The Devil on Trial: A Case of Optical Magic in Haunting True-Crime Puzzle
October 30th, 2023

Often referred to as the ‘Devil Made Me Do It’ case, a haunting 1981 murder trial was the first and only time that 'demonic possession' had been officially used as a defense in a U.S. court. Now, a new feature-length docudrama, The Devil on Trial exhumes the troubling events leading up to the brutal crime, the trial, and its aftermath, using firsthand accounts of the people closest to the case, including the man at its epicenter, Arne Johnson.

“This is a ripped-from-the-headlines true-crime tale of satanic possession, exorcism and murder but with different interpretations of the truth,” says cinematographer Brendan McGinty. “We’ve got disparate voices, documentary, b-roll of the actual location, dramatic reconstruction and archive, so the danger was we’d end up with a cacophony of visual styles. The combination of a large format RED sensor with a vintage LF lens choice gave us a strong look for this whole world.”

Disturbing the past

The story may be based on real-life events but is told through the medium of the protagonists' memories, interpretations and beliefs. A key note from director and long-time collaborator, Chris Holt to McGinty during prep was that this is about dreams and nightmares.

“These are the memories of individuals in the distant past and they have a non-literal nightmarish quality to them,” he says. “You can hardly sit and listen to an interview describing someone else speaking in tongues, of lights flashing in the house, and vapor in the air and feel like you are in the world of realism. That’s not to belittle the trauma they felt but it feels blurred memory when people look back through the eyes of childhood where everything is tainted by the fictive nature of our memories.”

The filmmakers took a deep dive into the horror archive and rewatched The Exorcist, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby and Hereditary to retell the lived experience of their film’s subjects in the language of horror. Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese classic Rashomon, a film with multiple versions of the truth, was another key reference.

“Our collective memories have so much to do with visual language and the films we have seen. So, we leaned into that by playing on horror tropes. Our film does have jump scares. We are delivering the horror genre and also deconstructing it.”

They went to Connecticut to the scene of the actual events and shot around the original family home (now owned by another family) and in and around the church where the exorcism took place.

“The whole history of the area and the 17th Century witch trials, made for quite spooky surroundings. We shot in some woods that felt pretty David Lynchian in style. It was snowing when we were there which leant the landscape even more of an off kilter mysterious vibe.”

Stylistic contrast

They employed a distinct stylistic contrast between these two narrative modes of drama and doc. In the long interviews (many of which ran for two days), the frames are locked off, with symmetrical wides and asymmetrical, short-sighted B camera angles.

“We used a mirror box on the A camera to allow the subjects to tell us their truth and recollections of the distant but traumatic events direct to camera.”

This down-the-lens point of view runs in counterpoint to the off-kilter B camera perspective. “It asks the audience, subconsciously, whether what the person is saying direct to camera is true.”

The lighting was single source throughout these interviews, with as much shadow ('negative fill') as they could manage. The rooms beyond were also chosen to 'speak' as much as the subjects themselves, with a host of small practical sources and a self-conscious sprinkling of curious, defocused details.

By contrast, the scripted portions of the narrative took place in Canada and were shot like a traditional drama. It was all shot handheld in classic horror style.

“We wanted to immerse the audience in the horrific situation but also destabilize the unmoving 'certainty' of the interviews. There’s an unsettled quality to the photography, as if there’s a real satanic presence and our camera in the midst of it all. Hopefully it’s quite terrifying.”

Much of the extraordinary archive footage that peppers the narrative was also handheld, so the drama scenes were able to integrate into this material more fully.

Some of the drama scenes were run in sync with startling tape recordings from the time, with the actors skillfully mouthing the exact words of the family and the exorcists who come to help.

Both the drama shoot and the interviews were set at night, a world of darkness and shadows, of nightmares and hallucinations.

"For lighting these dramatic scenes, my approach was more extractive than additive,” McGinty says. “Our aim was to remove as much light as possible, constantly leaning into dark corners whilst embracing small fragile pools of visibility.”

A richer canvas

Holt and McGinty have shot countless docudramas together, including Elizabeth I; Witch Hunt: A Century of Murder and Mind of a Monster (an episode about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer), and all have been filmed on RED cameras. McGinty also shot Disney series Welcome to Earth with the MONSTRO VV, which was the model of choice here.

“I’ve been shooting RED since its earliest days, and it remains ahead of the curve, especially with color space. The fact that you can shoot raw with a smaller data package is a big deal. Other cameras can shoot raw, but they require bolt on recorders and eyewatering amounts of data.

“Shooting R3D is the way I always like to work because it’s like shooting negative. You always get a safety net of exposure, detail in the shadow, highlight retention and 16-bit color. You couldn’t hope for a richer canvas as a director of photography.”

For The Devil on Trial, McGinty shot 8K, which enabled Holt to perform some reframing in post; extracting a mid-shot from a wide or closeup from a mid. McGinty also loves onset grading and will often take high resolution frame grabs to serve as references for the whole team through the grade and art dept to publicity for stills.

Large format and vintage lenses

They chose large format to take full advantage of a set of vintage lenses and all the vignetted distortions it would bring. “Everyone talks about the shallower focus of LF but also with the width of the LF lens, I can be much closer to people on wider focal lengths. If you were shooting on Super 35, you wouldn’t even see all the organic accidents at the edge of the frame. Large format definitely gave us a very different look and feel.”

With business partner Michael Lindsay, he hunted down a set of rare 1960s-designed Canon Dream primes and rehoused them to be mounted on an LPL mount, which is not only bigger for large format but places the glass closer to the sensor. There are only a handful of such sets in the world.

“What the lenses deliver is tremendous softness on the edges but the center is quite sharp,” McGinty describes. “The veiling glare and flare is exceptional. There’s a sniff of light and soft glowing streaks across the lens. These are hand ground objects, not precision-molded modern lenses so when you do get flare you don’t get sharp lens patterns in the image. There is more glow to it than that. It’s also very warm so you get amber flares.”

Unusually for docudrama, McGinty shot both the drama and the documentary sections of the film using this glass.

“Docudrama is a fascinating space that has grown in public appetite and in budget. While drama frequently emulates docs, and doc makers are echoing a lot of practices from drama.

In this case, we needed something to tie the fabric of the story across archive and b-roll and drama and past and present together. I am really glad we did. When I look at the photography, there is possibly an unconscious stream of optical magic going through it.”

Watch The Devil on Trial only on Netflix.