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32 Days with Willem Defoe on a Virtual Volume Set: Vasilis Katsoupis on Inside

Willem Dafoe appears disheveled as he stares at art hanging on a wall, a blanket is draped over his shoulders and he holds a mug in his hand.Willem Dafoe in Inside

A thief breaks into a Manhattan penthouse filled with priceless art. Trapped by a high-tech security system, unable to communicate with the outside world, he must figure out a way to survive. At the same time, he begins to question how much the art surrounding him is really worth.

Working on his first feature, writer-director Vasilis Katsoupis set his appropriately-titled film Inside almost entirely within a single set. A few other characters appear on monitors, through windows and in flashbacks, but the movie is a showcase for Willem Dafoe, who plays the thief. Starring with him is a remarkable collection of art that, in a curator’s nightmare, is subjected to abuse on an unimaginable scale.

Katsoupis spoke with Filmmaker at this year’s Berlinale. Inside‘s world premiere took place at the Zoo Palast that evening as part of the Festival’s Panorama series. The film hits theaters stateside this Friday, March 17 via Focus Features

Filmmaker: Did you deliberately set out to present yourself with obstacles? A single set, very little dialogue, essentially one actor.

Katsoupis: I like working by setting rules, then exploring the subject through these rules. I didn’t see these issues as obstacles or problems, apart from having to shoot with all the COVID precautions. I actually thought I was making it easier for myself. One set, yes, but one very good set. I promised to give Willem the perfect environment for his performance. The environment, the whole set, is the co-star of the film. It provides the dialogue with Willem, dialogue that is not spoken but still seen as he interacts with the art. So: not problems, but solutions.

Filmmaker: Watching it again today, I thought the film was asking what it means to be human. Willem’s character has to address fundamental issues like food, shelter, his purpose in life.

Katsoupis: You might be inside a golden cage, an apartment with valuable furniture and works of art, but if you don’t have food and water, what do you do? I also wanted to show the apartment through different seasons. Because the air conditioning is broken, you have extreme heat, extreme cold, even a rainy season. Willem becomes a student who has to construct his own shelter within this space.

Filmmaker: Willem’s character adds his own touches to the art work—sometimes words, at other times figures. It reminded me of Neanderthal cave paintings.

Katsoupis: I think there is an inherent force in humanity to express creativity, to leave a mark. All we know about ancient civilizations is the art they left to us. That is what Willem leaves inside the apartment: his cave paintings, a tower that he builds from other artworks to make a sort of totem pole.

Filmmaker: Dafoe is a work of art in himself.

Katsoupis: This is what I love about Willem’s face and body. When you shoot him in close-up, you see a thousand micro-movements in his face. Each expression he showed was its own story. I have a long close-up of him looking at a photo by Adrian Paci because I could see so many emotions and stories there.

Filmmaker: One of the extraordinary things you do in this movie is show how art changes depending on how we perceive it. Lighting, angles, the surroundings all affect how we interpret the pieces. What Willem’s character does to the art changes it as well.

Katsoupis: Production-wise, we had the freedom to do whatever we wanted with the art. It’s not easy for artists to let you do that, but they did for this project. I wouldn’t say Willem destroys the art as much as repurposes it.

Filmmaker: Which makes it a different work of art.

Katsoupis: There are many cases of changing artworks: Man Ray, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol.

Filmmaker: Did you have specific ideas of what you would do with individual works of art?

Katsoupis: Definitely. While we were building the collection with the art curator Leonardo Bigazzi, we rewrote parts of the script to incorporate them and the dialogue they would form with Willem. At times things happened magically, like with the neon piece by David Horvitz. Rain caused part of it to short-circuit, which altered its meaning significantly.

At one point Willem’s character needs to test the windows, see if he can break them. He grabs a cement orange [an art piece by Alvaro Urbano] and throws it, only to have it bounce off the glass. That’s how organic the process was: We need something heavy. We have this, let’s use it. 

Filmmaker: Is Willem’s character himself an artist?

Katsoupis: No. He’s a professional art thief.

Filmmaker: It felt to me like he was bitter about the art, maybe jealous.

Katsoupis: With an artist like Egon Schiele, how can you be jealous? How can you compare yourself to him? It’s like me comparing myself to Tarkovsky. I cannot be bitter with Tarkovsky’s work. My goal is to get a little bit closer to him.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the penthouse itself. How did you and production designer Thorsten Sabel come up with that space?

Katsoupis: I’m very fond of brutalist architecture. There were three houses that influenced me: Ricardo Bofill’s renovation of a cement factory, the Boros Bunker in Berlin, and Ian Simpson’s apartment in Manchester. I knew we needed high ceilings. I wanted a very open apartment, I wanted Willem’s character to feel very small inside it. And I wanted a massive staircase, something like Niemeyer’s helix staircase.

Thorsten was one of the first people on the project. [He] used SketchUp to make a 3D model which he ran through Unreal Engine. We could pre-light that way, use avatars to do the equivalent of storyboards. We shot 32 days on a virtual volume set in Cologne, which also helped with the lighting. I think it was really good for Willem because it’s an actual environment. Instead of seeing green screens outside the windows, he could perform to what the actual landscapes would look like. The projectors were underneath the set. They used the same technique on Oblivion, the Tom Cruise movie. I couldn’t use LED because I would have needed a screen bigger than the one they use on The Mandalorian. 

Filmmaker: How did you collaborate with cinematographer Steven Annis?

Katsoupis: We had the storyboards. We talked about the grammar of the film. We decided our camera movements should be serene, delicate, very slow tracking shots. They had to be, because the penthouse is so formal. The slow camera movements were like breathing. The only time the camera was handheld was during moments of chaos.   It was tough because we’re shooting in the same place for 32 days and he had to come up with new shots. Steve is a very, very quick cinematographer. That gave us the freedom to shoot more footage, improvise more situations. Because we were shooting chronologically, and because the set goes through so many changes, we couldn’t do reshoots. Lambis Haralambidis, my editor, was working on an assembly all along, so he could see if anything was missing before it was too late.

Filmmaker: How much did the script change as you were shooting?

Katsoupis: I would say that 40% percent of what you see in the film was not written. Willem improvised scenes like when he is talking to a pigeon. We had to shoot chronologically because of what happens to Willem, and to the art. Thanks to our prep, the process was very fast. We could get Willem’s performance by the first or second take, then have time to explore new ideas.

Filmmaker: Did Dafoe’s character change as you were shooting?

Katsoupis: We needed the audience to sympathize with his character because in reality, he’s a villain. He’s a thief. But if you don’t start to see him as not a villain, but someone in danger, the film wouldn’t work.

Filmmaker: But did your attitude towards the character change? Did Dafoe’s?

Katsoupis: From the beginning, the one thing I didn’t want was a backstory for this character. He’s a guy who gets trapped. That’s it. 

The first time Willem and I talked, I showed him my treatment and research and he said, “Guys, I want to do it.” Everyone had told me before that he wouldn’t take the role unless I had a back story, so I said, “Let me tell you about the character.” He went, “No, no, I don’t want to know anything about his back story.”

Filmmaker: Viewers will have to do that themselves.

Katsoupis: And the ending. It’s open to interpretation.

Filmmaker: We can’t praise Dafoe enough. He embraced this character completely.

Katsoupis: He told me it reminded him of working with the Wooster Group, how everyone had a job and everyone worked together to make the project better.

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