Director Vincenzo Natali and his “In the Tall Grass” leading man Patrick Wilson celebrated the global release of their Netflix Original feature at Spain’s Sitges Intl. Fantastic Film Festival on Friday.
That morning, Natali, who doesn’t speak Spanish, opened the Sitges Pitchbox, a pitching competition for European first-time filmmakers in the horror genre, with a speech delivered entirely in Castilian Spanish he’d rehearsed for days before. The room went nuts.
Written by Natali and based on the novella of the same name by Steven King and his son Joe Hill, the film was produced by Canada’s Copperhead Entertainment for Netflix. It follows pregnant Becky and her brother Cal into a field of… well, tall grass, lured by calls for help from a small boy.
Inside, they cross paths with young Toby and his parents Ross (Wilson) and Natalie, similarly lost in a field that doesn’t follow straight-forward rules of time or place.
Variety talked with Natali and Wilson about advising newcomers, casting Wilson against type and the benefits that indie horror is reaping from the digital platform revolution.
You impressed at the Sitges Pitchbox following in the shoes of Ron Pearlman and Guillermo del Toro in the previous two years. What did you talk about with the filmmakers there?
Natali: I just used myself as a cautionary tale. I wish I had that foreknowledge when I was younger. This was a room full of first-time filmmakers, and hopefully they can learn from my egregious errors.
How did you find the experience of working with Netflix?
Wilson: I think we are afforded a luxury to make this movie with Netflix because the story is a lesser known property. I would say most Netflix users, unless they’re a diehard Joe Hill or Steven King fans, wouldn’t know this short story. The benefit is that we have this platform seen by millions of people, whereas if this was done as a straight indie film you would really have to hope for festivals and maybe some distribution. With Netflix we have the time and budget to film it as a proper movie.
Natali: I first got this story from a producer friend in L.A. and decided it was something I really wanted to do. That was six years ago. It was a very difficult film to get made, I think partly because of what Patrick said, and because it was a little financially outside the box in which an indie horror film is permitted to exist. In other words, if your movie is one cent over $5 million and its horror, it’s unfinanceable on the indie market. It was only studio or Netflix that could get this movie made.
Patrick, your best-known roles are often all-American wholesome good guys. Ross has a bit of that, but he’s more modern, a bit of a shark. Was it fun to play against type here?
Wilson: It’s such a common response for actors to say “I love the bad guys,” but honestly my character on “Fargo” was one of the greatest most solid people we should all aspire to be, and I had the most fun playing that guy. What makes this role so much fun is not Ross’ darkness, but the light. It’s the humor, bordering on camp or melodrama, that I really like to revel in because it gets me out of my comfort zone. The thing about Ross that was so much fun was embracing the language that Joe and his dad came up with and Vincenzo ran with.
And the mustache, was that a requirement to play the bad guy?
Wilson: My wife laughed hearing you ask that question. Every summer if I’m not working, I like to grow my summer ‘stache. So, I already had the mustache and I wanted a different look. I wanted Ross to look a little off. So, I sent a photo to Vincenzo and he said “Great!”
Natali: To me so much of the character is in the mustache.
Wilson: A pink polo shirt and a mustache is pretty solid.
Natali: It’s a good look.
This movie is full of those brilliant, bright colors that wash out as it progresses, aiding in the visual narrative. Can you talk a bit about how you chose to use colors?
Natali: That’s one reason I wanted to make this film, the idea of the iconic pastoral setting being something that becomes frightening, but on its face is really beautiful. The combination of something grotesque and beautiful that is irresistible to me. The color in the film is so American. It’s Andrew Wyatt, it’s a very American movie.
And how much was practical effects and how much did you do digitally?
Natali: I’m trying to avoid that topic a bit because I don’t want to spoil the illusion, but I will say we shot as much as we possibly could in a real field. That’s all real grass, nothing artificial. Patrick will attest, it was not a nice organism to be around.
Wilson: No, it’s a very strange grass they use for biofuel. It’s a very… just very strange even outside the context of a horror film.
What was it you saw in Patrick that made him the right choice for this role?
Natali: If you read the script the character reads more in the Jack Torrance mold of Steven King characters. There is something sad and pathetic about him. When Patrick steps into his shoes there is nothing pathetic about him. Ross is the ultimate salesman. He is dynamic, magnetic, talented, athletic, well-read and he can sing! It makes the character fun to be around and terrifying at the same time.