As horror fans know all too well, it’s virtually impossible to find a new movie that’s actually innovative, as opposed to more of the same thing we’ve all seen countless times already. Lately, emo vampires and the found-footage visual approach have taken over the genre, so the experimental, real-time experience Silent House (in theaters this Friday) is a welcome change from the norm. Presented as one uninterrupted, 88-minute sequence, it’s a unique, real-time viewing experience. It's quite impressive on the technical side, and, with star Elizabeth Olsen shrieking and running around a possibly haunted/possibly invaded lakeside crib, it's also genuinely unnerving.
To be fair, though, the creepy flick, directed by Chris Kentis and screenwriter Laura Lau (the filmmaking duo behind 2003’s intimately terrifying shark movie Open Water), is actually a remake of a 2010 Uruguayan festival darling called La Casa Muda. Yet, Kentis and Lau have made the material their own, reconfiguring the story to center it on a soft-spoken girl (Olsen) who returns to an old childhood getaway with her father and uncle for pre-sale renovations, only to get terrorized by an unseen and threatening presence. From a technical standpoint, Silent House is highly impressive, concealing the directors’ scant nine individual shots into a nearly 90-minute continuous rollercoaster that only lets up to scramble your brain with psychological jolts.
Complex recently caught up with Kentis and Lau to discuss the difficulties in shooting extended takes without any screw-ups, how rising star Elizabeth Olsen’s theater background got her the job, and why developing Silent House brought them to some rather dark mental spaces. Be warned, though: SPOILERS ABOUND!
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Silent House is one of those complex movies where it’s actually better the second time you see it, once you’ve figured out what’s going on and you’re able to piece everything together. How conscious of a move was it on your part to make that kind of film?
Laura Lau: Definitely, because the film is working on a lot of different levels, which I don’t think you’d know until you finish the movie. The whole film, I was trying to make an accurate portrayal of a traumatized mind, and of a fragmented person, and you don’t know until you’re at the end of the movie. You only discover what she discovers, and doesn’t know that she’s sick—she doesn’t know what’s going on. She thinks it’s squatters, she thinks it’s maybe ghosts, and the whole film is about her unconscious, and what’s coming out.
What she’s suppressing is so painful that she doesn’t want to face it herself, and being in this house triggers all of that and forces her to face these things. And you don’t know that until you get to the end of the movie, even though that’s what the whole thing has been about since the very first frame.
Chris Kentis: At face value, on a genre level, we had to work in that way, as well. On the very first layer of this, it’s delivering a coherent piece that will engage an audience in that way, but never at the expense of the real story, the thing that matters to us the most. When you start going deeper, this really is a thing where you’re experiencing what happens in this house exclusively through the eyes of Lizzie’s character. So you’re never getting an objective point-of-view, like, “OK, she was there, and she did that.”
What we’re interested in is that exclusivity where you’re following and discovering just as she does, and when we look at it from that standpoint, we don’t really see the end as a twist. Very methodically and consistently, this woman’s eyes are opening up to something that she doesn’t want to see. Something is being revealed to her in a very specific way, and we’ve been steadily heading down that path.
Silent House is a remake of a little-seen Uruguayan flick called La Casa Muda, though your film does several things differently. When it comes to remakes, directors are often presented with the material, rather than the project being something they seek out themselves. Was that the case here?
Lau: We were approached to it by a producer from the French company Wild Bunch; they had the original, and they had the remake rights. She was a fan of Open Water, and when she ran into someone that we knew, she asked, “What are those guys up to?” Our friend said that we were in development hell, and the producer said, “Well, I have the perfect project for them.”
Kentis: When she mentioned the single-take aspect to us, that grabbed our interest in a major way, right from the get-go, because it presented us with the chance to tell a story in a unique fashion. We could give the audience a different kind of experience, and that’s an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often.
We were impressed by what they pulled off in the original film, but the key for us was to find a story that interested us, and that could be best complimented by the single-take technique.
The continuous shot is a very unusual challenge for an actress. Lizzie had to go to some dark places and mine some pretty emotional stuff. She could be 13 minutes into a shot, and if one technical thing is off, like a lighting cue that’s missed, you have to cut, and you can’t use any of it.
You come from a heavy editing background, and Silent House, with its lack of multiple cuts and long, extended sequences, seems like an editor’s dream come true. Did your editing background play into the film’s appeal, do you think?
Kentis: Actually, it’s almost like the opposite for me. [Laughs.] I was completely useless on this movie! No, not really. But for an editor, I don’t think it’d be their dream, unless they’re really lazy, because there’s really nothing to do. As a filmmaker who’s an editor, and is used to editing, my idea of making a movie is all about gathering all of that great stuff that you can bring to the editing room, and it’s there in the editing room that you make the movie. With Silent House, we were making the movie right there during production.
The typical way that any movie is made is that you go out and you shoot coverage, and all of the decisions about pacing and tweaking a performances are done in the editing room, but here all of that is gone now. The challenge was to develop a new toolbox of sorts, and figure out ways to communicate and do these things.
Were there conscious efforts on your collective part to make the audience feel as if they’re not watching a single-take movie after a certain point?
