"Texas Chainsaw Massacre" 2021, copyright Legendary, courtesy Netflix

Cinematography of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” – interview with Ricardo Diaz

March 17th, 2022
"Texas Chainsaw Massacre" 2021, copyright Legendary, courtesy Netflix

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Ricardo Diaz. In this interview he talks about the art and craft of cinematography, the transition of the industry from film to digital, the variety of screens on our lives, and the impact of the ongoing pandemic on his industry. Around these topics and more, Ricardo dives deep into his work on the recently released “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Ricardo: I’m Ricardo Diaz, originally from a small town in South Texas, and I’m a cinematographer based out of Los Angeles. I am where I am today because I love movies. I grew up in a part of the world where there wasn’t a whole lot of things to do with your spare time, and my family really loves the cinema. So growing up, I watched a lot of movies with them. We went to the movie theater all the time, and it was one of the many bonding moments that we had, watching a movie and then talking about it.

At some point my passion for it made me realize that this is something that could be turned into a living. I happened to be growing up at a time when analog was already shifting to digital in the consumer market. You could access software that allowed you start cutting digital footage and just experiment. It became accessible to me when I was young, thanks to the internet, Apple computers, and MiniDV cameras.

The movie that made me want to make movies was “Superman” by Richard Donner. At one point I went back and watched it again, and I remember seeing that it was dedicated to Geoffrey Unsworth. I didn’t know who he was and what he did, but thanks to the internet I looked him up, and he turned out to be the director of photography on the movie. Then I went down the rabbit hole of the internet as to what that position was, and it really was in sync with all the things I loved about making these videos with my friends and family.

It was crafting the illusion, crafting the magic of cinema. It’s this blend of craft and artistry. It’s painting with light. And at that point I knew that I wanted to be a cinematographer. That is the path that I wanted to take, and I’ve pursued that relentlessly for the last 20 years. That is how and why I am here today, with a lot of support from my family who really encouraged me to pursue this.

Kirill: Do you feel that the transition from film to digital is complete, and perhaps there is no longer a debate on relative merits? Has the industry accepted, so to speak, that digital is the default choice?

Ricardo: I am of the opinion that it is a tool, and that they are both just matters of taste. And neither of them is right or wrong at this point.

Digital has caught up. It’s indisputable that you can make a digital image just as atmospheric, beautiful, and magical as film. Steve Yedlin has certainly proved time and time again that you can absolutely trick the eye using digital tools and digital capture to make it look almost imperceptibly different from film. So it’s really a matter of creative taste and vision, and there isn’t a right or wrong answer at this point. If you’re Christopher Nolan and you want to shoot film, shoot film. If you’re Sean Baker and you want to shoot 16mm and that’s right for your project, shoot Super 16. And if you want to make “The Avengers” and shoot on digital capture, do that.

There is no wrong answer. Every project is different, and it calls for something specific and unique for the creators. That’s where we’re at.

I almost feel like the transition to digital is so complete that many artists are trying to sneak some film back into the world just because they miss it. It’s this full circle situation where the past decade has seen digital become so dominant, and some people want to come back to film and try it again. That’s how you know the cycle is complete.

Kirill: Is this debate strictly confined to tighter circles within the industry? Is that something that the larger audience does not spend too much time thinking about?

Ricardo: It probably depends on the age range of the audience you’re speaking to. If you take somebody in their late teens or early twenties, and you ask them if it matters that “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is shot on 16mm the way the original was, you’ll hear that it doesn’t really matter to them.

The debate has raged on within tighter circles, but it’s quieting down a bit over the last few years. There are still a few famous and very vocal proponents carrying the flag, and I’m glad they are. I never want film to die. It’s another tool in the toolkit. It’s another canvas to paint on. We need to have different tools and different canvasses available to us, and it would be awful to lose that. But at this point, especially for younger audiences, most viewers don’t care about the medium itself. Of course you still have cinephiles of a certain age that are purists, and it has to be on film, and it has to be flickering 24 times a second. That is what the cinema is for them, and it still matters for them.

But in general, audiences want to be taken on an emotional ride. They want to escape for a few a bit, or be engaged for a bit, and the canvas just needs to be right for that story to them.

“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” 2021, copyright Legendary, courtesy Netflix.

Kirill: Speaking of the canvas, I was watching the movie yesterday on my laptop instead of going downstairs and watching it on the bigger TV screen. Do you think that as an audience member I am missing something when I do see it on this smaller screen?

