Experimenting with and expanding upon time worn genres is what the craft of filmmaking is all about. No strangers in the horror genre (and to working with a limited budget), Directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau have created an rather revolutionary piece of cinema with their newest film, SILENT HOUSE. Based on the Uruguayan film, LA CASA MUDA, the harrowing and haunting 88 minute feature was shot in real time and in one continuous take. Yes, folks! You read that right. The pair utilized a technique that – as most of you film buffs may already know – cinematic auteur Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t even successfully accomplish (ROPE has editing cuts).
During the roundtable interviews at the press day for the film, we caught up with the directors to talk about the challenges they faced shooting this format, how it inspired their creativity, and what it’s like to promote a film where you can’t talk about what’s really going on in that creepy lake house.
Were you involved in getting the financing together or did you come in later?
Chris Kentis: We came in later. We were hired.
Laura Lau: Wild Bunch, the French Film company, had the rights to the original, LA CASA MUDA. They had taken it to Cannes and at Cannes, someone we knew ran into the guys that the rights and asked, ‘What happened to those guys that made OPEN WATER?’ They called us up and were very, very interested.
What were the projects you didn’t make?
CK: There were two passion projects that a lot of years went into. Laura wrote a thoroughly researched script called AMERICAN CITY, and spent a ton of time in New Orleans.
LL: …about Hurricane Katrina.
CK: And I had a project about the USS Indianapolis. They were both expensive things to make.
LL: We were also writing specs all along and were trying to get them made. It’s hard to get a movie made. Made even harder when you get into bigger budgets, when you are trying to stay in between that $10-15 million range and you need those actors who are being offered $50-60 million movies.
You mentioned doing bigger budget movies. However this movie and OPEN WATER were much smaller. Is this due to budgetary reasons?
CK: For us it’s all about finding a story we care about. In this case, these were projects about the story and the characters. To tell those other stories well, they were very expensive to make. Even with this film and OPEN WATER, it’s always the story that draws us. We’re lucky that we are comfortable working low budget but would also like the opportunity to work a high budget.
You cast Elizabeth Olsen before the masses knew who she was and this film is so dependant on her character. What was the process of getting her? What was it about her that you saw when you cast her?
LL: We met with her but had auditioned a lot of other actresses because she didn’t have a track record – she didn’t have any tape! Her other films were still posting and we had nothing to go on. The casting directors had deep feelings about her and we saw her in the audition room. We were impressed with her training – she went to NYU and studied theater in Russia. We could just tell talking with her and her take on the script, how serious she was.
CK: You needed someone special to carry this and it was all going to fall on her shoulders. It was almost too easy. She was the first person we saw and was great. It never works that way. We felt obligated to see other people, but she was always the one to beat and she was fantastic.
LL: With a film like this as it’s a continuous shot. It’s one character and the film is her entire experience, you have to care about this person. You have to want to care about her and watch her. I think Lizzie has that luminosity and charisma. Aside from the fact she had the depth. The character is a complex character so all of those layers were there.
What’s the hardest part about promoting a movie where you really can’t talk about the end and the most interesting stuff that happens?
LL: The core of the film we don’t want to talk too much about because we don’t want to ruin the audience surprise. Certainly it’s great to be able to talk about it. We hope that after people see the film, that they will be able to talk more about what the film is. It’s hard! I would love to explain more. And why the continuous take of the movie really lent itself to the story.
CK: We went in that direction. We had the original film to go off from as far as what we could do with the story. It’s the balancing act of delivering those genre expectations at the same time maintain the integrity. There’s nothing gratuitous about any of the imagery. At the same time the audience doesn’t know what’s going on until the end. You have to find a way to make it a worthwhile, intense experience. We made sure we had an awareness of the other movies in the genre – what’s out there that audiences are responding to. How will the single camera approach affect that? These were all some of the challenges we took on.
What do you want audiences to go in knowing and how much of that should they know ahead of time?
LL: We want them to know there’s something going on in the film where there are secrets that are hidden – that are being revealed. We wanted people to think starting out that it’s home invasion – that the house has been violated and maybe that’s what it is. But then you start to see things and question those things. We were playing with all these different tropes and hopefully weaving this that when you get to the end you’ll see what it actually is. In order not to ruin that experience for the viewer, I guess we want people to be expecting to be frightened, expecting to be scared. It is a scary movie and really maybe not knowing what it is.
Elizabeth mentioned you were in a different room during the shoot due to the constraints of space. How do you prepare for that?
CK: It’s all to a lot of planning and rehearsal. As soon as it was done, me and Laura went out to the location. We were out there constantly. Laura would act out the role as “Sarah” in real-time. We’d run the whole movie. Run it, refine. Run it, refine. It was the two of us before the crew came on. Then once we brought our cinematographer on, Igor Martinovic, then we refined it more with him. The we brought the crew and then the actors. Of course these are all artists and they each bring something special to the table, but nothing can be left to chance.
