The surprising horror film “Master” directed by Mariama Diallo debuted at Sundance 2022. I’ve never seen the Black female experience so intimately told in this setting. We are brought into the world of a mostly white elite east coast private college that has been around since practically the beginning of our US history. As the first Black Master of an all-white dormitory, Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) takes us through this world, along with the lone Black female student, Jasmine Moore, played by Zoe Renee. As much as the story and actors participate in the realization of Mariama’s vision, cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby uses her camera as the central tool to bring it to life. During the Sundance Q&A, Diallo spoke about how she views life through the lenses of fantasy and reality, and that plays into the horror commentary we see in this film.
We had the opportunity to interview cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby (“Once Upon A River”, “Madeline’s Madeline”) about her experience behind the camera on “Master”, which will be coming to Prime Video on March 18th.
Talk to me about your work with Mariama, and how you came to this project.
Mariama and I met on her short film “Hair Wolf”, and hit it off instantly. Our relationship was open, trusting and collaborative from the start. We went all in for prep, holing up together in Mariama’s apartment, acting out the scenes, jotting down sketches, pulling up references and bouncing ideas off each other. It was a process I really loved and it set the groundwork for what our prep would be like for “Master”.
I know that you and Mariama watched a lot of horror films to explore the looks for “Master”. Which films inspired you the most?
The films we kept returning to were “Rosemary’s Baby”, “Don’t Look Now”, “Hour of the Wolf”, “Phantom Thread”, “Blood Simple” and “The Shining”, though we pulled ideas from all over. For the first tenure committee scene, we kept revisiting the dinner party scene in “Hour of the Wolf”. That scene starts with an extended circular dolly shot where the camera careens past these dinner party guests as they’re all taunting the artist. Mariama and I wanted Gail to have the same dizzying, overwhelming and alienating experience of the academics. Mariama wrote little snippets of dialogue for each actor to say as we moved past them that melted together into a self-important cacophony. I remember the script called it “a tenure meeting with the tenor of a blood sport.”
How did you use the camera as a watchful presence?
We wanted the audience to feel a dark presence at Ancaster from the very beginning. We open with a shot slowly bearing down on Gail from the roof of the school’s entryway and a few frames later we echo this shot with a slow zoom in on Jasmine from the POV of her dorm room window. We wanted it to feel like there was a sinister presence, lurking in the shadows of the eaves, singling these women out.
How did you use the visual language to reflect Ancaster?
I wanted there to be something about Jasmine’s room that felt like the trace of a spirit. We learn from the hushed whispers of the RAs that something is off about her room before we learn the story of the curse. I asked our 2021 production designer Tommy Love if he could get warped glass for the window pane in Jasmine’s room and he installed glass that matched the period of the Belleville dorm and cast these wonderfully distorted patterns on the wall. We used an extra pane of warped glass to cast a light pattern over Jasmine’s side of the room. It compels her to slide her hand along the sloped ceiling and have this private moment with the room– also a subtle foreshadowing before her roommate interrupts.
How did you use cinematography to enhance Regina Hall and Zoe Renee’s performances?
People often flatly describe a film’s cinematography as “beautiful,” but in order for the lighting and lensing to compliment and heighten the emotional truth of a scene, you don’t necessarily want every scene to look beautiful. In the case of “Master”, sometimes the appropriate move was to underlight actors we start to distrust, making their features grotesque and menacing, or to key them with a sickly green-yellow light when we want to feel that their spirit is rotten. I really love the way we underlit the school’s librarian who searches Jasmine’s belongings to make sure she didn’t steal anything.
What do you hope people see in your film?
I want people to have a visceral experience of the film. “Master” grapples with the still-unfolding history of white supremacy in this country, but it’s not a lecture or a sermon, it’s an intimate emotional experience. I want people to leave the theater still talking about it.
What’s coming up next for you?
“Master” comes out on Amazon Prime March 18th. I also shot a comedy special for Jo Firestone called “Good Timing” that’s nominated for a Critic’s Choice Award (pushed to March 13th.) It’s available to watch now on Peacock.