Ricky Church chats with The Sublet director John Ainslie…
The Sublet director John Ainslie was able to speak to Flickering Myth about his debut feature film. We spoke about the themes of The Sublet, the writing and filming process, working with the stars and his main influences from the horror genre.
Ricky Church: Congratulations on the movie! I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t what I was expecting either. I was expecting something in the vein of a traditional horror movie, but its more psychological and subtle. I found it really strong that way.
John Ainslie: Yea, I sort of snuck that in.
RC: Yea! So where did you come up with the inspiration for this? I know you co-wrote the script.
JA: Alyson Richards, who I co-wrote the script with, was living in LA at the time. She just moved down there subletting place after place and one of the sublets had a skylight atop the tub in the washroom. She always felt like someone was watching and thought that would be an interesting idea for a movie. Originally it started off sort of like Vacancy, if you remember that movie, with Luke Wilson. Started off like that with a guy with his camera and an actual physical thing, but then I made it into the paranormal. Once that started going it became more fun, freed us up and less cliché. Well, it’s always cliché, it’s just what you do with a cliché, really.
The screening went really well. When you watch it alone you forget, I mean I certainly forget because I have zero objectivity on it at this point, but there’s all this humour in it. When you’re watching it with a crowd you realize people are laughing through it, then they’re really scared, then they’re laughing. That rhythm really played better than I think I was aware of. We made one guy jump out of his seat!
RC: Yea, Tianna mentioned that when I spoke with her. She said he almost jumped onto his girlfriend!
JA: Yea, it was nuts! He made an awful sound, like a really embarrassing sound for a grown man to make and he was dead center!
RC: This is also your first feature. What made you not only want to co-write it, but take on the job of directing?
JA: I’ve always wanted to direct. It’s just been convincing people to let me. Or finding money, which I did on shorts, but is harder to do on a feature. Yea, I’ve always written out of necessity. I’ve always written for things to direct and through that I went to the CFC (Canadian Film Centre) Writer’s Lab. Through that I learnt how to rewrite people, work with people, take notes and smile when they tell you what you’ve worked on for five years sucks. That kind of fun stuff which is all part of being a writer.
RC: One thing Tianna told me when we spoke was you guys filmed the movie mostly in chronological order, which is something both unusual and rare for most films to do. Why did you make the decision to film it in that way?
JA: I think most actors, but also myself, like to work that way. I won’t say its easier, but… It is kind of easier in a way because you don’t have to think about where you’re coming out of and especially with me, in some of my previous works I didn’t like my transitions from one scene to the other. A lot of that had to do with shooting stuff before and then going backwards. Your ins and outs are never determined and on a low-budget shoot you can’t really plan anything. You try as much as you can, but things pop up, the location switches, the lighting doesn’t work on set for whatever reason and you’ve already shot the beginning of that scene, now you’re ending it on a totally different place and it may not cut together as fluidly.
Also, the make-up Tianna went through was five stages, I think. I think it made it a lot easier for the make-up artists in a way for tracking. Wardrobe is already hard enough to track and Amanda Wood did both wardrobe and make-up. I don’t think people realize what a hard job it is to track what people are wearing in one scene and chronicling not just the scenes of the movie, like when it’s on paper its tough to imagine morning to-night, day-to-day and how many scenes that wardrobe is good for. It’s weird because I get confused by it and it should be self-evident, but it’s not.
There were two things we didn’t shoot in order: everything that happens in the nursery when she’s hugging her baby. There’s no dialogue in that just because that was the first location that was ready so they could work on the other side of the set while we shot that on day one. We shot all that in four hours and got trapped into a wardrobe decision on that one. The other was the owner’s room because it wasn’t finished until the last two days of filming. We had half of the room done so you could look in, but the other half wasn’t done. We didn’t have Krista (Madison), who plays the ghost or whatever the woman is, on set until towards the end. So that picture of her we couldn’t get until we got on set so we had to take it that morning, shoot that side, get it printed, get it on the wall and shot out all of the owner’s room. Then there was the chronological wallpaper coming down and having to put it back up. That was a nightmare. We had one chance to rip that wallpaper off. We were in there from 9 AM to 5 AM two days in a row. So Greg (Biskup, cinematographer) and I didn’t sleep for two days and those were the last two days.
RC: Wow. So I mentioned it before, but The Sublet doesn’t rely on traditional jump scares. A lot of the horror aspects are played more for subtlety. Why did you want to film the movie in a more psychological and subtle manner?
