Academy Award- and BAFTA-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren tells Laura Venning about the painterly shot compositions, Gothic inspirations and expressionist colour palette that underpin this deliciously dark dramedy.
Cinematographer Linus Sandgren is no stranger to excess, from the disco gaudiness of American Hustle (2013) to the starry-eyed nostalgia of La La Land (2016) and the globetrotting glamour of No Time to Die (2021). Having won an Oscar and a BAFTA for La La Land, Sandgren has become one of director Damien Chazelle’s most consistent collaborators, recently recreating the depraved dream factory that was early Hollywood in Babylon (2022). Now he’s bringing the refined but rotten world of Emerald Fennell’s Saltburnto life, in which working-class Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) recalls being drawn to his aristocratic Oxford classmate Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), and the romance and madness of one summer at his ancestral home.
‘I was curious about [Emerald Fennell], because in Promising Young Woman she showed an excellent directing ability and she made decisions that were
really bold,’ Sandgren remembers. But Fennell didn’t just pique his interest as a director, the wickedness of her writing appealed to him immediately. The pair have developed a strong creative partnership, with Sandgren describing her as ‘not hesitant to explore… she has all the answers, but she can really inspire you to go further than you do normally’.
Though Sandgren is probably best known for dazzling widescreen vistas like those in La La Land and Babylon, in Saltburn he takes a different approach, shooting in a confined, boxy Academy ratio. ‘Emerald wanted it to feel voyeuristic, and that it would be beautiful if we could sort of look into a doll’s house, peeking in on the characters, and the more square format would fit better,’ he says. It also lent a sense of splendour, as Sandgren and Fennell ‘gravitated towards a more formal composition in group shots that would be composed like paintings’, keeping the camera still and distant, and thereby echoing the family’s emotional repression while mirroring the mansion’s ancestral portraits.
But the film isn’t all cold haughtiness, it’s also alive with violence and sex. That square aspect ratio makes every close-up more intimate, highlighting every bead of sweat and every drop of blood. ‘Lots of people get lost in Saltburn,’ murmurs menacing butler Duncan (Paul Rhys), and Sandgren explains that the aim was to both seduce and unnerve the audience. ‘We talked about it like a vampire story… Oliver is a vampire and that aristocratic world is also like vampires!’ He was influenced by silent horror films like The Phantom Carriage (1921) and Nosferatu (1922), as well as the voyeuristic gaze of Alfred Hitchcock.
This sense of impending horror is reflected in the colour palette too, clearly aiming for heightened expressionism rather than realism. Initially Saltburn is bathed in the enticing gold of summer sunshine, emphasising the starkness of the dried-up landscape as well as a nostalgic glow as, years later, Oliver tells the story of the holiday seared into his memory. But as paradise begins to turn sour, dark, moody interiors and deep, intense reds dominate, with Sandgren taking inspiration from the opulence of Gothic and Baroque paintings. ‘I think it was important to have rich colours to enhance the romantic and sensual feel of things,’ he says, ‘red was a very important colour in the film… it’s like flesh, like we’re inside the human body.’
And this wouldn’t be an Emerald Fennell production without a keen sense of musicality. Much like Promising Young Woman (2020), Saltburn indulges in some sensational mid-Noughties needle drops, from Arcade Fire to the Cheeky Girls. A climactic dance sequence, sweeping camera work through the labyrinthine house and a party that descends into A Midsummer Night’s Nightmare feel like echoes of Sandgren’s work on La La Land and Babylon. It’s not intentional, but ‘my actual job, as a cinematographer, I think, should be somewhat musical, you know, the rhythm of the camera; it’s very related to music’.
Just as Oliver Quick is lost in the hallowed halls of Saltburn, so Sandgren draws the audience in with him, with his sumptuous, evocative cinematography. Whether capturing Barry Keoghan’s powerhouse of a performance or the bittersweet grandeur of this centuries-old monument to wealth and status, his vision ensures that this summer at Saltburn will never be forgotten.
This article originally appeared in the Awards Journal. Pick up your free copy now in any Curzon cinema while stocks last.
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