Director Rodney Ascher follows up his 2012 feature debut “Room 237,” a documentary deconstruction of all the hair-brained close readings of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” with “The Nightmare” about the terrified victims of sleep paralysis.
Ascher, who has suffered the condition himself, plumbs the nighttime terrors of eight individuals plagued by malevolent, dream-state visions—and many are alarmingly similar. Victims see shadowy figures stalking them, or alien-like figments made of jittery white static; others feel the encroaching, creepy presence of an unseen evil force. One woman is a YouTube celebrity whose horrifying accounts led to a religious awakening because of sleep paralysis. She thinks she’s a kind of conduit between warring spiritual realms. One man thinks he’s insane, and that sleep paralysis will one day kill him.
But the most ingenious aspect of this spooky, silly doc is Ascher’s inventively staged reenactments: eerie, cartoon-cutout figures shadow lookalike re-enactors in their sleep. The director explicitly puts the artifice of these episodes on display as we see costumed actors from one stage to the next.
This Gravitas Ventures release is all but guaranteed to become a midnight movie sensation. In a Sundance Q&A below, he talks the makings of this very bizarre film, including how he almost cribbed from Lars von Trier and Joshua Oppenheimer.
On finding victims of sleep paralysis:
“At the beginning, we found four people who had either YouTube videos or blogs or had written books. Then I did an AMA on Reddit and all of a sudden, we were swamped with submissions. We had to hire extra researchers. There would always be dozens of people writing up, saying, ‘this happened to me too.'”
On being skeptical of his subjects:
“There seem to be a half-dozen common ways people interpret what they see and I wanted to represent the most common ones, and there’s a strong religious representation for people who go through sleep paralysis. There were people I interviewed who, on an emotional level, didn’t come off as believable to me and I wasn’t sure if they just wanted to be in the movie. One thing I tried to do in the sequencing of it was to end on an ambiguous note. Personally, I hadn’t ended on a definitive answer on why people see what they see. So I wanted to represent a couple of different ideas, that last moment is like the scene in ‘Total Recall’ where he’s trying to decide if he’s actually a secret agent on Mars or if he’s in a machine simulating that. They’re kind of at that same juncture: is this real or is it not real?”
On why he didn’t use the real-life subjects in his reenactments:
“In the conception of this, at one point we thought we’d want to set up some surveillance cameras but in most people’s experiences these events seemed to be unpredictable enough that we didn’t have a lot of confidence that we were going to capture a full-blown episode.”
On building reenactments from the experiences of his subjects:
“Before I did any interviews, I decided that I wanted to stage reenactments as a way to visualize this stuff. ‘Room 237’ was all about working with archival material. People were focused on this existing body of imagery; the fun challenge of this interview would be to create that imagery. That was why I would bring a sketch pad and ask people to draw what they saw and the environments they were in. We would photograph as they showed us around and use that as inspiration.
Why Ascher considered, but rejected, inspiration from “The Act of Killing,” “Dogville” and “Our Town”:
“At one point I was thinking about doing something almost like ‘The Act of Killing,’ inviting them onto the set and having them walk us through it but ultimately I’m maybe more of a control freak and I wanted it to be my interpretation of their experiences, while trying to be authentic and using a bit of my sense memory from when it used to happen to me. I also wanted the freedom to do it my way.
“We had a concept, before the production designers starting building the sets, we broke down some of the scenes with a concept artist who sketched out some ideas for how this stuff might work. I knew we always wanted to go off of the set and reveal the artifice of the reenactments. This is a documentary, but clearly there are manipulations here, more in this film than others, my obligation to the truth was to make all the manipulations and artificial qualities plainly visible. At one point I was thinking we might do this on a gigantic sound stage and have all the sets visible at one time and make it sort of in the style of ‘Our Town’ or ‘Dogville’ but it evolved to what you see.”
Why Ascher doesn’t include expert witnesses in the film:
“[Subjects] hadn’t had luck talking to doctors and professionals. The doctor didn’t know much about it. We tried to actually get in touch with a doctor over at the Harvard Sleep Center; for some of them it wasn’t practical and one of them wanted to continue his studies independently because he felt a real ownership of the experience, which was interesting in itself.”
“There has been research done. A study in the UK Mirror had an interesting theory about how the things that people see could be a projection of your own internal body map into your immediate surroundings. There’s a fair amount of science out there about why people see the things they see. But I don’t think science has provided a reason why we see these specific experiences.”
Did any of the participants’ habits change during the making of the film?
“Only one. Only three of them are really still experiencing it regularly. In fact, one of the [subjects’] methods used to keep sleep paralysis at bay was to sleep on his side… For some reason he was tired of sleeping on his side and he hadn’t had a sleep paralysis episode in a long time and the first night he went back on his back, this red, tendril-y tentacle appeared on the ceiling.”