Silent House director Chris Kentis and screenwriter Laura Lau have partnered to create a downright scary film. The duo phoned Movie Fanatic for an exclusive interview to discuss what inspired the project, their thoughts on the astounding turn by their star Elizabeth Olsen and how to make a film feel as if it was shot with one take.
The movie is shown in real time. As the 88 minutes go by, the audience is whisked through the terror experienced by Olsen through her character. "It was made up of several very complex long takes,” Kentis said. “We didn’t shoot it as one continuous shot.”
How the film successfully feels like an Alfred Hitchcock one-take film like Rope lies in the filmmaker’s background. “The first thing that kind of hooked us when we were approached to do this was the challenge of telling a story in this way, especially with my background as an editor. The traditional way that all films are made, you go into production, you shoot coverage, you get your close-ups and wide shots and whatnot,” Kentis said.
“Then you take that stuff and go into the cutting room and start putting your movie together and that’s where you control the pacing of the story. That’s where you decide how to reveal information. You need to think of a new kind of film language to get these things across to a certain extent. Then there are the logistical challenges as well in how to pull this off.”
Silent House is a remake of a film from Uruguay that was based on a true story. When tackling the script, Lau sought to pump it up with elements that would only enhance the horror. “I had been told that the true story was about a family of three people who were murdered in a house and incest was involved. The original film actually didn’t go in that direction; they went in a totally different direction from what the true story was,” Lau said.
“But I was immediately like, ‘Wow, what happened in this family and how damaged were these individuals? What would compel somebody to kill somebody?’ I basically started with that premise and I looked into the incest. I looked into the kind of psychological damage that is reaped upon people who are abused, especially abused as children, whether physically or sexually. It took me into this whole line of research around the different ways that people survive this kind of trauma -- what they do to survive. It took me into dissociative identity disorder as one of these kind of clever ways of surviving where you basically fragment your identity so large parts of you are not there, literally are not there. You inhabit those parts of yourself and you completely suppress what it is that happened to you.”
Given that aspect of the story, the duo felt that having the film feel like it was shot in one continuous take would effectively enhance the audience’s living what Olsen exhibits onscreen. “It was the perfect way to bring across the experience of someone who’s fragmented, who’s experiencing reality as fragmented, whose sense of time is not continuous. It’s discontinuous because she’s actually a very, very damaged, mentally ill person,” Lau said. “I wanted to convey the terror of somebody who’s been through this kind of trauma, the terror of a little girl who was trying to get away from the horrendous things that were happening to her and to put the audience through that experience with her but in a way that you don’t realize that’s what’s going on till you’re really at the very end of the movie.”
The pair have an almost unspoken creative process that works. “We’ve made shorts and this is our third feature. She’s also keenly aware and she’s over my shoulder,” Kentis said.
“We’ve been working together and living together for a long time and watching movies together and talking about movies together and we have a very similar taste,” Lau added.
“Even though of course we’re different people and we have different interests and we bring different strengths, I think that over the years that we really respect and value each other’s ideas and we have learned how to really communicate with each other. I think it’s that process of collaboration, that kind of bumping into each other, working together and learning how to articulate what we want and coming up with a vision that works for both of us, it just works.”
Silent House works on so many levels, but it is largely due to the performance of the actress who broke out in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Olsen. “We certainly lucked out,” Kentis said of his casting coup. “With all the challenges of this film, we knew that we needed someone very special who could carry it in a unique way because the camera was going to be on her for such a long period of time. There was no escape. We needed someone that audiences were really going to want to watch and care about and identify with and feel her pain. We needed someone who could bring across the various emotional layers that are going on and someone with the training and the discipline for this unique kind of challenge.”
Lau appreciated how devoted the actress was to the project, continually picking her brain to further get inside the head of this complex character. “I think that Lizzie’s performance is what makes that work in the film. In so far as we’re successful in sculpting these different layers in the film, she was bringing that. All the time she knew that this was the experience of a damaged person and she was bringing that pain, that bewilderment and that terror of a traumatized mind, which is not simple,” Lau said. “It was something that she really embodied. She would have nightmares at night and in fact we even used some of the material from her nightmares in the movie.”