In Darren Aronofsky’s provocative psychological horror film, Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a husband and wife whose isolated house is invaded by another married couple (played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris). Describing the Paramount Pictures production, written by the director, as a horror doesn’t do justice to either its thriller or black comic elements nor its mix of hallucinatory imagery and Biblical allegory. This deliberate non-conformity has been applauded in some quarters and rejected by other critics, but according to editor Andrew Weisblum, ACE, the filmmakers fully expected the reaction to run the gamut from effusive to stunned all the way to cynical to enraged. “I’d advised my friends to read nothing about the film before seeing it because I think that colors the experience and makes it an intellectual rather than an emotional one,” he says.
“Darren wanted the film to be as subjective as possible and to also make it an experience rather than a story or character study.” Weisblum is a regular collaborator with Aronofsky, editing The Wrestler, Noah and gaining an Oscar® nomination for Black Swan. In response to the director’s concern with subjectivity, Weisblum suggested that “in order for the movie to really work as a visceral and propulsive experience, we couldn’t focus on the details of the allegory in the process. If the film didn’t play on the surface, where you tracked with Jen’s reactions and frustrations and feeling at all times, then I felt it wouldn’t work emotionally.
Eric Zumbrunnen, ACE
It would be reduced to an intellectual exercise.” Roman Polanski and Luis Bunuel are acknowledged influences in terms of tone, surrealism and symbolism. David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick were also regular points of conversation. “One film that Darren brought up early on as an inspiration was Son of Saul. We watched it initially as a reference for the power of strictly subjective filmmaking even at the expense of exposition and story.”
The production process was nearly as unconventional as the script. With full creative control, Aronofsky had a large degree of freedom to shape his material. One of the goals of rehearsals, which started in spring 2016, was to figure out how the film would be blocked and shot.
This included an attempt to limit the grammar to essentially three shots through the entire film, all of which had to revolve around Lawrence’s character. “The purpose was to stay locked into her subjectivity at all times and also force us to cover scenes in a way that was never arbitrary or simply expositional,” says Weisblum.
These included a continuous over-the-shoulder angle, where Lawrence would serve as a constant in the frame and was always more or less the same size as a reference point geographically. This would serve as master coverage. Second was a close-up on Lawrence. “This angle was rarely wider than her collarbone because it wasn’t about body language or a perspective she couldn’t see; it was about her face. Jen could walk by camera at specific points so that a close-up could ‘pivot’ into an over without having to cut, and vice versa.”
The third angle was her POV. “Often this was shot on the same lens as the over, which would come in handy later, but there was also allowance for longer lenses to focus on specific details that were important to understand something that happened or give it build, impact and variation.” The only time wide (or establishing) shots were used were when Lawrence’s character was alone. This was because there were no other points of view or characters there to challenge her subjectivity. In the final cut there are just a handful of exceptions to these rules, each with a very specific intention.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, ASC, Aronofsky and first AD Michael Lerman spent several days at the end of rehearsals blocking and shooting the entire film. “I then spent the weekend cutting together an entire cut of the movie just from this rehearsal footage,” says Weisblum. “Darren shared it with the crew to work out all sorts of questions and issues with set design, lighting and logistics. It was a discussion tool for how to shoot, like a live-action previs.
“Since so much of the film was linear, tracking Jen through continuous action as she traveled around the house, Darren and Matty were able to design unbroken shots that lasted as long as a film mag because the house was a real space, not broken up into different rooms on different sets,” says Weisblum. “That gave us freedom to shoot in continuity as much as possible, too.”
In his initial assembly, Weisblum relied heavily on the POV shots, but watching it with Aronofsky for the first time, they realized that this approach had a distancing effect “because you didn’t get enough reference of the main character in the space. This was not a problem we could really have visualized in advance even with the rehearsals because there wasn’t really anything in the frame.
“So, the first step was to go back and see where I could use the over [the shoulder] instead of the POV and still get the information I needed while feeling Jen’s presence and body language in the frame,” he says. “At a certain point, it dawned on me that, since the over was often the same lens as the clean POV, I could use a POV and put Jen’s head and shoulder in it and create an over without having to rely on what was shot for that purpose. These created overs – rotoscoping Jen into the shot – were used heavily throughout the film and I don’t think you would ever know it.”
Structurally there was not much room to experiment since the film was always going to be very linear, Weisblum explains. “Nonetheless, there was a ton of trial and error on how to calibrate rhythm and beats without the benefit of a cutaway or wide shot using speed ramps, split-screens, morphing takes and other VFX tools. There was no scene left untouched by this.”
“A section starting when guests enter the house interrupting the couple’s dinner, all the way through to the birth of their child proved easily the most challenging sequence of the film, both logistically to shoot and editorially to construct. “This ‘fever dream’ sequence was about constantly making sure you could track what was happening, carefully introducing each new idea or escalation, and keeping the tempo increasing,” he says. “We shot this sequence chronologically, altering and, in some cases, destroying parts of the house as we went. This meant, as the day was finished, I had to keep up cutting together material to confirm we didn’t have any continuity or other coverage issues. And it needed to be finished by start of the next shoot day so that we could pick up whatever was needed before the destruction continued. With all the practical special effects and extras involved, this was critical.”
One of the goals of the sequence was to keep it relentless and make sure there were no unnecessary pauses. At the same time, Weisblum needed to be careful not to let it devolve into confusion, and he says each cut is specific to introduce a new idea. “Similarly, we needed to keep the sound as intricate and detailed as possible without it becoming a cacophonous wall of noise,” he explains.
Once it was decided there would be no score, it was clear the sound design (by Craig Henighan) had to carry more subjective weight. The filmmakers strived to find motivations for more impressionistic sounds by making sure they initiate from something we see. “There were many fine details, creaks and breezes and pipes and so on that made the house a character and a living organism. We also used Jen’s vocals (moans and sobs) and other nature sounds distorted into motivated sounds from the house. At the same time, we had to be really careful not to overdo it and make it distracting.”
During the shoot, assistants Marlene Poulin and Catherine Gelinas “did a great job keeping up with all the footage and lab wrangling, also making sure I had whatever I needed to keep working on my laptop while I was on set,” Weisblum says. During post, Daniel Triller and Isabel Teitler were assistants. “It was an unusually long post process but they were tireless in their support, logistically and spiritually, and in their commitment to the project,” shares Weisblum.
“Dave Smith was the VFX editor who helped to wrangle and gatekeep a tremendous amount of material for what was often a staff of one. I hope you can’t tell by looking at the film but we had over 1200 shots.” To some people there is no better measure of art than in the reaction it provokes. Being bland or safe is not where these filmmakers want to be. “My hope is people are simply moved by the movie one way or another,” says Weisblum. “Just maybe they find themselves thinking about it later on, whether they like that or not.”