Sean McDaniel has been working in the industry as a cinematographer for more than a decade, collaborating on projects ranging from feature films (‘Bullitt County’, ‘Dons of Disco’) to shorts (‘Coward’, directed by Karen Gillan) and branded content for some of the biggest names in the food industry.
His latest project, the horror feature ‘Malum’, boldly sets out to reimagine director Anthony DiBlasi’s own 2014 feature ‘Last Shift’. ‘Last Shift’ was received quite well by critics, so this isn’t a case of taking another swing after striking out. Instead, ‘Malum’ is an opportunity for the team behind the original film to expand upon its themes and story, while benefiting from new approaches to production design and visual language.
We spoke to Sean about his own artistic trajectory, how he worked with DiBlasi to portray the mind-warping setting of ‘Malum’, tricks of the trade and more.
In your formative years, who were the artists and works of art that most inspired you to take the plunge into cinematography as a career?
Sean: There were a lot. At a pretty young age, my Dad started showing me films by Kurosawa, Fellini, Antonioni, Goddard. A big one for me was David Lynch; seeing all of his work at a young age, I basically became a bit of a completionist. That was when the idea of auteur theory (came in).
When you’re young, I feel like that really sinks in and you think of a movie being made by a single person. Later on, you expand, and realise that it takes so many people. But it’s an easy way to categorize things when you’re first getting into things, so you find a director and just watch all of their stuff.
I really was an avid consumer for those early years, and started making things pretty young as well. There were just so many, and I think David Lynch was definitely a big one early on; (he was) making such interesting material that I hadn’t really seen before at that age. And on the horror side, Cronenberg was a huge one for me.
You started working in the industry, and later studied film in an academic setting at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Besides the qualification itself, what aspects of your time studying have been the biggest benefit to you as an artist?
Sean: I think the great thing about undergrad was that because I was doing a lot of film studies – it was actually more like the English department – I was just watching so much and analysing and studying. I think that was really great. You get so busy in film school. I was doing my MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) and you’re still watching things, but you’re spending so much time on set and so much time working that it can be tricky to keep up, and especially to go back.
Obviously I was doing stuff on my own in high school – watching things – but in undergrad, (I had) classes that were really focused and professors who could introduce you to things. I thought I had gotten deep before I started my undergrad and film studies, and then I was like, “oh, there’s stuff that I hadn’t even really been able to see yet”. Things that you couldn’t find but professors had copies of from different countries.
I think it just really opened my eyes to what cinema could be, and the ways that people shoot in all these different places. When you have a different cultural background, I think it can really help you expand how you think about these things. For my time at USC, it was all the people that I got to work with. They’re great professors and classes, but a lot of it really is meeting the people that you’re going to work with for the rest of your life. I still work with a lot of those people.
There’re tonnes of exercises to shoot; short films that you make along the way; shooting people’s thesis films. It was hours on set, shooting as many things as you could. It was hugely important, and that still is kind of the thing, right? On every new project, you’re learning some new trick, or you need somebody and that develops a new connection that will continue.
It’s a bit like being thrown into the deep end, isn’t it? Being exposed to stuff that you might not have sought out for yourself, and working on projects you might not have tried otherwise.
Sean: I actually shot a lot of thesis films while I was there, and I’d say each one was a different genre. That was (partially) because of the collaborators I was working with, but also something I was purposefully trying to do. One of them was a horror project, one was a little more sci-fi, and one that was more of a thriller – a Soderbergh, old-school style thing. (It was great) getting to play in those different genres; partially because I like so many different genres, but also because I think it’s a great thing for when you’re figuring out what you want to do and challenging you work. It’s helpful to work in those different buckets.
SM: ‘Malum’ is a significant reimagining of Tony DiBlasi’s earlier film, ‘Last Shift’. In working with Anthony, how much of that collaborative creative process was a compare and contrast to what he’d done previously, versus treating ‘Malum’ as its own wholly original entity?
Sean: I had seen the original and I already liked it, so when he told me they were doing a reimagining I was excited. I think the first one is so great, and it hints at so many things. When you’re constricted by time and budget, there’s only so much you can do, so the idea of getting to expand that and bringing in more of a mystery element and more about the cults – I love that.
In the beginning, when (Anthony) was just telling me about the project, we would talk about things in relation to ‘Last Shift’ because I hadn’t read the script yet. That was the best way to explain things. But once I actually had the script and we were talking about ‘Malum’ as a movie, we didn’t really go back to the other one. It wasn’t like we made it because “oh, the other one wasn’t good”. It was more that all of these things couldn’t have been explored. So, pretty quickly, it was “let’s talk about this script, this world, and go from there”.
Your location is so big for something like this, because you spend 80% of your time there. That really determines the look. Just like with ‘Last Shift’ where they found a real police station to shoot, we found a real decommissioned one. Ours has such a different look that even if you did try to shoot it the same way, it’s already going to look wildly different. It was about embracing what the script wanted, visually; what the police station offered; and balancing those two things.
SM: In terms of day-to-day set life, what were the things that you found the most challenging in your role?
Sean: The big thing at first with the station was the size. It gave us a lot of opportunities and a lot of really great places to shoot, but honestly, it was almost too big. So we really had to pick where we wanted to shoot, isolate those locations and give a story logic to it. If you really look at where we’re shooting, she’s kind of ‘teleporting’ between locations that don’t necessarily make sense. If she turns down one hallway, she’s suddenly out of another. She’s just moved to a whole new floor within the building without you knowing.
