Bluntly titled but mysterious all the same, John and the Hole marks the directorial debut of visual artist Pascual Sisto. Originally set to premiere at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, the film finally premiered (albeit virtually) at Sundance this past January.
Played by lead actor Charlie Shotwell (Captain Fantastic), suburban pre-teen John appears content with his suburban life. He lives in a beautiful Massachusetts home with his parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) and sister (Taissa Farmiga), surrounded by nature and endless open space, complete with an underground bunker (the hole of the film’s title) built in the yard by previous apocalyptic doomsdayers. One morning over breakfast, John grows a developing interest in learning more about this cavernous structure, asking his parents for further details. His reasons for doing so are kept sinisterly vague at the outset but eventually lead to John’s drugging and entrapping his family deep below the Earth’s surface. Perverse family arguments and, surprisingly, sincere bonding proceed from there—the film lives up to Sisto’s quasi-joking press kit description of Home Alone as made by Michael Haneke.
The week of the film’s opening in theaters and on digital platforms via IFC Films, I spoke with Sisto about the long journey to directing his first feature film, shooting in a 4:3 aspect ratio, the differences that come with working with actors of varying ages, and much more.
Filmmaker: While John and the Hole is your first feature, you previously collaborated with screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone on a short you directed, Océano, in the early 2000s. Were you looking to make a feature together somewhere down the line? How did this project come together?
Sisto: It does stem from my relationship with Nico, actually. I feel that, in a few ways, our careers began simultaneously. Before we made Océano in 2001 or so (I know IMDB lists the film as a 2003 production, but I don’t entirely recall when we completed it, as it took a lot of time in post), I found myself fascinated by a few of the short stories Nico had written. We had met through my girlfriend at the time. She saw him as someone I would greatly connect with, a “you guys are two of the same kind” type of thing. I was a bit wary about all of this, but we met, and it turns out that she was a hundred percent correct. The way Nico’s mind sees literature is how mine sees cinema. Working with him has been my greatest collaboration so far. We wrote the screenplay for a short film together which was, I believe, his first screenplay (as well as my first film) and wanted to collaborate again. It was somewhat unspoken, but we wanted to make our first feature film together. Nonetheless, life happened and our lives moved in different directions.
Filmmaker: In what ways?
Sisto: I began working in fine arts, on various video installations that felt more doable at the time. It was a much more immediate way for me to still express myself freely without the assistance of a crew or need for a budget. I think Nico felt the same when it came to his writing career. As our careers grew, we discussed three or four ideas for feature-length screenplays, but for one reason or another, they never materialized. Then Nico started experiencing a lot of fame with his writing, working with Alejandro G. Iñárritu [on Biutiful and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)] and saw his career really blow up.
Unrelated to that, one day Nico sent me a collection of short stories he had just written. He’s always sending me his writing and I’m always sending him my video work, just as friends interested in each other’s feedback and to spark a conversation. Within his set of short stories, there was one titled El Pozo, which in English translates to “The Well,” that I really liked. We both agreed that it was very cinematic and began discussing its visual components. We thought, “Oh, this might make for a great screenplay” and things evolved from there. But it wasn’t necessarily planned that way. Any of the three or four screenplay ideas we had previously discussed could have been made as well.
With Nico having written a few feature films and winning an Academy Award [in 2015], we knew that it would be easier to get a screenplay of his read. There was definitely a momentum apparent in both of our careers. After working in visual arts for a while, I was looking to get back into film in one way or another and had directed a narrative series, Steps, with a friend of mine, Fernando Sanchez, that was bringing me slowly back into the world of cinema. It came about organically.
Filmmaker: Were there several areas you potentially scouted for John and the Hole’s central location? Did you always envision the film adaptation as taking place in Massachusetts?
Sisto: Not at all. We knew we needed a house with a backyard or at least several acres of land behind a house. I wanted the setting to be very green and for the story to take place in late summer. The time of year and look of the setting were decided upon [ahead of production], but that was it. When we were searching for financing, at one point Nico and I even thought we could set the film in Argentina if we absolutely need to. We kept that independent cinema mentality of being open to envisioning the film being set in different locations if need be. But we began by scouting in upstate New York, and at one point an opportunity arose to possibly shoot the film in California. We began adjusting our expectations a bit, like, “Yes, the film could potentially work in California as well. It is almost a fable, after all.” But then it just so happened that some of the funding came from Massachusetts and the state had some great tax incentives to apply for, and that was that. The Massachusetts landscape was similar to the one I was familiar with in upstate New York, so we moved the story to the Lincoln, Massachusetts area.
