‘Them’ cinematographer Checco Varese on how horror is ‘like an algorithm’ [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

Cinematographer Checco Varese revels in lensing horror, as seen in his most recent project, the Amazon anthology series “Them.” The first season tells the story of a 1950s Black family that escapes the South and finds that they’ve moved into a violently racist neighborhood in Compton. Throughout the series, Varese judiciously chooses when and when not to reveal the horrors lurking in the dark. “It’s the lack of information — you make things darker so the audience doesn’t see them,” says Varese in an exclusive new interview for Gold Derby. “It allows you to play with feelings and sensations visually in a very open palette.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.

To create the visual palette of “Them,” creator Little Marvin laid out the broad strokes of what he wanted. As Varese explains, the series blends 1950s Hollywood melodrama with the zooms and lensing of 1970s paranoia films, plus the tricks of 1990s music videos and the advancements of our modern-day technology. Varese also made use of close-ups, not only showing the terror on the family’s faces but putting us in their perspective as we face the horrors head-on. “I find that horror is like an algorithm,” observes Varese. “It repeats itself and it works and it’s very mathematical.”

Two big showcases for Varese this season are the “Covenant” flashback episodes. The first is a warm-colored flashback to the South where family matriarch Lucky is terrorized by a group of white people. Varese states he did not wish to be “on the nose” with the audience as far as how he lensed this episode. He used a chocolate filter, which enhanced the greens and the blues. “You get this warm, aging tone to the material, which I think served the story a lot.” The other “Covenant” episode is black and white, rewinding to centuries ago as we focus on a preacher. There was some division between the creatives and the studio over whether to shoot it in black and white, so Varese shot it in a way that could serve either option. One of his references was the monochromatic cinematography of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” “I took the chances and shot it thinking it would be in black and white but with the option of doing it in color,” the cinematographer recalls.

Varese admits he is not a big horror watcher in general, but it opens up his creativity to work on projects like “Them.” Compared to other genres, horror gives him the opportunity to be an active participant in the storytelling. “Drama, if you have two actors sitting at a table and crying, there’s very little I can do and you hope that the actors will convey it,” notes Varese. “But if they’re sitting at a table and a creature comes from behind, there is a lot I can do because you need to hide the creature and you need to make it darker and you need to make it brighter.”

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