So, a big thing for me was making a map of the location to think about it visually. I actually created this fake map with pieces of paper; I put them on a table and stuck them together to make this little weird-looking map, just so that I could have a logical understanding of how we were building the narrative world of the police station.
After that, the biggest thing was thinking about lighting. So much of the movie takes place at night, and most of the locations that we ended up choosing didn’t really have windows, so this whole movie is going to be lit by practicals inside – mostly fluorescents. You’re not really planning any moonlight coming in through windows, and not really any street lights until closer to the end of the movie.
That was a big thing, because that’s not how I’m used to lighting a movie – 80% of it with what’s supposed to be a fluorescent feel from overhead. It becomes a big challenge of how to keep it interesting – how can we make that match the mood – and getting enough LED tubes to replace most of the ones in the station as needed so we can control everything.
SM: Over the course of working on so many different kinds of projects with their own unique requirements, do you feel that you’ve developed any particular methodologies or technical tricks that are helpful when stepping into a new project?
Sean: There’s definitely a bag of tricks that you have, and I feel you’ve got to be careful not to always rely on them and to find new ways. But it’s great to have things that you know will work when you’re in a pinch. The funny thing is; sometimes you’ll find those tools, and you’ll use them a bunch on one movie, and you’ll think “oh, that’s great. I’m gonna use this on the next project, for sure.” And then the next project is just wildly different and you have no need to use that at all.
On this movie, it’s almost entirely lit with LEDs. There’s a little bit of tungsten, and some HMIs (hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide), but so much of it was done with LED lights. With these tubes and other, smaller LED units being so lightweight, we would put magnets on them. In the police station, there was so much steel and other metal around – we would just tape steel washers up on walls, and all of a sudden, you could just stick a light on that wall.
We were hiding things everywhere with magnets, which was definitely the most we’ve ever done that on a movie. It was a great trick, and honestly something I feel like we’ll probably do a lot more of as we go on. It’s a lot quicker to just put up a magnet and stick something somewhere without having to rig things.
SM: That’s real DIY.
Sean: It was great, honestly. Even rigging the fluorescent tubes, we would get these clips that you could put on with magnets on the back, and you could move them a lot more efficiently than how you might normally have to go around putting those in. That was definitely a new trick we’ll carry forward.
Some people prefer not to know how the sausage is made when it comes to movies, so to speak – it takes them out of the moment. I respect that, but I think learning the tricks helps me appreciate it even more, and if it’s truly been done well, you won’t even think about it.
Sean: There are lots of little things we’re doing with the lighting in the movie that I like to think are subtle enough that you don’t really realise what’s happening. But hopefully, t’s making you feel something, either emotionally or with some of the logic of the location as we move through it.
SM: Compared to when you were younger, do you feel that your years of working in the film industry have had any significant influence on the kind of films you’re drawn to as a viewer?
Sean: That’s interesting. They honestly came so close together as soon as I started watching stuff that I wasn’t used to watching at a young age. I pretty quickly started making things as well, so I think I was already coming at it from a place of analysis; whether it’s just for what the story is doing or looking at techniques you might be able to use in your own stuff.
It took a different direction as I was studying in undergrad: you’re writing papers and diving pretty deep into more than just the technical things you’re looking at if you’re wanting to make stuff of your own.
The big thing for me is wanting to watch stuff that takes a pretty big swing and just goes for it. No matter what direction that’s pushing, I like to see something that’s really trying to do something different. That’s often how I would pick projects, too, in reading the scripts. That was what I liked about ‘Malum’ a lot – it really goes for it. It brings in the horror quickly, and strong, and the tension and dread were already there in the script. It was like, “okay, that’ll be great when we’re trying to create that visually”. It just seemed like a really fun thing to do.
SM: It must be a good sign to read the script and say, “there’s really something to work with here”.
Sean: Anthony and Scott (Poiley) are taking a really great swing with that script. They could have played it safe and done something much more similar to the original – different sets, more effects. But they really took the story and ran with it, making something that I really think fleshed it all out in an interesting and engaging way. Really great scares and horror, as well. It’s a nice combo.
SM: Have you watched anything recently that has especially impressed you or opened you to new approaches in regard to filmmaking?
Sean: That’s tough, there’s a lot of great stuff recently. I feel like everybody loves ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’, and that’s very much deserved. That was a great, early, back-in-the-cinema experience after the pandemic times. The stuff they’re doing in that movie on every level is pretty amazing, and I think they took a huge swing.
They’ve also created a great community around themselves. They’re working with a lot of the same people that they’ve been working with since their music video days, in all these different departments. They’ve learned from doing all those music videos and other projects how to do what they do in such an efficient and strong way, like their approach to VFX. They’re pushing themselves and expanding. And what they’re doing with storytelling; it’s just so exciting. I see stuff like that, and I’m like, “we’d better do something interesting and really push things,” because they’re really forcing everybody else to, right?
SM: Keeping everybody on their toes. But that’s healthy, right?
Sean: It’s great. Even as just an audience member, this is amazing, but as a creator – they can do all that stuff with the budget they had? Everybody’s got to do better. So that’s great.
‘Malum‘ is in theaters from March 31 2023.