Interview With Julia Swain, Cinematographer For LUCKY

In Natasha Kermani‘s film Lucky, which just arrived on Shudder, May (played by the amazing Brea Grant), a self-help writer, suddenly finds herself fighting for her life every night by a masked intruder.
I was able to speak with the very talented cinematographer of this new horror-satire, Julia Swain, where she was able to really guide us through her craft, her process, and all of the very important details she contributed to this terrific film:
This interview had been edited for clarity.
This is Kristy Strouse for Film Inquiry: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I loved the movie, and I think you did an amazing job. The movie itself really resonated with me.

Julia Swain: Thank you!

Just to start off, as a DP, I’d like to hear how you generally get involved with a particular project, and also – how you got into this one?

Julia Swain: Natasha and I had worked together before, we had done some commercials and a music video, and had been wanting to do something narrative together. So, she brought me in to meet the producers and sort of pitch my vision, what I would do on the film in terms of references and look, etc. So I met Bria, I met the producers, and we hit it off, and then we got to work.

So, you got the script, then went back and pitched how you’d visualize it?

Julia Swain: She got me the script and their general deck of what it would look like. They had thoughts about the mask, and different film influences. And then I brought my own deck and I’m like, “okay, here’s what I would do.” And I break down camera movement, lighting, the different ideas in terms of all those elements. And then if that resonates, you hit it off. And usually, you know, unless you’re going into an interview where you don’t know anybody. And then other times, the director, you know, the producer, etc, and they’re bringing you in to kind of pitch to everyone else.

That’s really interesting. I’m curious, do you look at their deck first or do you have your own process when you read the script and visualize it yourself? 

Julia Swain: Yeah, sometimes it’s fun, and I won’t look at the deck. [laughs] I’ll just read the script. And then like, make my deck and then open their deck and see if it aligns, which is fun. And usually, it does, which is really cool. So yeah, and other times, I don’t really know what I base it off of, sometimes I will look at everything just to get a general feel, to see if it’s something I’m interested in, in general in terms of what they’re going for. But most of the time, I’ll definitely read the script first. And then if I really love the script, I don’t even look at the deck, I try to go off and do my own thing and see how similar it is to what they want. Which is really fun!

Interview With Julia Swain, Cinematographer For LUCKY
source: Shudder

Sounds like it would be! So, what did you think of the script/story when you first read it?

Julia Swain: I love the script. When I read it, I had to read it a few times, because it is one of those that has so much to say. And I say this a lot, but, I think a good script has a lot going on that’s not written in the pages. I think  as a cinematographer I’m looking to understand what that is, what is the subtext, what is really going on here. Which, the audience will realize through dialogue and action and things like that, but you want them maybe to come in on some of the subtext. As a DP, I really want to dig in and understand what that is. And so I really loved the script. And I remember the moment when I read Ted being like, yeah, “that’s the man that comes in, and tries to kill us every night.” And I was like, what am I reading? This is crazy. Then I had to read it again, because her life starts off somewhat normal, and it’s her daily life. And it’s like, you have no idea where it’s going. And then for that line to happen in that script. I needed to figure out what’s happening, which I think in the film, a lot of people will see how I do that.

That line! When that was said I think I actually said out loud “Wait, wtf?”

Julia Swain: Yeah. So that was really cool. I remember that moment. I usually like to shoot it in my head and I’m watching it in my head as I read, and it’s very interesting. I was very interested in diving into the satire elements and the slasher aspect, all of this coming together. I wanted to understand because this doesn’t really fit in a box, you know, it’s something with many genres. It isn’t a cookie-cutter film that, and I wanted to help Natasha‘s vision. I’ve read some that make you follow more of a formula, and this was not that.

No, definitely not. Yeah, there’s a lot to it. Were there any film inspirations or influences for you?

Julia Swain: Totally. So Natasha, and I tend to like a lot of the same things, I think something we thought about was some of Fincher‘s stuff. Like, because again, Lucky has a visual arc, which I think was really fun as a cinematographer, and a director, to figure out what that was. So we looked at like Gone Girl with those really controlled camera movements and the husband and wife aspect in the beginning. Lucky‘s a pretty contrasted film. I just actually watched it last night and it was like, wow, we went really contrasty! Also Neon Demon. We tried to push the color in that last act.

All of those make perfect sense. I love the use of color, can you talk about that at all? What was your goal with the decisions you made?

Julia Swain: I think the goal was always to do something sophisticated. Like it wasn’t ever supposed to be super raw, or gritty, or crazy organic. We were trying to do something that was sophisticated and that really showed off what we’re capable of in terms of look, and, you know, to heighten the production value and just feel to immerse you in that world a little more.

