Directed by Benjamin Louis and starring Tony Todd, Steffani Brass, and David Gridley, the horror film Stoker Hills features college students getting in over their heads while directing a horror movie for film school. Part found-footage slasher flick and part murder mystery, it’s a movie that might keep viewers guessing. We interviewed cinematographer John Orphan about his role in the film. You can read the 1428 Elm review here.
Interview with Stoker Hills cinematographer John Orphan
1428 ELM: How big is the difference between seeing actors through the camera and seeing their performance in the finished film (and/or on the big screen)?
JOHN ORPHAN: There’s a huge difference. The pacing of the editing can really change the way a scene lands. Things are always intense on set as you’re right in the middle of the action. I was pleasantly surprised how well the performances maintained their intensity all the way to the screen.
1428 ELM: In terms of unpredictability, Stoker Hills kind of reminds me of a film like Halloween III: Season of the Witch. When familiarizing yourself with the script, did you predict where the story would end up?
JOHN ORPHAN: I think that Jonah did a great job of maintaining suspense all the way to the end of the script. I remember being surprised by the ending after the first read-through. Just didn’t see it coming full circle like that.
Aiding and abetting Stoker Hills’ slasher villain?
1428 ELM: The standard slasher villain is a hardcore criminal who aims to avoid incarceration for their crimes. To what degree does a cinematographer make their success seem plausible?
JOHN ORPHAN: My job is to augment the director’s vision as much as possible and I think Ben and I decided to try to always shoot our villain from lower angles as much as possible. To always try to put him in [a] power position, compositionally, so it feels like he’s always in control of the scenes he is in.
1428 ELM: In terms of lighting, Stoker Hills demonstrates a good balance between dark and not too dark. Why do some films fail in that regard — either being too dark or too brightly light?
JOHN ORPHAN: The original plan when we started shooting Stoker Hills was to make sure that the found footage and the non-found footage portions of the film looked as different as possible, so the audience was never confused as to who’s POV they were experiencing. We had originally planned on going way darker in pre-production. I think they (producers) dialed it back a bit just before release. Maybe it was too scary?? Not sure 🙂
1428 ELM: The characters are facing kidnapping and subsequent murder, but there’s no pretense that the students or police are John McClane-types. Was it important to avoid action film or horror clichés in this story (it is a lowkey action film, in some respects)?
JOHN ORPHAN: Well, I think Ben definitely wanted the students to feel like fish out of water. Regular people are not prepared for a night of fighting for their lives. I think we also wanted the detectives to feel a little out of their depth as well. I think it is un-nerving for an audience when the villain seems to always be one or two steps ahead.
1428 ELM: What are some of your favorite horror films and TV shows?
JOHN ORPHAN: I really like films that make me uncomfortable – The Shining, The Thing, It Follows, The Witch, Midsommer all kind of do that for me. On TV I really liked Dark, The Killing, and Channel Zero was pretty creepy.
1428 ELM: What are some misconceptions about filmmaking?
JOHN ORPHAN: Haha…Hmmm. That it’s easy and comfortable. Stoker Hills in particular was physically demanding for everyone involved. It was cold, wet, and dirty every day and I think 75% of the movie was made in overnights, meaning we started our days at 5 pm and worked all night. Not comfortable or easy but rewarding for sure.
1428 ELM: In your opinion, what would it take to survive a wild scenario like the one in Stoker Hills?
JOHN ORPHAN: I think that working cell phones and a shotgun or two would have evened the playing field for the protagonists in Stoker Hills, but most likely it would not be as fun to watch.
1428 ELM: What sort of projects do you have in the works?
JOHN ORPHAN: I just finished another horror film that was shot mostly in Montana, which I think is going to be very frightening. It was scary to shoot – and a documentary about an active serial killer (that’s all I can mention about that right now) That project is equally creepy. So, I’m sticking to shooting material that keeps me up at night.
We would like to thank John Orphan for taking the time to answer our questions!
Learn more about John here.