JA: Its kind of interesting because, watching it with an audience, people do jump. I never intended that so much. It’s weird because the big jump scare happens, I don’t think it’s a jump scare at all though, when Tianna’s peeking through the peephole and the shadow goes by. That’s crazy because I don’t think that’s scary. You’ve already witnessed enough by that point where a shadow walking by a hole shouldn’t scare, yet for that audience that was the moment where people jumped.
I think what it is is the editing in that film, there’s a lot of wide statics with close-ups and the pace of the editing is sped up because the pace of the film was kind of slow. I think that was a smart choice by a lot of the people who gave that note. I think what it is is that’s the first time we track Joanna handheld for a long period of time and the camera doesn’t cut. There’s no editing from when she goes through that door, all the way down the hallway and gets to the letters. It builds, builds, builds and I think you’re almost waiting for an edit.
I’m not into the jump scare thing either. I love them when they happen, but its become a ‘thing’ and I’m not into the ‘thing’ so its like, when I watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Leatherface jumps out of the bushes to cut up the wheelchair boy, that’s not a traditional jump scare, but its sort of the beginnings of what a jump scare is. I saw it in theater at the TIFF Lightbox and the woman sitting next to me lost all her popcorn because she threw it when he jumps out. The intention of that is to wake you up and scare you, but its such a repetition and formulaic.
RC: Yea, you come to expect it.
JA: I don’t want to spoil The Gift, but there’s a really good one in there. There’s a couple good ones in there, but that one was like… (John gestures his mind being blown) And that’s the whole thing with psychological films. When it plays with your mind and starts fucking with you brain, like The Gift was great for that. The woman next to me walked out after 20 minutes because it was too scary.
RC: Another thing Tianna mentioned was that you put together a playlist for her with music to listen to between takes and one of them was The Shining soundtrack. Why was it important for you to personally put together her playlist and include that soundtrack?
JA: I’m pretty tone specific in terms of the film and I think that was probably the film’s strongest aspect, the tone and feeling of it. I love films to have good tones, I love that feeling more than anything else. That music is so weird, its gets you into a weird zone. That’s kind of where I wanted the character towards the end. I also had the Only God Forgives soundtrack in there, some Cliff Martinez stuff from Solaris as well. Solaris is another movie where a person goes nuts. I just think it’s important to keep that tone in shooting, as well as through post and through writing. It’s the music I listened to while writing it.
RC: Yea, she said it definitely got her in the mood and helped her isolate herself to get her into Joanna’s character, getting in that mindset on set. Apparently Mark Matechuk didn’t understand at first what she was doing?
JA: Yea, they both have different styles of acting.
RC: This was his first feature, right?
JA: Yea, his first dramatic feature. I think he had a small part at some point, but he’s a performer and a natural. He’s very watchable. It was interesting, those two, because she takes a classical or somewhat Meisner approach to acting and really getting to know her character and being aware of her surroundings as her character would be. She likes to really dig into the character and she and I worked really hard on the backstory. I rewrote it, she rewrote it once she got into the character. She generally would be in and out of Joanna during the day.
It’s just good to figure out how two people work together because sometimes you fight that a bit. It felt good on set. I try to stay pretty numb on set. I try not to make any decisions, good or bad, because people are laughing on set, we’re all friends, we like each other’s work. But then you get there and show it to a stranger and they’re like “What the fuck are you thinking?” That’s really the scariest part of filmmaking, I think. You become friends and you better have friends to tell you what you’re doing is shit and you better listen to them.
RC: Yea, because spending 16 or more hours a day with the same people for X amount of days, you can grow pretty close.
JA: You either love or hate each other. As a director, you’re isolated as well so we try to be friends with everyone, I try to be affable and help people out. It took me a few days to understand that people were there to really help. I’ve never worked with a big, professional crew that really wanted to do their jobs. It was nice and we were lucky. We had a really good crew. We just fucking totally lucked out.
RC: One of the other things I really liked about The Sublet was I found Joanna to be a very relatable character. I thought she was well written and well acted, but also very relatable, especially for a female audience. How important was it for you and the rest of the team to make sure Joanna’s story stood out for a potentially large female audience?
JA: I think anytime you approach a character, male or female, you want it to be authentic. Some people like surrealism, but I like reality and what I do and what I want to do is taking realistic couples or people in sort of banal situations and throwing them into the bizarre. But hopefully because in act one they’re so relatable and normal, you buy that this could theoretically happen in real life. I think with Sublet it became really easy. It’s challenging to keep it organized in your head, but the psychological aspects can let you do whatever the fuck you want within reason. You always want a relatable character otherwise the audience just says goodbye and you have nothing. It’s funny because I generally write female leads. I think that’s more because I’ve grown up writing and watching a lot of male leads and I’ve become bored with it. A lot of the films I see now as I get older I’m just like “That’s the same movie we watched 30 years ago, just changed a few details and new actor.” I think female-led stories are a slightly different angle, slightly different story and slightly different experience. That keeps it fresh for me.
