How Do You Bring a Dreamlike, Ambiguous Story to the Screen?

Director Philip Gelatt talks about adapting the novella “—30—” by Laird Barron for his new film, ‘They Remain’

Among the most unsettling stories in Laird Barron’s body of work is a novella called “—30—”, which magnificently blends a rigorous attention to detail with a haunting sense of ambiguity. Now, writer/director Philip Gelatt (The Bleeding House, Europa Report) has adapted Barron’s novella into an unsettling film, They Remain. William Jackson Harper (The Good Place) and Rebecca Henderson (Mistress America) star as Keith and Jessica, two scientists working for an unnamed corporation assigned the task of surveying a plot of land that a sinister cult once called home.

To say that things don’t go according to plan would be an understatement. Keith and Jessica have a complex and prickly relationship from the outset which intensifies as they try to reason with the surreal landscape around them. This landscape disorientates by challenging the characters’ understanding of their environment and the forms present—or absent —within. Triangles are a visual motif throughout the film, and, as a place that once was home to death and atrocities, the residue of past traumas emerge in physical and abstract ways. There’s a menacing dog, some bizarre behavior from insects, and — most unnervingly of all — a massive horn that shows up midway through the film that looms over the personal and sexual dynamics.

I talked with Gelatt about the challenges of adapting Barron’s novella and how he went about finding a visual translation of the story’s precise pacing and carefully woven ambiguities.

Tobias Carroll: Where did you first encounter Laird Barron’s fiction? What first drew you to the novella “—30—” out of his body of work as something you might adapt?

Philip Gelatt: The first Laird Barron story I read was “Old Virginia.” It was recommended to me sometime in 2008 or 2009. I remember reading it and loving it. It was pulpy and profound and delightfully dark. But then, for reasons I can’t remember, I didn’t read any deeper into his work at that time.

Purchase the collection with “—30—”

I got back into him around the time The Croning came out. I went back and read everything he had published up to that point. Occultation, the whole collection, just wrecked me. It’s such an artistic statement, as a piece. Everything in there is daring and gripping and you can feel the way Barron is pushing at the genre and exploring styles and voices.

And— 30 —” is, of course, in that collection. I quickly became obsessed with the idea of making it into a film.

When I try to explain what drew me to that story, I think I might sound a little bit crazy. But reading it for the first time, I found it aggravating. I was frustrated by it BUT productively frustrated. The kind of frustration that makes you want to go back and figure something out. Like, “how dare this story do this to me!”

I found myself re-reading the story, parsing its details, exploring its shadows, and trying to figure out just what the hell was really happening there.

I loved that it was, on its surface, such a simple story: “two scientists go into the woods, they go crazy and try to kill each other.” But underneath there seemed to lurk an almost bottomless depth of implication, meaning, and subtext. Everything was just slightly out of frame, just a hidden enough that you couldn’t tell what was really there and what wasn’t.

And that felt to me like a great cinematic challenge: how do you make a horror movie where almost everything is off screen? How would that turn out? How would it make the audience feel?

Underneath there seemed to lurk a bottomless depth of implication, meaning, and subtext.

There was one other aspect to it, as well. After writing Europa Report I felt the urge to do something that I could consider its dark twin. Europa is very hopeful about science, about mankind’s ability to learn and to know. It’s basically saying, “if you can give your life to make a discovery, it’s worth it.”

I read “ — 30 — ” to be a nightmare reflection of that. It’s skeptical of our ability to ever know anything. Its scientists are perhaps noble, but they’re also driven by flawed, hidden motives. Europa was a hopeful film for a hopeful time; this is an uncertain film for an uncertain time.

And, in the end, it posits a death that is filled with unanswerable questions. In a sense, it’s the abyss’s answer to the hopeful deaths of Europa.

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TC: What was the process of adapting the novella like?

PG: So much fun! If I could only adapt literature for the rest of my career, I’d be happy. Such an interesting process to enter the work of another writer and attempt to figure out why certain decisions were made, why scenes were put in that order and what other things can be done with the work. It’s like borrowing someone else’s toys.

I started by printing the story out and cutting it up into scenes and pieces. Like an arts and crafts project. Just a huge mess of paper and words and scraps. I then spent maybe a month re-arranging those pieces and then rubber cementing them into a notebook. Then I filled that in with notes and sketches and ideas and used that as my outline for the first draft of the screenplay.

Because the story is so dreamlike and odd, that process really helped me get into the right headspace. I found all kinds of strange details and odd descriptions in the story that gave me a strong footing for the script.

TC: The repartee between the two central characters, and how each of them reacts to their environment, is central to both the film and the novella. How was the process of casting the two leads?

PG: A little arduous. I didn’t want to do traditional auditions. My thinking was that this whole movie was going to be just these two people and because of that I wanted to find actors who had, in their own personalities, something that felt true to these characters.

So instead, we brought prospective actors in and I had a conversation with them about the script, the story, and the characters. I’m a big believer in finding strong collaborators so I was looking for people who had engaged with the material, who had intense opinions about it and who felt right for the roles.

Rebecca came in and just was her role. Smart and sly and inquisitive with just the right amount of aggression. And Will came with a great emotional rawness about him. Though he copped to not having much woodsman-like experience, he felt ready for it. Ready to immerse himself in it and see how it would change him.

