It’s like they always say: if your marriage isn’t going the way you planned, try to spice things up. Maybe have some kids. Or, in the case of Elizabeth Harvest, just don’t go into the forbidden room in the very nice mansion. It’s that easy, Elizabeth.
Venezuelan filmmaker Sebastian Gutierrez (Snakes on a Plane, Girl Walks Into a Bar, Elektra Luxx) explores marriage in many ways in his trippy, colorful genre mashup Elizabeth Harvest. There’s the literal, plot-driving relationship between newlyweds Elizabeth (Abbey Lee) and Henry (Ciarán Hinds). Titular Elizabeth is naive and fun-loving, enjoying her honeymoon with reclusive, affluent doctor Henry.
Although Henry and Elizabeth have some problems they need to work through, Gutierrez’s marriage of genre, style and aesthetic is a delightful treat. With Elizabeth Harvest he crafts a dream worth dreaming, and a nightmare that’s increasingly more interesting as it unravels. Along there’s some arthouse sci-fi, some horror, and some underlying feminist themes of female autonomy.
Check out an exclusive clip from the film, then read Gutierrez’s filmmaking approaches to maintaining tone, writing a visceral color schematic into your script, and much more.
Grant Vance, MovieMaker Magazine: One of my Favorite aspects of Elizabeth Harvest was your handle of the atmosphere and tone. How do you develop and maintain that atmospheric tone as a writer and director when dealing with something so genre-oriented?
Sebastian Gutierrez: The last four movies that I directed were so small I hardly have a set. I had actors, and I had to rely on dialogue. I made very character-driven films. So it became really important for me that the next movie I made, even if I didn’t have a big budget, would have camera moves, and sound and music put together. The story of Elizabeth Harvest was written with that in mind. The script has a lot less dialogue than stuff that I usually write.
I wanted to use tools that people like Hitchcock and De Palma and Kubrick use; have the camera to creep down corridors. Really creating that claustrophobic feel of being trapped inside a house was something the director of photography and I shot listed for very specifically. A lot of it is about a house that is set up for Elizabeth to look around and lose herself in. It was very important that we used the colors that we were concentrating on to make it all feel like a dream inside her mind that she’s moving through.
MM: Could you elaborate on the specifics? For instance, were your canted angles, vibrant colors and off-kilter framing all conceived within the script writing process?
SG: The color coding came about early on. Elizabeth Harvest is written so that every 20 minutes something switches in the story. This is opposed to a traditional three act structure. It’s basically a Russian doll structure of story inside a story inside a story. There’s a lot of time stuck in the past and I wanted it to feel less like a logical leap that you had to take and more like a visceral thing that you felt.
We decided that these very saturated colors—red, blue, green, and yellow—would represent different things in each of those scenes from the past. Not really what everyone represents exactly, but they were then parallel with the present day scene that had to do with that emotion with cyan and amber. It was a really good way for the actors and the director of photography and the production designer and myself to find our way through the story. Not to mention that it’s fun to play with really bold saturated colors.
MM: Can you touch on the idea of interloping different genres within Elizabeth Harvest? Jumping naturally from arthouse sci-fi to classic horror.
SG: From the very beginning I wanted to not make a horror movie. I love horror movies, I just didn’t want to only make a horror movie. The horror in Elizabeth Harvest is something much closer to European horror from the 60s and 70s. I’ve been making movies in this country for awhile, but i’m Venezuelan. My sensibilities have always been as a foreign filmmaker; very highly stylized and visual. That sort of Euro-horror that goes from the very cheap and clunky to the very arthouse sort of poetic horror like Eyes Without a Face are things that I’ve always really loved. The Blue Beard story is the bones of the story. It’s a very classic gothic love story, but this movie happens to be science fiction. I needed that to deal with [Elizabeth] differently than [her parallel] in the original Blue Beard story.
The notion of mixing genres is simply that it’s very hard to do a movie that’s just one genre in the post-modern world. The hard part is grabbing things from different genres and understanding that there’s a portion of the audience that won’t like you subverting those rules. There’s a version of this movie that’s straight up horror—which isn’t a bad notion—but it’s much less interested in developing how these characters ended up here. Everyone knows exactly what happens in this story. When someone says “Go everywhere except the one room!” I wanted to get that out of the way immediatly.
MM: Does the Blue Beard influence mingle with an other direct story references? I was sensing a sadistic God complex in Henry viewing Elizabeth as his Eve, in a sense.
SG: There’s a sub genre of mad scientist movies that I love that are usually less concerned with the mad scientist setting out to be god. They’re more interested in the mad scientists doing the wrong thing for love. It’s like Hitchcock would say: “I’m not interested in who done it. I’m interested in what done it.”
MM: I really enjoyed the utilization of split screen; an editing technique with a post-modern sensibility. From a directorial standpoint what are the advantages of using this editing style?
SG: One was for practical purposes, since the audience has already seen this. The second suspenseful one came out of wanting to take a crack at that and have fun with it. Split screens are something that I’ve always wanted to do. Brian De Palma is an absolute master at them, especially in the great, great greta, film Sisters. People like John Frankenheimer. Filmmakers used them awhile back in the 60s and 70s and then people kind of stopped.
Both of those split screen scenes in the movie were in the script, but they’re different once you’re shooting them. Your mind doesn’t work that way. The funny thing with split screen is that you can’t see everything at the same time, so you’re making connections to be able to leap from one thing to another. It’s a bit of a trap to make it make perfect sense. And that’s what I like it about it. It works on a purely visceral level and it can really add suspense. It’s a stylized if you marry it to the right kind of music. You can feel that giddiness. That’s my favorite thing in Spielberg movies, when you’re smiling because it’s a very “movie” moment. But mostly it’s a trick that you’re playing to your brain as you’re watching the thing, and if it works you’re really dragging out the suspense.
MM: What are the advantages of using one location?
SG: The limitations are obvious. Which is: you’re stuck there and you have to make it interesting. The best kind of movies in my mind are movies where you enter into a world that’s been planned for you. That’s why so many people watch Blade Runner over and over. David Lynch is great at this too: you enter his world and there are certain rules. If you’re watching Twin Peaks you know where that stoplight is and where that cafe is. I think that’s something that’s very visceral and it’s really hard to do. I really respond when I understand the rules of this place and where I’m supposed to be. That’s something great about working in a single location. There’s a lot of space for in the audience member’s mind. They understand how the thing is laid out even if they’re not thinking about it.
MM: Any tidbits you’d like to share for all of the young, future independent filmmakers out there?
SG: Out of my back pocket, just one piece of advice: If you can cast Carla Gugino in your movie, cast Carla Gugino in your movie. That will make it better. MM
Elizabeth Harvest is showing in theaters and available on VOD platforms August 10. All images courtesy of IFC Films.