Ricardo: I think you are missing some things when you watch these films, especially those released in 2.39:1 aspect ratio. We, the filmmakers, put so much love and care into the details that make an image feel believable, or gruesome, or beautiful – whatever aim we are going for. There’s a lot of detail in that and it’s a sum of its parts. The smaller you are watching that image, the harder it becomes to see and feel like you’re getting those details.

Now I won’t specify what size at which you lose the ability to really see the details, but there definitely is an argument to be made about seeing it on as big a screen as possible in order to lose yourself in that illusion. I definitely hope that they don’t let you play Netflix movies on your Apple Watch at some point, because that would be disappointing.

I would always encourage you to see it on the biggest canvas as possible. And if for you that was your laptop, then great. I’m glad it was your laptop and not your phone. And if it was your phone, I hope it was an iPhone 13 Pro Max and not an iPhone Mini. It’s really about encouraging you to watch it on as big a screen as possible!

Kirill: Staying on screens for one more question, what about color fidelity and your choices of colors as cinematographer? Maybe that iPhone is at the higher end of color fidelity, but then you have some people watching your work on these faded airplane seat screens. Does that drive you a little bit insane, or is that just the reality of visual storytelling these days?

Ricardo: It is the reality of storytelling and consumption on a mass level. People watch this content anywhere and everywhere, and even at home there’s no controlling how someone has their TV set. Some manufacturers have taken the time to listen to filmmakers and provide their panels with different settings and modes that get you as close as possible, but there’s always variance. You look at OLED vs LCD, and different kinds of LED backlight modes. There’s always variance, unless you’re watching it in the color grading suite with me.

We make best efforts, but at the end of the day even if the color separation I use in my lighting or that the production designer uses in their design is washed out or not exact, as long as those colors exist in the same general place in the color wheel, they’re still going to create that sense separation. Hopefully the story is engaging enough and we’ve done a good enough job that the audience is captivated, and even if you’re not watching those images exactly as we’d hoped, under the controlled setting that we hope you would, if you’re still being taken on that journey with us, that is the ultimate complement.

At the end of a film, if someone comes up to me and says “I had such a great time watching this movie”, that to me is more flattering than someone coming up to me and saying “Oh my gosh, your color separation, your composition, your lighting were excellent”. I have an ego, and I’m happy to hear that too, but what really matters is that the sum of its parts make for an engaging experience, and that people feel like the time they gave to us was worth it. You can’t please everyone, but that’s always the goal. If we did our job, the variance in the setting and the panel itself you’re watching it on doesn’t matter as much to them enjoying themselves. It’s annoying, but it is ultimately just where we are. We better start getting used to it [laughs].

Kirill: Between finding the right artistic expression to tell the story and the technical part of it – choosing your lights, choosing your lenses choosing your camera – are they both equally important, or do you think one of them is more important for you?

Ricardo: Personally, they both hold equal weight. I can’t make my technical choices without having some sort of intention, and that intention usually comes from the artistic side. There’s a million places in a given space to put a camera, there’s a million places in a given space to put a light, and there’s a million places to put the crane and to swing it. So in order to weed down all those choices, the art needs to be there, the intention needs to be there, the why needs to be there.

Expressing and having intention, and having something to say with your piece is paramount to my technical decisions. Making informed decisions on my technical choices, such as camera or lenses or quality of light or direction of light can only be made at that point by the artistic side. So for me it’s fifty-fifty. One comes in the process before the other, but they ultimately hold equal weight.

If you set those intentions and then don’t choose the proper equipment to best visualize the artistic goals, it’s not that you’ve failed. I don’t believe that anyone ever fails. This is art and it is subjective, but you don’t get as much impact. So for me, they are of equal importance, but they just come in a certain order.

Kirill: When you talk about what you do for a living, is it difficult to convey all the complexities, all the moving parts of what you do?

Ricardo: I tell people that I’m the guy next to the camera. I say that I’m a photographer, but of moving images. I light it, you see me usually with my eye behind the eyepiece, and I am composing the shot. And I’m the right hand of the director. I don’t get too specific. It’s fun to leave a little mystery in what I do, because most people find that interesting that there’s a little bit of a mystery to what we do in creating the illusion. You don’t want to give away the trick too much.

“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” 2021, copyright Legendary, courtesy Netflix.

Kirill: Speaking about being the right hand of the director and getting to “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, you’ve known David Blue Garcia for a while now.

