Interview: Cinematographer Simon Dennis, BSC on Aesthetics and Hospital Horror in ‘Ratched’

Bringing Nurse Ratched back to the screen forty-five years after she first appeared in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was no easy task, and the creative vision of Ryan Murphy also added to larger-than-life expectations. But cinematographer Simon Dennis, BSC, a frequent collaborator of Murphy’s, did so with a haunting and focused eye.

Awards Radar had the chance to pose questions to Dennis about his stylistic approach, space, and cinematic influences for the maddening world of the show.

Q: When did you first see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and what did you think of it at the time?

A: I saw it on VHS at film school in Edinburgh, Scotland back in the day! Not the best quality viewing but I knew it was special and still is. It made a huge impact on me in regards to how natural a movie can present itself and still be masterful and powerful. I later caught it at midnight screenings at the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh and seeing the print was just amazing. It’s one of the rare classic movies that is forever re-watchable. You see new details, moments and subtext in each viewing.

Q: Was there a conscious effort here to mimic any of its style, or to go for something completely different?

A: For Ryan, no. We all knew where her arc would ‘go’ in the 1970s so in that sense Ryan had a fresh take on Mildred’s origins and so he pushed for a more color expressive and coded look within both the costumes and production design. The photography was also color coded, helped by the influence of films like Vertigo (i.e. the emerald green and blood red color shifts) and the terrific Bernard Hermaneque score. We also used The Shining as an influence when it came to the huge spatial shifts within the key mental institute.

Q: You’ve worked with Ryan Murphy before on Pose, The Politician, Hollywood, and American Crime Story. How did that inform your approach to this show?

A: Ryan is all about scale, meticulous design and color expression. Everything a DOP appreciates. Each show is different but I feel his voice is clear in all of them. I love the incredible attention to detail with the costumes (often color coded for the show) hair and makeup. It really helps inspire and therefore define the direction you go with the photography. Pose for example, we used Technicolor movies for inspiration color theory within the Ballroom sequences. These sequences were not necessarily a part of direct reality in a way, it’s a part of expression for how the characters ‘feel.’ I love that we get the chance to emote through not just light but color.

Q: The cinematography is one key element here that really adds to the horror factor of this show. How do you take simple shots and turn them into something terrifying with the camera?

A: It’s all about the setup, pace, rhythm and deciding on how much or little to show. Horror is for me mostly psychological (hence us learning from The Shining) and yet when the blood and gore occur in the show it’s often very graphic and shocking yet completely fitting the 1940s early patient experimentation. To me it was more about the themes of horror (amputation, lobotomies, etc.) that were both disturbing and yet truly horrifying as they were based on fact. 100 times more effective than fantasy or fictitious horror themes.

Q: The rooms in the facility seem so huge. I’m sure there isn’t that much space in reality. How do you tackle those scenes to make it feel so grand and empty?

A: That’s true. Yet most times we DOPs are forced to use much wider lenses on a set to increase its scale to fit the story. Here it was the reverse in a way as Ryan’s sets were pretty much to scale and so they were vast and detailed. You could walk about the entire mental institute set and not even know it was fake. You could dolly or steadicam a camera from room to room in the days filming and tell a greater story. As mentioned, The Shining helped inform us of the psychological use of ’space’ and so we were blessed with sets that we didn’t need trickery for a scene we could just slowly unfold a character based story within a vast space that enabled us to pace ourselves and not repeat ourselves. In a nutshell they all feel like movie sets.

Q: The motel provides a terrific setting and backdrop for some of the show’s events. How much does that space lend itself to it and what is added with your camerawork?

A: Well, that location work was brilliantly lensed by Nelson Cragg and later Andrew Mitchell (my A Cam Op). I wished I got to shoot those dramatic cliffside settings but alas that was done justice by others. It’s definitely another voice in the show and very much Hitchcock based rather than Cuckoo’s Nest. I did shoot a lot of interior scenes on stage back at Fox Studios which was a lot of fun and inspired for sure from the dailies I say of the location work.

Q: What do you find most challenging about this show?

A: The biggest challenge is being smart about how you unveil and expose Ryan’s beautiful sets for the greater story. It’s very easy to shoot beautiful wide shots but 3 scenes in you’ve already repeated yourself. I find as you progress as a DOP it’s much more about pacing yourself and your ideas and not overshooting the locations or sets. It’s much more about ‘revealing’ the story than ‘overexposing’ the story. Cuckoo’s Nest was for sure a movie that did that and made us all better filmmakers for it.

Q: Are you involved with season two, and if so, what can we expect to see or what would you like to see happen cinematographically?

A: I’ve not heard anything at this stage. I would love to kick off season two if asked but I have this very strict mantra to never repeat myself as it keeps you fresh.

Q: What other projects do you have coming up?

A: I’m currently shooting Impeachment: American Crime Story for Ryan. It’s another vast show yet back to fact based drama which is my favorite genre (i.e Versace) and we’re 8 months in. So after this I would expect a decent break and then work out the next one. I’m not one to plan ahead. I like to see what inspires me in the moment.

Season one of Ratched is streaming exclusively on Netflix.


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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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