SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” streaming now on Netflix.
It isn’t just the beginning of a title that “The Haunting of Bly Manor” shares with “The Haunting of Hill House.”
The horror anthology from Mike Flanagan and Trevor Macy had to carry a tonal through-line between seasons, despite each one featuring different characters, locations and time periods — not to mention the new season also blending genres a bit to include a deep love story. While much of this tone was captured in the scripts and through the performances, it was also imperative for both seasons to share style an camera language, says cinematographer James Kniest.
“If there was ever a mandate, it was ‘refer back to “Haunting of Hill House”‘ — that was the roadmap that had been established,” Kniest tells Variety. “That was the discussion point to start if and how we want to do anything differently.”
“The Haunting of Hill House” was Flanagan and Macy’s 2018 debut on Netflix that was inspired by Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel of the same name. It followed the Crane family over two timelines: In the present-day, the Crane siblings are adults who return to the infamous (and titular) Hill House because the events of their childhood still linger in their lives. Those childhood events — specifically the night in the early 1990s that caused them to flee the home — are depicted through flashbacks. “The Haunting of Bly Manor” is the second in the anthology, coming two years after the first, and is inspired by stories from Henry James. This one is book-ended by present-day, with the entirety of events unfolding as a story being told to a wedding party. Those events, taking place in the 1980s, are of a young American woman named Dani (Victoria Pedretti) who takes a job as a nanny to two young, orphaned children in the titular Bly Manor, only to learn that the house has a dark and sinister history and that those who die there have their souls trapped there. In order to save her young charge from being taken over by a spirit, Dani ends up sacrificing herself, leaving the love of her life left behind to tell the tale.
“Mike’s work has so many layers. He gives people a lot of food for thought to make up their own mind. We just want to always make this feel potentially believable — never fantasy — so the viewer stays engaged and is constantly questioning what they see, if it’s really real, if the character is imagining it, or if the viewer is,” Kniest says.
Kniest, who previously worked with the producing duo on their 2016 feature film “Hush,” came into “The Haunting of Bly Manor” for the sixth episode of the season and stayed with the show through the end. He took over for cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, who shot the first five episodes and a piece of the finale that had been moved up in the production schedule. Using the former season as a guide allowed for a consistent touchpoint for both cinematographers of the second season. But, Kniest notes, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t put his own stamp on the show.
“They started the show with really, really static, symmetrical camera positions and things like that, and then as you can see throughout the season it starts to get a little bit more fluid and more movement, which I think helps the story flow,” he says. “I always try to lend a fluidity to the camera language, especially for editorial, so we can stitch shots better. We did quite a few crane shots, dolly shots — the camera is moving quite a bit. Especially as there are a lot of people moving throughout the manor and the manor itself is an amazing character in the story.”
The history of the manor gets a special, somewhat standalone episode that Kniest shot, as well. The eighth episode of the season is a deep dive into the tragedy that befell there that created the ghostly Lady in the Lake that is now not only haunting the grounds and terrorizing the inhabitants, but who is ultimately keeping the inhabitants for herself. This episode was shot entirely in black and white and begins to more thoroughly integrate shots that racked focus between characters in the same frame in order to better “tie them together” and hint at relationships.
“We were constantly assessing how much to show. I think that’s an important aspect that Mike brings to the table. He wants to give people enough information to make them think, but not give away too much,” Kniest says.
While Kniest admits stepping into such a complex show mid-way through it required him to constantly re-read the scripts in order to keep track of where characters are in time and place at any given moment, the enormity of the production also provided some unique challenges.
“The sets were spread over several different studio stage facilities: We had the upstairs of the manor in one facility and then the downstairs was in a completely different [one]. So stitching the upstairs and downstairs together was slightly daunting at first,” Kniest says, “but we do it a lot — and we do that with a Technocrane. We were able to be with [the actors] and track them down the hallways and the stairs.”
Additionally, there was a lot of visual effects to come in post that Kniest had to anticipate and therefore properly light. A prime example of this is the disappearing faces on characters who had been stuck at Bly, “slowly fading away into the unknown because they lose their sense of self,” he says. “We had quite a bit of tracking marks on [the actor’s] face and masks that were plain.”
And of course, adjusting to remote post-production in a pandemic was not easy. “We finished shooting just before the COVID pandemic hit, so a lot of the post was done remotely via iPads and stuff like that,” he says. “I did lose a little bit of sleep over that because it was something out of the box in terms of making color and contrast choices. It was a little daunting, not knowing how it would translate to someone’s 60-inch TV.”
But coming into the story at the point he did, Kniest says, was a perfect fit for his own preferred aesthetic — “darker, but still slightly beautiful,” as he puts it — because that is when “things take a darker turn and start to reveal themselves. The episode before Kniest’s debut explores housekeeper Mrs. Grouse’s (T’Nia Miller) complicated connection to the manor. Once she comes to understand her fate, the story is cracked open in a wider way for the audience.
“One of the things I questioned was the tucked-away, flashback sequences. Traditionally as a cinematographer we want to make that look different through lensing or lighting or tricks or whatever, and [here] it was always like, ‘No, no let’s not do that. We don’t want it to look kitschy; we don’t want to give it away,’” Kniest says. “There are some slight changes that were designed, but they were subtle. A lot of it really, in my mind, both on the day and in post, a lot of it was carried by the actors themselves — their performance and their punctuation, demeanor, body language. To me, that’s what really sells it — not any stylistic trickery with camera and lighting.”