Quarantine tensions rise in the horror film Darkness In Tenement 45, starring Nicole Tompkins as a teenage girl battling inner demons while living with her aunt during a biological scare. Cinematographer Carissa Dorson (Funny or Die) used her lens to amplify a dreadful sense of isolation.
Darkness In Tenement 45 (or DT45), writer/director Nicole Groton sets her film in New York City in 1953, as the Cold War is white-hot. Enemies of the US unleash a biological attack that forces everyone inside. Joanna, played by Tompkins (Resident Evil 3, The Grey Matter Archives), is under the rule of her tyrannical aunt Martha played by Casey Kramer (Lethal Weapon). Headstrong Joanna and several other tenement-dwelling New Yorkers grapple with surviving “the infection” that permeates outside.
PopAxiom spoke with Carissa Dorson (on set during a lunch break) about becoming a cinematographer, Sketchy Times with Lilly Singh, and making Darkness In Tenement 45.
Carissa’s love for filmmaking started in high school, where she took class projects to a new level. “In high school, I made some documentaries for class projects. It made me love editing. That’s where I first got the spark and became interested in filmmaking.”
“I just decided to do them,” she says about the documentaries. “We had options for other types of presentations, but I made a documentary. Even in English class, I would make videos to show the class.”
Naturally, Carissa “decided to apply to film school at Florida State (FSU) based on that experience. It was a great experience at FSU with a lot of small classes and hands-on learning.”
“I found that I loved being behind the camera even more than editing,” she explains her evolution toward cinematography. “I fell in love with telling a story through visuals.”
About Darkness In Tenement 45
“I’ve known Niki [director Nicole Groton], Simone [Lapidus], and Crystal [Collins] from film school,” Carissa explains how Tenement came into her orbit. “A lot of the people involved in Darkness In Tenement 45 were alumnus from film school. So, Niki, the director, was actually in my class. I’d always been interested in the stories she wanted to tell. For many years before the movie, I knew about this script.”
Carissa’s spent a lot of time making comedies, but DT45 offered a new genre and set of challenges to tackle. “I was interested in this story that took place in one location with these characters who are holed up in a building because of the biological threat outside.”
“Because the movie takes place in one location,” she delves into the challenge of making Darkness in Tenement 45, “that was definitely a challenge. How do you keep the visuals interesting?”
Making Darkness in Tenement 45 featured “an ensemble cast shooting in close-quarters with a fast-moving schedule. It was a challenge. We made it work by preparing A LOT. It was also an opportunity to play around and make the lighting more stylized.”
“I shoot a lot of comedy,” she says, “and I love comedy, but this was an opportunity to go a little further with the visuals.”
As an experienced comedy cinematographer, how does Carissa compare and contrast the genre? “I use a lot of wide-angle shots in comedy, but I also used a lot of wide-angles in Tenement to create this fish-eye look. I think stylized shots are used a lot in both.”
“In comedy,” she continues, “more often you let the performances play out, and you don’t want to take away from that. That’s why comedy is a little more naturalistic.”
What’s Carissa’s favorite time to shoot? “I love sunrise. You can’t beat that. Or sunset. I typically try to avoid the middle of the day because it’s the least flattering.”
Making Darkness In Tenement 45
For Darkness in Tenement 45, Carissa played around a lot in darkness or light sources not involving the sun. “A lot of it took place at night, and the windows on our set were boarded up, so we couldn’t motive light from outside the windows.”
Where did Carissa find the light? “We used a lot of candlelight and lanterns. That presented a challenge because we didn’t want a warm, fuzzy feeling for this movie. We wanted a green, sickly feeling to go with the tension and sadness that everyone is feeling in the movie.”
On-set tricks and post-production joined forces to create the moody look of Darkness in Tenement 45. “We dialed in the color temperature on the camera and did a little extra work in post to make it look green even though it’s coming from candlelight.”
Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon is famous for using a lot of natural light creatively. “I looked at some stills from the movie for reference. We wanted to try that approach.”
“We couldn’t have every single candle lit in every shot,” Carissa says with a laugh, “because our budget wasn’t that big. We had to save our candles for the best shots.”
To achieve the look of Darkness in Tenement 45, Carissa says the team used “these great Panavision lenses. We were able to let in a lot of light and let the candles light the characters.”
Carissa’s other recent project was for the Peacock series Sketchy Times with Lily Singh. “She’s a super-star.”
It’s all about relationships in the film and TV industry. “When I moved to LA, I got involved with shooting sketch comedy for College Humor, Funny or Die, and other digital platforms. I had this background where I was connected within the comedy community. A producer I worked with recommended me to Lily.”
“The project was perfect for me,” she says, despite the struggle of shooting during a pandemic. “I’d been shooting sketch comedy for so long. We shot in her house during the quarantine. The show’s style and trying to get her house to turn her house into various locations was fun work. We had a small crew because of COVID guidelines. This scrappy, throwing things together is what I’m used to.”
From her YouTube show to her film to her late-night talk show, Lily is known for playing various characters. “Each sketch had a different style. So, we did like a Drake music video parody that felt like a rap video. We did a parody of Love Island, which had a reality TV vibe. We had a support-group scene that was kind of blue and moody.”
“Lily plays every single character,” she reveals. “We had a body double that we were working with who was great. Sometimes we used mannequins in the background as ‘extras.’
Who is part of Carissa’s creative DNA? “I admire a lot of current cinematographers like Natasha Breir, who did Honey Boy. She’s done a lot of other indie films like Gloria Bell. That’s the type of movie that I love to shoot, and she did it beautifully. I also love Eric Steelberg, who does all of Jason Reitman’s films like Young Adults and Tully. His style is naturalistic, but beautiful, and doesn’t draw too much attention, which is perfect.”
“Remakes are hard because I love the originals,” Carissa says when asked about a dream remake, reboot, or reimagining. “I’m a fan of 80s and 90s films like Penny Marshall movies. I’d love to make any of those. I want to remake one of those big-budget feel-good films that make you laugh and cry.”
DT45 is available for rent on your favorite digital platform. Asked about what’s coming next, Carissa says, “I can’t talk about any projects yet.” Clarissa’s planning a photo book too! Learn more here.
Is Darkness in Tenement 45 on your watch list?
Thanks to Carissa Dorson and Impact24 PR
for making this interview possible.
Read more interviews from Ruben R. Diaz!