It Lives Inside: Exclusive Interview with Writer-Director Bishal Dutta on the SXSW Winner

It Lives Inside: Exclusive Interview with Writer-Director Bishal Dutta on the SXSW Winner

Contemplating which country and culture they belong to and fit into is a challenge many people contend with throughout their lives. But that journey can become even more throught-provoking for first-generation children of immigrants. That’s certainly the case for Bishal Dutta, the filmmaker behind the upcoming supernatural horror thriller, It Lives Inside.

Dutta was inspired to make his feature film writing and directorial debuts on the project as he began reflecting on his family’s moved to North America from India when he was a child. He has revealed that lot of his social education on American society came from watching American horror movies while he was growing up.

The filmmaker, who would also wonder how families in India were living while he was growing up in the U.S.,  created the story for It Lives Inside with Ashish Mehta. With the drama, Dutta wanted to make a love letter to the community and culture that raised him, while also instilling the same raw terror in its viewers that his favorite horror films produced in him.

It Lives Inside follows Sam (Megan Suri), an Indian-American teen, lives in an idyllic suburb with her immigrant parents: her conservative mother, Poorna (Neeru Bajwa), who stresses the importance of honoring their cultural traditions, while her father, Inesh (Vik Sahay), better understands their daughter’s desire to assimilate into their suburban American neighborhood.

Sam’s desire to distance herself from her cultural background as an Indian-American teen at her high school grows in part because of the increasingly strange behavior of her former childhood best friend, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan). The latter has begun carrying around an empty mason jar all the time and has stopped speaking.

In a moment of anger about her estranged friend’s mysterious behavior, Sam breaks Tamira’s jar. As a result, Sam inadvertently unleashes the ancient Indian demonic force that Tamira had captured and was keeping in the jar.

The demon subsequently kidnaps Tamira, which leads Sam to begin searches for her childhood friend.  Once the latter sets out to find the missing teen, the demonic entity also starts targeting her, and shatters her reality with terrifying visions. Sam must band together with her parents, their sympathetic teacher, Joyce Betty Gabriel), and her crush, Russ (Gage Marsh), to save Tamira and put an end to the demon’s terror.

Q: Along with Ashish Mehta, you created the story, and you wrote the script for, the upcoming supernatural horror thriller, It Lives Inside. What was the inspiration in penning the screenplay? What was your process like in crafting the story?

BD: I knew that I wanted to do a horror film as my first film. I love the genre and the audience experience component of it.

With this particular movie, it felt like there was an opportunity to do a personal and specific story within the foundation of what makes the genre so universal.

So I went to Ashish Mehta, who created the story with me, and I said, “I have this idea for a movie. It’s kind of a teenage friend breakup movie, and there’s also going to be a demon that’s going to be unleashed.”

He and I then cracked the general shape of the story. He then became a little busy, so I wrote the script on my own.

We then took it to these amazing producers at QC Entertainment, who have done Get Out, BlacKkKlansman and Us. It was really a dream for me (to work with them) because here are people who understand what I’m trying to do with this film. They really pioneered that form of social horror

But they never put pressure on me to recreate any of their previous successes. It felt like they understood the wavelength this movie wanted to be on. So developing the movie with them from there really honed the story into what I wanted it to be.

Q: In addition to scribing the script, you also directed the movie. How did you approach your overall helming duties on set?

BD: I really enjoyed the process of making this film. Of course, I had great producers and a great distributor behind me, Neon. So it was great to filter in all of these wonderful voices into the script and continue refining it.

But then when we got into production, we shot the movie in Vancouver with an incredible company called Brightlight Pictures, and it was just a dream. There were so many more resources for me on this film than where I came from; I come from a background of very low budget short films. So with this movie, I felt like I had a lot more opportunity to create my vision on the screen.

The crew was also amazing. I got to work with some long-time collaborators, like Matt Lynn, my DP (Director of Photography), and Wes Hughes, my composer. They’re people I’ve been working with for seven, eight, nine years. So it really was a dream come true to make the movie. The editing process (with the film’s editor, Jack Price) was also incredible and fun.

My general approach is always to go in with as much prep as humanly possible. That way we have the ability to embrace the things that come to us on the day.

