We spoke to Michael Shlain, the director / producer, about his new short film In a Foreign Town.
Q1. Raindance: Can you tell us something about him for our readers who are new to Thomas Ligotti's works?
Michael Shlain: Thomas Ligotti is one of the really great writers at work today and one of the great horror writers of all time. For the uninitiated, I would say his voice has aspects of the existential horror of Lovecraft, the eloquence of Poe, and the absurdism of Kafka – and yet is completely original. A common theme in Ligotti's stories is the horror of consciousness. The fact that we are awake in these slowly decomposing bodies, aware of our impending annihilation, in a world that seems meaningless. It's about the terror of not knowing who or what we are. In Ligotti's stories, the monster isn't out there … it's you.
Q2. Raindance: Tell us something about In a strange city?
Michael Shlain: IN A FOREIGN TOWN is a short proof-of-concept for a TV anthology series based on stories from Ligotti's IN A FOREIGN TOWN, IN A FOREIGN LAND collections and a few others that fit into the same world.
Our goal with the short film is to introduce our audience to the world of the series and create a visual and tonal touchstone of how it will look and feel. In it, the main character from the pilot recalls his first visit to the city as a child.
Q3. Raindance: How did you recognize the dark tones of Ligotti's work? What were your inspirations from other work?
Michael Shlain: One of the challenges in adapting Ligotti's work is that so much of its power comes from the mood of creeping discomfort that the prose suggests. It also has a deep dreamlike quality. For me, the "city" is a place in our head where our nightmares and trauma live – it's more of a felt sense of fear, fear and despair. But there is also something strangely inviting and beautiful about it.
Our job was to find the specific visual and acoustic choices that would evoke these sensations in the audience.
For example, in the opening scene, we covered the walls of our mental hospital with black mold and surrounded our calm sounding doctor with a display of sharply glittering medical tools. For many this means threat and distress to the nervous system. These details reflect Hatcher's inner world, which is marked by mental decline and constant fear.
Other choices were made to create a sense of the eerie that is often experienced in dream states. I like Freud's definition of "seemingly ordinary objects that feel inexplicably unfamiliar and therefore terrifying". In all of our designs, we wanted to create a feeling that things were "slightly different". Instead of a teddy bear, Young Hatcher has a strange masked cowboy doll; Father's watch has no hands. We wanted to keep throwing annoying unanswered questions in the minds of our audience.
In terms of influences, some of the filmmakers we researched and referenced included Jean-Pierre Jeunet, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick. All are masters of the evocation of inner states and the world of dreams and nightmares.
Q4. Raindance: Do you talk to us about each production set and the stage creation process? Could we also get a summary of the techniques used?
Michael Shlain: The film takes place mainly in two time periods: The "today's" scenes take place in a psychiatric hospital, in which Mr. Hatcher (played by Yuri Lowenthal) recalls a harrowing childhood experience under the influence of a strange drug. The rest of the film takes place in Hatcher's childhood memories that take him on a journey from home to the heart of the city. Much of our cross-departmental discussion and preparation focused on how we would separate the appearance of the two periods.
Q4 (a). Psychiatric clinic
Michael Shlain: The clinic set was built on our sound stage at Butcher Bird Studios in Los Angeles, California. Production designer Frida Rivera Oliva managed to fit three more sets (the train carriage, Hatcher's nursery, and the hallway) into a modest 25 x 50 inch area. These sets were first pre-visualized in SketchUp. We also created a “color story” to map our color palettes across each sequence. The clinic would be dominated by cool, dirty blues, greens, and whites to create the feeling of a cold, unsafe, and indifferent environment.
For the production and the costume design, we assigned the various characters loose periods of time. Hatcher's world was generally in the 1970s, while Groddeck's world was more 1920s – and his medical devices even older. We wanted to consciously connect epochs with one another, similar to the way time merges into memories and dreams.
We shot with an Arri Alexa Classic and worked with DOP Francisco Bulgarelli to establish specific rules for camera style and movement for each of our two periods. For today's scenes, we used a series of Bausch & Lomb Super Baltar prime numbers from the 1970s. These were the same lenses that was used for The Godfather and gave everything that light green tint. For the clinical scene, we decided that there would be no filtration or mist (we would shoot "clean", "clinical"). Our recordings were either static compositions or slowly creeping dolly movements to underline Hatcher's increasing psychological pressure.
Finally we decided to call Dr. To completely blur Groddeck for almost the entire show. We wanted to keep it mysterious and reflect the effect the drugs had on Hatcher's perception.
Q4 (b). Towing car
Michael Shlain: For our “memory scenes”, Francisco and I wanted to achieve a look that connects the past but is not married to a specific time. After testing a number of approaches, we settled on a 20-120mm Angenieux zoom, which went well with the Baltars but gave a creamier look. We combined this with an old Hollywood "Golden Age" technique that used hand-painted Vaseline vignettes in front of the lens and used fog and haze in every scene. We also used in-camera zooms to create a sense of increased tension in those moments.
For the train scene in particular, we were inspired by Bertolucci's and Storaro's train scenes in THE CONFORMIST and THE SHELTERING SKY. especially the contrast between golden light and shadow. This contrast underscored the emotional separation between Young Hatcher (Jack McGraw) and his father (David Rees Snell).
Q4 (c). City / streets:
Michael Shlain: The exterior of the city was realized on the "Courthouse Square" property of Universal Studios in Hollywood. It was a dream come true to film in a location with so much history (including Back to the future, gremlins and The twilight zone). We practically donned the sets and used a combination of practical and digital fog to create the oppressive atmosphere.
If you look closely in the main street, you will notice that the buildings are mirror images of each other. Courthouse Square only had one row of buildings so we shot the same buildings twice (from opposite ends) and put the two panels together in the post. Sky replacements, matte paintings and digital fog have been added by the brilliant VFX artists at 3dar in Buenos Aires.
Q4 (d). theatre
Michael Shlain: This scene was filmed on location at the Ruby Theater in Hollywood. With its blood red decor, it was the perfect interior for the infernal heart of the city and the starting point of Hatcher's trauma. The scene culminates in a grotesque and terrifying performance by the mysterious showman (played by contortionist and creature artist Strange Dave). The original Ligotti story suggests that anyone who sees the showman's face will be "undone" – and we had to find a way to address that fear.
Although the plan was always to keep the showman in the shade and only show clues about his facial features, we designed and applied full face makeup for Dave. This gave him the freedom to move the envelope as much as he could turn towards the camera before it was too much. We wanted to take it to the edge.
Q5. Raindance: What does the future look like in a strange city?
Michael Shlain: A TV anthology series for In a foreign city is currently in active development as an international co-production between Butcher Bird Studios (USA) and Analogue Pictures (UK). In the meantime, the short film can be viewed Film shortage For more information please visit us at http://www.inaforeigntown.com
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