Interview: Cinematographer Sean McDaniel Talks Malum

ComingSoon had the opportunity to speak with Malum cinematographer Sean McDaniel about his work on the horror film.

ComingSoon had the opportunity to speak with Malum cinematographer Sean McDaniel about his work on the horror film.

“A rookie police officer takes the last shift at a newly decommissioned station in an attempt to uncover the mysterious connection between her father’s death and a vicious cult,” reads the synopsis. “Throughout the night, she finds herself barraged by terrifying supernatural events while unveiling the truth behind her family’s twisted past.”


ComingSoon: What led you to become a cinematographer? 

Sean McDaniel: Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to make movies. I had a digital stills camera that could only take thirty-second videos, so I used that and simple editing software to make short films with friends.  From then, on pretty much everything has been about making movies. I always gravitated toward cinematography, and as I met other people in college interested in making movies, I realized that my place was behind the camera.

Were there specific individuals in the field who influenced your style? 

There are too many to name. Specifically for this movie, Darius Khondji’s work was something I thought about a lot. Being in a police station for a large majority of the film, I knew we’d have a lot of overhead lighting and specifically fluorescent lights, which Khondji utilized so well in Seven. We have a few scenes primarily lit by a flashlight, and Roger Deakin’s use in Prisoners was another jumping-off point. He really leaned into the brightness of the beam, while still keeping the scene very dark.

How has your technique/style evolved over the years? 

I wouldn’t really say I have a particular style. I like to do what’s appropriate for the project. That’s part of the fun for me, doing new things based on what the story calls for. This movie, for example, has the most overhead lighting I’ve done for a project. So then the question becomes how can you make that feel moody and scary, while also building a visual language that helps tell the story when you really only have one way to motivate light. That’s a fun challenge.

Okay, so I watched the trailer for Malum — freaky stuff! What was it about this picture that made you want to work on it? 

The first thing really was wanting to work with the director Anthony DiBlasi. We met on another project he was producing, and I was shooting. I could tell he was a great collaborator, and that’s a huge part of choosing projects for me. Then when I heard about this reimagining of Last Shift, I was especially interested. I liked the original a lot and saw a lot of potential for expanding that world, and the script nailed it.

When you first heard/read the synopsis/script, what was your initial reaction — were there any images that immediately popped in your head?

The script was a great read. I am fascinated by cult stories, and the added investigation element in this works really well. On top of all that, the scares are just top-notch and were really fun to shoot.  There were definitely images that immediately came to mind when reading the script, but I don’t want to spoil anything. One of the big things for me was the momentum of the script. It doesn’t hold back and gets intense fast.

What was the most challenging aspect of Malum, and how did you overcome it? 

The movie doesn’t take long to get to the horror, and early in our schedule, we hit a point where every day had stunts, SFX makeup/blood, or both. Those moments take time to craft, and you always want to push the work as far as you can. But that’s the fun of a project like this!

Do you have any fun, behind-the-scenes stories about the making of Malum that you can share? 

We had a really great cast, and one of my favorites was Yahtzee, the pig. Day one, we were shooting with a 300lb pig inside a real decommissioned police station. She did some great work in the movie, and now I can say I’ve seen a pig ride in an elevator.

Also, a fun thing for me was shooting some footage on miniDV. We actually used my old miniDV camera back from my high school days. I honestly was surprised how well the format held up.

What was your working relationship like with director Anthony DiBlasi? How challenging was his vision?

I really enjoyed working with Anthony. He has a clear vision of what he wants and at the same time is open to ideas from all of the crew. I think we were on the same page right off the bat for how we wanted the movie to look. That allowed us to really push each other on our ideas during prep and nail down all the details. Once we got to set, everything felt solid, so even if there were changes on the day, we had a good structure for how to adapt. Plus, Anthony just knows how to scare people, he really crafts those moments well. I learned a lot from working with him on this movie.

Were there things you learned from working on Malum that you’re excited to apply to future projects? 

This was the most I have relied on lighting from practicals. We did replace the fluorescents with LED tubes, so we had full control, and we did bring in other units on the ground to augment the lighting, but a lot of the movie is lit from the practicals and just being smart about shaping them. It gave us a lot of freedom with blocking and camera movement, which was really great. It was definitely specific to this location, but having close to a 360-degree freedom to shoot so much of the time, is something I’ll keep thinking about going forward.

Is there a specific scene in Malum you’re excited for audiences to see?

There are lots of scenes I’m excited about. One of the early flashlight moments that’s teased in the trailer is definitely a standout for me. But I don’t want to spoil anything, so we’ll leave it at that.