‘His House’ DP on Framing the Horror of the Refugee Experience
Remi Weekes’ “His House” centers around a couple Bol (Sopé Dìrísù) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) who have fled war in South Sudan for refuge in the United Kingdom, except their dream soon turns into a nightmare as “The Crown’s” Matt Smith, who plays a caseworker, shows them their new home. It’s infested with rats and soon after, they start hearing sounds within their walls.
Cinematographer Jo Willems’ main goal for the new Netflix horror film was to get as close as possible to the actors to show the horror that came from their own traumas. Damp wallpaper peels back to reveal black holes in the walls with visions of horror within. Rial believes a witch has followed them from Sudan, and Willems stayed close to capture that feeling of being trapped and isolated because they can’t go back to Sudan.
Below, Willems talks about his lighting and framing while avoiding jump scares. “The psychology comes from the trauma they’ve experienced,” he says.
This is a horror movie that dives into the terror of assimilation and the refugee experience in the U.K., so how did you look at framing the film in your approach?
It was about being respectful to the characters and the humanity of the characters. I never want to go into something as just a genre movie.
This film is unique because it starts from a very human perspective. The horror comes from the trauma [that they experienced]. That’s where the psychological harm of the story comes in. Audiences know from the get-go the kind of film they’re watching and they know with this, it’s something they should take seriously, so that was my original intent – to place that.
How did you shoot the interior scenes and light the house?
Locations have limitations. We shot this on a stage. Remi wanted low ceilings for this and so, there was no way I could light from above. I wanted it to feel naturalistic and lighting their faces. I didn’t want to feel the artifice of making movies. In those scenes. I wanted them to feel real. I played with the contrast and the color grading. I didn’t want this film to look gritty at all.
This was their home and it’s what they were proud of. But the goal was to feel their pain.
When we see the creature at the end, how did you want to frame that moment?
At this point, you are in a fantastical part of the movie. My concept of seeing the actor in this rubber suit, the less you see, the vaguer it is. I wanted a supernatural feel to it but with stylized lighting, so we put a flicker to the room as if something is truly happening that’s cathartic.
We brought the warmth back at that moment, but you can see it’s on the darker side because of what’s happening.
There are quite a few dramatic angles in the movie, such as low angles and high angles. When the creature is approaching, you feel Bol’s fear and his pain, and so it was important to keep the camera dynamic in those scenes.
We had certain stability to the frame and it’s composed and it’s held. It’s not moving for no reason. But, there were some moments where I said to Remi, ‘It would be great to try this handheld.’
The first time you see that is when Bol goes into the bedroom and breaks down. I said, ‘Let’s be in there with him and let’s be close to him.’ I thought that language works really well because he’s in this moment of unbalance and he’s having this breakdown.
The moments with the creature and Bol looks over have some handheld which gave that subjective angle.
Sometimes, the camera needs to mimic the character’s emotion.
The sequences where Wumi’s character jumps out of the window was a great horror device. We built that set and we panned her in. It was a great visual device to go from one place to Morocco in that scene – and it’s not something we see very often in film.
What was it like shooting those non-real sequences such as the ocean and the fantasy/nightmare moments?
I loved doing the dream sequences and the scenes with the fire. When he’s eating dinner and you pull back, it’s landscape, that was great fun. Remi and I wanted that to feel other worldly. Even with the ocean, that was great because it was this fantastical style where we could pull away from the naturalism that’s in the film.
The film works so well because we go from very real and normal situations to being in this visual evocative moment that’s fantastical. And those sequences were shot against a blue screen. So, that was great to explore as a DP.