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“You Should Have Left:” Using Light, Space and Time to Tell an Uneasy Story

“I think the idea of being trapped in a house that won’t let you leave is an experience that every single human being on earth can relate to right now.”

A middle-aged man (Kevin Bacon) and his younger wife (Amanda Seyfried) find themselves trapped in their house in psychological horror film You Should Have Left, written and directed by David Koepp.

Koepp and Bacon had been looking to make another film  together since 1999’s A Stir of Echoes. “We were kicking around an idea about a man married to a woman half his age,” says Koepp, “and what external forces might act on them in a scary and disturbing way.”

(from left) Ella Conroy (Avery Essex) and Theo Conroy (Kevin Bacon) in You Should Have Left, written and directed by David Koepp.

“I read a translation of the German novel You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann and it was shockingly close to the ideas that Dave and I were already knocking around,” recalls Bacon. “I called Dave up and I was like, ‘Yeah, wow. You’re not going to believe this.’”

Kehlmann notes the “weirdness” of his novel’s setting: “In this house, space and time don’t work anymore. That’s why the house itself keeps changing and the corridors get longer, the rooms appear and disappear. I didn’t really try to give a full explanation to it when I wrote the book, it was mostly about enjoying the weirdness of it all.”

This temporal disjunction had to be reflected in the film’s cinematography, under the direction of cinematographer Angus Hudson. “David was very keen on it not being a traditional horror film,” Hudson says. “He wanted it to be subtle and internal.”

The pair looked at the discomforting photography of films like We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Under the Skin. “I wanted the landscape—the earth and the sky—to be ever-present,” explains Koepp, emphasizing the isolation of the house, shot in Wales.

The Welsh weather proved a challenge for Hudson, who carefully planned out the lighting only to have Wales hit by one of the worst storms in 30 years. “We had to quickly come up with a new plan, which was to do our best to control and enhance the available light, knowing that I could also depend on the grade to help us out,” Hudson admits. “It wasn’t lit quite as delicately as I had envisioned, but I think we made it look good despite the circumstances.”

“The weather also made it challenging to try to match the lighting in sequences,” he continues. “For example, we’d establish a space with open views of the countryside through windows and light streaming into the room, and moments later the light would go down outside, breaking the continuity. We couldn’t afford to stop shooting and wait so we would have to work around it until the sun came back, which it didn’t always do.”

Kevin Bacon as Theo Conroy in You Should Have Left, written and directed by David Koepp.

Hudson chose to shoot on the Alexa Mini in the ARRIRAW uncompressed format, which proved “invaluable in helping combat the constantly changing light and weather that comes with shooting in Wales, along with the extremely tight shooting schedule and the speed with which we would have to work.”

He also selected spherical lenses for their appropriateness to the story, as opposed to anamorphic wide-screen lenses. “I chose Panavision PVintage lenses from the 1970s. These lenses took off the edge of the inherent crispness that comes with using digital cameras and gave the image a slightly softer, less-contrasty feel,” Hudson observes.

“We also used a bit of filtration on top of the lenses to bring a glow to some of the highlights,” he adds. “Part of David’s and my original intention was to keep the look of the film quite European in its tone, which is part of the reason that we chose to shoot in the 1:1.85 format and is why we didn’t shoot with anamorphic lenses. We didn’t want the visuals to dominate, but instead, we wanted it to look clean and simple.”

For night shoots, Hudson opted for gothic lighting with “backlit swirling smoke” captured in wide shots. “The wind was blowing the smoke the wrong direction and without the smoke, the background went to total blackness,” he recalls. “Because we were working with our child actor, Avery Essex, we only had until midnight to get what we needed to tell the story. We had so much to do and so little time to do it, and, as usual, the weather was not in our favor. At one point, I felt like the world was conspiring against me.”

The sense of resonance between the story and current events did not escape Koepp’s notice. “I think the idea of being trapped in a house that won’t let you leave is an experience that every single human being on earth can relate to right now,” he says.

“I dearly hope that this long global nightmare will end soon, and we are all released from our homes. But in the meantime, I think audiences will find this one of the most unsettling films they’ve seen in a long time, and deeply, personally relevant. It speaks to the heart of what every single one of us is going through.”