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)