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My Dead Ones: Interview with cinematographer Kauê Zilli

Updated: Sep 27, 2020

Interview conducted for the website of ABC (Brazilian Association of Cinematography).

By Danielle de Noronha

"My Dead Ones', Diego Freitas's debut feature film, tells the story of a shy film student who has a dark past. When visiting his neighbor Maria, a forgotten instinct comes to the fore and he commits his first murder. The next day, she reappears at the boy's apartment and starts to influence him to continue on a journey of crimes that will reveal his true nature: that of a serial killer. We interviewed cinematographer Kauê Zilli, who tells us about the work on the film.

What were your first impressions when reading the script for "My Dead Ones" and what are the main challenges of a terror / suspense project in Brazil?

I remember receiving a call from director Diego Freitas during ABC Week last year, I had been appointed by some of Diego's director friends and he wanted to talk about a feature film that he was going to produce in a month. We sat in a cafe near his house and he bombarded me with references of what he liked and imagined for the film, we had an instant affinity. But we would have a big challenge, a very low budget (1.5 million brazilian reais) with very high expectations. He then sent me the script and I read it in a sitting, arrested me from beginning to end. The suspense already worked in the text and I had fun with the story, the images came easily and I ended up wanting to make the film. I am a fan of horror / suspense and the use that these genres require of cinematographic language, which ends up seducing me for projects in this profile. And I believe that Brazilian cinema can only benefit from diversity of genres!

Which cameras and lenses were used and why were they chosen? Have previous tests been carried out?

When I joined the project, production had already negotiated the main camera and lens package, an Alexa Mini (which of course I'm a fan) with a Cooke Mini / S4 lens set. And Diego already wanted to show the images of the past with anamorphic lenses. After reading the script and getting to know some locations, I took a test to adjust the final list. Due to the tight budget, I restricted tested items to what fit it. I tested some diffusion filters (Glimmerglass, Black Difusion and Black Promist), Cooke Mini / S4, Zeiss Superspeed (I knew I would need faster lenses in certain situations) and some anamorphic ones (Kowa and Arri Scope). I imagined a texture in the image that would take me to another world and, analyzing the tests with Diego, we opted for the Black Promist 1/4 (in general, reducing the intensity depending on the background) to help create this effect.

In addition, other questions we asked for the tests were how diffuse and punctual flares behaved with these lenses and their diaphragm variations, their bokeh nature and the limits for acceptable definition. We had the desire to stay in a place where the texture was present, but at the same time diffuse, to create this fantastic world. Among the anamorphic lenses, we chose the Kowa because we like their look and the size for camera operation. It was necessary to work with close-up filters with them because of a minimum distant focus. We had BCR and Marc Films as our rental companies, I would like to thank the partnership and availability during the project, especially Ayme Segatti for all the attention. And of course, I couldn't help but thank the dear camera crew! Edu Yamanaka (1st AC), Cesar Ishikawa (2nd AC), Carina Barros (Video Assist), Felipe Albanit (Logger and test model) and Leticia Modena (intern).

Where did you get inspiration for this film, especially for the most stressful scenes?

Two of the main references, especially for cinematography, were the camera work of Matthew Libatique in the film “Black Swan”, always following closely the protagonist and the way it creates tension, and the work of photographer Gregory Crewdson, who with his light designs and frames convey a feeling of solitude, artificial and fantastic.

"Black Swan"
Family Dinner, by Gregory Crewdson

During rehearsals, script readings, shotlist and reference conversations, we developed how the film would be treated and how to create that rhythm and tension. We had a very nice meeting between all departments. The main inspiration comes from these exchanges!

How were the murder scenes carried out? What are the challenges and solutions found?

We had two main murder scenes during the film. The first is less physical and more psychological, the challenge was more in developing the mood of the scene to trigger the death. We built a decoupage with slow traveling movements, increasing this tension. The second death starts from a more physical conflict, a fight between two characters that ends in a murder that had as a direct reference a scene from the film “Irreversible”. We had as partner to develop the fight of this scene and of another one further on, Dani Hu, who was essential to help bring realism to the scenes. We ran it handheld, following the characters, their blows and this helped a lot to give dynamics to the action.

The second part of this murder brings a special effect scene created by Fabrício Rabachim, who was present almost every day on the set, Diego's longtime partner and a very talented special fx artist. He scanned the head of actor Eucir de Souza and recreated in CGI to be able to smash in the film. This second death was our last day of set, a very tight night of the schedule, with a fight, practical effects of makeup, fire and powders, and it also rained to make life easier. I can say that we did miracles with the time we had and that thanks to the effort of each one involved. We had as a partner for makeup effects Denise Borro and practical effects Martão, which were amazing too. The main challenges were solved in these collaborative work to create the immersion that the film calls for. In fact there is another murder, but this is a surprise for anyone watching the movie!

And how was the light worked in the film?

The film deals with a protagonist who, after committing murders, reviews the dead in an idealized way. He is a country boy, a film student and who ends up seeing the world under this imaginary. Diego and I both managed to relate to it, he grew up in Mariporã and I in Blumenau, we both came to São Paulo to study cinema and we had the beginning of our cinematographic education built by Hollywood cinema, which dominates movie theaters and sessions afternoon in the interior of Brazil. From the beginning, we wanted to create a stylized and fantastic world that flirted with our references. We treat it almost like a superhero movie, but with a darker twist. I tried to create an atmosphere of dark light, but at the same time colorful, with contrasts both in color and high light, but with a more diffuse nature.

