Making his feature debut behind the camera on 1994’s black and white prison drama, Everynight… Everynight, Toby Oliver has worked in a wide variety of genres and modes over the subsequent couple of decades, having shot the likes of Looking for Alibrandi, Tom White, the teen series Lockie Leonard, Last Train to Freo, and Beneath Hill 60. But of late he’s been in demand as a cinematographer of horror, culminating in his work on the most successful and culturally resonant chiller in recent memory, Jordan Peele’s Get Out.
How did you come on board Get Out?
By the time I was asked to come and shoot Get Out for [horror production house] Blumhouse I’d shot one film for them, which was The Darkness, Greg McLean’s film, but I’d also done a few reshoots. Now, Blumhouse are like a lot of American producers – if the movie’s half-good or they reckon it’ll have any kind of success, they’ll do a reshoot. That’s almost a given. It’s a bit different in Australia, but there it’s the norm – and in fact, the studio will make sure that the reshoot can be funded within the constraints they’ve set up. By then I’d done two reshoots for Blumhouse and I’d done one or two other reshoots for other companies by the time Get Out came around. So my relationship with Blumhouse was based on a few things. They’d asked me back to do a few things after The Darkness. And that was great! I was new in town, you know? I’d only been in LA a year or so, and they were asking me back to do stuff. It’s great to get any work when you first land in a country! (laughs)
So Blumhouse put me together with Jordan – they sent me his script. That script, Get Out, had been shopped around a bit and there weren’t any takers, so Blumhouse wasn’t the first company Jordan and his producing partner had gone to, but they were the first ones to say yes – so long as he could make it as a Blumhouse movie, and those constraints are that it can’t have a budget of above five million, it has to be shot in 20-something days, and a few other constraints.
Normally they like you to shoot in Los Angeles, don’t they? But you shot on location.
We shot in Alabama. One of the things that [Blumhouse founder Jason] Blum had done in the past few years was to try and shoot in LA as much as they could, and one of the reasons for that was they could keep closer control over what’s happening, but also they could attract better crew for a low rate. Blumhouse are very well known for paying very low rates, even for those budget levels, but if they’re shooting in LA, people put their hand up because they can go home. And they don’t have to go to Atlanta for three months. All the best crew are still in LA, and if they don’t have to go anywhere they go, ‘Yeah, I’ll do a Blumhouse movie.’
So, that was part of their model, but come the time of Get Out that’s been changing a bit, because even with a low budget they still rely on tax breaks to get the movie made, and so many states in the US offer a tax break up to 30%. California has one as well but it’s harder to get, so there isn’t the incentive. That’s why we ended up in Alabamba – their deal in California didn’t work out, so they had to find somewhere else to shoot. And other Blumhouse productions are shooting elsewhere in the US and around the world. They just shot one in Melbourne called Stem, which was directed by another Australian, Leigh Whannell. I think they’re also shooting in South Africa and Malaysia – they go where they can do a deal, like everyone.
How do you find working in the Blumhouse system?
They do have a pretty strict budgetary model. That’s coming from Jason Blum, and that’s enabled him to do the deal that he has with Universal, because they know that costs are not gonna blow out, budgets are gonna be under control – the risk is fixed. I guess that’s part of the success of the model. And they often have first time, second time directors. The director of Insidious 4, Adam Robitel, just had one movie, a very small indie horror, before that [2014’s The Taking of Deborah Logan]. So opportunities are given to directors through Blumhouse that they might not get otherwise – especially if they’re interested in doing genre. I think they’re doing a great thing. The only downside is the pay rate, really!
What was you working relationship with Jordan Peele like?
It is different with every director, but Jordan was a first time director. He had very limited on set experience, certainly as a director – basically zero – but he’s a very smart guy, knew a lot about filmmaking, had done a lot of writing over the years, and obviously spent a lot of time on sets as an actor. He’s a director who knows what he wants, but didn’t quite know all the steps to go through to get it. So that, really, was my job – to step in and fill in the gaps for Jordan and help him shape it. What’s good about Jordan is that he knew the tone of the movie he wanted to make from the beginning.
