Thursday, March 8, 2012

Kentis and Lau Talk About "Silent House"

Playing in Theaters

Kentis and Lau Talk About "Silent House"

(from 3/08/12)

Because it tapped into my primal fears, I admit that I, like Elizabeth Olsen, intentionally stayed clear of Open Water, Chris Kentis and Laura Lau's hit 2004 indie film about a bickering married couple who find themselves stranded in the ocean and surrounded by sharks. It didn't help when word got to me that only the sharks survive. But I still can't imagine that it was more unnerving than the duo's new fright film, Silent House. A remake of a horror film that was Uruguay's official entry to the Oscars, it is a psychological thriller in which Sarah (Olsen), a vulnerable, traumatized young woman, suddenly finds herself stranded and threatened in the dark, spooky house where she grew up and had been trying to pack up with her father and uncle. You may spend your time trying to spot where the directors spliced together a baker's dozen long takes to make it seem that we're watching all 88 minutes of Sarah's journey through hell in one long, continuous take--and let me say that the technique is brilliant and worthy of the word-of-mouth it's receiving. But chances are better that you'll be steeling yourself for the next jolt, figuring out the twist-ending mystery the terrified Sarah herself is unraveling as she zooms around the house at breakneck speed, and marveling at the extraordinary, complex performance by Olsen, who confirms her stunning, star-making debut in Martha Marcy May Marlene was no fluke. My Q&A roundtable with Olsen will follow in the next post. But below, in anticipation of this Friday's release, is a roundtable I did with the directors, Kentis and Lau, who also scripted the film. I note my questions. KEEP IN MIND THAT FILMS WITH TWISTS, PARTICULARLY AT THE END, CAN'T REALLY BE DISCUSSED, SO EVEN THOUGH THERE ARE SPOILER ALERTS YOU MAY WANT TO WAIT UNTIL AFTER YOU SEE THE MOVIE AND THEN READ THE FULL INTERVIEW.
Q: What is the reason that it took so long between Open Water and Silent House?
Chris Kentis: We had a few passion projects but they were expensive to film. One was about Hurricane Katrina and another was for Warner Bros. about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during World War II. We also put a good number of years into some other spec scripts. And the truth is that the more money that is involved, the harder it is to get a project off the ground, especially if you want to do it in a certain kind of way.
Laura Lau: Once the budgets get bigger it's nearly impossible to get any movie made. We were indie filmmakers still writing and filming our own stuff and we went to Hollywood and ran into that issue. Then there was the strike and the recession.
CK: Everybody was interested in us because we made a film for little money that did really well. They thought we could make mainstream movies on low budgets but when we got to Hollywood and told them how we did things they weren't interested in that. What they wanted us for, they wouldn't let us do, and their way made the films too expensive to make.
Q: How much of your initial interest in making Silent House was born out of the challenge of making a one-take film? Hitchcock did it with Rope. So is it in some way a challenge to top other filmmakers?
CK: No, it certainly wasn't a consideration to top anybody, let alone Hitchcock. When we were first asked if we wanted to do this, and we were told "single-take," we thought, "Wow! It's an exciting challenge to try do something new, making a film in a different way." The subject matter isn't a safe bet, and the way we had to make the film wasn't a safe bet. But that was the whole point of doing it. Because it's so hard to have any new cinematic experiences any more. I started out as an editor and my idea of making a movie was to gather all the good stuff and put it together in the cutting room. But on this film, we had to make decisions while filming and live with them, in regard to pacing and even performances. Usually a good performance or a mediocre performance is made much better in the cutting room, but not on this film.
LL: Before we began the writing, we watched a lot of horror movies, haunted-house and home-invasion movies, and psychological thrillers. We watched Polanski and even Bergman. We felt the single, continuous take would give the viewer a different experience, but for it to be unconscious. If we're successful, nobody is going to be paying attention to it being one-shot. Movies are about story and character not technique.
Danny Peary: But aren't you also thinking that by doing it as a one-take film, where we don't see the cuts, that you're going to heighten the horror?
LL: We felt that because we couldn't cut, we really had to inhabit our character's experience. Because she's really terrified and you can't get away from her, we hope that you experience her terror. You can't get away, there's no cutting, you're trapped. Just by cutting to a long close-up we'd give you a break, but we never give it. It's a character trapped in a terrifying situation and you're trapped with her. That amps up the level of the intensity.
CK: I guess you could call the one-take approach a gimmick, but I think of a gimmick as "Scratch-and-Sniff" or maybe 3-D. For this particular story, where we're really trying to inhabit a character and tell it exclusively through her point of view, we thought it was a good marriage of a new way to present a story and the content. What excited all of us, including the crew, was participating in figuring out how to do things. It was a different role for the crew. Everyone was active in getting the perfect shot as it was happening live in front of them.
DP: There's not much dialogue in this film and I read in the production notes that your script was very short.
