DGC Ontario Director Vincenzo Natali is known for his sci-fi genre bending films like 1997’s Cube and 2009’s Splice. For his most recent film, Vincenzo took on the Stephen King and Joe Hill horror novella In the Tall Grass. We caught up with Vincenzo to discuss adapting King and Hill’s work and the complexities of shooting in tall grass.
On adapting Stephen King and Joe Hill’s novella
I grew up reading Stephen King and later I became a fan of Joe Hill’s work, who has a distinct voice but who definitely follows in his Dad’s footsteps, so, it was a comfortable place to start. I felt like I could ease into their world without much difficulty. The challenge was to find a way to make the novella into a three-act story because a literal adaptation would be a short film not a feature. On the other hand, I wanted to be faithful to the story and I didn’t want to invent new characters and locations. What I ended up doing was pulling out aspects of the novella and extrapolating on them. For instance, there is a character that is mentioned in the story (Travis McKean) but never seen. I turned him into a central character… in fact I made him the third part of a love triangle with the two principals from the story (Cal and Becky). Also I added a time dimension to the field that mirrored the spatial distortions that take place in the book. With those components in place, I was able to grow a larger narrative out of the seed of the original story.
Previous to In the Tall Grass you worked with Picture Editor Michele Conroy on Splice. Can you discuss your ongoing creative collaboration?
Michele and I are like siblings. I have been working with her on and off for nearly twenty years. We have similar taste and a similar Italian background that puts us into sync. She always cuts a scene the way I would, chooses the takes and performances I like, and that frankly saves time and gets me where I want to go without much discussion. Also, she balances a refined sense of performance and drama with a very musical gift as an editor. I’ve found one or the other quality in other editors, but it’s unusual to get both in one person. Every time we work together it’s an event and it is a lot of fun. And one can’t understate the importance of fun when you are locked in a room with another person for months on end.
What was the most challenging part of directing In the Tall Grass?
The grass. That damned grass. In the end it worked out really wonderfully, but no one had shot a film in tall grass since probably Onibaba in Japan in the sixties. So there was no one to talk to about what species of grass would be best to shoot in, or what the optimal time to shoot would be or how to stage a crew in grass without demolishing it. We had to engineer all of this ourselves in advance of actually seeing any grass because in our prep the grass wasn’t up to our kneecaps. Also, from a creative standpoint, I needed to develop a filmic language that would mesh with that environment and that would make best use of its quirks. Of course, those challenges were exactly what made it such an exciting and desirable project.
What did you take from your previous films to In the Tall Grass?
Well, I’ve walked this metaphysical maze path before on more than one occasion. So I have a sense of what has worked for me in the past in movies like Cube, Nothing and Haunter. I think when working in a single setting it’s important to perceive it as though you are writing a symphony, in so much as you have a single theme to work with, and the challenge is to find ways to create variations on that theme that surprise your audience.