Filmmaker: Did you shoot as much of the film as you could in chronological order once you secured the location? I read that the bunker was a set you made on a soundstage, so you had to shoot those scenes with the three entrapped members of the family separately.
Sisto: I think it’s every filmmaker’s dream to shoot sequentially. We tried to, as much as we could. However, once we started mapping out the first version of our production schedule, some scenes had to be swapped out due to our not having access to locations when we thought we might.
We were able to shoot the interior of the hole in sequential order. Those scenes were filmed over, I believe, nine days on a soundstage. The degradation of the actors, both physically and mentally, happened rather organically. The start of the characters’ time in the hole begins with them waking up and slowly attempting to understand their predicament. They then proceed to get dirtier and hungrier, etc. as the days go on. We were able to develop that with the actors in a very linear way.
The scenes inside the house, above ground, were shot chronologically as often as we could. I think we needed one extra day outside of the hole and got that at the end of the shoot, like on the 23rd day. There was also an extra day for pickups and additional B-roll that we needed to go back and collect at the end of the shoot. But for the most part, the most important scenes that were sequential were the ones with the family inside the hole.
The exterior shots of the hole, of our actor, Charlie Shotwell, above ground and looking downward at his family, were filmed at a different time, however. It was a fascinating process, as we had Charlie looking down at an empty hole and, in the film, then cut to a shot of his family (filmed at another time and in another location) looking up at him, but in reality looking up at nothing.
Charlie was often present on the soundstage when we filmed the interior of the hole to read lines, but we didn’t rig him up atop the hole for the actors’ eyeline or anything like that. We had Charlie act with the other actors in the hole for a few essential moments, but most of those scenes and interactions were strung together in the editing room.
Filmmaker: It’s a classic example of shot/reverse shot, and to your credit it does feel like a continuously uninterrupted interaction between Charlie and the other actors. What was it like directing two sides of a conversation at different times and in different locations?
Sisto: Initially, it was a nightmare to think about. I initially wanted them to always be together in the same room and be confronted with and respond to each other in real-time, but it quickly became apparent that that would be logistically impossible. Partly preventing that was the scheduling, as we had the cast for nine days in the hole and a few overlap days for the dinner scenes where they were all together with Charlie (I believe there were three days of cast overlap). Charlie was with us for the whole shoot however, and he’d come to the soundstage and read lines in real time from outside the hole, so that the other actors could respond to his voice. But when it came to the exterior shots of the hole, where Charlie’s character is supposedly looking down at his family, he was usually looking down at a sandbag or something like that. The benefit of those scenes for Charlie were that, for the most part, his character doesn’t really talk to the rest of his family until the final dinner scene. For the most part, Charles just needs to react to them, and that was something we could control. We’d have somebody off-camera or a stand-in reading the lines for Charlie to react to.
Filmmaker: While the interior of the hole is darkened due to being several feet below the Earth’s soil, the opening at the top allows not just John to keep tabs on his family but for sunlight to peer in during the day. Since you shot the interior of the hole on a soundstage, the environment is artificial. How did you construct and bring in those natural elements, sunlight chief among them, in an unnatural, interior setting?
Sisto: Our DP, Paul Özgür, did an amazing job at integrating those elements. We were lucky in that we came [to the soundstage] equipped with stills from the exterior scenes we had already shot and used those stills to match the lighting to the interior of the hole. We also had the benefit of shooting exteriors on days that were very overcast, and that made matching the lighting easier. The darker scenes were also easier because the lighting was more subdued.
There were only a few moments where we really had to match the direction of the light itself. I don’t think there’s a single moment in the film where the light hits the actors at the bottom of the hole, as the hole is supposed to be deep enough so that it wouldn’t actually receive direct sunlight. The hole is supposed to be located in the middle of the woods, in an area that’s surrounded by trees, and those narrative choices worked to our advantage.
