 volt power adapter and wired it up with a switch to switch to 120 volts. We had him go over to the light, and we were dimming it, to make it flicker. Then he flicked the switch to 120 volts and that blew out the bulb. We did that effect for real, basically.
Are you afraid of a curse because you stole a casserole dish from a church?
No [Laughs]. That casserole dish is now living a better life. It is serving a greater good.
“Being able to have that effect on somebody, plant an idea in their head, […] is very satisfying.”
I can imagine having what is essentially a single location film take place almost entirely at night creates some unique challenges. Were there any other less obvious challenges?
The “one location” thing was a huge challenge. I’ve faced that with The Eyes Of My Mother, where it all takes place in a house. It is all about trying to find fresh angles for each scene, and a reason to go to those angles. Before shooting The Eyes Of My Mother, I saw Amour, the Michael Haneke film that takes place in one apartment. What blew me away about that is there is this scene where you are seeing the apartment from an angle where it hasn’t been seen from yet. It brings new light. This apartment breathes now, or moves in a different way. It wasn’t ugly; it really had a purpose.
With Eyes and with THE VIGIL it was all about that as well. We were identifying the best ways to show that space, and then slot those into specific scenes to tell the story, and saving certain angles for later. And also saving certain lighting situations for later. I wanted to make the different spaces in the house feel very different, mostly with color. In the main room it’s practicals, which have a warm and magenta feeling. Then there is that glow from the kitchen that is drawing him a little bit. Hopefully there is this sense of curiosity. The green light there is also very sickly, and that’s where he has his vomiting experience. Then the basement is very blue and that’s motivated by the TV. It is also very hazy, and the evolution of the haze is charted very carefully so that it builds. As he becomes hazier it matches his experience. The upstairs, with Mrs. Litvak [Lynn Cohen] is all about yellow and hinting towards the frames and the candles that would become in the next scene. The Holocaust flashback in the woods was also very blue, and that was meant to mirror the TV room because that is where Mr. Litvak had done all of his research. The other flashback with his brother was neutral and cool, but dirty and grungy. It is on the street and a rough memory that he had.
I forgot what the question was [Laughs]. Oh yeah! The single location: isolating the spaces within the house was a helpful way to deal with that.
In regards to Keither’s lookbook, could you tell me what sorts of things were in it? I’m willing to be that Polanski’s Repulsion was in there.
You are the second person to ask me this, and we didn’t watch a lot of movies in prep. There are a couple of images in there from The Shining. The location playing a part, as a character and the monster, in some ways, is where that is coming from. As Dave leaves the house and is pulled back, it has him trapped in the same way the Mazzick does. But also a lot of the references are just shadows and shapes that are haunting in some way. The “shadow” is the key word there. Hiding the Mazzick in the shadows. We looked at Hereditary, which came out just around the time we were prepping. There are some really great scares in that movie. I honestly didn’t love the movie, and I don’t think Keith liked it either, but there is a good sense of tension and ominousness built into that film. The jump scares come when you don’t expect them. It’s very easy to build a jump scare. Just as you let your guard down, then it jumps. You don’t see it until your mind or eye goes to it, we embraced that a lot. The Mazzick should never really be seen directly. There is a moment when you see it as a shadow in the corner of the room. That was actually our producer, Adam [Margules]. We spent a lot of time finessing how much light to put on him, so that you can just barely make it out. And Adam did that great head tilt. That’s the jump scare, but nothing is jumping out at you. You are just questioning yourself. That was a good way the audience could relate to what Dave is experiencing.
What attracts you to horror?
I really like dark-toned films, but it is also about films that affect me. It’s not necessarily about horror itself, it’s more about something I find horrifying. The Eyes of My Mother isn’t scary, it’s horrifying. You have nightmares of her. During the Sundance Film Festival premiere I was sitting in the audience and it was my first time seeing it on a really big screen. I had my gaffer to my left and my AD to my right, and this woman who had no idea what she was in for sitting right in front of us. In the blurb for the film, Sundance pitched it as a dysfunctional family drama. Which you can kind of imagine. So a lot of people came to that screening not knowing what it was, which was fantastic. When the baby was crying, the woman in front of me could’t watch. She was so disturbed by it. She was writhing in her seat, screaming, eyes covered and everything. I was gripping the arms of my crew. We were like, “We did it!” We messed her up. We planted a thing in her head that she is going to have to live with forever, and will have nightmares because of that. There is a power to that that I really enjoy, both in making horror films and in making disturbing films, and in watching them. Antichrist is one of my favorite films. It is so disturbing, but I wouldn’t call it a horror film. It’s more of a psychological thriller, but it is affecting. I still love The Truman Show. Not a horror film, but it affected my world view. I walked away from that thinking of the world differently. Being able to have that effect on somebody, plant an idea in their head, or have a visceral reaction is very satisfying. Even if it is traumatic somehow. People go to see movies like that and get joy out of that.
What do you hope audiences take away from THE VIGIL?
It was my first time doing jump scares. When we watched it at TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival] there were some really good screams in the audience. When those jump scares happened people were freaked out. I love that, and I know that Keith was giddy. When he went on stage for the Q&A he was like a fanboy turned creator. There is something really special about that type of scream you get when somebody experiences a jump scare. In terms of the story of the film, we were really able to dive into Judaic mythology. Keith, having been to rabbinical school and being really studied in the history and stories there. That’s where the Mazzick came from. I was able to learn a lot about the culture I thought I knew something about. I would call myself “Jew-ish.” My grandparents are Holocaust survivors and my uncle is a Holocaust historian, and was a contributor to the film. He gave some consultation on the look of the flashback. It was great to involve my family history a little bit, with a deeply disturbing horror film [Laughs].
I hope that people can walk away with a sense of learning about a culture and a sense of being disturbed and having that satisfying release of getting scared.
What projects are you working on next?
To be determined. I’m looking forward to working with Keith again. He’s got a few projects that look like they will be happening.
It’s tricky. I’m trying to get away from the horror genre because I don’t want to be pigeonholed. I’ve read a lot of horror scripts and what I’m looking for is something different. I want something new that I haven’t seen in the genre, like THE VIGIL. It’s traditional horror, but fresh because of the mythology behind it. Or I’m looking for something that’s a mix of genres. I just rewatched Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, and I was blown away by the genres mixed there. It’s a sci-fi movie and then it’s a thriller, and then it’s horror. I was not expecting a monster to be in this movie. That’s incredible! If I can read a script that has a surprise like that in it, I’d be all about it.