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Making the Cut

Making The Cut: Up and coming DoP Piers McGrail
27 Dec 2015 : Seán Brosnan
'Let Us Prey' is in cinemas now
2015 has been a pretty good year for DoP Piers McGrail with three cinema releases and an IFTA nomination under his belt.

The young cinematographer has only shot five features so far but has showed a very distinct flair in all of them (garnering very positive reviews from the likes of Indiewire, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter), as well as an eye for picking very diverse projects.

With Brian O’Malley’s ‘Let Us Prey’, McGrail has traded the sombre tone of Gerard Barrett’s ‘Glassland’ (released in April and landing him an IFTA nod) and the surreal, psychological tone of ‘The Canal’ (released last month) for an almost biblical, blood and guts horror that has received very positive reviews after festival screenings in the US and beyond.

Here McGrail talks ‘Let Us Prey’, researching old films, and his hopes to shoot musicals, westerns and sci-fi’s in the future.

IFTN: When we spoke to Brian O’Malley (writer/director of ‘Let Us Prey’) he talked about how some older films have influenced him as a filmmaker, in particular the long tracking shots of ‘Thief’ and the dense, cinematic atmosphere of ‘Get Carter’. Did you use these as a reference point at all when designing the look of the film or was it all working with the director and interpretation of the script?

Piers McGrail:‘Absolutely, I had a lot of fun researching old films for ‘Let Us Prey’. ‘Thief’ was something I hadn’t seen, so that was great to watch. Another one that Brian recommended was ‘Alien 3’, which has some great compositions and is nicely stylised. I also revisited the Carpenter greats, including ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ - I never really need an excuse to watch them but in this case I had one.’

‘Having discussed the film with Brian I then came up with a selection of visual references - images from other films and some stills photography - which is something I do for most films that I work on. Looking at all those films and picking out those images, you do start to build up a feel for the film in general, without specifically drawing from one source.’

What drew you to ‘Let Us Prey’?

‘I have to admit - the script was completely nuts. It was over the top, operatic but equally a lot of fun. Truthfully, it was Brian who sold me on the script. I met him before reading it, and he was talking about Carpenter, Argento, Michael Mann - all directors that I love. So when I read the script bearing that in mind, I felt like he would take an interesting angle on it. I had also just recently shot a more serious horror [‘The Canal’], so something with action, blood and guts seemed like a nice change!’

The film was obviously beautifully shot but I can imagine it must have been a logistical nightmare for a cinematographer – you have fire, bloody violence and Liam Cunningham biblically standing on a tall rock in the middle of a stormy sea…

‘I have to be honest - that shot of Liam on a rock was completely done in post, so actually that posed no real challenge for me! But yes, the fire and the stunts were plentiful, and that was hugely difficult in the little time that we had. We were incredibly lucky to have some great support. Some of the best DoPs in Ireland had worked for Brian before, and on the busier days throughout the shoot we had John Conroy, ISC and Ivan McCullough shooting 2nd unit. Richard Kendrick also shot a lot of pick-up material with Brian a couple of months after we wrapped.’

‘But yeah, there were a couple of points where we were tracking through flames, and the actors were running across the room with shotgun blasts exploding from the walls - it was stressful stuff, but also incredibly fun, as you can imagine. Myself and Brian were determined to get all the fire and gore effects in camera, and I think that shows. We had full support from the producers, John, Brendan and Eddie - who must have been as mad as us.’

Tell us a little about the equipment used during ‘Let Us Prey’?

‘We shot the film on the Red Epic. Film would have been too expensive, and we had quite a bit of slow motion, which the Epic handles better than most other digital cameras [or did at the time]. Brian was intent on shooting with anamorphics, and I can’t blame him. Almost all of those films we referenced were shot on them, so it really suited our style.’

‘Unfortunately, anamorphics are quite expensive to rent, but we managed to get an old Russian set - a combination of lenses from James Mather, ISC and Vast Valley. They look great, with all the distortion, flare and softness that you would expect from anamorphic. Practically, they are a little tricky - the focus marks tend to shift and they vary a lot in size. I was saved by the talents of my focus puller, Chris Ayoub. She worked extremely hard with very little time - as did all the camera and lighting crew. We had a great team.’

Your films are coming thick and fast now with ‘Glassland’, ‘The Canal’ and ‘Let Us Prey’ all being released to cinemas in the past two months. Was there a lot of time in between these projects when they were shot or were you bouncing from one to the other?

‘It probably seems like I have been working non-stop, but actually it’s a bit of a coincidence that all of them are appearing around the same time. I shot ‘Let Us Prey’ about a month after ‘The Canal’, and then ‘Glassland’ about two months after that. Actually, I suppose they were fairly close together! But generally I will have a few months off between projects, and I try to do some commercial work in those periods.’

They were three very different projects to shoot too – is that the aim? To be as diverse as possible in what is essentially still your first few features or is the script drawing you in every time?

‘Absolutely - one of the things I love about film in general is the variety that it brings, so I jump at any opportunity to do something new. I still have quite a few boxes to tick - comedy, musical, sci-fi… and I’d very much like to do a western. So if anyone is planning one, give me a shout!’

Whilst receiving very positive critical notice for all of your films thus far (‘Kelly+Victor’, ‘Out of Here’, ‘Glassland’, ‘The Canal’, ‘Let Us Prey’), your work on ‘Glassland’ was recognized with an IFTA nomination – how did it feel to garner your first IFTA nod?

‘That was really terrific. To be nominated alongside such talented cinematographers was a real honour. It was all very glamorous, and the food was great!’

Three films in cinemas and an IFTA nomination in 2015 – any signs of you taking a rest at all then or what are you working on at the moment? I believe you shot a feature for Lorcan Finnegan also…

‘Yeah, I shot a feature with Lorcan back in April. That was a really enjoyable shoot and I think it will be a great film. It’s a psychological thriller about a land surveyor. I’ve seen a short teaser and I’m really looking forward to seeing the finished piece.’

‘I also shot an Italian/Irish co-production last Autumn, so hopefully that will get a festival screening over the coming months. And I’m about to head off to Canada to shoot a film with Juanita Wilson, which is a very exciting prospect.’

‘After that though, I have nothing planned. Maybe a comedy, musical, western or sci-fi will show up!’

‘Let Us Prey’ is in cinemas now.

IFTA Q&A Series: Joanne O’Brien on Costume Design
IFTA Q&A Series: Eleanor Bowman on Cinematography
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