RC: What were some of your main influences from the horror genre? You mentioned The Shining earlier and Tianna mentioned you guys watched Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy. Why was that trilogy such a big influence on you?
JA: I’ll start backwards because The Shining is a huge influence. All of Kubrick is a huge influence. That’s the obvious one of an isolated individual going insane. If you watch The Sublet the act beats are sort of similar. I can’t make The Shining because I’m not Kubrick. But I mean, you go back to early Polanski and what he did with a low-budget, that’s where I thought I could draw from that and those movies are so unique. Rosemary’s Baby is a little bit of a bigger production, but I watched it on the plane and I borrowed a lot from it. It gets compared to Repulsion a lot and I think it has less to do with Repulsion than it does with The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby. The Tenant, to me, was one of the most fascinating films and it’s technically not a horror. Even Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, categorizing those as horror is interesting to me because nothing really happens in Rosemary’s Baby. There’s the scene where the devil rapes her, but it’s not even scary, it’s just creepy. Then there’s the baby at the end which is almost laughable in today’s day of effects.
Then Repulsion’s all in her head. Like 100% in her head which I think is even scarier. Losing control of your brain and body is like the scariest thing for me. People coming at you with knives, its like you’re going to get stabbed and die or find a cop or beat the shit out of them. One of those three things is going to happen essentially, whereas when you’re losing your brain and you can’t trust yourself, that’s fucking creepy. People with dementia or psychological disorders, especially when they’re aware of it, that’s got to be the worst. For me anyways, that’s the worst thing I can imagine.
So I went there and there are other films like the maternal aspects in The Exorcist. With the shooting style I just stuck pretty classical to keep it performance based rather than trying to limit how many fancy camera stuff I did. Generally the dramatic scenes are shot really plainly almost.
RC: Bringing up the cinematography, I really liked how well you used the space. It looks like a small apartment and the more the movie goes on, it feels more claustrophobic and the cinematography looked great throughout the film. Was it challenging to film in that space?
JA: The space wasn’t even that small, but it looks small and that has a lot to do with the lensing Greg and I did. Yea, that main room, the kitchen/living room, was huge. We had room to put the crew and the dolly in and still have a comfortable level of set. A lot of that is the way Greg lights and a lot of the reason why I wanted to work with Greg. We don’t use a lot of flags. The film is lit incredibly simply with very few lights and we always had a practical going, trying to keep it in frame somewhere. Then using that window to mimic what sunlight or moonlight would do so it always feels kind of natural. We had almost no fill light and no flagging. As soon as you stop flagging, you suddenly have a lot of room on set and you suddenly have the ability for your actors to walk around and block a lot and do whatever they want.
When you’re on a higher budget movie and everyone’s top of their game, I think you can do whatever the fuck you want because you have the time and the money to do whatever you want, but when you don’t, which I didn’t, I just like to keep it simple and focus on the performance and make everything about the performance. Everything kind of serves the performance on this one. That being said, we did want it to look stylish and I think we did that with the lighting choices we made. I bet the most lights we used in one scene were four lights, if even, just blasting and using shadows more than lights.
RC: Yea, I noticed that, the subtlety of light and focusing more on darkness and shadows to create that creepy vibe to the place.
JA: It’s like what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see, always, and I think that’s the idea behind flagging, but you can also do that without having many lights. Like we didn’t have any hall lights and when we shot in that hall it was dark, it’s hard to stay in focus because it’s so fucking dark. That’s when we started shooting towards the light and I feel like if you don’t have a practical and you’re shooting towards the light or vice versa, as long as you have a light source and a white source I always feel like you’re safe. Because then no matter how dark the shadow gets as long as you have white and a bright light somewhere you’re frame is done and you’re happy then.
RC: The Sublet also has this quality to it where you question what’s real and what isn’t, is the place actually haunted or is she just going through postpartum depression? Was that a lot of fun to play off of when you wrote the script and then seeing the audience trying to piece everything together?
JA: Yea, I’ve only watched it once with an audience, but I’ve talked to a lot of people who have seen it now and its fun to see it work. That’s always a good thing, right? I was a little scared it wouldn’t work and you know what you’re scared of, I still am when I watch it, it’s the level of… not clichés, that’s not the term, but “I’ve seen this before and I’m only changing it slightly.” Then there’s this fear of a rhythm of this scene and this scene. I feel like it really starts off that way and then it branches off into something else. But it’s like keeping the audience through that first 15 minutes where it’s kind of banal.
