Yep, it's another remake of a foreign horror movie — but Uruguay's La casa muda is obscure enough that Silent House , which recycles its plot and filming style, feels like a brand-new experience. Co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, last seen bobbing in shark-infested waves for 2003's similarly bare-bones Open Water, apply another technical gimmick here: Silent House appears to be shot in one continuous take.
Though it's not actually made this way, each shot is extraordinarily long — way longer than you'd expect in a horror film, since the genre often relies on quick edits to build tension. Instead, the film's aim is "real fear captured in real time" (per its tag line), and there's no denying this is one shriek-filled experience.
The dwelling in question is an isolated, rambling lake house being fixed up to sell by Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), her father (Adam Trese), and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens). The lights don't work, the windows are boarded up, most doors are padlocked shut, and there are strange noises coming from rooms that should be empty. Much of the film follows Sarah as she descends into deeper and deeper terror, scrabbling from floor to floor trying to hide from whoever (or whatever) is lurking, while at the same time trying to bust her way out. Though the last-act exposition explosion is a little hard to take, the film's slow-burn beginning and frantic middle section offer bona fide chills.
I caught up with the Tiburon, Calif.-born, New York-based co-director and writer Laura Lau just prior to Silent House's release.
SFBG: Like Open Water, which used a minimal crew and took place, for the most part, in the middle of the ocean, Silent House combines a streamlined story with a complicated technical set-up — the illusion of one long take. What do you think attracts you and co-director Chris Kentis to these types of films?
Laura Lau: I think it's true that we want to challenge ourselves as filmmakers. We don't want to repeat what's already been done. We want to try and do things that are different — that makes it interesting for us. I think that's absolutely true about both of these projects. Each one of them had its own really unique challenges. But of course it's all about telling a story, and what it is that, emotionally, creates a reaction in us. Both of these films were really about certain kinds of horrors, true horrors that really spoke to us and we wanted to make films about.
SFBG: And just to clarify, Silent House is not really one continuous shot. You did cut sometimes.
LL: Yes. It is a seamless, continuous shot, and the experience for the viewer is that it is one continuous take. However, to achieve that we did that in very long takes, but they were different shots that we stitched together.
SFBG: But the takes are, as you say, a lot longer that what you would see in an average film.
LL: Absolutely. And not only that, but all of the sort of usual filmmaking tools that you have were taken away from us. We didn't shoot any coverage at all. Usually, you go on a film shoot and you shoot a lot of coverage, and then you go and make your movie in the editing room. In our situation here, we had to make all those decisions ahead of time; what we shot was what we had. And all of the usual ways that you would control pacing, revealing information, even sculpting performances were taken away from us.
SFBG: The lighting appears to come only from on-set sources, mostly flashlights. Was this really what happened?
LL: Well, the whole house was pre-lit from above, and it was all on a dimmer board. We had a dimmer board operator who had to ride those lights. That was one of the elements that made it tricky, because not only was there performance and camera choreography, but there were elements like the lights, like the [assistant director] department hitting cues, like props. All of those things that were critical to actually getting the shot the way we wanted it — if any one of those elements went awry, we would have to start over again.
SFBG: Did you do a lot of rehearsing?
LL: We did. After I had written the script, and then, once we had gotten the location, I re-wrote the script. And then Chris and I just started to run the movie from top to bottom. I would actually just act out Sarah's part, and we could run it over and over again. Especially since the script was like, 60 pages, so it was short for a feature, and there was a lot of trepidation about whether it was feature-length. Which it was, but nobody knew, because nobody in our crew had made a movie in this way, and of course [neither had any of the] producers. So, there was that process of Chris and I basically running it through, and our [director of photography], Igor Martinovic, came on, and we ran it with him. And then we went into rehearsal. We had two weeks of rehearsal with the actors, and then we had three weeks to shoot the movie. We had 15 days.
SFBG: Martinovic has a lot of documentary experience (2010's The Tillman Story; 2008's Man on Wire). Did that play into your decision to work with him on Silent House?
SFBG: Silent House isn't part of the "we're filming ourselves!" trend in films right now, but it has some similarities to those types of movies.
LL: I can see why you would say that, and I think it's because the continuous shot is entirely coming from one person's experience. Since there's no cutting, you really are trapped with this character, who is trapped in a nightmare, in a terrifying situation. We hope that the experience is that you really feel like you are there with her as she's going through this.
SFBG: How did you approach building tension and suspense within the continuous shots?
LL: I think that actually the continuous take is what really builds the tension. If you can't release yourself, and there's no cutting, I think it just builds the intensity. You can't get away from this character and you can't get away from her experience. I think that the story I wanted to tell with this technique of the continuous take was really about one woman's experience. It's about her experience and what it is that she's going through.
SFBG: How did you cast Elizabeth Olsen as Sarah?
LL: We had been working with casting directors Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee on previous projects that we'd been trying to get off the ground, and as soon as they read the script, they said, "Oh, we know who Sarah has to be." They had cast Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone the year before. So [Olsen] came in as the girl our casting directors had already cast, and they were right! She had the charisma and the luminosity and the depth, because again, this is a film where we knew that we were going to be watching one character, and she had to be somebody that we wanted to watch, and somebody that we would care about.
SFBG: A lot of what's scary about Silent House are the unseen elements, including mysterious noises throughout the house. Did you choreograph the sounds as carefully as the lighting and performances?
LL: Yes, of course, the sound and the score were all part of the design of conveying Sarah's experience. What she was going through, throughout the film. So everything was working together through the entire film.
SFBG: You mentioned earlier that you're interested in making movies that don’t repeat what's already been done. Silent House is a remake, but the source film hasn't been seen in the U.S., has it?
LL: No, it has not. And I think the last time a film that was a continuous take has been seen by American audiences was Hitchcock's Rope, in 1948. It's been a long time. It really is a very different cinema experience, we think. And Rope is not a horror movie. It's a very different genre. It feels very theater-like; all of the action takes place in two rooms, it could really almost be like a theater stage. It's quite different from our film. We were just thrilled when we were offered to do the remake, because it was really an opportunity to do something different. And how often do you get to actually do something different?
Silent House  opens Fri/9 in Bay Area theaters.