Resident Video 16: In The Dark

Resident Video is a monthly series that provides exclusive access to films from emerging artists. This month we bring you Will Schneider’s In The Dark.
It’s October. The leaves are starting to change. It’s finally justifiable to turn off the air conditioning and open the windows. In preparation for Halloween, a month-long marathon of horror films awaits you and we have the perfect starting point. If you scare easily, be warned, perhaps turn on some lights and call over a friend for In The Dark.

In The Dark plays like an urban legend your friend’s older brother told you at a sleepover. These urban legends often stem from a true story, which is why they tend to make our blood run cold. The film revolves around Jaime, a young boy who can’t sleep due to a fear of what’s hiding in his closet. Naturally, his parents aren’t worried about this admittedly normal occurrence, but things begin to escalate. After running into problems at school, Jaime’s parents become more afraid of their child being different than of a potential threat to the entire family.

In the interview below, we talk with Schneider about his inspiration, working with child actors, and keeping modern day audiences spooked.

It’s always interesting to find the inspiration behind horror films. For example, Wes Craven created Freddy Krueger based on a real life incident of a man who was afraid to fall asleep combined with an image from one of Craven’s own nightmare. What’s the inspiration behind In the Dark? Was it an urban legend, nightmare, something seen on the news, etc?

When I was in high school and still figuring out how to make movies, I shot a short film with a fairly similar plot. It was definitely more fantastical, but it revolved around a villainous “imaginary” clown friend who lived in a boy’s closet for most of his life, influencing his views on the world and threatening him to do what the clown wanted. Like most high school films, it was a complete mess, but there was a specific shot I used near the end that always stuck with me. While the boy attempts to fall asleep, we hold on the clown inside of the closet. His gaze never breaks from the boy and we eventually fade out. It was voyeuristic and genuinely haunting. It’s the only part of the film that I truly felt worked and it was an idea I knew I wanted to revisit one day. That same exact shot is in In the Dark.

After I graduated from film school, I wanted to use all my new skills and connections to make a short film that truly stood above the student projects I’d directed there. The script for “In the Dark” came together almost overnight, and it was based on the general concept of making my previous clown idea into a larger piece grounded in realism. As I began doing research to see if the idea had been explored before, I found several shocking real-life tales that influenced the final draft. The most horrifying one involved a woman living in a man’s closet for well over a year. He noticed his food was constantly disappearing, and he finally set up cameras to watch his house while he was gone. Sure enough, she was in there with him every single day and he had absolutely no idea.

Some of my friends have questioned the plausibility of Jaime’s parents never seeing the man in the closet, but there are many true stories just like the one mentioned above. I think the scariest aspect of this movie is that this stuff does happen and it could happen to anyone. It’s stranger than fiction.

There’s a saying in show business, “Never work with children or animals.” Although the payoff is often worth it, working with child actors can sometimes be tedious and frustrating.  The young actor who plays Jaime does a good job of seeming genuinely frightened on screen. Can you describe the experience of working with a child actor on this film? Did you have to get creative on set to keep him scared? 

I was very lucky with my young lead. Trent Noor, who plays Jaime, is a gifted young actor and he came on set with more experience than some of the adult actors I’ve worked with. I knew he was perfect for the part the moment I saw his headshot, and after his audition, it was a done deal. Of course, directing children is different than it is with adults, but Trent was very professional.

The biggest challenge was that in real life, Trent is the polar opposite of his character. He is a very happy person, constantly smiling, laughing, and just enjoying life. And that is not Jaime at all. I felt like a jerk every time I had to remind him that he wasn’t allowed to smile once we were ready to roll, but he complied and I’m grateful. I’m very proud of his performance, as it’s almost impossible to see any trace of who Trent really is. He definitely disappeared and it was impressive.

We specifically made sure that Trent didn’t meet Chris Kahler, who plays the man in the closet until we shot that final scene. Trent was nervous about seeing him for the first time throughout our shoot and we intentionally built Chris up to sound scarier than he actually is. I know that aspect strengthened both of their performances. I think Trent was legitimately frightened to see what he ended up looking like, and you see that terror in the film.

Jaime is a modern-day boy who cried wolf. Unfortunately, in this case, the wolf was salivating nearby the whole time. The parent teacher conference really drives this theme forward when the blame gets tossed to everything except the truth. To what extent, if any, is In the Dark a reflection, remix or critique on the classic fable meant to deter children from lying?

The “cry wolf” interpretation is definitely something we wanted to come across and I’m glad it does. I think parents often forget that their children can be just as intelligent as they are, and they’re frequently dismissed before anyone takes the time to truly understand them. Like any kid, when I was young, I’d occasionally scream for my parents to come to my room. “Mommy, there’s a ghost in my closet,” I’d say. My mother would come to my room, take a half-second glance in the closet, and tell me that I just had an overactive imagination. She was right, of course, but what if there was actually somebody in there? She never checked thoroughly enough to actually confirm it one way or the other, and Jaime’s parents handle their son the same way. When you go into something already knowing the answer in your head, you’re not open to any other outcome.

Of course, this is a horror film and its main function is to scare the audience, but it’s also meant to make the audience think. We always saw this as a drama first, horror second, and I think it shows. Jaime’s parents, teachers, and classmates dream up a number of issues to attribute to his strange behavior, but they never actually listen to him when he gives them the honest answer. It’s a tragedy and though his parents’ marriage clearly suffers, Jaime is the one who takes the most damage. When there’s a wolf salivating next to you, but everyone around you says that you’re crazy to see it, you start to agree with them.

The film avoids the infamous “Lewton Bus” jump scare that most contemporary horror films indulge in.  Instead, In the Dark relies heavily on suspense and the unknown. For you, what rules and techniques are most important in order to keep the tension rising and the audience creeped out?

I love a good jump scare as much as the next horror fan, but most modern horror movies rely too heavily on them for my taste. When they’re earned, there’s nothing better. But when your whole movie becomes one jump scare after the next, I lose interest. There’s a skill in good jump scares, but it’s obvious that having somebody pop out of nowhere while the volume suddenly amps up will scare anybody with a working nervous system.

With this film, I sought to make something different than the norm. I’ve always been drawn to realistic horror more than I have to fantastical horror. To me, the thought of somebody slitting my throat while I sleep is scarier than any zombie or vampire could ever be. Because it can actually happen. When you combine a genuinely terrifying concept with characters the audience actually cares about, you have them on the edge of their seats no matter what you do next.

When we plant throughout the film that Jaime sees a man in his closet, we show POV shots of the man watching him, and we hint that he’s stolen clothes and left empty plates from his meals, the audience knows what’s going on. They know he’s real and they’re just waiting for him to strike. I think this is what keeps them watching; they genuinely want to know how the parents handle the man in the closet and how long it will take for him to reveal himself. I wanted the film to end with a bang that was both ambiguous and left the audience wanting more. We finally see the man and it’s confirmed that he’s real, but that’s all we get. What happens next? That’s up to you. But if I’ve done anything right, you probably know.

In The Dark was written and directed by Will Schneider. You can find his other work over on his Vimeo page, including another scary one, Faint, in the same vein as It Follows. Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Resident Video series. While the films are no longer available, the interviews remain. Forever.

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