Rafael Motamayor chats with writer/director Sebastian Gutierrez, and stars Carla Gugino and Abbey Lee on folktales, directing your partner, fainting in the theater and more…
Where did you get the idea for Elizabeth Harvest?
Sebastian Gutierrez: Well, the film is based on the tale of Bluebeard, which is a French folktale. It is not very well known in the U.S., here they go “is that like the pirate?” but in Europe and Latin-America it is very well known, I new it as Barba Azul. It was always in the back of my mind as a very scary thing, you know. It is kind of like The Shining, with the person you love going crazy and trying to kill you, and that really resonates with me [his partner, Carla, laughs]. I always thought about that character and I was always interested in how it was portrayed sort of a likeable monster, with the wife character going somewhere she wasn’t supposed to and being punished and apologizing for her mistake. I was fascinated by the idea that they didn’t treat the guy as a monster. I also felt the message of the tale was a bit unclear, like she paid for her curiosity, Is that it? And I kept thinking of other similar tales that punish women for gaining knowledge and their curiosity.
I want to ask about your influences for this film, and your use of vibrant colours. It gives the film a sort of dream-like look.
Sebastian: For this movie I’d say Dario Argento and Pedro Almodóvar were very influential because their use of colours. I worked with my director of photography to code what colour meant what for the flashbacks, like red for danger. Not only was that a cool thing to do, but it helped us map the movie and know where we were at all times. These colours were not added in post, they were shot that way, so we were locked into those very strong primal emotions being associated with certain scenes.
Carla Gugino: I find it, because the story is not told linearly, that it is very useful for the audience to have that colour code that connects certain flashbacks to the current scene, and you will go back and think “oh, I should have noticed this before.”
Without spoiling anything, how did you prepare to enter the different mindsets of your character? Because at the beginning it was a bit weird to see, until you finally understand what happened before.
Abbey Lee: It was baffling at times, because I had to reset my preparation each time, in a way. This character is experiencing these things for the first time and I had to try and think of my senses as being untapped and doing these things for the first time so that makes for a surreal first impression of the character.
Sebastian: There’s also a trust that needs to be built with the audience so that they understand that there’s a reason for what’s happening, and it’s not just poor acting, but designed in a way.
What were the conversations like regarding your character, Carla? Because this isn’t a character one would associate with you, and again it’s a character you don’t fully understand until late in the film.
Carla: It was a very different role than any I’ve played before, and any that Sebastian’s written for me either. So it’s always interesting as an actor to discover new things you might be good at even if you were uncomfortable with that earlier in life. I think me being Italian and a very communicative and open person, it was fascinating to hold back and not reveal anything as my character. I never had any interested in being a brand, or be known as one thing or in a position where I can’t walk down the street and observe people. I believe this is key to being an actor, and so many people I know don’t have that luxury anymore, so it’s a very conscious effort to get into a character.
After seeing A Quiet Place and how John Krasinski and Emily Blunt were scared of working together at first, how comfortable are you working with Sebastian? Has that collaborative process changed over the years?
Carla: At this point in my career I only want to work with talented people who I really enjoy as human beings, and Sebastian is certainly at the top of that list.
Sebastian: My favourite filmmakers are those that always work with the same people. For me it helps me write when I know the person really well, so Carla makes it easier because I don’t have to worry about her doing her job well, and I can focus on writing things that I know work for you. She’s usually the first person that I think of when I’m writing a role, so it makes the casting process a lot easier because you know that you can get your first choice [laughs].
How comfortable are you revisiting previous work?
Carla: For me it will always be tough to revisit my work just because I am my own harshest critic and I’ll never feel fully pleased with my performance. Also just by nature I think it’s odd to watch yourself like that. I used to watch more, just because I was interested in the specifics, if what I’m trying to do is conveying well enough. At this point I am interested in different things like immersing myself in the process and letting go and moving on. I generally have to see things so that I can speak about them, like I think I saw Gerald’s Game like two or three times in different screenings where I had to be present for that, just like I’ve seen Elizabeth Harvest about as many times, and I think I’m done watching both.
Sebastian: No need to be so harsh. Abbey on the other hand can watch herself over and over, endlessly. How many times have you seen Fury Road?
Abbey: I’ve never seen the final cut of the film.
Sebastian: What? It’s a great movie, are you kidding me? I don’t think I would have hired you if you’d told me that [laughs].
Abbey: I have seen it, just not the final version! Anyway, I have heard many actors who are uncomfortable watching themselves, and I think that’s part of the fucking job! Yeah, it’s uncomfortable, and you are highly critical of yourself, but you want to get better and that’s a good way to know if something works. You need to learn from your successes and your mistakes.
I don’t think I would be able to watch Gerald’s Game that many times. I didn’t even manage to see it once without fainting so…
Sebastian: Wait, that was you!?
Carla: That was the best! You know Mike Flanagan, the director, said that was the best review he got for the film, right?
So I heard! It was quite embarrassing, but also I was recognized for the rest of the film festival as the guy who fainted during the film, so that was nice…
Carla: That is amazing. I’m so glad I finally got to have this moment, and have you talk about that.
It haunts me to this day.