March 26, 2018
SXSW 2018

'You Have to Think on Your Toes': The Nightmarish Adaptation Behind 'Elizabeth Harvest'

Believe it or not, modernizing a 300-year-old folktale has its challenges.

While the story of Bluebeard is one known to many Europeans and South Americans, according to Elizabeth Harvest director Sebastian Gutierrez, the same could not be said of the French folktale's popularity amongst residents of the United States. 

"The basic story," he explains, is that "a rich, nobleman, widower marries a young, virginal wife, brings her out to his castle, and showers her with gifts. He has a ring of keys and says, 'You can go in all these rooms, and all of this is yours. Except for this one room that you can't go into.' A couple of days later, curiosity gets the best of her. She goes into the room where she finds he has murdered his six previous wives. And (depending on the version of the tale) she is saved by a prince, or she's saved by her brother. The entire premise of the story rests on the villain being treated almost in a matter-of-fact way, of him saying, 'I'm sorry I have to kill you, but you have broken my trust. Therefore, you must die.'"

Gutierrez had long been fascinated by Bluebeard because, as the director admits, the whole message seemed really unfair to him. "It seemed to tie into something that is in a lot of stories, going all the way back to Adam and Eve," said Gutierrez,  "which is when women gain knowledge, men go crazy. And I thought, maybe I can do something with that."

So, like all good storytellers, he did.

"I'm interested in movies that ask a lot of questions. And in this movie, there's a lot of questions."

The strangely nightmarish Elizabeth Harvest premiered at SXSW two weeks ago starring Abbey Lee, Carla Gugino, Ciaran Hinds, and Dylan Baker. Guitierrez updates the story of Bluebeard to a modern horror in which a genetic scientist keeps clones of his wife (instead of corpses) frozen in his secret room. Every time a new cloned version of his wife enters the room against his wishes, the scientist is forced to kill her.

After the film's premiere, No Film School sat down with Guitierrez, Lee and Gugino (who also produced the film) to discuss the challenges of modernizing mythos, shooting in a limited amount of days, and working with your actors on backstory.

"Elizabeth Harvest"
No Film School: What was the most challenging part of adapting the tale of Bluebeard?

Sebastian Gutierrez: The main problem I had was that a lot of the action had already happened off-screen, like, the previous wives were already dead. We weren't really going to care so much about characters we didn't know. And the present wife, I certainly didn't want her rescued by a prince. So, there was some invention that needed to happen. 

All of it came together once I thought, "Well, unless I could have the same actress be the same wife, then we could tell a story of obsessive, impossible love." Those are the origins of the tale, without giving away all of the plot points. It then became a matter of, "How can I grab this archetypal story, look at it from a different point of view, and use the elements I like from it that we all know?"

NFS: How did you guys work together to create a variation between the different characters that Abby plays? 

Gutierrez: I think the point is that she's playing variations of a character.  Abbey gets the credit for it as to coming in and making decisions as to what differences there would be between each one. She stuck to it.

Abbey Lee: I worked really hard to make each version of the same character have very nuanced differences. It's not like I was playing different people, but rather different versions of the same person.

I focused on the fact that each time this person re-experienced life, they had somehow, in their subconscious, the memories of the previous ones before them. So each time the character was reinvented, she was a little wiser, a little older, and just a little bit more stable within herself. But she also wasn't really consciously aware of the fact that she was being reborn.

I read the script and I immediately thought of the word "osmosis," and I think that's where it started from. I did also create a really strong backstory that they all had, and so that they were all coming from the same place.

"Whenever I write any script in whatever genre I've written, I always start from the same point, which is, 'If I was sitting in the movie theater, what would I like to happen next?'"

NFS: Is that something that you guys worked on together, this backstory?

Lee: No, it's not usually...

Gutierrez: I still don't know it.

Lee: It's true. He doesn't. How we met....

Gutierrez: Probably better that I don't!

All joking aside, I'm interested in movies that ask a lot of questions, and in this movie, there's a lot of questions. For the actors, as we were making the movie, it became, "Why is this happening? Why is that happening?" As a writer, your tendency is to try to answer all those questions. But in this movie, I made a real effort to tell the actors, "I have a version of it, but you tell me what works for you. Try it and I don't really need to know."

That was something that was really freeing in telling this story. Because ultimately, the story is a Russian doll structure of a-story-inside-a-story-inside-a-story. So I'm keeping track of how the thing works chronologically. But in a movie that's so dreamlike in feeling, I'm less interested in making things so concrete that there's only one answer. It's more ambiguous, which I think makes it intriguing.

"Very early on, I made a decision of something that I've loved from Giallo film, where people use very, very saturated color."

NFS: Is that something that went into writing the script? Did you want the audience to be creating their own backstory for what was going on? Or did you want them to be latched on to one particular background?

Gutierrez: No, I don't think I ever want anybody latched on to one particular background. Whenever I write any script in whatever genre I've written, I always start from the same point, which is, "If I was sitting in the movie theater, what would I like to happen next?" I'm mostly interested in keeping myself interested and then figuring out the logic bits that get me from A-to-B and are not exposition or boring. 

NFS: What were some specific strategies you used to adapt this fairytale with a contemporary lens?

Gutierrez: It's interesting because, at its heart, the story is a gothic love story, right? And you could really do a Steam Punk version of the story, or the Victorian version of the story. Because it really is a story that we know from watching movies as kids. The young, new wife comes to the house with the sinister servants and the older, rich husband, and that's basically Rebecca by Hitchcock. I was helped by a lot of pop culture knowledge that we already have about a young wife and an older guy. Immediately an audience knows, "Uh oh, something is up."

Once the decision was made to set it in the modern, it was simply a matter of figuring out, well, where would this exile's house be located if you were trying to hide from the world? And you were a brilliant, billionaire scientist, who didn't want the world to know about the experiments you were doing? All the decisions were very practical. You would need a modern house.

"One of the challenges that you find in movies is time. You just don't have the days that you want to shoot."

From a filmmaking standpoint, it was very clear to me from the get-go, that, again, without giving away everything about the movie, duality is a big component. Every frame in the movie became about having at least two sides and different versions of the same character. Even the idea of mirrors and split screens all became very easy to code and map out the movie. 

Very early on, I made a decision of something that I've loved from Giallo film, where people use very, very saturated color. Sometimes, when people use saturated colors in movies, they add them in post. They don't look as good as if you have red gels in your scene and make it as red as possible.

The DP and I came up with a system by which different colors meant different things and we had an echo of that in the present day scenes. It's not critical that the audience knows exactly what that is, but it's very clear when you're in flashback and when you're in present day, which is really what I cared about. I didn't want the audience to have to think too much while they're watching the movie about where we are in time. 

"I really do believe that the most personal is the most universal."

NFS: Any advice for up-and-coming producers?

Carla Gugino: I really do believe that the most personal is the most universal. We all have stories to tell, and we have the things that really compel us, and you're going to have to fight really hard, most likely, to get your movie made. Just make sure that it's something you really believe in, that's really true to you. Surround yourself with people that you feel are interested in telling the same story. 

And, in a case like this, I think Sebastian was really aware while writing this script and making this movie, that it is a chamber piece. One of the challenges that you find in movies is time. You just don't have the days that you want to shoot. 

One of the things that was really important to him was to have some more days to actually be able to shoot this film and part of doing that was to write a film that was virtually in one location. That really did rest on the actors, being contained in that way. It also allowed us to make pretty close to the movie that Sebastian wanted to make.

You know, you're always making these compromises. You're losing locations at the last minute, and you have to think on your toes.     

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