Interview with Unborn cinematographer Michael Street

Cinematographer Michael Street
Cinematographer Michael Street /

Directed by Steven R. Monroe and available on Tubi TV, Unborn is about a pregnant woman, Rachel (Jade Harlow), who suspects her baby may be possessed. This culminates in drama and freakish, violent occurrences while straining Rachel’s relationship with her wife, Amber (Ella Thomas). 1428 Elm interviewed Unborn’s cinematographer, Michael Street, regarding his work on the project, as well as his views on horror and sci-fi.

Interview with Unborn cinematographer Michael Street

1428 ELM: Unborn has some pretty captivating scenic shots. Though the moments can be brief, are those some of your favorite things to film, and to see depicted on screen?

MICHAEL STREET: Yes, it’s what you look for as a cinematographer. Captivating shots and moments in the script, the story, or the character’s journey when you as a Cinematographer can tell a story, provoke emotion in a single frame or in a few shots. When the main characters are on their way to the ranch, the movie opens up, their journey becomes bigger. So I worked with our Drone Operator, Orin Mazzoni, and the 2nd Unit Team to capture the story with the aerial shots. We were on the ranch shooting with the first unit and at lunch, we reviewed the footage for the 2nd Unit.

Orin was spot on with what the director & I wanted as far as the aerials. We were very pleased with the car driving through the winding foothills and the landscape shots. Once we arrived at the ranch we wanted to find moments at sunset, or during the magic hour to capture the stillness of the ranch. The location provides for a lot of beautiful sunsets so we found compositions using leading lines with the stables, fences, or the house to help set a visual tone. Both Steven and I wanted a compelling and dark movie, but also a beautiful film.

1428 ELM: There are many shots involving the pregnant heroine’s belly, and the story deals a lot with her discomfort. How easy or difficult were these moments to film?

MICHAEL STREET: Jade Harlow was a true professional to work with. The costume designer, Tia Lui, did a great job of applying the prosthetic belly, and the makeup team blended the prosthetic seamlessly. Jade was very comfortable with our camera team, and she made shooting the intimate scenes very easy. I have a lot of experience shooting intimate scenes and what I find is when you make the actors feel comfortable and safe, they have the personal freedom to be vulnerable in front of the camera. Jade thanked me after the shoot.

She said this was the most comfortable and protected she has ever felt on a set. I made a conscious effort as a department head to work with the actors, the wardrobe, and the makeup teams so the actors felt safe to do their jobs. I wanted them to know they will look good on screen and will come across as a real couple. The belly looked so amazing! I know it’s a heavy prosthetic and Jade wore it for hours.

Nearly all day sometimes and she never complained. She become used to the prosthetic and we made sure to portray the character in a very real way. It is amazing when all the departments come together with the actors to create amazing characters that the audience can connect with and go on their journey. This is the best part of the collaboration process

Unborn – Courtesy of Tubi /

What sets Unborn apart from other horror movies?

1428 ELM: Horror movies can seem like they’re a dime a dozen. What are some ways a cinematographer can go the extra mile to set a film apart?

MICHAEL STREET: For Unborn, the director and I wanted to approach the movie from a psychological point of view. A lot of what is happening to the main character is in her mind. She feels she is going crazy and the rest of the world can not see what is happening around her. So a lot of the horror is very subtle. The horror is very subdued until her exam with the doctor when they listen to the heartbeat.

For a lot of the scenes, we focused on composition and silhouettes until the deaths begin to pile up.  So many scenes play in beautifully composed 2-shots with our characters in silhouette. This causes uneasiness and pulls the audience in. When the doctor hears the heartbeat for the first time this is the first true moment of the horror. We wanted to give this scene a feeling of unease, and then when the suicide happens it’s in your face.

You will see at this moment the lens flares and lens fogging becomes part of the visual language. As the character’s journey continues down this dark path the lens flares, the light leaks, and fogging becomes more apparent and part of the visual language.

1428 ELM: Would it be fair to say that Unborn has mysterious elements, but it doesn’t exactly require the watcher to look for clues?

MICHAEL STREET: Yes I would say Unborn is definitely a psychological horror film. As a story, it is pretty straightforward as we go along this journey with Rachel. She sees the world differently than everyone else. Even her wife thinks she is crazy. So as a story it is depicted as real as can be.

Once they arrive at the ranch, mid-way through the movie, the story twists into something the audience was not expecting. But watching Unborn for the first time this twist comes very unexpectedly. And the end of the movie itself is not what you think it will be. So the movie is very subtle at first, then ramps up the stakes midway through the film, and then at the end, you are saying ‘wow I never seen that coming. I think our director, Steven Monroe, did a great job at having the film be very subtle and then with the arrival to the ranch, the film turns into a horrific ride we as an audience member were not expecting.

1428 ELM: You’ve worked on a fair amount of horror projects. What are some of your favorite disturbing moments that you can’t un-see, or that could disturb one’s sleep?