I can’t say enough good things about both of them. Neither role was easy at all. The whole movie is on their backs and they both gave it everything.

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TC: Was there any aspect of “— 30—” that was particularly challenging to translate onto the screen?

PG: The single hardest thing was getting the tone right. The more I work in film, the more I’ve come to believe that tone is the single most important part of any project. It’s foundational and informs everything from character to plot to the style of lighting you use for a scene. And yet it is always so hard to pinpoint, so hard to codify. And if you get it wrong… then nothing coheres.

Finding the tone of this story in particular was tricky because it isn’t really a traditional horror story, or science-fiction story, or doomed romance, or whatever. It’s an ambiguous, frustrating, strange, weird, dream-like investigation. What the hell is that tone?

Then there were certain physical aspects of the story that were difficult. Like filming the giant sex horn. Not quite as easy as it sounds.

So much of this story is about the things you’re not seeing. Capturing the lack of something, making a viewer realize they’re supposed to be thinking about what’s not there as much as what it is… that was not easy.

Then there were certain physical aspects of the story that were difficult. Like filming the giant sex horn.

TC: The region in which They Remain is set has seen a fair amount of history before Keith and Jessica’s story begins, including the presence of the cult alluded to numerous times. How did you find the right balance between history and ambiguity?

PG: It was a constant balancing act. Early versions of the script had way more exposition, which we cut out to lean into the ambiguity, and then went back and sprinkled in history.

There were many, many cuts of the movie before we settled on a final version. I think my first cut was 2 hours and 20 minutes maybe? And a lot of the changes from that cut forward were working on the issue of ambiguity and how much to give the audience. If anyone is curious, a lot of the deleted footage will be available when the film comes to disc and video on demand.

But yeah, this question relates back to the things that attracted me to the story in the first place. That it is opaque. That it’s about trying to see things that you just can’t see and never could. I think that applies as much to the history of the land, as it does to the cult, as it does to the interior lives of our lead character, as it does to the mysterious company who brought them there. It’s all loaded with meaning but it’s on the viewer to parse that ambiguity using the bits of history they are given.

The story and the movie both work by loaded insinuation and accumulation of detail. For a certain kind of viewer, I think that kind of story is catnip. It’s a mystery and it’s there for you to solve but you have to work at it. For another kind of viewer, well… they’ll probably just hate the hell out of it for all the reasons I think it’s interesting.

TC: In both the film and the novella, the characters move between waking states, dreams, and conditions somewhere between the two. As writer/director, how did you attempt to convey these shifts in perspective and state?

PG: I knew that I never wanted there to be a clear, definitive way to say, “well it was all a dream!” or even “that’s where reality ended and the dream began!”

I wanted to sink the viewer into that “dream or reality” ambiguity. I wanted people to, at different points, wonder if we were in a dream sequence or not in a dream sequence and actively engage with the film to try to sort that out.

Ultimately, a lot of this film is designed to try to get viewers lean forward and engage with the story’s ambiguities and mysteries. It’s not a movie that’s going to tell you a story — it’s going to give you some pieces and ask you to tell yourself the story.

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TC: Some of the film’s editing uses jarring transitions between disparate scenes to illustrate a feeling of disorientation, and there’s an extraordinary triple (or is it quadruple?) exposure shot at one point. How did you arrive on that as a visual equivalent to the hallucinatory states of the characters?

PG: For that scene with the quadruple exposure, I knew I needed something to… break the spell of the film? Or maybe elevate the spell of the film? Basically, I need an upping of the stylistic ante. The horn is there, the characters are having sex, Keith’s mind is starting to slip and so is reality.

Originally, the idea was to digitally alter that shot. Change the sky to red and otherwise mess with the image.

Then in the edit room, I started playing with the pieces of music our composer Tom Keohane wrote for the film, and I landed on that frantic piece. That piece of music plus that scene just felt propulsive. Like it was hurling us to some place new.

But I was still having a hard time figuring out what take of the shot to use. So, in a fit of frustration, I layered them all together to create that effect, mostly as an experiment.

And it felt immediately correct — the right kind of way push the characters and the viewers into a new liminal headspace where they’re both in the scene but separated from the scene and just completely, aggravatingly, and yet productively, unsure of what is going on.

TC: Cinematic references abound in “ — 30 — ,” from an early scene in which the two characters discuss who would play them in a film, to a later reference to the work of Dario Argento. Did the allusions to movies found within the story have any impact on how you adapted it for the screen?

PG: Only a little bit, to be honest. Recently, I’ve found myself exhausted by the ongoing trend of movies referencing other movies in either style or plot or soundtrack. A lot of pop culture has become a kind of hall of nostalgic mirrors. So, I tried very hard not to do “a John Carpenter scene” or an “Argento scene” or even a “Phase IV scene.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love the horror genre deeply and madly. But when I set out to make this I tried to slip the genre wherever I could. I wanted to make a thing that felt different… that felt sort of inescapably itself. If that makes any sense, at all.

That being said there are a few stylistic reference points in the film, though they might be so slight as to not really be noticeable. I’ll leave that nice and mysterious for viewers who might want to dig around and see if they can figure out what they are.

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