Filmmaking duo Chris Kentis and Laura Lau once again take on a terrifying topic in Silent House, a psychological horror film based on writer/director Gustavo Hernandez’ 2010 La Casa Muda, which premiered at Sundance in 2011. Kentis and Lau are best known for their thrilling stranded-at-sea film Open Water, which also premiered at Sundance in 2004. While the challenges between Open Water and Silent House may be different, one thing is for sure – this duo loves a challenge. Their latest is shot in one continuous take, following up-and-coming actress Elizabeth Olsen during 88 minutes of thrilling real time. I got the chance to sit and talk to the couple about the challenges of shooting in real time, casting Lizzie Olsen, and how easy it is to make a movie these days.
Is authenticity something you strive for in all your films?
Laura Lau: Yes –
Chris Kentis: I think it’s what we’re attracted to. Yeah, I think it is. Yeah, you make what you like to see and relate to. I think it is part of our aesthetic. Who knows where these things come from. That’s what every filmmaker or any kind of artist, it’s what it is. They take something on, and what makes it theirs and what makes it special, it’s because they see the world in a certain way, for whatever reason. I’m not opposed at all to different ways of telling stories, but these particular stories that we were attracted to, they really are about human horror and some very real horrors and very real things. It seemed that to make those things as real and palpable as possible was the most effective way to tell that story.
Your film was shot in one continuous take, what were some of the ways you prepared yourselves before starting principal photography?
LL: I think that it was all about rehearsal and preparation ahead of time so that when we were shooting, we had prepared ourselves as much as possible. We only had 15 days to shoot the movie. All we could really do was be prepared. Chris and I spent a lot of time in the house ourselves just working on the choreography because on that kind of schedule, we had to know exactly what we were doing. And because nothing could be fixed in the cutting room, there was no coverage, there was no way to fix in the cutting room, we had to get it right as we were shooting it. It was really all about being prepared.
Since you had to be sure of what you were going to shoot, editing must’ve been much easier.
LL: It’s true.
CK: It was the easiest job on the planet. Because the shots were so difficult to get. It wasn’t like there was multiple takes to choose from, it took all day, sometimes two days to get that shot. That was the one, and you had to be confident because the schedule is going and you’re running out of time and it’s like you need to know you have this exact (time) to move on to the next shot tomorrow. It wasn’t even like in the cutting room you had to choose (between different shots), it was like, “Where is the shot, let’s put that one there and this one there and those go together.” That was the only take that there was going to be, it was very hard to accomplish it.
LL: I think you’re right. It does make it easier in a certain sense because we had to am all of those decisions, we didn’t have a million options. When you shoot a lot of coverage, it’s like, “Wow, you can do this, you can do that, you can do this, you can do that.” And in this case we didn’t have that. And in that sense it was easier because there was only so many ways that we could do what we needed to do, and we didn’t have all the options that coverage would give us.
How many versions did you end up shooting in the end?
LL: We didn’t because our sequences were really long so basically what we did was, we shot our sequences. There was no other versions. It was that hard just to get what we had written.
CK: The movie is several long, very complicated shots stringed together. There was no alternate version we could do. There was no luxury of that. It was just too hard to get one shot that was right, what we had in our mind’s eye, and get that. We literally would just take each shot, take maybe 30 takes to get a shot – 35 takes of Lizzie getting emotionally involved and this amazing performance, and you’re nine minutes into a shot and one prop guy or somebody knocks something over and it’s like, back to square one. It’s a highly unusual situation for an actress to be in because usually everything, as it should be, is all about that performance. Here it’s something completely unrelated in that great performance goes in the garbage now back to square one, we go again.
Besides shooting in real time, what were some of the other challenges you had while making this film?
