Spoiler Alerts (Obviously)
I’ve never been a huge fan of horror movies. It’s not their usual lack of storytelling or cheap jump scares that push me away, but rather my inability to handle them. Any time I ever subjected myself to them as a child, I was met by the film’s demons later that evening when I attempted to sleep. I learned at a young age, in regards to horror movies, that escapism was better than suffering. But throughout the years, I watched them here or there, usually experiencing anguish and severe insomnia as a result. But like my taste buds, I knew that I had to keep exposing myself to different things, even if I didn’t like it. Everything changed this past October.
A through-line that connects my roommates and I is our lack of involvement in the horror movie world, I more-so than them. Together, we made a commitment to watch a horror movie or two a week throughout October, leading up to Halloween, to embrace the festivities. I was able to curb some of my trauma and encircle the idea of horror films in general. On October 12th, I popped open Netflix, as I usually do, to watch an episode of The Office before bed. On the front-page feature was a new Netflix original, The Haunting of Hill House. I didn’t pay much attention and went forward with watching Michael Scott disappoint a group of high school kids, referred to as ‘Scott’s Tots.’ After coming home from work the next day, my roommate showed me an article pertaining to The Haunting of Hill House which referenced tweets about how viewers of the show were vomiting, passing out, and crying, leading us all to yelp a collective “what the fuck?”
If anyone knows me, deciding to watch this show after reading an article like that would have been absolute blasphemy. But for some reason, a strong temptation lingered within me. I had to know, so I did the unthinkable and watched it. What I thought would be a jump scare filled, puke-inducing gore fest was actually an intricately woven, well-designed, and shrewd narrative. This story manifests a different type of fear. Instead of smashing you over the head with short but powerful waves of dread, the show-runners let you dip your feet in. They make you feel safe, and slowly but surely, the water you once thought impervious begins to permeate through your skin, accumulating and consuming you more and more each episode. Its masterfully filmed and adapted, and truly deserves kudos. But one episode stands out among the rest. Episode 6, appropriately called Two Storms, is a 57 minute maze that jumps back and forth between the Crain family on their second last night in Hill House and their reunion at Shirley’s funeral home after Nell’s death. It is comprised of some of the longest consecutive shots I've ever seen which required months of planning and practice.The following is a breakdown of what went into creating this episode and their film format choices.
How THOHH Uses Time to Build Tension
One thing that people usually don’t notice in film is that the average length of a shot impacts how you view it. Director Paul Thomas Anderson has made a career out of utilizing longer takes to great effect. If you have time, I would strongly recommend watching this analysis by one of my favourite YouTubers, Nerdwriter1, on Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. He goes about counting the number of shots in the movie, and although tedious, it acts a as a great way to dissect film. It emphasizes that by decreasing the number of cuts in a sequence, it increases the impact per cut and therefore increases the attention to detail in the composition of that framing and its contents. You essentially notice more.
Reducing the number of cuts in a film typically creates a more organic and concise story by putting an emphasis on depth and detail. By using less cuts, you get to spend more consecutive time with your characters and setting. You are able to breath everything in more deeply. This is an extremely difficult thing to do without losing your audience’s attention or coming across as boring. The downside to this choice is that there is less time to focus your attention on multiple things. You need be more selective in what you show.
But more specifically, in the horror genre, adding longer takes create an opportunity to build an immense amount of pressure and tension, usually broken by a rapid cut to something jarring, otherwise called a jump scare. Another component that builds tension is movement and camera positioning. This is where The Haunting of Hill House’s strengths lie. They combine some unknown in the story (for example,“what is in the red room?”), an original creepy score and sound design, and well composed, longer duration shots with slow panning and dollying to consistently create a state of uneasiness. Moritz Lehne and Stefan Koelsch define tension in their 2015 article titled ‘Toward a general psychological model of tension and suspense’ as “originating from events associated with conflict, dissonance, or instability which create a yearning for more stable, or consonant states” which is exactly the mystique that this concoction creates; a constant yearning for stability.
