Between two worlds

Bishal Dutta on introducing the West to new myths and old scares in It Lives Inside

by Jennie Kermode

A jar full of trouble in It Lives Inside
A jar full of trouble in It Lives Inside

One of this year’s big festival hits, launched at South by Southwest and travelling all around the genre circuit, Bishal Dutta’s It Lives Inside draws from a deep well of Indian mythology to introduce terrors never previously encountered in Western cinema. At the same time, it explores the struggles of Indian American teenager Sam/Samidha (Megan Suri) who feels caught between two cultures and, in particular, at odds with her traditionalist mother (Neeru Bajwa). The two storylines are deftly interwoven, with lots of sharp observations, and have made a big impression on audiences around the world.

Last month I had to opportunity to speak with Bishal, who is thrilled by the way that his film has been received. It’s great, he says, to have been able to get Indian Americans onscreen, when they’re seriously under-represented, but his reasons for making the film were more personal.

“I wanted to make a film that was truthful to my experience,” he says. “The more I worked on this movie, the more I found that the more specific you get, the more universal it starts to feel. They say that weird little paradox about storytelling. I thought that if I could just be truthful about some of the things I felt, and people close to me felt, friends and family etc., that would be something that would really connect with a lot of people.

“This is a movie intended for a big audience. I wanted a lot of people to come see it and a lot of people to have fun with it. I thought, if I'm going to write this film, I just want to be truthful to what I know, and I think the rest will kind of take care of itself.”

There’s a great shot early on in which we see Sam shaving her arms, and it speaks to that specific situation but also to the desire to fit in which most teenagers feel.

“This is where I just have to credit my actors,” he says, smiling. “They're incredible. In this case, that was a scene that used to come later in the story, and I think it was Megan that said ‘No, we should bring this into the beginning.’ It’s such a great way to introduce this character. It was such an incredible collaboration on this movie. There are things that I certainly don't know about being a teenage girl, so I really wanted to empower the cast members to bring their own truth to the table.”

Did that affect things like dialogue as well?

“Absolutely. There's so much I don't know. I haven't been a teenager in quite a few years, so I had to rely on them. But I think that's also what's so nice about the process of working with actors. For me, it's not so much about rehearsal and it's not so much about exactly getting it right before we get to the set. It's more about talking about the character and talking about that character's past and what makes them tick, to the point where – and I think this is every filmmaker's dream – where the actors know the characters better than I do.”

Sam feels obviously caught between two different cultural influences, but it strikes me that teenagers are always, to an extent, caught between two cultures in the sense that there's their own generation and then there's the adult generation, who do things in very different ways.

“I love that you say that, because I think that was what made me feel like this would be a film for everyone,” he says. “I think that part of the modern experience, and every sort of generational experience, is this feeling of being caught between multiple identities. I think people are so many things now and nobody really fits into one defined box. But I think the challenge today is ‘I have so many identities. How do I bridge the gap between them?’ Right? And I thought that wasn't going to limit the film's emotional appeal to specifically Indian Americans or immigrants. I thought everybody today could project themselves into that kind of a story.”

We see that very much in the damaged relationship between the mother and daughter, which seems to me to be the emotional core of the film. That emotional dynamic really helps us to care about the characters and invest in what happens to them.

He nods. “I fully agree with you. And I think that for horror to work, it has to feel like there are real people that it's happening to. That's the only way that an audience are going to leave the movie going ‘Well, what would I do if that happened?’ To me, that's the ultimate goal of horror cinema, to get the audience thinking about what they would do in that situation. You can't really do that without compelling characters and characters that reflect how we behave. And so with the mom/daughter relationship, I felt like that was a great opportunity to take something that could have been intellectual and didactic and put it into very emotional terms.

“I knew I didn't want to make a statement about being Indian American. I wanted to capture the experience of it. But so much of the experience for me was being caught, again, between the two worlds exactly like you said, trapped somewhere in the middle. And so I wanted to, at the beginning of the movie, position Sam one side of that conversation and position her mom on the exact other side. But I never wanted to say that one of them is correct, that one of them is right. I wanted them to meet in the middle and synthesise something that is correct for both of them. And it felt like if we could do that, then that's a very emotional way of conveying what I think is how I was able to bridge the gap of my various identities.”

Often in horror movies there’s a woman or a child who has seen something or suspects that something supernatural is going on, and everyone else is telling them they’re wrong. I suggest that in this film, Sam almost seems to be gaslighting herself because she doesn't want to believe that this element of her cultural heritage is real, because that would mean she has to buy into a lot of other ideas that she's trying to move away from.

