“Is That a Little Too Much Like Scooby-Doo?” Radio Silence on Ready or Not
Opening with a wedding and concluding with some kind of funeral, the horror-comedy Ready or Not is a welcomed late summer season addition. Grace (Samara Weaving) and Alex (Mark O’Brien) are married at the Le Domas family mansion. After the ceremony, the family announces that, as is tradition, they will promptly play a children’s game with (or more accurately, against) the bride, as she is the newest member of the Le Domas family and thus must pass a test. The game is Hide and Seek, and if Grace can make it to morning, she lives. If the Le Domas family finds and murders her before the sun rises, an ancient family pact is retained and Alex can hop back on Tinder.
A wacky, gory, coked-up game of cat-and-mouse, Ready or Not is, above all else, not to be viewed as plausible. With its tonal shifts and flirtations with satanic cults and devilish in-laws, the movie unfolds like a macabre board game about with the fear of ritualistic initiation—or, put another way, a grand guignol retelling of Clue meets Get Out. As Grace, Samara Weaving makes an ideal dirtied and scarred Final Girl, and by film’s end, she’s gone through a Von Trier-level amount of emotional and physical torment. Luckily (and most certainly intentionally), you laugh and cheer along the way.
Ready or Not was made by a filmmaking collective trio known as Radio Silence, comprised of directors Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and executive producer Chad Villella. The morning after the film’s world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, I spoke with all three about pitching the film to Fox Searchlight, tackling the film’s tonal shifts, extensive costuming and much more.
Filmmaker: How did Radio Silence form as a collective and what was the mission of the group when you three founded it?
Bettinelli-Olpin: I should say that we first formed a filmmaking collective called Chad, Matt and Rob over ten years ago, consisting of myself, Rob Polonsky and Chad Villella. Tyler eventually joined a bit later [and Rob eventually left]. When we were involved in the production of V/H/S (on a segment called 10/31/98), which was our first involvement in a feature. We were asked, “well, what do you guys want to be called?” Over a series of two or three text messages, we decided on the name Radio Silence, because it was a joke we always had about no one returning our calls. So V/H/S went out into the word with us being credited as Radio Silence eight years ago. Since then, the collective has mirrored our work ethic, an “all hands on deck, everyone works together, let’s get this done” style. We come from a no-money, no-budget background and we wanted everyone to do their best. It hasn’t changed that much.
Gillett: The group got smaller and now we have the ability to hire people better than us!
Filmmaker: In the case of Ready or Not, it’s written by two screenwriters, Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy, who are not a part of Radio Silence. Are you three also seeking work from other artists?
Gillett: We’ve always been open to that and we certainly read a lot of screenplays, but one of the things we’ve found, having worked together for so long, is that we have a pretty specific style and voice. The things that we love are things we love in a very specific way. It’s rare that we read something that feels like, “Holy shit, we could have written this,” but when we got a draft of Ready or Not, we knew. Our text message chain blew up, like “Oh my God!” The tone of the movie is weird and specific.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult aspect of getting the film into production? When did you know it was now or never?
Bettinelli-Olpin: Development was a long process, at least a couple of years, but at the end of the day, we were very grateful for that. Fox Searchlight helped us work with Guy and Ryan and producers James Vanderbilt and Tripp Vinson to get the script to where it is now. It was at least a year before we made the biggest of changes.
Gillet: Originally, the story wasn’t going to take place over one night and it wasn’t going to have a wedding as the centerpiece. It was originally a story about meeting your lover’s parents for the first time. The changes continued up until the day we were shooting. One of the things that happens on a movie of this size is that in order to get it made, you have to sell an ambition of how to make it for a specific budget, then you spend pre-production figuring out how to do it for that amount of money. For this movie, pre-production consisted of, “We told them we could pull the movie off for this amount, so we have to make adjustments to the script and our process to guarantee that we can pull it off.”
Bettinelli-Olpin: You could say we lied [laughs].
Gillet: I think that happens a lot. You promise something and then try to overdeliver on it. In this instance, the only way we could do that was to be rewriting up until we started shooting, tweaking scenes here and there. It got so specific. We’d be scheduling something with an AD, and they are down to the minute, like “this scene is going to take place two hallways over but if you can move a dialogue sequence into this other scene, that would save us fifteen minutes and allow you to shoot this other thing.” It was the craziest puzzle.
Bettinelli-Olpin: Joanna Moore, our first AD, was a savant, to the point where you could walk up to her at any moment and ask, “What’s happening next Tuesday at noon?” She kept everything moving and in line in a way we’re still unsure of.
Villella: Guy and Ryan were on board the entire time, so we’d be able to ask them for something at 11am, and by lunch we would have a new version of the scene.
Filmmaker: Was the team stationed near the main shooting location of the mansion?
Gillet: Sort of. The Parkwood Estate is in Oshawa, Ontario (which is where the majority of the shoot took place) and is located forty minutes outside of Toronto, where we were staying. While it was a bit of a trek—
Bettinelli-Olpin: —it was also good because it gave us an hour to talk amongst the three of us every morning, without anyone else in our ear. We could walk through the day’s shoot and use the ride to our advantage every single day.
