ComingSoon spoke with cinematographer Matt S. Bell about his work on The Requin.
“There’s terror in paradise when Jaelyn (Alicia Silverstone) and Kyle (James Tupper) arrive at a remote seaside villa in Vietnam for a romantic getaway,” says the synopsis. “A torrential storm descends, reducing the villa to little more than a raft and sweeping the young couple out to sea. Suddenly, another danger appears: a school of great white sharks. With her injured husband watching helplessly, Jaelyn must battle the deadly predators alone in this tense thriller that rides an unrelenting wave of fear.”
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Jeff Ames: What led you to become a cinematographer?
Matt S. Bell: Starting from the beginning, I was born and raised in Lafayette Louisiana where I ultimately attended the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Not knowing what the heck to do with my life, I ended up switching my major 7 times in the first 3 semesters of college — various degrees of engineering, criminal justice, business, and of course the coveted “undeclared.” Finally, I discovered the ULL Fine Arts program where I studied under Jamie Baldridge and Linda Frese. During the curriculum, it became clear to me that I was very much interested in telling stories and motion pictures seemed like the best route for me.
After graduating in 2012, I immediately reached out to various productions in New Orleans about Production Assistant work. I landed various reality TV projects as a PA (namely Top Chef, American Idol, and Fight Master). During my stint on Top Chef, I met an aspiring producer named Sam Claitor. Sam had several music video projects that I ended up shooting. In 2014, we began working with director Misty Talley and producer Daniel Lewis on several network TV films. Cut to 2021 and I’ve accumulated 36 DP credits on various network and indie films. Recently I have started to inch my way into the director’s chair with a couple of commercial projects and have started writing a feature that I intend to direct in the future.
Were there specific individuals in the field who influenced your style?
Of course, however I don’t know if I can/want to claim a style of any kind at this point. To put me in a box would be the death of creativity, I fear. I’d might as well emotionally retire and just push the “make look good” button. I’m not ready for that yet.
The most influential quote for me comes from the late Freddie Francis who said, “There is good cinematography and bad cinematography, and then there’s the cinematography that’s right for the movie.” I was made aware of this quote through an interview with Roger Deakins some time ago. This truly resonated with me as I consider myself a photographer that is most interested in telling the story. If something I am doing isn’t supporting the story, then something is wrong. That usually means not getting in the way of the script with distracting camera work or excessive lighting. I like to refer to the misuse of tools as hair lighting a coat rack.
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As a cinematographer, my goal is to complement the vision of the director, the performances from the actors and ultimately the writing. “Script is king,” as they say.
Which leads me to “specific individuals” — there is no greater group of talented filmmakers than my friends who are grinding every day to push their creativity to new levels. Those I work with on a consistent basis influence me the most. Not to mention, they are brave enough to keep bringing me along for the ride which I appreciate more than words can describe. Interestingly enough, one of my favorite projects I have ever worked on was a film called Phony (now available on Amazon) alongside my director/writer friend David Bush. Phony follows a struggling filmmaker, unluckily in love, who enlists the aid of a womanizing friend to create an exploitative documentary about online dating. This film is extremely intricate, well written and incredibly well performed. It called for the actors to self-shoot using smartphones as they film both themselves and others. This film in no way looks great from a cinematography standpoint, but that was what the film needed — that was the look.
How has your technique/style evolved over the years?
Following the breath of my previous answer, my techniques are constantly evolving. I learn something new on every film and carry those new possibilities with me to the next project. The creative well deeps every day, which makes every project more and more fun to evaluate. It is also incredibly helpful to realize what doesn’t work and find ways to alter these ideas. These “mistakes” pave the road.
What was it about The Requin that made you want to work on it?
I had been very interested to work with my friend and producer Aaron Koontz, as he has been pushing out some great work. I was also very interested to see how my experiences on past SYFY shark movies would influence and support this project. After a two-hour initial phone conversation with Kiet, the director, it was clear that he had an ambitious creative approach for the script which was very exciting to me. I was also excited about what Alicia Silverstone and James Tupper would bring to the table.
What was the most challenging aspect of The Requin and how did you overcome it?
Undoubtedly, one of the most difficult logistical challenges was shooting on the water with a relatively tiny budget — not to mention 95% of the film was going to be background replacements. We also worked on this film during the height of COVID-19, so our VFX/Cinematography workflow was compromised. Kiet did a fantastic job at pivoting and adjusting when and where we needed too. The preparation he and his team did leading up to our arrival in Florida was invaluable. They came with a majority of the biggest sequences already storyboarded. Storyboarding is often an overlooked tool, but I find it too incredibly necessary, especially on VFX-heavy films. Most times we don’t stick directly to the boards on the day of shooting, but seeing the movie laid out like that helped us pivot early and confidently when need be.
Do you have any fun, behind-the-scenes stories about the making of The Requin that you can share?
Oh man, we had a lot of fun on this film. One story I can brief is in regards to the life-size animatronic great white shark we used as a practical queen shark element.
This thing was the biggest blessing and the biggest curse. It looked incredibly realistic and was able to open and close its mouth while flailing side to side in the water. HOWEVER, that is where the curse kicked in. As amazing as this thing looked, it was equally as difficult to maneuver in the water. From experience, I know that working with practical, foam-built sharks in the water meant that the element would undoubtedly float like a cork. In this case, however, the added mechanical structure of the shark was supposedly going to be enough to weigh it down in the water, however, that was not the case. We went to great lengths to get the shark working in the water but ultimately pivoted to shooting it as a separate composite element on dry land. This was a prime example of the importance of having plans B, C, and D ready to go in the back of your mind.
What was your collaboration with director Le-Van Kiet bring like? How challenging was his vision?
Kiet knew exactly what we were trying to achieve with The Requin. He also knew what our limitations were and formed his vision around that. Kiet was a delight to work with because of that fact. His vision was as ambitious as it needed to be with plenty of room to adjust as needed. Kiet really put a lot of trust in his collaborators to bring their best work, which seems to be harder and harder to find in directors nowadays. He really trusted his team and focused on leading the ship.
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Do you have any other projects coming up that you can share with us?
I mentioned Phony (which was released last week on Amazon) briefly above. Phony is one of those projects that only comes around once in a lifetime. I love that movie. I really can’t say much without ruining the experience for the viewer, but the last shot of that film is shocking. Check it out on Amazon! Trailer here.
Another film I am extremely excited about is titled Half | Lives (releasing 2022), also written/directed by David Bush and stars Fran Kranz, Malcolm Goodwin, Kimberly Daugherty, Nicoye Banks, and Jason Kirkpatrick. Half | Lives follows Luke, a coworker, and three friends who have taken refuge in a nuclear fallout shelter. 100 days after the event, one of the five co-habitants has died, a mutiny is brewing, and if things don’t change fast, the bunker may become a more hostile environment than the radioactive wasteland above.
I have about 5 or 6 other films in the pipeline that I’ll keep close to the chest for now.