Vincenzo Natali is a filmmaker who thinks outside the box, even when he’s trapped inside of one. For a certain breed of genre aficionados, the Toronto director is best known as the sick puzzle-master behind 1997′s Cube, the ultra-low-budget Canadian film about a bunch of strangers who find themselves stuck in the titular structure, with attempts to escape it met with gruesome results. For fans of television’s Westworld, Hannibal and American Gods, though, Natali’s name will seem familiar as a hired gun who’s not a hired gun at all – even when realizing other showrunners’ visions, Natali brings his own sleek and sharp and supremely creepy sensibilities to the table.
With his new feature film, though, Natali is getting both his largest and paradoxically smallest playground yet: the endless but confining stretch of farmland central to Stephen King and Joe Hill’s horror novella, In the Tall Grass. The original story, published in 2012, followed a group of strangers lost in a rural field, which slowly reveals itself to be haunted by malevolent forces. Natali’s adaptation, which was released on Netflix last week, takes the base location of King and Hill’s work, but stretches it in strange and gross new ways – a Natali specialty.
Just after the film's streaming premiere, Natali spoke with The Globe and Mail's Barry Hertz about the boon of Netflix, the relative good luck and speed of his career, and the blurry line between television and the feature films.
Do you have a sense of how well In the Tall Grass is performing on Netflix? We never hear about viewership until, well, Netflix decides to tell us.
Netflix is so insanely organized that they have certain call dates set up for myself and my team to tell us how it's doing. So they wait a week or two and give us all the data. It's a wait-and-see moment right now.
From what I understand, it’s been a long journey for you and this project. You’ve been carrying around the script for five years...
But that’s moving fast in my world – it almost gave me whiplash. I’m highly cynical by nature, and I was pretty frustrated earlier, because listen, this is five people lost in a field, it’s Stephen King and Joe Hill, how hard can it be to get it made? But it really took Netflix to make it happen. Stephen King had a sort of renaissance and Netflix had some good experiences adapting his work, and it worked out.
Netflix has made its hunger for King content known, with its features like 1922 and Gerald’s Game. But King adaptations can be very hit or miss. Were you nervous taking on his work?
I was actually excited because I grew up reading King. The Shining, I read it when was 11 years old and it terrified me. But more than that, it was a very psychologically layered book. And the very first script I wrote was an adaptation of a King story called I Am the Doorway. Generally, I’ve always wanted to do original things, but I actively chased this King property. While the original story is a very simple concept at 60 pages, it’s also layered. The more I went into the process of writing it, the more meaning I was able to dig out of it. It’s rich, fertile soil.
So once Netflix got on board, it moved quickly?
This isn’t a big-budgeted movie, but Netflix is very concerned about quality. They were the first company to ever come to me and ask, “Do you need more days to shoot?” I’ve totally drunk the Netflix Kool-Aid. If you speak to any other filmmaker who works with them, you’ll get a similar response. They are really deferential to filmmakers, and they have the resources to do things that Hollywood won’t do any more. The industry is bifurcated between extremely low-budget movies and extremely high-budget franchises. I always aspired to work in the middle ground, and Netflix has filled that space.
This film was shot in Southern Ontario, but do you have any desire to make another “Canadian” film, quote-unquote?
Honestly, I'll work with whoever is foolish enough to work with me. And I do find the industry here immensely supportive. When I got started, the equipment houses and labs, they were very generous to me, because I couldn't get an [arts council] grant to save my life, and they helped me get my little films made.
Since Cube premiered, the industry has been through remarkable transformations. Today, are you where you hoped you would be?
Yeah, it kind of is actually. As I get older, I realize how insanely lucky I am. I was doing some research recently and there was a study that aggregated all the films made in the past 70 years and found that only 35 per cent of directors ever get to make a second film, and a very small percentage get to make five films in their career. I realized I'm in the very small percentile. And every one of my movies has been made with creative independence -- I've never had the films altered in any way. I've been outrageously lucky.
I subscribe to, and this is my one piece of terrible advice for filmmakers, but: Value the process of making things. As a creative person, it’s important that you’re always in the process of making something all the time. And the danger of the film industry is it involves a lot of money and people and equipment and salesmanship and all kinds of things in order for something to get made. So, inevitably, it takes a long time. What helps me survive the long dry spells between productions is just making things: a drawing, a piece of music, whatever. That’s where the great pleasure derives.
So that would also be the time you spent building up your now-prolific television career?
That’s true, because television saved me. I started doing TV for mercenary reasons, because the film industry kept changing and it was becoming financially untenable for me to make feature films exclusively. When I started doing TV, I found it creatively invigorating. It was wonderful to step into these productions and not take complete ownership of them – to be a collaborator and serve someone else’s vision, while at the same time giving as much of myself to the project as possible. I think my best work has been on Hannibal and Westworld.
It's a special time right now, because it used to be that TV and movies were two separate worlds. But it's now a porous kind of industry, and I'd argue that what constitutes a feature film and what constitutes a TV show is becoming rather vague. That line is vanishing, especially as we're consuming this stuff on our iPads and televisions at home. It's becoming the same thing, and I mean that in a good way. When I was growing up, TV was the opiate of the masses. Now, television has been better than a lot of commercial films.
So you’re optimistic that you can keep making these kinds of movies and having the control that you desire?
It’s never easy, but I think for the next five or 10 years, it’s not going to slow down. I promise you. And for our young filmmakers, it’s an exciting moment to step into it, because it’s shifting and malleable in a way that it hasn’t been before. There’s a lot of money from large tech companies being invested, and money that’s not really concerned with the bottom line. It’s an attempt to carve out a space in a crowded marketplace with interesting and sensational material. It’s my fervent desire that I become more prolific in the next 10 years than in the previous 10 years.
In the Tall Grass is available now on Netflix
This interview has been condensed and edited
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