Cinematographer Linus Sandgren says he and director Emerald Fennell relied on their emotions and instincts to conjure the “gothic” look of “Saltburn,” the hybrid psychological horror and dark comedy just screened at the Camerimage cinematography festival in Torun, Poland.
The film’s tight Academy aspect ratio, for one thing, was an idea that arose only after meeting with Fennell, who wrote the over-the-top story of a strange, middle-class Oxford student, Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), infiltrating the world of the filthy rich one sunny summer.
Meanwhile, the shooting location, a properly gloomy and stodgy estate, seemed to call out for the boxy cinematic frame they chose, says Sandgren, who spoke at Camerimage’s main screening hall. The mansion’s beveled ceilings, arches, ancient walls and blood-red floors indeed seem to close in on all sides as the family of Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) reluctantly admits the novel interloper into their midst.
Fennell’s sophomore feature after 2020’s “Promising Young Woman,” also stars Carey Mulligan, this time as an eccentric house guest the family has become bored with, building on strong performances by Rosamund Pike and Richard Grant as Catton’s parents, who seem equally charmed and uneasy about their son’s new best friend, Quick.
“Saltburn” has been building buzz since its premiere this year at Telluride, where Fennell’s reputation for over-the-top storytelling was advanced. “Saltburn” producer Margot Robbie, who knew Sandgren for his camerawork on 2022’s “Babylon,” urged him to meet with Fennell, the cinematographer recalls.
The meeting was fortuitous. “Emerald is such a funny, witty, special person,” Sandgren says, “and she has a very dark sense of humor.”
Thus, despite the exploration of gritty, consuming obsessions in “Saltburn,” the weeks spent filming on location at the properly old-school British Drayton House, Northamptonshire, had their light moments.
“We were laughing every day, for sure,” Sandgren says. “The whole crew. We had so much fun.”
The small crew working closely and with an indie budget, created a film with a look and feel wholly apart from Sandgren’s past work on box office hits such as “La La Land,” which won him an Oscar, Bond film “No Time to Die” and space race story “First Man.”
But the visuals of “Saltburn” were not the first consideration, he says, when sitting down with Fennell to conceive the film. Rather, he says, it always depends on the impact felt when reading the script and then, when meeting the director, “how it feels and if you connect.”
Being “interested and intrigued” are the essential elements for him, more so than any specific visual look – at least at the early stages. “We try to figure out what the film’s about,” Sandren says, adding that he often will eschew any visual references until the director can sum up for him their idea in one sentence.
“It’s about how to convey an emotional story. If you start with that, the look will come.”
In this case, Fennell’s ideas ranged from baroque paintings, to vampire themes and the odd Hitchcock motif – all of which led them to create a film that feels both lush and chilling, at first on the Oxford campus where Quick is desperate to fit in, then at the Catton estate, where he’s hopelessly out of sorts – and yet cunningly forming schemes.
Another theme that was down to Fennell’s vision was the voyeuristic sense that lets the audience “look into this old house,” Sandgren says. And, despite the sense of being enclosed, the filmmakers also embraced wide-angle filming to capture the grandeur and opulence of their subject. “We went back and forth,” he recalls.
Working on Kodak film was another point the two agreed on, Sandgren says, adding that the medium’s reaction to red light in some key scenes inside the family home was particularly well-suited to the growing sense of horror of “Saltburn.” So were close-ups of characters feeling extremes of emotions, with sweat, hair and bodily detail helping to build on the descent into obsession.
It all worked out well to propel the journey into darkness, Sandgren says, growing into other scenes of seduction that push boundaries. All of which just enriches the bloody cocktail of “Saltburn,” he says, noting, after all, “Vampires are sexual beings.”
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