Interview: ‘Don’t Look Away’ Director of Photography Athan Merrick

Don't Look Away - Courtesy Projection PR
Don't Look Away - Courtesy Projection PR /

Directed by Micheal Bafaro and written by Bafaro and Michael Mitton, Don’t Look Away is a film about a creepy mannequin that stalks people, and particularly a young woman named Frankie (Kelly Bastard).

Now in theaters, Don’t Look Away pays plenty of homages to previous horror flicks (especially It Follows and The Shining). Nevertheless, the movie is different enough, and that’s owed partly to Director of Photography Athan Merrick. Here is our interview with him regarding his experience with this film.

Interview: Athan Merrick, Director of Photography for ‘Don’t Look Away’

1428 ELM: In ‘Don’t Look Away,’ the storyline involves a unique blend of supernatural elements and psychological horror. How did you approach creating the visual atmosphere that captures both aspects effectively?

ATHAN MERRICK: Early in pre-production, The Michaels, Director Micheal Bafaro and Producer Michael Mitton, gave some references from Giallo, Italian thriller psychological horror films from the ’60s and ’70s. A big part of those films are vivid colors, bordering on campish. We decided early on that the color grade was going to be pretty saturated overall compared to what may be in style currently. That saturation lends an overall supernatural feel to the supernatural events.

The psychological element was established in pre-production as well through references and the “rules” we established and kept coming back to during production were isolation and depth of both the Mannequin and the characters themselves, silhouette, and distortion, basically anything that makes the viewer strain through the obscurity to see what is happening. Make their mind work for it.

1428 ELM: The concept of a ‘killer mannequin’ is intriguing and potentially visually distinct. Could you share some insights into how you collaborated with the director and production team to bring this eerie antagonist to life on screen?

ATHAN MERRICK: It was actually a pretty intense debate among the production team about the Mannequin’s appearance. How much to show vs. how much to leave to the audience’s imagination. The director Micheal Bafaro wanted a straight-up, blank-faced department store Mannequin and constantly leaving it in darkness with the lighting, pure psychological horror. The EP’s wanted the Mannequin to have a face so the audience knew who the villain was.

I can totally see both sides to the argument from a creative and a business sense. Ultimately the team decided collectively to give the character a face, but I kept Micheal’s vision of lighting the Mannequin for most of the scenes. Lots of silhouette, darkness, long-distance isolation shots so the viewer’s mind is subconsciously trying to get a better look which adds to the tension they feel.

‘Don’t Look Away’ mixes up styles

Don't Look Away
Don’t Look Away – Courtesy Projection PR /

1428 ELM: Your filmography includes a range of genres, from drama to science fiction. How did your previous experiences shape your approach to cinematography in a supernatural horror film like ‘Don’t Look Away’?

ATHAN MERRICK: I really love shooting both documentary and narrative films. People tell me I need to specialize, and I just tell them, ‘No way. I love both!’ The same goes for genres. Mixing up styles and looks from project to project is incredibly engaging as a cinematographer.

I also really view my documentary experience as super valuable on a narrative set like Don’t Look Away, because when the day’s production schedule is way behind for whatever reason, I can make things look great, very quickly with minimal setup, and that totally comes from documentary filmmaking. Vice versa as well. My lighting background from my union days early in my career working with master cinematographers really helps craft mood with lighting in both documentaries and horror films or other genres.

1428 ELM: Lighting plays a crucial role in setting the mood and building tension in horror films. Can you elaborate on your lighting choices for ‘Don’t Look Away’ and how they contributed to the overall suspense?

ATHAN MERRICK: I’m a big fan of lighting locations and not people. This allows for more freedom with the director and actors to move freely and change the blocking if they desire. So lighting Don’t Look Away starts with evaluating the location and thinking about how these frightened characters are going to move through the space. For our main house location, there was a great hallway with two separate rooms off to one side of it.

