Interview: Filming Halloween 5′s Laundry Chute Sequence With DP Rob Draper, ACS
By Christian Sellers • March 30, 2011
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers has long since divided fans of the series, with some feeling that the movie failed to live up to the comeback of The Return of Michael Myers and others appreciating the European feel that Swiss filmmaker Dominique Othenin-Girard brought to the picture. Arguably the movie’s stand-out moment is the sequence in which the young heroine (played by eleven-year old Danielle Harris) is trapped inside a laundry chute, as Michael repeatedly stabs his knife through the side. The scene would be the result of hard work and extensive preparation between Othenin-Girard and his director of photography, Robert Draper ACS, who would later shoot the cult horror flicks Tales from the Darkside: The Movie and Dr. Giggles.
Robert Draper talks Retro Slashers through the shooting of Halloween 5‘s laundry chute sequence.
How was the scene described in the script and what were your initial thoughts on how you would approach filming?
“I should start by saying that laundry chute sequence is one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever shot in my thirty years as a cinematographer. It was a challenge, both from a physical shooting point of view, from a lighting point of view and from a conceptual point of view. I remember reading the screenplay the first time and wondering, “How the hell are we going to shoot that?” It was a great challenge and resulted in a fantastic collaborative effort between myself, Dominique and Brent Swift, the production designer.
For Dominique and I, the single most important aspect of shooting this scene was to get the audience inside that chute with Danielle. We figured if the audience could feel claustrophobic and dusty and the sense of panic then we would be 90% of the way home in achieving the intent of the scene. This of course required that we use wide lenses in close and in the chute that would not necessarily help with the claustrophobic feel… so we spent a lot of time working on how to get the audience into the chute to suffer along with Danielle.
The challenge with laundry chute was an obvious one, of course. We had an 18-inch square chute that went from the first floor into the basement of the building. Not only was it long chute with a very confined space but it was night with all the lights off in the house. So the compelling question was how do I light this and make it look believable when in reality it should be pitch black? So the twofold physical challenge was how do we actually lens the sequence and also, from the lighting viewpoint, how do I make it look believable? Of course one other factor… how do we get the camera into a laundry chute, or at least scale it to look believable? The genius behind that particular challenge was really the production designer, Brent Swift.”
How organized was Dominique Othenin-Girard as a director and did he know exactly what he wanted and how it could be achieved with regards to this scene?
“Dominique was extremely well prepped for this entire film and he knew, shot-by-shot, how this film was going to go together right from the very start. This made shooting the entire film a real pleasure because Dominique had a very clear picture of what he wanted to see up on the screen and he had a very clear idea of what lenses he would like to use for each of the scenes.
On one hand, that made shooting a pleasure on the other hand it made shooting very difficult because Dominique wanted to use a lot of wide-angle lenses, very, very low, so quite often we would have the camera positioned in the corner of a room, on the floor, on an 18mm lens, which made lighting extremely difficult. In a dark film, you don’t want light coming from the direction of the camera as it destroys all the mood. Having the camera low and wide, seeing the whole room, made it impossible to light from behind the actors; essentially I had nowhere to hide the lights, so everything had to come from either outside (through windows, other rooms, etc.) or from behind the camera in such a way as to make it appear the light was coming from behind or to the side of the actors. It became quite a challenge to get the lighting to look believable and moody and atmospheric and get the drama cross. But it was one of those challenges that constantly pushes you to be inventive.
However, having said that, the look of the film was largely determined by the use of those wide-angle lenses and it was a fantastic choice and I think it gave Halloween 5 a slightly different look to all the other Halloweens, but it was certainly a challenge for me from a lighting perspective. But yeah, answering that question, Dominique was extremely well prepped on that film he he knew exactly how he was going to tell the story from start to finish, from day one.”
What is your usual method when reading a script and bringing it out from the page and onto the screen? Do you have a specific routine on how you break down each sequence?
“To be really honest I don’t really have a routine that I go through. I read the script and generally images will start to pop into my head and, after several readings, and a lot of notes and scribbles all over the script, I start to slowly put together an overall, broad brush version of how I see the film. I’ll read the script many many times. It is important for the DP (as well as the actors and director) to have the full story completely told well before shooting. Given that no movie is shot in sequence, you need to have every scene clearly structured so when everything is assembled it makes sense from a lighting, movement and lensing perspective. I will have a lot of discussions with the director to get a clear picture of how he/she wants the story told and the same with the production designer. Armed with my thoughts and the director’s wishes, I will then start piecing the film together scene-by-scene, focusing on lighting continuity, lens choice, camera movement, color… all the elements. I also like to have a chat to the editor before we start shooting to get an idea of how they see the film going together and quite often they will have some requests that will help them piece the film together better in the cutting room.
Overall, it’s a step-by-step process, but by the time shooting commences I can very clearly visualize the entire movie, scene-by-scene, in my mind… even to the extent of “pre-visualizing” it much the same way a downhill skier previsualizes the course before going onto the course.”
How detailed were the storyboards that you designed prior to filming and how long did these take to create?
“As I mentioned earlier, the real genius behind the physical staging of this scene was Brent Swift, the production designer. Dominique had a very clear idea of how he wanted to visualize the story and he and I talked through all the challenges we were facing. We had a storyboard artist draw a set of boards for the scene outlining all the shots and lens choices for each shot. Brent then took the storyboards, went off and designed all the set pieces needed to achieve the shots outlined in the boards. What he came up with was absolutely brilliant. I cannot remember how many panels were in the sequence but there were a lot. In the end there was somewhere in the range of thirty-five to forty different set pieces that made up the laundry chute sequence.