Personally, the biggest fear was the potential changes in light when we toggle between the reverse shots between John above ground and his family below. How can we match that lighting exactly? However, it was much easier than I thought, in part thanks to color correction. You can match the color temperatures quite easily and compensate for lighting changes when cutting to the interior [of the hole]. Even our production designer, Jacqueline Abrahams, was involved in this process. When we designed the top of the hole, two of the four corners had a kind of lid on the “L corners” of the hole. Two sides were cut straight down and the other two had a ceiling lid that made anything below it a bit more shaded. We would occasionally place the actors under this “more shaded” area for lighting purposes. We essentially designed the hole in a way that it could have much more shadow than if it were a fully opened hole.
Filmmaker: Given the boxed square aspect ratio, the film is also shot in a claustrophobic way. That choice affects the off-screen soundscape of the film, where we can only hear elements of the world that we can’t see, just out of frame. What went into the choice of aspect ratio and how did you foresee it influencing other stylistic choices therein?
Sisto: It’s funny to think about now, as it’s such a big statement to shoot in 4:3 for many filmmakers! I should note that I grew up with 4:3, so for me personally, perhaps the choice isn’t such a big statement. The Academy ratio has been with us forever, of course, but when Paul and I were discussing our plan for this movie, it made sense to keep everyone tight in the frame. It’s less about a sense of claustrophobia amongst characters than it is about creating a sense of tightness within the frame. For example, we also shot with longer lenses so that we could reduce the depth of field throughout the film. We wanted to cage the characters in terms of depth, as opposed to left and right. The choice to shoot in 4:3 then made perfect sense. If we had chosen to shoot wider with anamorphic lenses, the viewer would essentially be looking at lots of wall. Whenever we’d cut to closeups of the characters in the hole, the viewer would primarily see concrete! I always wanted to get closer to the characters. We knew that we wanted to shoot with portrait-style photography, something more specifically framed around the face.
The best way for me to explain it, conceptually, is that if you shoot with long lenses, you’re closing the Z-axis, or the depth [in depth of field]. If you use the focus, you’re narrowing down what’s clear in-picture. Pertaining to left and right, if you’re shooting in 4:3, you’re narrowing down the sides, creating a box in which to fit the characters so that they are contained within the frame. As there’s some level of containment that’s essential to what happens in the film, it’s also essential to present a feeling of isolation [to the viewer].
To answer your sound question, I had an incredible team led by sound designer Nicolas Becker, who just won an Academy Award for his work on Sound of Metal. We worked with an incredible [post-production] team, Splendor Omnia, that was able to fully integrate the intricate sound details. It’s amazing how much the mere adding of cricket sounds can add to a scene! When we were working on our rough cut, it would be really quiet here and then not too quiet there, etc. but our editor, Sara Shaw, was able to work with us in adding temp sounds to our rough cut. If we didn’t have those, it would have been impossible to cut from one scene within the hole to one scene outside of it.
By adding layers of sound onto the hole, it immediately makes it feel like you’re in an outdoor space. This may not be very apparent, but much of the sound design (a lot of the insects and soundscapes) in the film are synthetic. They’re not the actual sound of insects. We worked with a friend of Nicolas’s who creates these fake, synthetic insect soundscapes, and I found that to be incredible for the film, as it’s both familiar and unfamiliar. It sounds like something that you recognize, but it’s a little bit off. Like the film itself, it sounds like something normal, but something’s a little off. We were always working with this imbalance of creating something realistic but not real enough. It’s a fable that has a tipping point. I was really happy with how the sound design played out.
Filmmaker: Charlie’s performance as John is, of course, central to the success of the film. Since he’s often shown carrying out various independent activities, I wanted to ask what your experience was like working with him. Is there a remarkable difference between directing children as opposed to adults? Is there a “changing of hats” or reprogramming of vocabulary you use depending on the different members of the cast and the situation of the scene?
