The Darkness of ‘Hurt’: An Interview with Cinematographer Jorel O’Dell

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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a big influence.

Hurt

This month is filled with horror releases such as Shudder’s The Advent Calendar, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, AMC+’s Silent Night and the possession tale Agnes. Another title worth paying attention to is Sonny Mallhi’s Hurt, which originally began garnering attention at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival when it was going to be released by Blumhouse. Three years later, it found a new home with Gravitas Ventures and is now playing in select theaters and digital platforms.

Starring Emily Van Raay and Andrew Creer, Hurt follows a soldier who recently reunited with his wife. Together, they go to their favorite Halloween spot: the “Haunted Hayride”. But when real terror follows them home, they must fight for their lives… or become the next attraction. When watching the film, it’s hard not to notice the specific lighting choices and camera angles, which add another layer of eeriness to the story. To learn more about how Hurt was shot, we sat down with the film’s cinematographer Jorel O’Dell. 

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Dread Central: One of director Sonny Mallhi’s inspirations for Hurt was The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Did he relay to you what specifically he liked from this film?

Jorel O’Dell: Well obviously they couldn’t be more different films. In fact, I think it’s clear at the beginning of the film [Hurt] that Sonny is at once making an homage to the classic slasher prototype while at the same time drawing a polarizing viewpoint on what it means to make a slasher film, if there is in fact any meaning at all from which you can draw from these films.

It is historically accurate that more times than not, the formula for a slasher film involved groups of young people being murdered horrifically with very little to no character understanding or development, and therefore being of no real consequence; Life and Death embodied on screen, symbolizing nothing more than just that. In a way that is a lot easier to deal with I suppose, in comparison to seeing someone you love die, for example.

And to answer your question: Yes, he did relay this idea to me the first night we went out to dinner before we started prep. I knew this was in his mind because it was also clearly on the page as well.

When it came to style, and tone, Texas Chainsaw was a shoo-in visually for what we had to work with, in regards to time, crew, and gear. If we distill it down it’s visually similar in that night exteriors are with pitch-black skies with no motivated moonlight. In every other way, it’s quite naturally lit. And though it is natural in style, hard light, bounced light and shaped light are key components that draw parallels.

I brought the anamorphic choice to the table, which didn’t necessarily match Texas Chainsaw as that was clearly shot spherically. But the way that their 70s film stock with cameras from that time gave it a grunge and unpolished appeal, it was very much what the vintage 1960’s Anamorphic lens gave to my extremely modern digital Arri Alexa Mini camera.

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DC: When a film has a gritty vibe like Hurt, is that harder or easier to achieve than a normal setting?

JOD: It is so holistic to the entire process of filming that there is almost no other way it could turn out. I can’t begin to describe how challenging it was to shoot Hurt. The lack of time, hands, and gear simply force you to solve problems very quickly. You keep the through-line of the characters in your heart, and you go with your gut. The actors and each space we were in gave us so much of what WASN’T known. Then you react, and proactively light for where you think it could go, not just where you are at that particular moment on the day. You always have to keep one eye open for unexpected opportunities.

DC: A lot of the film takes place outside in a wooded area at night. What is the key to making these types of shots look natural, lighting wise?

JOD: Well, just make sure first of all that you can see all of the story elements. If your actor walks out into the street at night and needs to find her husband’s car is abandoned there… well then, it’s gonna have to be “that” far away (as it is in the film) because that’s where the nearest streetlight is. [laughter] So you gotta go with what you have given to you. And then bring in the lights you do have to light the talent where they’re going to be. Or move the talent closer to the light for the close-up and cheat the angle or obscure the background for continuity so as to save time in moving large lighting sources.

It’s just a constant game of solving story problems with as much as can be found. Then lighting what you can, and how you can (power runs, protecting generators for sync sound) in the fastest and most appropriate way that is in concert with the emotional arc of the character in that moment and space. Simple, right? [laughter]

DC: Hurt hit the film festival scene a few years ago. Do you know why it took so long to come out?

JOD: Oh yea there were all kinds of issues getting it right. It’s just the path of this film. Every film is its own little small start-up business. All sorts of things I’m not involved with happen once a film goes into post, and then into distribution. I don’t know any of the nitty-gritty details.

DC: A lot of shots in Hurt seem to be from further away, really letting the action unfold in front of the audience in a voyeuristic type of vibe. Is this a right assumption? Did you and Sonny have specific conversations about this?

JOD: Hmmm. Well, I think it’s a mixed bag. I know for certain that the voyeuristic element was always kind of there for the first half of the second act. I mean it’s practically built into the narrative on the page.

There are only a few moments at the beginning of the film where we are playing with that more as a foreshadowing device. I think some really elegant and instinctual decisions were made on Sonny’s behalf in this regard. As there are even elements to Tommy’s return that are playful, though specifically clandestine as he sneaks into her work, to “prank” her a bit before he reveals himself to her. That visual language is then motivated and familiar later in the film when people are legitimately being hunted like baby fawns.

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DC: There are some shots with the viewpoint being through the eyeholes of a masked person, which was very reminiscent of Michael Myers from Halloween. Did this reference ever cross your mind during filming?

JOD: Well, the masks were always a big part of the film. Sonny was having them made and shipped to us in Ottawa by the time I had arrived. I mean it’s Halloween night after all so it’s just a deeply rooted element to “Halloween Slasher” films. Of course it’s an homage. It’s the mask shot! We could barely even do the darn shot with the lenses we had! [laughter] But we made it work. I think it’s tastefully done. Only in that one scene where the entire world gets ripped apart for Rose.

DC: Even when the setting is in the daylight, the light seems duller with more of a yellow vibe. What did you do to achieve this?

JOD: I had built a filmic LUT for us to begin within DaVinci Resolve. That was the base layer. Then we just always knew that we wanted a patina quality pervasive throughout the image, and that we wanted to mitigate the green channel. It was summer when we were shooting, and we needed October trees. So we always knew we were going to attenuate the green channel downstream.

DC: Some people have said that horror films are all about tone, texture and mood. Would you agree with this statement?

JOD: Horror films that mean something to me are always about character. Texture, tone, and mood should be defined by the story and therefore elevated and make the overall project sing. Like The Witch by Robert Eggers. That is one of my favorite films of all time, it just happens to be a horror film. The tone, texture, and mood are absolutely defined by the narrative, the time/place it takes place in, and the character arc. This is what I feel elevates film in general into a masterful space.

DC: Is this your first horror film to work on? Did you feel allowed for more experimentation than other non-horror projects?

JOD: Hurt is the first horror film that I have DP’d, yes. Absolutely I felt like I was experimenting enormously because I was being led and directed by Sonny Mallhi. His fearless demands for me to find something new were invigorating and inspiring. We also had to move fast so you have to think on your feet!

DC: Is there anything you think readers would be surprised to know about the cinematography of Hurt?

JOD: The location for Rose and Tommy’s house was actually 3 different locations, in totally different geographical areas, shot over 4four weeks. It was an incredible feat to shoot this cornerstone of the film over the day, to sunset, to night, to dawn, and back to day.

When Sonny was checking out the gallows in the hayride on our scout day there, he accidentally bumped the leaver while standing on the trap door. He fell right through it, right in front of me. Thank God, he landed in a bunch of hay down there and wasn’t HURT at all. See what I did there?

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You can learn more about Jorel on his websiteHurt is available to watch on digital and VOD.

Tags: Hurt Jorel O’Dell Sonny Mallhi

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