Thursday, March 8, 2012

Elizabeth Olsen on "Silent House"

Playing in Theaters

Elizabeth Olsen on "Silent House"

(from brinkzine.com 3/08/12)

SilentHouseEOlsenpose.jpg Elizabeth Olsen (photo by Danny Peary)
Almost everybody was startled by Elizabeth Olsen's award-worthy performance as young woman trying to escape from a dangerous cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene. It turned out that Ashley and Mary-Kate's younger sister--I didn't even know they had one!--could really act. But even after she more than proved herself in her movie debut, I am once again surprised by her riveting portrayal of another troubled character in Chris and Kentis and Laura Lau's nerve-wracking one-take thriller, Silent House. It's a good thing she's "riveting" in the best way because she's on-screen the entire film Here too, in a remake of a 2010 festival favorite from Uruguay about a girl alone in dark, scary house, she inhabits a complex, frightened, desperate character, Sarah. Again she moves forwardno matter what is revealed about her character and what toll it takes on her as an actress. Yeah, yeah, there is De Niro and Bale adding or losing weight and Cruise doing his own stunts, but this young actress goes through the ringer for her art as much as anyone. To say her performance--where she comes up with bumps and bruises, is increasingly covered with filth and a blood-like substance (yet looks sexy thanks her to her wardrobe choice), and reaches into her depths in order to portray fear to its nth degree--is gallant is putting it mildly. Forget the character, we need to protect this actress! In anticipation of this Friday's release, I took part in the following roundtable with Olsen. It follows a previous post with Kentis and Lau. I note my questions.
Q: Chris Kentis and Laura Lau said they were interested in you only because you had a serious theatrical background and could do the long takes required on this film. Why did you want to study theater in Russia?
Elizabeth Olsen: That was the question for my essay while I was at NYU. Why do you want to go to a conservatory for a liberal arts degree? When I was fifteen I became fascinated by how Russian theater affected American theater--Marlon Brando and actors like that come directly from Russian teachings. Russian theater became my favorite type of theater, so when I found out that I could go there while I was at NYU, I took the opportunity. It was an incredible thing to be thrown into for three months. Studying Russian theater is totally different from anything else I've done in my life. It's all very physical. In Russia, the theater students are professional fighters, and singers and dancers as well as actors.
Q; How did you find out about Silent House?
EO: I was just beginning to audition and this was the third job ever offered to me. So I took it. I was filming Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene when I got the job offer and my friends who made that film had seen La Casa Muda in Cannes that summer and told me that for the first hour they had never been so terrified. I'm a scary movie fan and love being scared so it sounded exciting to me. Also I was excited figuring out how to navigate a story like this. It seemed like a humungous challenge and [laughing] then it presented itself as an even bigger challenge than I could have imagined!
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Danny Peary: Were you asked to watch other movies to prepare for the role, like Repulsion?
EO: No. I haven't seen Repulsion. I saw the one-shot Hermitage film, Russian Ark. No one told me too, but I saw it because I went to Russia.
Q: Did you see the original film or read the script first?
EO: I saw the original film just because I was interested in seeing it before we started filming. I think our film is very different, it's just the same concept. Q: The original script was only 60 pages long, so were you able to tell what the movie was going to be like or did they have to explain things to you?
EO: It was pretty clear. All the choreography was really in the writing and the first thing we did every day on the set was to run through the choreography. Laura always was me and Chris was always the camera. Igor Martinovic, the cinematographer, and I would watch their choreography and then figure out where to quicken it and where to draw it out. We'd figure out the pacing of the movie while we were making it, which is a really strange thing. And I was kind of being a gaffer part of the movie, with Igor telling me, "Light something over here and light something over there," as I was walking through the house and he was filming. He'd actually talk to me while we were filming, saying, "Slow down" or "Raise it higher" or "Raise it lower." His voice would be taken out later. It was like a dance where he'd tell me something and I'd do it. Maybe on the next take he wouldn't have to instruct me again because I'd remember. You'd figure out how to do things that you'd never have to do on another film. Like with falling. Usually when you fall, there is a cut and you land on a mat. On this, I'd just fall. Padding would have been very obvious in the costume they put me in so I didn't have any and just fell about twenty-six times a day. [Laughing] Since this was only the third movie I'd ever worked on, I thought, "Well, if this is what making a movie is like, then it's much more challenging than I imagined."
