Trevor Juras' wonderfully sharp existential-crisis-in-the-wilderness horror picture, The Interior, getting is gettting its commercial launch at Toronto's The Royal Cinema this Friday, July 8, and a VOD release (via Syndicado) shortly thereafter.
Below is an interview done at last year's Fantasia International Film Festival, during the busy but relaxing breakfast-hour at Kaffein coffeehouse in Montreal. There, I managed to have a fine breakfast chat with Trevor and his cinematographer Othello Ubalde the day after the film's world premiere.
Trevor is a mild mannered fellow, but there is clearly a keen, and confident, intellect at work under his placid exterior. He is clearly a filmmaker who knows what he wants, is willing to experiment along the way, and gets something that is both meticulous and compelling in the process. The hour-long conversation went hither and yon, and it has been edited (and abriged) for clarity.
Kurt Halfyard: A good place to start is with the the balance between horror and comedy in THE INTERIOR, I mean they are not really overlapping, they are very segregated, althout it isn't that simple. If there is a balance between the two it is a delicate one.
Trevor Juras: I look at it from the sensibility of the main character, James, himself. When you are in the city, everything is ironic and it is very easy to be frivolous or to lead a silly life. But if something, like a medical problem, happens, things get real very quickly. And when you are out in the woods, it can be therapeutic, but it can also be frightening. When you are not used to seeing the stars in the city, and you look up and see all the stars, it is easy to be overwhelmed by … existence. I wanted to reflect the push and pull of both sides of my personality. I get caught up in petty things, and I often want to get out and just be in nature.
But the horror of the film is that when he gets away, the world is just still fucking with him as his city life. It’s not better, its worse. Actually, that is quite funny in its own way.
Absolutely! Yes, especially if you haven’t dealt with what brought you out there in the first place. Obviously, I’m pretty close to the film, I see overlap in the comedy and horror. I’ve been at screenings where the audience does kind of chuckle at times that I wasn’t expecting, and I was happy to hear this.
The measure of an effect of a horror movie, for me, is not by how the audience jumps, like those videos of [REC] or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY audiences, but rather, it is the slight bit of calming titter, of people trying to right their reaction to a scene. It is funny when you are safe in a movie theatre watching something, how those two things are linked together. But still, usually, in genre pictures, a filmmaker will make the horror funny, but here, you seem to want to make the comedy horrific!
That is a good way to put it. Those two things are what I think about, often when I watch a I find the first 20-30 minutes is boring exposition, and you have to sit through the mundane family stuff or whatever it is before you get to what you paid for.
That stuff is certainly necessary, you have to set things up and get to know the characters, but I thought, why not try to make it different, or at least interesting and entertaining and really see how far I could push that tonal shift. It was an experiment as well. My short films are very much towards the first part of The Interior. when I write, that is what comes out, even if it was deliberate, I don’t know that I could have done it any differently.
Lessons learned? I mean with one actor in the forest carrying pretty much the entire film, without any dialogue. How to do you keep finding something exciting or interesting without derailing the story.
A couple of people have asked me this type of question. Really, at the time I didn’t really think about it.
[*Laughs*] That is probably the best way.
Yea, that might be the key, I knew Patrick [McFadden] would be able to pull it off, because I know his strengths are that he emotes so well without it being cheesy, or even like he is trying to do it for the camera. I also knew that we were going to a place with such beauty, that even if the audience was bored with what was going on, it is just beautiful to look at. That would work in our favour.
Patrick has so much drama in his face, that even watching him eat breakfast is interesting in itself. He has this nice stillness, he doesn’t do any extra movements. I mean, I’m a fidgety person. Patrick is just … not. He can sit there and just exist in the frame.
OK, on the flip side, tell me about his Spike-Lee-In-The-Mirror-Monologue in the film?
[*Laughs.*] Yeah, that was one I thought would be challenging. I thought there would be a lot of takes for that, and we did do 5 or 6 takes. I picked the third or fourth one. He just nailed it and that was that.
The monologue itself was almost verbatim one that I did myself. I was in the sauna in my building when I was working for the guy that was the boss in the movie…I had this tirade with myself, and I would stop half way through and try to make the wording better, and I was feeling so high and mighty, like this is what I’m going to say to him, and then I just stopped. First of all, I’m never going to say this to him, I’m never going to say this to anyone. It was crazy, I’m by myself with a towel, and I though, OK, I have got to remember to write this down as best as I can remember it.
What did you shoot first in the film, the forest section or the city section? And was the order of shooting them in important?
