With Elizabeth Harvest, be prepared to enter director Sebastian Gutierrez‘s house of horrors.
The director behind Women in Trouble and Elektra Luxx has made a colorful dreamscape that proudly tips its hat to European horror films. To Gutierrez, Elizabeth Harvest isn’t quite a horror movie, but the sci-fi tale is certainly steeped in the horror genre.
The director creates a very unnerving atmosphere with some elaborately staged sequences, including an impressive use of split-screen. Gutierrez turns one dream home into an absolute nightmare, with help from his stars Abby Lee Kershaw, Carla Gugino, and Ciarán Hinds. Recently, the filmmaker gave us a glimpse into how he made his radiantly nightmarish tale in Colombia and more.
The story is based on French tale Bluebeard. When did you first discover the story, and what made you want to adapt it?
In South American and in Europe, Bluebeard is like if you said Little Red Riding Hood. It’s a really well-known story that’s not a fairy tale, obviously. There is a Grimm Brothers version. There’s many, many variations of it. There’s been many movies that have been made like comedy movies – Cary Grant has played Blue Beard, Richard Burton has played Blue Beard. So Blue Beard is the story that I always loved and thought was like The Shining. The scariest possible thing, which is the person you love, turns crazy. I always thought it would be cool to do something with it.
The basic story: a widower nobleman brings young bride back to his castle. Tells her, “Don’t go into this one room.” He has the ring of keys, and you can go anywhere except this one room. Of course, all the good stuff has already happened ahead of time, which is the previous wives specifically. Like the Henry VIII story, the previous wives are all dead. So I could never figure out, well, I don’t want to make the entire movie flashbacks, even though that’s what happened before. So it took a while to figure out how to, without giving too much away, to make it the same character he’s obsessed with, and give that actor something to do and turn that story more into love gone really wrong.
What I never understood in the fairy tale is what is the moral supposed to be? Women should never get curious or they will be punished? It kind of seems like that is what it’s saying, and that seemed a little too horrible. That’s not actually a quality this story has versus others. There is that strain of storytelling that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, which is basically the women gain knowledge, the man goes absolutely insane. So I thought there was something interesting to explore there.
With the flashbacks, the twists and turns, and everything else, structuring this story I imagine would have its hurdles. Did it?
That was really fun. That was mostly the reason I wanted to do it. When I first wrote the script, again, without giving too much away about the story, there’s a version of the story of what would have been the more straight horror movie version where you can do more of Run Lola Run movie where that keeps happening. As you can probably imagine, some people said, “Why don’t you do that?” [Laughs] I was like, well, it’s interesting, but it kind of stays on the surface. That almost becomes a cruel thing of observing the character where we have more information than the character. I wasn’t really interested in telling that kind of story.
As a writer, you give yourself narrative challenges. What if I can make it more of a Russian doll story inside a story, inside a story, and all the things that we see that we completely understand about this kind of movie are going to be revealed to be slightly different? That’s always tricky because you’re subverting the audience’s expectations at your own peril, but for me, that was what was interesting about the story, which is this is a primal, very bones of the story are really good. People don’t remember this tale, this folktale, once they see it, they’re like, “Oh yeah, I know what that is. Don’t go into the room.” So, for me, it’s definitely going into the people’s past and seeing how these four characters come in. That’s the story I was interested to tell.
Audiences usually try to get ahead of a story like this one. How much did you have to keep their expectations in mind?
When I write, I’m writing something for me, not something I have been hired to write that feels more like homework. I mean that in both good and bad ways. Well, you have to deliver what they asked for. When I’m writing something, I always write from the same place, which is, what would I like? If I was in the movie theater, what would I like the next thing to be, and where did I think it was going, and if it’s something different.
Obviously, when you are doing something like this, which has some twist that you want the audience to know are coming, and some others which you hope that they don’t know are coming, you always run the risk that you are going to lose some people and people are going to get mad and say, “Wow, I wish it was more like this!” I do think that I like movies that you find different things when you revisit the movie, so I think this is the kind of movie that if you were to watch it a second time, you would enjoy and appreciate things about it because you’re not trying to figure out where the story is going, how it differs from where you thought it was going. It really is this very strange sort of dreamlike story, much more in common with 1960’s or 70’s European horror, which is not really horror. It’s more like fantasy, sci-fi, weird Gothic love story.
In what ways specifically did Italian horror influence you?
I mean, I’m one of those filmmakers that steals from everyone, so yeah. It’s all about plunder. It’s all about plunder, now that this movie because of the saturated colors and the flashback, there was very strict color coding regime that we stuck to for those scenes. What red meant, what blue meant, what green meant, what yellow meant – which is not really important for the audience to understand it. Everybody’s first point of reference is Dario Argento. Sure, it’s Dario Argento, Wong Kar-wai, Jean Luc-Godard, to be clear, many, many people use color in really bold ways and it’s equally exciting, it’s really visual and it immediately puts you in the frame of mind where hopefully you can let go a little bit of your brain and more enjoy the aesthetic pleasures of the thing. After all, you’re being invited to go into a strange dream, but I do want it to feel that way.
