How ‘Nosferatu’ and Hitchcock Inspired the Cinematography of ‘Saltburn’

Director of photography Linus Sandgren says writer/director Emerald Fennell used the word “vampire” to describe her film

Barry Keoghan in "Saltburn" (Amazon Studios)

When Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren first sat down with director Emerald Fennell to discuss the look of her latest film, “Saltburn,” a lot of things immediately came to mind, primarily Gothic literature and silent film.

“Saltburn,” the follow-up to Fennell’s 202 debut feature “Promising Young Woman,” follows a young man (played by Barry Keoghan) who spends a holiday with a wealthy friend from school. His desperate obsession to fit in with the family leads him down dangerous and, ultimately, deadly roads.

“I asked Emerald for words to describe the film and she said ‘vampire,’” Sandgren told TheWrap. “She [also] said, ‘hair,’ ‘sweat,’ details like that. There were all kinds of words that got us into quickly thinking it’ll be interesting if we thought of it like a vampire movie, even though it’s not real vampires, but it’s in a similar vein.”

Sandgren is no stranger to movies that are dirty and emphasize the base nature of humanity. He captured the hedonistic grotesquerie of early Hollywood for Damien Chazelle in last year’s “Babylon,” greedy conmen in David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” and America’s desire to welcome their own annihilation in “Don’t Look Up.”

Interestingly, Sandgren went back to that sense of Hollywood in its infancy for “Saltburn.”

“We thought of German Expressionism, or the ‘Nosferatu’ kind of vampire movies,” said Sandgren. “The other was the voyeuristic part of it, which felt more in the vein of Hitchcock suspense, where you would just see a close-up of an eye or you you have the POVs through doorways and then the sunny, romantic days. [Those] sort of sexual tones throughout had its own vibe that intervened with all of this.”

Sandgren said these early talks with Fennell were imperative to crafting a visual language for the film, one also heavily inspired by the works of Caravaggio and other painters. “Baroque art is oftentimes depicting nasty things with beautiful light. So that felt like the soul of our film,” he said.

The cinematographer went on to discuss working within the actual house they filmed “Saltburn” in, as well as capturing Barry Keoghan’s nude dance scene on-film.

TheWrap: Why film this in 4:3 aspect ratio and what was the challenge in that?

Linus Sandgren: When we think cinema and you think grandiose, you think widescreen to see more. You see more people, you see anything that’s on the ground. That’s cinematic thinking. But the house itself had these very square rooms. So shooting [widescreen] there would have been cropping [of] a lot of the environment. You would have seen more people, but you would have seen less environment, and we wanted to do the opposite. We wanted to see more house, and the ceilings are beautiful. So why not see more squares? You see more house and fewer people.

It’s very much about Oliver, and about Oliver and one other [person] that he singles out, like Felix, so what’s kind of beautiful, especially for close-ups, is a square format that doesn’t show more than one person, even in the wide[shots]. You see five people sitting on the sofas, but then you see a lot of headroom and a lot of house around them. It’s almost like the house is more important than the people. That’s gonna live forever, they’re not gonna live forever.

It works both ways, you can definitely show scope by showing more vertical image instead of wide. It’s just the traditional thinking of cinema is that it’s more grand to see wide. But that’s also a little bit funny because, in this type of movie, if you think of it as a costume drama in that type of environment, almost everything we see in that environment is usually widescreen because you want to see a lot. So this is a little bit punk to to go and crop it.

We definitely wanted to see a lot of house. Even there by the pond, like that shot that was the first that came out in the press release, they’re sitting by the pond and you see the pond in the foreground and you see the house in the background. You see a lot even though the image is very square. If we would have been wider you would have seen trees and you would have seen another house and landscape.

Barry said that dance scene in the finale took 11 takes. What was that day like for you to film?

That was basically an inverse of the opening when he’s being taken around the house. He’s the king of the castle and it’s a liberating situation. You want to just feel him own it. It’s all in Barry’s performance and what we thought of for the camera was we want to see him in his castle. We didn’t need to be close to him, not too flashy camera moves, just see him on his best day. We wanted it to be as naturally wonderful and then follow him. I think [filming] from the front would have felt less respectful to the character.

Then it was just about trying to make it smooth and not stopping or starting the camera, even though he stops and starts. It was a lot about the timing with the choreography, and the timing of the camera, and the size of the lens that had to be determined by lots of rehearsals. We tried different sizes lenses and different tempo to accommodate for not changing the speed of the camera at the same time so the the dance could fit within.

“Saltburn” (CREDIT: Courtesy of Amazon)

As soon as we started rolling we did the same thing. It could be a hiccup on-camera, it could be a hiccup on a move or it could be the feeling of things, but it was pretty much similar takes. I think it may not have been the 11th take [that was used]. I have a feeling that maybe the seventh take was the actual take [Fennell] used. She kept going to try different things and that’s pretty normal, but it was obviously vulnerable for him to be naked.

It is one shot, it’s one take and it’s a Steadicam move. And we lit it with many lights and [at] the very end when you come to the big hall it’s almost like he comes out on-stage. So we have these lights coming in through the windows that backlight him, almost like spotlights on a stage. So there were some heightened lighting. Even though it’s naturalistic it’s still slightly over the top in terms of atmosphere and contrast

It’s a combination, especially in this film, where the intimacy between the characters and how intimate we were with the camera to the characters is what’s important. Sometimes we wanted to step back and do more of a composed shot and then the actors had to act within the frame. In other films it could be nice for the actors to have the freedom to do whatever and move around, but in this everyone was on the same page to accommodate the composition over what felt perhaps more natural for an actor. Like when Oliver jumps up on Farleigh in silhouette, the distance between their noses were more important. It was too close for being normal, but it looked great in the image.

Speaking of compositions, the use of mirrors in this movie leads to so many lovely images. Can you talk about finding those?

We felt like we wanted to work with mirrors for the duality of things. It was a theme throughout with the art department to add a lot of mirrors; we could see his double nature. There was other themes. For example, just as a sidebar, he should feel like a loner and isolated from the group, not being part of the cool people, so when we came to Oxford and found that college that we shot in that had all these bars and mullions in the windows, it was also an old school and Gothic. It had that prison-like feel to it. We could shoot him through bars as if he was in prison.

When we were in that particular dorm, Oliver’s dorm, it has these mirrors on the side of the window and when we were scouting, I’m like “look at the mirror” and someone stepped into the frame. It was like, four people in the shot. You may not have considered it unless you had the language established that we want to work with mirrors for metaphors so you look for them.

Sometimes it’s accidental, you find things on location; sometimes it’s last minute and sometimes we planned it, like the the mirror on the table at the dinner was important to see more of everything that was on the table. That shot is actually upside down just like the shot of him by the pond. It’s also upside down. That was dressed by the set decorators to be a mirror. And when he’s in front of his own mirrors when he’s in a bathroom, you see his back.

In one mirror, you see him and then there’s the other, we wanted that. But what happened, accidentally, while I was lighting it was that I could see that in one image he got darker in his face. In one mirror he looked darker in his face and in the other mirror he looked brighter in the face. That became a shot that we wanted from the back because we saw how it was lit.

“Saltburn” is in theaters now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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