MICHAEL STREET: I would have to say on Unborn there are 2 moments that were a lot of fun to shoot, as well as create, but still very disturbing images. The first is when the doctor stabs himself in the neck. The haunting emptiness in his eyes and the blood effect worked so well. I can still see the blood spilling from his mouth. It’s such a strong image and very iconic for the movie.

The other moment that is disturbing but fun to shoot was during the climax when the survivor cuts his throat. It looked so good! And the amount of blood poured on Jade was amazing! She was covered in it and I think it really added an emphasis to the climax. The climax for Unborn was probably my favorite scene to shoot.

Cinematographer Michael Street for Unborn /

Supernatural horror with a sci-fi feel

1428 ELM: Unborn obviously isn’t a wild sci-fi adventure like The 5th Element, but I often compare and contrast supernatural themes with sci-fi. Do you think they can be synonymous? For example, I think A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors qualifies as a supernatural horror that somehow “feels” like sci-fi.

MICHAEL STREET: I do feel there can be a correlation between science fiction and horror. I recently shot a science fiction horror short titled The Gift that will be in festivals this year. I definitely see how with both the science fiction and the horror genre, as a filmmaker you are creating a world you want the audience to believe in. You want the audience to invest their time and go on a ride with the characters.

There are so many good science fiction horror films, the two genres do go hand in hand with each other. Sunshine by Danny Boyle and 2001: A Space Odyssey definitely have horror and science fiction elements. Horror and Science fiction are my favorite genres so anytime I can connect them in a story, I will.

1428 ELM: Unborn has some moments where characters go from normal to “psycho” mode. What are some of the best ways of capturing these quirky transformations?

MICHAEL STREET: Each character, who goes into ‘psycho mode’, was approached differently by each actor. And the director Steven Monroe worked with the actors to make each ‘psycho mode’ their own. These moments of ‘psycho mode’ become more and more intense the further Rachel (Jade Harlow) goes through this dark journey. The first ‘psycho mode’ is very subtle. The stranger seems very creepy and ‘off’.

He appears to just randomly lose his cool. With the psychiatrist, we as an audience do not know if the psychiatrist went into ‘psycho mode’ or if Rachel imagined the entire thing. With the doctor he goes full-tilt into ‘psycho mode’, and it is definitely one of the best scenes in the movie! We had so much fun and creativity when we shoot that scene. I think it really shows in the final movie.

1428 ELM: It seems TubiTV has a growing fanbase among the horror community, as it features many old and rare horror films you simply can’t find on Prime, Netflix, or Hulu. Plus, of course, it’s free. Why do you think more streaming services aren’t headed in that direction?

MICHAEL STREET: I think Tubi is approaching streaming differently. Tubi seems to aim at specific audiences who like good content like horror, and they are doing things differently the Netflix or Prime when it comes to horror. Unborn is part of Tubi’s original content, and they were great to work with. Once I was signed off by Tubi, Steven and I had complete creative freedom. It was very nice knowing the movie you were intending to make was the movie being put on the screen.

Basically what we are seeing from Unborn is the director’s cut. I was not able to make the color sessions because I was away on another movie. But Roundabout Post was great to work with. The communication was solid and they were fast. I basically took some important scenes and did a color grade in Davinci Resolve.

I sent the video to the colorist along with my notes. He sent me his first pass, we discussed the color grade on the phone, had a remote color session and the rest is history. I am also a strong believer in creating the look in the camera, so the lighting, the color palette, the in-camera effects were all created on set.

1428 ELM: What are some of your favorite horror films and TV shows?

MICHAEL STREET: I really love Rosemary’s Baby. It was one of the first horror movies I connected with. I am also a little biased because I won the William A. Fraker, ASC Technicolor award while at the Academy of Art so I have had many conversations about Rosemary’s Baby and have seen the movie a couple of times. But seriously a lot of people have mentioned Rosemary’s Baby when they talk about Unborn, and the director and I did discuss Rosemary’s Baby during pre-production. For Steven and I, Rosemary’s Baby is sacred, so we really wanted to make Unborn our own thing. I feel Unborn does stand on its own.

The Amityville Horror is another movie that really scared me when I was younger. The overwhelming anxiety I had when I watched it was like no other. I am definitely a fan of The Amityville Horror movies. The next project I am working on has similar elements from The Amityville Horror. I am excited about this project and creating horror. Our house location is amazing! I am looking forward to shooting that soon. I am also a big fan of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre universe and movies.

1428 ELM: What future projects can we expect from you?

I am currently in pre-production on a film-noir-influenced horror film. It’s a great script and we are going to create a very cinematic horror movie. We go into production on The Montgomery Murders this spring. The Montgomery Murders is a limited anthology series created by Jordan Ray Allen and Monolith Films. The story is about John Montgomery, a 1940’s horror radio performer who mentally unravels while battling censorship of his gruesome tales.

People are going to love watching this! We definitely took inspiration from movies like The Shining, Citizen Kane, the work of David Fincher, and other horrors, as well as film noir movies. Jordan and I love horror, film noir, science fiction, and cinematic storytelling in general, so The Montgomery Murders is perfect for us!

We’d like to thank Michael Street for doing this interview and, of course, feel free to check out Unborn on Tubi!

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