We shot the forest part first. The Toronto stuff was to some extent, ‘we need a first act to this movie,’ and so I wrote it quickly before we went out to British Columbia. We could have shot either first, I think. But it probably helped to shoot the BC stuff first because there is a different sensibility that Patrick had to have. This way, and I don’t know if this is the right phrase, ‘the child is the father of the man,’ to see where he ended up was probably beneficial to him as an actor, to back up into Toronto knowing where it is going, rather than the other way around.
A year before we shot the film, I was out to visit a friend, and I asked him to take me somewhere beautiful, to see some BC nature. He knew some people who lived there, people that literally lived in the forest there, pretty close to where we shot. They were from Toronto as well, they had jobs that they were able to work from home, and they moved out to Salisbury Island. Other than the stunning beauty, the thing I really loved was that there were no mosquitoes out there. That’s always been such a bummer for me in nature, is that as much as I love this, the bugs make you want to go home.
I had thought of The Interior for a few years, and I always thought I’d shoot it here in Ontario, but I went out there as a tourist to visit, I changed, and it became, ‘it has to be shot out there.’
Well, the rain is certainly a character in the film by virtue of that part of the world; the mist and the moisture. You probably wouldn’t get that in Ontario. You would get a ‘biblical’ style rain where everyone is soaked instantly, instead of the drip-drip-drip of the west coast.
Yea! There is a thickness and a density to Ontario woodlands that makes it difficult to move through. In BC there are giant trees, and you can just walk through the forest. But what is the most beautiful part of it is that it is 360-degrees of green. There is no dirt on the ground, it is moss. Especially the time we went, it was the rainy season and there is so much water flowing through that island, it is constant. Everything is so alive and vibrant. Ontario is more brown, and it is totally different.
Once the movie gets to the forest, it takes on a night-day-night rhythm. That is a challenge in terms of engaging the audience with repetition, To have things happen, but have the days be like the clock.
It was planned out in days, we didn’t have scene numbers or anything like that, we referred to things by the days and nights of the film timeline. Day 1, Night 1. I am a fan of The Blair Witch Project, and that film follows a similar kind of order. And The Shining. I think that works well in a horror film. To keep it interesting, because it was broken down by days, I could think about it like, something needs to happen here, at this point would his character be motivated to do this, or that, and then, at night time, we wanted an escalating effect in terms of scares, and so I sort of looked at it as a timeline, there are 7 days and 6 nights, and we traced an arc through that.
Tell me about writing the headspace of the main character, James.
He is not happy with his circumstances, but he is doing nothing to change or improve them. In fact he is making it worse with his attitude. Which I can relate to. *Laughs*
Where does that lay along the line of your own personal worldview?
Well, I worked a job I didn’t like for a very long time. Ironically, the guy who plays the boss in the film was my actual boss, Andrew Hayes, who is still a close friend of mine. I guess the film is kind of a parody of my world-view. The lead character is a bit of a parody of myself.
There is almost a sense that James cannot figure out what he wants to be.
Yea, he’s lost. I’ve lived downtown Toronto all through my twenties. I just find that the city can do that to you, it can swallow you up. James is definitely aimless, but I wonder if he even realizes this until he gets his medical diagnosis. And then he wants to get as far away from that as possible. He’s not dealing with anything, he is running away from things.
Is his coping mechanism his own self-perceived cleverness? I get the FIGHT CLUB vibe of “How’s that working out for you?”
Absolutely, dealing with things ironically, making jokes of things. He’s mired in these trivialities, like his mug-warmer. I don’t want to use the word hipster, but somewhere in that space.
I am very curious about the mug-warmer, or rather the plethora of unique coffee mugs in the first half of the film. I feel there is this some kind of hidden story being told through these props. They’re obviously not crucial to the main story, but it feels like evidence that someone cares about engaging with even tiny elements, like grace notes, in the frame.
A lot of them were my mugs from home, but the guy who place the boss, Roland, at at the Maxi-Vac scenes, who is drinking whiskey, he wanted to drink it out of mugs in the office. So I say, OK, I’ll bring some mugs, and then when we were in the office. I figured James should be drinking coffee, and we just found on location, by looking in the cupboards, that mug that looks like it was made by somebodies kid. And so, it became a thing of just getting the quirkiest mugs up on screen. The one with the face on it, that is one I own, and I always wanted to have it in a movie.
