Just over a year ago, Elizabeth Olsen came to the Sundance Film Festival as a buzzed-about newcomer, mainly thanks to her famous older siblings, Mary Kate and Ashley. Now with several awards to her name, a Spirit Award nomination for her acclaimed performance in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and a slew of promising roles on the horizon, Olsen has come into her own.
The latest of her films to hit theaters is “Silent House,” a remake of the Spanish horror picture, “La Casa Muda.” Like the original, helmed by “Open Water” directing duo Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, it was shot to look like it’s one continuous take. (The poster promises “88 minutes of real fear captured in real time.”) Olsen plays a young woman who becomes trapped insider her family’s lakeside retreat under mysterious circumstances. The less we say about the plot, the better.
Despite the 2012 release date, “Silent House” actually premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, alongside “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” The prolonged gestation has allowed Kentis and Lau to tinker with the ending and add a new soundscape to the film.
Olsen was back at Sundance this year with the supernatural thriller “Red Lights” and “Liberal Arts,” a romantic comedy. Up next are “Very Good Girls,” starring Dakota Fanning, Anton Yelchin and Dustin Hoffman; “Therese Raquin,” a period picture in which she stars opposite Glenn Close; and the ensemble drama “Kill Your Darlings.”
Olsen caught up with Indiewire in New York to discuss “Silent House” and her rise to indie fame.
You’re one busy lady.
Yes, but I haven’t been busy for a while except for promoting movies and doing this type of thing. “Liberal Arts” wrapped in July and I haven’t worked on anything since then. I’m dying to work again. I start working on “Kill Your Darlings” in two weeks.
Still making the press rounds and campaigning for “Martha”… that’s work.
Absolutely. But it’s also my first time in my young adult life that I’m not filming a movie, and I’m not in school. So I’m able to make spontaneous choices about my life — it’s that exciting time also. I have these three months of really not much so I can do things I never thought I could do.
Are you done with school yet?
I have two humanities classes left. I was emailing my college counselor yesterday trying to figure out when I’m finishing them and I don’t know yet. Because I’m putting work first for the first time.
You’ve been on our radar for well over a year now. Have you gotten accustomed to how the industry works? Or do you still consider yourself ‘green’?
At the beginning, people were like, “How does it feel to be the It girl?” And I’m like, “I literally haven’t changed the way I live my day-to-day life, so I don’t feel that.” Obviously, I’m getting to meet people I was never able to meet before workwise.
Now it’s become this thing where I’m this slap-happy person who gets to live the life of a working actor and figure out what that’s about. So I’m like, I wanna do that job, and I wanna do that job, and I wanna do that job! The idea of always wanting to be a working actor your whole life and then turning down jobs that are interesting — why would you do that?
I’m not in a position where I have to do a studio film. I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t have kids. I’m able to do independent films that are just interesting to me.
You came to both this year’s and last year’s Sundance Film Festivals with two films. How did the two experiences in Park City differ?
They’re so different! They’re day and night. I felt like I grew up five years or something. The first year, I’d never even talked about a movie before. I’d never talked to press before. I never had to sit in front of people. I never even knew how you talked about a movie or what you’re supposed to say, what you don’t say, how you talk about your process. Never had that experience.
And all of a sudden, the next Sundance, I’d already gone through so much of it with “Martha” going to so many different festivals. I was like, “Oh great, it’s going to be fun this time! I’m not going to be terrified.” My first year at Sundance, I didn’t go to one party because I was terrified of being tired the next day. I also just really don’t like parties that much with strangers. I’d rather just party with the friends. But this year, I was like, I didn’t go last year so I might as well do it. Then I did and… well, it’s not really that much fun. But at least I felt OK to try it out.
And at what point did the press stop asking about your sisters, if at all? Was there a point where you felt like you arrived?
It still comes up… because now people want to ask, “What do your sisters tell you about being in the public eye?” Before it was like, “How are you related to them?”
The long-lost sister.
You came out of nowhere! I’m like, I’ve been on the planet for some time, actually. But it hasn’t really stopped yet. It stopped from being, ‘Who knew she existed?’ to it just being a fact.
The first time filmgoers saw you oncreen was in “Martha,” a psychological thriller that plays like a horror film in parts. And now your second film to hit theaters is a straight-up horror flick. You, however, took a break from this draining work by acting oppposite Jane Fonda in the comedy, “Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding,” right?