It took Brent quite a while to conceptualize everything and this was going on whilst we were already shooting. The day we shot the scene we arrived to set with all the individual set pieces laid out around the studio floor and each piece had a number. Then we had a large board with all the storyboard panels laid out in shooting order and each panel had a number corresponding to the matching set piece for that shot.
Basically, what we had was a very detailed shopping list of all the elements needed to tell the story. We essentially just moved across the panels and as each one was shot we put a big red cross through them all until we were done.
Of course, the editor had been involved on this one as well so we had editorial input to be sure all these elements would fit together seamlessly.”
There were several different versions of the chute that were built in order to complete this scene, including sections that were removable so the camera could film through and another where the camera was moved along on a skateboard. Can you talk us through each one and how they came together to make a whole sequence?
“Well there were too many set pieces to talk through all of them, but basically the way this worked was we had pieces of chute that were vertical with the sides cut out. We had pieces lying on their side, allowing us to “dolly” the camera inside the chute. We did that on a skateboard with a pole attached so we could roll it along in front of Danielle; use it to push in or as a moving POV. We had pieces with small windows cut in it so we could put Danielle inside a narrow chute and get her reactions. We had a single walled set piece which duplicated the wall with the chute door so that could be shot on the stage. There were places where we could remove panels, there was everything you can imagine, as I said the thirty-five to forty set pieces.
One of the shots that really sells the laundry chute sequence is the shot in the basement when Danielle falls down the chute and hits the bottom. I love that shot. We did it in the house with a set piece and dropped a bag of sand down the chute, filming is at normal speed and over-cranked. The slo-mo shot gave the impact and, of course, we loaded in plenty of fuller’s earth to give a nice backlit dust effect, which all added to the impact. To me, this one shot really sold the fact that Danielle was in the chute and made it all the more powerful when Michael started hacking away at the chute.”
Did Danielle Harris perform during the entire scene or was there a stunt double for the more difficult moments?
“To be honest I cannot recall but I am pretty sure Danielle did everything in the laundry chute sequence, largely because it was all on set and very controlled. We did have a stunt double for Danielle on the movie but I do not think the double did any of the shots in the laundry chute sequence.”
Don Shanks was using a real knife to cut through the side of the chute; was Danielle ever inside at the time or were these shots filmed separately?
“No, Danielle was never inside the chute when Don was actually doing the stabbing shots and, in fact, we did do shots where you can see Danielle’s legs inside the chute when Don was stabbing, but they were with prosthetic legs. We obviously couldn’t have a real actress in there with a real knife going through it.”
There was a gag that was cut from the final version where Michael stabs Jamie in the leg. For this, KNB built a fake leg that spurted blood, but this was cut prior to release. Do you recall filming this part and can you describe the effect?
“Yes it was a great shot; there were actually two shots in the film that were cut – one was a close up of the three-pronged gardening tool going into the guy’s head and the other was the knife going into Danielle’s leg.
It was just a little bit too gruesome and watching it through the camera, it really made your stomach turn seeing the knife go straight into the leg. Then, when the knife came out, KNB did a great blood gag but it was all a bit too gruesome. Obviously, this was all done with a prosthetic leg with blood squirting out, but it was a pretty gruesome shot and I guess the producers decided it was a little bit too much… although these days it would not be a problem. I think it was probably more to do with seeing a young girl actually stabbed that was the issue.”
Was the entire sequence shot in one night and how far into principal photography was this? Where did the filming of this scene take place?
“The entire laundry chute sequence was shot all in one night and it was shot in a warehouse just out of Salt Lake City. All the set pieces were built well ahead of time and everything was lined up as I described earlier. We shot the scene towards the end of the schedule because it needed a lot of time to make sure we had all the set pieces we needed and we made several checks to be sure everything was going to cut together well. Dominique, Brent, the 1st AD and I also had several meetings before shooting the sequence to go through it several times to make sure we had everything in place to give this the impact that it needed and to be sure we did not leave anything out. We did not shoot the scene in sequence; it was just one element at a time until we had all the “building blocks” we needed.
Ultimately, there was a lot of work went into this scene and it really paid off as one of the most compelling scenes of the entire film. I am quite proud of it and I think Dominique and Brent were extremely proud of it as well. It was quite an achievement to take so many set pieces and have them integrated into a believable coherent sequence. In the finished film, you would swear it was shot inside the chute. As I said, the intention was that we would place the audience inside the chute with Danielle and I think we really achieved that.”
Do you feel that the hard work paid off and how do you feel when you watch this sequence? Is this a moment in your career that you are proud of and how do you feel about the movie itself?
“Yes, I think the hard work definitely paid off as it was one of the climactic scenes of the film, so it was important for it to work and it worked really well. When I watch the sequence I really do feel I am inside the chute with Danielle and it has all the elements we set out to capture.
So yeah, I think it definitely paid off and when I watch it now I still think that it’s an extremely believable sequence. It does feel like the camera is inside the chute with Danielle, which is what we set out to achieve and it really helps sell the fact that Michael Myers is after her when she is trapped in the small confined space.
I’m proud of this sequence and I’m proud of the film and I especially like the fact that 5 is consistently voted by fans as one of the best of the series.
It was a tough shoot, was not a big budget and and everyone pulled together did a great job and Dominique did a brilliant job directing it with a very clear, concise concept of what he wanted and how we wanted to achieve it. To that end, we methodically went through and fabricated a film that still entertains audiences and, judging from audience response, it still goes down as one of the all-time favorites of the Halloween series.”