So, the arc is basically, there are some things in the beginning that hint to something being off, right, she hears something in the garage, etc. However, we don’t know where we’re going, we’re going on a ride. At first, we are doing something a little bit gentler in terms of cinematography, we’re slowly pushing in, we’re following her. Starting out in a slightly quieter camera world, as I like to say, where the camera is not really drawing attention to itself. It’s just observing and it’s letting you kind of go along. Then, as this killer comes and the body starts disappearing, we’re introducing whips to the blood, we’re introducing handheld a lot more.

The camera kind of unravels along with her world. And then finally, the color pushes at the end. The world is like calming down a little bit, which unfortunately, I don’t think you really feel in the cut. But on camera, the bulbs faded from red, then back to white, and the world comes back to somewhat of a neutral thing. We kept the blues really pushed, which was interesting. There’s a slight camera fiation on the last act. If you look at highlights in the frame, they’re streaking a little bit and blooming in different ways than they were in the beginning. Because again, I don’t, we don’t, know what’s real. The cinematography was working the entire time to also keep you questioning things. And there are things in the photography that are also just not usual. So, pushing the boundaries in that way to just immerse us in this surreal feel was a fun thing to do. You know?

Interview With Julia Swain, Cinematographer For LUCKY
source: Shudder

I can imagine, I’m sure it was fun to work on!

Julia Swain: It was. And, you know, it’s the subtle, little things like that. And then when we go in for coverage from that, why it’s handheld? Because now we’re like, What are you saying? We looked at the different dynamics within every scene. Whose scene is this? Basically, the whole movie makes you ask questions. What is the relationship we’re looking at? And how does it change?


There are moments where Sara kind of zones out and says broad statements. So, you know, pausing the camera or doing something different with the light in those moments, just to add to this sort of surreal… something’s not natural here. That kind of stuff was really fun to look at. The final act is a bit grander in terms of visually what it does. If you look at even the flowers behind them in the house, with Ted and her at the end, they’re super purple. I don’t know if any flowers that are really that purple but just pushing those limits a little bit was so fun.

It does seem like it almost gets, more vivid as it goes on. And I also think that’s because the story just gets even more surreal and expands in scope. How important was the lighting?

Julia Swain: Yeah, lighting was definitely challenging in terms of just, you know, it’s a small film. So trying to cover a large surface area with moonlight and things like that. In the beginning, it’s all usually motivated from sources, and then as the story goes on, it gets a little choppier, like in the garage. So much of the film is in one spot, so how do we enhance that? It isn’t just about wanting it to look good, but we need things to look grounded, even as it becomes more surreal.

Was that the biggest challenge?

Julia Swain: I think the biggest challenge was definitely during the nighttime, because usually when you have that many night shoots, you have like a balloon light or some big soft source, and we couldn’t afford that. We had to light from the ground. And my team was so great. Brandon who is my amazing key grip… he actually built an arm that came off the roof. And we bounced light into a board to create a huge, soft source over everything. Some of these rigs they created were incredible, and I don’t know how they did it. But it was very helpful in terms of all the night stuff.

We tried to keep all the fights different in terms of the action of what happens in the fight and how she kills them. But also, we’re stuck in the same house, we were stuck in that house for nine days of the 15. So how do you photograph the same space in interesting ways, and not make it the same every time? So we had to be smart about it. Just trying to keep it interesting. And then being smart with my crew in terms of what we could and couldn’t do. We didn’t have the resources to light the entire house or both sides of the house. So, today we are lighting the backyard, tonight and tomorrow hitting the front yard. And maybe we have to go back to the backyard.

So, what was the collaboration with Natasha Kermani like?

Julia Swain: We both have very specific opinions in terms of photography. And I think as a cinematographer, you want a director who cares about where you put the camera and the field of view. So, Natasha brought a lot of those. But at the same time, she brought a lot of trust, because we just have a mutual respect for each other. We pushed each other creatively to really question everything that we did, we tried to do things with intent. It was a great back and forth. When we couldn’t do something, we left room for improvising, right on the day. We only had 15 days to make this movie. And I’m really impressed with how much we did in that time. So, it was teamwork from the two of us. And I think on this level, you really need to trust your director and DP to get it done. I think it was a great, great partnership.

Interview With Julia Swain, Cinematographer For LUCKY
source: Shudder

That’s fantastic. And with Brea Grant, who is the star and writer, did you collaborate?

Julia Swain: I think between her and Natasha, they had a lot of discussion about the script and the motivation. Brea, I didn’t talk to too much. I think she was on board with my ideas when I came on, and she put trust in us and kind of let us do our thing.

Are there any particular scenes that you love?