LL: It was 60 pages, which was really short because you're supposed to have a page for every minute of film. We didn't really know about length because nobody had made a movie in this way and we didn't get the script for the Uruguayan film La Casa Muda--all we had was a crappy DVD. The original was based on a true story. What I was told is that the writer-director [Gustavo Hernandez] was struck by a story about how three bodies were found in a house, all mutilated. There was a girl, a father, and an uncle. SPOILER ALERT And incest was involved. They stayed away from that a bit, going toward an abortion thing, which I don't think justified why she'd kill her father. The first thing I asked myself is, "What would have to happen that would cause her to murder him?" So I did research and discovered that when incest is involved under age ten it can cause serious mental illness; children can put up such a defense that it fragments their identity, as a way of saying it's not happening to them, that it's happening to someone else. You fragment yourself as a way of surviving the trauma. END SPOILER ALERT So when Sarah comes back into that house of her childhood, all that she suppressed is suddenly coming back up and she's still trying to suppress it. We are actually going on this journey of her own discovery of what happened to her as a child. We play with time where there are flashbacks SPOILER ALERT and moments when her own fragmented self is now perpetrating violence but she's fragmented so is not experiencing it. END SPOILER ALERT
CK: Although we were impressed with what they did in La Casa Muda, we wanted to make a movie about real horror. That's what mattered to us most going in.
This is where our passion in the story lies. It's about real horrors and we had to figure out how to frame them in a conventional genre piece.
LL: The whole film is really experiencing one woman's reality. I did a lot of research into traumatized reality and that's what inhabits Sarah. Part of the difficulty in talking about this film is that you can't talk about what it's really about without giving away the ending. The fact of the matter is that when you're a traumatized person like Sarah, you're really terrified. SPOILER ALERT Can you imagine being a child and being chased around by your father? This happens all over the world, it's a widespread problem. END SPOILER ALERT
CK: We're dying to talk about these kinds of aspects but can't because they're spoilers.
Q: Was Elizabeth Olsen your first choice to play Sarah?
CK: We went to casting directors we've worked with before and they took one look at the script and said we know who to cast. They had previously cast Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone, so we trusted them. Lizzie had her audition and was great, but we thought it was too easy. She was our first choice but we saw other people because we didn't think it made sense to just see one person. She was always the one to beat, it was always her part.
LL: She was everything we were looking for. She was a luminous actress who had the necessary charisma so that we'd care about her character. She could bring the needed complexity and emotional depth of the character, but do it in a subtle way because you don't know until the very end of the movie what it is really about. At the same time she had to have technical craft skills because of the long takes. So we were looking only for someone with a theater background. Lizzie had studied theater in Russia so we knew that she was a very serious actress--although there was no tape of her at that time, nothing. Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene was not finished yet. She couldn't even talk about it and they didn't know what they had until they finished cutting and got into Sundance. In fact, we heard only about Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding, which had just wrapped. She was a complete unknown. We knew that the film would rest on the actress's shoulders, so we were lucky to get her!
CK: It was a difficult role. It was incredibly challenging for all of us to get these long shots because they were very complex and for many takes Lizzie had to maintain an emotional state. People compare the single-take experience to theater; in truth it's much harder because she'd have to bring it every time and really be there, and you can see how rattled, intense, and emotionally broken down she is. We'd have to go well into the teens with takes and sometimes in the low thirties before we'd really nail it. Everything could be perfect and she'd be spot on and somebody misses a lighting cue and we have to stop it and start over because the whole take is worthless. If it wouldn't hold up to scrutiny it went into the garbage. "Guess what, Lizzie, you have to do it again."
LL: Right, if anyone blew it, we'd have to start over. Sometimes Lizzie would give an unbelievable performance and somebody would make a technical error and miss their cue or be in the shot. And I know Lizzie would be thinking, "I just killed myself and you blew it!" There were a lot of cues, as you can imagine. The house was pre-lit, the dimmer-board operator had to be ready, keeping the shot in focus was very, very difficult. All those people had to be on the ball or the take was unusable. Lizzie was always aware that Sarah is a seriously damaged person, so she was aware of that while playing her, yet Sarah herself doesn't realize that. Sarah doesn't know what's going on. Are there home invaders? Are there squatters in the house? Did her father and uncle do something? Part of her illness is that's she's going to be experiencing auditory-visual hallucinations, but she doesn't know she's ill. Lizzie does know it and goes with it.
DP: When the father tries to hide the pictures on the bed from Sarah, that's when I and I'm sure other people realize it's an incest story. Are we supposed to think that at that point or do you want that to happen later on?
LL: We want it to be later on. The idea is that you know something is up, that the father had done something--maybe he'd stolen something. We didn't want you to think incest, that's kind of a big leap at that point.
CK: Although a lot is planted even before that, even with the first dialogues in the film. When she first comes into the house and says she has a headache and the father says, "Well, we've heard that one before."
LL: Even before that, when he says, "I was on your Facebook." That's creepy. What's he doing on her Facebook page? That's a weird thing. And the uncle is inappropriate with her physically. There are little hints throughout.