DP: Were you told before your long takes to do things, like walk in front of the camera, to disguise where cuts would be?
EO: Yeah, we always had very clear stitching points. The stitching points were thought out way before the first day of shooting. So I knew I had to open a door at a certain speed if that was a stitching point or walk by a place quickly if that was where a stitch would be. The stitches were all different; they never used the same technique because they wanted to challenge themselves, which I thought was kind of cool. I'm not sure of the final total of stitches because of the reshoots but we did thirteen shots. It's impressive that there are that few. It's funny but when I look at the movie I'll forget where we had a stitch because it looks so seamless. When we had to come back to do reshoots, those were the hardest stitches to duplicate. If I was in the background I was literally in motion when there was a stitch so I'd have to start the scene we were reshooting by doing this weird twisting motion. I'd have no idea why I was twisting my body four months before. I had to cut my hair again and I wondered if my face looked different.
Q: What were the pros and cons of filming a movie in this way?
EO: The nicest thing about it was that the crew that I was making-believe with consisted of Igor, who was doing all the camerawork, and John [Sember], our boom guy. That was it. So I didn't have to look around this space and pretend things were happening with all these people around me but in a very infantile way I could scare myself in a haunted house and let my imagination run wild. The difficulty was that we would film one chunk over and over and over again in a day. At first I was giving 100% every take but I learned not to do that once we realized we weren't going to get it right technically for the first half of the day. For six hours of the day I'd give it my all but for twenty-six takes only two might be usable. So it was like, "Goddamit, I just gave you everything in that take..." Also, if we'd be in the seventh minute of a take and I'd be mad at something I did, it didn't matter, we just kept going instead of trying it again. So it was hard to create an arc without editing to your benefit. Let's say we were doing thirteen takes and we are on shot seven--you know you have to be somewhere more extreme emotionally at shot thirteen but you find that shot seven is just as devastating and after doing it twenty-six times it comes across as being even more devastating than you meant it to be because of what is coming up. So it's very difficult to keep within the perimeters you give yourself because you have to get somewhere else later. It's hard to create an arc and not repeat beats based on the nature of what she's going through in each scene.
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DP: If you had to do a shot many times were they almost exactly the same?
EO: They would slowly become more tiring. If you looked at my face you'd clearly see I was more exhausted by the end of the day. So sometimes I'd wish we could use an early take, but we couldn't because of technical reasons. So you start to think that nothing is precious and you have to be able to have an even temperament and just say, "Oh, okay, that's not going to work, let's move on." It was just like, "Wow, I'm in every frame of this movie." That meant we couldn't cut away to, say, a curtain blowing because a window is now open. We couldn't show something ominous is about to happen because the camera is with me. It was so strange. Another hard thing was that there was no down time, so there was no need for a waiting room.. I kind of found solace on the staircase until they came and got me. It was very bizarre.
Q: I'd think in some cases it benefited the film that you were so drained from the whole ordeal.
EO: If it helped, I don't know. I wish there had been more variation from early takes to later takes but the nature of filming was just exhausting. It was an interesting challenge to have. When I watch it, obviously I'm going to nit-pick every single thing I did. But I find watching myself an interesting step in making movies--because I'm so new to everything I can go back and learn from what I did. I'd rather watch and learn and see what I might have done differently than avoid watching myself. It helps me figure things out.
DP: How much thinking did you do during takes? Were you in your mind or her mind and were you relying on muscle memory?
EO: With the choreography, it became muscle memory. With the performance, it was like when filming anything--how much you think you're crafting and how much you're in the head of the character. For me right now, what I'm trying to figure out, especially with this, is what my character feels. SPOILER ALERT What does she feel when she finds her father almost dead? That's an extreme thing really early in the movie. So you imagine that it's your dad lying there, but it's her dad and she has to go somewhere later in the movie in regard to him. END SPOILER ALERT I tried to create a balance, trying to see what's happening in her head while acting in it.
