Just barely sliding into Sundance this year is the Laura Lau/Chris Kentis horror flick The Silent House (review), a last-minute addition that follows a young woman’s night of terror as she travels with her father and uncle to the family’s isolated summer home and comes to discover they’re not alone. Lau and Kentis, the husband-and-wife duo behind 2004 hit Open Water, based the story on the recent Uruguayan film La casa muda, duplicating that movie’s amazing – though not unprecedented – feat of being filmed entirely in one continuous take. B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen recently got on the phone with the couple to discuss the project’s astonishingly quick journey to the screen, the formidable challenge of shooting it all in one go, and working with star Elizabeth Olsen (the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley). See inside for the full interview.
Bloody-Disgusting: This is a really late entry into Sundance. Can you talk about how this came about?
Laura Lau: Well basically, we were approached to make this movie in June. So we did not start shooting until October. That is why we were a late submission.
Chris Kenis: We contacted [Sundance], they had an awareness of the picture in the early stages. So they had an awareness, and luckily they were willing to look at it. They didn’t know if it was gonna be good or not…but they were willing to look at it when it was finished. So Laura began the script in mid/late June, and we wrapped around November 12th or 15th. So we literally just kind of skidded in. But we got our first cut to them, and all the rest of the lineup and everything was long since announced. But luckily they really liked the movie, and they invited us back. So that’s kinda the story of that.
BD: That’s pretty amazing that you were able to get it together so quickly.
LL: You know, we were motivated, because from the time that we started meeting with our French producers we felt that there would be no better place to screen this movie than Sundance. So we had that in mind…it was really a goal to make the best film we could in this time frame and hopefully get to Sundance.
BD: It’s been seven years since “Open Water” premiered at Sundance. Does it feel like it’s been that long?
CK: Well you know, it does and it doesn’t. I mean we’ve certainly…”Open Water” was a life-changer for us. We’ve experienced so much since then, working in the industry…I think we didn’t know what to expect and kind of came completely naïve with “Open Water”, and of course you never know what to expect coming to Sundance. But we certainly have been working in the industry for awhile now…it’s funny, when you come back here it’s not like much time has passed at all.
BD: Is it easier the second time around because you know what to expect?
CK: I think it’s just different. We had zero expectations with “Open Water” because it was literally this little family movie that we’d been making and laboring over for years. And just being here completely under-the-radar…you know, we didn’t come with an army of publicists and actors, it was literally just –
LL: Coming to Sundance now, having made “Open Water”, I think there’s some amount of expectation…so coming with “Silent House”, there’s the precedent of “Open Water”. Whereas we came with “Open Water” we didn’t have anything previous to [it]. We were completely unknown. So I think that it’s definitely a little bit of a different experience. It’s great to hear how so many people appreciated “Open Water”.
BD: I really liked “Open Water” and have been waiting for the follow-up for a long time.
CK: Oh, thank you.
BD: I like the idea of making a very little-known film because I feel like more people will be more apt to check out the original after seeing this one. The Uruguayan film is very recent – I believe it only came out last year. Given that, it’s pretty amazing this is being relased so quickly. How did the project come about initially?
LL: Well, the Uruguayan film actually premiered in Cannes in the Director’s Fortnight in May. So it really has been a very short road here to Sundance. Our producers approached us in June and basically told us they had this really cool Uruguayan film that was one continuous take and inspired by a true story, and Chris and I were immediately intrigued. And once we saw the original and we were told by our producers that we could do whatever we wanted with the script, we were in. So from there on it was just a total focus and commitment to getting to this festival.
BD: Talk about adapting the script. How closely does it adhere to the original?
LL: Well actually, I was never given any script. I saw the film twice before I wrote the script. There were certain elements of the original that we liked a lot, and it was really a jumping[-off] point for us. And we basically had the benefit of the original to go further, and really mine the structure of the one take. And to tell a different story, which was still inspired by the kernel of this true story [that the original was based on]. But it was pretty much a total reimagining. A lot of times when I was writing the script I was really trying to keep the original out of my mind.
BD: It must have been difficult for you to build characterization in only 85 minutes of real time.
LL: It was very challenging to write the script. [It] actually only came out to 55 pages. We wondered whether it would time out properly, because there are no cuts. There’s no way to fix anything in post, it has to pace perfectly when you shoot it. So I think that was a huge challenge in terms of writing the script.
CK: I’ll say we’ve written a number [of scripts] over the years, and Laura’s got a very good sense of how a script should time out. So when she first came to me she said ‘it’s short, but I really think this is right’. Once we had a location, we literally went and basically played the part[s] and acted out the part[s] and [went through] the blocking and just went through the whole house ourselves to see how it timed out and make sure it timed out. And of course it did.
But getting back to your initial question, yes it was important to us…if the story was gonna matter, if the audience was gonna be frightened, if it was gonna mean anything, that we took a little time to develop characters so that you could be invested in them.
BD: Talk about the challenges of actually shooting in one continuous take. That must have been incredibly difficult.
LL: It was. It was and it wasn’t. We had a good long rehearsal period, and as Chris was saying, once we got the location Chris and I just spent a lot of time in the house running the film over and over and over again, and then once our D.P. came on we were running it with him. And then once we cast the film we started to rehearse with the actors, and then we had a really spectacular A.D. team, a lot of people helping us with cues and the choreography and making sure everybody was where they needed to be and doing what they needed to do. It was just a lot of coordination and tactics –
CK: It was very complex. Our D.P. Igor Martinovic was fantastic operating, but we had to have a second operator in order to achieve the complexity of some of these shots. Because if we were gonna do this we wanted to take it places that people hadn’t seen and challenge ourselves and take [as] full advantage of our budget as we could of this single-take idea…first of all, that would best serve telling the story but second of all would really have that ‘how did they do that?’ kind of factor.
