<I>Brightburn</I> director David Yarovesky
Marc Loftus
Issue: May/June 2019

Brightburn director David Yarovesky

With so many Marvel and DC superhero films dominating the box office in recent months, Screen Gems’ Brightburn has caught a lot of movie audiences by surprise. Directed by David Yarovesky, the film tells the story of Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn), a child from another world, who crash-lands on Earth. A Kansas couple, struggling with infertility (Elizabeth Banks, David Denman), view his arrival as an answer to their prayers and raise him as their son. But as Brandon approaches his teens, his behavior dramatically changes, and even those closest to him are unable to control his actions.

Yarovesky took time out recently to detail his work on the film, which has more than doubled its production budget at the box office ($14M) in its first two weekends. Here, he speaks exclusively with Post about his filmmaking experience.

The budget was just $7M. How were you able to be so efficient?

“Yeah, I think that's how much money I had to spend. I think they actually spent $6M on it.”

Did you feel that was enough money to achieve your vision of what the film should be?

“There is no film that's ever been made that a director feels like that — to have all the money that they could possibly have to make a movie. Every movie is made through the process of compromise and figuring out how best to use the money allotted for this movie. Fortunately, I came up making really low budget B movies. I made my first movie, The Hive for half-a-million bucks. I sold it to Legendary, so I had experience working with low budgets before. This was obviously a much bigger budget than The Hive, but still incredibly small for the level of ambition of the movie.”

You shot in Georgia, so there must have been incentives? How involved in the technology side are you when it comes to choosing cameras and workflow solutions?

“I'm pretty involved in the technology. My DP (Michael Dallatorre) and I are very close, and in a way, we kind of developed our own methodology, like on The Hive. We would pre-color the scenes, run upstairs and define the LUT, thrown it into the camera, and then re-light based on a LUT. On this movie, because it was a less crazy-looking movie, we did a bunch of tests early on and then we got with Mitch Paulson, our colorist, and we set a look, and shaped out this LUT that was the basic look of the movie. And we loaded it in and with that on, so that we could kind of see what the movie would look like. 

“In terms of lenses and stuff, we did a number of lens tests to find the right lens. I fell in love with those T-Series lenses. They reminded me of the movies I used to go to the theater and watch back in the day. It had a kind of vintage look.”

What camera were you using?

“We were using an Arri body. We shot anamorphic with the Alexa bodies.” 

This film is a great example of how effective sound design can enhance suspense and visual effects.

“I always believe that sound design in horror is paramount — especially on our budget. We had to do things where you couldn't see {Brandon] in every shot. You had to hear him. Any time you see Brandon flying, close up, he's a completely digital character. And it's expensive to do per-shot, so we only had a select amount of moments that I could use that and everything else had no sound. So sound was insanely important, not just not just with those moments, but even throughout. Hearing the pod — the spaceship — what that would sound like? What the alien voices would sound like in his head? Even the more bold and weird choices we made, where you're in Erica’s head — the waitress at the diner. She just pulled the glass out of her eye. She’s scared. We would change her breathing to really be like a human-being in her head. We put a camera in her skull and shot through the hole…We also panned the speaker. It comes out in a more surround way, like you're in her head. We actually put a kind of reverb on it, so it's like you're in her head. It’s essentially if you take your fingers and jam them in your ears. That was the kind of sound that we were simulating.”

Who did the sound design and mixing?

“We mixed at Sony, on a stage, and [P.K. Hooker] was our sound designer. He did a phenomenal job. He had done Halloween before us, and I thought that movie sounded really cool too.”

You used a combination of practical and digital visual effect. How many are there?

“The final version of the movie? I do not know, but it's shockingly small when you look back and do the accounting on it. I think when we started to film the movie there was like 80 planned visual effects. There's definitely more — probably 200 visual effects, ranging from painting out cables and tiny little things like that, all the way to digital double Brandon smashing through the house…That just happens any time on a movie like this. You go into it saying, ‘We're going to do as much practical as possible, because that will save us money.’ The truth is, you start to do practical stuff and it eats time from the day, so it's actually costing you money. And what you find is that often the marriage between the two is the most convincing — between both digital and practical.”

There are a few interesting VFX that audiences will remember. The ‘jaw’ scene and the ‘eyeball’ for example?

“People talk about that moment where his jaw comes off. There was a practical jaw on his face that swung down, and then there was digital. It was digitally removed — his real jaw and cheek from underneath. And we added a CG tongue and all the gore and stuff like that. The marriage of those two is what made it look so real. It's a combination. Also, the eyeball. Any time nowadays, when you see a practical effect, it's enhanced in some way digitally. The eyeball effect is basically a practical effect. The thing that you're looking at in the shot — the glass coming out of an eyeball — is a practical effect, but it's been touched up because that practical effect has been stitched into another shot. We shot a plate of her reacting and it's stitched into that, so her other eye is moving, her face is wincing, all of those things. The sweet spot was the marriage between the two.”

When is Brandon a digital character and when is he a live-action element? The floating sequences for example?

“That shot you're describing is a green-screen shot. That's a live action actor. But the shot of him exploding out of the house — that's a digi double. There's a number of shots that are digital doubles, like when Brandon is lunging at Erica. At the start of the shot, that's Brandon, but his quick motion is all a digital double with animated motion.”

That’s how you created the incredible speed and blur?

“Yeah. But if you frame-by-frame it, there are a couple frames in there that are well-articulated [animated] motion. That is what makes it so freaky and weird.”

What was your editing set up?

“We had two editors on this movie. (Andrew S. Eisenm) I'd work with one time before when I did the Guardians Inferno music video for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. But our post kept getting extended and we lost him. Then we got a new guy — Peter (Gvozdas) — and I never worked with him before. He made a movie called The Curse of La LLorona that I saw and thought was very scary, and thought he’d be great to come on and bring some scary.” 

Looking back, did the film turn out the way you had envisioned?

“Sure. I think the process of the movie evolves, so there are things that you improve upon and they grow as the movie grows. But the core, in the heart of the movie, is exactly the movie that I wanted to tell. I aimed to make this anti-superhero, super dark, fucked-up take of superheroes (laughs), and that is what that is what I made, and that is what came out.”

Is this a property that you feel has a future?

“Well, I guess time will tell. One of the cool things about this movie, and the experience of making this movie, was the way we revealed that first trailer, and I think we caught everyone off guard. No one knew it was being made. No one knew what we were doing. And the idea and the direction kind of surprised everyone. So if I were to make any more installments in this universe, I would want to reveal it in that same surprising way.”