“It’s. Never. Easy.”: Thommy Hutson on The Id
Thommy Hutson’s new film The Id features a lot of conventions familiar to fans of low-budget horror – limited locations, handheld camerawork, a subjective point of view linked to a protagonist with a fractured psyche – but it stands apart from the crowd thanks to Hutson’s subtle and beautiful approach to color, space, and psychology. The film, which arrives on Blu-ray today, is an eerie character study that follows Meridith (Amanda Wyss), a woman torn between the horrors of caring for an abusive father and the fear of the unknown that comes with escaping the only life she’s ever known. As the possibility of a new future becomes increasingly viable, Meridith’s power struggle with her tyrannical father intensifies and Hutson ratchets up the tension, keeping the viewer on edge with an ambiguous approach to Meridith’s character married to a clear, precise visual approach. The result is a deeply unsettling thriller that’s as moving as it is frightening; a hellish glimpse behind the closed doors of suburbia with skillful, provocative direction that has echoes of early Polanski.
Although The Id is Hutson’s first feature as director, he’s got a long list of credits as a screenwriter, producer, and non-fiction filmmaker – among horror fans he’s best known for his work on comprehensive documentaries on the making of the Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and Friday the 13th series. On the eve of The Id’s Blu-ray release following a series of successful festival screenings, I spoke with Hutson about making the transition from writing and producing to directing, and about making the most of limited resources in a difficult climate for independent films.
Filmmaker: Given that you’re a writer, I was a little surprised to see that your directorial debut was a script written by someone else.
Thommy Hutson: I really did have in mind that I would write the first project I directed, but the circumstances and timing prevented it. A lot of it had to do with the financing. I had met one of the executive producers, Joe [Robinett], and he and I discussed working on something together because he liked my previous work. The budget we discussed was not something conducive to anything I had in my stable of already written scripts at the moment and I was also in prep on another project. But as so many filmmakers know, especially in the indie world, financing is so difficult to come by, so this was not an opportunity I wanted to let slip by. I then spoke with [producer] Dan Farrands, as we were both looking to produce another feature together, about a kernel of an idea I had that could be written by someone else. Dan and I batted around the basic storyline and then I went to a writer, Sean [H. Stewart], with whom I had previously worked on another project. I gave him all of the parameters Dan and I had come up with and off he went. So even though I didn’t write the script, I felt a really strong connection to the material, because it was born out of a concept I had wanted to do and brought in the writer. And as drafts were coming in, I had a heavy hand in the development. There were certain things I knew I wanted to see, things I wanted the characters to do, to say, and the writer and I had lengthy conversations about bridging what I was envisioning in my head with what he was putting down on the page. It was a really great, fun and collaborative process. There were also a lot of things that ultimately had to be changed because of the way the script was written and how it would ultimately play out once we locked in our location. The main issue was the film was written to take place in a one-level ranch home, but the location was a tri-level. It was actually one of those make-it-work moments that really allowed me to think on my toes and use the house to the film’s creative benefit, I think. While it forced us to rethink some of the elements we wanted but couldn’t do because of the location limitations, it also freed us up to create some new scenes, action and character motivation that might not have occurred otherwise.
Filmmaker: Presumably the location limitations also influence your visual design?
Hutson: Yes, a lot was dictated by the location, since most of the movie takes place inside the house. My feeling was that the house was a character of sorts in that it represented both sanctuary and prison for Meridith (Amanda Wyss). It was a place that, as much as she had hoped to leave, was also the one place that made her feel safe – or at least gave her the illusion of safe since she literally never leaves it. I talked a lot about the threshold and front door of the home being almost like a barricade; it was something she didn’t cross over to get out and something she didn’t want anyone crossing over to get inside. A lot of drama happens at that door between Meridith and another character, so I ended up having a mirror put onto a wall (which we built) so the interior of the house could be seen in its reflection. I wanted to play with the idea of what was seen through a person’s own eyes and what was seen in reflection and how that alters perception. It was a small thing, but it really worked out and allowed me to get some interesting shots.
