Laura Lau Interview
LAURA LAU is the writer, co-director and producer of Silent House, which is due to land in UK cinemas on Friday 4th May.
Lau is dangerously close to being as prolific as Terrence Malick, having only made films in 1997, 2003 and 2012 (Grind, Open Water and Silent House, respectively). Working with her husband Chris Kentis on all these features, their latest is a giant leap away from two people stuck in an ocean, surrounded by Jaws’ cousins. Instead it’s Elizabeth Olsen trapped inside a house…
Gorepress’s Scullion had the pleasure of talking to Laura Lau about Silent House – check out his review here.
Lau comes across as a very smart, friendly, professional filmmaker who clearly loves a challenge. Below she talks about ‘Lizzy’ Olsen, the Uruguayan original, small crews, no crew, real fear, abuse, damage and a really big house…
WARNING: this interview contains spoilers for SILENT HOUSE, so watch it first and be enlightened by Laura afterwards. Or eat spoiler.
GOREPRESS: So who decided to make Silent House? Did a studio approach you or is this something you wanted to do since seeing the original?
LAURA LAU: Wild Bunch were fans of Open Water and they approached us to make the film.
GP: There is some stigma attached to remaking foreign films for an English-speaking audience. What was your personal opinion on this before directing Silent House and has this changed because of your experience?
LL: It’s tricky, but we felt with this particular film that there was room for us to do something a little different and push it a little further and basically use the original as a jumping off point. Generally speaking it is difficult doing remakes.
GP: Are you of the opinion that you’re looking to get this to a wider audience? That’s what a lot of filmmakers say about remakes…
LL: Yeah, I don’t think a lot of people saw it in the United States. Did you see the original?
GP: Yeah, only a few weeks back, actually.
LL: Well you’ll see that we made some fundamental changes to what the character does and what her motivation is and we tried to make use of the single take to convey this character’s reality and experience. It was different from the original.
GP: Talking of the “one take” aspect; this is the big selling point, isn’t it? This has been marketed as real horror in real time. Although it’s real horror, it is not actually filmed in real time – in one shot – as suggested. Was there any temptation to actually do this in one take? Or was that impossible?
LL: Well obviously it could be done. You could just turn on a camera and film the entire movie that way, but we believed it would not have been as interesting a film to tell this particular story in that way. Of course you could do it that way but – for us – because of the size of the camera and how long it could shoot for it just wasn’t something we considered.
GP: How long did the shoot take?
LL: We shot the whole film in 15 days – in three weeks.
GP: How did this method of filming affect your rehearsal process and preparation?
LL: Greatly. Because there is no editing, all the decisions that you’d normally make in the cutting room you had to make ahead of time, so right away from the script it had to be tailored exactly to the location because literally every single second is accounted for in the movie and since there would be no covering (we didn’t shoot any coverage) all of the decisions – in terms of pacing, of where the camera is and when we reveal what information – had to be determined ahead of time. So it was all about really being prepared. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to shoot the film so we had to be really really prepared and it was not easy to get any of these long long takes. They were challenging not only performance wise but it was also challenging technically, so we really felt that we pushed it to limit of what we could handle in terms of our resources available to us.
GP: Anything you wish you’d done on hindsight but were unable to achieve because of these limitations?
LL: [laughs] I really can’t think about it that way because so much of what a project is comes from what your resources are, and we got a lot out of what we had, budget wise and time wise. We had a fantastic DP Igor Martinovic and production designer Roshelle Berliner who Chris and I had previous relationships with and so they came onto this low budget film and brought a lot of production value to our project.
GP: You were solely responsible for the script, adapted liberally from Gustavo Hernández’s original. The slow and gradual reveal is very important in a film like this, especially with the revelation at the end. How did you approach the material during the writing process?
LL: When we were first approached we were told this was based on a true story and this true story was about this family in Uruguay and there had been these murders and that it had involved incest. Now the original film actually stayed away from the incest angle, but right away I wanted to know what could have happened in a family system that this kind of thing could occur. So I did a lot of research into the psychological damage that could happen to someone who has been traumatized as a child, and what kind of repressed secrets could suddenly be triggered by going back into this house. To me the whole film is an exploration of this fragmented person, this deeply damaged person, which was also very challenging for Lizzy [Elizabeth Olsen] because she knew that we were carrying a very heavy subject matter at the heart of this story. That was really the motivation for the script and the whole film is about how this character is her experience of reality as a damaged person. Her sense of time is fragmented and her identity is also fragmented, so hopefully the audience go on this journey with her and discover and understand what’s going on as she does. That was the through-line for the film.
GP: This method of filming must’ve meant you had to have the script 100% correct and shoot-ready before beginning, with almost no legroom for changes or last-second amends.
