It should be a time of joy for Sarah (Olivia Applegate) and Brian (Kevin Changaris), the couple at the center of “Sleep Study,” just having given birth to their first child. At the start of Natalie Metzger’s eerie entry into “Bite Size Halloween” on Hulu, the biggest fear for the two would seem to be Sarah having a handle on her breast pumps as she goes back to work after maternity leave, but as Brian notes of their newborn, “She learned to do her nights a whole lot better than you have…” thinking that they may have been experiencing an earthquake, given the full-body shakes his wife is having. It isn’t the baby that keeps them up awake, but a recurring vision that Sara has of a grim reaper-like figure that lurks in the shadows of her bedroom, threatening to suck out her soul. Of course, not getting a good night’s rest leads to a somnambulant state all the time for Sarah, who starts to have trouble discerning the darkest corners of her imagination from her daily routine and isn’t bound to relax anytime soon.
The film marks a bold first foray into the horror genre for Metzger as a director after starting her filmmaking career directing documentaries before turning her attention to producing at Vanishing Angle. (The two paths converged earlier this year in the enchanting “Dress a Cow,” her collaboration with “Greener Grass” co-director Dawn Luebbe about a bovine beauty pageant that has become a festival favorite). After producing “The Snow of Wolf Hollow” and “Werewolves Within,” the filmmaker shows she can scare audiences with the best of them, placing audiences in the slippery semiconsciousness of Sarah as she drifts through postpartum, knocking about a house she no longer feels at home in where she can’t be sure she’s chasing ghosts or being chased by one herself and a sleek use of steadicam gives way to a messy reality check. With the film now streaming on Hulu, Metzger spoke about how the dark idea entered her own thoughts and what it took to pull it off on screen so chillingly, as well as reuniting with Applegate and Changaris, with whom she worked with on “The Beta Test” and the little production design details that make the film so engaging.
How did this come about?
I’m a bit of a science nerd, and I was reading a lot of books about the neuroscience of the brain, specifically around sleep disorders and sleep deprivation. When 20th Digital asked if I had anything in the horror realm, I was like, “I think I can write something about this.” We filmed it actually at my house in my bedroom. I was really worried that I was going to be haunted by terrible dreams, but I’ve actually been sleeping really well.
Is it fun where you can think of this place that you live in as this house of horrors?
Yeah, it was pretty fun and I ended up doing the production design because I’m like, “I’m living here. I can just build it out how I think it should be,” so I dismantled my office and turned it into a nursery, and got to switch out all the art on the walls and all that fun stuff and it was actually a lot of fun to just be like, “Cool, how messed up can I make things in my own house?”
The books for expectant parents were a really amusing touch that it looked like you made yourself. Who came up with “Dadhood for Dudes”?
That was a joint effort where I was just brainstorming with Matt [Miller] and with Charlie, who was helping us out with some of the graphics. I was just like, “What are some weird dad parenting book titles?” and we ended up coming up with a lot that ended up existing. I was like, “Really? This is a real title?” But we ended up finding a few that were unique, and “Dadhood for Dudes” was my favorite.
How did you find your leads?
Olivia Applegate and Kevin Changaris are amazing to work with, and even though they were both in “The Beta Test,” they hadn’t had any scenes together, so they didn’t really know each other, but they knew of each other and it was really fun to start doing rehearsals and just seeing the natural chemistry that existed between them. They both gave such incredible performances, it made my job very, very easy.
What was it like figuring out how to shoot this? It has these amazing long takes.
Having each scene be a single take was actually really important to me because in my mind when you’re dealing with these blurry lines between dream and reality, having something where you’re just living in the scene, not cutting to anything, it makes it feel like when something weird or messed up starts happening it feels like it’s actually grounded in this space, so it feels part of the reality and when I pitched it to the [cinematographer Nick Matthews] he was like, “Okay, cool.” And I’m like, “But there’s one scene that starts upstairs, goes downstairs, goes back upstairs, goes downstairs, there’s stunts on either end, and it’s all going to be a single take.” We were like, “Okay, how do we figure this out?” There was a lot of prep ahead of time of figuring out just the mechanics of it, [wondering] it going to be possible?
Something that I didn’t take into consideration was how complicated the bed is and because so much of it takes place in a bed, I [thought], “Yeah, we can move the camera around,” but getting a central place where the camera can move all around them was actually really difficult. The only way to pull it off was with a jib and going overhead, but then the rest was mostly gimbal work, and we had a really talented camera operator [in] Gray Morrison, who really helped make it look smooth.
I don’t want to spoil the magic too much, but the shadowy tormentor is really impressive and I suspect had to be a mix of visual and practical effects. How did you conceive that?
The shadow figure was one of the most fun things to bring to life. I knew that it was going to be a mix of practical and VFX, but Joey Wilson, the stunt guy that ended up coming on, was amazing in making this come to life. Originally, I was going to cast a dancer because I wanted it to have this kind of otherworldly sense of movement, but then with how complicated the stuff they were doing, it was like, “Oh, this has to be a stunt person.”Joey ended up making it feel in the room like he was hovering and [I told him], “I don’t know how you’re doing this, but it’s amazing.” Then Justin Sarceno, our VFX artist, just did an amazing job enhancing that and making him do all the things that can’t be done physically.
I imagine that there was a lot of rehearsal that went into both physically pulling this off, but also getting this couple feeling like they’ve been a couple for some time. Was there anything that came out of that process?
Actually putting it on its feet and blocking it out brought all these different ideas of, “We can actually frame this, and this will actually reveal that.” But the biggest thing that came up was the ending, where initially it was just going to be focused on the clock, but instead I realized, “Oh, if we’re on the baby monitor, we can actually hear downstairs,” and in realizing that, I [thought], “Oh, cool.”
The music is wonderful in this. What was it like to put a score on it?
Jacques Brautbar, our composer, was absolutely amazing to work with. I wanted to have that same grounded feel that these single takes were bringing in, so I wanted it to not just be a fully electronic score, and he was down for trying to really give it that feel of real instrumentation and then he just added in these little enhancements that were so fun, like when the shadow figure enters her mouth, he takes this violin and just makes it go so high that it turns into this scream. I [thought], “Oh my gosh, you are giving her a voice when she literally can’t have a voice,” so it was those little enhancements that it was so fun to have such a talented collaborator on.
You’ve been actively involved in all of these horror shoots of late as a producer. Was it fun to helm one yourself?
It was. Actually, it’s my first time directing anything in the horror space, except for maybe a super experimental dance theater piece I did back in the day, so it was a lot of fun.