Recently speaking to Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer scribe John Ainslie, the good man left us more than a tad intrigued with teasing mentions of his imminent directorial debut The Sublet, the latest genre venture under the banner of the forever restless Black Fawn Films team.
Helmed and written by Ainslie (co-written by Alyson Richards) and starring Tianna Nori, (The Demolisher, Save Yourself), Mark Matechuk, Krista Madison (The Dirties, Operation Avalanche) and Rachel Sellan (Silent Hill: Revelation 3D) The Sublet is best described as a foreboding psychological-thriller which finds Joanna (Nori) consumed by postpartum depression as she moves into an unusual sublet apartment with her family. As her husband begins to find his career opportunities more attractive than his own wife Joanna’s solitary confinement leads her to discover a violent past in her new abode. Clutching at straws to maintain her sanity, the apartment’s blood-soaked past seeps into the present culminating in an excruciating climax.
This year’s Razor Reel Film Festival will play host to the film’s European premiere on November 7th which will swiftly be followed up by the North American premiere at the Whistler Film Festival in December. In anticipation of an all out assault on the festival circuit we spoke to Ainslie and the film’s leading lady, Tianna Nori as they took us on a tour of The Sublet…
SCREAM: Tianna, what was it about the script that reeled you in and John, what was it about Tianna that won you over?
Tianna Nori: I read the script and it is rare when I read sides for me to fall in love with them. I didn’t know entirely what the script was about but all I knew was that something in my gut was tugged literally and I so wanted to know more. So I gave it my best shot and went for the audition and met John for the first time there. Right away I was like, “I like this guy!” and I was asking him so many questions to get a feel for what the script was about because it really was so complicated.
John Ainslie: Tianna was one of the few actresses who came to the casting process and was confident and asked me a lot of questions, which not all actors do. What was funny was that I had done a rewrite the night before so the scene that she was reading had changed quite a bit and she asked a lot of questions and some of the answers that I gave were for the rewrite that she hadn’t prepped for. She called me out on that so I thought that was pretty brave and that was what I wanted really. I wanted an actor who would fight me on things and really care about things. She also came in with little to no makeup, her hair in a ponytail and wearing a tracksuit. Most actresses come in dressed to the nines and are so nervous and not themselves. Obviously you are casting the lead for a feature, but at the same time auditions are all about who the actors are. You are ultimately also casting someone who is going to be your best friend for the next year at least so you are probably going to spend more time with that person than with your own family. You want to make sure you like them. You also want to see people at their worst I think. Makeup and wardrobe makes everyone look great so I like to see what’s the worst people can possibly be. Tianna came in honest and herself and that was what I wanted.
TN: And I went home and I knew that I wanted this role so bad at this point in my career even though I didn’t know who John was back then. Sorry John.
JA: She doesn’t really watch movies so…..
TN: But we had an instant actor-director connection. There was already a trust there but most of all the sides literally took me by the gut. Usually I can just walk away from an audition and put it in the past, but these sides really took me. I firmly feel like I really fought for this film artistically. I REALLY wanted it more than anything.
JA: Which is ironic in a way because pretty much the day after casting I knew I wanted Tianna for the role. So she was doing all this fighting but I couldn’t say, “Well no. I’ve already picked you.” These things have to be approved by many people so we couldn’t just jump in and do it that hour. So it was kind of fun in that way, for me anyways. Probably not so much for her.
TN: But even with the call back process where I had to put it on tape for the executives, I took it upon myself to research postpartum depression to know what I was getting into.
SCREAM: So how did you go about researching exactly what makes Joanna tick in the film?
TN: Well that was another thing. I’m not a mother and with every role that I’m cast in I’m a firm believer that it’s our job to do the research that each role deserves. So my character, Joanna, is going through postpartum so that means different aspects. As a woman who doesn’t have children or a husband I didn’t have either of those elements but you’d better believe I was going to ask and research. I asked random women with kids if they’d dealt with postpartum or if they’d had baby blues. I found one woman who had had postpartum psychosis and I think that was my major research tool because I got to really learn a lot from her. But it was significant how many women deal with post-partum depression and don’t talk about it.