And also he went into it very prepared. So he had storyboards, and we added a lot to those when I came on board. I did a shot list every day for him, so we had a really solid, planned blueprint for what we wanted to do. And that’s very important. He’s a smart guy, he wanted to be prepared, he didn’t want to go in and try to wing it. So I was fully involved in that, and that’s what the DP is there for. Some directors who are more experienced might work in a different way, where they dictate to the DP, ‘This is what we want, just like that’ and I’ll sign off on it and decide on all the rest, but with Jordan it was a much more collaborative exercise, which I really enjoyed. That’s when being a DP is the most fun – when you’re collaborating with the director and contributing to the finished thing. It’s fantastic.
Were there other films or texts that you used as visual reference points for the look of Get Out?
A little bit. Jordan had a few key touchstone references, like Rosemary’s Baby. And that’s not necessarily the look of the movie, because that movie looks like it was made in the ‘60s, but certain elements of the tone, the unease that’s created… Certain compositions of groups of people as well – I think that’s one take away from that movie. And he had some other movies which more influenced the story and the script, like The Stepford Wives, and he’s spoken a bit about those, but there wasn’t really a visual reference point where we said, ‘We want it to look like this’. It was something that grew out of discussions.
But one of the very first discussions we did have, which contributed in me getting the job, I said that I thought the movie should really be grounded in a naturalistic feel, especially at the beginning of the movie, so you didn’t feel like, up front, that this is a horror film. This is just a guy who’s going up to visit his girlfriend’s parents. We weren’t trying to flag anything visually, with spooky horror lighting or whatever, ’til later in the film. Then it starts getting really weird and we start changing lenses and having characters close and wide, but it was a slow burn with that, and a low development throughout the movie.
How did shooting on location affect your work?
Well, finding the right house is the tricky thing. We were in Alabama for budgetary reasons. We weren’t there because, creatively, it was the place to be. So really the movie is set in maybe upstate New York or someplace like that, that’s the vibe, but we found ourselves in Alabama trying to find that sort of East Coast large estate that didn’t look like it was in the South. It was actually hard to find a place that also had a suitably big interior, so location scouting was tough. We found that place, it wasn’t perfect in every way, but it’s closest to what Jordan’s vision was, so we pressed the button for that. It had all the elements for the storytelling. I may have preferred something that had a bit more character as a house – not necessarily spooky character, but just a bit more.
Then working within the house, you just make it work as a location. You can’t drill holes in the wall to put up rigs, so you have to be mindful of that. That’s pretty normal for low budget filmmaking, though. In an ideal world, if we had more money, interiors would be built on stage where you could do whatever you wanted. But sometimes having the restrictions of a smaller budget, you have to be more resourceful, and you come up with more creative ideas. In the end, it obviously wasn’t too much of a problem for the film. It turned out all right!
How closely do you work with the special effects team on a film like this?
Really it’s about making sure that when they turn up with prosthetics – does this look good? Ultimately, I’m the final stage of that process, and sometimes when you’re filming it you find yourself saying ‘I think it needs a bit more of the goo’ or ‘I think it needs a bit more blood’. And obviously, Jordan was right on top of that; he’s a big horror fan and so he was very conscious of any of that stuff looking lame. You just have to make a judgement. And sometimes I’ve done horror movies – not Get Out, but other horror movies – where the prosthetics look pretty bad, and you’ve gotta go ‘Look, I don’t think we should shoot it. Unless you’re gonna spend a whole lot on visual effects later fixing it up, this is gonna look lame-ass. Maybe we should do something else.’ And sometimes you just don’t use it.
Does working in horror afford you more creative options as a cinematographer?
Yeah, that’s absolutely true. In terms of career I’ve come to horror later on. That might be different than a lot of people, who come early on because of the low budgets, but I only started with Wolf Creek 2. That was the very first horror movie that I ever shot. But over the past few years I’ve been in America, that’s basically all I’ve done is horror. In America you’re as good as your last job so you often end up following along, doing something similar to what you did last.
But I find that it’s really an exciting genre to work in visually, because you get to play with light and dark, and especially darkness – the lack of light is a huge thing. On all the movies I’ve done it really gives you license to play with that, and sometimes the darker and more obscure you go, the scarier it is, and the more they love it. A movie like Insidious is all about darkness, so we’d be shooting into corners of rooms that are almost 100% black, tiny little slivers of light on the edge of a character so you can see them. So you’re dealing with very, very moody pieces that can be a lot of fun. It’s different from doing a regular comedy or drama or something like that – a lot of the impact of the movie is determined by the way you shoot it, by the cinematography specifically. A lot of the movie depends on it being scary or working in a particular way, so it’s a lot of fun.
Get Out is in cinemas now. Read our review here.