Coming to widespread industry acclaim for his effective title sequence on 1995’s Se7en Kyle Cooper has crafted iconic openings for a whole range of movies, but his horror work is especially worthy of mention. Having produced effectively jarring opening and closing credits for 2004’s Dawn Of The Dead, 2005’s House Of Wax, 2010’s A Nightmare On Elm Street and 2011’s Fright Night among many others, he’s also taken his talent for definitive discomfort to TV, defining the tone of both The Walking Dead and American Horror Story…
Do you have a design philosophy when you approach horror credits?
My philosophy, I think, is the same as for any opening credits. Try to have the idea be born out of the content and try to communicate something, try to involve the audience emotionally. If it’s a horror sequence, you try to get an emotional response whether it’s disturbing, suspenseful, mysterious or dramatic, these things kind of set the tone. I don’t know that I set out to do horror credits, but I always liked horror movies – I’m just more interested in those kind of themes. It seems sometimes the more mainstream or larger budget features, they’re trying to appeal to a broader audience – like comedies and romantic comedies – people get away with things that are less sophisticated in the typography from a design standpoint.
For American Horror Story, Ryan Murphy wanted it to be dark – the subject matter is dark, we talked about dark things. In fact I had a cut that was even more dark, and we took out some of the sounds, some of the sound effects and some of the more darker imagery that the studio thought was a little dark. I think sometimes imagery that is supposed to be shocking doesn’t leave anything to the imagination, and so it’s a challenge to try and make it scary without necessarily making it silly – like a haunted house or something, like a kid’s haunted house with fake blood and all that stuff. It’s not disturbing unless you hold something back, I think.
Effective horror seems to be about adding a sense of unease to something mundane, was that the plan?
Yeah. I was thinking about the house, and the idea that all of these inhabitants of this house – the innocent inhabitants – that have had to watch, stand by while all this madness goes on. Like kids with their eyes forced open, because they’re in a photograph and they’re watching what’s taking place and they can’t do anything about it. In Henry The IV, after the Battle Of Agincourt, Henry the IV says, “What is this castle that stands half by?” You know, that there’s a castle that just stands there on the landscape that’s witnessing all of these wars and all that’s taken place at the time, and I thought of all these photographs of little kids that have lived in the house and had to stand and watch, their eyes forced open, these things that go on. That’s something that was mind, the other thing was the POV – I had a hand held Super-16 camera, and there’s this little creature that runs around in the basement, so I was running around through the basement as the POV of this creature.
There’s loads of little references in the opening sequences that fans picked up on, did Ryan Murphy basically give you a list of things he wanted to see?
The interesting thing about that sequence is that there was no principle photography shot – they just started shooting, there wasn’t any episode cut. I read the script and [Ryan and I] talked about iconography and the back story, and what the story was inspired by – this real crime, a series of crimes that took place in California. There was a guy who was a doctor when abortions were illegal – this is a real story – he was performing these illegal abortions and this woman came for and her husband was against it. So the husband kidnapped and killed the doctor’s child.
Apparently there’s a lot of things that tipped there hat to things that happened in the show – so I guess when we talked about the show and talked about the script, I decided what I would sheet and I also made up some things while I was shooting that either he wrote into the story, or it was a strange, dark coincidence. There’s a guy with garden shears – which is actually me in the shot – and guess somebody gets killed with garden shears, and I didn’t know that. And there’s a Christening dress floating in the wire, and I knew the creature had a Christening dress on and the babies, the things in formaldehyde was in the script, so some it – he might have added things – some came from the script, but there wasn’t a really calculated ‘OK, let’s hit these specific beats’ – it was just reading the script and deriving iconography. I prefer to shoot things, I think that people like animated things but I prefer to do things practically when I can get away with it – it seems appropriate for a horror film to be able to shoot table top things.
The other thing is he wanted to have an Art Deco font, he had this Frank Lloyd Wright book and he was saying the house was a craftsman house, and he wondered if we could use the font that Frank Lloyd Wright designed. I didn’t use exactly that font, but we went through a bunch of different Art Nuevo fonts, in a lot of these things people are influenced by Swiss typography. I am over that Swiss and European clichéd typography, so it was a little bit of strange font choice, albeit a unique font choice. I didn’t try to refine the typography – I didn’t care that it was big and stood strangely about the space. I intentionally just let it go. I wanted to do something that I wouldn’t normally do, and it was good that that logo and that type passed into all of the marketing currency. Sometimes you intentionally don’t refine things, and leave things that are mistakes.
Do the credits for American Horror Story: Asylum echo the first season?
I guess by virtue of the fact that I’m doing them and you want to maintain some of the brand, there will nods – not to the content of the first series, but there’ll be nods to the vernacular I guess, or the pastiche of the first ones. There’ll a little more far reaching – I think they’re a little more scary, to be honest. At least right now, we haven’t watered it down. I can’t say too much but it’s got more scope and it’s more specific to the new season, but they wink at each other.
What kind of horror images have inspired you?
I references the content of the movie, and I really try to do a lot of research and really try to familiarise myself with the scrip and what we’re trying to do for each project. I don’t necessarily harken back to things that I’ve seen that scare me, I don’t go “I remember that from The Exorcist and I want to do something like that!” I probably reference and am influenced by and steal things without doing it intentionally because it’s just so ingrained in my subconscious, I guess. I like the flash pans in The Exorcist when the priest is crossing the street and there’s like a two frame cut of his mother and the hanging medallion – I find that scary. In The Ring when the girl’s in the closet and there’s a flash of her, Gore Verbinski’s movie The Ring, I thought that was pretty disturbing. I like a lot of things in What Lies Beneath, I like when the floating dead woman turns to Harrison Ford’s character – that was scary to me. There’s lots of things in movies that scared me, not so much slasher movies.
American Horror Story Season 1 is out now on DVD for £21.99 and on Blu-ray for £29.99 from Amazon.co.uk right this second. American Horror Story: Asylum is now airing on FX.