The Long Take
In the film industry, the long take, otherwise known as a "one-er", is a shot lasting much longer than the conventional editing pace, either of the film itself or of films in general. It’s essentially just taking a whole scene, and doing it all in one long take, rather than breaking it up into multiple shots. Significant camera movement and elaborate blocking are often elements in long takes, but not necessarily so. They are often times complicated, intricate scenes that require an extensive amount of resources, time, planning, and skill. One of the most famous one-ers is from Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, where Henry Hill navigates the back entrance into the Copacabana with a camera following him every step of the way as he greets doormen, dodges waiters in the kitchen, canoodles with friends in the club, all ultimately leading up to the floor manager bringing out a table just in time for Henry and his date to catch the comedy show.
To learn more about how the one-er is meant to be executed, I recommend you taking a look at this video on how Spielberg incorporates the long take into his films.
To the naked eye and regular viewer, the long take may go unnoticed, and that’s the point. It should fit smoothly into whatever you’re watching. It's meant to be a storytelling tool, not a brag. But if you really think about how difficult completing these scenes are, you can see why film junkies constantly drool over them and why they deserve to be recognized. It's why you can find extensive lists online of the best one-ers in film history.
From an analytical standpoint, the long take can be separated into the front-end work and the back-end work. The front-end consists of your actors and extras, their choreographed blocking in the scene, and how they interact. The back-end is all of people involved in the production: camera people, grips, production assistants, producers, directors, working hands, etc. In order for a one-er to be successful, the front and back end need to execute their interlacing roles seamlessly while cataloging what everyone else is doing. If one person makes a mistake -- an actress forgetting her line, a working hand accidentally slipping into the shot, or the camera person forgetting their track -- the take needs to be redone. There are no checkpoints. If you made it one minute and thirty seconds through a one minute and forty-five second shot, none is salvageable. You can’t cut away to a close-up to hide a mistake that would be visible in a wide shot. Not only that, but you have to account for the time to reset the whole scene, which can take over an hour in some cases. It can be extremely frustrating, but very rewarding if executed correctly. The following video is the best way I can demonstrate the front and back end of long take film-making in conjunction with one another.
Now, that was obviously a lot to take in. You may need to watch the back and the front end side separately a couple of times to truly appreciate what just happened. Take note of how the lighting changes throughout the sequence; how every piece of the set slowly changes to represent the passage of time; how at any given time there are 10-15 people doing something. Every single person in this sequence needs to know exactly what everyone else is doing or this fails. The required preparation is unfathomable and you can tell by the triumphant applause and celebration at the end of the video that the difficulty of this shot was at its peak. Walls being torn down, set pieces changing, actors swapping outfits, incorporating the unreliability of two different dogs - it's just insane.
How THOHH Applies the Long Take
Episode 6 has taken these ideas and stretched them to their breaking point. Two Storms parallels two stormy nights in the present and the past as the Crain family attempts to reconcile their supernatural experiences with Nell's death. Throughout the series, the creators had developed a rhythm and cadence that set the stage for this episode. Similar to that of a bridge in song structure, this episode broke that flow and found a way to connect two parts of a story, and they wanted to do so organically. Naturally, the writers elected to utilize the long take. The creation of this episode is by far the most brazen film production flex I have ever seen. To put into perspective how maniacally ambitious their choices were, the previous video you watched was two minutes long, without any dialog. The actors and workers had the advantage of having a producer yell out direction to people as they progressed throughout the scene. In episode 6 of THOHH, there are 28 total shots, but it is essentially made up of only 5 shots (the first five shots of the episode). These 5 shots make up 52 minutes and 17 seconds of the total 54 minute and 57 second runtime. Thats 95% of the runtime of the episode in 5 shots. They incorporate a considerable amount of camera movement, dialogue, and special effects. There are ghosts disappearing in an out of shots, storms going on outside (manipulation of lighting cues), and a myriad of changes to the cast and crew. The five shots are broken down like this:
Shot 1: 1:20 - 15:43 - 14 minutes and 23 seconds
Shot 2: 15:43 - 23:07 - 7 minutes and 36 seconds
Shot 3: 23:07 - 40:31 - 17 minutes and 24 seconds
Shot 4: 40:31 - 46:43 - 6 minutes and 12 seconds
Shot 5: 46:43 - 52:17 - 5 minutes and 34 seconds
The remaining 23 shots are done over the course of the last 2 minutes, averaging a shot length of 11.5 seconds - still almost double the average shot length of most films.