Color was important as well, and something the DP and I talked a lot about prior to shooting. The location was almost exclusively, except for one room, white. Plain, white walls everywhere! I thought on one hand it worked since the characters weren’t the type to go out of their way to paint and decorate, but it worried me since it could just look flat and boring. So as we talked things through I kept thinking I wanted to see shades of red, since it can be both a soft color in pink and an angry color as it gets darker. It was why I wanted Meridith’s room to be pink, because it represented the soft side of the little girl she was sort of trapped as being. That room was one of the many amazing feats by our production designer, Janel [Pitch]; it was actually a man’s room with computers and action figures and toys and standees, but she worked to transform it into Meridith’s little shrine to her youth. The other room we painted was the room in which her father (played by Patrick Peduto) stays and we made that the deep, dark red. It was a subtle differentiation between the two characters. That decision was also borne out of the fact that the owners would only let us paint two rooms!
Filmmaker: How about camera movement? Again, it seems that one of the challenges would be working in such a confined space.
Hutson: In terms of camera movement, I wanted to get as much out of the space as I possibly could, even though a lot of the rooms were small and presented issues to get the people and equipment in that we needed. Early on I had thought of having scenes that take place within the house with Meridith and the father to be handheld, which would give those aspects a slight docudrama feeling, but then switching over to sticks and dolly tracks when we see the outside world, such as with [the characters] Tricia or Ted and Dana. I realized, after conversations with the DP [Athit Naik], that our tight schedule would probably not allow so much variation. We couldn’t be sure that we would have gotten all of the coverage we had planned if we went with the two styles, so we went with handheld for the entire shoot, which ended up working well, I think. I was glad, though, to have had use of a Steadicam for one sequence, which lent a dreamy and strange quality compared to the rest of the film. The lighting also played a part in the story of the film because it continually, as the film goes on, showcased the house becoming dustier. Even when there’s bright daylight outside there’s a feeling of oppression and suffocation in the house that makes it feel smaller and smaller to Meridith.
One thing I remember talking with the DP about is the use of lamps; he wanted lamps on all the time, even in the day, which I thought might be strange at first, but it ended up working out nicely to juxtapose warmth when things were really dark and upsetting. I was happy with the way it all came together in the editing, where I think a lot of the stylistic choices came to life: the filters on the fantasy and nightmare moments, which I did not just utilize for effect but to show that the things in Meridith’s mind, her memories that she so desperately clings to, are murky and strange. I specifically chose to utilize split screen during two moments to showcase the dreary monotony of Meridith’s life on one hand, and then her deciding to take matters into her own hands on another. The moments are almost polar opposites of each other and I think the split screen helped convey the information quickly and creatively. And, ultimately, I chose to have the film colored in a way that had the feeling of an old Polaroid, where some colors were rich, some were muted, and there is a graininess to things. It’s the idea that the photograph at first seems great, but as you look at it more and more, and later and later, you realize it’s faded and worn and not the best representation of the moment. I wanted to play with that concept because, to me, that is Meridith’s life: she has an idea of what things should be, but the reality is grittier than she would like to admit, and certainly not perfect or pleasant!
Filmmaker: How does having worked as a producer affect your selection of crew? Do you think having produced influences your approach in this regard and what you look for?
Hutson: It absolutely helped and I think really made for a fantastic shoot. Knowing as a producer the kind of crew I wanted and knew we needed really helped make a difference. You always want a crew that is going to deliver under every circumstance, but for this project, which really was a tight budget and a short schedule (the mantra, “So indie it hurts” was said quite often!), we knew going in that there was very little room for error. The people on the team had to be fast, efficient and accurate in everything they were doing and I am so happy to say that they were. And I really do believe that the best sets are places where the crew is enjoying what they are doing and on what they are working, so I tried to make sure that the people coming on board understood what I was going for, that there were going to be some tough days to make, but that it was going to be a good experience. And, frankly, I made sure to let people know that this was my first time in the director’s chair. I didn’t want there to be any surprises. It was important to me that they knew that, which I think helped things move more smoothly. Everyone really rose to the task and I feel lucky to have been supported by all of them on my first feature as a director. The best part was seeing so many of them at the first screening and seeing their reactions. It can sometimes be hard to see how the movie is going to click and fit together when you’re on set — it’s take after take, you’re tired and hungry and all that. But to know that so many crew loved how the final project came together was a great feeling. I was happy as I really wanted them to be proud of the work they did as much as I was proud of the hard work and dedication they put forth.
Filmmaker: How did you select your actors, and what kinds of conversations did you have with them before shooting?