There appears to be a very cogent shooting strategy throughout the film. In the first act, septic white close-ups between James, his girlfriend, and the people he interacts with, and then the transition of James walking into the centre of the frame leading into the first shot of the second act with James now as a tiny figure in a huge space, nothing is tight anymore. I love movies that make a lot of their comedy (or horror) with the filmmaking set ups, rather than with actors or dialogue. The gag is how the camera focuses or pans there are so few filmmakers that do this.
Othello and I had a great rhythm working together. We talked about the shots of the day and what we were going to do. A lot of it was just intuition though. He knows my sensibility, and I know his.
Othello Ubalde: Both of us really like the Coen Brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins, during pre-production we talked his we talked about that sensibility and visual language, and from there it was kind of instinctual. Every movement of the camera was motivated, whether the camera was moving or not moving, we wanted to make a scene, for instance, a big tracking shot where James is small in the frame, we wanted deep focus to allow the viewer to look at any part of the frame and share the same feeling when we arrived in British Colombia.
Wow, this was absolutely beautiful. And we want the viewer to have their own sense of looking around in the frame. In handheld shots followed the motivation of James. If he is still and writing his letters, the camera is blocked off on a tripod. We wanted more of an observational horror type of film. The strategy was to use natural lighting for pretty much the entire film. We only used one fill light to augment the dream sequence. There is a certain beauty in how the natural light bounces down to the forest floor, and how the grain would kick up. The way it cuts through the trees, it’s complex and beautiful.
OK, lets talk about the red jacket and red cap then. If its too tedious, you don’t have to talk about metaphor of James’ red toque and the man who he encounters dressed entirely in red, but nevertheless…
It was meant to draw a parallel between the two characters, because there is not a lot of plot for the viewer to grab onto, so that was something visual that they could link the two. And the audience can draw whatever conclusions they want from that. The red itself is such contrast to the rest of the colours in the forest, so there is a practical side. When either character is in the frame, you can spot them easily, you eyes are drawn to the colour, it’s a complementary colour to green and it pops out.
In my mind, in the forest world of THE INTERIOR, there is a collection of sad, lost individuals in various states of madness. We all eventually end up in on forest floor. This reminds me of one shot in the film that really stands out, the one where the shot is upside-down, and James is laying on the ceiling of the frame.
Before we started shooting the film, that was something I wanted to try. I was watching Youtube videos, I don’t remember what video exactly it was, or even the context, but there was a shot of a woman walking on a forest floor and there was a close-up of her feet, but it was filmed upside down. I though that looked really interesting, but not too jarring, and something we could use in the film. When we are in the editing room, that shot right-side up is completely forgettable, nothing striking at all about it, but you turn it upside down, and there is something compelling about it.
The shot right before it, that was a way to ease the viewer into it. If I just cut right to the upside down frame, people might think it was a mistake, or something wrong with the projector. And they might stop and turn to their friend, a say, ‘what the hell is this?’ So I wanted to make it look deliberate. I like movies that lead me somewhere, I want to feel like I’m following the filmmaker, those are the films I like, and those are the films I gravitate towards.
Filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and Lars Von Trier are my two favourite contemporary filmmakers, and I always feel myself surrendering to their movies, as in ‘take me where you want to go.’ I love how deliberate they are. I mean Stanley Kubrick is the ultimate example, but Jonathan Glazer, David Fincher, all the best filmmakers are masters at that approach.
It is a small thing, but I movies that take a long time before they drop the main title on screen. And you push that pretty far here. And correct me if I’m wrong, but believe there are no credits in the film until the final crawl.
I mean, there are the production logos at the beginning, but otherwise, I wanted to just throw people right in. And the title coming in much later than a typical movie, it just seemed like the right spot for it. I also thought it would help with the tonal shift, because then people could view the first part like a prelude, like a short film attached, to the film.
The nature of the comedy in the movie. There is a scene where James breaks into a cabin, and he wants to have a shower and a glass of wine. It is the note he leaves for the cabin owners, and how he signs it. There is part of me that his punishment in the back half of the film is entirely due to this asshole move. My question is how much of a secular/religious element did you want woven into the narrative here.
A little something. I think it points to his narcissism. That is probably one of his biggest faults. His own ego is making him miserable. Sure, he is being a self-centered smartass. There is that moment, and another towards the end, when James is yelling at the sky and there is absolutely no response. But he keeps walking, and I just wanted to sprinkle a little of that.
The Interior is kind of a passion play, a passion play of paper cuts. You get enough paper cuts and you will bleed to death.
In that way, I believe is kind of true to life.