“Opportunity knocks…” was the intriguing subject line sitting in our Gmail nestled between the latest Groupon offer and reminder from Geico to pay the car insurance. With so many years since we’d made a film, not a whole lot of opportunities were knocking.
Swimming with the sharks in Open Water was a leisurely dip compared to surviving the perils in Hollywood. We had had our hearts broken over passion projects, one about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in WWII, another about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Those, along with other labors of love—at least one original script a year—were each stalled at their own frustrated spot on the road to celluloid.
But we didn’t give up.
We were pros at not giving up. Open Water, after all, had been rejected by every film festival in the world for a year before we finally got into the Hamptons International Film Festival.
We would have sold our film there at the Hamptons for $1.98 if any buyers had been interested. Luckily, none were. We were accepted into the Sundance Film Festival soon after and sold the film there for a sum that exceeded our wildest expectations. That was a very good thing, as we had financed Open Water with our own money by selling our apartment and, yes, maxing out our credit cards. At Sundance, we signed with big-time talent agents, believing we had at last arrived.
You already read what happened after that.
So back to the e-mail. It was from our lawyer Sue Bodine, who had lunched with Agnès Mentre, a producer who acquired the remake rights to the Uruguayan film La casa muda (The Silent House) at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was playing as part of the Directors’ Fortnight lineup.
“What happened to those guys who made Open Water?” Agnès asked Sue, knowing somehow that Sue represented us.
“They’ve been in development hell in Hollywood,” she replied.
“Ah,” said Agnès. “I have the perfect project for them.”
A film made entirely in one continuous take. How often do you get a chance like that? To tell a story on film in a completely different way, to give an audience a new experience. Opportunity was banging at our door.
The film would be our retelling of the singular experience of a young woman trapped in an unfolding nightmare, explored in real time entirely through her POV in a single camera shot. We would discover what is happening during the film as she discovers it. We would explore time and memory within our uninterrupted “real-time” narrative.
It was June, and we set ourselves a goal: To try and premiere the film at Sundance. Problem was, we had less than six months to write a script, cast the film, find a house, shoot it and get through post. Then we’d hope and pray the festival would accept it. We agreed that if the script could be completed in less than eight weeks, it was vaguely achievable.
Silent House writer/co-director Laura Lau with DP Igor Martinovic.
Photo by Will Hart, courtesy of Open Road Films.
Writing a screenplay with no cuts meant every moment had to be accounted for in the script. Though we’d hoped to have an actual house in mind to refer to while writing, it would take many, many weeks to find the right location.
The house would not only be where all the action takes place, but also an important character in the film. It had to have the right personality, and it had to meet our technical needs. We knew we needed high ceilings, because we would be shooting extremely long sequences covering 360 degrees. The house would have to be pre-rigged with lights hidden above, in the ceiling. We needed to be able to go from outside to inside to outside without cutting, so the house needed to be isolated.
We scoured a two hour radius from NYC with no luck. Around the time we were actually considering a location as far away as Spokane, Washington, our production designer, Roshelle Berliner, remembered a house in New Rochelle (just 20 minutes or so from Manhattan) she had scouted many years previously. Using Google Maps with our location manager, they figured out where this house might be.
Unbelievably, the house met all our needs and had the added bonus of being on the water. The fact that we could read the logos on the planes descending overhead every five minutes on their way to LaGuardia Airport was the only thing that gave us pause. We decided to soundproof the house and schedule shooting around when that flight path was being used.
There were, as expected, significant differences between the house as imagined in the script and the actual location. The house in New Rochelle was three stories, not two, and details like the number of rooms and their locations changed things significantly. The script had to be completely rewritten and tailored exactly to the house.
The final screenplay came in at 60-odd pages. The industry convention is that one page equals one minute, and 60 minutes is not a feature-length film. But the read-through felt right; would it time out? We had to sign a document guaranteeing that it would. The two of us ran through the entire script at the house, over and over, acting out the roles and following with a camera. But it wasn’t until three days into shooting that we really knew for sure it would time out to the right length.
Casting would be a major challenge, because the main character, Sarah, would be on-screen, uninterrupted, for a full 88 minutes. We needed someone who an audience would want to follow and care about, a performer with the charisma, craft, stamina and emotional nuance and depth to carry the film. To find her ended up taking one phone call. Our casting directors knew from the moment they read the script that Elizabeth Olsen was our Sarah. (They had cast Jennifer Lawrence the year before in Winter’s Bone.) We met with her and, indeed, she was perfect for the part.
So far, so good. We were on schedule with our script, location and actors and ready to face the formidable challenge of making a film without the traditional tools of filmmaking: Coverage and editing. We would not be able to control the film’s pacing, the actors’ performances or how to reveal information in the editing room. All those decisions had to be made before we started shooting. What we shot was literally what the film would be. There would be no fixing anything in post.
To achieve the single-take experience, we divided the shoot into very long sequences. We had two weeks of rehearsal and 15 days to shoot. Every day was its own nail-biting thriller—would we get the sequence or not? Everyone had to be spot on. The focus puller, the dimmer board operator who controlled the lights, the props department, the AD department that coordinated cues—there was no margin for error. Any mistake, and we had to start over. Our gifted DP, Igor Martinovic, danced an elaborately choreographed ballet each day with the actors. There’s nothing more frustrating than being 13 minutes into a shot and having it blown by a small technical mistake. It always took us at least 15 tries, and sometimes as many as 30-something, but there was also nothing more satisfying than getting the shot done perfectly. The whole house would erupt in cheers at the feat we had all finally accomplished.
We did end up making the schedule, and we were privileged to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. It was an unusual way to make a film, and we think it’s a different cinema viewing experience. But if we’re successful, you won’t even notice the film is one shot. You’ll be caught up in Sarah and her story. It’s our hope that you’ll be left with something more to think and talk about when the lights come up.
We’re very much appreciating life outside of development hell, a place we’d prefer not to revisit. It’s not easy making movies, but we don’t give up, because there’s nothing we love doing more.
And sometimes, opportunity shows up at the door.
Silent House hits theaters today, March 9th, 2012. For more information, check it out on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SilentHouse.