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Vincenzo Natali is the kind of director who makes the cult movie-steeped audiences at Austin’s annual Fantastic Fest swoon. He isn’t a household name, but his distinctive, creative low-budget genre movies have earned him a strong reputation among the kind of people who can list off a dozen Dario Argento movies without checking the internet. Natali’s 1997 indie movie Cube is a particular case in point: a low-budget Canadian science fiction film about a group of strangers who wake up trapped in a prison shaped like a seemingly endless maze of cube-shaped rooms. His 2013 movie Haunter takes a similarly claustrophobic approach to a very different story, as a dead girl (Abigail Breslin) haunting a house she can’t escape begins dealing with the weird supernatural phenomena around her. Natali got to work on a larger canvas in 2009 with Splice, a flawed but ambitious “dangers of science” movie starring Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as researchers who unwisely create a sentient animal-human hybrid, which naturally rebels against them.
Most recently, Natali has been working in television, directing episodes of Orphan Black, Hannibal, American Gods, and Westworld, among other shows. But he’s returned to filmmaking with the Netflix project In the Tall Grass, an adaptation of a novella co-written by Stephen King and King’s son, horror writer Joe Hill. The film expands significantly on the novella, which features a brother and sister venturing into a country field to try to save a child, then discovering the supernatural powers and malign intentions of the area that’s trapped him. When Natali came to 2019’s Fantastic Fest to premiere In the Tall Grass, I sat down with him to talk about directing his first Netflix film, why he keeps making movies about enclosed spaces and trapped people, why horror fans love practical effects, how technology is changing low-budget horror, and how he went about making grass scary.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
How did this project start? Did Netflix court you, or did you go to them?
My producing partner Steve Hoban and myself came to Netflix. I’ve had the script for quite a while, and there had been some discussion with them a few years prior, and it didn’t really take off. And then there was this moment where Stephen King suddenly entered the larger consciousness again, with the It film, and we felt like we should try again. At the same time, Netflix had just released two original Stephen King movies, which are both quite good: 1922 and Gerald’s Game. They were interested in doing another one, so they got this crazy script from us, and for some reason, they said yes.
Had you already negotiated the rights with King?
He has a pro forma deal that, as I understand it, everybody gets. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are within the industry. First, he has to approve you. Then you option his work for $1. So it’s very cheap, but you have to meet certain benchmarks in terms of writing the script, getting into the marketplace, and so on. And he has a lot of approval over the material and the casting, etc. But he and Joe Hill, his son who co-wrote this novella, are very deferential to the filmmakers. Never, not once, did they exercise that control. I was encouraged to just make my own movie. I think he understands that adaptation shouldn’t be literal. And it certainly couldn’t be in this case. So it was a real pleasure. They’re very collaborative and easy.
This is an extensive expansion from the original novella. Did you consult with them on it at all?
I just wrote the scripts and gave it to them, and they approved them. To be honest, I don’t even know if they read them or not. I grew up reading Stephen King, so it was actually terrifying for me to write the script and submit it knowing he might actually read it. But for whatever reason, they kept saying yes, and we kept going. I actually wanted to be very faithful to the story. But I knew I would have to expand upon the story. There’s dialogue from the story in the movie, it’s quite faithful, but where the story ends, the movie just keeps going. I was constantly dipping back into the story for details and elements, and I didn’t really invent characters or locations. It’s all there; it’s all latent in the original material.
It reminded me a fair bit of your films Cube and Haunter in that you’re extensively exploring a single nearly homogenous environment in expansive ways, finding all the possibilities. Horror requires isolation, but is there something specific that interests you in the theme of infinite variations on a specific isolated place?
I think it’s twofold. The highfalutin answer to that question is, I grew up in an apartment complex in Toronto, a city where it’s very cold, and you spend a lot of time indoors. The idea of isolation and containment — this is me psychoanalyzing myself — may be part of my psychological makeup. The less highfalutin answer is, I don’t have a lot of money to make my movies, so I have no choice but to tell stories that involve only a few characters and locations because that’s all I can afford.