In a Netflix featurette, Mike Flanigan, the director and writer of THOHH, said “I sat down to write the script for episode 106 and realized that a lot of the camera choreography needed to be incorporated into the draft itself because we were doing 18 page scenes without any cuts.” He knew early on that this episode was the crux of the story and when production began, he needed to consider that. “It turned into a challenge unlike anything else I’ve ever had in production. The set had to actually be constructed with this episode in mind. We knew that we had certain shots that were going to require us to walk through the house in its entirety.” They designed Hill House with the fluidity and movement needed to fulfill this episodes requirements. The reason Flanigan went about writing this episode in such a way was to have everything seem as if it were taking place in real time; that you were experiencing everything with the characters. He didn't want you to feel fear in fragments, he wanted you to feel it authentically as the characters would have. But in formatting the script this way, this obviously created immense production hurdles to clear. “Every shot was the product of 100 people standing on each others shoulders and having to execute dozens or hundreds of tasks” said Flanigan. The amount of planning and perseverance required to execute not 1, not 2, but 5 extremely long takes is immeasurable. Carla Gugino, who plays Olivia Crain (the mom), described it best. “Everyone has to be absolutely in sync with each other and if one thing is off, the take is gone. You’re trying to capture lightning in a bottle, but you just have to get it once.” These choices served the suspense in the episode extremely well. In an anticipatory fashion, the creators recognize that viewers will likely catch on to the fact that the story is one long shot and leverage that for tension. Instead of a conventional scene where viewers fear when the cut will come, the constant camera movement forces viewers to be constantly searching for whats going to be on the screen next. It's a different type of fear, but its potent; restricting the lungs to a shallow rhythm as we wait for whats next.
When shots begin growing to extreme lengths, they begin take on elements of a play and how theatre actors execute their responsibilities on a moment-to-moment basis. The main difference is that film and television actors often have much less time to practice their choreography and lines, while having their performance held to the same standard as other pieces of film, making it all the more difficult. “I started memorizing that episode two months before, as if we were doing a play. But we didn’t have the same rehearsal time,” says Elizabeth Reaser, who plays mortician Shirley Crain. “Normally in a play you get six weeks or longer to rehearse. We got two.” In performing a 17 minute scene, an actor would be lucky to get two attempts at nailing all of their lines. In most cases, they will only have one. Yet, they are being compared to other shows that they have the opportunity to roll through hundreds of takes. These are the risks in applying these choices. In theatre, they likely aren’t held to same standard because we acknowledge and recognize that everything is performed concurrently.
How did they do it?
In order to film this episode, the production team had a custom weight-bearing camera cart built to navigate Hill House and they could only afford one of them. This almost spelled disaster for the cast and crew in development of this episode. The cart’s wheels were designed specifically to cushion the noise in maneuvering the house's hardwood, but were also being used on carpet as well. The use of these wheels on carpet began to tamper with the dolly’s mechanism. After weeks of rehearsals and filming, carpet fibres were getting wound up in the wheels, which began to break down the cart, leaving the crew to question its reliability. They had no choice but to move forward. They had just finished their last long take that they needed for the episode, but Flanigan decided that it lacked the emotion it needed, so they went for one more. Almost immediately upon completion of this take, which ended up being used in the episode, the camera cart broke down. Trevor Macy, the executive producer, said that “when you’re sitting at a monitor watching this happen, you start to get ten, eleven, twelve minutes in and then you start to go like ‘Oh god please let us get through this, please let us get through this.” If they hadn’t accomplished what they needed to, or if the cart had failed moments earlier, they may have never finished the episode. The cart is so specialized that there is no way that they could have gotten a new one in time for a re-shoot, and with cast and crew members continually working on multiple other projects, a reschedule wouldn’t have been possible. Let’s be thankful this episode came together as well as it did.
To see more on how this episode was made, I recommend you checking out this Netflix Featurette:
In conclusion, The Haunting of Hill House demands your attention and in return delivers consistent moments of fright, hope, and curiousity. It pushes the reptilian brain to its limits and keeps it’s viewers on its toes. It explores the relationship between our own demons and how they impact our lives further down the road. They put in the effort, care and time needed to create something amazing and ultimately, it does what most horror films don’t: their horror is a bi-product of their story, not the other way around.