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DP David Armstrong Shoots SAW

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One of the great adrenalinefueled
pleasures of horror films
is the “gotcha” moment, where
things jump out at you without
any warning.
Making the horror film, however,
is not supposed to be this way.
But for cinematographer David
Armstrong, working on the new
low-budget tension-fest Saw, it
was. Although Armstrong—who’d
shot features before, but was making
do shooting bling and pulchritude
for cable programs about rappers
and Playboy bunnies—was
initially considered for the job,
preproduction politics worked out
differently, and another DP was
brought on board.
However, the preproduction
politics didn’t stop there. That
DP was, in industry parlance,
“let go,” and five days—can you
say “boo!?”—before the start of
principal production, Armstrong
found himself on board, trying
to prep as best he could for the
tight thriller that plays a little like
Blair Witch meets The Collector.
The story is about a possible serial
killer—or is he?—playing psychological
games with two men who
are kidnapped at random—or are
they?—who wake up in a filthy
bathroom, with a certain deadly
ticking clock driving their need to
escape: alive.
Even with just over a mere 100
hours to prepare, Armstrong knew
he didn’t want just another of those
movies that would head straight to
“the back of Blockbuster.”
So working with first-time
director James Wan (who wrote
the picture with costar Leigh
Whannell), Armstrong knew he
could play to his strength: being
“more of an emotional DP than a
technical DP. Especially,” he adds
on a practical note, “on this kind
of budget.”
Excruciating lighting set-ups
were one of the reasons his predecessor
was no longer involved.
Even if Armstrong were so
inclined, there was no time for
these. He’d be “shooting on the
fly” during the whole three-week,
six-day schedule, with no real idea
“how I was gonna pull off things I
said ‘yes’ to on the tech scout. But
there was no room for ‘no.’”
The whole experience seems to
have ignited Armstrong’s existential
side, a “Tao of Horror,” in his
words, whereby during the frenetic
production he acquired “more
power by surrendering power. If
I’d shot that film five years earlier,”
he continues, “I would’ve been
shouting ‘unfair’ a lot.”
Instead, his energy went into
“set ups” where he’d have 15–20
minutes to light a hallway, and
40 to dress it, typical of a production
where there’d often only be
time for a single take, and where
Armstrong found himself filming
rehearsals.
“Five days of prep and I got to
save their ass,” he laughs. But then
he quickly acknowledges the list
of people who saved his own ass:
gaffer Yavon Levy a former “tank
commander in the Israeli Army,”
who brought lightning military
precision to impossible lighting
set-ups; production designer Julie
Berghoff, coming out of commercials
to work on a feature with
a $100,000 design budget (“if
the light doesn’t have something
good to fall on, it’s not gonna look
that great”), and color timer Dan
Muscarella, “the star of timers.”
He also adds the electric crew’s
Vic Youn and producer/
A.D. Dan
Hefner to the list of
people who helped
him pull off a
gritty, consistently
harrowing look to
the film, which did
well in Sundance’s
“midnight series”—
the same series
that launched Blair
Witch. It is set for
a wide distribution
this fall from
Lion’s Gate and
is said to be that
company’s “highest-
tested film ever.”
The road to such a promising
position in the starting block
included a makeup artist running
to Chinatown to stock up on cow
guts and intestines for one particularly
visceral scene, Armstrong
pulling out his own Home Depot
generator to run lights on one series
of exterior pick-ups, and creating a
series of “police stills” to fill an
editing gap discovered in post.
During it all, Armstrong
describes himself as an “operating
fool”—not only running his
own camera but usually carrying
it around in his arms, serving, in
a sense, as his own pair of dolly
tracks.
It all goes toward creating a “fly
on the wall” look for the movie,
or what Armstrong describes as
“being able to pull off what James
had in his head, then achieving
the moment.
“Unfortunately,” Armstrong
adds with a smile, “this is my
forte.”
One imagines that after the
film’s release, when everyone can
see how much was done for so
little, Armstrong may soon find
that forte challenged with bigger
budgets, longer shoots—and
maybe even a full week, or more,
of prep time.

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