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Q&A with Bishal Dutta, Director of “Inferno”

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Name a Horror character you relate to on a spiritual level? Who is your Horror spirit animal?

Leatherface from the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre! If horror is all about externalizing “the other,” it goes without saying that we should see a bit of ourselves in the monsters. Michael Myers is a force, but Leatherface is just a guy having a terrible day. Well… A terrible life. Horror has spent decades trying to humanize the monster, from the hammy psychobabble at the end of Psycho to the Freudian link at the end of Deep Red. But, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is unapologetic and unpretentious about Leatherface’s humanity. He’s a petulant child that happens to be a six-foot-two, two-fifty-pound cannibal who is extremely proficient with chainsaws. Just watch that wonderful scene in the original wherein Leatherface sits by the window and the camera zooms on his teeth. If he wasn’t wearing someone else’s face as a mask, you’d almost want to give him a hug.

You’ve gotta go through some bad ideas to get to the good ones. Tell us one of your bad ideas. How do you get past the bad ones to find your spark?

The ratio of bad ideas to good ones is… staggering. The other day, I told my girlfriend I want to do a scene in my new horror movie with… wait for it… acid sprinklers. Her (lack of) response told me everything I needed to know. Suspense is especially difficult because it’s all about logical rhythm and rhythmic logic. The audience knows innately when your lead falls one too many times in the woods or says “Who’s there?” when s/he CLEARLY knows the monster’s lurking in the dark. In Inferno, there’s a moment when a door creaks open. In my original design, the protagonist lunges for the door. Slams her back against it. Scrambling for the gun. Tugging at the strap with her toes. It would’ve been an exciting development and a fun little nod to Jurassic Park. But, the more I imagined it in the context of the short as a whole, the clearer it became that it would pop the suspense balloon too early. Spielberg said that after the head pops out underwater in Jaws, nobody screams as loudly at any of the scares. Being a horror director is all about understanding those rhythms, in my opinion.

Do you consider yourself part of a horror community?

Absolutely. Horror fans are the most generous and unpretentious audiences in the world. Inferno was my first attempt at horror, even though I’d loved the “great” horror movies for years. You know the ones… The Shining, The Exorcist, Halloween, etc. But, it was only when I met my girlfriend that I saw true love for the genre. She does an annual rewatch of all seven (now eight) Saw films and has an encyclopedic compendium of low-budget Netflix horror films that would likely never see the light of day without the loyalty of those like her who just love horror. No matter its budget. No matter its MPAA rating (or lack thereof). No matter its RottenTomatoes score. I think we are so entitled as a generation of filmgoers because there’s so much great stuff out there. But, it’s important not to forget the joy of loyally and unpretentiously being part of a community that loves movies without any conditions.

When you’re building the world of your film, where do you look for inspiration?

It’s definitely a process. My first stop is other movies. Usually, I’ll take a week or two before diving into a new story to devour as much as possible, to get a clear idea of what has already been said. My new movie is about a haunted smart house, so I’ve spent the last few weeks watching the great haunted house classics, gothic romance, modern day ghost stories, and arthouse takes on the subject matter. For Inferno, I wanted to immerse myself in the remote griminess of both The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Psycho. After that, the next stop is academia. I try to devour as much as possible of what’s been written by academics on the subject matter or the approach I’m taking. With Inferno, I read about audience-protagonist empathy and “embodiment,” ways of creating a cinema for the body, limitations of perspective that define and drive the horror genre, etc. This kind of academic deep-dive affords me a unique, metatextual perspective to build from. Finally, I just try to absorb as much real world material as possible. I think horror is extremely political in a deeply subtle way, and the more in-tune we, as creators, are with the world around us, the more lucid we can be in the way we reflect our fears through the movies we make.

What would you do if you woke up inside of your film?