“Peace Love and Misunderstanding” was the first movie I ever did, actually. The first movie I was cast in. “Martha” was the second. We then overlapped “Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding” and “Martha.” I was driving back and forth upstate. And then “Silent House” was like a couple weeks after filming “Martha.”
Ah, got it. So you went from one really tough picture to the next.
And then I took a big break. And then did Sundance. Well, not a big break but it was three months, so to me it was a big break.
What was it like moving from “Martha” to “Silent House”?
The biggest difference was the lack of ensemble. Having to show up at work anytime any of the other people were on set was like the happiest day for me. Because other than that, I obviously became very close to the AD department. They were so amazing on this film.
Obviously in “Martha” there’s a lot of ‘me’ in the movie as well, but it’s different for this. I felt much more lonely and isolating. Also we weren’t really on location, I went back to my apartment and I didn’t hang out with anyone because I was tired all the time. So it felt much lonelier. It was really interesting just to do this movie at the beginning of making movies because this is nothing like what making movies is actually like.
It’s more in line with theater in a way. Something you have a lot of experience at.
A bit. That was interesting to me. Because I always appreciate really long takes in films. I thought it’d be interesting to carve out an hour-and-a-half of real fear. It thought that’d be an interesting challenge to figure out. How does someone in real time get from the first minute to the 88th minute? So that was an interesting challenge.
I learned about myself as an actor, the kind of temperament you have to bring with you. I grew a lot as someone to work with.
How did you work on achieving that ‘real fear’?
The difficult thing is that so many extreme things happen in the beginning of the film. She sees her dad in this state at this minute of the film, but that’s the first quarter of the movie! There has to be some place to go. So you try to figure out all of the the things that are known and not known.
We did like one chunk a day over and over and over again until we got it right. So out of like 26 times, we’d get like one or two right. Everything else like didn’t matter, which was so heart-wrenching.
Like the filmmaking, your performance must have also been extremely technical. If you missed one mark during a long take, then the whole shot would be off.
Which becomes muscle memory. Yeah, after doing it so many times you don’t really have to think about where you’re going or which door you open before opening the next door.
It was challenging for everyone. Everything was rigged like a stage and the focus puller was downstairs with a satellite connection pulling focus. It was really crazy.
We’ve changed the ending since Sundance. But the last shot was supposed to be on a picture in the first cut. It was like an eight-minute or seven-minute sequence. And we almost got it down for the first time. And just to get it down once and know that you have a take is the biggest relief ever after doing it over and over again. Stopping and starting, stopping and starting. Right when the DP went to go to look at the last picture before the movie’s over, you see someone’s hand who had to move the picture there move just out of the frame.
It was the last second of the movie. They weren’t gonna try and figure out how to fit in a stitch because they’re trying to keep the integrity, keep as many long takes as possible without editing. So we just didn’t use that. We had to go back and do that again from the beginning of that shot. And you’re just like, really? For someone’s finger? Can’t you figure out where you can stitch in like on a swipe or something? But they wanted to keep the integrity of where they had the stitches.
I heard that you had nightmares while shooting “Silent House.”
Yeah, I had nightmares. We incoporated one into the film. [SPOILER ALERT] I had this weird nightmare where I witnessed a father who’s basically an abusive dad/husband and this little girl, like five or six, sitting in a flower dress with it hanging off her shoulder. [In the dream] I walked in and became this tough person, threw down a chair and said, “Is this what you do to your daughter?!” It was really, really disturbing. I told them the next day and they were like, “Oh great, we should use that!”
So you’re to thank for the climax of the film!
Lately it seems like a lot of up-and-comers have this aversion to the horror genre. Like it cheapens their talent.
Well, first off, it was the third job offered to me. I just felt happy to be given a job. But also when I was filming “Martha,” Brady [Corbet] and a few of the other guys had seen “La Casa Muda” in Cannes. They said the first hour was the most terrified they’ve ever been in a theater.
I grew up loving scary movies, I still love scary movies. This seemed like a really cool type of scary movie. It’s a different way of telling a story. The one shot, real time, you can’t use editing to help your performance — I don’t know why that sounded like a good idea (laughs). But it did.
Scary movies are great when they’re done well. I have no interest in sawing off someone’s arm. But I have an interest in this type of scary. “Them,” the French film, is one my favorite movies. My brother made me watch it.
I was happy to see, despite the high concept, “Silent House” still embraced the conventions of the genre — you wear a revealing white tanktop…
It’s not like I wanted to. Just throwing it out there.