And you know, to do that required more than one operator, where we had the camera being passed off. You know, we had some pretty complex camera choreography happening along with the actors and as Laura said the A.D. department where people planted within the house would have to hit certain cues, and cue this, and make this happen, and make that happen. So it was very, very challenging.
BD: Were there any false starts?
CK: Many. There were many, many, many, many, many, many false starts! [Laughs]
BD: I imagine it was also hard to find actors who were willing to take on the challenge.
CK: Well, we had terrific casting directors, Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee, who we’ve been in touch with a lot over the years. And it was a no-brainer…taking it to them. We brought it to them, and they kind of looked at the script and instantly just knew Elizabeth Olsen would be the right choice. And we met with her and auditioned her and she was fantastic, but it seemed too easy, you know? So we spent about a week looking at a lot of other people, just to be thorough, but no one ever came close. She was always…her attitude was fantastic.
I’ll tell you…such an emotionally draining role is always difficult, but to carry that for such a long period of time, and then one thing goes wrong and go back again, and do it again….she always had a great attitude for something that was a very, very difficult role.
BD: I didn’t realize initially that she was the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley. Were you guys aware of the relation initially?
LL: Absolutely. Yes, we were. You know, Elizabeth is really trying to…she wants to do her own thing. She’s been a very serious student of theater and acting, and she’s gone to Russia and studied acting there, and she’s at NYU now. You know, she’s very focused on being a serious actress.
CK: She’s extremely serious, and I think also wants to forge her own identity, you know? And rightfully so, because she’s her own unique talent. She’s terrific. It isn’t just riding off anybody’s coattails or anything. I mean, she’s put the hard time in and she has the craft down. Because you couldn’t accomplish something like this and bring yourself emotionally to that place over and over again without that craft and that professionalism.
LL: And her natural charisma and luminosity.
BD: You said the original was based on the kernel of a true story. What was the true story that this was based off of?
LL: Well, the director of the original had heard of a story in a village where there were photographs that were found, and there were bodies that had been…you know, people that had been murdered. And there were other details also that happened that I don’t want to talk about because it would give away some of the story, which when you see the film you’ll see that. But that’s basically what it was. And that was what inspired him to write the script for the original. And we found that to be compelling and kept that little kernel.
CK: Because again, when we approached using the single take…there were things that we wanted to do ourselves…so it was a springboard.
BD: Would you describe this as a supernatural film or more of a grounded horror film?
CK: Well, only because it’s so early in the process…
LL: In writing the script and making this movie we were definitely playing with different genres. And we hoped that people would look at the movie from –
CK: Not so much different genres but different conventions within the genre and playing to those. Because of that, I think at different times the movie works in different ways, but ultimately we don’t obviously want to give away, especially this early on, what it is. But certainly our intention is that it plays very realistically with those other elements as well.
BD: Were there any classic films that you were inspired by?
CK: Well, we obviously made it our business to look at every film that was a single-take film, starting with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope…
LL: And Russian Ark, and…I mean, there are not very many one take movies, but we definitely were looking at all the home-invasion movies like ‘The Strangers’ –
CK: There were some inspirational movies, but again, to mention them would kind of tip our hand, you know? So there were those movies, and someday we’d gladly speak about it. But we don’t want to ruin the experience for anybody right now, but let’s just say Laura, taking on this script, really looked at everything there is within the horror genre new and old…at times taking the genre conventions and playing with them to direct the audience in different ways, and kind of guide them down certain paths, and also to have a little fun with those. A tremendous amount of research kind of went into the film also for other themes [that] again I don’t to get into now because it’s premature. But there were inspirations.
BD: What are some of your personal favorite horror films?
CK: Well, my personal favorites I’d have to say are –
LL: ‘The Shining’.
CK: Well, ‘The Shining’…
LL: We love ‘The Others’.
CK: It’s not one of my…I like ‘The Others’ very much, but there are a few. I always draw a blank…[when asked] a point-blank question like that..
LL: I love ‘Paranormal Activity’. I thought that was really good.
CK: I like ’28 Days Later’…I think it’s a very difficult genre frankly, because I think there are so many movies made in this genre all the time. And I think the audience becomes very aware of what those tricks are. It’s hard to do something new and be effective and to scare people…
I think what’s been most effective in horror films recently, like ‘Blair Witch’ and ‘Paranormal Activity’ and ‘Cloverfield’ and ‘The Last Exorcism’, is a documentary camera point of view which has a kind of a grittiness where people feel like they’re seeing something that has a sense of realism. But my fear is that it’s almost becoming like a sub-genre…[and] how can you put audiences there in the film and they can feel real like it’s happening to them? What other technique is there?
So this idea of the single camera never leaving your character’s side, being with them, never cutting away, living out the 86 minutes with them as they go through this, was a new way to experience it. It had to feel real but it didn’t have to look like grubby consumer video. [Laughs] We tried to do something a little more polished with this as well. So those were all things that excited me about the project.
BD: What’s the next project for you guys after this? Are you going to stay in the horror/thriller genre?
CK: Well, we’ve written in many genres…it’s a good question, and we’re still working on what that is. We’re certainly open to doing that again, but we’d like to also branch out into other things. ‘Open Water’ was interesting because…we know it was a scary movie and we tried to make it a scary movie, but [we didn’t] per se set out to make a horror movie. It was more of [being] fascinated by that story and wanted to tell it as realistically as possible. This picture I think we very much knew what genre we were working in and we have a few things we’re floating around right now, but we won’t know which the next one will be just yet.