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Exclusive: Married Co-Directors Laura Lau and Chris Kentis Talk Silent House

Husband-and-wife filmmaking tandem Chris Kentis and Laura Lau made a splash, both figuratively and literally, with 2004’s “Open Water,” which unfolded almost entirely in the ocean, and could very loosely be described as the “Blair Witch Project” version of “Jaws.” Telling the story of a pair of stranded divers, it was a nervy, low-budget movie that tapped into fear in a visceral, primal way. It was also very profitable, raking in $54 million internationally against production costs that were less than one percent of that. So it’s been a surprise that the pair have been away so long.

That was not by design, Kentis assures ShockYa at a recent press day for “Silent House,” their much buzzed-about, Sundance Festival-minted new thriller which straddles the intersection between home invasion flick, paranormal/haunted house film and psychological drama. Two films in particular — a passion project on the downing of the USS Indianapolis during World War II, and “American City,” a drama set in post-Katrina New Orleans — kicked around in development hell for many years, never coming to fruition. Lau and Kentis also dutifully worked up one new screenplay each year, but nothing gained final traction.

It was only after a producer familiar with “Open Water,” Agnes Mentre, ran into the pair’s lawyer, Sue Bodine, and inquired about Kentis and Lau that they finally found the sliver of luck they needed to get a movie back on the big screen. Mentre had secured remake rights to the Uruguayan film “La Casa Muda,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival as part of its Director’s Fortnight line-up and would eventually go on to be that country’s official Oscar Foreign Film submission, and sensed that the pair would be a good match with the material, which unfolds in streamlined, real-time fashion, mimicking a single take.

The film is a heady experiment anchored by a star-confirming turn from Elizabeth Olsen (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”), and its release this weekend stands poised to test Olsen’s burgeoning “It Girl” status, as well as help disrupt — along with holdover box office champion “The Lorax” — the supposed theatrical dominance of Disney’s ballyhooed “John Carter.” ShockYa had a chance recently to sit down and chat one-on-one with married co-directors Kentis and Lau, and the conversation is excerpted below:

ShockYa: I would imagine that the selection of the house would really inform what you guys were able to do, so what was it like reshaping the material after you found a usable place?

Laura Lau: I had hoped to have a location before writing, but didn’t have one. They didn’t want to pay for a location, and I thought they were going to. So the house was very hard to find, but the first thing I did (after it was secured) was go into the house and completely re-write the script to tailor it exactly to that location. There were significant differences. First of all, this house was on the water and had three stories, which I didn’t imagine. I had looked at a lot of layouts in the area, and basically guessed what would be the most common kind of layout, and tried to write to that. … This house was actually bigger, which opened things up and gave us an opportunity to mine all these different rooms, and use a third floor.

Chris Kentis: I want to interject one thing, which is that it was also vacant and empty, and a clean slate — bare walls, completely cleaned out, no furniture. That made it even better.

LL: We really wanted to make the most use of it… because there’s basically no cutting in the film we had to find a house where we could make the most use of its geography. We had two staircases, and so were able to visually change things up.

CK: We didn’t know what kind of house we were going to get, and the house far exceeded what we’d hoped for. It was everything we wanted but didn’t dare put on the page because finding it would be so difficult. I mean, who wouldn’t want a house on the water? But good luck finding that on our budget. Working the script, Laura and I went to the house for days and days and days, and she would act out (Elizabeth Olsen’s) role with a camera. Then at night we’d go back, watch it, and re-work the script again.

ShockYa: Chris, you mentioned earlier how your background in editing has vastly informed your filmmaking experience, so to have a movie where arguably your biggest tool is taken away from you, in the form of these massive long takes stitched into one streamlined sequence, certainly represents a curveball. What was your first reaction to that — one of anxiety, or piqued interest?