Ricardo: David and I went to the University of Texas together, but “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was our first collaboration. We’ve been friends for a very long time. David also was a cinematographer, and a very good one, for many years as part of his trade as he was building up his directing resume. We’ve had a strong friendship for many years talking about our craft, and now this is our first collaboration together as director and cinematographer. It was really special to have someone who understood the language that I spoke in a very detailed way.

Kirill: What was your process to define how you wanted to tell the story, and perhaps to pay the tribute to the previous installments in this franchise?

Ricardo: David and I had a very quick prep period for this film, about a week or so. It was fortuitous that both of us come from South Texas, that we both went to UT, that we both knew this franchise because of its history with the University of Texas. Tobe Hooper the original director, Daniel Pearl the cinematographer and many others from that production were all UT graduates at the time. You can’t not go to that institution and not learn about “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. It is a part of our film history in The Lone Star State.

Given that shortened prep schedule, we just were able to operate on a lot of shorthands and bullet points, and our understanding of that first movie, and our relationship with some of the creators of that. I know Kim Henkel [the screenwriter of the original movie] from a previous movie I made, and I was lucky enough to have had many conversations with him about the ’74 film.

All of these circumstances led us to going in there with some key words, some things about what this movie is and what this movie isn’t, and how do we honor and pay homage to the first film while still doing something that is brought to modern audiences, and that we feel speaks to our visual sensibilities. We keyed in on what we called “elevated grindhouse”. We wanted it to be a grindhouse film. We wanted it to feel hot and sweaty and gritty and a little grimy, but we did want to add a little bit more of our aesthetic which has a certain style. It’s taking the ’80s and ’90s visual language and adding a little more movement and color separation.

The truth is the first film was shot beautifully by Daniel Pearl on 16mm color reversal film, so it was very rich in color and contrast, and Daniel has such an incredible sense of movement and composition. One of the most iconic shots in horror is the shot of Pam as she approaches the house, and you go underneath the swing, and it’s that low dolly shot. He had a real sense of style that he was bringing to that first film, even though it is a grindhouse classic. So we tried to blend those things with our sensibilities as filmmakers, and what we got was this term elevated grindhouse, and that’s what we put on the screen.

We wanted this film, like the original, to feel oppressive in its environment and how the environment affects these individuals as they’re going through this trauma. And we wanted it to feel like Texas. Those things were our driving force.

Kirill: The original was a huge milestone in its genre, setting certain audience expectations about how these movies look. Do you think it is more difficult these days to create a horror movie that manages to surprise the audience, that manages to build the suspense and to defy expectations throughout the story arc?

Ricardo: There’s such a glut of movies in this genre thanks to the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, the original “Halloween”, “Last House on the Left” and so many other icons. The ’80s was an explosion of that genre, of the slasher, of the horror picture, and these days we have so much to draw from and such a catalog of movies to watch. It is really hard to surprise anybody, and it is really hard to give them something that they haven’t already seen.

For us it was always about doing our best to elevate the set pieces that we had, and do our best to surprise them as best we could. Everyone is trying to play the game when they watch a slasher. Often the game is who is the killer, and in our case we know who that is. So we look at where is the kill coming from, when is the kill coming or when is the scare coming, where is this person hiding?

We did our best to play that cat and mouse game through how we visualized each scene, and how can we horrify you with the amount of violence we show. That was our way of trying to give the audience something they hadn’t seen, which was the brutality of the film. It does not shy away from that, and I think to a great degree that’s what makes the movie so horrifying, and why you’re compelled to watch it. We tried our best to show you the violence that we portray in the film.

“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” 2021, copyright Legendary, courtesy Netflix.

Kirill: That scene where the police van crashes into the harvester and the guy breaks the officer’s wrist and stabs him in the neck with it was certainly an eye opener. That’s when I realized that it was going to be a full on-screen experience.

Ricardo: And in that way we do veer a little from the original in terms of how they depicted violence, and that was a very much a decision on our part because it is a modern take on this.

For its time, that film was gruesome and brutal and violent. Horror movies back then were not as horrifying from a gore standpoint. They were often supernatural, or paranormal, or maybe it was a possession, but they weren’t about the person down the country road waiting to hack you up and eat you. So given what modern audiences have grown up with, between the news cycle showing war and anything you can find on TV or in the movies, in order to recreate that level of shock that the first film had, this is where we felt we needed to go in order to do that.

And while our film is less suggestive of the violence, I think people remember that first film as being super violent, even if it is not by today’s standards, because it was so violent for its time.

