With The Killing of a Sacred Deer, shot on Kodak 35mm film, director Yorgos Lanthimos has crafted a sensational thriller, brimming with unsettling humor and creeping dread, steeped in Greek tragedy, existential horror, Hitchcockian psychodrama and riveting suspense.
The narrative follows Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a renowned cardiovascular surgeon, who presides over a spotless household with his ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two exemplary children, 12-year-old Bob (Sunny Suljian) and 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy). However, lurking on the fringes of this idyllic suburban existence is Martin (Barry Keoghan), a fatherless teenager who Dr. Murphy has secretly taken under his wing. As Martin begins insinuating himself into the family’s life in evermore unsettling ways, the full scope of his intent becomes menacingly clear when he confronts the doctor with a long-forgotten transgression – the death of his father on the operating table three years before. Hell-bent on revenge, Martin’s actions shatter the Murphy family's domestic bliss. Someone must die, and it’s the doctor who has to choose who.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a UK/Ireland co-production, was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where writers Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou won for best screenplay. The film has since garnered acclaim from critics worldwide for its powerful story and evocative imagery.
Principle photography, under the supervision of cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, took place in August 2016 at locations in Cincinnati, Ohio. These included Christ Hospital and the city’s Hyde Park and Northside neighborhoods, with school scenes shot at Roger Bacon High School.
Shooting on celluloid was a given from the start on the project, as Lanthimos explained, “I like the end result with film. It is always much more pleasing for me. I have mostly used digital out of necessity, rather than preference, and was never really happy doing that. My first film, Kinetta (2005), was on 16mm and my second, Dogtooth (2009), was on 35mm. However, various complications meant that Alps(2001) and The Lobster (2015) were shot digitally. Having made those have two films digitally, I definitely decided I don’t want to shoot digitally again, if at all possible. I like the fact that film transforms the image into something different, usually more beautiful. But even when film is ugly, it is ugly in a transcendent way.”
Indeed, Lanthimos’ return to film has also seen him most recently directing The Favourite (DP Robbie Ryan BSC ISC), a bawdy tale of intrigue, passion, envy and betrayal in the court of Queen Anne, on 35mm film too.
Lanthimos prefers to shoot, whenever possible, in available light for a naturalistic result, with additional lighting supplemented by practicals. “Sometimes this approach leads to some difficult conditions, but I feel safer when lighting a scene on film,” he said. “There are things you can't control on set – like highlights blowing out – and they come out better on film. It’s much more visually forgiving than digital.”
To ramp up the psychodrama, the director instructed his cinematographer to plan for the camera appearing as a strange and unsettling presence in the film, following and observing the characters from acute angles above and below their sight-lines. Accordingly, Bakatakis selected a range of ultra-wide-angle Panavision Ultra Speed and Zeiss Master Prime lenses – between 10mm, 12mm and 17mm in focal length – for super wide angled shots. These were accompanied by longer focal length lenses, typically in the 85mm to 150mm range, which would, through shallow depth-of-field, enable super-intimate close-ups on facial features, such as the characters’ eyes. While the camera was generally moved on the dolly, Optimo zooms lenses contributed to the creepy nature of the imagery.
After testing Daylight and Tungsten stocks, Bakatakis opted to shoot The Killing of a Sacred Deer using KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213 and VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219, citing a preference in their texture as the chief reason for his selection.
“We shot most of the film using the 500T, but switched to 200T when capturing exteriors during the middle of the day,” Bakatakis said. “The two stocks match each other very well in terms of grain, the rendition of skin tones, and depth of color.
“While I love the overall look of 200T on daytime scenes, the 500T is probably the Kodak stock I prefer working with most. It’s very sensitive and has a terrific dynamic range. We had several scenes that started in bright sunlight, before moving inside into artificial light. In combination with careful exposure adjustments during those shots, the 500T has the latitude to be able to capture that range with ease, with details in the brightest highlights and the super dark areas of the image. Also, you can even make mistakes on exposure and the filmed images still look good. With digital, wrong exposures never look good.”
Bakatakis noted: “Compared to digital, film captures the light better. Filmed images are richer and have more depth to them. For me digital is too clean and cold. You have to do a lot of work to the image to get it to look right, and even when you have tried to create a different look, digital productions still have the same texture and feeling. Plus, its much more sexy on set when you shoot on film. Everyone on set is more focused and concentrated on their tasks.”
Lanthimos agreed: “I like the tactile quality of film, and that you have to be careful with it – from loading it in a dark room to the processing. The actors and the crew have to be more mindful that there’s a precious material running through the camera, and we’re not going to keep on rolling. I find there’s a lot of respect towards film on set and people are excited to be part of it.”
As The Killing of a Sacred Deer was a UK/Ireland co-production, the exposed negative was shipped to the UK for processing at i-Dailies (now Kodak Film Lab London, based on the lot at Pinewood Studios), with the final grade taking place at Goldcrest in London. To encourage different looks, Bakatakis pushed the night and interior scenes by up to two stops, thereby increasing the grain, color saturation, and pulled the day scenes by a stop, which had the effect of lowering the contrast and slightly desaurating the image.
“Push and pull processing creates lovely effects on film, and very much supported the look that Yorgos wanted,” Bakatakis said. Effectively baking-in the look is a further advantage that Lanthimos appreciates about originating on film.
“When you shoot on film, you undertake the editing and then the grading processes with the look you intended from the start, without any artifacts,” the director said. “The texture, colors, skin tones, highlight and black details are already there.”
Asked for any advice he would give to anyone else considering shooting on film Lanthimos remarked, “Go for it. You will find that film adds so much more to the final result than you could imagine. I intend to keep shooting on film as long as there are labs and celluloid.”
Thanks to Paula Heffernan of Element Pictures, co-producer of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, for support with this article.