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.