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DP: On the movie's poster, we can see you at your height of terror in the movie. Before you did a scene like that where you scream without making a sound, what were you thinking?
EO: I'd just sit on the staircase and collect my thoughts. What happened is that I would think as if I were the character, and she'd think, "Well, there is a man who could possibly kill me and the closer he gets to me I'll want to scream more but if I do he will find me." It was like when you need to make a noise but can't so you cover your mouth or bite on something. That was kind of what happened. What I did wasn't something I thought about beforehand. People have asked me if I made faces in a mirror to make myself look scared in the movie--well, if I did, my face wouldn't be in so many awkward positions! [Lauhging] If I were aware of some of those expressions, I probably would have been more conscious of it and not done them. Because I feel very uncomfortable watching myself doing those things!
Q: In the press notes it says you played weird games in your head to get into the troubled state of the character.
EO: Yes. I have a fatalistic imagination. When people ask where I go to be terrified, I say, "Well, I'm not going to tell you my deepest, darkest secret, but I'll tell you that I definitely have a vivid imagination."
Q: Did you do similar things with Martha Marcy May Marlene?
EO: No, Martha was a totally different thing. Martha was about someone who thinks she's more aware than anyone else, but no one will believe her. So everything was beneath the surface; but with this everything Sarah is feeling is right there in the open. One's repressed and the other is completely extroverted. One, psychologically, doesn't think she's suffering and believes what she sees although no one else will, and the other has absolutely no idea of her psychological state until the end of the film. SPOILER ALERT Sarah still doesn't really know at the end--she slowly knows but then she has this multiple personality disorder because of childhood trauma that she has hidden all her life. END SPOILER ALERT They're very different, but they both experienced trauma and we see how that psychologically manifests itself.
Q: Have you experienced psychological trauma in your life?
EO: I am very interested in it. I think someone having psychological issues is the most terrifying thing to imagine. A Beautiful Mind is the hardest film for me to watch. Just being a product of my generation, I can watch movies where people are mutilated--and be kind of grossed out but always know it's a movie. But for me the most terrifying thing is someone losing their understanding of reality. That's real, as opposed to seeing a girl's boob cut off on a movie on fearnet.com, which I started watching at too young an age. It's much scarier, I think.
DP: How was this version of Silent House different from the version shown at Sundance?
EO: I think in the Sundance version we had three dialogue scenes back-to-back, so based on the audience reaction, we took out a dialogue scene and stitched it together. And we changed the ending. SPOILER ALERT It's the same ending but it's now clearer that Sarah's a victim, not a monster. That's why I think this ending is better. END SPOILER ALERT
DP: And she survived in the first ending, too? In the original story all three people are dead.
EO: She survived in the original, too. I think the character survived in La Casa Muda also, or it was uncertain. Then at the end, it said, "This was based on true events." [Laughing} Not really, you read a headline!
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Q: I checked the list of films you have scheduled and you are going to be incredibly busy making movies with a lot of amazing talents.
EO: Yes, I have a lot coming up but they are all independent films and they aren't long shoots. For instance, I'm filming for just a week on Kill Your Darlings. I'm not in every frame of any upcoming movie! None of them are blockbusters that will have wide releases. Hopefully, they will get released. They're all totally different and terrifying because I haven't done anything like them before. For the first time in my life I'm in a position where I'm being offered jobs and it was my dream to be a working actor. I want to work and I want to work a lot and I want to work on things that are stimulating and I can learn from. I don't have a mortgage to pay or kids to send to school, so I'm just happy doing these interesting projects right now. I'm very happy and thankful for these opportunities to do things that are different.
Q: You opted out of seeing Open Water because...
EO: ...I have a huge fear of the ocean.
Q: Could you be persuaded to make an ocean-set movie?
EO: Lakes were terrifying when I was filming Martha. If I have to swim in the ocean in a movie, fine I'll do it. If I have to swim in the ocean with real sharks in a movie, I won't do. Absolutely not! Because that is when I'd die. When you sign the contracts or the insurance papers on a film, you're supposed to write, "It is okay if I die on this set." I don't think I want to sign any of those papers!

See the earlier post of an interview with Silent House's directors, Chris Kentis and Laura Lau.

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