The light is motivated by the character's psychological and the colors symbolize his states. Kinoflos, HO boxes, “Chimeras” and diffusion cloths were constantly used, whenever possible with honeycombs to control direction and contrast, guaranteeing this light texture. Whenever necessary, he used a black cloth as negative fill, cleaning the shadows and maintaining the contrast of the keylight. For the sodium vapor lights I used a Full CTS in the tungsten fresnels (tip I learned from Junior Malta) and for several of the cold lights I used cyan gels in the daylight bulbs kinoflos. And in some environments a haze machine was used to create atmospheric density.

David's apartment was built in a studio, I used a white denim cloth that covered the window area, I hit a mixture of HMI and HO bulb box (budget limited HMIs), attacked with a few more direct HO boxes with diffusion and had an M18 HMI for some more direct light. So I lit most from the outside of the set, needing few adjustments inside. This was the biggest set of this project. My gaffer was Fernando Café and my key grip was Bodinho. I thank the partnership to realize this vision!

The feature is narrated from David's point of view. What was the cinematography's job to differentiate the present, memories, hallucinations, etc.?

We had a lens separation between the past and the present, using anamorphic for the first (Kowa) and spherical for the latter (Cooke Mini / S4 and Zeiss superspeed). We also seek to build this universe with one foot in the fantastic, where the boundaries between the real and the imaginary are not so clear. The sometimes expressionist light, the diffusion filters, the aestheticization of colors, all collaborate to create this world of David's head.

How did the location selection process took place and in which locations was the film made?

When I joined the project, Anhembi Morumbi was already a partner. We shot more than half of the film there, including David and Maria's apartment were built in their studios. We could hardly have made this film without this help. The environments of the Mooca Campus helped to give life to David universe. We tried to find locations that had their own personality in their texture and I believe that we were successful. Fernando Cacerez's intervention in these environments was essential.

We also had Trackers for a scene of a fetish party, an occupied mansion on Av. Consolação, where two of the main characters get to know each other better, Sabesp park in Pompéia, Paranapiacaba city, downtown SP, among others places.

What was the dialogue between the photography team and the art and sound department?

From the beginning, we had a very dynamic and creative exchange between cinematography, art (Fernando Cacerez) and direction (Diego Freitas). When I entered the pre-production, the concept of art and even the design of the scenario that would be David's apartment were well underway. We made some adjustments to allow certain framing and camera movements, but the project was already pretty cool. Fernando also wanted art not to deliver an idea of ​​a specific time, he wanted to mix references to take the film to a more timeless place. This is also part of the thinking that Diego was taking to each department and allowed him to create this project that has a universe of its own, as well as what inhabits the protagonist's head. I remember how we matured and debated the script during decoupage and that enriched the film a lot! It is these exchanges that make us inspired in making movies and creating our small worlds. Diego also closely followed the soundtrack built mostly by synthesizers by Paulo Beto and the sound design made by Pedro Lima.

Both the director and the main actor are newcomers to feature films. What was it like working with them?

I confess that at first I had a cold feet! As much for the considerable budget limit that we had to make the references we were looking for, having a young and new director, as well as a film totally focused on the protagonist, with very high demands for acting. In both fields I was happily surprised! Two talents and encounters that I will take for life. Diego from the beginning was always sure of his decisions, but at the same time open to building together, which made the whole process more agile and creative. And Nicolas Prattes, always focused on the character, was able to move skillfully between his facets and at the same time be aware of the mechanics. Flawless! We managed to dance together very well!!

Could you tell us about the post workflow and your participation in it?

We had Clandestino (Post House) as a great partner for the post-production of the image and the colorist was Alexandre Cristofaro. We have already worked together on numerous projects and this has made communication much easier. As we were pre-selected for the Sundance Festival at "Encontros com a Cinema Brasileiro" last year, we had to run to make a first color pass in a first cut made a month after wrap. It was crazy! In that first color, we ended up dosing the levels of saturation and contrast more then we first intended, and that was great to realize that we preferred the initial idea. The film ended up not being selected, and then we managed to go through the finishing stages more calmly. When we finally sat down to make the color, we tried to be this fantastic film, with saturated colors and dark tones that we wanted since the conceptualisation. Alexandre was an essential partner to realize this vision, taking its rigor to each plan. Diego, he and I spent countless afternoons fiddling with color, trying to find the right tone for each scene, creating masks and accentuating color separations. Being able to take care of the film makes all the difference!

Director: Diego Freitas Screenplay: Diego Freitas and Gustavo Rosseb Production: Amadeu Alban, Diego Freitas, Elisa Tolomelli, Luciano Reck and Marcio Yatsuda Cinematographer: Kaue Zilli Soundtrack: Paulo Beto Production Company: Parakino Filmes Editors: Diego Freitas and Luiz Felipe Moreira Paulin Distributor: Elo Company Stills: Carina Barros, Gabriel Silveira and Leticia Modena Cast: André Hendges, Bianca Müller, Cris Vianna, Eucir de Souza, Giselle Prattes, Giulia Ouro, Guilherme Rodio, Isadora Magalhães, João Côrtes, Neusa Maria Faro, Nicolas Prattes, Tuna Dwek, Tutty Mendes, Vinicius Bicudo

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