Lau: Absolutely. If you’re successful, people aren’t looking at your technique—they’re involved with your story, and they’re looking at your characters. The fact that it’s one shot is not something that they should be paying attention to, though it’s inherently giving them a different experience.
Just on a technical level, how difficult was it to execute the single-take approach? There are a few sequences in the film that seem like they’d be extremely tough for a cameraman to pull off in one shot, like when Elizabeth Olsen’s character busts out of the basement’s storm doors and runs off into the open field and ends up in her uncle’s car.
Lau: Yeah, we were always in the teens before we got one sequence finished, in terms of how many tries a scene took. That one sequence, in particular, was very challenging on a number of levels. One reason why it was so challenging was because we wanted it to go from light to dark, without any cutting, so we had to do it exactly at the time of the day when it actually does that. As you know, the film is working on more than one level at all times, so the idea of getting out into the daylight and not being able to escape the darkness, and being enveloped in darkness and having to go back into the house again—it’s something you can’t escape.
It’s interesting that you pointed that sequence out, because it was extremely tricky. What we did was, we had one operator run out of the storm doors and into the field with her, and then that operator had to pass the camera off through a window to an operator who was in the car’s backseat; then, the operator who first had the camera had to hang onto the back of the car and they’d all drive back to the house together.
And when Peter [the uncle character, played by Eric Sheffer Stevens] got out of the car to get his gun out of the trunk, that operator who was on the back of the car got into the car; then, the operator who was in the backseat had to pass the camera back to the operator was then in the front seat. [Laughs.] The one in the backseat then got out of the car through the trunk while the front-seat operator stayed in the car with Lizzie, and then got out with Lizzie and passed the camera back to the guy waiting outside, who ran into the house with Lizzie. And we did all of that without cutting.
So, basically, if one guy trips, or even stops to sneeze, the whole shot is screwed.
Kentis: Exactly, and that was the nature of the whole movie.
Lau: And not only that, but if the trunk doesn’t open at the right tempo, or the guy in the house doesn’t walk through with his flashlight just when the camera turns that way—if any little piece is not exactly right, then we’re back to square one.
Kentis: And every shot was like that; that was how we lived each day. It’s a very unusual challenge for an actress, specifically, because you never know which take will be the final one, and Lizzie had to go to some dark places and mine some pretty emotional stuff. She could be 13 minutes into a shot, and if one technical thing is off, like a lighting cue that’s missed, you have to cut, you’re back to square one, and you can’t use any of it.
At a recent post-screening Q&A, Laura, you mentioned that you two were looking for an actress who had tons of experience in theater, specifically. What brought you to that theater background strategy?
Lau: Well, I think that people who have theater training understand how to concentrate and how to perform over a long period of time. In films, you oftentimes have opportunities to do things over and over again, in short shots; here, as Chris has been saying, it was harder than theater, because in theater if somebody drops a light or something, you just keep going, but if that happened while we were shooting, we would have to actually cut and start again.
We were looking for somebody who had the stamina that you get from theater, from remembering where you need to be and what you need to do over a long period of time, so that was part of it. And, fortunately for us, the guys who cast Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone read the script and said to us, “We know who Sarah is,” and it was Elizabeth Olsen.
When you all shot Silent House, she had just finished Martha Marcy May Marlene, yet she was still a total unknown; today, as Silent House hits theaters, she’s one of the hottest, most in-demand young talents in Hollywood. It must be pretty wild for you guys to see how far she’s come.
Lau: Totally. When we first met her, we didn’t know anything about Martha Marcy; they were in post-production, and it was a totally unknown little movie. We didn’t even know that she’d shot it, and there really wasn’t any tape available on her at all. So she really came out with a big bang at Sundance last year, and now she’s off to the races.
Was there a long rehearsal process for Silent House?
Lau: There was a lot of rehearsal, yeah, from the moment that I wrote the script, and then when we got to the location. Once we saw the location, I had to rewrite the script to tailor it exactly to the location. And then Chris and I started to run the movie over and over again, from top to bottom, in the house. And then our DP (Director of Photography) came on and brought all of his talent to the choreography.
Kentis: We had to refine and refine and refine the choreography, and when Lizzie came on we had to find that repetition with the actors. By the time we were ready to shoot, there was no room for fooling around if we were going to get these complex shots.
In this case, the physical rehearsals were just as important for the cameraman as they were for the actors, then.
Lau: Absolutely. With no ability to cut, every movement of the camera had to be figured out beforehand, and had to be justified. All of that choreography had to be worked out ahead of time.
The real-time approach seems like one that’s tailor-made for horror movies. Why do you think it translates so well to fear?
Kentis: I think it’s the sense of immediacy, the sense of claustrophobia. It’s the sense that you really can’t escape, and every moment is accounted for. To experience something in this way, it’s a unique kind of movie experience.
Lau: And I think, also, because of the fact that you’re with one character and you’re never cutting away from her, that it raises your identification of her peril and her terror.
On the writing side, Laura, how much did the real-time approach factor into the script’s psychological aspects? Was it tricky to make those two things mesh together?
