There are many chilling moments in Jennifer Harlow’s atmospheric thriller “The Sideways Light” as a young woman named Lily (Lindsay Burdge) wonders whether her demented mother’s visions of ghosts are actually real, but while shooting the picture, first-time writer/director Harlow had an even greater fear – the dog that they were charged with taking care of by the owners who let them film in their home.
“They went out of town [while we were filming] and they were like, “Just look after the dog, make sure it has water,'” recalled Harlow. “We went back there and could not find the dog. We lost our minds. We were like, ‘We’re going to lose our location. They’re going to kick us out. What are we going to do?’”
Perhaps that contributed to the anxiety that permeates “The Sideways Light,” and although Harlow and crew can laugh about it now, having eventually found the dog which had burrowed itself into a hole behind the house, there is no such relief for audiences as Harlow creates an unusually tense and unsettling thriller from the uncertainty and pain that come from a relative experiencing the ravages of age. With a bewitching score from “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” composer Daniel Hart, a creative and indelible conjuring of light on the part of “Sun Don’t Shine” cinematographer Jay Keitel and an unguarded central performance from “A Teacher” star Burdge, the film transcends the usual scares of supernatural horror by tapping into Lily’s more existential fear of following in her mother’s footsteps when she learns the dementia is genetic.
Shortly after the film’s premiere in Austin, Harlow, Burdge and Matthew Newton, who gives “The Sideways Light” a much needed levity as the Aussie bartender who begins to slip into Lily’s thoughts as much as the spectre of ghosts, spoke about the family that formed on the tight-knit production, the practical joke that nearly upended it and how they achieved the film’s perfectly subtle yet surreal vibe.
How did this one come about?
Jennifer Harlow: I decided I wanted to write a script, so I took a dash of personal experience and a dash of the supernatural, which I’m super interested in, mixed them together and out came “The Sideways Light.” I wrote a really short treatment, let [producer] Jenny Goddard-Garcia read it, she loved it. She was like, “Let’s make that movie.” I wrote a first draft, let Matthew read it, he was like, “It’s great, let’s make that movie.” Wrote a couple more drafts, let Lindsay read it, she agreed so there it was.
Lindsay Burdge: I had met Jen and Mark [Reeb, Jen’s husband and producer] at South By [Southwest] two years before. We just liked each other a lot, and then when they sent me the script, I was really interested in the mother-daughter relationship and the supernatural element and it just seemed like a really sweet, lovely story. I’m very excited with where it went and how it turned out.
Matthew Newton: We met a couple years ago [too]. I had a film [“Three Blind Mice”] that I wrote and directed, which came here and Mark was in a film at that festival and we just all fell together and became really good friends. I was actually staying at their house two years ago and Jen said, “I’ve got this script. It’s just the first draft.” I think it was like 60 pages and I literally took it outside and walked back in 45 minutes later and said, “This is great. We should do this.” Then a year later she called me and said, “We’re on.” When someone like Jen says that to you, you just go, “Yeah.”
Jennifer Harlow: I had Matthew in mind when I wrote Abe. I knew that I wanted it to be somebody with an accent just because I know when I was a little girl, I was fascinated with the guy with the English or Australian or Irish accent, so he was drafted early on.
Matthew Newton: There’s sort of an otherness about Abe in a weird way in the same way that there’s an otherness about the house.
How did you find the house?
Jennifer Harlow: The Texas Phone Commission helped us find the house. We just sent them the requirements of what we needed and they sent us back a list. I was actually out of town when our producers Mark Reeb and Jenny Goddard-Garcia went to scout this location and they called me and they were like, “This is it.” It’s a 160-year-old, historic home and it has been used as a shooting location before, so having owners that knew what that was going to be was very helpful. They were so accommodating, they let us leave our equipment overnight. Not only was it great for the look of the film and for the feeling that it gave the actors, but it was great for production.
On a film like this, I imagine the atmosphere was crucial for the actors since there are so many scenes where so much is going on internally rather external action. Was it an unusually quiet set?
Lindsay Burdge: That was kind of rare, I guess.
Jennifer Harlow: I don’t know why I decided to write the hardest thing to show, which is an internal psychological struggle. It’s like “that should be a novel… let’s make it into a movie!”
Lindsay Burdge: But that’s funny. For me, that’s what living is like. There’s always so much going on, even when we’re on our own, sometimes especially when I’m on my own. So it was natural to be engaging with just the space in that way or imaginary elements. That’s fun for an actor to do.
Matthew Newton: There was a great atmosphere that Jen set up. We didn’t have to achieve anything. We didn’t even get a sense that you had to flag things to help the film along, so you could just be in the space. But when we were interacting with each other, Jen just would come and work with that, which is the mark of a great director. I never felt once, “Oh I should do this because that’s going to aid the story in this way or can you make this scarier?” You were able to just be present and it just felt like life.
Living up to the title, the film’s lit in a very intriguing way. How did that lighting scheme come about?
