INTERVIEW WITH HORROR DIRECTOR JOHN AINSLIE
I BECAME aware of Ainslie’s work when I stumbled across his feature film, The Sublet (AKA The Resident, in the UK). This film captured my attention, because it seemed different from other horror titles. Themes of hauntings are common in the horror genre, but The Sublet appears to take the “haunted house” story and shake it into something entirely different. Exploring themes of relationship breakdown, motherhood and postnatal psychosis, The Sublet treads a very dark path that leaves the viewer feeling marked, somehow. It is a dark experience, an unrelenting one that leaves a strong impression on the audience. As a big fan of dark film, I really enjoyed The Sublet and wanted to learn more about the director.
John Ainslie kindly agreed to spend some time answering my questions, and the interview below is the result. I hope you enjoy the exchange, and more than that, I hope this leads you to grabbing a copy of the film. If you are a fan of horror, you will not be disappointed..
John, you are involved in not only writing but in directing films. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you got into this field?
I got into this young. In many ways I’m still not “in it”. I started out editing and moved into cinematography before focussing on writing. All of these were great jobs, but I never felt like I had enough control over the process and I was always at the mercy of someone else. I wanted to tell my own stories. After my time studying at the Canadian Film Centre as a writer it really cemented my voice and pushed me towards directing. It’s one thing to have a voice, but it’s another to learn how to articulate it to others and get it onscreen. After, the CFC I gave myself two years to direct my first feature and that lead to The Sublet
I’m a massive fan of the horror genre, but only recently saw The Sublet (AKA The Resident) on DVD. I’ve no idea how I missed this release – I really enjoyed it. Immensely dark and creepy. Can I ask, how did the idea for this film come about? What inspired it?
It’s actually only been released in the UK. The American and Canadian release will happen this summer so don’t feel bad that you missed it! I’m happy you enjoyed it. The original idea came from my co-writer Alyson Richards who had moved to LA and was subletting different places and always had the feeling someone was watching her. She wanted to make a low budget horror so we started bouncing ideas off each other and brought in the paranormal concept which seemed interesting. Then later we fell in love with having ambiguity in the protagonist’s mind which would create confusion for the viewer and really draw them into Joanna’s insanity. I fought pretty hard for this ambiguity during production and met with some resistance. They wanted a ghost story, but I felt that it had been done before and was far less interesting. As well, the subject of postpartum psychosis is one that I find incredibly fascinating so while this isn’t really the focus of the film it does add an intriguing element. I wanted to create a character that felt real, that would give the viewer something to identify with. Even, without the paranormal and psychosis having a baby can be terrifying so this is fertile ground for film.
Above, a scene in the film, The Sublet
What, if any, where the challenges involved in writing the script and directing The Sublet? Were there issues that were hard to overcome?
The hardest thing was time. Both Alyson and I had just had our first children when we started to write so finding time to focus was a challenge for sure. Then during production we had fifteen main shooting days, which is not a lot to make sure you get what you need. After that, post was a challenge as I had to keep my day job up at the same time, which seems insane to me as I think about it…
Creatively though, with this film the hardest thing was keeping the narrative together. With all the confusion it became tough to track Joanna’s psychological state, but thankfully I had a great actress in Tianna Nori to help with that. It’s one thing to create confusion and doubt with an unreliable protagonist, but doing that and maintain enough lucidity for the viewer to stay interested.
You were also involved in writing Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer . The films you have been involved in are quite dark in nature. Have you always liked darker films – what draws you to these types of movies?
I never really set out to be “dark”, but somehow every idea I get falls into that category. That said I also try to bring a bit of my dark sense of humour with me. I do gravitate towards dark films… but who knows why? My next few films are pretty dark too.
A disturbing scene from the film – photo from The Sublet
What project are you currently working on? I have read about a film called she came knocking. Is this an upcoming release, can you tell us about it?
She came knocking is a short film I made with actress Kimberly-Sue Murray (Scarehouse). She and I had wanted to work with each other for a while and when this idea came to me I thought it would be a perfect opportunity for us. It was a very collaborative and fun experience to work with an actress from concept to final cut. She was involved at every stage and helped shape the narrative as well as the character. I really like to involve cast early, but the way the system is set up this is sometimes a challenge. The film premiered in Toronto at Canadian Film Fest and won Best Short Film which was a nice way to start the festival run. The film is about a Uber driver who witness’ what she believes might be domestic abuse and when the police won’t help her she takes matters into her own hands. It’s a tense thriller with a three minute continuous shot at the end which was a really fun challenge to execute with our cinematographer Ian Macmillan.
Next up I have two features with scripts that close to ready to shoot once we secure financing. I’m very excited about both of them for different reasons. One is another psychological-thriller/horror and the other is action/thriller and I’ve just begun writing a new one which will be an action thriller.
What are your favourite horror/thriller films, and why?
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane always comes back to my mind as a favourite. Just so classic and bizarre. Shot so beautifully.
I really like The Others too.
A random question: Do you think that the closure of many cinemas and the growing popularity of online film streaming is having a negative effect on the film industry?
It’s definitely having a negative effect on the film industry as we now know it, but that doesn’t have to be a negative thing over all. Things evolve over time. Segments of the industry didn’t like the addition of sound to films and many directors complained about switching to a widescreen aspect ratio at first. At the end of the day we’re in the business of telling stories and finding a way for those stories to reach an audience. Part of the compromise you make whenever communicating is to communicate in a way that reaches the audience. You can tell the best story ever, but if you tell it to an empty room – what’s the point? I love classic films and while I would love to make a film like Lawrence of Arabia or Rebecca, I’m not sure who would watch it. You have to reconcile your desire to make films with the need to sell tickets, there’s no real way around that.
Do you have any tips or advice for people reading this that may want to get involved in script writing and directing?