Directed by Joe Begos and starring Riley Dandy, Sam Delich, Jonah Ray, and Abraham Benrubi as the killer Robo-Santa, Christmas Bloody Christmas is now available on Shudder. This action horror flick is the “Santa-meets-Terminator” story you didn’t know to ask for in your Christmas stocking. We interviewed its cinematographer, Brian Sowell, about the crazy neon-drenched nightmare. Sowell has also worked on projects like Moonbase 8, The Inhabitant, and The Disaster Artist.
Interview: Shudder’s ‘Christmas Bloody Christmas’ cinematographer Brian Sowell
1428 ELM: Some people out there say, “I don’t make resolutions or even ‘to-do’ lists.” How would you convince them to add Christmas Bloody Christmas to their list of movies to see this holiday season?
BRIAN SOWELL: Well I’d start by telling them that it’s a neon-soaked, hard as hell, robot Santa killing machine Christmas nightmare and if that doesn’t hook them I’m not sure what would.
1428 ELM: How would you make the distinction between this “Santa gone rogue” and others we have seen before?
BRIAN SOWELL: One of the first major differences is that it’s a rogue robotic Santa that just destroys everything in its path. I can’t think of any other films with that specific combination. It also seems like most Christmas horror or crazy Santa movies are based on childhood trauma where our Santa only wants to inflict trauma.
Filming the chaos in Christmas Bloody Christmas
1428 ELM: This Santa does not seem to have made a list, and it seems like everyone’s on the naughty list. What was it like filming the ensuing chaos?
BRIAN SOWELL: The chaos was very exhilarating to shoot. Being strapped down to the top of a truck chasing an ambulance with our killer Santa hanging off the back was honestly a Christmas miracle come early for me. I love the genre and the cast and crew were amazing to work with. We got to do so much cool stuff on what in film terms isn’t that much money. We had amazing sets, I was obsessed with the record store.
I was sad to leave that one because I knew it was just going to get painted over and turned back into some sort of lame tourist shop or something. We got to do so many cool kills as well, Santa had a real knack for splitting people in half with that axe. And then there were all the car stunts and explosions.
It was just a really fun shoot to be on with every day bringing some new adventure. We had days that were harder than others and shooting overnights every night for weeks can be daunting but, in the end, it really felt like all the hard work we put in was worth it and that we had made something special.
1428 ELM: When it comes to story elements, some are more easily achievable than others. What were the most difficult things to bring to the screen in Christmas Bloody Christmas? Conversely, was there any moment where you went, “Huh. That was way easier than I thought.”
BRIAN SOWELL: We had several effects that just did not want to work or were inconsistent at best. Robbie’s ( Delich) Jeep was one of our first issues. We had two Jeeps, one for driving and one for smashing. The smashing Jeep still had to run and have breaks, but neither really wanted to work. After several false starts and a runaway Jeep, the effects guys were able to get it to where it needed to be and all rigged up and the resulting collision was perfect!
Another element that ended up being a bigger issue than expected was the sprinkler system in the record store. The first issue was getting it to work, the second was making sure it wasn’t freezing cold. The effects guys were having quite a time with it, but eventually, they prevailed and were ready to shoot.
Because of the massive temperature changes in the space from heaters, water temperatures and the temperatures from outside coming in we were constantly battling fog on the lenses and in the eyepieces, on top of also having to have them all wrapped up so they weren’t getting wet. We would wrap up the cameras, turn on the overhead sprinklers, roll the cameras and do the scene.
Right as we would cut all of the PAs and the art department would run in to vacuum up water, squeegee the floors and reset all the shelves and then we would go again. It’s a great scene, but it took a lot of work and a lot of resets to get it in the can.
As for things that were easier than expected…. Maybe the ambulance scene where Tori (Dandy) is driving down the main street with Santa hanging on to the back. Once we got the vehicles into position and either Abe or our stunt Santa rigged onto the back, it went very smoothly and was also a lot of fun to shoot.
1428 ELM: Going back to resolutions, this is the perfect time of year for doing things you should do anyway, right? So, what are some more things you think filmmakers should do more often?
BRIAN SOWELL: Take chances, experiment, don’t do it as they did it last time. Filmmaking is hard work and can be expensive, so a lot of times people play it really safe. Maybe the scene works in silhouette, maybe you don’t need all that coverage… Let the scene dictate what it needs and feel confident you got it. Also, shoot more film.
Digital cameras are great, the new Alexa 35 is a beautiful camera, but it’s nice to see filmmakers opting to shoot on film again. There are so many tools available for film cameras today. A lot of them have HD taps on them so it’s easier than ever to work with them and the explosion in lens technology and rehousing of vintage lenses means that there are even more options to find the right tone and texture to tell your story. Despite what format you shoot on try new things.