“I’m so glad you said that,” he responds. “I think those were the opportunities I was seeing. Those very subtle ways in which the more I built out the monster/demon side of the story, the more I was like, ‘Well, but this is what she's going through in real life. This is her character arc even without a demon.’

“I like that. It's a very interesting notion, the self-gaslighting, this almost unwillingness to think. Julia Kristeva wrote this amazing thing called On Abjection. She can never really define it, but she says ‘It's the thing that if it's within me, it destroys me. And if I accept that it's within me, it destroys me.’ What is that? I was thinking a lot about that idea of what is it that lives inside of us that we just must reject? But when we reject it, when it's outside of us, it can become a very destructive force.”

Then there's a wonderful scene where the teacher stops her and asks about her friendship with the other Indian American girl in her class. Sam obviously doesn't want to be classed by her race, and she's worried that's happening, but there's also a sense that she doesn't want to associate with somebody who's seen as weird and who's being bullied, because she doesn't want to add up in that position herself.

“Yes. It's a scene that actually, I think, is very much a testament to editing. Originally, when I saw the scene, our amazing editor, Jack [Price] had cut it fairly straightforwardly, but as we developed that scene, what we decided was, let's live on Sam's face for about 75% of that. Let's have Joyce have a lot of these lines offscreen, because what matters is really not the dialogue so much as that discomfort that I think Megan is riding so well throughout the scene. And, yeah, it was one of those scenes where I was like, ‘This is what our movie is about.’ Those little moments when Megan's character asks, ‘Why are you asking me?’ I felt like right there, that was what the movie was. And I just love moments like that where without being, I think, too on the nose, we can articulate for an audience what that emotional undercurrent is. “

The other thing about the film, of course, is that it’s seriously scary. It employs a lot of quite familiar tricks, like a door opening behind Sam without her noticing it, but they really hit home. What’s the secret?

“I think first and foremost, I love horror movies.” He grins. “I love the experience I had with horror movies, growing up and seeing them in the theatre or seeing them at home. And I think, for me, I certainly was conscious about how much homage I was paying to the greats in the genre. But I think it was because of how they affected me and the emotional response. On a beat like that, the door opening, that's so John Carpenter, that kind of out of focus background.

“There are definitely moments where it's about timing on set. Obviously later on you can edit it and you can piece everything together in the right timing. But there are certain gags and certain beats that have to be done in a single shot for them to work. If you cut them up, they're not scary, right? So on set, I think what is most enthralling is when you get the timing of two beats right. Let's say you're shooting a shot with three or four beats in it that all have to be at the right time. When you find that tape where it's all correct, that's the best feeling. And you're like, this is going to be scary.”

There’s also the trick of giving us a lot of visual hints about the monster but waiting a long time before revealing it in its entirety.

“I'm certainly not being original by saying Jaws and Alien influenced me,” he says, “but I think with this particular monster, I was always thinking about it, because this is the kind of embodiment of fear in our culture. This is the incarnation of terror. And so for me, I was thinking, psychologically, if we could suggest the presence of the creature, if we could suggest its scale and speed and ferocity but not give you 100% of it, that you as an audience member could project your own worst kind of fears onto it until our big reveal.

“Later in the movie, for example, we have a moment where Joyce is looking at it through a shower curtain. We tried so many different shower curtains, and I was there being so annoying, like, ‘Can you move a fraction of an inch closer?’ Because it was always about, how much can we show without giving away the pure essence of the creature?”

We haven’t seen this creature in a Western horror film before, and there’s a whole lot of mythology there which has never been explored in that context. Was that fun, to have all that to work with?

“It was so fun,” he says. “I think, again, the more that I worked at it and the more I figured out about it, one hand, it was that feeling of ‘Oh, this is universal. Everybody's going to be afraid of this thing.’ It felt like the mythology had every element, every ingredient needed for an iconic bogeyman monster. And at the same time, what was so fun was, in the process of writing the movie and conceptualising it and especially researching it, I kind of had a mirroring of Sam's journey where I was learning so much about the culture and I was learning to appreciate it.

“So, you know, the Shanti prayer that they use against the creature, it's not necessarily a religious chant. It's a bit more of a call for peace all across the Earth and the heavens, and most importantly, within you. So I was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ There was just so much that came together organically because of the growing ties that I felt to the culture across the movie.”

Is he interested in exploring further ideas like that in future films?

