Sean Ryan is the cinematographer of the Australian feature film The Moogai directed by Jon Bell. The Moogai had it’s world premiere in the Midnight section of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. I sat down with Sean Ryan in Park City, Utah to discuss his work as the Director of Photography on this suspense driven horror film.
Eric Ethan: Sean, would you please briefly describe what the film The Moogai is about?
Sean Ryan: The film is about, a young family who bring their second child home from the hospital. And as the dad (Fergus) starts to go back to work, Sarah, the mother starts to experience a few strange happenings around home. And, you know, not everyone is believing her, with what she’s seeing. But eventually her husband realizes that something’s really going wrong and that there is a spirit that’s after their children. And then it’s about their fight to save their children from the spirit.
How did you go about working the camera and planning for The Moogai?
Sean: We were blessed with such a strong script on this film, so it was really about trying to honor that and use that as a roadmap as much as possible. John and I, John Bell, the writer director, had done a proof of concept short a couple of years earlier. But we sort of really found the tone of the middle of the film, or the heart, so it was about kind of expanding beyond that. And as the film grew, as it goes along, the story, you know, moving the camera in a different way and kind of breaking into the outdoors, the film kind of takes on new life.
What techniques did you lean into when working on The Moogai?
John really wanted this film to feel like a big film. You know, he’s a fan of, you know, films of the 80s of you know you’ve got the Spielberg’s and James Cameron’s and, we talked about what it’s like to go to the theater to see an Indiana Jones and an Alien and these kind of epics. And so, we try to bring an essence of that into our film to the adventure, kind of action portion. So, yeah, hopefully the audience kind of feels that journey and feels that kind of of scope we were trying to capture.
What were some of the challenges you faced when shooting The Moogai?
Sean: I mean, you always wish you had more time than you did. Finding the right locations were quite tricky. For Sarah and Fergus’s house, we knew we needed something quite specific and something that sort of disconnected them from nature and from the earth essentially. And so that took a while, but we found eventually this house that had a lot of exposed concrete walls. It was very kind of cavernous. And then, by scheduling around the sun, we shot, mainly in the living and the dining areas before the sun would kind of peek into there. Which works really well for kind of the arc of Sarah’s journey.
How do you go about building tension in a horror film like The Moogai?
Sean: I guess working on a genre film like The Moogai is such an opportunity for I think all departments to really come together to achieve this goal of not only tell the story, but building tension and captivating the audience. And it it is a lot about the cinematography in the way it’s lit, the way the camera moves and what you see and what you don’t see. So it’s it’s a lot of fun and it’s a great opportunity to kind of really embrace the team that you are with.
How was it working with the director John Bell on this film?
Sean: John is such a talented writer and he knew this story inside and out and all of the characters and had been living with them such a long time. So it was just, yeah, it was a joy working with him where he had such conviction of if a character was doing this or saying this, he could tell you why at any given moment. And again, that just yeah, it really informs, every step of the way as we made the film.
What do you hope the audience walks away with when watching this film?
Sean: I guess, the film is about a dark period in Australia’s past and so I hope, those that see this film, walk away entertained, but also, as, as a reminder that we haven’t always done things right, and, there’s still a lot of reparing to do. And I feel like that’s, you know, a universal story for a lot of, countries that have been colonized. So, yeah, there’s this kind of a surface level, The Moogai is trying to do and say something a little bit deeper as well.
And finally, who or what inspires you in your craft as a cinematographer?
Sean: You know, I’m inspired by a lot of people that have that have come before me and the way, that everyone, you know, does things differently and it’s it’s not any one person or any one film, but I know it’s just so great to observe other people’s ways of storytelling. In the Moogai, a lot of indigenous stories in Australia are often historically been told with word of mouth or through paintings and things like that. So it was exciting to kind of work with John and, someone who is so passionate about genre filmmaking. To bring his people stories into this kind of world of of genre filmmaking to hopefully reach a wider audience.