In an exclusive interview with Villain Media, Cinematographer Ken Stachnik talks about capturing the scares and performances of Denise Richards and Mischa Barton on camera in The ToyBox. Find out how the camera was used to create the haunting secrets and claustrophobic suspense.
As we previously mentioned, Jennifer and her family go on a summer road trip in a used RV with her husband’s estranged father and brother. Along the way, they find Samantha and her brother, broken down on the side of the highway. After driving into the middle of nowhere, the RV takes on a mind of its own, crashing and stranding them in the scorching and isolated desert. Little by little, the unsuspecting group of travelers is blindsided by the terrible secrets within the walls of the RV and find themselves fighting to survive.
With ToyBox out on DVD and Blu-ray, find out how the cast and crew dealt with the the scorching desert landscape and shooting in one location, inside the possessed RV. If you love cinematography, check out what Ken Stachnik has to say about getting the perfect shot.
Villain Media: The ToyBox is a supernatural thriller with a female-centric narrative. What interested you about the project?
Ken Stachnik: The idea of having one main location out in the desert. The idea of making the RV work and make that another character in the movie. I loved that Mischa was our main character, Denise was there; the daughter too. I think the horror genre needs more female characters and more representation there. I was excited about that!
And also, I worked with Tom Nagel, the director, on before and the other team members. It was great to get the band back together!
VM: Tell me about portraying Denise Richards as a maternal figure.
KS: When it came to lightning Denise, it was the first time lighting a bona-fide movie star. It was both terrifying and exciting! The great thing about Denise is that she is natural and vibrant. You don’t need to do a lot to make her look great.
To make her more maternal, that’s interesting! I always tried to make sure she had light in her eyes. I had to make sure she was lit like a character. I wanted to make sure you see her eyes. I could always separate her from the background. I made her separate from the RV but still in it. What I did differently, the men were more shadowy. As things got darker, I tried to bring that look to Denise as well and add more contrast. The lighting turns more sinister with them.
VM: You capture Mischa Barton’s emotional scenes in close-ups. Was that rehearsed or in the moment?
KS: Mischa is incredible! In our one block rehearsal, everybody knew where everybody was going. In take two or take three, you just know you got it with Mischa. You basically had to see what Mischa wanted to do, what she wanted to bring to it. And then bring the camera to her and let her perform. It takes multiple takes to warm up but Mischa is there, right out of the gate. You don’t need to do one more take; we’re moving on. We had an incredibly aggressive schedule. We shot this in 21 days. Having an actress who could bring it quickly, and sell that performance by take three, really helps the movie in the time that we had.
VM: You have these incredible wide shots of the desert landscape. Tell me about the challenges of shooting in the middle of nowhere.
KS: There was a couple of things. First off, we had a highway that wasn’t that far away. A lot of times, we spent making sure you couldn’t see the highway. You couldn’t see any remnants of civilization.
Another challenge was, we shot this last year, around April and May. Right before we shot, California had perennial rains. There was a drought maybe three or four years ago before that. So when we went out on our location scout, everything was absolutely dry, nothing green to be seen anywhere. In between our shoot and location scout, there was enough rain that the drought was over. We had flowers and all this green. There was water in the desert. We had to pick spots where you couldn’t see the flowers. It had to lend itself to the desert look of the movie.
VM: Tell me about shooting different camera angles in a one single setting.
KS: We did a couple of things to approach that. We didn’t have any sets, no fly-away walls. We had one RV from 1987. One of the problems we had was space, finding places where we could put the camera. That’s why where the Sony Alpha A7S really paid off. If we were shooting with a much bigger camera, maybe an ARI or RED, it really restricts where you put the camera. You can’t get those nooks and crannies. What that really gave Tom was an opportunity to block the actors where he wanted or where the actor wanted to go. We allowed them to find the scene itself. Sometimes we put the camera in a cabinet, on the dashboard, or in the corner. We put that camera in every place we needed to go. It gave us so much flexibility to find our shots. It also gave our actors the freedom to do what they wanted in a claustrophobic situation.
VM: How did The ToyBox change you as an artist?
KS: A couple of things. ToyBox gave me the confidence that I am a cinematographer. After winning an ward for my first film, there’s always that feeling of “Maybe it was beginner’s luck. Maybe I lucked into.” When I started seeing the images in this movie, it gave me the confidence that I did know what I was doing. There was something that I could say with the camera and express it through the art of cinematography.
The other thing ToyBox did for me was teach me how to use harsh natural light of the desert, but still create interesting images. There’s a lot of techniques people were taught in film school. We just didn’t’ have the staff. We were shooting in the spring, in the desert. Not only did we have the intense rain, in the springtime, it’s incredibly windy. With 40 mph winds, I had to rethink the approaches I learned in film school; how to shoot in natural light. Just those lessons alone, I’ve used them in other movies I’ve shot since. It was a challenge but satisfying as an artist as well.
VM: What are you working on now?
KS: I am about to go back to Ohio, there’s a movie we are shooting called, Escape From Death Block 13. It is a prison riot movie, starring Robert Bronzi and a few other actors, directed by Gary Jones. That should be a lot of fun as well! We’re shooting in an old historic prison. This is my chance to do an action movie!
VM: Where can we see your movie?
KS: The ToyBox is out on DVD and Blu-Ray, where you can order at SkylineEntertainment.com. It will also be available on VOD, Amazon, iTunes, Fandango, Dish Network, YouTube, and Steam.
[Writer’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Links are highlighted in bold.]