LL: I didn’t have a location before I wrote the first draft of the script, unfortunately. I looked at floor plans of houses in the area and guessed what might be a common layout… but when we actually got to the location it was different. It was on the water and had three storeys! I had originally imagined a two storey house, so I actually went to the house and rewrote the script to really take advantage of that location. Then me and Chris ran the movie from top to bottom over and over again. The script was really short – at 64 pages – and it made everyone really nervous because, as you know, it should be a page a minute and 64 minutes is NOT a feature. As nobody associated with the production had ever made a movie this way none of us knew if it would work, but it felt right to me. I had written 15 scripts and it felt right to me, but I didn’t know either, so we actually had to sign a document that said this would “time out” to feature length… but we didn’t know until three days into shooting.
GP: There’s not a huge amount of dialogue in the script and a lot of action, which Elizabeth Olsen has to deal with for the entire length of the film. How was she to work with?
LL: She was really tremendous. She understood that this was a really complex character and she understood that technically it was going to be very challenging because she never knew which take would be the one that would work, there were so many elements that could go wrong. For example the lighting – the whole house was pre-lit from above. There was a dimmer board operator who would ride the lights and it would take a while to get that right. Then there was the focus puller, there was the camera movement, there was props. There were lots of different elements that could go wrong at any take and if something did go wrong we’d have to start over again. For Lizzy the level of concentration and to keep herself at this very emotional state was very very challenging for her. It was very gruelling for Lizzy.
GP: Having experienced Sarah’s journey – real fear in real time – it’s hard to imagine anyone else squeezing into those spaces with Elizabeth Olsen. How many crew members were involved in making Silent House?
LL: We had a cameramen and a boom. Surprisingly the boom operator was like a magic ghost. We thought we’d have to do everything with wireless microphones but he was so amazing he was able to stay out of the shot. He very rarely – very rarely – blew a take. Generally speaking we would also have some of the AD department hiding in places in order to create certain queues and have doors open and shut, but generally speaking it was just the DP and the boom operator and the rest of us were just behind monitors INCLUDING the focus puller, who was pulling focus off a monitor. He was just tremendous. The 5G cameras are very sensitive to focus.
GP: The film is very claustrophobic in places. How much “acting” did Elizabeth Olsen have to do, considering the enclosed and dark nature of the piece?
LL: Lizzy really took to heart what the subject matter was. She was having nightmares throughout the filming and we actually used some of her nightmare material in the film. I think she was really holding onto the horror – the film is really about the horror that this child felt when she was hiding under the bed or under the table; she’s damaged and has a discontinuous sense of time. Things that happened in the past are feeling like they’re happening now, and so the idea for all of us was to convey the terror that they feel when they’re undergoing this kind of abuse.
GP: This is a vastly different film from Open Water, which was entirely out in the open, whereas Silent House in almost entirely inside a cramped house. How difficult was that to adapt to?
LL: It’s a difficult genre to make anyway and it’s definitely some risky material to deal with. It was also a huge risk to make a film entirely in one shot. It’s a different way to make a movie, it’s a different way to experience a movie and it a different way to tell a story, which is what excited us, in the same way Open Water excited us – it was a challenge. How do you tell a story with two actors bobbing in the water, alone, with nothing? How do you maintain and tell a story under the circumstances? In Silent House it was the same kind of question for us – how do you tell this story with this approach. We had this new technology in 2003, digital was just starting to become more popular and we asked what had we NOT seen? What type of film would benefit from this approach? We shot this film ourselves – Chris and I – we had no crew at all. You asked before about the crew on Silent House - which was small – but compared to Open Water we had a huge crew of about fifty people. So we felt budget wise and resource wise it was luxurious compared to Open Water! But creatively speaking it’s always about story and character and how the approach would best be mined with this particular story.
GP: Trends in horror change frequently – from the influx of zombie films to a huge swathe of found footage horrors – and you must have seen the genre change a lot between Open Water and Silent House. As filmmakers close to the genre, how do you see the horror film industry evolving in the future?
LL: I can’t really answer that. I think there’s all types of movies for all types of audiences, like the tropes that are tried and true, and I think we’ll keep seeing those. With the tremendous amount of material that is being made it’s becoming harder and harder to find something different. On the other hand, that’s the challenge, how to find a way to make it interesting for ourselves – Chris and I – and this is true of the two projects we’re working on now, we’re trying to find a way to keep us interested in seeing things we’ve not seen before. I think it becomes more and more difficult with the sheer amount of production that goes on though.
GP: What are you up to next? Is it something equally as challenging at this?
LL: We’re working on a couple of thrillers, both based on true events, which isn’t something we intended. I suppose we’re just interested by what moves us and true stories already have that truth to them. So both of the new projects are inspired by true events and again you’ll see we’re trying to do something different with them.
GP: Finally, what is your favourite horror film of all time?
LL: I really have to say The Shining.
GP: An excellent choice.
LL: It’s brilliant and it’s innovative and it changed horror films.
GP: Thanks for talking to Gorepress, Laura. Good luck with those thrillers.
LL: Thanks Gorepress.