Chris Kentis and Laura Lau spent more than two years filming "Open Water." But the lengthy production schedule for their ultra-low-budget 2004 scuba-diving thriller was nothing compared with the seven years it took the couple to make another movie following their Sundance Film Festival breakout.
The husband-and-wife filmmaking team worked on a number of projects that never got out of development hell, including a film about the World War II sinking of the USS Indianapolis, whose survivors — in a tragic "Open Water" turn — were mauled by sharks.
"It was very, very tough," Lau says of the several movies that didn't get made. Adds Kentis: "But we were able to make a living."
Then their fortunes changed in a hurry.
In a frantic rush over the last several months, Kentis and Lau were able to write, film and edit "Silent House," a horror movie that premiered at a jammed industry and press screening late Thursday night and played to a terrified, sold-out house Friday afternoon. A few days later, most domestic and worldwide rights to the film were sold to Liddell Entertainment, which plans to resell the U.S. rights to another distributor.
Loosely adapted from a Uruguayan film that premiered at last May's Cannes Film Festival, "Silent House" is a fast-moving (1 hour, 26 minutes) look at the very bad experiences that 20-year-old Sarah (played by Elizabeth Olsen, sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) suffers in a boarded-up New York house her father is preparing to sell.
(Olsen is quickly becoming the "it girl" of Sundance this year, as she stars in another film, "Martha Marcy May Marlene," that has also gotten a lot of buzz and was bought by Fox Searchlight.)
As with the Spanish-language original, "Silent House" is shot to look as if the entire movie were done in a single take — there are no cutaways, no obvious edits. Even the most astute film-school students would be hard-pressed to spot precisely where Kentis (an editor by training) and Lau made their cuts. The directors say that some of the takes in the film run more than 10 minutes.
The single-take approach created logistical hurdles, but Kentis and Lau say they never saw the choice as a clever cinematic contrivance. Instead, they felt their unblinking camera would bring moviegoers deeper into the story, so that the audience might share Sarah's terror on a more visceral level.
"We thought, 'What's a new way to create that sense of reality?'" Kentis says. Adds Lau: "There's no space between the audience and Sarah. You cannot get away from her."
With so many horror directors turning to hand-held, documentary-style filmmaking ("The Blair Witch Project," "Paranormal Activity"), the filmmakers also thought the single-take approach could separate "Silent House" from the cinéma vérité pack. "We're not particularly drawn to horror," Kentis says. "There's a lot out there, and it's hard to get a rise out of the audience."
They also didn't want the film to be pigeonholed into a narrow category within the horror genre. "Is it a supernatural story? Is it a home-invasion story?" Lau says. "I wanted to play on all of those levels."
Because the filmmakers had to plan exactly how to disguise their edits during filming, there was no room for missteps during the three weeks of principal photography, as they couldn't fix mistakes in the editing room. "You could plan it all to a T," Lau says. "But if one single thing went wrong, the whole shot was blown."
It took as many as 30 takes to capture some scenes, and one sequence required the "Silent House" cinematography team to hand the camera from person to person through a car to the outside and back into the car, without any break in the action. The director of photography, Igor Martinovic, was wrapped in foil while shooting inside the house so that his body could reflect the light generated by Sarah's flashlight and lantern.
"We worked until we had it perfect," Kentis says of how they executed each shot. "And when we had it perfect, we were done."
Unlike "Open Water," produced for about $120,000, Kentis and Lau had nearly $5 million to make "Silent House." That allowed them to rehearse for several weeks and gave them the post-production facilities and sound-design help needed to assemble the finished movie just two months after filming wrapped.
Kentis and Lau hope people do debate the film's ending, which not only offers a surprise twist but also could change the audience's understanding of what transpires in "Silent House's" first 70 minutes.
"What is not seen that becomes seen?" Lau says of the questions she hopes the film raises. "What is forgotten that becomes remembered?"