When I first saw it, I thought of the scene with Frankie (Played by Kelly Bastard) walking down the hallway. Two slits of light through the cracked doors. She can pass that light, and the viewers will just get a brief glimpse of her fear. In and out of darkness. I think that’s the name of the game with suspense.

1428 ELM: Horror films often rely on visual symbolism to convey underlying themes. Were there any specific visual motifs or symbols you incorporated into the cinematography of ‘Don’t Look Away’ to enhance its storytelling?

ATHAN MERRICK: One of the things we looked for was frames within frames, a constriction of the space for the characters. The danger is closing in, or just behind that wall, too close for comfort.

Mixing psychological and supernatural

1428 ELM: The film involves both psychological and supernatural horror. How did you balance these elements in terms of cinematography to maintain a consistent and engaging visual narrative?

ATHAN MERRICK: For the supernatural part pretty much every time the Mannequin is close by we played a lot of haze. Definitely not a natural amount. That was a conscious decision to be a bit of a visual clue that the mannequin is here and that the Mannequin is far beyond normal with its powers. Psychological horror is so, so much about timing, and the timing is manipulated in the edit, but the idea behind the edit has to be in everyone’s mind on set, which influences how you shoot and the angles you choose.

Director Micheal Bafaro did a great job of articulating to me what he envisioned the future edit for a scene would feel like timing and look-wise. That really helped me choose the right shots so I could support the cut.

1428 ELM: Creating a sense of unease and fear in the audience is essential for a horror film’s success. Can you share some techniques you used in ‘Don’t Look Away’ to elicit these emotions through the camera work?

ATHAN MERRICK: For unease, there was a scene with Steve (Played by Colm Hill) where I wanted a bit of misdirection. Is he the villain in this film? Frankie is leaving the house, and we still don’t really know what we are in for. So we put them both in focus in the same shot but Frankie is in the distance, and Steve is very, very close to the camera.

I used a pretty aggressive split diopter to achieve this. The shot feels bizarrely unnatural. What is happening in the scene is uncomfortable, so the shot should be too. My camera team of Jasper Sassaman and Michael Makaroff did a great job juggling the gear intricacies of specific shots like this.

1428 ELM: Frankie’s perspective of being stalked by a killer mannequin seems to play with perception and reality. How did you use camera angles and framing to emphasize her psychological turmoil?

ATHAN MERRICK: Barely Dutch angles and barely off-center was one thing in the framing. I.e., it looks like a perfectly centered shot, but it is purposefully just a tiny bit off-center and just a tiny bit Dutch angle, which just means the horizon isn’t level. Subtle, subconscious hints to the viewer of unease, and something feeling just a tiny bit ‘off.’

Confronting fears…visually

1428 ELM: The film’s title, ‘Don’t Look Away,’ implies a theme of confronting fears. How did you translate this theme visually, and were there any specific camera techniques you employed to enhance this message?

ATHAN MERRICK: The film’s intro scene is pretty fast-paced and concludes in a final death. Frankie is obviously freaked out. My key grip, Oliver Wynden, set up a fantastic dolly/jib arm shot where we start in close on the dead body and slowly travel over the death and up to the blood-splattered windshield and Frankie behind the wheel. This was partly about pacing.

A fast scene, then let’s move into a slow and deliberate dolly shot where we, along with Frankie, are contemplating the events that just unfolded. We then cut to an ECU of her eyes in the rear-view mirror, getting the first glimpse of the supernatural element, the mannequin. The contemplation of the slow shot to smack into the ECU. That’s her about to confront her fears right from the jump.

1428 ELM: With a premise like ‘Don’t Look Away,’ there’s likely room for innovative visual storytelling. Were there any particular sequences or shots in the film that posed interesting challenges or allowed you to showcase your creativity?

ATHAN MERRICK: The escape from the club massacre was a fun one. Frankie has to cover a great distance in a dimly lit, strobing hallway right into one of the biggest blood hits of the film!”

Next. Five awesome new school scream queens (and five old school). dark