Hutson: The nice thing was I know Amanda as a friend and I also know all of her work. I immediately knew she could pull off the role of Meridith, which required someone who could bring a lot of layers: pathos, sadness, anger, rage, all while being sympathetic. It was a real balancing act to make sure that her character wasn’t over the top and she found a way in that really made it work. So Amanda was cast immediately and she and I spoke a lot about making sure that Meridith was grounded in reality; granted, she could have a slightly askew sense of things, but the goal was that while she might say or do something that could be perceived as odd by others, she believed everything is fine. Also, because the character is on almost every page of the script, we went through things together to make sure that what she was saying and doing was really organic and flowed.
For the other roles, we held auditions. For the father, which is a character that could have been staid and flat because they are laying down or in a wheelchair a lot of the time, it was interesting to see how the potential actors read the character in auditions. It ultimately came down to two people, and they had very, very different takes. Ultimately Patrick was cast and what I liked about him was his ability to be frightening with his words, even when quiet. You could see the wheels turning on how his character was going to pick at the scabs between he and Meridith. That was something that really came through when he read against Amanda. I know something I asked Patrick to do was take a look at certain characters in other films, one of them being Margaret White in Carrie. There’s a tiny taste and hint of religious fanaticism in the film and what I wanted him to pick up on was Piper Laurie’s ability to be pretty close to absolutely insane, but incredibly grounded and real so you think, “She’s nuts, but I sort of get it. What’s wrong with me!?” Most of the other roles are really the types I referred to as the “outside world” people. I kept mentioning to the talent that you know something is going on and it’s up to you to decide if you are going to do something about it or not, and we should sense that conflict. I am happy that concept felt present and real and was something that actually brought some dark humor to the proceedings!
Filmmaker: Tell me a little about the shoot. How many days did you have? How much preplanning did you do of your shots — were there storyboards and/or shot lists, or did you take a more intuitive, in the moment approach (or somewhere in between)?
Hutson: The shoot was scheduled for ten days and we had to get a lot in every day, I think somewhere around nine to ten pages a day. That was daunting, but we really found a good rhythm. It also helped that our 1st AD, Chika [Helton], was amazing at keeping us moving. And I planned shots ahead of time. The DP and I had several meetings early on about what shots I wanted to see and how we could achieve them. From those conversations we did have shot lists and we would go over things at length after shooting for the next day, which resulted in some long nights sometimes! As much as I would have loved to have actual storyboards, most of the drawings were done by me, which is a testament to the powers of deciphering by the DP and AD. I’m not an artist in any way shape or form, but I did my rudimentary best to put down in some form what I wanted. There weren’t a lot of them, but for some moments when I had a specific idea in mind, or specific camera moves for some of the long conversations, I would draw out what I wanted to see. Sometimes it was down to shot by shot, but other times it would be a picture of the entire room with the character blocking and then noting where the camera should start, move to at certain points, and then stop. Things like that, which I think helped. And, of course, there were moments of going with intuition and gut, when we were just about ready to go and I would notice the light hitting an actor’s face, or creating a great silhouette, or arcing through the smoke, and I would decide to try a take to capture those things that weren’t planned, but just sort of happened. In fact, one of my favorite shots in the entire film happened when I saw Amanda through the monitor as we were on break. It was blurry, there was a haze and I just quickly grabbed a shot of her moving toward camera. It ended up being a real spur-of-the-moment thing, but it’s a shot I love and it ended up being the bridge between two important moments in the movie. I really can’t even imagine it not being in the film, which is funny because it almost never existed.
Taken together, it was the combination of approaches that made us feel confident we could get everything we needed. There were, of course, some things that just didn’t work, or that we just couldn’t get. I had planned for a great Steadicam shot through the house which, sadly was just never going to fit in our schedule. As a matter of fact, we did have to go back for a half day of reshoots in the bathroom. It was a key scene and it just wasn’t playing the way I wanted it to play, and it was such a tight space and so incredibly hot. All of that took its toll and I made the decision that we would have to figure out coming back. As a director, it felt like a no-brainer, but as a producer I just kept seeing time go by, money disappear when we already had little of both. On such a tight schedule it was a real down moment for everyone, worrying that we didn’t capture what we needed. Ultimately it did work out on the day we reshot, as we knew going in what the problems were, so we had time to adjust. It was also helpful to be able to really just focus on that one thing we needed. It was night and day and really worked out.
Filmmaker: What kind of camera did you use and why?
