ComingSoon had the great pleasure of speaking with Spoonful of Sugar cinematographer Nick Matthews, who offered a unique insight into his craft. He also spoke at length about working alongside director Mercedes Bryce Morgan, and how they achieved the horror film’s astonishing visuals. Shudder’s Spoonful of Sugar is out today.
ComingSoon: What led you to become a Cinematographer?
Nick Matthews: I’ve been writing and telling stories ever since I was a little kid. I never studied cinematography formally and due to a strict religious context, I didn’t set foot in a movie theater until college. As a result, my path to cinematography started with falling in love first in literature—the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Franz Kafka, among many others. Storytelling felt fundamental to my empathetic engagement of other points of view, cultures, and ideas. In a way, it became a powerful vehicle for me to explore the human condition in all its paradox, tragedy, brokenness, injustice, beauty, and transcendence. Storytelling (and filmmaking) feels like our collective navigation of those feelings and ideas.
I got into filmmaking after I discovered the magic of holding a camcorder in my hand and how freeing it felt to make little films with my friends in high school. I still feel that rush when I go on set. Cinematography feels tactile and sensual. It’s a way to use light, color, and atmosphere to build the vernacular of a visual world—to affect the meaning and emotional tenor of story as the audience experiences it. This journey has taken me to some of the most sublime places in the world and brought me alongside some of the most profoundly talented people I’ve ever met. I feel that I’ve learned from every actor, director, and technician I’ve collaborated alongside.
Were there specific individuals in the field who influenced your style?
I am fascinated by darkness and contrast—both in a literal and metaphysical sense. And I’ve found the artists that are interested in those themes to resonate with me. Often their personal journey feels reflective of the pathos that their images embody. I tend to reference photographers and feel especially drawn to Ernst Haas, Gordon Parks, Sally Mann, Gregory Crewdson, and Todd Hido.
Gordon Willis, Robby Mueller, and Harris Savides are cinematographers I continually find inspiration from. Their bold use of shadows, controlled color palettes, and breathtaking underexposure is a constant source of inspiration. They challenged the status quo with every film they made and their images tower above their contemporaries as a result. Additionally, Darius Khondji inspires me with his ability to dance between genres in service of the story and still create mesmerizing images. I watch Se7en before I shoot every single film, because it’s a film that captures beauty and brutality in a provocative and straightforward way. It’s genre while defying expectations.
How has your technique/style evolved over the years?
Every film is its own idiosyncratic story that demands a uniquely crafted visual language to bring the audience into that world and character’s experience. As I’ve continued to create, I feel more confident to take risks to subvert the audience’s expectations. I think I felt more bound by the “rules” of cinema beforehand. I am taking bigger risks with camera movement, color palette, underexposure, and lighting with every project I shoot. I want to tell the director’s vision in a way that captivates the audience and makes them feel compelled to engage the story we’re telling.
What was it about Spoonful of Sugar that made you want to work on it?
As soon as I read the treatment and saw the visual selections in the mood reel I was hooked. But once I read the script and talked with Mercedes I just knew I had to do this film. There were specific references to many of my favorite photographers and filmmakers, including the haunting beauty Gregory Crewdson, the brutal imagery of Sally Mann, the psychological terror of Lynn Ramsay, and the singular approach of Stanley Kubrick. We were aiming to make a movie that felt subjective and terrifying. Something where the visual language was the key component of the storytelling rather than an afterthought. It felt like someone had made a treatment and script just for me.
What was the most challenging aspect of Spoonful of Sugar and how did you overcome it?
I feel like the inevitable challenge of every film is to manage your resources, collaborators, time, and energy in a way that creates singular vision. On this film, the greatest visual challenge was to devise a look that felt subjective and ominous—and took the audience into the world of psychedelia.
Some of the crazier techniques for the LSD sequences we used involved shooting at 3 frames per second and a 270-degree shutter for a dreamy step printing effect. To create this warped perception of reality, we used lens whacking, Vaseline, and I even ended up breathing on the lens in between every take on one scene to visually recreate the out-of-body experience of the characters. And somewhat hilariously, we taped my glasses to the front of the matte box and shot through the textured glass of my glasses to simulate the feeling of tripping.
There are a number of eye-popping shots in this film with striking lighting, weird angles, and lots of atmosphere — is a film like this a Cinematographer’s dream or nightmare?
For me, this sort of stylish filmmaking was a dream come true. I love crafting a specific and daring visual language for every film that serves the directors vision. This film gave me the opportunity to take a lot of the ideas I’d been playing with in short form and apply them to a narrative. This included using Vaseline on the lens, heavy filtration, old vintage glass, off-speed frame rates, and a voyeuristic camera. As much as we could give the audience a warped perspective of space and tiny sensory details, we would be throwing them into Millicent’s headspace.
Do you have any fun, behind-the-scenes stories about the making of Spoonful of Sugar that you can share?
Mercedes had this idea of shooting an entire scene with a spinning top-down shot that slowly zoomed out from our lead characters. Because of budget restraints we couldn’t afford a remote head to pull that off with the 24-290 zoom lens. We struggled to devise a solution that would also work in the tiny A-frame house location but ended up devising this truss build with a Lambda head and rope to create this very old-school way of unspooling the camera.
What was your collaboration with Mercedes Bryce Morgan like? How challenging was it to accomplish her overarching vision?
“To me, beauty is looks you can never forget. A face should jolt, not soothe.”
— John Waters
This quote was fundamental to our approach. Mercedes is an unparalleled force of nature. I knew the moment I first met her that she is unlike any other person or creator I’ve encountered. She has a brilliant, fierce, and thorough vision for everything, but inspires her collaborators to bring their best ideas to the table. Our preproduction process was engaging and exciting. I felt that we got into a beautiful rhythm where the ideas were fluid and synchronistic. As we charted the themes and visual motifs of the film, the entire project slowly took shape and we built a shot list that implemented that vision in a comprehensive way. Collaboration was key.
Every day was a battle against the clock, but we were always on the same page about what story we were telling. It’s one of the most rewarding creative experiences I’ve ever had. I don’t think I ever made a suggestion she didn’t take and improve, which is a rare gift. Because she does this with every department, the vision is cohesive through the film.
Were there things you learned from working on Spoonful of Sugar that you’re excited to apply to future projects?
I used a color palette on this film that I’ve been so afraid of in the past. Tonally, the film moves from softer light with deep shadows to shafts of light and color separation for the surrealism. We used a distinctive and limited palette of ambers and lavender blues, after being inspired by a few photographers. I ended up using this lavender fill in the shadows by using Apurture NYX bulbs in clamp lights covered with my gaffer’s “grandma’s silk pillowcases”!! We went almost all LED and used the waterproof Creamsource Vortex 8 & Nanlux 1200 for most of our lighting. Both of these create the most beautiful hardlight and shafts of light I’ve seen from an LED source—especially the perfect shaft that the Nanlux creates. And we tried to shoot as much daytime work at dusk in a way we would light to create a more surreal feeling.
Do you have any other projects coming up that you can share with us?
I’ve got a few other exciting films that will be releasing over the course of this year. Most recently I wrapped SAW X, and I cannot wait for fans and audiences to experience the magic of what we made. From day one, I felt we could craft the best film of the franchise, and I feel that’s what we did. Additionally, I shot Nicholas Maggio’s directorial debut American Metal, starring John Travolta, Stephen Dorff, and Shiloh Fernandez. It’s a beautiful, transportive, and tragic film with deeply moving performances that I cannot wait for people to see. Looks like I’ll be back in the saddle shortly, shooting another erotic horror film in a month or so. But I can’t say too much about that.