Julia Swain: I really loved it all. I had such an amazing experience shooting the whole movie. One scene that comes to mind is when there’s a daytime fight where she comes down the stairs and finds him and I don’t know how much we can say but she stabs him in the neck and then blood like falls on her face. That one was really fun. We had a big camera for a couple days that a friend was generous enough to help us with and we got to shoot two cameras on that to try and get a lot of the fight. There’s a bit of choreography, and that was always fun. Then bringing it into the house a little further where he is on top of her and tackles her. That was really fun. The whole like seeing him for the first time and coming up and that Dolly and like coming over her shoulder and seeing him down in the lawn was really fun. Also, any of the transitional things.  Love those.

Those are really cool. I can really feel your passion!

Julia Swain: Yeah, those are all great! And it’s interesting because we’ve talked about how this movie is surreal, and you don’t really know what’s real in it. And in the beginning, it’s got this like time-loop thing, but it’s different for her each time that we see it. Which is pretty fascinating.

Interview With Julia Swain, Cinematographer For LUCKY
source: Shudder

Can you talk a bit about your visual ideas, and how you used them to propel the narrative even further? As a way to really bring this story to life?

Julia Swain: From the script there’s enough to understand and relate to that and make you realize what the metaphor is, and how a lot of women go through this, and that the character of May is not alone, even though she’s been alone. I understand that understanding the dynamics between all of that, as it relates to me, and as it relates to each character in the film, like even Edy’s perspective, her experience is also not an isolated one. I think digging into the motivation and attention of characters and understanding where it’s going is important. And you know, you don’t have to have all the answers, you don’t have to know exactly when she takes off the mask what it means, you can leave it up to the audience. When we are looking at these more metaphorical images, like in the garage, doing things that weren’t common of regular photography, for something that is more neutral, or modern-day or, you know, these decisions speak to whether or not this may or may not be real. That this may or may not be part of the natural world, or it could be in her head. Understanding these, and looking at those things, and enhancing them visually helps carry the intent.

Yeah, and as the story goes on it really starts to wear on her and the colors change, are more vivid.

Julia Swain: Yes! Natasha and I said the man’s color is red, right? Whenever there is a man around there with the exception of like one, it is there. That was sort of an association with there is danger present, at least at the end. When it becomes this like common thread.

So, would you say horror is your favorite genre to work within?

Julia Swain: Yeah, I think I love horror and love shooting anything, genre. Anything that’s not a modern-day LA is like a fun challenge. I like modern-day LA. But as long as there’s like it’s a character piece, or it’s a relationship piece. Like, again, I just love to dig into characters and what these people are going through, I think the more there is, in that sense, the more I can get invested. So, but I think genre work is fun. And it poses new challenges. And you get to decide like, what certain things look like, because it’s not necessarily based in reality, or maybe it is, but you can sort of play with what that means for the audience.

Interview With Julia Swain, Cinematographer For LUCKY
source: Shudder

I love that. What’s next for you?

Julia Swain:  Yeah, I am prepping a little horror short, with Alexandra Pechman, who wrote Tentacles, which came out on Hulu for Into the Dark. She and I are prepping this movie, it is also sort of a home invasion thing and it takes you from night into day, like it’s going to transition in the shot of a woman in bed. And then she wakes up and may or may not realize something horrible happened. I’m also attached to a few more horror things that I’m really excited about. But so we’re just seeing kind of like what lands and what gets greenlit.

Any advice for any young cinematographers?

Julia Swain: I think the biggest thing is: try to tap into who you are. As well as the story that you want to tell. I think that’s kind of the most important thing to focus on. I think when I started out, I tried to fit some sort of mold or latch on to what other people wanted to do and get excited about that. But I think as a cinematographer, you are putting yourself on screen, you are making so many decisions and you’re emotionally responding to the material. So I think tapping into who you are, and also – try and do stuff you really can get invested in. For a lot of us, we go for bread and butter jobs to put food on the table. But I think if you can try and focus on and hone in on what you want to do, the kind of work you want to do, to hone in on or shape your portfolio a little bit. I think that’ll help you get to where you want to go.

That great advice. Thank you!

Julia Swain: It’s the best job in the world.

You read it here readers – best job. That’s amazing. So, for the last question, what’s one of your favorite representations of cinematography in film?

Julia Swain: One of my favorite films. A lot of people disagree with this choice but is Blue Valentine. I watched that when I was starting undergrad and film right like 11 years ago now. And, like I was just starting to study it. For me, it made me think because they mix formats perfectly between past and present. It just made me think about how to capture two timelines. And again, it was like a relationship piece. So looking at how to photograph a relationship and… it’s so raw and so not trying to be fancy, but it was so effective. I think that’s a film that really resonated with me. I was like, I want to make movies like this. So yeah, I love it. There may or may not be a poster of Blue Valentine next to me.

[laughs] I hope there is, it’s a fantastic movie. And, I love that answer! Thank you again Julia for speaking to me, congrats!
Julia Swain: Thank you for talking to me!
Film Inquiry wants to thanks Julia Swain for taking the time to speak with us.
Lucky is currently streaming on Shudder. 

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