A Haunting in Venice has Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) lured out of his Italian retirement. A visit from mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) offers a puzzling opportunity. Renowned psychic and spiritual medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) has been invited to conduct a séance. Opera star Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) has been distraught since the suicidal drowning of her daughter Alicia (Rowan Robinson). She hopes Reynolds can communicate with her tortured soul. Oliver thinks Reynolds might actually have supernatural abilities. She needs Poirot to attend the séance and somehow prove that Reynolds is a fraud.
Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos collaborates with Branagh for their ninth film together and third in the Poirot franchise. A Haunting in Venice looks absolutely incredible. It marks a dramatic tonal shift with horror elements added to the expected murder mystery. Zambarloukos felt “slightly limited” with a “smaller budget” but thought they had a “profound story” based on a “horrific, unthinkable crime.” He admires Agatha Christie for always cutting through to the “human condition.” She “sweeps you away” in a “cathartic process.”
Zambarloukos gets granular in explaining his process of shooting two remarkable scenes. The terrifying séance and climactic underground reveals of a sinister palazzo’s dungeon-like basement will have audiences jumping out of their seats. A Haunting in Venice thrills and is certainly a departure from the previous films. You can find our complete interview with the brilliantly artistic Haris Zambarloukos below, and watch our video interview with him above.
Shadows and Light
MovieWeb: This is your ninth film as director of photography for Kenneth Branagh. The use of shadows and light here is amazing. It’s reminiscent of Belfast but adds a very effective horror element. Talk about achieving that visual aspect.
Haris Zambarloukos: I think the challenge for us was that this was a more unusual, unknown story. But it also opened up and freed us in a certain way. You mentioned Belfast; we had such a great experience. We were slightly limited compared to the other films here. We had a smaller budget and schedule. But we felt that we had a very profound story to make in terms of the thriller, horror aspects. It’s such a horrific, unthinkable crime.
Haris Zambarloukos: What I’ve always admired about Agatha Christie is that she sweeps you away and takes you to places you’ve never been. She always cuts through to the human condition. There is an almost ancient kind of cathartic process going through the reenactment of the crime, psychology behind them, the motivation, and the general human condition that you discover. I think that’s really where you feel the need to be intimate, and darkness, and to do shadows. What you don’t see is what terrifies you the most.
MW: You’ve got a few really impressive scenes. One of them is the séance. Please discuss setting that up. And secondly, the climactic scene underground in the basement with the surging water.
Haris Zambarloukos: That took us a long time to understand the actual setup. I think it was a genius idea of Kenneth to set the séance leader, played by the incredible Michelle Yeoh, in the center with the tables as a cross around. That is not written in the script. We thought it would be nice to put her in the middle because in a séance, usually everyone’s in a circle. So he came up with this kind of blocking. It kind of all unfolded from that.
Haris Zambarloukos: In doing so I thought, well, what if I figure out a way where the camera can spin around with the protagonist. The point of view would be circular. That gave another opportunity for the world to be on the outside looking in a little bit. It was so simple, and on top of all of that simplicity, we have this performance by Michelle [Yeoh], which is absolutely riveting. You feel the terror because you’re with her. There’s something predatory about this and something very, very terrifying. That really came up with the blocking work. Then everything falls into place. That’s where we kind of did a genius job.
Haris Zambarloukos on Camera Placement
MW: What about the underwater scenes, especially in the basement of the palazzo?
Haris Zambarloukos: Okay, so one of the things we learned from Belfast is that if you don’t move the camera, when you do move, it’s well received by the audience. It means something. In this case, the traditional options would have been to follow a character and do that point of view.
Haris Zambarloukos: I suggested that we attach the camera to him. I got a smaller kind of camera, which is actually a consumer camera, and a lightweight lens. We built a rig with a harness that attaches the camera, so you’re actually with him. We did one that was in front of him, and one that was behind him over his back. It seemed logical instead of having the operator point of view. We would just turn the camera around. There was an integrity and an authenticity, but those are the actual three angles in that scene. It was so simply done in a very short amount of time. I think it suited the scene. It was authentic. It was immersive. It made the audience feel as if they were experiencing that power.
A Haunting in Venice will have a September 15th theatrical release from 20th Century Studios.