Sisto: It is different in one particular way. When I worked with Jennifer Ehle, Taissa Farmiga and Michael C. Hall, the work was more about understanding their characters and backgrounds and how it fits into the story. With Charlie, the work was centered on his character’s emotional response to things. We devised a technique that consisted of him oscillating between three different characters in three different emotional states. There might be one that was more childlike and one that was a bit more emotionally distant. We discussed how a child and an adult behave differently, depending on who they’re speaking with. When John speaks to a figure of authority, he becomes more subdued. When John talks to a friend, he’s just another kid and is able to fully be himself. With the character of his mom’s friend, Paula (Tamara Hickey), John displays a different kind of behavior, as he’s trying to “perform as an adult.”
Directing Charlie was more about locating the emotion and getting into the basic things he needed to find for each scene. The adult cast members were able to craft their characters in a different way, with backstory. I can’t tell a 12-year-old that his character is going through an existential crisis, as a 12-year-old is not going to know what an existential crisis is. I think I mentioned that word to him at one point, “existential,” then realized that there are some things (thankfully!) young actors haven’t had to deal with yet, at least in the way adults might have to. I then changed it to, “your character isn’t happy with the way things are going on in his life.” You tailor the language and lean into the larger issues of the story in a way that the actor can connect to. I guess you would do that with any actor, regardless of age.
Filmmaker: It’s also a physically demanding performance for Charlie to pull off. When John drugs his family and drags them into the wheelbarrow, that appears to really be Charlie pulling off that heavy physical labor!
Sisto: It was. When we first auditioned Charlie, I believe he was 11 years old and physically much smaller. He was probably about a foot shorter than he appears in the film. Over the course of the casting and everything else involved in pre-production, Charlie grew a foot taller and it was the perfect height for the role. Maybe if we would have filmed the movie a year earlier, Charlie would’ve appeared too young for the role. Then at the end of the production, when we were recording ADR, Charlie’s voice was beginning to change. As an actor, he literally grew over the course of the production! It was fascinating to see this amazing actor grow in front of my own eyes.
Filmmaker: You’ve previously mentioned in interviews how Robert Bresson has been an influence on yourself and on this film in particular. What is it about the “Bressonian style” of filmmaking that speaks to you?
Sisto: It’s probably more on the visual side of Bresson and his theories about performance and working with actors as models. On John and the Hole however, I’d admit that I was more involved in the psychology of the characters with the actors themselves than Bresson [would be]. However, there’s a visual distance between the camera [and the characters] in the film and there’s very little movement throughout. A number of the shots are locked into the main action and our choices of what and where to crop is, in many ways, very Bressonian. He created a kind of metric-building idea of shot-by-shot, where he would build a story in a completely incredible way.
Bresson also had a very radical view of working with actors, that they should remain very cold and distant on camera. The characters in John and the Hole are cold, and John has some Bressonian coldness built into him. I do agree with his views on over-dramatizing or going into an overly dramatic performance. We tried to contain the performances as much as we could. I suppose we allowed a bit more emotion into our interpretation. When the family is having an argument down in the hole, for instance, the arguments could have gone way out of hand and they could have been excessively screaming at each other, etc. However, the actors and I discussed that, due to their characters’ containment, the arguments need to be contained as well. The containment oppresses them. In a sense, even the arguments that take place between the father and the daughter are contained.
Filmmaker: What was the experience like of rushing to make festival deadlines, getting accepted, and then sitting with the film for close to a year before it could be screened for the public?
Sisto: In a way, it felt like I had made a film for myself. We put so much work into the film but when it was accepted into Cannes, the film still wasn’t able to premiere publicly. We then had to wait almost eight or nine months for Sundance at the beginning of 2021 [to screen the film for the first time]. Everyone (my friends, my family, etc.) knew that I had shot a film and kept asking when they could actually see it. We had to keep telling them, “well, not for another year, at least.” There was a lot of holding back the film because we had no other choice. Like the film itself, we had to contain ourselves and sit in a hole with the film for a bit.
When our premiere at Sundance happened, it was within a virtual setting. I still have not seen the film with an audience in-person (outside of some internal screenings we had in the early stages). When the film opens this Friday, it will be the first time I’m able to sit with an audience and quietly hear the laughs or boos or whatever comes my way. I’ll get to feel that and experience their reactions in real-time. I’m hoping to attend the Deauville American Film Festival in September, as the film will play there for in-person audiences as well. I’ll finally get to experience the film in a festival setting and that should be exciting! Everything was worth it, I guess. It’s exciting to have been given some sort of release in the end.