For example, the rain in this film, which is one of my favorite parts of its aesthetic now, was never planned for. But we were shooting in Vancouver in the fall, so it was raining a lot. As soon as we stopped fighting it, we started saying, “Let’s use this to add to the aesthetic of the movie.” Suddenly the movie got so much richer.

So my general approach is trying to find a balance between being as ready as humanly possible and also being totally open to the beauty of the things the world spontaneously gives us.

Q: It Lives Inside stars Megan Suri and Mohana Krishnan in the two lead roles of Samidha and Tamira. What was the casting process like for the drama?

BD: I was so incredibly lucky on this film to have the cast I did. There are some great supporting performances from Betty Gabriel, Vik Sahay and Neeru Bajwa, who’s amazing in the film.

But the story really does hinge on these young actors. So I think about Mohana, who plays Tamira; Megan, who plays Sam; and Gage Marsh, who plays Russ. With these young performers, it was so important to me that none of them felt like they were performing types.

So a lot of our conversations while we were developing these characters with each of these actors focused on us saying, “Let’s pivot away from characters you’ve seen on screen, and let’s talk about real people in our lives.” I think that really helped ground in something real.

We never wanted to make a genre film that felt like it puts you at a distance because the characters aren’t real enough. It was so important that the characters feel real.

While I was working with these young actors, I was so consistently blown away by their commitment to their performances and being truthful.

It’s the kind of thing where I try to overwrite a little bit in the text of the script. With the strength of these performances, especially with Megan and Mohana, I then felt like I could strip away a lot of the dialogue because their faces and presence conveyed so much dramatically.

Q: Speaking about the actors’ facial expressions and presence, how did you approach working with them on their characters’ physicality and stunts?

BD: I’m so in awe of what these actors did, in terms of the stunt side. There’s a part of horror filmmaking, especially with the acting in terms of the physicality, that’s not as appreciated.

For example, Betty Gabriel is such an accomplished physical performer, and is so strong with action. There’s a sequence in which her character is sort of being chased by our main demonic creature in a school. The more Betty and our stunt coordinators brought ideas to the table, the more I wanted to extend that scene longer; I wanted give the audience more of that amazing physicality that Betty brings to the table.

What’s incredible about a performer like Megan Suri, who’s doing so much work physically in this film, is that she can really bring the character into that. I’d say, “I want you to hit the creature with this stick, like this.” But then when I’d see her do it on screen in the take, I’d see that it’s really Sam doing it.

All of these actors have this incredible capacity to bring so much raw emotion to the physicality.

Q: Speaking about the creature that appears in the film and targets Tamira and Sam, how did you create its design, as well as the feature’s overall visual effects?

BD: It was important to me that there was a creature in this film that we were building across the story with that Jaws and Alien approach to a genuine moment of reveal. That way we could crescendo with the music and sound with a low angle look at the creature. I really wanted to build to that.

With the creature that we ended up creating, our goal was to embodied these principles of hate, anger and loneliness. While we were thinking about all of the things that the creature feeds on, we were wondering how we could put all of that into the design of the creature.

We really honed in on the design to feel realistic, physical and three-dimensional. We wanted it to feel as though it lives in our reality, but it’s also this evil reincarnate by the end of the film.

Q: Like you mentioned earlier, Neon is the feature’s distributor, and will release It Lives Inside in theaters on September 15. What was your experience working with the company to determine how you would distribute the thriller?

BD: In the current day and age of the film industry, the theatrical release for this movie does feel like a miracle for me. I’m consistently asking myself how I got lucky enough to not only make the film with not only as much creativity and freedom as I had, but then also have it be released in theaters to a wide audience.

The incredible thing about a company like Neon is that they’re so tuned into the audience, and sending the message to viewers that this is what you’re going to get into. So audiences know what kind of film they’re going to see. The company’s brand is so strong that audiences are showing up with a good amount of good will.

It really feels like an incredibly warm and welcoming reception to a first film. So I don’t think I would do anything differently on the distribution on this film if I could do it again.

It’s been incredible day after day to see the film reach a wider and wider audience. So I’m so excited to see it preparing to come out on September 22 in theaters. I can’t wait to see the reaction by the audience after the way Neon has promoted it.

Neon is releasing It Lives Inside in theaters this Friday, September 22. The movie’s theatrical distribution comes after it had its World Premiere in the Midnighters section at SXSW this past March.

Check out more of Karen Benardello’s articles.

Here’s the trailer of the film.

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