We spoke to Michael Shlain, the Director/Producer, about his new short film In a Foreign Town.
Q1. Raindance: For our readers that are new to the works of Thomas Ligotti, could you tell us a little bit about him?
Michael Shlain: Thomas Ligotti is one of the truly great writers working today, and one of the great horror authors of all time. To the uninitiated, I’d say his voice has aspects of the existential horror of Lovecraft, the eloquence of Poe and the absurdism of Kafka– and yet is wholly original. A frequent theme in Ligotti’s stories is the horror of consciousness itself. The fact that we’re awake in these slowly decomposing bodies, aware of our imminent annihilation, in a world that appears to be devoid of meaning. It’s about the terror of not knowing who or what we are. In Ligotti’s stories, the monster is not out there… it’s you.
Q2. Raindance: Tell us a little bit about In a Foreign Town?
Michael Shlain: IN A FOREIGN TOWN is a short proof-of-concept for a TV anthology series, based on stories from Ligotti’s IN A FOREIGN TOWN, IN A FOREIGN LAND collection as well as a few others which fit into the same world.
Our goal with the short film is to introduce our audience to the world of the series and create a visual and tonal touchstone for how it will look and feel. In it, the main character from the pilot episode recalls his first visit to the town as a child.
Q3. Raindance: How did you realise the dark tones of Ligotti’s work? What inspirations did you have from other works?
Michael Shlain: One of the challenges of adapting Ligotti’s work is that so much of its power derives from the mood of creeping unease suggested by the prose. There’s also a profound dreamlike quality about it. To me, the “town” represents a place in our mind where our nightmares and traumas live – it’s more of a felt sense of dread, anxiety and despair. But there’s also something strangely inviting and beautiful about it too.
Our job was to find the concrete visual and aural choices that would elicit these sensations from the audience.
For example, in the opening scene we covered the walls of our psychiatric clinic in black mold and surrounded our calm-sounding doctor with a display of sharp glistening medical tools. For many, this signals threat and distress to the nervous system. These details reflect Hatcher’s inner world which is one of mental decay and constant anxiety.
Other decisions were made to create a sense of the uncanny which is often experienced in dream-states. I like Freud’s definition of “seemingly ordinary objects which feel inexplicably unfamiliar and therefore terrifying.”. In all of our designs we aimed to create a sense of things being “slightly off.” Instead of a teddy bear, Young Hatcher has a weird masked cowboy doll; Father’s wristwatch has no hands. We wanted to constantly raise disturbing unanswered questions in the mind of our audience.
In terms of influences, some of the filmmakers we studied and referenced included Jean-Pierre Jeunet, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Andrei Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick. All of whom are masters of evoking inner states and the world of dreams and nightmares.
Q4. Raindance: Talk us through each production set and the stage design process? Also could we get a summary of techniques used?
Michael Shlain: The film is primarily set in two time periods: the “present day” scenes are set in a psychiatric clinic where Mr. Hatcher (played by Yuri Lowenthal) remembers a harrowing childhood experience under the influence of a strange medication. The rest of the film takes place in Hatcher’s childhood “memories” which take him on a journey from his home to the heart of the Town. A big part of our inter-department conversations and preparation focused on how we would separate the look and feel of the two periods.
Q4(a). Psychiatric Clinic
Michael Shlain: The clinic set was constructed on our soundstage at Butcher Bird Studios in Los Angeles, California. Production designer Frida Rivera Oliva managed to fit three other sets (the Train Carriage, Hatcher’s childhood Bedroom and Hallway) into a modest 25’x50’ area. These sets were first pre-visualized in SketchUp. We also created a “color story” to map our color palettes across each sequence. The clinic would be dominated by cool dirty blues, greens and whites to create the feel of a cold, unsafe, uncaring environment.
For production and costume design, we assigned loose time periods to the different characters. Hatcher’s world was generally in the 1970s, while Groddeck’s world was more 1920s – and his medical implements even older. We wanted to deliberately conflate eras, similar to how time blends together in memories and dreams.
We shot with an Arri Alexa Classic and together with DOP Francisco Bulgarelli, made specific rules about camera style and movement for each of our two periods. For the “present day” scenes, we used a set of 1970s Bausch & Lomb Super Baltar primes. These were the same lenses used for The Godfather and gave everything this slight green tint. For the clinic scene, we decided there would be no filtration or fog (we would shoot “clean”, “clinical”). Our shots were either static compositions, or slowly creeping dolly moves to underscore Hatcher’s mounting psychological pressure.
Finally, we made a decision to keep Dr. Groddeck entirely out of focus for almost the whole show. We wanted to keep him mysterious and mirror the effect of the medication on Hatcher’s perception.
Q4(b). Train Carriage
Michael Shlain: For our “memory” scenes, Francisco and I wanted to achieve a look that would connote the past, yet not be married to a particular period. After testing a number of approaches, we settled on using a vintage 20-120mm Angenieux Zoom which matched nicely to the Baltars, but yielded a creamier look. We coupled this with an old Hollywood “Golden Age” technique of using hand-painted Vaseline vignettes in front of the lens, and used fog and haze in every scene. We also used in-camera zooms to create a feeling of mounting tension in those moments.
For the train scene in particular, we were inspired by Bertolucci and Storaro’s train scenes in THE CONFORMIST and THE SHELTERING SKY; specifically the contrast between golden light and shadow. This contrast underscored the emotional separation between Young Hatcher (Jack McGraw) and his Father (David Rees Snell).
Michael Shlain: The Town exteriors were realized on the “Courthouse Square” backlot of Universal Studios, Hollywood. It was a dream-come-true to shoot in a location with so much history (Including Back to the Future, Gremlins and The Twilight Zone). We dressed the sets practically and used a combination of practical and digital fog to create the oppressive atmosphere.
In the main street shot, if you look carefully, you’ll notice that the buildings are flipped mirror images of each other. Courthouse Square only had one row of buildings so we shot the same buildings twice (from opposite ends) and composited the two plates in post. Sky replacements, matte paintings and digital fog was added by the brilliant VFX artists at 3dar in Buenos Aires.
Michael Shlain: This scene was filmed on location at the Ruby Theatre in Hollywood. With its blood-red decor, it was the perfect interior for the hellish heart of the town and the origin point of Hatcher’s trauma. The scene culminates in a grotesque and terrifying performance by the mysterious Showman (played by contortionist and creature performer Strange Dave). Ligotti’s original story suggests that anyone who sees the Showman’s face would be “undone” – and we had to find a way to deliver on that fear.
Even though the plan was always to keep the Showman in shadow and only show hints of his features, we designed and applied full face makeup for Dave. This gave him the freedom to push the envelope of how much he could turn towards the camera before it was too much. We wanted to take it right to the edge.
Q5. Raindance: What does the future hold for In a Foreign Town?
Michael Shlain: A TV anthology series for In a Foreign Town is currently in active development as an international co-production between Butcher Bird Studios (USA) and Analogue Pictures (UK). Meanwhile, the film short is available to watch on Film Shortage and for more information make sure you find us at http://www.inaforeigntown.com