Do Not Disturb: A Review and Conversation with Director John Ainslie.

by Paul Deeter

Purely Kino has had the pleasure of receiving positive feedback from successful independent filmmakers who are willing to share stories behind-the-scenes on their past and upcoming projects. The process of working in the industry has changed so much over the course of the last couple years, and it's as important as ever to support some of the up and coming production companies that have to accommodate to the unexpected trend of current film landscape. This website has come quite a long way from its humble beginnings last year, with new writers on board weekly and new opportunities to branch out to people in the industry for conversations.

Do Not Disturb is a 2022 feature horror film by the widely acclaimed Canadian writer/director John Ainslie. The film follows a young but self-conscious couple trying their best to navigate a honeymoon for a relationship already on rocky waters. Jack, played by Rogan Christopher, is the toxic partner who manipulates and gaslights Chloe (Kimberly Lafferrière) into engaging in fun activities like jet skiing while dismissively tolerating lying on the beach, Chloe's idea. He's no mensch, and despite his discouragement in his wife's idea of a career as a yoga instructor for example, Chloe holds on to the relationship the best she can. She agrees to do drugs with Jack if it means having fun with a couple of swingers, but quickly hypocritical Jack gets jealous of Chloe dancing with another man... while he receives a blow-job from another woman. The toxicity of this relationship erupts in fights and gets sidetracked by Jack's decisions to engage in intoxicating substances, he even goes so far as to drugging Chloe's food at some point so she can join his high. All's fair in love and war!

The troubling weekend comes to an abrupt halt when a strange and delirious prophet appears on the beach, seemingly emerging from the waters to give Jack and Chloe the drugs he claims that took him too far. Of course, Jack sees the cacti and powdered substances given to them as an opportunity for a next level high, and he convinces Chloe to take them with him. And what follows is a meet-cute between The Hangover films and shows like Santa Clarita Diet. The now quite adventurous couple find that their carnal pleasures of sex and dance are not enough when they gain the taste for something far more exciting: human flesh.

Chloe and Jack.

The originality of Do Not Disturb is refreshing while tackling a subject of toxicity in relationships that is much closer to home than, uh... cannibalism. Jack and Chloe begin as something many of us can see in the worst of our relationship history or even unfortunately something we may be going through ourselves. Director Ainslie addresses this in his Director Statement: "The more I pitched it, the more I realized that the connection between being in a toxic relationship and being eaten alive was something people could identify with. Inspired by my own past relationships, the film explores cannibalism as a metaphor for the emotional trauma we inflict on each other." With the concept falling into place a decade ago, Ainslie worked on pitching the film since 2012 to finally finding studio support this year. Do Not Disturb is Ainslie's sophomore directorial feature, after years of award-winning short film work, and the debut feature film: The Sublet, which premiered at Whistler Film Festival and won the awards for Best Actress and Best Cinematography at Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival. Ainslie's work here technically includes the use of Anamorphic lenses to draw as much distance between the couple as possible when they're on screen together, while isolating them when onscreen alone.

The technical accomplishment here is quite outstanding, not just for an independent feature but as a milestone for gore and SFX. The movie's mix of sunny vista and hazy hotel yellows amid the extreme reds and dark blacks of blood and viscera work together to create a chaotic color scheme. With the boppy, technoesque musical tracks and the fast paced hallucinatory cuts of the drug sequences, I was never bored by the film visually. I found myself just as engaged with the film's palate as I was with the subjects in the feature as well. And the main attraction is the couple and their performances. Jack's portrayal by Rogan Christopher is so natural and disquieting, that its hard to separate the reality of his performance from the actual character. Rogan's work here as a character he calls "unwilling to evolve" is such a stark contrast to the beauty of Laferrière's performance. She somehow stomachs the relationship she realizes to "emancipate herself Chloe must literally bite into life... chew her way out of it.” - Laferrière. The movie is propelled by their incredibly performances and anti-chemistry together.

A tense morning after.

But the film does its best work visually, showcasing the solid gory realism of its violence without giving the audience a moment to turn away. Its horror at its best, with truly unstomachable moments of onscreen violence and action. As a seasoned veteran of horror films and overall desensitized viewer, I had to pause a few scenes and drop what I was eating (do not recommend any film snacks for this one). The film keeps outdoing itself in that effect, and narratively it keeps its lean runtime with twists galore. This is a frontrunner for my favorite horror film of 2022 (no small feat as I mention in my Smile review) and I encourage viewers to seek this one out on a wider release. But the fun doesn't stop there!