Gillet: So much so that, on future projects, we’ll budget in an hour before the day’s shoot and an hour after the day’s shoot, so we can talk about what we’re going to do and then have a post mortem about what we did and how we could do it better.
Filmmaker: I believe you shot for twenty-six days? And your lead actress, Samara Weaving, worked twenty-five of them?
Gillet: Yep, she had one day off [laughs].
Filmmaker: The film opens with a sampling of the family dynasty’s most infamous board games—the irony, of course, being that film itself unfolds like one (there’s a little bit of Clue in there). How did you read the board game motif as directly influencing how the story proceeds?
Bettinelli-Olpin: It was huge. From day one through the end of the edit, we kept saying, “We have to make sure this is fun.” In the context of the movie itself, we made sure to get those board games in there, to make Hide and Seek a game and have it accompanied by a musical record—i.e. “Oh, this family even made a record to go play Hide and Seek.”
Gillet: It makes it feel old and rooted in history. The pact made with Mr. Le Bail is this ancient thing and there’s a sense that this Le Bail/Le Domas relationship—where Victor met him on a boat and was given the mysterious box—has a [past to it]. Having the games be a strictly analog thing that have existed through time was a big part of setting the tone and keeping technology out of it. We’ve always loved telling stories where we could get technology out of the proceedings as quickly as possible. With Hide and Seek specifically, it’s the only game you can’t win. Someone eventually has to find you, right? She has to be found, and of course when she draws that card, she doesn’t know exactly what’s at stake.
Filmmaker: In much of the film’s first act, the viewer is still somewhat in the dark as to the family’s sinister intentions; they appear obviously wealthy and upper class. They’re traditionalists, and the camera is shooting them in a traditional manner as well. But when the “chase” begins, you often go to a more frantic, handheld mode of shooting. What kind of discussions did you have with your DP, Brett Jutkiewicz, about changing up the camerawork based on the situation?
Bettinelli-Olpin: That was all in our first pitch to Searchlight. We wanted the movie, and by extension, the camerawork, to degenerate the longer it goes. The first time the film becomes handheld, when we take the camera off [of the mount], is when you notice the tension within the Le Domas family, when Mark O’Brien’s character [Alex Le Domas] makes the choice to fight back. It’s a small moment, but you realize “oh shit, there’s tension now. Someone is putting up a fight.” That’s when everything begins to crumble for the family, the domino that sets everything in motion.
Filmmaker: You deliberately eschew tracking shots through the rooms and all the kinds of tricks that typically accompany a movie set in one giant house.
Gillet: We had many conversations with Brett about how the camera could never stop moving, except for the scene around the table where the family announces the Hide and Seek game and the camera is locked-off in a fixed position. There’s also one moment with Samara at the very end that’s a hard lock-off. Everything else is either slowly pushing or pulling with slow movement that helps both the performances and the production design. You see more of the house that way and it gives you a sense of the world that exists on the periphery, that isn’t crafted just to fit in the frame.
Bettinelli-Olpin: It’s a style that comes in handy for when you’re shooting on a budget. It’s the way we’ve always done it.
Villella: It’s the run-and-gun style of “let’s reset real quick and then go.”
Filmmaker: It’s a film primarily shot indoors, using what appears to be natural light; rooms are either lit by candle or via a lavish fireplace. There’s an orange glow to much of the film’s gothic visual texture. How did you go about creating that visual identity?
Gillet: One of the biggest craft tricks of the movie is that it feels like it incorporates a lot of natural light, but it’s a pretty heavily lit movie. I don’t mean brightness wise, but rather the technical craft involved in making it look that way. That’s the trick of the movie—it feels like you’re in these dark hallways lit by candles and fireplaces, but there were actually a lot of lights on set.
Villella: Every day we asked to get more candles, because there weren’t any on set. The fireplaces were all lit by Brett and the fire was put in after [in post]. We designed it that way, to have this warm hue to the rooms, to accentuate the palette of the house and the way Samara looks in it.
Gillet: One of our biggest pet peeves is how nighttime and darkness are treated in a lot of movies, where it feels almost hyperstylized. If our film’s plot was going to ask you to believe something crazy, we at least wanted to make it feel as true to your eye as possible. You had to feel that anyone could be hiding in those dark corners, that it feels like a real house.
Filmmaker: Later, when Grace goes through a secret passageway (and eventually to the barn), the image becomes cooler, almost green and ethereal.
Gillet: Our big fear in shooting a film that primarily takes place in one location was how to make it feel like there’s some distance being traveled, that there’s an evolution in the geography. One way to do that was through color temperature and the texture of everything, like the brick walls in the corridor Samara’s character sneaks through. We know we’re still within the house, but we’re in a totally different emotional movement in the story and a totally different look that still exists in the same location.
Villella: The reds and oranges were pretty prevalent throughout.
Bettinelli-Olpin: We needed pops of color that ground you in a weird way so that you don’t get stuck in the style. One of the movies we talked about was David Fincher’s Seven and the scene where they go into John Doe’s apartment. There’s this red neon cross on the wall and it’s not necessarily something you pay attention to, but it brings you into that room and makes you ask why the cross is there. It’s a pop of color in an otherwise not so colorful environment.
