Interview: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo on the Undefined Fears That Let in “Intruders”

It’s unusual to find a truly beautiful idea at the center of a horror film, but there’s something deeply romantic about “Intruders,” the latest film from “28 Weeks Later” helmer Juan Carlos Frensadillo that posits an unfinished story can leave behind a host of terrors if not given the proper closure. Any writer can attest to this particular nightmare from personal experience, but in the form of a bedtime tale imparted by a mother (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) to her young son (Izan Corchero)  in Spain that trails off right before the end, it becomes a reality as a facially undefined villain with the appropriate name of “Hollow Face” is left lurking in the shadows, consigned to haunting those who fail to erase the ellipsis.

In the film, this means trouble for both the Spanish family who first originated the story and later the Farrows, a British family that stumbles upon it through their (also appropriately named) young daughter Mia (Ella Purnell), who discovers there’s a greater punishment for passing it off as her own for a class assignment than she could’ve ever expected. However, for its filmmaker Fresnadillo, it opens up the possibility of tapping into the deeply personal fear of alienation – from family, from country and from religion – as the parallel relationships between Mia and her father John (Clive Owen) and Luisa and her son Juan deteriorate into the same uncertain, ambiguous emotional terrain that would seem to forever damn Hollow Face from ever becoming whole. During a recent stop at the SXSW Film Festival, Fresnadillo explained the novel way into a popcorn flick, as well as the key difference between fear and horror and the presence of intruders in real life.   

CliveOwenIntrudersHow did you become interested in this story?

It’s funny because normally, the process for my previous movies was always the same — I had an image that I developed for probably one year and then that image becomes a story. But in this particular case, it was completely the opposite. It was based in a conversation with my producers about the possibility of making a movie about a family having some special nightmare and how that nightmare is the result of a previous fear of that family. But then little by little, we came to the idea of splitting the story into two families because my goal in this movie is to explain that sometimes the past is affecting you in a very deep level, but you don’t know that. You think that you’re living in some kind of present, but the reality is the past is triggering many things that are happening in the present time.

Your own past is reflected to a certain degree by setting the film in England, where you last filmed “28 Weeks Later,” and your homeland of Spain. Why was that cultural duality interesting to you?

Working with two languages and two cultures came from the idea that no matter [how far] you go away from the problem – no matter if you change your country [or] your language, your ghosts are traveling with you always. That family [in England], which has this kind of nightmare thing, is coming from another country and another culture. On the other hand, working in my language, it allowed me to go deep into my own culture and especially my own fears because this movie came from some kind of personal feeling about my childhood, some experiences I had when I was a kid and some stories that my mother told me about my family and other stories that nobody told me at the time and that I knew later in my life and how sometimes in your family, there’s secrets that nobody likes to tell, but those secrets are affecting the life of the family in a very sinister way. Which is more or less what’s happening in the Spanish story.

CariceVanHoutenIntrudersYou wouldn’t know unless you were familiar with them from other films, but there’s a fascinating and unsettling subtext to “Intruders” in that many of the roles are played by actors speaking in a language that’s not their own. The Dutch actress Carice van Houten speaks English with a British accent and Daniel Brühl, who was born in Spain but has always spoken German onscreen. Was that something you were specifically looking for?

The idea to make it an international cast comes from the idea of trying to make a global portrait of fear. There is some feeling in Europe that I think is very important to tell you, which is apparently we are a continent and we are living through the same currency, money, whatever, but in fact, we’re completely different from each other. We feel like intruders with the other ones. I wanted to play on that idea about working with different actors with different accents because we are showing how the fear and the menace comes from the idea that you speak and you come from a different place. For example with the mother [played by van Houten], she has a completely different accent than the father and the daughter [played by native Brits Clive Owen and Ella Purnell] and then she becomes a kind of intruder in that relationship because of that. So playing with that perception, it’s interesting to convey as you said, some kind of unsettling feeling about the origin of everyone in the story.

Did the dual storylines make this a tough film to put together?

Yes, it was the most difficult time in the movie because it was so complex to create the proper rhythm to jump from one story into the other one, especially because we’re jumping from one language into another. It was a mess for the audience because it was so difficult to follow the story, but then at the end, I think we found properly some kind of hypnotic rhythm. All the materials including the sound and the music create some kind of mystery mood that I think it works so well in terms of the cutting and especially having in mind that you have to reach the ending fresh and with the necessity of knowing about what’s really going on in the story, but it was so difficult to find that proper rhythm.

IntrudersWas doing a more romantic horror film without much gore something that was appealing to you?

In some ways, “Intruders” is the reaction after “28 Weeks Later.” In fact, I always say that “28 Weeks Later” was a proper horror movie because it shows that feeling – the terror – when you’re in front of the monster and the only option that you have is running away. But “Intruders” is exploring another dimension, which is I think previous to horror – which is fear. In fear, you’re pondering many possibilities about something which is not happening. It’s about to happen. Then you consider many theories about the possibility of seeing the ghost in your house. I love that moment [of] fear because it tells you many things about the characters. More than something about the monster. In every single possibility that you’re thinking about, it’s reflecting or showing a hole in your personality or some kind of trauma in your life. That’s why it was very important on this movie not to show blood and to be a little bit more introverted and contemplative about what’s going on in these houses. It was more about the atmosphere that we create and [what] we feel just before the horror.

You’ve been attached to direct several remakes and reboots in recent years. Was it refreshing to do something original?

In terms of my career, I decided to play in both gardens — the commercial side, the more personal side — because one to the other [is] feeding some important things for me. I can develop very important skills in the commercial movies and I really love popcorn movies with soul because when I was a kid, I was raised with those movies. But I need to feed my soul as well with my personal stuff. By now, I think I’m doing well [in terms of balance]. “28 Weeks Later” shows so well what is my intention every time that I make a commercial or popcorn movie. It’s introducing some unique vision or personality that could trespass the genre and with my personal movies, I do the same. If you jump from one side to the other, I think it’s the best thing you can do as a filmmaker.

"Intruders" opens in limited release on March 30th.

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