CK: The real challenge again was how to tell a story without, not to repeat myself, but it really was the focal point of – I have an editing background. That’s how I started in film, and there’s a way movies are made. All movies are made in a very similar fashion. We have coverage – closeups, wide-shots – but you have coverage. In my feelings about making a movie were always that production is about gathering the stuff you need so you can go in the editing room and then make your movie, that’s where your movie gets made. Here you are making the movie on the spot. I can’t overstress it, because you can’t fix anything in the editing, you can’t control the pacing as we said. Most performances are made or broken, no matter how great or bad the actor, a bad editor can ruin a great performance, and a good editor can improve a bad performance. None of that’s available to you. How do we veal information. There’s jumping back in time and showing things, it’s almost always done with editing. I looked at every single movie with twists and turns and it’s always done in a similar fashion, I’ve never seen it revealed in a way where you can’t do that. It was a huge challenge in the movie, is how to invent a new language – tell a movie in a new way and at the same time, all this technical stuff. What applies to every other movie, applies to this movie. All that matters to the audience is that it’s engrossing, emotional, suspenseful experience. That they are entertained and that they are taken on a ride, they don’t care how you achieved it. Not to let the technical override, always keep the focus on that and make sure that the movie is paced right, and that you are involved in the story.
Before your film and the release of Martha Marcy May Marlene, Elizabeth Olsen was basically an unknown. Why did you decide to take a chance on her?
LL: Well our casting directors, when they read the scripts who we had worked with previously, they said, “We know who she has to be.” And they had cast Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone the year before. And you’re right that there was no tape on her nothing because Martha Marcy was still posting at that point, and she had done Peace, Love and Understanding, but that was also posting, so we didn’t see any tape on her. It was rally just auditioning her and meeting with her and talking with her and she was perfect for the role.
She did great. She was able to draw you in and keep you there with her.
CK: That’s what we needed. That’s a tall order, to find an actor who can do that. It was amazing that she came to us so easily, that our casting directors found her. It was like, “Wow, she’s perfect.”
This is your third feature together, and I can imagine that you don’t always agree on everything. How do you manage to work together and continue working together?
LL: I would say that we really communicate well, and the thing with it is that we’ve been together a long time. We’ve been working together for a long time, and I think that it’s all about communicating, and if you have a problem with something, you just talk about it, and resolve it. We never ever go to bed mad at each other. It’s really all about communication. We had a lot of time to work on that together.
CK: I didn’t understand a word she just said (laughs). You know what the truth is too? Obviously all that, and our work, because we’re lucky enough to have work – we really love our work – it’s intertwined in our lives. It’s like –
LL: It’s a way of life.
CK: It’s a way of life, and we love it. We get enjoyment from it, so it’s completely intertwined. It’s all just part of our life. We communicate about work and just as we do about anything else in our lives, so we feel very lucky.
Do you feel that the success of your previous film Open Water, made it easier to get Silent House made?
LL: Yes, but we were basically hired to make this movie with the french company Wild Bunch had the original at Cannes. The producer there who had the remake rights, ran into somebody who she knew was associated with us and said she loved Open Water and basically said, “I’ve got the perfect movie for them.” The financing was in play.
CK: But there you go, she loved Open Water. If she hadn’t loved Open Water, we wouldn’t have been hired. No question right there.
And lastly, for our readers, if you could give a piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers, what would that be?
LL: I would say, the piece of advice I would say, is just do it. Work, keep producing work and give yourself a chance to develop; give yourself a chance to fail; give yourself a chance to experiment. It takes time to develop your craft. You have to stick with it, and I would say –
CK: Well you can pick up this (cellphone) or whatever today and you can make a movie. You can take a cellphone and make a movie. The tools are available now. You can do it, but whether you go to the best film school and you have the most expensive camera, or you’re working on a little cellphone, it is a process and it’s a lot of trial and error to learn. I think you go in and you have your heroes, your favorite filmmakers or even screenwriters, even learning how to write, people think that you sit down and write from page one, and you get to the last page and there it is, it’s done. No, that first one, even at any level is going to suck because – what you understand is you get better at this, everything is about layers and layers. I did this past, I got this down, now I’m going to go back and work on this. Everything is about refinement, refinement. It’s the same thing when you’re making a film, it’s like anything, if you can’t practice, you can’t get better. It’s cheap to make movies now, and you can make something good, get the attention, get it to festivals, there’s all kind of venues online. It’s a different way, but in some ways, more accessible to build a career than it was before.
Silent House opens in select theaters March 9, 2012.