A slice of the action

Jonas Trukanas on making Lithuania's first slasher film, Pensive

by Jennie Kermode

Pensive Photo: courtesy of Frightfest

Screening at the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival, Jonas Trukanas’ Pensive is, according to the director, the very first Lithuanian slasher movie. It went down a treat with the Frightfest audience there and when i met Jonas to discuss it, he told me that its cinema run in his home country had also been a success.

“It's not a very scary film, you know? In Lithuania, it was perceived more like a comedy. I guess a lot of people recognise themselves and the graduation and so on.”

He’s distracted by gentle headbutts from a very affectionate cat, who is known, he tells me, simply as the white one. There is a grey cat somewhere else in his house. As he dissuades his feline friend from taking over the interview, I tell him that I found Pensive interesting because of the way it brings slasher film characters and slasher film morality into conflict with the real world. Was that the original idea behind it?

“More or less,” he nods. “For me, there is a formula to slasher films. It has always been pretty much been the same. And we found very interesting, how we are going to transform it to this day and age. Obviously we had some constraints with the budget. And we really tried to find the humanity in the slasher film.”

I tell him that, with that in mind, I really like the scene on the lake where the main protagonist, Marius (Sarunas Rapunas Meliesus) has a misunderstanding with Brigita (Gabija Bargailaite), the girl he likes. His approach to their discussion seems to be that of someone who has grown up with video games in which girls are prizes, whilst she’s traumatised, as most people would be, by the horrors she’s just seen.

“I think it's fun you mentioned that scene, because I think that's one of the most important scenes in the film altogether,” he says. “I think that was the idea, that we wanted in a way to explore, even with the main character, what would the real person do? Sometimes, you know, it's a genre, and because the archetypes of the characters are so well known, you lose the humanity,

“When we started writing, we actually spoke about our own graduation and people we remember from school. We know there's always a guy who plays basketball. In Lithuania it's a big thing, and basketball players get like a free pass in school because they're doing something greater. So we remembered all those people from our school. In a way they're obviously similar to the archetypes in slasher movies in general. You always have the hero. You always have a fun guy, and so on and so forth. But we made them from the people who we remember ourselves.”

I mention that there's another scene which I really love early on, where Marius is standing in front of a mirror and he's just announced that he has a venue that people can go to for the party, and we hear his phone beeping. It seems like he's listening to that sound, and his social status is rising.

“In general, what we spoke about with the main character is that, again, from stuff we remember, in school that, people try to find a single concept. It’s like, here's a funny guy, and this is a girl who's very smart, or something like that, that sort of describes a person in school, this single thing. It could be the music you listen to, or your hobbies or something like that. Then we talked about a character who doesn't have that. He doesn't have like capability, he doesn't know much. And I think, yeah, that scene, and many other scenes as well, is when he thinks that he starts to be the main character.

“He starts to get some recognition because he’s shown some initiative, and I think that's very important for the film. And this what we're trying to go down. It is a coming of age story about a person who doesn't know who he is yet. He gets to discover it through this very stressful slasher experience – and from recognition from peers in that scene, as well. And probably he was the guy who wasn’t noticed in school. The graduation itself is almost like a step to another life, and our main character wanted to change how people saw him.”

Later on, there's also an element of comedy. That's always there in slasher movies. How did he strike a balance and get that right?

“I think slashers in general, like most of them, would be perceived as comedies,” he says. “We all know that there's a guy with a mask, and then we all expect the killings to be exciting, and so on. Scream, or something like that, could be as well perceived as a comedy. But I don't know, it's like the rhythm of the film, I think that good horror films in general give you a variety of emotions. They scare you a little bit and then they try to make your laugh, in general. I think that fear and laughter are very close as emotions. They’re extreme emotions, so to say, so I think they work together well.”

The film has a great location, because there’s that classic cabin, but then there’s a really varied environment around it for the characters to wander through.

“We needed a location that we can trash completely,” he says. “We had to destroy it. The cabin actually belongs to one of the producers of the film. It's not his, it was just on his land, and when we started to look for locations – we needed to buy a location – that was the best thing. Also the location was like, historically the guy who lived there was a loner, and then he died and then our producer bought the place to develop at some point, and he didn't. So it almost was preserved from the moment he lived there, so we'd have that interesting feeling inside itself. It was also a very fundamental Lithuanian cabin that most of us know, because our grandparents lived somewhere like this.

“The story with the statues is actually that it comes from the Pensive Christ, which in our region, we have the statues of. It's a statue of Jesus. It comes from the folk tradition that we have, but it's meant to remind us obviously, of the Christ's suffering. We have them in weird places all around Lithuania, like in the little villages and in the forests. You could just find them. And that was the inspiration, because we found them quite scary. You go into a secluded place and you find a statue of Jesus Christ. The statues that we have in the film are not related to Jesus or religion in any way, but that was the inspiration for the statues we created in the film.”

There are a lot of night shoots in the film. What was it like actually being out in the middle of nowhere and shooting something like that at night? It must have been challenging from a practical perspective, and also an interesting atmosphere.

He laughs. “When we first spoke about it we were quite excited. I think none of us really expected how we were going to work flipped upside down. You completely flip your rhythm and then you don't eat and then your stomach stops eventually, and that was challenging. It was challenging for us also because we shot in summer, and the nights are really short. But then at a certain point because we're all like walking zombies, it got into the film, because we live in this weird reality, you know? We wake up and work at night. So yeah, it was interesting, challenging. I said that I won't do it again. No night shoots purely because physically it's very taxing.”

I ask whether that was additionally complicated because he was working with a lot of relatively inexperienced actors, and we discuss the lengthy casting process.

“Because they’re young people, most of them are either students in our Theatre and Film Academy of acting, or they just graduated,” he explains. “There's only one one girl who's a non-professional actor. But the idea was that we actually cast a lot of people. We looked at the characters in the script quite loosely. Let's try them all and see what they could bring to the story. Also, after choosing those people, we rehearsed a lot with the actors – it was like, 120 hours of rehearsal, just me and them. And also, we went to that cabin, before the shoot, and spend a weekend there with the actors, because the important thing was building the relationships between characters, because we have to assume that they have known each other for a long time, and also, we had quite a limited amount of time to shoot in.

“It was important to me that the actors knew exactly how they think about each other character, and sometimes they needed to find what to do themselves, because we had to go very fast in the shoot, so we tried to build the relationship. And at the end of the day, I think I think we succeeded in that. The younger actors, it's interesting, because they are very aware of themselves. If they think they did badly, they would then come to me and say ‘Can we have another take?’ or something like that? I would say ‘Look, it's good, it's good.’ But it was fun because they're very bright people and, you know, interesting people, so that was very fun for me as well.”

He and his team are now hard at work on their next film.

“The second feature is going to be in English this time. It's about an aquapark and the siren who lives there. It's actually about a father and son, and the relationship between them. We are currently in the process of writing, so we'll see when it gets out. I really wanted to do a horror film so that was my first try, with the slasher.”

So how does he feel about it getting picked up by Frightfest?

“That's awesome. I started in United Kingdom, actually. That was 14 or 15 years ago. I remember going to Frightfest to watch a film and I couldn't get into the screening because they were sold out. I started outside of London so the journey itself was very long on the bus and it was very disappointing. We've been picked up by Tallinn Dark Nights and we have some other festivals on the agenda as well, but I think genre festivals, and especially Frightfest, is very important for me personally because I think the crowd there is the crowd this film is meant to be watched by.”

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