Filmmaker: At last night’s Q&A, you spoke about finding the film’s tone in the edit. Could you take us through that process? Is there a cut that exists out there that is super dark? One that’s an insane screwball comedy?
Bettinelli-Olpin: It was more about the humor. We could have made a slightly zanier version, but we had to keep telling ourselves that if the characters believe it and it feels grounded and real, you go with it. That was huge for us, working with actors who kept these characters grounded within an absurd world with a ridiculous premise.
Gillet: We’re still blown away by how specific our cast’s choices were. The second the audience feels like they’re laughing at (rather than with) you, you’ve lost. Everyone was so consistently aware of what they were doing and that the jokes weren’t jokes; they were situational. Nobody was trying to nail a punchline.
Bettinelli-Olpin: We actually cut most of the jokes.
Villella: During the edit, we would ask, “Is that a little too much like Scooby-Doo?” We wanted to pull back on the family’s zaniness.
Filmmaker: Samara goes through hell and back in this movie. As Grace, she’s an ideal dirtied and scarred Final Girl. How many wedding dresses did you go through throughout the shoot? The dress has to be muddied, bloodied, ripped, etc. I imagine the wardrobe department had various versions depending on where you were in the shooting of the script?
Villella: We had thirty different looks and eighteen wedding dresses. Our costume designer, Avery Plewes, did a great job and it’s what helped Searchlight know what we were doing. They loved the dress right away and could see it go through its various stages.
Gillet: We also needed doubles of everything because we had to dress the stunt double as well
Bettinelli-Olpin: The continuity tracking of blood with the hair and makeup team—we were shooting out of sequence and trying to remember “in this scene, I think there’s blood on Samara here.” We’d make those choices as we went, hoping it would all stick together. We were surprised and thrilled when we got to the edit and realized, “hey, this all kinda works and is consistent!”
Gillet: We had to do a lot of reverse engineering, because we shot the final sequence in the film first. As a result, we set the “final look” first, and then for the rest of the movie, hair and makeup had to reverse-engineer everything based on the set stills we had shot in that first week. It was a crazy feat that you hopefully won’t notice while watching the movie.
Filmmaker: And when she winds up in a barn midway through the movie, you know that she’ll have to get a specific kind of dirty in that sequence, and you have to match the dirt with whichever number wedding dress you’re up to.
Bettinelli-Olpin: There were four big costume changes and you just clicked on the big one. If you pay attention, she goes into the barn with a completely white dress, but when she exits the barn sequence, the dress is kinda different. That was our big cheat. When she falls into all that junk, the dress takes on a different tone and becomes this new version.
Villella: The lace absorbs the stuff that she falls into and so she comes out darker.
Gillet: So, we have the first tear, and then the fall into the pit in the barn, and then the tearing off of the sleeve and the back, and then the big “final sequence.” Those were the four hallmark stages of that wedding costume.
Filmmaker: When she falls down the well in the barn and tries desperately to escape, it reminded me of the opening of There Will Be Blood, where Daniel Day-Lewis is trying relentlessly to climb out of the mineshaft. Was that a difficult sequence to shoot?
Bettinelli-Olpin: We shot that on the last day, day 26. We discussed it a lot and, due to the budget, the sequence kept shrinking (although most of the choices we made ended up serving the movie positively, which we’re proud of). We show you a rusty nail at the top of the well and you just know that something is going to happen with that nail. That’s the fun of it. We’re not doing it in a “torture way,” but you know she has to get up there and out, but you know it won’t be as easy as just cimbing out. I think she says “shit” and “fuck” five times in that scene? The writers actually emailed us with a note about the swearing: “could you cut out a few of the ‘fucks?’”
Gillet: That sequence is a microcosm of all the action in the movie. There’s one obstacle, and then there’s another obstacle, and then there’s a collision of obstacles, and then there’s an obstacle on top of that. She’s shot in the hand, she falls into the goat pit, she sees Charles, the ladder is rickety, the ladder breaks, etc. It’s very granular. When it’s just her interacting with a set, it’s a very tricky thing.
Filmmaker: Did you develop a strategy for how to show gore on screen? There’s a number of practical effects involved, like when Samara is going through the gate and we get a close-up of her skin ripping (or that wincing scene involving the nail).
Bettinelli-Olpin: Since we were shooting on a relatively low budget, we had to plan those gags really well. They were the only things we had time to map out. Even then, it was like “well, we’re only able to shoot this twice and we better fucking get it.” We had what we had and we hoped it would work. We were amazed when it did.
Filmmaker: The film will soon be opening via a very wide release (over 2,000 theaters). It’s technically a genre film but it’s also uncategorizable. Do you see yourselves as genre filmmakers? Would that be an example of typecasting yourselves?
Bettinelli-Olpin: Calling it uncategorizable is probably the biggest compliment we could get. When we read the script, that’s how we felt. When we talked to Searchlight, they asked, “What even is this? Walk us through it.” If we can continue to make things that live in their own world, well, that’s our goal.
Villella: We don’t want to do anything too dire.
Gillet: And it has to be fun.