“Oh, 100%. I would love to. And it was one of those things where, with this movie, I think there's something so universal about fear, and I think we’re crossing cultural barriers with that and saying, ‘Hey, we might have some differences in our culture, but we're afraid of the same things.’ I think that's so powerful and creates such a fun conversation. I've had people come up to me and say, ‘I wasn't afraid of whistling before, but now I am, after this movie.’ We're giving people superstitions that they didn't have before. So all that is to say, I would love to continue bringing these kind of cultural stories, and especially cultural mythologies, to a Western audience and continuing to build that bridge.”

I note that it's something that interested me because I think most Western viewers will, if they see a vampire or they see a zombie, have a certain set of rules in their head about what they might be able to do about it. And with this one, they’ll have absolutely no idea how to defend themselves, which makes it scarier.

“Exactly. That's what's scary about something new and something that ultimately an audience may not be familiar with, that you're coming in and you're going, ‘Oh, I have to re-facilitate my feeling of safety with this. There is, to your point, that feeling of ‘How do we deal with this?’ And so you're with the characters even more at that point.”

There’s also a hint in the film that some kind of legacy has followed Sam’s family from India despite the fact that she sees herself as separate from all that. That seems to link together the central themes.

“Yes, I think it was one of those things where, again, the more we dug into the supernatural plot of the movie, the more it felt like it all wove so nicely into the thematic and character arcs in the film. And so, to your point, I think that there is something that lingers. And I think the myth is that you come to a place that's new and you leave all the baggage behind. And that is a myth because there's so much you bring with you.

“I think what I was trying to say with it is not so much that what you bring with you is demonic or bad, but that if you leave it to rot within yourself and you ignore it and you put it in a dark corner, it will fester and it will become something horrific and toxic. Christine was a movie that inspired me a lot, John Carpenter's movie. And what I loved about Christine, as opposed to Halloween or Nightmare On Elm Street or Poltergeist, is that with Christine the horror was not a monster penetrating the safety of the suburbs. In Christine, the monster, the horror, was coming from within.

“It was kind of festering within the Keith Gordon character and this loneliness that grew so strong that it almost willed this car to life. That's what I was drawing on, this idea of the feelings these people have that they're trying to repress. In Sam, they're so big that they kind of propagate the demon and all the supernatural stuff comes out of the emotions, if that makes sense.”

It does, I assure him. But what possessed him to make a film as challenging and complicated as this for his first feature?

He laughs. “I wanted to make a movie that I think I would have loved when I was 13, 14 or 15. I think that was really the goal of this particular one. I don't think you can make every movie like that, but with this one, there was an opportunity to do a fun but thought provoking movie. I think that was the challenge. And I did get to watch it again on the Friday of its US release, with a packed theatre, and it felt like that. It felt like ‘Oh, my, this is a movie I would have loved when I was younger.’”

We talk about the cast.

“Well, first and foremost, we had Megan Suri, who was absolutely brilliant and just such an important part of the film,” he says. “She really anchors the film with her performance. We had worked together already at that point for a couple of weeks when we brought Neeru on. And Neeru, as you may know, is a massive superstar in Punjabi cinema. She's an incredibly talented actress. And the two of them, it was a very easy bond that they had. It was really one of those alchemical things on the set where they started with that breakfast scene early on.

“I think there was this sort of shared heritage between them. But I think more than that, Neeru was an amazing mentor and supporter of Megan. I remember they exchanged letters at the end of the shoot. I just loved this relationship that the two of them had, and I think you can feel it come through in the movie.”

He’s delighted by the film’s success on the festival circuit.

“It wasn't something I expected at all, but we've had just an amazing run on the genre festivals this year. We started out at South by Southwest, which was just such a fun crowd. We won an audience award there and that gave us a lot of confidence with the film. It was one of the first public screenings of the film and it was a great experience.

“Then we played at the Overlook Film Festival, we played at Neuchâtel, we played at Fantasia and Frightfest, and we're going to play at Sitges next week. So it was tremendous. I got to experience the movie so many times with so many different kinds of audiences and I don't know, it's so gratifying. Before this movie, I'd only made short films that a handful of people would see. And so to see so many different cultures and sub-communities respond to the film in such different but positive ways, that was a dream come true for me.

“I think the one factor that I would ask anyone to consider is the sound of the film. If you're considering going to see the film in a theatre, we worked very hard on the sound of the film. I think it's a kind of a character unto itself. I had an amazing sound team on this movie, and I was writing sound even from the script into this movie. And we tried to use the full breadth of surround sound in a movie theatre to make you feel like you're right there with the characters, so you were looking around, like, ‘Where did that come from?’ We were able to build an entire performance for the creature out of sound. So it's one of the parts of the film that I appreciate the most and that I'm most proud of. I think that will incentivise you to hear the movie the way we intended it to be heard and experience it the way we intended it to be experienced.”

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