Joe Mischo’s music video for Sour Face’s Human Killer is one of those uncompromised and deeply uncomfortable shorts that you just can’t take your eyes off. Mischo tracks a striking individual as he performs a dark purification ritual, an arresting visual which is aptly matched with Sour Face’s pulsating aural palette. Today on DN, we feature Mischo’s video and accompanied by an in-depth discussion with the LA based filmmaker and Cinematographer Nick Matthews, whose bleak 16mm visuals are key to the astonishing sensibility of Human Killer.

I’m curious to know how you both became involved in the project, did Sour Face initially contact you as a pair or was it the other way around?

Joe Mischo: The band approached me early on with the record and once we met in person and I got to know them, I was hooked. The music is very visceral and evocative so when we started talking visuals I wasn’t surprised that our tastes lined up.

The first time we actually sat down together I had only heard the song and I could tell Dylan Bond (our writer and actor) was a little nervous to share his ideas so he sent me a text and had me read it with them. I gravitate toward darker material because it tends to be challenging and ideally, it can be cathartic – so getting something like Human Killer dropped at my feet felt like a gift! With so much potential, I felt a lot of responsibility to deliver a film that could stand next to the music.

Shooting on film was an easy decision, the record just sounds like 16mm and Nick was eager to expose some celluloid.

I really lucked out when Nick agreed to photograph the project. Nick is a cinematographer who forces you to be better as a director and leans into an approach that serves the story above all else. Nick and I spent a lot of time sharing images, discussing themes, and finding the ‘truth’ in the ritual we were trying to capture before we really started looking at locations or boarding. Shooting on film was an easy decision, the record just sounds like 16mm and Nick was eager to expose some celluloid.

Could you talk about your Director/Cinematographer relationship in the early stages of production, what did you both bring to the project and what inspired you?

Nick Matthews: Joe and I started the collaborative process by sharing photographs, films, and literature. We wanted to tell the story visually, crafting a tone poem that encapsulated the thematic arc of the story. During this initial incubation phase, we resonated with Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, Man Ray’s use of surrealism and bisected imagery, Cronenberg’s grounded body horror, Larry Clark’s dirty realism, Lynne Ramsay’s evocative use of subjectivity and exploration of trauma, Hiroshima Mon Amour’s brutal and dreamlike opening sequence, Tarkovsky’s haunting closeups in Stalker, Snowtown’s grimy colour palette, and Steve McQueen’s transcendent use of perspective in Hunger and Shame.

The pain he’s feeling connects on screen because it’s real.

JM: Themes like identity, trauma, and transformation became really important to us and as Dylan developed his character, we’d go back and forth about this guy’s process, where he was physically, and where he was mentally. I have so much respect for Dylan who allowed himself to really physically suffer before and during the shoot. The pain he’s feeling connects on screen because it’s real.

And, in terms of practically realising your ideas, how did you pull it off?

NM: We wanted to subjectively place the audience into the world of his character, optically embodying the experience of our lead. This developed into an immersive mix of grimy realist and distorted surrealist images. Within our grounded, realist world, we found ways to fragment the image with foreground elements, often adding fencing to break apart the frame. This reiterated the fractured mental state of the character.

Similarly, we used a mix of practical sodium vapour and greenish fluorescents to light, cementing the realism of the world. These units coloured the existing concrete and red walls. Within the surrealist visuals, we heightened those colours allowing them to punctuate the narrative. That entailed using reds, oranges, and cyans all pulsing and undulating while shooting these grotesque flashes of body trauma. Additionally, I used vaseline in front of the lens to add another layer of symbolic distortion.

We found ways to fragment the image with foreground elements, often adding fencing to break apart the frame. This reiterated the fractured mental state of the character.

Once we found the right location, I constructed a plan that allowed us to shoot 360 degrees with minimal shaping. To do that, I visualised the lighting in three dimensional terms; background, mid-ground and foreground. We planted industrial practicals throughout the space and used grating to dress the fixtures into the space. Placement was critical for the steep fall-off we wanted. Because we went all LED, this gave us total control of colour and afforded us the chance to quickly relight. This colour arc was tremendously elevated by Company 3 Colourist Kath Raisch, who I’ve collaborated with for the past couple years.

We wanted to shoot on 16mm from the beginning (Arri 416 Plus with Kodak Vision3 500T/7219). It is inherently emotionally transportive, texturally organic and poetic. It was important to me that we find these deep, thick blacks, rich colours, and granular texture throughout. This enshrouded the film with mystery, forcing the audience to engage their imagination thus experiencing the character in fragments until we finally reveal his pained face and the ritual. We felt the more tactile and humanistic the images were, the more the audience would engage with the horror.

Where do you both see yourselves going next?

JM: I’m so grateful to everyone who gave to Human Killer especially Kath, who blessed us with her colour. It’s incredibly rare that everyone working on a music video feels a deeper connection to the art but Human Killer was one of those charmed experiences. I hope this leads to more projects that dig deep emotionally and challenge myself as a creator as well as the audience. Next up, I’ve got a period-influenced film in development based on Ambrose Bierce’s short story Beyond the Wall and a very exciting passion project with a cannabis brand in the works.

NM: Next for me is Black Veil, a Southern Gothic horror anthology created by Dan Myrick, co-creator of The Blair Witch Project. I also shot Rob Lambert’s feature film Cuck which is now available to stream.

Directors Notes is honoured to present the premiere of Human Killer on our pages today. If you would like to join the filmmakers sporting a fetching DN Premiere Laurel, submit your film now.

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