Hutson: We shot the film on a Red Epic. I’d love to be start espousing all of the creative reasons (and, of course, those reasons exist), but one of the main things was accessibility and affordability. Our line producer had a friend who had the complete package of what we needed and gave us a very good rate. After discussing it with the DP, the choice was made and I was glad as we both thought it would give us the ability to bring a more cinematic look to the film. Creatively, that was something I kept mentioning from the beginning, a cinematic look. Not that most people aren’t after that in general, but on low budget projects sometimes your look and feel can be dictated by what you have access to and I knew that we had what could, if handled improperly, feel like a small film shot digitally, but I think we exceeded that because of the camera and the DP’s knowledge of how to really use it effectively. The other consideration was workflow, as I’ve used Red cameras on other projects and knew what to expect and how to quickly and effectively communicate with our DIT.
Filmmaker: What else did you talk about with your DP in terms of using the visuals to convey theme and character?
Hutson: The DP and I spoke, as I mentioned before, a lot about color, but also movement and framing. Since the entire film, except for two sequences, is handheld, it really gave the film a sense of realism; almost as if we are voyeurs looking in on this train wreck of a father-daughter relationship. There was also a conscious decision to have scenes lit dramatically and theatrically when we were in Meridith’s head and seeing what she was imagining. A lot of the times we went against our “real world” colors in the red family and went with blues and grays for an approach that felt colder, more stark and medicinal. I remember there was an area of the house where we wondered how we would light it in such a small space, but when we turned the house lights on the DP and I looked at each other and realized we would have been crazy to do anything other than to leave it as is. It felt so cold, stark, garish and lonely; it fit perfectly for the scenes we needed. Something else I was happy about was that we shot in 2.35:1, which gave this claustrophobic film a really wide canvas. It was something we kept in mind when setting up shots. A character might be all the way to the left, but I wanted to see this empty, sad, lonely house almost consuming them. I wanted to utilize and showcase the space, especially the negative space. The house is the whole world to these characters so I didn’t want to cheat around it. Instead, I wanted to bring it forward. It was a simple concept in my mind but the execution was tough at times because some of the rooms were so small!
Filmmaker: Did the movie evolve considerably during editing, and if so how?
Hutson: I know that so many projects have the script version, the shot version and then the edited version and they can be wildly different. This, however, stayed pretty consistent throughout. In fact, I would say that the most changes came about in the script stage, whether it was logistical issues with the way scenes were written needing to be changed to fit the location, or the cast and I discussing their characters and making tweaks to some dialogue or motivation. Once we had all of those considerations locked in, I knew that the path we were on would have to stay relatively straight. I was happy with the film on the page, understood there was only so much time to shoot things and, in editing, followed that trajectory closely. The editor, Marc [Cardenas], was great to work with. He really embraced the idea of what this movie was and what was important to me, what the movie wasn’t. Again, this is a dark drama thriller that is small and creepy and odd and suspenseful and strangely humorous and we didn’t want to go into editing thinking we could make it much bigger or more of one thing over another. I would say the biggest changes were actually trims from the first solid cut of the film. I quickly realized that this is a movie that does not need to be drawn out, so there were quite a few moments that were really great to look at, or well-acted, or just interesting and strange, but were tending to drag the narrative down a bit in terms of time. I was always thinking I didn’t want to overstay our welcome with the audience, so most of the film’s evolution was done with making sure the pace and tone felt right. There was one moment, a part of which is in the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray, that I regret not including. Amanda’s performance is incredible, but the physical effect (of someone breaking through a door) just wasn’t working, so no matter how we tried to make it work in the edit, it just wasn’t cutting together properly. It was a great lesson in killing your darlings, because I am sure Marc was ready to move on to more pressing issues while I was saying, “Try this, or what about trying this, or that?” I finally had to relent and realize I couldn’t have it all. I would just say, “Save that for the Blu-ray!”
Filmmaker: What are the challenges in terms of distribution in the current indie film climate? Has it gotten easier or harder since you started?
Hutson: I really think the question is answered by asking, “What aren’t the challenges?” And honestly it feels like it isn’t just the indie scene, but even mainstream, big-budget films. If it’s not a sequel, or based on a book, or a superhero, or some other massive IP, it’s almost like getting noticed can be next to impossible, even if it is a well-reviewed drama with stars. And then buried in that long, treacherous climb to release and being seen are the indies. And then even those are “small films” with budgets in the low millions. And then there are really independent films, that are trying to compete as the small fish in a big pond. And that can be hard. It’s a situation where you really have to believe in what you are doing and gear up for the long haul, because small films can really be a marathon and not a sprint.
