“Being in a toxic relationship is a lot like being eaten alive.”
Ahead of its International Premiere at FrightFest this summer, writer/director John Ainslie sat down to discuss his feature debut Do Not Disturb and the kind of hunger that can’t be sated by snack food…
Do Not Disturb reminded me of films like Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream combined with Ducorneau’s Raw, not only in the subject matter but also the cinematography. What inspirations were you drawing from?
Cinematographer Scott McIntyre and I drew from a lot of films. Harmony Korine’s Springbreakers, the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men and Dennis Vileneuve’s Prisoners were probably the biggest influences on how we treated the lighting. We also talked about Ana Lily Armirpour’s Bad Batch, which is a film I adore. We wanted a saturated image with rich color and dark shadows.
Probably the biggest influence on Do Not Disturb was William Friedkin’s under-watched masterpiece Bug. The performances in that film are so strong and it’s such a simple and yet layered story isolated to a hotel room. I drew a lot of inspiration from Bug as I was writing and I try to encourage everyone I meet to watch that film.
In the writing process how did you forge a connection between an emotionally abusive relationship and cannibalism?
The idea started with me scratching out “honeymoon couple develops a cannibal sex fetish” down on a piece of paper. When I write for myself, I rarely ever know what I’m writing about thematically until I’ve written it. I just know the conflict and the character and let it play out. Then as I read it, I figure out what trauma in my life caused this creative burst and finesse.
I sort of traced the way Jack (Rogan Christopher) and Chloe (Kimberly Laferrière) act with each other and examined how I behaved and/or was treated in past relationships as well as what I knew about friends relationships and it sort of clicked. Being in a toxic relationship is a lot like being eaten alive. You do things to each other you would never dream of doing otherwise. You get jealous and say and do things that you regret later. It really is like you’re eating each other alive emotionally and the scars remain long after you survive the trauma. I think we all really underestimate how those relationships affect us.
The scenes between Chloe and Jack are so fraught with tension, exacerbated by most of the film being set in a hotel room. Talk us through how you maintained the claustrophobic and compelling atmosphere in a mostly single setting?
The relationship tension is what keeps the film moving forward. There is no plot tension or suspense, so that relationship tension is critical. Instead of playing out in a typical structure, the film is essentially a sequence of scenes that repeat and escalate until Chloe breaks the pattern – like an abusive relationship. I wanted the viewer to sort of feel that relationship comfort, the disappointment, the conflict and forgiveness and then we start all over again until we know that there is no hope for Jack. He will never change. We feel Chloe’s frustration.
Strictly from a relationship standpoint they really are smothering each other and as the movie progresses we really framed them that way intentionally. At the beginning of the film, we’re pretty wide and give them a lot of space to move around in before we slowly close in: taking the clean frames and then dirtying them up with objects or each other; putting them in the bathroom and squeezing them into that horizontal door frame within the frame as they become complicit together; moving away from the wider static shots into a more fluid and tighter handheld.
One subtle thing we did was always have Chloe closest to the light and window. She’s always on the window side of the bed for example – until Jack takes her place the last time we see him. That side of the bed is closer to the light and as their relationship disintegrates, Jack blocks her from that light. Whenever she’s making decisions that go against her core she’s in his shadow.
Lenses also played a big part and we were very specific about the lenses we wanted. We really wanted it to feel like a film was intended for the theatre. Part of that was choosing anamorphic lenses and the 2.76 aspect ratio which is not used very often. For us, it worked on the level of a super wide image that feels more like a film of the 60s than a modern streamer. It provided more distance between the two characters when they’re on screen together and also to isolate them further in a wider frame when alone on screen. That played into a visual representation of their relationship perfectly.
What preparation did you undertake with Kimberly and Rogan to play a couple constantly on the edge of implosion, and in particular the violent animalism of some of their scenes?
We spent a lot of time talking about who the characters are and what they had gone through to get to where we join them. With Rogan we really got specific about who Jack was: what his job was, what dreams he had failed to achieve. We texted and talked every day until we were on the same page.
With Kim, we spoke about Chloe and seemed to agree on everything. I created the character and story, but in the end I’m not a woman so there are things she can bring to the character that I can’t. So really once you get on set it’s just a matter of trusting her instincts and her character work and making sure that she has the space and time to explore it. She really just nailed it. Getting into the turn we talked about the way hyenas devour a carcass. Getting back to a primal state where her instincts take over and she’s abandoned the rationalizations.
Every actor is different so you have to take a different approach with each one. They’re both Playhouse actors who take the work seriously so they don’t need much direction. They know what they’re doing so my job is really just to create an environment on set that allows them to do it.
There’s a fine line between addiction (whether to a substance or a person) and love, which seems to be a theme you’re exploring here. Can you elaborate a bit more on this depiction?
I feel like love and addiction are pretty similar in some ways. When you fall in love with a person, they become all you think about. Which is good until it isn’t, until that person becomes something that holds you back instead of pushing you forward. That’s kind of what is going on for them where Chloe knows this guy is all wrong for her, but she’s grown comfortable with him in her life and has trouble finding the confidence to imagine her life without him. This is why I chose to write and cast a lead actress who isn’t in her 20s, because it’s a different question with greater stakes for a woman who wants to have a baby and is getting closer to 40. The biological clock is ticking, and she’s invested so much of her life into this relationship by this point. How many years does she have left to meet someone new and start over if her goal is to start a family? She’s weighing that against whether this guy will get his shit together. The stakes are her life so it only makes sense that she’s obsessed with it. They aren’t a couple who are addicted to drugs, but they are addicted to each other and the crutch they provide each other.
What’s next for you?
Good question. I have a few things I want to do next, but I’m never quite sure which one will be the one to go. I have a found footage film called Hollywood Rejects Strike Back, about an actress and her director friend who decide to document her journey across LA to confront everyone she believes has fucked her over. When the pandemic hit, I had been pitching a script of mine that was a Nicholl Fellowship Semi-finalist called she came knocking about an Uber driver who takes matters into her own hands after she witnesses a husband abusing his wife, but no one will do anything about it. So short answer is I’m not sure what is next, but I have a few scripts that are ready and I’m writing more all the time.