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Silent House – Elizabeth Olsen on the unique filming

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Silent House - Elizabeth Olsen
Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) © 2011 IFC Midnight

Elizabeth Olsen’s breakout role was in Martha Marcy May Marlene, for which she received a Best Actress nomination from the Film Independent Spirit Awards. Her new movie Silent House is a re-imagining of the successful Uruguayan psychological horror-thriller, La Casa Muda, about a true story that happened in the late 40’s in a small village in Uruguay.

Olsen plays Sarah who, along with her father John (Adam Trese), is sealed inside their family’s secluded lake house with no contact with the outside world, as the electricity has been turned off. Panic turns to terror as events become increasingly ominous and deadly.

To make the tension even more concentrated for the audience, the movie appears to be filmed in one continuous shot, with a camera following Sarah from beginning to end.

I spoke with Elizabeth about her intense performance and the unique way the movie was filmed.

How do you choose movie roles, and what was it about this film that interested you?

Silent House - Adam Trese and Elizabeth Olsen
John (Adam Trese) and Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) © 2011 IFC Midnight

I’m in this very happy place where I get to choose things based on character, the people involved, and I’m choosing things that I think will challenge me, things I don’t feel comfortable doing.

For me, what I was so driven by with this film was the challenge of creating a performance in real time. That was really exciting to me. It’s a very difficult thing to do, and I learned so much.

What kind of audition did you have to do for this?

The audition was a very strange thing because there are very few dialogue-heavy scenes to use for an audition. One of the scenes I had to do was literally find a key, which was weird. They were scenes in the script that wasn’t final.

I think there was even a scene from the ending that had nothing to do with what we ended up filming.

I know it wasn’t filmed in one take, but can you talk about the process of continually having to get yourself revved up each day to keep up the energy and intensity?

Silent House - Elizabeth Olsen
Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) © 2011 IFC Midnight

It was difficult. What happened is we would do chunks at a time, the average shot was about 12 minutes and so we would rehearse it, run through the choreography, and then immediately start recording so the DP (Director of Photography) could play it back and watch and see what he wanted to change.

We were thinking on our feet while we were doing this. He’s improvising, I’m not, I’m doing the same thing. He’s trying to figure out what he likes best. And usually we would get one or two takes that were literally the only takes we could use.

Sometimes we’d get through 10 minutes and 30 seconds and something would go wrong, so everything that had just happened was obsolete. It was heart wrenching when we couldn’t use any of that material.

It was also difficult to try and maintain the barometer of, ‘Okay, we’re in the 23rd minute of the movie, we’ve got this much more to go, but I did just see something really terrifying.’

So you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to create the arc of the story, and by the twelfth hour of doing [the scene] full-on you end up being a little more tired than you wanted the character to be at that moment, but technically that was the best take.

You need everything to work when you’re making a movie, but you can usually figure it out later in an editing room. So the DP and I would have this ongoing conversation while we were filming. He was like, ‘Okay, go faster, go slower,’ trying to figure out the rhythm because we didn’t have editing.

This movie doesn’t have scenes in a conventional sense, so how did you keep track of where you were from a production sense?

Silent House - Elizabeth Olsen
Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) searches a dimly lit room © 2011 IFC Midnight

We did thirteen shots, and so in my head I would think of it in that way, seven is the climax when she runs out of the house. We filmed as consecutively as possible.

What was the hardest shot to get?

It was when Sarah was in the lamp room and the carpet falls down. Usually when you do a fall in a movie you cut, put padding on and put something on the ground to fall on, and we couldn’t do that.

So we did that entire sequence in one cut, it was difficult, and I’d think, ‘We’re getting to this part of the scene, please make the fall work.’ And then you react and you just hope the cameraman didn’t hit anyone’s head. So that was a difficult shot.

Technically the hardest scene was going in and out of the house. There is one sequence where she gets out of the house, runs through [the field] gets into the car and then comes all the way back home and back into the house. That’s all one take.

It was definitely interesting to be a part of that much technical work behind a film.

Do you consider this a horror movie?

Silent House - Elizabeth Olsen
Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) © 2011 IFC Midnight

There’s a great twist at the end that I think makes it hopefully a more intelligent horror film than a generic horror film. The scary movies I like end up being more psychologically driven and I think that’s what this is.

I do find it interesting to watch this as an audience [member], experiencing everything in the present, without a shot being framed so you know something is going to happen in that next edit.

Things just happen as they’re really happening, and there’s no one telling you in the music or in the editing that it’s about to happen, which is really a cool thing to me.

Note: I asked Elizabeth if she were a fan of horror films. Click on the bar below to listen to her answer.

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