Jennifer Harlow: The title came first and in talking to our cinematographer Jay Keitel in pre-production, he started talking about different filters that he wanted to use. He sent me an equipment list that had this 1mm filter on it and he was like, “It’s literally going to create a sideways light.” And I wrote him back and said, “You can’t have a film called ‘The Sideways Light’ without some horizontal flares.” So that’s how it came about. He wanted, and I absolutely agreed with him, that everything that happens in this mystical, magical house had to have a very definite look. So we used filters and we saturated the color in post that really creates the mood.
Did that affect the actors? It must’ve been something to work with.
Lindsay Burdge: Yeah, it was such a relief. I don’t often look at the footage while they’re shooting, but when I did first see the look of it, it was like, “Oh thank God.” To actually have them conveying the feelings that the character’s going through was so helpful for the audience and takes a lot of pressure off of me.
Jennifer Harlow: Because the pressure was all on you. Lindsay worked every day all day. She was in every single scene.
Lindsay Burdge: It’s like you’re saying, it’s a very subtle thing [in the film] – the feelings, space and time. It just helps to have it conveyed so effectively and beautifully through the imagery. I was just really stunned. Then you can feel freer, sit back, just be present and trust that it’s going to come through. That was really nice for me. I thought Jay was great to work with.
Matthew Newton: Yeah, he’s amazing. He’s so unintrusive. Literally five minutes after arriving in the house, they were checking something on the monitor and it would be shots of you walking down the street and right at the end, there’s that beautiful flare. I usually don’t watch anything [on the monitors after a scene], but I just looked over the shoulder and saw three seconds of it and this sense of ease just went through me and I went, “I thought I don’t need to think. All I need to do is be real and that will take care of everything.”
It must’ve been interesting to have a film where most of the cast have made films of their own.
Jennifer Harlow: It’s incredibly helpful being around other filmmakers that understand every part of the process and understand, on this project, this is my role but you can sympathize with what every other person is doing.
Matthew Newton: I’ve worked with a couple of people who were just very keen to establish who they are on the set and what their job is and it takes an incredibly confident, talented person – and I’m not saying this just because [Jennifer’s] sitting here – but Jen is confident in her own ability. We’re there because of what she’s written and what she’s doing and she was amazing in going, “What can you do?” When you’ve got a room full of people [that creates] a sense of relaxation around things because a set can be a strange place for a new person. When you come in, you instantly feel like you’re going to trip over something – there’s equipment everywhere. But there was a total sense of relaxation on this set.
Lindsay Burdge: It really felt like a family. I find myself saying this about independent films so often, but this one especially felt like a family down to the very last person. Literally, two of the people on the set are getting married this weekend. Amanda and the people who [made] the food were bringing us these amazing meals. Every single day, they would sit there and watch us eat. Down to the very last detail, it was lovely.
Matthew Newton: They’re always so excited. They come and sit and they’d be like, “We’ve got this amazing thing today.”
Jennifer Harlow: Maybe just because we were in a house.
Lindsay Burdge: No, you did that, Jen. Lots of movies are in one house.
While I’d hate to break up the lovefest, was there anything particularly difficult or challenging about the shoot?
Matthew Newton: I remember I staged a fight with someone. [laughs]
Lindsay Burdge: That was going on for a long time.
Matthew Newton: Jen told me that one of the crew members was a fellow Australian, so I got there, and I’m [meeting everyone] and he’s a cool guy –
Jennifer Harlow: Michael Wilson. Great at accents.
Matthew Newton: He introduced himself and as soon as he did, I went, “There’s something not right about this guy.” I walked away and [thought],”Terrible, this is like the worst practical joke.” Literally she’s kind of doing the psychological version of “chchchch.” So I went up [one day] and asked him a question, “Do you follow the [fictional] Sydney Eagles?” And he was like, “Yeah, mate, yeah. Absolutely.” And I [thought], “Yeah, you’re not frikin Australian.” I kept it going for about a week. I just played along with it. [Jennifer’s] husband Mark knew from day one.
Jennifer Harlow: So everybody knew that he knew, except for me.
Matthew Newton: He would come up next to me on set and go, “Good day mate!” And I’m on the inside going, “I’m going to fuck you up.” I busted him, I took him aside and said, “I know.” And he was like, “Oh my god, I’ve been so stressed.” So what we did was we staged a big argument. I outed him and I went like, “Are you even Australian?” And he was like, “No mate, it was a joke. I’m sorry.” And I was like, “Fuck that.”
Jennifer Harlow: [Matthew] was like, “Are you making fun of my accent?”
Matthew Newton: “Me? My country?” Then Jen came out and started screaming, it was amazing.
Jennifer Harlow: Matthew storms off, he runs upstairs and I’m like, “Oh my god. What do we do? I told Michael, “You have to go apologize to Matthew.”
Matthew Newton: Then we all just came down and Michael and I started dancing and we had a laugh.
Jennifer Harlow: And then I kicked your ass.
Matthew Newton: You did. She ran after me.
Jennifer Harlow: I took you down.
Lindsay Burdge: I was just talking to ghosts somewhere by myself while all this was happening.