Sarah Paulson stars as Diane Sherman, mom to teenager Chloe, played by Kiera Allen, who has spent her life in a wheelchair. Chronically ill, Kiera sticks close to her mother until she discovers her parent’s twisted and sinister side.
Spera (“The Craft: Legacy”) spent time discussing director Aneesh Chaganty’s vision with him to ensure the film, which bows Nov. 20, had an opening sequence that captured the repetition of Chloe’s everyday life: She gets out of bed, takes her medication, eats breakfast, has her blood sugar tested, uses her asthma inhaler and receives physiotherapy from her mother before her day of homeschooling begins.
“The idea was to show what she is capable of. She has a disability, but she’s incredibly capable, especially when it is revealed that her mom has control over her,” explains Spera.
“Rosemary’s Baby” was a model for Spera’s framing choices. The aspect of a contained thriller with most of the tension taking place within the house, and the notion of shooting frames within frames, appealed to her. Roman Polanski’s 1976 film “The Tenant,” along with Hitchcock’s style of the slow reveal, were also influential.
Spera relied on Arri Alexa cameras and vintage Panavision E series anamorphic lenses to deliver the theatrical look she desired despite the movie’s tight budget. “I didn’t want modern glass for this film. I wanted it to have this classic throwback,” she says. “If we all had our way, we would have shot on film.”
It was a spatial strategy that required finesse. “We wanted it to feel small and restricted but also big and cinematic, so I had to find that dichotomy of images that take place within this small footprint,” Spera explains.
The setting — a farmhouse in Winnipeg, seemingly in the middle of nowhere — heightened the sense of emptiness and isolation. And the anamorphic frame helped the DP double down on that impression, blurring the edges of tight shots to show the “relationship within that frame of the two of them and how it feels claustrophobic.”
Another manifestation of the oppressiveness of the situation: the ubiquitous, almost apparitional existence of her mom in Kiera’s life. “We spoke a lot about how Diane is almost a ghost in her own space,” says Spera. “It was always about seeing
her through the doorway or seeing her from the stairs, because by the end of it, she’s almost this specter.”
The DP altered the angle of shots to show how Diane’s presence changes in the mind of her daughter. “As the mom becomes more sinister, we get a bit lower, and it’s about how Chloe is looking up at her,” she says. “Whereas in the beginning, we’re at Chloe’s eye level.”
It’s those small clues that allude to the evil that lurks in the household. Says Spera of the framing hints, “I want people to go back and watch it again and realize, ‘This was always here.’”