One of the best television shows of the past year is undoubtedly Mike Flanagan’s Netflix horror series The Haunting of Hill House, which also not coincidentally happened to include one of the best episodes of television of the past year as well. Flanagan’s adaptation of the iconic Shirley Jackson novel plays out over the course of 10 episodes, in two different time periods, tracking the points of view of five different characters. That poses a challenge for any filmmaker, let alone a director who is helming all 10 episodes of a TV series himself.
The key that makes Hill House so compelling is not only the richness of the storytelling and characters, but also the striking imagery and visual storytelling onscreen. Flanagan and cinematographer Michael Fimognari honed in on a very specific approach to this series, using color and light to delineate the dual time periods and various characters, resulting in a viewing experience that is profoundly empathetic. It culminates, of course, in Episode 6—“Two Storms”—which is a breathtaking episode of television designed to look like three long continuous takes. Complicating matters is the fact that “Two Storms” takes place in only two locations and time periods, jam-packed with all the characters, and flows from one time period to another in a single, glorious, seamless shot.
With Emmy voting approaching and Hill House up for a consideration in a number of categories (of which it is wholly deserving, I might add), I recently got the chance to speak with Fimognari about his work on the series. He talked about his working relationship with Flanagan, which extends to their previous films like Gerald’s Game and Oculus, and the visual language and rules they concocted for crafting The Haunting of Hill House. Fimognari also dug deep into the making of Episode 6, how difficult it was to light, and how it really was a team effort between all the departments. And with Fimognari due to make his directorial debut on the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before sequel (he shot the first movie), he talked a bit about directing the follow-up.
Check out the full interview below. The Haunting of Hill House is now available to stream on Netflix.
So what were your early conversations with Mike like about what the show would look like?
MICHAEL FIMOGNARI: In all the projects that I’ve worked with Mike on, he has a very clear idea of what his stories are about and also how he wants to visually represent them. And so, it really doesn’t take long for us to find their visual purpose. When we sit down and when we start, we don’t even spend much time referencing anything else. It’s a clear point of view. And so a lot of times it’s within the first two days, and maybe this just speaks to us a team, because we tend to think alike in terms of perspective and the way that we reveal these characters truths in a cinematic space. So with Hill House, I think as soon as we started talking about these characters as people who can answer the same question in many different ways, because we’ve got five siblings and five experiences, and what that means to each of them is very different.
Mike and I have been down this path before. When we did Oculus, that was about a brother and a sister, and they both experienced the same traumatic events. But how they viewed them and how that impacted their adult lives was very different. And when you’re presenting that to an audience, you’re in the best of spaces, because they’re both reliable, and they’re both unreliable in that case, in Oculus. And Hill House, from the beginning, that was the way Mike, I think, brought it to me the very first time was he said, “Hill House is Oculus times a thousand.”
So when we started getting into that and you start to deal with past and present and how they influence each other, how each character’s perspective influences how the story is told, we quickly were able to determine that there were two main aesthetics visually, one that’s past, and one that’s present. Then within the present, there were different aesthetics as well, mostly because the characters had placed themselves, either by geography or by circumstance, in different pockets of society, or within their own family. By doing so, we then gave ourselves visual rules for each of those situations, and sometimes those situations crossed over.
Sometimes you’d have Theo visiting Nell in California, but Theo’s basically spending most of her time in Massachusetts in Shirley’s orbit. But when she steps out of it, those rules change a bit. So we had variations on those basic themes, but in a broad sense, we discussed that their childhood in Hill House and that experience of what that meant to them and the trauma of watching their mother break down, and what Hill House represented to each of them was one thing. And largely, that was a cavernous unexplained geography, but there was warmth to it.
There was some kind of strange attraction that always drew you into these spaces, right? But then when you finally got what some of that truth was, there was a cold, dark, dreadful component to it. And when you get outside of that memory and into their present day existence, there’s a heavy dose of that coldness to all of it. And so, some of that we layered in, just based on where they lived, by saying, “Hey, when they’re in California, there’s a ugly yellow quality to this Los Angeles streets that Luke has to survive in.” Then there’s cold winter iciness to the protective shell that Shirley’s put on. And then really probably within two, three days of exploring it, we were like, “Okay, those are the rules.” And then from that point forward, we carved it up beat by beat from that.
Wow. The visual language of the show is something that is really impressive, obviously in episode six as well. I was wondering if you could talk about the shot composition, and also were there any specific rules in terms of the visual language in the past and the present in terms of how you were moving the camera and where you were putting the camera?
