Superhost debuted on Shudder last week, and judging by the many positive posts on social media; it isn’t too early to call it a hit. Cinematographer Clayton Moore (It Stains the Sands Red) dished on the challenges of shooting horror in sunlight.
1428 Elm: Clayton, thanks so much for taking some time to talk to me today about Superhost. I really appreciate it. I write for a horror site, so naturally, I am a total horror geek. I haven’t seen it yet, but I know many people have said good things about another film you worked on with the Vicious Brothers, It Stains the Sands Red.
Clayton: Thank you for talking with me. I appreciate the opportunity. You should see It Stains the Sands Red! It is not your typical zombie movie at all and a really unique film. And next time you have a few hours, there are a TON of stories on making that one.
1428 Elm: Do you have other horror on your resume? Is there another subgenre of horror you would like to work in?
Clayton: Yeah, the majority of my IMDB credits are horror, all the way back to my very first feature film Deep River: The Island, which I am still very proud of. The horror genre is a comfortable and familiar place for me, and it seems that all my opportunities that have come along have just coincidentally been horror. I’d love to branch out and do something like a western, sci-fi, or period drama. Maybe exploring one of the other genres I’d like to do but with a horror element would be a good fit for me! I’d love that.
1428 Elm: What are some horror films you admire as far as their cinematography is concerned, and why?
Clayton: It Follows [cinematographer Mike Gioulakis]. That film is just so clean-looking. Gorgeous color, skin tones, and Gioulakis really nails that dark daylight look. When the camera does move, it’s super motivated and controlled. It is disciplined filmmaking at its finest. Brandon and I watched this as part of our inspiration for Superhost.
Don’t Breathe (cinematographer Pedro Luque): This film blew me away with the night interiors of the house. It had this magical, soft subtle quality to the super-stylized lighting, with tons of mixed color sources. That, and the whole twist in that film, is just something that really comes at you out of nowhere.
Annihilation and Ex Machina (cinematographer Rob Hardy): This is some work that really inspires me. Ex Machina is just gorgeous, and it really demonstrates how a cinematographer and a production designer working hand in hand in the early stages of designing lighting built into the set can be an integral part of telling the story. Annihilation has some amazing day exterior work, and overall these two films by the same DP are just great fun to watch.
1428 Elm: Did you always know you wanted to be a cinematographer? What drew you to it?
Clayton: I grew up watching the great big practical effects-driven movies of the 80s and early 90s and fell in love with the magic and the charm of these films. I was certainly interested in using the camera to tell stories, but I was mostly focused on the visual effects aspect. When I graduated high school, I went to college to focus on visual effects work. I quickly realized sitting in a room on a computer all day wouldn’t be a good fit for me.
After graduating college, I got a job at a local television news station as a photojournalist, and that’s when I realized what I really loved doing was shooting. From there, I got on staff at a commercial production company and shortly after went out on my own as a freelance cinematographer, and haven’t looked back since.
1428 Elm: Superhost is a bit different than many horror films, which mainly take place in the dark and in the shadows. What are the challenges with setting horror scenes in the daylight and a well-lit vacation home?
Clayton: This was a concern of mine since first reading the script, and there are a few night scenes, so I did get to play in the shadows a few times, but yes, the majority of it is daylight. I feel like that is becoming somewhat of a horror subgenre lately, so it’s exciting to play in that realm.
So, the challenge I was facing was how to make this still feel dark and ominous. The answer was to shape the light and remove light when I could for dramatic effect. I also didn’t want the cinematography to be flashy in any sense, and I feel that good cinematography should really be invisible so that it doesn’t distract from the story.
This film is such a character-driven piece that I knew if I could play with light and shadow on my characters, I could still have my shadows in a sense. Some of it came down to blocking, where we would place the characters; in the natural shadows of the house or the trees in the forest.
Other times, I was able to control the contrast ratios on them, using fill or negative fill, so I was always mindful of keeping a consistent tone to the lighting. And a lot of it came down to trying to keep things feeling naturalistic and giving the actors as much freedom to do their thing to bring this script to life.
1428 elm: Was Superhost filmed mainly on a set, or was it filmed in a real home? And which is more difficult for a cinematographer? Why?
Clayton: Superhost was filmed 100% in a real location. Somehow we were blessed with the house falling into our laps, and we are so lucky that it did. I don’t think we could have designed a house with as much character as the one we ended up getting. It really was perfect for the story we were telling and the situation the characters are put into.
It’s always a little more difficult to film on location. Shooting on a stage is always ideal because you can control so much. You can take walls apart, paint things any color you like, and so on and so on. But when you shoot on location, you gain a much greater sense of realism, of course.
The location has a history. It has been there for a while, and it has more “weight” to it. You need to do more work to control and shape how the light may naturally fall on your set. You will encounter things on location that are beyond your control. You have to factor in so many other things, such as parking, places to stage your equipment, how much room you have to work with, how much power you have, and so on and so on.
So, there are benefits to each way of filming, and it really just comes down to what will work best for your movie or what your budget will allow for.
1428 Elm: Is there anything else you would like readers to know about the making of Superhost?
Clayton: We shot Superhost in October 2020, so we were right in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdowns. It made the film a lot more challenging to shoot due to increased costs and safety protocols. That being said, we had to pare down the crew to the bare minimum, and it was really an exercise in doing more with less.
Luckily, my whole crew came up with me through film school, and so, because of our time together in film school, we were really good at doing exactly that! I think shooting the film at the time we did, was such a boost for everyone’s mental health. We were all just yearning to work on sets again and put some energy into a creative outlet.
What better way than with an awesome little independent horror film? It really inspired me creatively to be working with all my friends again and to see the magic of Brandon’s script coming to life before my eyes. It was the most fun I’ve had on a set in a very long time.
Do you think daylit horror can be scary? We want to know your opinion. Leave your thoughts in the comments section.