the Kizer Soze principle

My love affair with screenwriting began in the balcony of an old Singapore movie house when I was in the seventh grade. The romance took me to film school, where I ate, drank & breathed everything film and one of the things I learned there was the importance of a good set up - a strong first act. It’s so important that there are whole seminars on the how to craft the first ten pages of a screenplay. In one of my screenwriting classes, we looked at the set up in The Usual Suspects. Do you remember it? The mealy mouthed cripple, Verbal Kint, in the detective’s office, says of Keyser Soze, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

That line haunts you the rest of the film. That is a great set up. And the genius of the line is it takes a complicated theme and puts it into incredibly simple terms.

This same idea can be used, to great effect, in photography as well.


This is a subject I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately and I’m not sure where I first encountered it in practice (the only place I can think to point to is Dan Winters, who does it infinitely better than anyone), but simplicity - simple light, simple composition, simple posture - is the best way I’ve found to expose for honest emotion.

I recently did portraits for Need Him, a non-profit whose mission is to give people a chance to hear the story of God’s love for mankind as it was personified in Jesus. They wanted their story to be told with authenticity, so early on, the decision was made to cast ordinary people instead of models.

However, people are a complicated tangle of story lines and emotions and most put up high walls that hide the honest, authentic emotion from strangers. Putting a camera in their face or being placed under a bunch of lights while being told what to do only adds to their discomfort.

So, as excited as I was about the opportunity to explore some of the complexity that real people bring with them, I knew that in order to create an environment where that could happen, I would need a simple set up.


I used a single head, camera left, as my key & outfitted it with a 1x4 strip box placed just in front of the subject & the spill from that strobe gave me just enough exposure on the background. For a bit of fill, I placed my 5-in-1 reflector, the translucent white part, on a light stand opposite the key. Occasionally I threw in a stool or a posing table for my subject to interact with. Each person ended up needing a subtle tweak to the positions of the key & reflector, but the simplicity of the set up helped me take down the walls and created a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere for exploring a range of emotion.

NeedHim3 Going back to The Usual Suspects, you don’t fully understand the power of Verbal’s line from the first of the film until he reprises it at the end, in voice over, as the detective scrambles out to the street, having put all the details together and we see the cripple lose his limp and transform into Keyzer Soze - the Devil himself. It’s one of the most rewarding film endings I can think of and not because you are aware of the story telling technique being used. It’s rewarding because of what you’re seeing happen on the screen.

Just like in the movies, a simple photography set up isn’t effective because it’s simple; it’s effective because the resulting photographs make the viewer feel what you want them to feel - in this case, to feel a connection with the universal human longings for purpose, meaning, hope and joy.


On a related note, Need Him has been running a really great television spot that touches on these themes & they also launched their new website. If you have a minute, check them out.