Also, with the baby aspect of it, and as I don’t have a baby and don’t hold one often, I asked John if we had a doll or something humanlike that I could have at my place. So he purchased a baby doll on eBay that was heavy and he let me borrow it and I had it at my place for weeks and I’d put it on my hip and try to cook with the baby to get that feeling what it’s like to multi-task and get that natural reaction so that when it came to holding Porter (the baby in the film) it wasn’t like I was holding a foreign object in my hands.
JA: I also think motherhood is very much an untapped resource in film. Sure, it’s a nice and pretty thing and there are cute babies and we celebrate all of that but there’s also the fact that mothers go through all these things that are great but it’s clear that they aren’t even in control of their bodies as they get taken over by nature. I think all of that leads to some kind of vulnerability and insecurity. I don’t try to tackle it too seriously in the film but I do touch on that side of motherhood in the film.
SCREAM: John, I think you wrote the film around the time you were about to have your first child. Do you consider the film to be autobiographical to a certain extent?
JA: It was more of a coincidence really. My co-writer, Alyson Richards, moved out to LA and talked about wanting to do a low-budget, one location horror movie type thing. I thought it was a great idea so we started writing it together. She was subletting different places at the time and one of them had a skylight above the bathtub which always freaked her out and made you think someone was always there watching you. That was also the year that my first son was born and then, by the time the first draft was done, her son was born. So we continued into the rewrites as parents and brought that onto the table and I think that became more of a predominant part of the film in a lot of ways. I mean, I think that that’s something that as parents you can really understand. What makes The Exorcist terrifying is not the barfing child, because we all have that as a parent anyways. What’s terrifying is the first half when the mother wants to fix the child when Regan is in that shock therapy stuff. It’s like a loss of control. You have no way to help your child and you’re trusting these people who are electrocuting it and maybe it’s the right thing to do but you really have no way to figure that out. So that’s what I wanted to bring into The Sublet as well. Yeah, Joanna’s in danger but she is also protecting the child and then there is also the struggle within herself and these feelings of wanting to destroy the child at the same time.
SCREAM: John, with this being your directorial debut how was your relationship with your DP, Greg Biskup, who you had never worked with before? Was it easy to reach a compromise with him?
JA: I was vaguely aware of Greg because he used to work as an assistant for another DP that shot something for my wife so he was in my circle of awareness but he is quite a bit younger than me. Anyway, we both met for a beer and we talked about the script and I knew right away he was the right guy. We both approach lighting in the same way and he’s a really lovely person and he really knows how to work with actors. Some photographers aren’t so sensitive when they are in close proximity to the performer when they are being vulnerable. Greg understood that and he understood that I like my monitors close to the actors. I never like to have to yell across the floor because I find it to be disrespectful. I always try to cross the floor and talk to my actors in private because I don’t want anyone to hear what I’m saying to them. I just think it’s more respectful to put your arm around an actor and whisper in their ear rather than tell them what they’re not doing perfectly in front of a room of fifteen other people. You want them to be vulnerable and to go places so you want them to feel protected. Also, sometimes I don’t want other actors hearing me as I might change some dialogue because I want to surprise someone or something.
SCREAM: What kind of tricks did you use to keep the cast on their toes and get the best possible performances out of them then?
JA: There was one time where I couldn’t get Mark to be properly scared of Tianna and it just wasn’t coming together for whatever reason. I think the scene was that Tianna had to walk by and ignore Mark or make some comment to him. So without telling Mark, I told her to just scream at the top of her lungs at him and to hit him as hard as she could. It worked and we got a good reaction out of Mark.
SCREAM: I was really surprised that you wanted an even bloodier ending because it is pretty hard-hitting when we get to the final reel.
JA: Oh I always want more blood but it’s expensive and when you’re working on a hardwood floor that’s only somewhat finished then the blood you have disappears quickly. Tianna also got stuck to the floor. I literally had to peel her skin off the floor.
TN: My face! My face!
JA: I lifted her up and the floorboard literally came up with her. But I don’t want to give away the ending as that’s the fun part. Suffice to say that there’s blood and I think what we did is really good. Shaun Hunter did a great job but if I say anything else I’d be giving too much away so you’ll just have to watch it and find out…
We’d like to thank John and Tianna for speaking with us and remind you that you can also read our recent interview with John in relation to the impending revival screening of Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer here.
Keep your eyes peeled as the word on the street is that The Sublet trailer is ready and waiting to be unleashed in a matter of hours…..
Words: Howard Gorman (@HowardGorman)