FIMOGNARI: First, Mike really knows when he assembles his pieces from a story perspective, he knows every bit of what matters onscreen, how the behavior of the cast works, the behavior of the camera. He’s a symphony conductor in that way. And he’s ahead to where the cut points want to be, how the sound will work, or push camera forward, or pull it back. So our first discussions are always about story and character, and then very quickly turn to, “Okay, and here’s how the point of view works in these moments.” I don’t know that we had any specific rule related to why a camera would move. I think it wasn’t broad like that. It was specific to a character’s experience and what that point of view we were trying to communicate to the audience might be.
So in the first five episodes, each episode largely focuses on a single character’s point of view. That anchored the choices. That’s probably about as detailed as a camera plan, as a philosophy we might have, but Mike knows all of that. Before you even step on set, he’ll say, “Now, this is what matters here. This is why we would move on this line of dialogue and end on that line of dialogue.” So we are that precise. When we make our shot list, they have that kind of detail in it, where we’re looking, when the camera starts moving, when it stops. There are lot of really long monologues throughout the series, and Mike wrote one for almost every episode, and those are written into the shot list, and almost without exception, they don’t have bail out cuts. There’s no natural cutaway. That is a language of the movie, that we are being told a story. And at times, these characters are telling stories, and we get to sit and enjoy and watch. Almost every one of the cast members has a beautiful long monologue. So there’s precision in the choices that are mostly related to point of view, and all of it is decided before we show up.
Digging into episode six, how did that decision come about to do these long takes and to craft this as essentially a play that takes place in the past and the present simultaneously?
FIMOGNARI: That was part of the script. I think that was one of the things that Mike pitched. It was one of the first things he told me about the series was that episode six was going to be one long experience with just a few edits between past and present. And it’s in the stage direction on the page in the first script. So it was a challenge we knew going in. And the other thing that’s fun working with Mike is that our sets on almost all the movies are built to the blocking and the stage direction.
So Hill House, we didn’t get handed a design for Hill House. We handed over really rough, admittedly, floor plans, because we’re not architects. Mike and I just sit in a room, and Mike draws the blocking. And we hand over a blocking plan with cameras in it to the art department, and then they build a beautiful thing around that. But the sets are built around blocking. And so, when the sets were built on the two adjacent stages at Screen Gems, they were oriented and designed specifically to the way that Mike wanted the blocking to work. So, again, it’s the same philosophy we were talking about earlier. All of the cameras are precise down to the line of dialogue, how fast they move, where they pan, how many characters in the frame. And so, episode six, that was built over days, and days, and days, and days of starting with iPhones and DSLRs and bringing in second team stand-ins to walk through the dialogue and really refine this process. The goal being that we were going to be a part of this family’s grief, and not allow that opportunity for safety, or to blink, or to turn away from something that’s otherwise really uncomfortable and hard to go through.
In some cases, they hadn’t seen each other in years, and they’re all forced into this space. We didn’t really want the safety of the ease of editing. That was important for Mike. And then inside of that it was about, “Okay, well, where are they going first, so the behavior was honest and natural? And within this ensemble, whose perspective do we need to be in moment, to moment, to moment?” Some of that was discovery with second team, some of that was discovered with first team. But most of it, honestly, was on the page, it was in the script. So Mike pictured it in his mind’s eye and wrote it down.
That’s crazy. Well, obviously, it’s a pretty herculean feat. What were some of the surprising challenges that you found? I mean, there’s the obvious challenges of you have this massive ensemble, and it’s probably going to be physically challenging, but was there anything as you got into it and started blocking it and rehearsing it, that you were surprised to find was difficult?
FIMOGNARI: I’m not sure anything was a surprise, but it certainly wasn’t any easier. There was nothing about it that was like, “Oh, that wasn’t as complicated as I thought it was going to be.” It was all a daily exploration. We’d walk away from every day’s bit of work with a new set of questions that had to be evaluated and answered. I could look at it from almost every single department’s perspective, and say… From a camera point of view, we shot with an Alexa-65, which is a 6K sensor. For all the right reasons, we went with that camera, and its color depth is incredible. We had also used it on Gerald’s Game, and so that was the proof for us of what we could do with such a magnificent camera. But that camera’s big, and one of the challenges with that is that it’s not a little light camera to throw on a Steadicam to float around with. So we had to figure out how to maintain quality over take after take after take. And with the weight of that camera over sometimes 15 minutes or longer takes was an issue.