Kirill: Would you consider the bus sequence to be one of the more planned out sequences in a sense of how many people were involved and how tight of a space it was for you to move in?

Ricardo: There’s so many tight spaces in this movie. I would say the scene that required the most people involved and the most conversations was the crawl space when the Melody character goes through the floor and is crawling underneath. That scene was the most planned one. We needed to design that space where we could operate and execute the camera angles we wanted. We wanted those angles in order to place the viewer in a place of danger, to help them feel like they were trapped under that space with Melody. We talked a lot about that scene, because we had to build that entire set, and we had to make sure that it worked for the art department, that it worked for the camera department, that it worked for the grip department and everybody else. It was so tight and it needed to have a sense of dread and atmosphere.

The van crash sequence you mentioned was shot in the first week, and that scene just spoke to us right out the gate. It’s a classic suspense cat and mouse game, and we had a blast working on that in the first week. It was such a great way to get our feet wet with the movie, because it is quintessentially a horror sequence that we got to add a little action to, which was a lot of fun for us.

“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” 2021, copyright Legendary, courtesy Netflix.

Kirill: Does it get as messy on the set as it looks like on the screen?

Ricardo: It gets messier [laughs]. The big massacre sequence on the bus that you mentioned was tight quarters with fixed walls. We did build the set, but because of the amount of time we had to shoot that sequence, we consigned ourselves to never moving a wall. So we operated within the physical parameters of that space. We had to fit everyone on that bus set and shoot it.

It was very sticky, and I remember sequences where we had the blood cannon and the special effects crew hiding behind counters and benches, and shooting these cannons, spraying blood onto the ceiling. It got so wet at some point that the blood from the ceiling started raining down on us in between takes. I would be lying if I didn’t say it was sometimes uncomfortable. But whenever we come off to take a break and walk back in and look at it, it was this feeling that I can’t believe we get to do this for a living. It was so much fun.

Kirill: Was there any color that you decided to be off-limits in the movie?

Ricardo: Nothing was off limits in terms of the color palette for the film. David and I wanted these sequences to have a color that represented something emotional about what’s happening in the scene. If you look at the sequence when they crashed Sally’s SUV into the garage, we wanted that place to be burning hot, the pits of hell if you will. This is where this character comes to die sort of situation. So every space had its own intention with color in order to amplify it, in the same way that the day exteriors are just sandblasted in terms of the palette. It’s meant to be hot. There’s sand everywhere, there’s sweat everywhere, it’s just unbelievably hot.

There was nothing that was ever off limits, because it was really about what color in this scene will amplify the mood and the tone, and whatever that color was, was fair game.

Kirill: How much was captured in camera, and how much was added in post-production with visual effects?

Ricardo: I would say it was overwhelmingly done in camera. We did quite a bit of the movie practically, and of course we used VFX to do certain things that obviously you can’t do to a human being. When Richter, the town mechanic, meets his demise with a hammer, we started practically and then added a believable face in VFX. There were a lot of practical elements like the skull cracking that were shot in camera. We did as much as we could that way.

Kirill: Are you able to watch the final cut as a first time viewer?

Ricardo: I really can. I love movies, and it’s really easy for me to detach myself from being the filmmaker and become a member of the audience. It ultimately boils down to how you respond.

I had the great fortune of seeing the final film in a movie theater in California. They did a one week run of it at a movie theater, and it was a great privilege seeing it with a crowd. The minute you see it on the big screen and with an audience, or if you watch it at home with a group of your friends, it just changes the experience of the film. I get to cut loose and let go, and just watch it as a fan.

I must be able to do that, or else I honestly don’t think I would have kept making movies. I love them too much to be able to no longer enjoy them.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite scene or sequence, or are they all your babies in a sense?

Ricardo: They’re all my babies. There’s definitely sequences that I will remember more than others because of what we did behind the scenes and the things that it took to get there. But they all take a certain amount of love and care to bring to life, so it’s hard to pick one. They all have my fingerprint on them, and I love them all.

Kirill: You said earlier that you came into the industry right around the time where digital tools were becoming more widely available and at a lower price point. Do you feel that in general there are more storytelling opportunities today than there used to be 20 years ago?

Ricardo: I would tend to agree with that. I started shooting when film was still the dominant platform, and as I was coming up, digital started to show its legs and how it was able to provide filmmakers and content creators with the tools necessary to be able to execute high-level productions.

