Focus On Film

Creating a Haunting Wood for The Barrens

Stephen Moyer in The Barrens
White looks over Bousman’s shoulder (Photo: Carlos Serrano)
Stephen Moyer in The Barrens

The Barrens is a psychological thriller set in the dense Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. The story follows Richard Vineyard (played by Stephen Moyer) as he takes his family on a camping trip where he encounters what he believes to be the mythological Jersey Devil. As the story progresses, it is unclear to the audience if they are watching Vineyard go insane, or a father who is heroically trying to save his family.

The film is the fourth collaboration between director Darren Lynn Bousman and cinematographer Joseph White. “Darren and I have developed such nuanced shorthand that our communication is often non-verbal,” says White. “At this point, I know what he likes in terms of movement, contrast, saturation, tone and mood. The challenge has now become how to express these things in a different way than before. While I want there to be a thread connecting our work together, I want each film to feel like its own separate entity.”

From the beginning, Bousman knew he wanted to shoot on smaller cameras to allow for a lot of movement. The filmmakers chose two ARRIFLEX SR3 cameras, CANON zooms, ZEISS Super Speeds, and KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 7219 and KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 7207. “The benefits of shooting film on a movie like this cannot be overstated,” notes White. “To have the latitude to be able to hold backgrounds and highlights during ever-changing conditions meant we were able to complete the work in an artful yet expedient way. And shooting Super 16mm was such a joy as it gave us tiny, compact cameras that allowed us to have the grit and texture appropriate for the film while moving quickly at all times.”

Shooting a film almost entirely outside with a lot of day work created its fair share of challenges. “We had to figure out how to hide things,” White explains. “How do you play with light and shadow when there are no walls, no dark hallways, no narrow corridors? We had to create a film that was dark and menacing yet was just outside in the woods. We went for a heightened naturalism, and did our best to make the film manifest the character’s madness.”

Most of the shooting locations were quite a hike into the woods near Toronto. At times, the filmmakers could bring in larger sources and big back lights, but sometimes the location forced them to work with battery-operated sources and bounce. “Sometimes we would push the film a stop to give it a little extra contrast and grain, whereas other times we would overexpose slightly to tighten things up. I feel that we were successful in using the camera to convey this struggle within our leading man, switching from STEADICAM to handheld to dolly (operated by Brad Hruboska) to accentuate these shifts in his sanity.

“There were also several sequences where we used a huge amount of fog to just obscure what felt like miles of forest,” the cinematographer adds. “There was a daytime scene, and I didn’t want the viewer to know if they were watching something real or a nightmare. The fog was playing so bright and the actors were so dark, but it felt so good to the eye. I had to expose in such a way that meant you couldn’t really make anything out in the monitors but I just knew it was all there. It was, and the scene came out beautifully, a real testament to how much detail film can retain in the extremes.”

There is a haunting scene by a lake where Vineyard confronts a young man who has been following their group, hoping to gain the affections of his daughter. There is a complete 180-degree shift in Moyer’s character as he almost completes his horrifying descent into madness while interrogating the boy. “The camera goes from being mostly static to having light, slow wrapping movements,” explains White. “It eventually gets closer and closer as he closes the gap between them, and scares the hell out of this poor boy. The way we used the camera to capture this frightening dance between these two men was really effective, and I am really proud of it.”

The Barrens can currently be seen on DVD or BLU-RAY.