Lau: Well, that was what the whole film was about—the whole film was an opportunity to bring across the experience of a person who is deeply traumatized and damaged from abuse that happened to her as a child. I actually did a lot of research into what happened to people when they were abused. The original film, actually, was based on a true story, even though they didn’t use the true story themselves. I didn’t have much to go on, but from what I was told there was a father, an uncle, and a girl, and they were murdered, and incest was involved.
Now, you’ve seen the original, so you know that they actually didn’t go in that direction—they used the abortion thing. For me, I didn’t feel that motivated the character; I wanted to look into, how could someone murder his or her father? What could have happened to you? In the research that I did, one of the things I discovered was that some people who are abused, especially when they were under the age of 10, what can happen is, in order to survive it, and this is really a brilliant defense, you fragment yourself so that it’s not happening to you. You hide away large parts of your identity so that you’re not damaged by what’s happening. That’s what dissociative identity disorder is.
So the whole film is really a portrait of a person who comes back into this traumatic situation, and all of these things she’s suppressed come out, and these defenses manifest themselves. When she was young, she would hide herself so that she wasn’t exposed to the violence that was being perpetrated on her, but now she’s the one committing the violence and it’s also split off, and she’s not experiencing it. It was a really interesting psychological exploration for me, in studying this phenomenon and what it’s like to be trapped in a traumatized mind.
Kentis: And as far as linking that to the single-camera experience, that was key—that was the whole thing. At times, even when we flash back in time, there are scenes where she experiences something that she experienced as a little girl, and Lizzie is even playing them as that little girl. She’s becoming that little girl who’s hiding from the abusive father figure. So it was very interesting to play with the concept of time within the single-take format.
That’s where a second or third viewing of the film will help, I think, to help you piece all of the time jumps together near the end.
Lau: Right, and it was certainly our intention to layer a multiple amount of things into the film. All of the peripheral, strange characters all come from our archetypal defenses, which are basically certain common images. I was looking for ways to translate an identity that’s fragmented. People who are traumatized tend to have certain images that come to them in dreams, just like the way you might dream about your teeth falling out, or falling, or water, or snakes. Traumatized people also have a certain lexicon of images that are, for some reason, universal.
The little girl in the film represents Sarah as a little girl, but she also represents the essential self. And the stalking man can be seen as a squatter, but he can also be seen as a persecutor or a protector, depending on the archetypal defense. Typically, traumatized people have this kind of duality, of, like, a little girl and then a man with an ax, so that was an interesting thing for me layer into the film.
You also alter the characters of the father and the uncle in this version; in the original film, the father has much less of a presence, and the other male character is the father’s friend, not his brother. Were those changes also related to the psychological layering you were hoping to achieve?
Lau: For me, I really didn’t want this to be her fault; I didn’t want this to be a film about a crazy woman, even though you can say that it is. I wanted it to be a portrait of somebody who is very deeply hurt and very deeply damaged, and why. In the original, she had consensual sex with somebody, got pregnant, and had an abortion; for me, that didn’t justify why she’d murder them, other than the fact that she’s just crazy.
Of course, we take our hats off to the original, to having that as template and being able to look at what works and doesn’t work and being able to take from them what we thinks works—it was a huge advantage. But, really, it was about how to make use of the single take and use it to convey this character’s sense of reality.
One question I kept asking myself, though, was, why would the father so willingly bring her back to the scene of the crime, so to speak? Is it as simple as he thought she’d totally erased the childhood events from her mind?
Lau: Exactly. Part of what makes people crazy in these situations, and part of why we cast Adam [Trese as the father] was that he looks like a real estate agent, and these are secrets that you never, ever talk about. It’s as though they never happened, and it really makes you crazy. That’s why there’s mold festering behind the walls.
If you see the film a second time, right from the beginning you’ll look at it from this perspective and you’ll start to catch a lot of things and clues. There’s even a reason why we start the film off with the shot of her sitting on those rocks surrounded by water; I’m working all the time with the conscious and the unconscious. What’s suppressed in the unconscious that’s coming to the conscious mind? And you’ll see that coming through in the production design, from the choice of wallpaper, working with this whole theme of inside-out and outside-in. So, for someone like you who’s seen the film more than once, I really appreciate you taking the time to understand the film.
The pleasure is mine—I’m all about movies that challenge us. Now that you’ve pulled off such a tricky and unique film, though, would you ever use the single-take approach again?
Kentis: Well, because we’ve been there and done that, we’re always try to find a new challenge and a new experience. If there was a story that could only best be told in this way, then I guess we could revisit this. We certainly have enough experience with it now. [Laughs.]
Lau: I’ll bet you there’s going to be a bunch of one-take movies after this. What do you think?
I wouldn’t be surprised. That’s how Hollywood works—something unique comes out, achieves success, and then studios start cranking out lamer imitations until people get sick of them. Which is where the found-footage style is heading. So we should expect a one-take romantic comedy in the near future.
Lau: Totally! [Laughs.] Something tells me that we’re going to be seeing a lot of continuous-take movies in the next few years.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)