I do think as sensor technology got more and more democratized, everyone gained access to really good cameras and lenses so there’s a glut of it at this point. If someone can go and pick up a Blackmagic camera and shoot their short film, it stands to reason they would. It’s amazing what I see being shot, and it’s the kind of work that I know, looking back at myself as a filmmaker 15-20 years ago, just was not possible and it’s really exciting. It’s an exciting time to want to make moving images.

Kirill: Does it also mean that it’s a little bit harder to stand out and to find the audience when there’s so many more voices on streaming and hosted platforms?

Ricardo: Sure, but at the same time it’s all relative. If you look at what we had 30-40 years ago, you only had film festivals as this platform of distribution. If you were an independent project and you made something, you weren’t able to just put it onto Youtube or Vimeo. And there weren’t the glut of film festivals that exist now or all these streaming platforms vying for content.

It’s all become relative. If you were a filmmaker in the ’90s, the barrier to entry was cost, equipment, and qualified crew. A lot of that is still the case, but it’s definitely easier to create something and put it out there. And if you created something interesting and something engaging, it’ll find an audience somewhere. It’s grown in step. It was just as hard then to be discovered and have your voice seen and heard as it is now, even though there are more platforms to do it.

“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” 2021, copyright Legendary, courtesy Netflix.

Kirill: Do you manage to keep up with technological advances in cameras, in lighting, in maybe manufacturing or production techniques?

Ricardo: I do my best with that side of it. I go to trade shows, I speak with manufacturers with whom I work regularly to try to give feedback, and to try to get on the ground floor of what their research and development teams are doing. But at some point there’s even a barrier for me on the technological side. I only want to know so much. I want to know as much as I am required to know. It’s now happening all so quickly that if I tried to keep up with everything, I feel like I would lose sight of my personal life. And my personal life is what feeds the artistic side of my craft, and as I said before, it needs to have that 50-50 balance.

I do as much as I can to stay up, and I try to test when I am able to, but at the same time a full rich existence is what feeds my ability to have a voice and a perspective when I make projects. So I try to keep that in equilibrium too.

Kirill: Do you think there’s going to be any lasting effect from this pandemic on the way these productions are structured?

Ricardo: Yes, from a health and safety standpoint. And from a distribution standpoint, I think we’re going to see even more content created specifically for streaming platforms. And the health and safety aspects of it are not just from Covid, but safety is also in the spotlight with the recent incident on the set of “Rust” in New Mexico. We need to rethink how we approach our health and safety on set, and the working hours that we put in. A lot in the last two years has been called into question, and will fundamentally change the way productions operate going forward.

Kirill: You mentioned that you had the chance to watch this film in a movie theater. I would say that I spent pretty much the entire 2020 thinking that the movie exhibition industry was not going to survive the pandemic, but it seems that it is starting to come back to life these past few months. Are you happy to see that experience coming back?

Ricardo: Absolutely, the movie theater is my church. I love going to the movies and it’s been hard in the last two years given the restrictions, but also a sense of responsibility. If I’m working on a movie or a TV show, I do my best to not expose myself to any unnecessary risk. So I’ve not been going to the theater as much as I used to for those reasons, but I’m so glad to see that the moviegoing experience has not completely fallen to the wayside. I do believe that almost all genres of filmmaking are amplified with an audience and with a shared experience.

Kirill: Do you ever think what you would be doing if you were born 500 years ago?

Ricardo: I do, and I’ve changed my mind quite a bit on exactly what that would have been. At one point I was thinking that I would have enjoyed to be a blacksmith or a swordsmith. There was an artistry and there was a craft. I tend to respond to professions that are technical, but also require a an artistic flourish. I don’t know if 500 years ago is the exact right date for swords and blacksmiths, but that is something I thought about that maybe I would have enjoyed doing had I been around then.

Kirill: If you could back in time to when you started in the field about 20 years ago, and tell your younger self not to worry about one thing, what would that thing be?

Ricardo: I would tell myself that you don’t get what you don’t ask for. You have to be self-starting, you have to be diligent, you have to always be on it, and you have to let the world know what you want and not feel like it should come to you. There are so many things that are out of our hands. There is an element of luck to it all, and that is terrifying. But ultimately all we have control over is whether we ask for it, and if we go out and do it.

I would go back and say that if there’s something that you want from this project or from this storyteller or from this job, ask for it. You just won’t get it otherwise.

“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” 2021, copyright Legendary, courtesy Netflix.

And here I’d like to thank Ricardo Diaz for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of cinematography, as well as Nathalie Retana for making this interview happen. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is streaming on Netflix. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.