Pascual Sisto talks fatherhood and Michael Haneke.
In John and the Hole, the titular John (Charlie Stotwell) puts his family in the titular hole. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it’s more than just a fun little childhood prank. Instead, John isolates his parents and sister (Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle, and Taisa Farmiga, respectively) in an attempt to understand what it means to be an adult. Full of deadpan delivery and pitch-black humor, John and the Hole is a strange glimpse into what it means to be a kid.
We sat down with director Pascual Sisto to discuss the film, fatherhood, European arthouse cinema, and what makes a horror movie.
Dread Central: Congratulations on the movie! How does it feel to have your first film out in the world?
Pascual Sisto: Well, it’s amazing. But of course, it’s been like a really long process because of the pandemic and everything. The movie in my mind was finished in 2020. Then somehow this other event happened and we had to wait for festivals. It’s how long it takes from the moment it’s edited to when it really comes out. It feels like an eternity.
So you’re a new dad, so how similar is having an actual baby to a movie baby?
PS: Well, a movie happens much slow. I will say like the real baby’s really fast and everything like time just evaporates with a movie. It depends. There are different stages that happen really slowly like the casting and the financing. Then suddenly when everything clicks, it all happens in three to four months. And then again, you have this time in the editing and then the release. So it’s almost like it goes by waves. Some of the waves are really fast and some are really slow.
This is an incredible movie about children. And so I’m curious, has the birth of your child changed your perspective on the movie and what the movie addresses?
PS: I think maybe when he gets to the preteen age. But in a way, I think it’s a general philosophy of life of how I’m planning to educate my child. I knock on wood that he doesn’t put me in a hole. But [parenting] in a way for me, it’s how you approach it. And I think the film is critical to this family’s approach in some ways and how they handle things. So I’m hoping to approach things in my own way. But maybe I create my own fiction out of it, too.
This is your future film debut. And so I’m curious about your relationship with the horror-thriller genres and if they’ve always been something you’ve been attracted to.
Well, in essence, no, but I’ve always said that I find horror to be one of the most realistic genres in a way. Sadly when you read the news and everything about the world generally leads me to horror more than anything else. So in some ways, I think there’s something genuine about it. I feel like every story should have an element of horror. Like I don’t consider myself a horror fan. It’s definitely something that I grew up with, but I grew up more with those 70s horror films, like the psychological thrillers of Polansky and The Shining. So there’s definitely been horror in my upbringing and my formative years you could say, but I never said I’m going to make a horror film. I would just make a film that might have horror elements to it, but not declare it a horror film. Like I still don’t declare [John And The Hole] a horror film. I feel like it’s horror adjacent. Like we live next door to horror, but it’s not quite it. The idea was that it would be like a soup of all these genres in a way.
Yeah. That’s a good way to put it. I feel like it is kind of a soup of different genres, which is always so cool. Especially now directors are working with those elements rather than wanting to just commit to full-on horror. But it’s cool to see like how the genres all melt together in a way. You mentioned some of the films you really liked and how this is kind of a mishmash of different genre elements. So what other movies did you really pull from when directing this and kind of, where did you look to for inspiration in crafting the, the film,
In particular, not for crafting so much. I think I actually did a list through Letterboxd where I mentioned 10 films or so that came up in conversation. But it’s tricky because, obviously it’s not that you watch the film to inform what you’re doing, but you cannot avoid having some films come up in conversation. For example, I just had an interview and I was just citing Force Majeure. It’s a film, which has nothing to do with [John And The Hole], but it does have a horrific moment where paternity is fractured in real-time in front of our eyes. This idea of the father figure being destroyed is what I wanted to do as well with John’s dad.
Then there were movies that we would watch for, other types of movement and camera work. Like we discussed Elephant, the Gus Van Sant movie, for all the tracking shots and being behind the kid and, and having the scene develop in real-time. That was always my intention as well, that I wanted for us to be always side-by-side with John. We never know more or less than he does. We’re always discovering things with him. So that was important.
Of course there’s the Michael Henneke references that are unavoidable. I do like him. But it’s funny because there’s a certain humor to this story and there’s a certain awkwardness that I find interesting in how Charlie Shotwell developed a character as well. So we thought it would depart from that Austrian stoic style. But the references are there, and you can probably see them. There are a lot of films that came up in conversation. It wasn’t that I sat down and watched these films while we were developing John And The Hole. It’s more that when you’re trying to explain something, sometimes it’s easier to talk about a preexisting example.
You brought up Charlie Shotwell. What was it like working with him to make John this character who is on screen almost the entire time? What was that process like with Charlie to build his character and make John who he is?
Charlie’s amazing. Everybody was at first, not just because of Charlie, but in general, whatever actor we decide to go with that needs to carry the entire film on their shoulders. That was brought to my attention many times. And I don’t see it like that. I see it like you go scene by scene. So I wasn’t as worried.
I still remember from the first initial audition, he sent us a tape from his kitchen. And it was very casual, almost like they had no time to do the tape and they were running somewhere else and they’re like, oh, let’s just quickly do this tape for this movie. It felt a little bit like it had some improv quality to it. He was like really genuine and really innocent and really curious. And that’s what I think is the important part of the role. He’s just a curious kid that has a lot of questions and not many answers. What he does in the movie is his way of answering his own questions I think he had that in his look like whenever he would ask a question, he would leave his eyes in a certain way and it felt genuine. It felt like he was really waiting for your answer. So [casting him] was really easy.
Then we saw a dozen more kids and a lot of them were really amazing. I mean, casting is heartbreaking because you can see how many different films you could make with the same role. And all of them are good, you know, but you just have to narrow down to what initial intent you had with this role.
If you were going to program a double feature of John in the hole with another film, which film would you pick?
Maybe L’Argent by Robert Bresson. When you were asking me the influences and everything for me, the real influence is Robert Bresson. I think Haneke comes from Bresson as well. And there’s this tradition of a certain style of shooting that Bresson did that it’s a very sort of removed approach. Like not really getting into the dramatic or overly dramatic theatrics of a movie. Like just seeing it as almost like a laboratory experiment. There’s a scene with the ATM in John and the Hole that almost feels like a direct reference [to L’Argent]. So yeah, I would maybe put that one because it was one of the initial ones that I started thinking about [with my film]. But that’s a hard one.
John and the Hole is now available on-demand.