They Remain is a slow burn thriller from writer-director Philip Gelatt. His sophomore film is an adaption of Laird Barron’s “--30--“, a story of two scientists on an observational study where the land was once occupied by a cult. As days pass, the two begin to meld hallucinations with reality, slowing taking a toll their relationship and themselves. This is the first onscreen adaption of Barron's work and a fine introduction into the New Weird.
How did you come across Laird Barron’s short story and why did you want to adapt it?
I had been a fan of Laird’s work for a few years. Then, after Europa Report was completed, I was fishing around for material that I could direct myself. It was around then that his novel The Croning came out and that spurred me to go back and read more of his earlier work. And lead to my first reading of “—30—.”
I’ll admit that my first reading of the story left me frustrated and confused and a little aggravated. But it also made me want to go back and re-read the story and examine it for clues and details that I’d missed on my first read. So, I did. And then I read it again after that. The more I read it, the more I fell in love with it and the more it seemed like exactly the kind of thing I wanted to try to bring to the screen.
I know that the short story is set in a desert and after seeing the film, it's hard for me to picture these two characters within that setting since deserts are so open. Budget aside, would you have rather shot in a desert or do you think the forest backdrop enhances your adaption?
When I set out to make the film, my first instinct was that it had to be the desert. But quickly it became clear that, for budgetary reasons, I wasn’t going to be able to shoot in the desert. And, on a movie of this budget, you have to be malleable and do the absolute best you can with the materials at hand. So, I set about trying to figure out how to use the forest setting for maximum effect. I moved up to our set about two months before we started shooting so that I could really get a sense of it. Immerse myself in it. I think ultimately the forest gave us a lot. In particular, it gave us an amazing color palette to work with. Those greens are like their own character in the film. And yeah, now I also have a hard time imagining this story in the desert.
What is your take on the quote “does every cult resemble a family or does every family resemble a cult?”
I’m not sure that I have a definitive answer to the question. It’s an unsettling thing to ask because it makes a person think about their own family, and how it works and what ugly truths might be hidden there. Noone wants to think their own family is like a cult and yet… well. I’ll say this: I gave that line to Jessica because I think it points to deeper truths about her psychology. Both characters have fraught personal lives and backstories that they reveal through course of the film. Those backstories are largely handled only through dialogue, but they are massively important to what happens in the film. That line is particularly telling for where she is coming from and how she views interpersonal relations.
The first thing about this film that grabbed my attention was the score. It was really unsettling and gave me some Texas Chainsaw vibes. Did you work with Tom Keohane on what you wanted the film to sound like or did he have free rein?
Tom did such amazing work! I brought him on during pre-production to compose some pieces based just on the script and the short story. Basically, I wanted his initial impression of the mood of the story before we’d shot a single frame of the film. Then in the editing process, I had his early pieces to use as temp score to help me get my rough cut together. It was immensely useful. Once we had a final cut, the real scoring process began. I basically gave Tom some overarching notes and ideas and then sent him off to do as he saw fit. It’s hard a movie to score. I kept pushing him to use the music to cue the audience to off-screen elements while still maintaining a certain uncertainty to everything. Not easy to do but, man, he did a great job. For anyone interested, he is going to put the score up on bandcamp. It’s not up yet but it will be in the next week or so.
How did you decide what shots to put in the film without it feeling repetitive? There’s really only the two leads in a limited location, but it’s paced very well and is visually striking.
That the story had a very limited cast in a pretty limited location was honestly one of the things that attracted me to it. I thought I would learn so much as a director having to work with those constraints. How do you handle dialogue scene after dialogue scene when there are only two characters? It really limits your tool set.
So, it wasn’t easy, at all. There were only so many ways to shoot the inside of that structure. We tried to approach each scene carefully, making sure that if we were repeating shot setups, we were at least doing something slightly different with them. Different lightly effects, slightly different compositions and then later, different sound elements.
I hate to sound sort of pretentious, but basically the goal was to find the central idea of each scene and make sure the shots were emphasizing that. What is a scene about, either emotionally or tonally or narratively? Once you’ve honed in on that, it becomes a little easier to figure out how to make the visual element stand out.
What do you want audiences to take away from your film?
Weird to say it, but I hope they’re a little frustrated by it. I hope they feel how I felt when I read the story for the first time: aggravated but wanting to figure out just what the hell is going on.
I tried very hard to construct the film so that the audience’s position was similar Keith’s. You’re looking for something that you can’t see. You’re not sure if you can trust anything that’s going on. And the deeper you get into the mission, the more everything seems to slip away.
It’s a film full of details and strange visual connections. It’s meant to be explored and re-examined and re-interpreted. My biggest hope is that, for the right kind of audience, it’s a movie that will bear multiple viewings and yield something new each time.
You said that the single strongest influence on this film was “The Weird”. What are your favorite pieces, in film and/or literature, of this genre?
Lately, I’ve been very into Robert Aickman’s work. He defined himself as a writer of “strange tales” but I guess I’d put that in the same category as the weird. His work is marvelous on the level of craft and he manages to build emotional metaphors that kind of mutated and turn themselves inside out. It’s exciting work.
There is a real renaissance of Weird fiction going on right now. So many great writers are working in the genre. To name a few: Livia Llewellyn, Michael Griffin, Gemma Files, Scott Nicolay, Simon Strantzas, Nathan Ballingrud. The list goes on and on...
In film, it’s hard to say. There are very few properly Weird pieces of cinema. I tend to find it in the cracks and off-moments of films not considered Weird. For example, I’ve argued in the past that Kubrick’s The Shining, despite its reputation as a haunted house film, is actually a deeply Weird movie. The way it evades easy interpretation, the way its details don’t add up, the psychological disorientation of it. It’s a film full of strangeness. There is also I think an element of the Weird in some of Altman’s ‘70s work. Specifically, Images and 3 Women. They’re surreal films that flirt with horror and play with ideas of decentralized identity. There are no monsters in them, of course, but they both have a great, overwhelming atmosphere of strangeness. Oh, and I just saw this British film The Shout based on a story by Robert Graves. Some excellently weird material in there.
With an infinite budget and unlimited resources, what project would you like take on?
AH! This question is so hard! I’ll say this… I love the fantasy genre. I’d love to do a Karl Edward Wagner film. And by that, I mean something with his character Kane, specifically. Kane is a Conan-like wandering swordsman but he’s also immortal and deeply immoral. There are some amazingly cinematic Kane stories.
I also love the work of M. John Harrison. I don’t think a book like Light is really adaptable, but if I had unlimited resources, I would love to give it a try.
Lastly, what's next for you?
I’ve been doing a lot of for-hire screenwriting. Mostly science-fiction stuff, none of it that I can really talk about. As far as for me as director? I’m not quite sure. I’ve got a few things I’m developing currently, all of them either horror or horror-adjacent. Not sure which of them will get off the ground first but I’m very excited to get back into director-mode.
They Remain will open theatrically in New York (Village East Cinema) on March 2
and Los Angeles (Laemmle Music Hall) on March 9, with a national release to follow.