But often, limitations are inspiring. I’m cognizant of that when I’m taking on these projects. I do think, as a filmmaker, there’s something exciting about it because it’s sort of like a symphony where you have a central theme, but you do variations. There’s a certain excitement in watching those kinds of films to see how the filmmaker can keep spinning those plates, and doing new variations on the same idea. It does give you license as a filmmaker to be more eccentric and explore unusual possibilities because you’ve already grounded the audience in a location. In the case of Tall Grass, I was very clear from the outset that we would present a real, believable, “normal” world. And then, gradually, as our characters enter this environment, we’d break it down, until, by the end of the movie, things are pretty surrealistic. There’s a visual progression and a filmic progression that follows it.
People keep describing the film as Lovecraftian, but that’s becoming an increasingly common label for any kind of uncanny horror. Is H.P. Lovecraft a specific inspiration for you? How do you feel about the urge to label so much horror as Lovecraftian?
I actually do see him as an influence, and I bet Stephen King and Joe Hill do, too. I certainly know Lovecraft had a big influence on Stephen King. In this case, we have a kind of Lovecraftian god that is, for lack of a better word, our central evil. And “Lovecraftian” makes sense because it’s ancient, and its existence likely predates mankind, which is a common tenet in Lovecraft’s work.
So I don’t resist the label in this case. What I think is really powerful about Lovecraft, and what makes him a difficult writer to adapt, is that he rarely has the reader confront precisely what is frightening in the story, and he rarely explains or describes it. He’ll only allude to it. It’s an enigmatic kind of horror. I find that really alluring, fascinating, and frightening. Partly, it’s because when you can’t see something, your imagination tends to fill in the blanks. But also, that’s our situation as human beings. We’re just dots, microbes living on this little rock. We have a tendency to think we’re the center of the universe, but we’re truly not. So the whole Lovecraftian notion that if we truly understood what was out there, we would go insane, I think that’s actually correct!
Stephen King specializes in making mundane things terrifying, but that’s harder to do in a visual medium. How did you approach making grass frightening and coming up with ways to escalate that fear?
To be honest, what you see of the field on-screen is what it’s like. If you were to walk in that field, it’s an unnerving experience, a little like swimming in the ocean. On a very primal level, you feel vulnerable. You can’t see two feet in front of you. If there was a predator in there, you wouldn’t know until it was too late. And the grass itself, I actually wish I’d made more of this in the movie. It’s serrated. It will cut you. It’s not a friendly organism to humans. There’s a little of that in the movie, but you hardly notice it. I wish there was more of it.
But I think really what it boils down to is presenting the grass as a character. It has agency and consciousness. And we anthropomorphize it, as opposed to it just being some inert, unaware thing. So you’re like Jonah in the whale, in a way. You’re stepping into an environment that’s also a living thing.
How did you work with the actors, especially about suspending their disbelief around scary grass?
As somebody who’s worked in this space before, I can tell you, it’s really important that the actors express their fear. Some actors are afraid to do that. Some really good actors, for whatever reason, do not have it within themselves to show fear. And if you don’t do that, the audience won’t be afraid, either. It just doesn’t work. So I made a point when we were casting the movie that the actors needed to do that, and they were also going to go through an emotionally and physically strenuous production, so they should be prepared.
Which they were! Laysla [De Oliveira], in particular, because of what her character has to go through, really gave a raw, unfiltered performance, and it has a huge impact on the film. She just let it all hang out. That’s not an easy thing to do, and I don’t think many people are necessarily capable of it. I would coach them, but there was a lot for them to work with. They were never standing in front of a green screen in a studio. They were always in an environment they could react to. I mean, Laysla got hypothermia while we were shooting, from the rain. It was physically taxing! But as painful as it was for her and the other actors, they were committed enough to use that pain to enhance their performances and make them feel real.
The overhead shots of the field, especially that opening shot, are one of the most impressive things in the film. Are those drone shots? Are they CGI enhanced?
I don’t want to say too much about how we made the film because I don’t want to take away from the experience of it. But I will say this that opening shot, the high angle over grass, was shot from a drone and augmented because the grass wasn’t that perfect. The grass naturally grows with paths and little clearings. You see a lot of that in the movie, but in that shot, we filled them all in, so it’s just this wall of green. But it’s all real grass. We didn’t have to do that much work on it.