CK: Metaphorically, there is all kinds of things going on as well. But what's interesting as a filmmaker is creating a balance. We prefer to be subtle but some viewers pick things up very quickly, and some don't get them at all--so in post we find ourselves having to plant little lines to help explain the film to them. It's interesting that everyone has a different point and time when they make that discovery.
DP: In Repulsion, Catherine Deneuve's young, troubled woman lives in a real apartment and eventually starts having hallucinations. In this case, do you want us to think that the whole thing is an illusion from the beginning or is the house real?
LL: It's not an illusion. It is her absolute experience. It is all real, but from the perspective of a deeply traumatized person whose reality is fragmented and sense of time is discontinuous.
CK: We're experiencing this ordeal as she experiences it, and that's based on our research.
DP: In the publication notes, you are quoted as saying the house represents her...
LL: Yes. The holes in the wall, what's hidden, even in the kitchen scene where she thinks if she covers up something no one is ever going to know. She doesn't want herself to know what's festering, and what's been hidden and what's being spread. That's why it's Silent House. So many times when these kinds of traumas happen, they are suppressed in the family. Nobody talks about it, it's a big secret. That really makes people crazy because you can't move on.
DP: Although you don't see it this way, she can be in a mental hospital and be thinking of this house.
LL: Yeah, I don't see it that way, but she could do that and it works on a metaphorical level--SPOILER ALERT because on a psychological level, you have to kill your parents to leave your childhood house and move into the world. In the movie, she kills her father and leaves the house, but the door is open when she leaves because you can never escape your childhood and past. END SPOILER ALERT
Q: While shooting Elizabeth Olsen, did you have to dub over any direction, like when you'd tell her out loud where to walk?
CK: We absolutely had to dub that, and footsteps as well. Part of the challenge is that we weren't able to be in proximity to the actors because the camera would change directions and we already had a cameraman and a boom operator in that closed space and out of sight. So we were in Video Village. Luckily we had a fantastic cinematographer, Igor Matinovic, and we were on the same page. Igor handled where Lizzie had to be at each moment. He'd whisper to her, and we'd take it out later.
LL: Actually, sound was very challenging to us.
DP: In terms of how well you use sound, I like how you use silence.
LL: Thank you. Sound was very important, not only to use the sound effects and score to, again, reflect Sarah's internal reality. Her internal reality and external reality are switched. I worked with the production design on that, too, which is why we used a lot of animals in the wall paper because of this whole theme of what is on the inside is coming out, and what is on the outside is coming in. So we were working on many levels.
Q: If an actor forgot something, would they be able to improvise so you didn't have to stop the action?
LL: We had a small budget and fifteen days to shoot the film, so we rehearsed and choreographed everything ahead of time. It was all about getting the shot. There would be no editing, so to make a change at the last moment would be dangerous-- it could affect the pacing or something else that we wouldn't even realize at the time. So we were very disciplined because what we shot is what we would use--it would be difficult to change anything later. Between the technical demands and where the story had to go, we didn't have a lot of space in which to play with anything once we started shooting.
CK: The real horror of this movie is that we were always approaching overtime, it's midnight, and we still don't have the shot and we have to get it that night or we don't have a movie. So everything was very meticulously planned with tons of rehearsal and nothing was left to chance. Luckily our actors, especially Lizzie, brought it take after take until we got it right.
Q: So what was a bigger challenge: swimming with sharks in Open Water or this kind of shooting?
CK: I like swimming with sharks, so that's just fun. Open Water took a long time to make because we worked on weekends, we financed it, we were the crew. It was really like a home movie. We didn't know what was going to happen with it so it was a shock that it actually went anywhere and did well. This was a completely different challenge because Open Water still adhered to the basic rules of filmmaking in terms of coverage. Here it was a whole new ballgame.
LL: There is room for every kind of movie. For us as filmmakers, we want to challenge ourselves. With Open Water it was like, "Okay, Dogma 95, totally inspired, people doing a lot of talking, talking heads; where can we take this that we haven't seen yet?-- let's go to the water." It was the same thing with this. People were very excited because though there had been the movie Russian Ark, when had there been a one-take genre film since Rope in this country?
CK: It's funny that we find ourselves being in this space of being "horror filmmakers," which is so ridiculous although I totally understand it. Open Water I saw as a drama. I'm a diver and I'd freaked out reading this true story about a couple being left behind by the boat while they were underwater. So we made the movie and it went out into the world and we were thrilled to get a wide audience but hoped it lived up to audience expectations because we thought of the movie differently than how it was marketed. I saw it as the ultimate talking heads movie, because with the two people you literally saw these two heads above water and not their bodies.
Q: You've shown a lot of ambition in your two projects, so how will you raise the bar the next time?
CK: We're not trying to raise the bar, just make films we're interested in, which are films we haven't really seen before. So far they have been projects that have been difficult to make on a certain level, but it's really about finding stories we like and figuring out the best way to tell them on the budgets we have. I will say, however, that our next two projects are thrillers that are different from anything that we've ever seen!

See Elizabeth Olsen interview that follows


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