Now, strangely and with all of that said, I’ve been in a position where I have experienced (and been rewarded on) both sides. What I mean by that is some of the lower-budget indie projects I have written and/or produced were documentaries on some of the genre’s most well-known and beloved franchises, like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th and Scream. So while those were very independent projects, they also had an IP to attract attention and, more importantly, buyers. With something like The Id, where we’re relying so much more on an interesting story and the performances, it was a bit harder to find a home for it, but we ultimately did and are happy. But that is where the marathon comes in. It’s always talking about it, talking it up, keeping it alive, finding new viewers. It’s less about the massive opening and more about keeping the film alive another day so audiences can find it. I do think that as much as it is getting easier to make quality films on a lower budget, thanks to technology and the passion of so many creative people willing to pour their hearts into a project, it’s equally as hard, or maybe harder with so much product available, to find those (oftentimes very, very good films) homes. More than ever I am hearing, “You have to have a name attached,” or some other very-difficult-to-achieve piece of the puzzle that is not always attainable to low-budget, indie filmmakers. I’ve certainly been lucky in that the projects I have created and poured my heart into are getting seen, but I’ve never gone into something thinking, “This one is gonna be the easy one.” It’s. Never. Easy. If I did think that, I’d be setting myself up for problems.
It makes me think of a conversation I had at a meeting one day when news broke of a company pouring millions and millions of dollars into a slate of low-budget (to them) films and I mentioned it would be great if a studio really embraced the indie spirit and went to a few filmmakers with a million dollars each. I just know, based on what has come out of the indie scene, that there are people who could turn around and create one, two, three films that can attract an audience and make some money. They might not all be runaway hits, but they could do what I work really hard to do as a producer, and especially as a director: keep costs down, make the best project possible and understand that it is both art and commerce. Not only can I do that, I want to do that. I enjoy doing that. However, the answer was, “That will never happen. It just won’t.” It really is a double-edged sword. As a business producer who has had financial obligations to investors, I get it. As a creative producer and director who loves to create content, on a budget, that viewers can enjoy, it’s frustrating.
Filmmaker: How did you find the experience of directing a narrative feature different from doing documentaries? How is it similar?
Hutson: For me, narrative features are so much easier. Even though the production logistics are similar – financing, talent, crews, production, post, marketing, etc. – in a narrative feature I am working with a locked script. I know what my story is when I get the script. I know what the schedule looks like once the script is broken down. The talent knows what to say and do and where to go. The editor can start cutting an assembly as soon as footage and script notes are available to them. In so many ways, I know exactly what I am going to get and need to get. There will be bumps in the road, but I know what the path is and can make adjustments as I navigate. On a documentary, I might want to tell story A, which, after interviews are done, can turn into story B (sometimes for good; sometimes not). Frankly, though I may know generally what I want and need to get, that doesn’t mean I am going to get it. I might need an answer to something from a specific person, but they are unavailable, so I have to get something from someone else to cover the topic and they may not have an answer, or reveal something that kills one narrative and opens another we didn’t know about and didn’t get coverage on. The general narrative is always planned out, but you just do not know what you will really get until the interviews are done, transcribed, bytes are pulled and assembled in a way you hope will not just work on the page, but cut together. It adds time to the shooting schedule, money to the budget for more studio space and crew. The list goes on and on. It’s as wonderful as it can be difficult as it can be transforming as it can be entertaining. I’ve certainly experienced that and it taught me to take a deep breath, go with the flow and, again, make it work. And that is what has helped me in my narrative filmmaking: just breathe. There is a way to make it work and it’s my job to find it and not derail the project with worry. But, even though narrative and documentary beasts can be wildly different, I love working in each world. They are both creative and wonderful and freeing and allow me to express my creativity in different, but equally satisfying ways. And as far as any influences, I think having worked so much in the doc world did inform my choice of a first feature as a director. The story of The Id isn’t “true,” per se, in that it wasn’t based on anyone in particular, or the story of someone we knew, but the events can happen. Or, certain things can happen which could lead up to the things in the film. The events are things that real people, who might be in the situations of Meridith, the father, Tricia and the other characters might have thought about, which is very, very real. So I think keeping a tiny bit of my mind in the non-fiction world helped me keep my eye on the prize of telling this fictional story in a way that was grounded in reality as much as possible, with flourishes, of course, and, at times, a heightened, warped sense of reality. Something chilling, dramatic, suspenseful that had audiences thinking, “It’s awful, it’s upsetting, but I get it.” If people come away feeling that, then I feel I’ve done my job!