LL: By the time we were shooting, everything had already been pre-planned. In some ways, it was better for us to be watching on the monitors. There’s no way to fix things in the cutting room. If you don’t have the shot, you don’t have the shot. So we had to make sure we had the shot. If you actually standing in the room, you really don’t know if you have the shot. What the actor had to do was already well rehearsed. It was the coordination with all the other departments, props, the AD department, focus puller. All of those elements had to be spot on, otherwise the take was blow. A lot of times it would be little errors that would blow the take.
Was there are rule for how long the takes should be?
CK: The rule was to make the best movie we could make. There was no set rule. We would just try to go here to here to here to here in one shot.
LL: We were trying to cut as little as possible. The takes were very long. We didn’t want to cut in obvious places.
CK: We didn’t want to cheat on any of those things. I think something comes through in a film when you don’t cheat – when you are following that character and she’s carrying that energy. That’s something I’m so impressed with Lizzie about. She’s carrying that emotional thread for such long periods of time. Its an unusual thing to see and an unusual performance to get out of somebody.
Did you find by shooting one angle limited your creativity without having all these other angles on the character or did you feel you had to be more creative?
CK: I think it heightened creativity.
LL: It definitely had to challenge us because there’s no coverage. When you have different angles, you can figure that out in the cutting room. We had to know what we were doing before. We basically had to cut the movie in our heads before we started shooting. It was very challenging creatively and to keep it interesting not just to have the camera behind her following her. But to have the camera moving constantly in a way that was justified and in a way that served the story. And also in a way the works pacing wise. It was very challenging.
CK: We never wanted to repeat ourselves with any kind of shot. It’s about Lizzie’s point of view and what’s the best way to experience her point of view, which of course becomes more skewed. There’s a hundred decisions in every shot – do I go with Lizzy’s face or a close-up on the red box? You’re always discovering. This character is always having an awakening and discovering something and we have to discover it at the same time.
Were you able to get in some other references to other horror movies?
LL: We were certainly looking at the lexicon at what’s been established for horror films and how those would play differently in the continuous take. It is unique. It is a different film experience. We think it’s a different film experience to see no cutting. If we’re successful, the audience doesn’t know that it’s one take. They’re not paying attention it’s one take. They are working with it in a different way – on a unconscious level. When there’s no cutting, there’s no break. You are trapped right there with her. There’s no cuts. You can’t get away from her.
Did you view other continuous take movies?
CK: RUSSIAN ARK, but they’re completely different movies. And goes after something completely different. And ROPE isn’t really a horror film either. Technically there’s been way more advantages than there were in 1948 so we watched and learned from them. We just absorbed a lot and created our own story.
You mentioned before the way audiences discover things. Can you talk about how those specific discoveries were decidedly placed?
LL: Started right with the script. Especially when you are working low budget and you have 15 days to shoot a feature. The script is king and you have to really be prepared. So many of these things were figured out in the script and the rehearsal process. Being decisive, that was it. And we could make adjustments because it would take us all day to get one sequence. By in large, everything had to be figured out beforehand. We couldn’t leave anything to production. Especially on a low budget. If you don’t do the sequence in one day, you’re in deep trouble.
CK: That was the number one challenge. You are constantly making those choices too. Now you have to do it on the spot instead of the editing room. That was the challenge of the one take, Who wants to see what someone else has done before and not as well?
After you showed it at Sundance, who approached who to change the ending?
CK: Mickey Liddell picked up the film out of Sundance and he got it. And loved it for the right reasons. We felt like it found a good home. Anyone who creates anything, let alone a film director, you always wish for that chance to go back and improve. Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve felt that way. Talks with Mickey – he gave us that opportunity.
LL: There were some things that weren’t as clear, so we had the opportunity to go back and do that. We made the film in six months from top to bottom (with no script). One of the main pieces of work that we did with the second version was the sound work. We re-did all the sound work, all the foley. We did a tremendous amount of sound work and completely remixed the movie and that makes a huge difference to the film.
How did the music play into the film – specifically where to use it and where not?
CK: To go the route of no music is a very viable choice when you are trying to make it very real. I think we always intended to use music but use it sparingly. When we found our composer, Nathan Larson, who’s fantastic. We just found that right balance. Because music in this film is an opportunity to use audio to reflect her state – to see where Sarah is coming from internally and externally.
For all those aspiring filmmakers out there, what was the budget?
LL: We can’t tell you that. You know, there’s something to be said about making low-budget movies. You have to be so disciplined. There’s no fat. You have to work really hard. There’s something about not having a huge amount of resources that challenges you to be more creative. When you have no money, you have to be choosey about what you are shooting. With OPEN WATER, we had no crew. With this….
CK: … it was luxurious!
LL:…It was luxurious, we had a crew!
SILENT HOUSE opens on March 9.