Annabelle: Creation is easily one of the scariest films of the year. A lot of why this film works comes down to the actors, director and cinematographer; because, this is a film about atmosphere. While director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) might be newer to the horror scene; cinematographer Maxime Alexandre has sort of pioneered the horror genre over the years with films like The Hills Have Eyes, P2, Mirrors, High Tension, Maniac and many more.
I was able to sit down with Maxime Alexandre to talk what went into Annabelle: Creation, as well as what’s to come with Corin Hardy’s The Nun (another film in The Conjuring universe).
NICK: Alright, let’s dive right in: The Hills Have Eyes, Maniac, Earth to Echo, The Voices and now Annabelle: Creation. I think it’s safe to say you’re one of the best cinematographers in the horror genre. You’re always bringing something new to the screen, but, throwing in elements of nostalgia that leave the viewer craving more. What’re some of your favorite films or films that you’ve pulled inspiration from over the years?
MAXIME: First of all, that is very flattering. 12 years ago, I did my first movie as a cinematographer which was High Tension. I wasn’t a fan of horror, I was just a normal audience so little by little I learned about it and got fascinated by it. When you watch horror, it’s hard not to appreciate it. A big part of my own passion with horror is that I often find myself as the perfect audience to find the tension or horror that I have to apply for the director’s vision. I have to admit that old Italian horror movies were tatted in my brain, the beauty shocked me. Being able to involve the audience into a sensation just through the cinematography is something only horror can give you with satisfaction.
NICK: Let’s talk Annabelle: Creation; one of my favorite scenes is the long take towards the beginning of the film where the girls are exploring the Mullin’s home. It sort of foreshadows the long sequences of horror that take place throughout the film. Do you find that it’s easier for you to build tension with long takes or in quick cuts?
MAXIME: I’ve discovered that different types of horror have no rules. If horror had rules people would know what to expect for every scene. The main trick is to never let the audience know what you’re doing. The trick with Annabelle were those long shots. Those long shots in the first act when they discover the house and the beauty for the first time leads into the drama part, into the tension part. Its about making a change into the story without making a dramatic change when diving into the color palate and framing. You’re falling into the nightmare without knowing that everything is changing. The shots are no different when their exploring the house to when Janice gets pulled up out of the chair. The only thing that changes is the sound design. The 3rd act is full of jumps. It’s to the point where people don’t know weather to scream, jump, or laugh just because their lost totally in the length of time in the escape. I think that those extremely long shots are anticipating all of the action.
NICK: Early on in the film, there’s an incredible shot of the camera flying over a church to meet the Mullins family as they exit after attending a service. The shot really brought a supernatural element into the film without any of the true horror having started, and there are a few shots like this later on in the film. What’s your approach to shots like this in terms of how they’re able to evoke certain emotions from the audience?
MAXIME: All of my work is based on the director’s vision. Every director has his own vision and I have the pleasure to change my work to the vision to the director. all of the shots in Annabelle are a collaboration between the director and I. David is such a new director so the language was different. Whatever he had on his mind was perfectly simple. He would say “Ya know guys, I would like to do this, and then this, and that. How do we do it?”. That’s the biggest gift you can give to professional people on set to build a movie or to build a shot. Everybody got overwhelmed through every step with David. Specifically for that shot when David and I collaborated we decided that we didn’t need a normal shot, no, we need to fly, we need to see the beauty before we see the darkness. The beauty of the movie is the darkness. This excited me, the Gaffer, the Grips, and so on. So we wanted the dark to be part of the cast. The only way to do that was to build mechanical items because we can’t move the dark, we can only move the lights but we can move the shadows. David wanted it pitch black and the only way we can do that is with mechanical items so we had to build mechanical items for the corridor when Lulu got pinned back when running away. When she is trying to escape on the dumbwaiter there is a whole mechanical system for making the black, it’s not just the lack of light, it’s black surrounding the girl. You get shocked by it because you’re getting trapped with her in the dark because when she can’t move, you can’t move.
NICK: The film in a sense is a period piece (set in the 1950’s) that begins feeling soft and warm and moves to feeling cold and gritty as the film progresses. How did you make this transition feel so smooth when working on the film?
MAXIME: Keeps talking about the dark…
NICK: In a lot of the scenes, you treat the camera as if it’s a character in the room with the actors. Having worked on a film like Maniac; do you feel like it’s important for the camera to act as a character in the horror genre?
MAXIME: Absolutely. Myself, for example, I love to get totally isolated with music when I’m working. It’s like I’m building a trailer for every single shot. The camera becoming part of the cast is extremely important. It’s a very delicate relationship in which the camera becomes something physically tactical. Speaking of Maniac, it was totally unique because it was a POV movie. I have to admit that without Elijah or without an actor like Elijah it would have been totally impossible. When talking about movies like Annabelle or Maniac, the camera is essentially the key. With Annabelle, we’re filming children. With children, funny enough, when you grow up you are conscious about your concentration when you’re a child you’re not. When David would yell for the take, the actors totally transformed into the characters which helps me as a cinematographer achieve 100% efficiency to stick to them. On set they didn’t even acknowledge me while filming, as if I weren’t there while shooting.
NICK: Last but not least, you’ve gone from working with David F. Sandberg on Annabelle: Creation to working with Corin Hardy on The Nun. What can you tell us about The Nun, and working with Corin?
MAXIME: David is able to say that he’s happy with the shot or the insert and move on. Corin Hardy is a different type of Director, he’s had more experience and knows exactly what he wants. We get coverage of everything. From with all the different directors i’ve worked with, I’ve never found that their exactly the style of directing.
You can catch Annabelle: Creation in theaters now and The Nun in July 2018!