RC: Yea, everything is kind of normal at the start.
JA: Yea, and there’s always that fear, I think, with a first time director and kind of no name actors that the audience can walk away a lot quicker than they will if its Charlize Theron on set. They’d stick with that movie a lot longer. But I know personally when I don’t know the history of people’s work you don’t give them a lot of leeway. Not a lot of people do and that’s the fear because the film only works if you stick with it.
I like messing with people. There is a small sense of humour in the film. A lot of it is in the answers and the responses of the dialogue. At key moments Tianna just repeats what Mark says and there’s no answer and you move on. I think that keeps building on your nag level. Like as an audience member they think “I had the same question, why is no one answering it?” A character is asked the question you want to know the answer to and the other character just keeps going as if it wasn’t asked and its very frustrating. I kind of used that to play with the audience and hopefully frustrate them in a positive way. I like that kind of stuff, but you never know if it’s going to work. But at a certain point we just decided to go for it. If you’re going to succeed you succeed, if you’re going to fail you fail. If you do anything halfway you fail right at the top. Just own it or die and swim and sink basically.
That was the big thing because Jordan (Crute, editor) and I, when we were cutting, we shot it in certain ways and there’s moments where things are very similar to a Kubrick film or whatever and it’s like “Do we really want to do this?” and then “Well if people like it it’s a homage, if they don’t like it it’s a rip-off.” Just live with it. It’s all about subjectivity in the end, right? Everyone has their owns tastes. I think as a director, you’re the first audience member and if you don’t like it you’re not going to believe in it or make it. Hopefully what that is about you that makes you love the film rubs off on audience members. That’s the way I go about things anyways.
RC: Earlier you mentioned having fun on set, trying to keep it light. Tianna also mentioned sometimes you guys would play pranks on each other –
JA: I don’t know about each other, but we’d play pranks on her! (Laughs)
RC: (Laughs) Right! So was that advantageous for you as a director to keep the set light despite the subject matter?
JA: Yea, I think so not just because of the subject matter, but people are working 15 hours a day and sometimes they miss last call or the beer store closes and that never makes anyone happy after 15 – 16 hours on set. So you have to keep people happy because grumpiness spreads quicker than joy on film sets. All you need is one person on set to be grumpy and complaining to within hours fucking mutiny and then you’re done.
I just want to make it a happy place to work. No one likes to go to a place where it’s heavy and brooding and fear of mistakes. Mistakes happen on set and people fuck up, you just deal with it and move on. If you don’t do it with a smile on your face, people feel badly when they fuck up. It’s not their fault. If it is their fault it’s a different experience, but it’s generally not their fault. When it truly is an accident it’s not their fault. But it was fun.
Tianna was the only one I was sensitive to about that because I wanted her to stay in character and that sort of slowed down as her role got more serious. But week one when everything was light I tried to have short shoot days that were like 12 – 13 hours and tried to keep the whole tone light and everyone friendly and behind me. Week two was a little bit balanced and then week three was all business. By that point everyone’s exhausted and just wants to get through it. Those two last days we shot 20 – 21 hours both days and no one complained. People slept on set and had naps while we were shooting, but no one complained, no one wanted to go home. Everyone wanted to do it right. That was the best.
RC: That sounds great. What do you hope audiences will take away the most from this film?
JA: Ultimately it’s about entertainment first so hopefully they take away a good time and some questions. But the movie also broaches postpartum. I don’t feel like it tackles it in any serious way, but I do feel like people should question and think about it because doing research for the film its way more common than people imagine. Postpartum psychosis is the film, but postpartum depression is quite common.
RC: And it’s not really talked about either.
JA: It’s not talked about at all which is crazy! But who does want to talk about their sister or cousin who stabbed their baby to death, right? But it happens and one of the reasons it happens is because no one wants to talk about it. When a mother’s feeling this way she keeps it bottled up inside, doesn’t go anywhere for support, gets no support, then it gets worse and she feels guiltier.
Meanwhile there’s this hormonal thing going on that they don’t really understand and then it just explodes when all of it is she was just in a situation or position where she could tell her husband, mother or sister or whatever about what she was feeling and that person wouldn’t make her feel guilty about it, then I think it would happen a lot less.
RC: Do you have any social media that our readers could follow you at?
JA: Yea, we have The Sublet Movie Facebook page. There’s @TheSublet_movie and mine is @John_Ainslie on Twitter.
RC: Perfect! Thanks for taking the time to speak with me and congratulations again on the film!
JA: No problem, thank you for having me!
Many thanks to John Ainslie for taking the time for this interview.