1428 ELM: They say that, if you want to be a writer, it’s a good idea to write (at least) a little bit every day. Can a cinematographer get out of practice or need to warm up, as is so often the case in other professions?
BRIAN SOWELL: Definitely, it’s like everything else. You have to be constantly practicing your craft or it will suffer. Staying on top of the technology and having methods for working with the tools of the trade is a job within itself, but it’s also important to be on set. You have to learn how to talk to directors and the other department heads on set.
Expressing your ideas and plans so people know what’s going on and where to put their energy. This comes more naturally to some, more so than others, but learning to communicate clearly and understanding the flow of a set is something you have to do regularly to be good at.
1428 ELM: Sticking with the writing comparison, a writer might say “I have to figure out what to write about first,” or maybe they will throw caution to the wind and just go for it. In cinematography, to what extent are things plotted out in advance, and how much room is there for improv (in your experience)?
BRIAN SOWELL: I prefer to have as much planned out in advance as I can. When I have a firm grasp on what we are trying to accomplish and I have a method to execute that plan, I’m much more confident to throw that plan away and just roll with whatever happens. If we decide we want to try something different last minute, I know that the prep work that was already put in will make the unknown exciting and not a headache.
Christmas Bloody Christmas is better than reality TV!
1428 ELM: Christmas Bloody Christmas has plenty of pop culture dialogue happening. It reminds me there’s a clichéd, generalized perception that music, horror movies, and bad reality shows are like junk food and will rot people’s brains. Is that true, or just more talk, similar to hearing about razor blades and fentanyl being in Halloween candy?
BRIAN SOWELL: I absolutely hate 99% of reality tv shows, so yes that sh*t will rot your brain, don’t watch it. Music and horror movies on the other hand are two of my absolute favorite things to consume. The music that Tori and Robbie talk about in the movie isn’t necessarily in my personal collection, but I’d always defend a person’s right to like what they like.
Musical genres are also similar to horror films in that they all typically have very tight groups of supporters. These scenes are important in that they foster friendships and community and neither of those things seems like brain rot to me. Reality TV though… just skip it and go watch a movie.
1428 ELM: You shot Christmas Bloody Christmas with special lenses. Can you talk about this?
BRIAN SOWELL: I’d love to and I thought you’d never ask. We really wanted to shoot anamorphic to get the 2.39:1 aspect ratio while also using as much of the negative as we could, and we were also looking for the lens flares that are synonymous with anamorphic lenses.
After a lot of research on anamorphic options for Super 16, it was clear that there really weren’t that many. Panavision has two (not sets, two actual lenses) but that wasn’t an option for us, so we looked at spherical lenses with adaptors which have been popular lately, but that just seemed too cumbersome with the way we would be shooting.
In the end, we decided to use the Vantage Hawk Anamorphic V Lite 16 lenses, which are beautiful lenses. They come in a set of 5 lenses starting at 14mm (which is very wide for an anamorphic lens) and go to 35mm. All the lenses are T1.5, which is very fast for an anamorphic lens and was one of the aspects of these lenses that let us shoot the way we did. We were using a lot of practicals and built-in lighting, so having lenses that are this fast was paramount. They were also super sharp at every stop on the lens and had the distinctive Hawk 1.3 anamorphic look.
We wanted to see the streaks and lens flares that are the signature of an anamorphic lens and they performed beautifully without some of the typical edge distortions you might expect to see. The flares were particularly pronounced with the police and ambulance lights which there were a lot of. In addition, to the 5 V Lite 16 lenses, we also had a 65mm from the standard V Lite series and a few spherical lenses for specific shots.
1428 ELM: What are some of your favorite horror movies, including any other holiday horror?
BRIAN SOWELL: One of the first horror films that I can remember and possibly my favorite and most seen would be The Shining. But there are sooooo many, I also love Exorcist III, Near Dark, Hellraiser, Nightbreed, Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Christine, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Thing, American Werewolf in London… so many more. I think the Tales from the Crypt episode “And All Through the House” is my favorite Christmas Horror.
1428 ELM: What other projects do you have in the works?
BRIAN SOWELL: I have a few things in the works for next year but it’s still too early to know if they will actually come into being. Until then, I’m just finishing up some music videos and working on some personal projects at home.
We’d like to thank Brian Sowell for answering these questions and, if you want to see a Robo-Santa run amok and hear a whole bunch of swear words, you can check out Shudder’s Christmas Bloody Christmas today!
WARNING: This trailer for Christmas Bloody Christmas contains a few swears here and there:
Tell us what you thought about Christmas Bloody Christmas in the comments section.