CK: It was elation. It was like, “How did this fantastic opportunity fall into our laps?” Because it’s different, and a chance to give audiences a new experience. Everything’s been done a million times before, it seems, so to be able to [take] a fresh approach to a genre film that’s going to reach a lot of people is unheard of. Obviously every director or filmmaker brings their own personal point-of-view to something to make it unique to a certain degree, but it just seemed like such an amazing challenge, and it was the sort of thing that turns me on completely. I didn’t care what the story was at first, but of course it had to be a good story. It was impressive, the [Uruguayan] film, and then Laura took a stab at it and refashioned things as well. But it never felt nail-biting, I felt like it was what I need[ed]. I was so used to filmmaking being about editing, (so this was) a great way to expand my horizons in that way.

ShockYa: (Cinematographer) Igor Martinovic delivers, I think, some superlative work, but in addition to the “Red Riding” trilogy he has a non-fiction background (“Man on Wire,” “The Tillman Story”) that might not immediately suggest a genre film like this. Given that the look and visual scheme is of such paramount importance in this film, what sort of discussions went into selecting him?

LL: I think just like with our casting directors, with whom we’d worked previously, Igor was someone we’d been trying to work with for a while. So we already had several projects where we’d been trying to get them off the ground together, and as soon as we knew about the project we called him up and said, “Hey, would you be interested?” So the minute the first draft was done we sent it his way. There was no shopping around — we knew that we loved the way he lights, that he had a documentary background, and that creatively we were very much in sync.

ShockYa: In chatting with Elizabeth earlier, she mentioned how filming was at times just like a dance between she and Igor. How many days did you have for rehearsals?

LL: Igor was on another movie, otherwise he would have been available sooner. I guess we had the house for about a month before we were shooting — no, we had it longer than that, what am I saying? We probably had it six to eight weeks. So Chris and I went in there, and that (re-)writing process took a few weeks, during which we were also casting. And then Igor came about a week before we began rehearsals with the actors, so that was about three weeks out. We had two weeks of rehearsal with the actors, one week of which wasn’t on location. And then the week we started production we were rehearsing with Igor and the actors in the house. At that point, we had already worked out so much of the choreography, which we just kept refining. And then of course once we went into production we continued to refine it. Every take was eight to 12 minutes.

ShockYa: Elizabeth also mentioned your style of working together, as a tandem. Did that approach evolve over time, or was it something established concretely going in?

CK: You know, we’ve worked on three films and each one has been different in some respect, but this was probably the most differently that we’ve worked. Basically we’re both involved in every decision together. When Laura came at things with this angle I loved it and said, “Well that’s great, but you have to write that.” And she did, which I think gave her an understanding of the characters. With “Open Water,” that was kind of my baby. I’d always wanted to do this (USS) Indianapolis film and it was something that was kind of similarly themed and it just popped in my head and I kind of took off with it, but it was our full collaboration that made it the movie that it was. And here it seemed to me that this was sort of Laura’s baby, especially with the demands of the single-take and having to coordinate so many things and have a lead actor like Lizzie hold so many things in for such a long and extended period of time it seemed like it would have confusion to have two faces (speaking to her). So I told Laura early on, “I think you should be working with the actors.” So the way I worked — which was very different from how I’d worked previously, because on the other films we’d made we never even had a “video village,” and I was just used to being there on the set and watching actors — was spending time watching this as if it were a finished movie. But I think Laura mainly did most of the communicating the actors and crew — certainly with the actors — and I did most of my communicating with Laura. It was different and fun, but who knows how we’ll work together on the next one? It just felt the right way to do things for this project.

ShockYa: You’ve also talked, I think smartly, about how you consciously thought about picking non-traditional break points in the film, and not [masking edits] when changing floors or going outside. Was that immediately integral to how you wanted to tell the story?

LL: Definitely. With Chris as an editor, and my having cut over his shoulder for many years, it was about really understanding where you could hide those cut points that would really be invisible and not where an audience would ever expect. Right after writing the script I went back and we figured that out.

Written by: Brent Simon

Silent House

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A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.

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