The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of John and the Hole.
Can you discuss the way the film begins, and ends, with a family dinner scene?
Pascual Sisto: I think they are two very important scenes, but I will first say that, as a point of interest, they were shot on the same day because of practical reasons. So we had to work psychologically with the actors and we discussed everything because one scene is of course at the beginning, before they know anything that has happened, and then the other one is at the end, with all of the psychological baggage that they have with them after their experience. So it was very interesting to shoot them back-to-back, because it was almost… I talk a lot of times about these images that you see in the newspaper, “spot the differences,” and one of them has a hat, and the other one doesn’t… so it was like that, but it was for things you cannot see. So it was like comparing two images, and noticing the unseen changes in the images. So when we discussed that with the actors, they immediately got it. In the beginning we set up the scene as a normal family having dinner, they’re all very casual, they’re all looking at their phones and devices, and doing a regular every day contemporary dinner. And at the end, there are subtle differences, and of course… I wish there would be an opportunity (I hope someone on YouTube maybe will do it one day) of putting them back-to-back so you can compare the behaviors! Of course in the second scene, we are zooming out from John’s face, and I think it’s a little bit of, like, this idea that we’ve been always so focused on him and his internal world, and then slowly we reveal that he is back in this family setting, back with the family. Every time I’ve seen it (and of course I’ve seen it many times), I look at each one of the different characters, and there’s something interesting in how they all play the two scenes differently. If you notice, Brad, the father, there’s something about him… in the closing dinner scene, he’s looking at John for the most part, and they’re not saying anything, they’re not speaking, of course. But the way he looks… not that he’s respecting him more, but he obviously seems him differently in the second scene. However, the setting — for an outsider who hadn’t seen the film — would look the same. If we were walking by their window, we would probably not notice a difference between the starting and ending dinner scenes. So that, for me, is what the essence of this film is. Internally, many changes can happen, but externally things can seem to be the same.
silence is what the film is about in many ways
You’ve known the writer Nicolás Giacobone for some time, and this film is adapted from a short story he wrote. What was that process like?
PS: He loves short stories, so that’s probably his natural habitat in many ways. We have a relationship— we’ve been friends for years now. I would send him my projects — film and video projects, or art projects that I would do — and he would send me his writings, and we would trade comments back and forth. And he sent me this one. He told me later that he always had it in mind that it could potentially be a good film, and when he sent it to me I responded right away. The short story (I’ve explained this before, obviously), it was nine pages, and it was very brief and to the point. It was like bullet points, one sentence after the next, it was like a first-person diary sort of thing, all from John’s point of view. So it was like seeing through his eyes: “Today I did this, today I played PlayStation… and then I gave them some sweaters because it was cold.” And as a reader you think, “gave who some sweaters…?” So you have to piece the story together as it happens. I think eventually he changed it, because the final version was a bit different than the initial one he sent me. So that was something that was always moving forward sort of step by step. It had a lot of strange, quiet pacing to it already. And I responded to it, we started discussing it, we discussed the idea of potentially making it into a film without saying anything specific, and we never really confirmed it, but then after a few conversations he already had a first draft of a script! He’s incredible in that way. And he wrote the draft himself entirely, and then from then on we started crafting more of the shooting script, the production script, with more elements that we thought would work. So I would say it was good to know him and to be involved while he was writing it, because it allowed both of us to make it in a way that would be great for me to actually shoot.
The tone of this film is so precise and unusual. How did you control it as you were making the film?
PS: I think the most important part of that— a lot of the times we talked about this, because it’s not seen. You know, a lot of people see John as this sociopathic character, and they ask why the family wouldn’t be more horrified. But you have to realize that those characters are looking up from that hole and they’re seeing their family. They’re seeing someone they watched grow up for twelve years of his life. So you can’t be that horrified. As a family, you wouldn’t be horrified. As an audience member I can understand that you might be horrified, because you’re seeing a bunch of strangers in crisis. But as a family, if you look up and you see your parent, or the other way around, it’s a completely different relationship. So I think, from the beginning, they’re trying to come to terms with it, just as John is trying to come to terms with it. He also doesn’t realize what he’s done right away, he acted on a certain impulse; he doesn’t even talk to them until the final scene. So there are things that he’s dealing with. But with the family, the way that we dealt with it was that it was something they should always keep in mind: When they’re looking up, the’re seeing their son. It’s very apparent in the mother’s role, a lot of times she looks up and she’s always worried about him, she’s like, “are you ok?” Still, even then, checking on him. So that is what takes the edge off of this horrific act, to me. And then we also discussed with the actors the emotion of the scene. We never wanted to make this sensationalist; this film could have easily become a slasher film, it could have easily become a horror film, and we were never interested in that. So for me, the containment was important. The fact that they’re in this claustrophobic little space, and how they deal with their emotions. Because when they scream, they hear their loudness resonate in this small room. So it’s like, you don’t want to panic in this sort of setting, you almost want to keep calm and just go with things as they are. I did do a lot of research about the psychology of people who had been kept in captivity, and they’re almost always people who had been kept in captivity by other people (not their sons), so it’s a completely different set of rules. But there were generally seven or eight stages of how these people in captivity behave: First they’re looking, they’re in denial, they don’t know what it is, they start getting angry, then they start blaming each other, then they start losing their minds and going crazy… then they fully surrender, eventually, and in the end they inhabit this space and they make it their home in a way. So they fully surrender to it in some cases. Not always, but frequently. We tried to make every scene represent some part of their descent into this. There’s the scene where Michal C. Hall is blaming the mother for something he doesn’t know, so they’re coping with this experience in their own ways, and they’re losing their minds at one point in there. So that was sort of like the tone inside the hole. The rest of the tone within the film we really tried to borrow from a lot of different genres, but we never fully wanted it to be a “genre film,” so we always say that it takes the language from a lot of these genres (thriller, horror, etc.), but doesn’t fully become them. So I think staying in the periphery of all this was important to us, and was always important to us, and I think it was accomplished through a combination of everything: Acting, the way we shot it, the location, the silence, the sound design (which for me is really important, the silence is really important to me), and I think that silence is what the film is about in many ways.