It’s always refreshing to see a movie with this much color in it. You just don’t see very colorful movies these days, but it usually seems like you want a big color palette with your work.
Absolutely and also because the few movies I’ve done leading up to this was by-necessity movies, very low-budget, miniatures, not the big budget. I really wanted to make a movie that was less about pocketing and more about cinema. Women in Trouble and Elektra Luxx are movies that I’m very very fond of, they’re very close to my heart that were made with friends for five bucks. I was like, if only I had a set that I could shoot, because after a while after you run everything through dialogue, it’s a little repetitive so I was excited to hear to be able to apply film that I love from Hitchcock or De Palma or whoever, all these people who had dealt with this language before where you can have these strange moves down corridors. It was really exciting.
How tricky are split screens to pull off?
It was really tricky, it’s really tricky. But it’s something that, again, Brian De Palma explained in his documentary, the pictures in the split thing is just a construct. It’s something that’s tricking your mind, you don’t actually need one side or the other to be matching correctly in a linear way, you just need to be able to make the jump from one to the other. So it’s fun sometimes being able to repeat thing or cutting to things that are seemingly arbitrary that shouldn’t make sense in selling the story on that side. But there’s two sequences in the movie that are in the script, that are in the split screens which we’ve separated. And that was really fun and it’s that thing where you marry visuals with music which is what movies are all about. It’s just really exciting, we’ve been doing them on location, we get some finished work, and some stuff in this one house we found in Colombia to shoot it but even playing music really loud while you’re doing your change and it reminds me of things that I’ve loved in movies before and being able to do the split screen was really, really cool. I felt like a little kid.
The house is incredible. Was it claustrophobic at all or was there a lot of room to move around?
We ended up in Colombia definitely for budget reasons and, again, I don’t want to ruin any movie magic, the house is a construct between three different places but the main house, which is the house that has that pool, and it has that living room, so it’s pretty impressive using it’s architecture, and the very unusual architecture for that part of the world because it’s usually what you expect to see more in Germany or something like that. They were very cool about us shooting there, we had to be very very careful. We did have free reign of the house.
When I wrote the script, they basically said we can go anywhere in the world to shoot this movie. So Canary Islands we considered at one point, Ireland was considered at one point, it just ended up being for budget reasons. I was born in Venezuela touring through South America, we were working with an all Spanish speaking crew and that’s something I could use so it was like, great, let’s go there.
Sometimes if you’re shooting something in New York in a hotel where people have ties to that place, it becomes a little less of an exotic field trip adventure and here it really was the cast, the director of photography, and I were the foreigners there. It really made everybody bond and we were the outsiders here and it was a very good thing for the characters and for the actors being able to rehearse with each other and really be focused only on this because there was not another world outside that they were familiar with.
How many days did you shoot in Colombia for?
That’s always a trick question because when you shoot so few, people go “That’s amazing!”, or people are like “You had what? That’s all you did?” Low budget filmmaking today becomes so tricky because they give you 18-20 days and the reason we went down is we’d have 26 days, which doesn’t seem like very many but it is when you are, when a lot of that movie is about atmosphere, so it’s not about a plot thing that you’re trying to get across, you’re actually needing to take your time and show all the different angles.
For the atmosphere, eyes, hands, and the body definitely help create it. How did you, maybe in subtle ways you wouldn’t notice right off the bat, want to create atmosphere?
I think because of the nature of the story, duality is such a built-in thing in it and that really helps the director of photography, Gail and I, design shots, so things like reflections, mirrors, eyes looking at each other, things touching, all of a sudden, they were about splitting the screen, even the sections that were not split screen, if you watch the movie, it’s all split screen, within the set. That became the importance of plant your flag and certain things that are going to help you do it. So that was really the key to unlocking how are we going to approach every single thing we do here, was concept stuff. There’d be more than one Elizabeth and how that reflection or echo or whatever you want to call it is represented in the frame, in every frame.
It seems like a lot of challenges come with working in one setting, but what are some of the advantages?
Definitely helps you establish that feeling of suffocating or claustrophobia, it’s the tricky thing with one location movies. You want to be able to let the audience in as much as possible with the geography of the place, which is always hard to do because you don’t normally have a house that is perfectly set up so they understand the geography for a cat and mouse. Even in this case, it wasn’t just one place, it was three different places. We spent a lot of time going, well, if we go down these stairs, would you come out in this room or would you do that?
While I was writing the script, though, I did have other scenes that took place outside and at different times, and then for budget reasons, it became clearer that it may be smarter just to set it all inside. So I think it’s a bit of both, it’s a constraint and then once you’re there, it’s a very freeing thing. This is our planet to explore, we can’t go out of the confines of it.