Director Sebastian Gutierrez talks about his brand of horror and the "accidental science fiction" in 'Elizabeth Harvest'
A slow-burning narrative presented as a modern take on the Bluebeard tale, 'Elizabeth Harvest' features Abby Lee as the titular protagonist while Ciaran Hinds fills in as Henry.
In Hollywood, there is no dearth of horror-laced flicks, replete with jump scares, slasher details, and fast-paced action. But despite this genre-specific abundance, South American filmmaker Sebastian Gutierrez is able to treat movie lovers to a very different kind of horror with his latest release, 'Elizabeth Harvest'.
A slow-burning narrative presented as a modern take on the classic Bluebeard tale, 'Elizabeth Harvest' features model-turned-actress Abby Lee as the titular female protagonist while Ciaran Hinds fills in as the mad scientist (and Elizabeth's much older husband), Henry. What starts out on the heels of an unconventional wedding, with Henry almost carrying his newlywed bride into his secluded mansion, soon transitions into scenes of mystery and thriller, courtesy the sci-fi inspired plot of the movie.
In Gutierrez's own words, in fact, 'Elizabeth Harvest' falls in the category of science fiction almost accidentally and it's not your usual horror movie either. And yet, marry all these scattered elements in the film, also starring Carla Gugino (Claire) and Matthew Beard (Oliver), and the end result is quite scary.
From the "story inside a story" technique to the European arthouse influences, 'Elizabeth Harvest' has more than a couple of refreshing introductions, which thankfully Gutierrez broke down for fans in an exclusive chat with Meaww.
Elizabeth Harvest has science fiction and elements of a thriller - but above all, my takeaway was how technological advancement is creating a new kind of horror. Do you agree with this? Would you say that was your idea as well?
That's one of the ideas, definitely. I think that all of the technology [shown] in the movie, actually exists. Now we have no way of knowing if somebody hasn't done exactly what's in the movie because we know that [the technology possibly] does exist. This is sort of an overwriting - more of a gothic love story and the idea of love gone completely wrong and the obsession, when you marry that to technology then really scary things happen.
Along with the mad scientist and sci-fi side of the movie, there's plenty of spotlight on the dark and cruel aspects of humanity as well, how important was it to blend the human and machine in the bigger picture?
[Henry] is a mad scientist less because he wants to play God and a megalomaniac but more because he has misplaced love with obsession. There are movies like, 'Eyes Without A Face' (French) and then obviously 'Frankenstein', which has the idea of having a mad scientist, a monster, the broken down human being, which to me is much more terrifying. [Henry] does have a justification and explanation and if you have a conversation with him, even in the movie, he would probably agree that what he is doing makes no sense. This kind of knowledge is scarier than a master manipulator.
It takes almost half of the movie to build up the tension and curiosity about Elizabeth's identity? Was that a conscious decision?
Yes, it was. The tale of Bluebeard that this [movie] is based on, is a story that I have always been really fascinated by because I never understood what the moral of the story was supposed to be. It seems to me that the moral is that women should not be curious - and this seems like such a disturbing idea and [something] I find in many stories, this notion that when women gain knowledge, men go absolutely crazy. And I thought that that was an interesting angle to look at this.
Also, the Bluebeard story is usually about this innocent woman in a castle and then she does something that she is not supposed to do... but in Elizabeth's case, she is not a fully-formed person. So she is experiencing all these things for the very first time. So it is not like she has amnesia. On an existential level, the movie is a little bit like any woman who has ever got married, probably on her wedding night, turns around and says, "who did I just marry?"
In this case, she has married somebody who is a maniac.
Given the complexity of the plot and the characters, how do you think 'Elizabeth Harvest' would be received amongst the fans of the archetypal horror movie genre?
I don't see 'Elizabeth Harvest' really as a horror movie. It is more like the 1960s, 1970s European Arthouse horror movie - very different from what at least in the United States is considered horror, which is much more like fast-paced, slasher, jump scares. I am not interested in that type, I am not American, I am a foreign filmmaker (I am from South America). So the movies that I love... can take the audience into a dream state, so that repetitions and the strange things that are happening in the plot could be appreciated both on an intellectual level as well as on a purely visual level, which was really what my intention was with 'Elizabeth Harvest'.
'Elizabeth Harvest' also reminds of 'Ex Machina' - predatory men keeping women hostage. Was the movie an influence in any way? What were your other influences?
We conceptualize things based on what's around us, so of course, [Ex Machina] would be a reference point because that movie came out before. But as I said before, the Bluebeard story has been told many, many, many times - so to me, 'Elizabeth Harvest' is sort of a fantastical film that falls in the category of science fiction almost accidentally.
So here, the story is almost like a Russian doll, a story inside a story, inside a story, inside a story. It's about finding out how all these characters ended up in this strange, perverse and controlled game.
What is your brand of filmmaking and what according to you helped shape it?
Well, all the movies that I have directed, and many others that I have written, usually centers around the female character. And I think that's because, at least in the United States (which is) where I have been working, female characters are not taken care of. I mean, that has changed a little bit now but I have always found that on a practical level women characters can run a gambit of emotions.
You can have a woman being very strong and you can have her crying in the next scene and you can have her hold the gun to protect her child... I have found that female characters are an underutilized tool in the narrative. Usually, I am not interested in what characterizes as naturalism, I like extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. If not necessarily feel-good stories, they do always have hope in the end, a survival or a coming of the age (message).
Tell us about your filming technique especially in 'Elizabeth Harvest' where there are blasts of red and blue colors. What was the idea behind it?
The language of dreams, at least for me, has a lot of saturated colors. Also in this story, because there is back and forth in time so many times, from an early stage in the script the director of photography and I had discussed on having very specific colors to denote very specific emotions. What's really important was that the audience understands which emotion exactly the red, or blue, or green, or yellow means. It helps situate us in the chronology and then the present day scenes also had corresponding colors like cyan and amber to match that emotion.
Even if on an intellectual level you were or weren't understanding what was happening, I wanted on a sub-conscious level for us to feel something from these colors. Each image in this movie is like a word in a much longer sentence.
Also, tastefully done but frank nudity runs throughout the film. Please shed light on this element.
The nudity in the movie is not so much in scenes of a sexual nature and more in scenes of discovery or dream. As far as scenes with Henry and Claire are concerned, I always find it refreshing in movies when two people who supposedly just had sex and they are lying in bed, it ticks me off, when suddenly they are perfectly covered in sheets. I try to be very nonchalant but respectful about it. It's a matter of treating the audience as grown-ups because that's how I would like to be treated.
Do you think the female protagonist in 'Elizabeth Harvest' is helpless? From a writer's point of view, is it the right time (considering a hypersensitive section) to tell this story?
I don't think Elizabeth is helpless. I think she is, in fact, the complete opposite. I think we are seeing different aspects of the same person. [Seeing] how quickly she is put in a situation where she should be the victim but she refuses to be the victim. Somehow in the original Bluebeard story, the monster is justified. But I never agreed with or understood that and wanted to make a movie precisely about the opposite, which is why should she follow these patriarchal rules that have been clearly set up for her to fail them. It's all about showing that she is not helpless, she just has to find her strength.