I would probably do everything my protagonist does… And then die! It’s extremely important to me when it comes to this kind of survival horror that A) the protagonist isn’t stupid, and B) the audience understands why s/he makes every decision. I really enjoyed my process with the wonderful, accommodating and incredibly talented lead, Taylor Cloyes. In our rehearsals, we did three passes on the blocking. The first was the easiest, as I just laid out the blocking I saw for her. During the second, we talked about the physicality of the performances, tweaking and fine-tuning as we went. In the third, we mapped out a clear “stream-of-consciousness” style internal monologue of precisely why she makes every move she makes, so that the audience never feels like she’s doing dumb things for the sake of doing dumb things. I think that’s part of what makes great horror movies terrifying. Father Merrin in The Exorcist isn’t some schmuck off the streets; he’s the best of the best. And when he’s defeated by this demon, we feel genuine despair. When we feel like we are equal and have a sense of interiority with the characters, and the characters still fail to overcome the horror, I think we, as the audience, feel a much greater effect.

Who would be on your ultimate horror villain squad?

Definitely Michael Myers to start off. Have you seen Resurrection? He gets defeated by his long-time nemesis, then changes places with a security guard, leading to him getting away while Jaime-Lee Curtis chops the head off the innocent security guard. Brutal… and clever. I like villains that aren’t afraid to have fun. In Deep Red, Carlo’s mom, Martha, sets up these elaborate and perfect murder set pieces that make absolutely no sense. But, if I wanted to exact revenge on some poor soul, I’d want her to help me set up weird bird cages and child-sized dolls that inexplicably ride around on tricycles. Runner-ups are Pinhead from Hellraiser, Angela from Sleepaway Camp, and Kevin from The Cabin in the Woods.

Lightning round: Freddy or Jason? Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft? Practical or CGI? Post Apocalypse or Pre Apocalypse?

Freddy; my dream horror franchise to take on is Nightmare on Elm Street. I’d want to set it in inner city LA, set the first act entirely in reality, the second fluidly weaving in and out of reality, and the third entirely in a crazy dream-world. It’s a toss-up between King and Lovecraft; some days, I’m really feeling that cosmic horror, and other days, I can’t help but crave the endless subplots and rich humanity of King’s work. Practical over CGI; I use CGI a lot but in (hopefully) invisible ways. The camera move and focus pull in Inferno that happens when the Taylor throws the bottle and its landing reveals the rifle was entirely done in post, so that I could get it just right. With that said, anything that is a tangible, interactive element in the film, like our monster, should be at least 80-90% based in reality. Another dream of mine is to do a throwback werewolf movie using solely animatronics, suits and puppets. Post Apocalypse; I’m drawn to images of giant structures, like cities, in states of isolation and collapse. There’s something far more haunting about them than ghosts or spirits.

How do you go about creating the props and sets for your film? How do you create objects that are relatable but unfamiliar?

As I mentioned, I strongly believe that tangible, interactive elements need to have a strong physical basis in reality. So, unless the point is some sort of strange artifice (like the stop-motion endoskeleton in The Terminator), I think it’s imperative to find the right actor. Here, we had the incredible Craig Ng, whose physicality is unmatched. We went to a park in Culver City and got weird looks while perfecting his movements, which we shot in 18 frames per second for a jerky, jarring feeling. In terms of make-up, it’s all about building on what exists with motivated adages, whether it is a spinal injury or exaggerated rib cages. I wanted to push the burns and scarring on the fingers and hands because I knew they would be on camera in full-display during the car scenes. For the mask, I wanted a cow skull with the aging and rot of the poster for Lucio Fulci’s 1980 film, Zombie. Our production designer, Oscar Huezo, singed (faux) fur and layered it atop a skull mold, along with blood and paint. I’m incredibly happy with the result.

And finally, Ghostface would like to know ‘What’s your favourite scary movie?’

I want to say something cool and original, but honestly, I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t say The Shining. It’s the film I’ve rewatched the most. I’ve always felt that everything that can be thought or learned about filmmaking exists in some form or other within that film. I once watched every night for a week straight and I’m not sure if I ever recovered… Speaking of which, I’m due for my bimonthly rewatch!