With things like CGI and drones getting so much cheaper, is technology radically changing how you personally address low-budget horror?
Yes, absolutely. But there’s a push and pull with it. As great as CGI is — and it really, truly is — there’s a backlash because it has to be done the right way. If it’s not, it has a very cartoony, unreal quality. Horror really relies on things feeling like they’re real and physical if they’re going to be frightening. I’ll give you a perfect example: unanimously, I believe people think John Carpenter’s The Thingis much more frightening than the 2011 prequel, which incorporated a lot of CGI. Even outside the story and issues like that, people just found the creature more frightening in 1982 when it was a physical object photographed on film. There’s a desire in the horror community, an appreciation of real physical makeup effects and physical props. Having said that, I think CGI is amazing, and I did incorporate it in this film. But I tried to do it in a way where you would never know that it’s there.
There’s one tremendous shot in Tall Grass with a reflection in a moving dewdrop, with the camera inverting. Was there a practical element to that shot?
I don’t want to say! [Laughs] I am sorry. Let me put it this way: you could never do that shot without CGI!
This film got me thinking about the difference between relatable horror where viewers feel like they could be in the protagonists’ position, like what they’re seeing could happen to them. And then there’s uncanny horror, which is much less real. Do you see a division there? Do you see one as more interesting than the other?
Let me put it this way: as an audience member and somebody who’s grown up enjoying horror films, I like it when the genre’s mutated, when it’s pushed somewhere new. And I’m as interested in re-creations of things that I’ve seen before. For me, David Cronenberg is a very important figure because what he did was so personal, so groundbreaking, and so impossible to imitate. Or Guillermo del Toro, with his particular kind of Latin magic realism. That’s what I aspire to, regardless of what kind of horror it is.
Anybody could look at your body of work and see that impulse to break new ground, but you’ve done a lot of interviews about how difficult it is to find backers for your films because people don’t want to take risks on films that don’t fit into familiar categories. Is the streaming age, and the splintering of movie audiences, helping you? Is it getting easier?
Yes! Oh, it really has. This film would not exist if Netflix hadn’t chosen to make it. Or if it did, it wouldn’t be as well-made. Because Netflix has both the willingness to let me make my own movie without interference and the resources to let me do things like that shot of the dewdrop. If I had made the film as a little independent movie, I couldn’t have afforded to make this version. Making a horror film independently, there’s a literal threshold for the financing. You’re never going to get more than $5 million to make a movie. It’s impossible, unless you have really big actors with tremendous international value.
So yes, this new landscape is exciting for somebody like me. I don’t want to make big, big movies, but I don’t really want to make micro-budget films, either. I’ve always existed in the space between. That space disappeared after DVD disappeared, and the international marketplace wouldn’t support it. And then studios started focusing on tentpole franchise movies. So that void is being filled by Netflix and Amazon and some of the other companies coming up. It’s incredible. I don’t think there’s ever been a moment like this in the history of filmmaking, and because there’s so much money being infused into it.
And a lot of that money isn’t being spent with a particular concern about instant return. It’s more about staking a claim, wanting to make content that really draws people’s attention, that is special. In the studio world, it’s all about the bottom line. So much money is at risk, and people’s jobs are at risk, so they just can’t afford to take chances. So this is a transformative moment. Over the last five years, I’ve done quite a bit of TV, and a lot of it was really interesting stuff that I was lucky to work on. But the line between TV and movies is blurring. It’s all narrative content, which is great.
The other aspect is our movie will become available to 190 countries at the exact same moment, which is wonderful for the movie because it means more people will watch it, I hope. But also, we’re in a historical moment where the world really needs to unite, to figure out some of the pressing issues we have. I don’t want to sound utopian about this, but I do believe it’s helpful that there’s no classification to who gets to see this first. It’s not going to open in America first, then filter through the rest of the world like they were second-class citizens.
Films are being democratized. So everyone gets the same content at the same time and shares the same experience at the same moment, which I have to believe is going to be unifying. If somebody makes something that influences how we perceive climate change, maybe that’ll have a real impact. And it does seem like Netflix is working on that. I certainly don’t think my film’s going to do that. [Laughs] It’s such a scary moment in the world right now, but there are a lot of things to be hopeful about and excited about.