I have the pleasure and honor of interviewing director John Ainslie about his inspirations for the film, and what is was like working with his onscreen talent. Let's dive in!

Purely Kino: First of all, thank you for sending me such a phenomenal film. It must be a relief to finally get a project ten years making off the ground. What were the early ideas for Do Not Disturb? Did you imagine it always as a feature length film?

John Ainslie: Always. Most of my ideas are feature length. It’s the form I feel most comfortable working in and the one I enjoy watching the most. The overall structure of the film never changed very much from 1st draft to last. There were a few things I had to adjust for location and budget along the way, but it’s pretty close to where it began. Of course, Kim brought a lot of the finer details to the character of Chloe as we worked. I enjoy the collaborative process of working with the cast and try to allow a lot of freedom for them to explore and really own the character.

Ten years seems like a long time in retrospect, but as it’s happening you don’t really notice it. I was pitching this one before I pitched The Sublet even. You’re always pitching everything you have and writing more, so it’s not something you really process. It just becomes a way of life and I think if you were to think about it long and hard you wouldn’t do it, because it really makes no sense.

Scott McIntyre, the cinematographer and I decided right from the start that we were making a film. That may sound obvious, but in this world where features stream instead of play in a theater and television is shot wide screen and lit cinematically it isn’t. We committed to using anamorphic lenses and a 2.76:1 aspect ratio which results in 35% of your tv screen being black and will probably look terrible on your parent’s television set to “zoom” mode, but so be it… we didn’t make it for that situation. Even in the color grading they switched it to the standard UHD aspect ratio and didn’t think we would notice. We also shot at 24fps, which we didn’t think would be an issue, but the entire way through post we were met with incredulous comments about it not being 23.97 fps, which is what the broadcaster will want it delivered on and how it will stream, but we shot it for the theater not to stream, even though there was no guarantee it would ever see a theater and once the festivals are done it live with a streamer. We were fortunate to get it into a few festivals now including Screamfest and Austin Film Festival in October and I’m happy that I get to watch it projected properly. In any case, the point is that we wanted it to feel like “cinema” rather than television or a hybrid of the two the instant you see it. The fact that we made the film for less than what a Marvel movie spends on meals in a day led to limitations, but we wanted to make a movie that felt like a “movie”.

What was it like working with the two lead actors? Do you imagine working with them again on future projects?

I’m actually writing something now for Kim to star in and Rogan will likely have a role in it as well. They’re great to work with and very committed to the craft. They both studied at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse so they know what they’re doing. Once you deliver the information about the character they need, your work as a director is mostly done. As a writer who directs, I try to insert most of what they need into the work itself so that it feeds whoever is working on it as they read it. That way when you get to set, you’re mostly just finessing your vision rather than defending or explaining it. With Kim, we never had to discuss much at all on set, it was just a matter of checking in with each other after a take to see how it felt. I would work with her on anything and everything for the rest of my career if I could. It was an amazing creative relationship. I’ve been very fortunate so far in leading ladies with her and Tianna Nori in The Sublet. There’s no real mystery, put almost all your effort into the script and the cast and you have a movie.

People underestimate how much actors know and how solid a good actor’s instincts are. They read a lot of scripts, good and bad. Actors generally have a better understanding of character than anyone else on set so you want to use that and encourage them to contribute as much as you can. I hear about directors manipulating actors or trying to push them this way or that way or getting annoyed by too many questions and confrontations. These are things I welcome in an actor. As a director I want and expect my vision to be challenged every step of the way (and it is). Defending it reveals how strong it really is and helps make it stronger.

There's a lot of gore in Do Not Disturb but not a lot of fat! Was there anything that didn't quite make the cut to the 93 minute feature?

Chloe Self Reflects.

What you see is 99% of what was written. We cut one scene where Chloe is washing sheets in the sink and Jack is staring out the window. I really loved it, but it hurt the overall pacing. When you have next to no budget as we did, you can’t waste time shooting things you may not need so I’m pretty aggressive with trimming the script down before I get to set.

I don’t know if there actually is a lot of gore. There isn’t even any real blood at all in the first hour of the film. I think it’s just that the gore that is there is unforgiving, blunt and very realistic. It isn’t glorified, but once it starts it builds and builds past where you expect it to go. I mean the film begins as a strange rom-com almost, but then ends in a blood bath. Pardon the pun, but that made the script hard for many people to digest - that mix of comedy and gore is pretty popular, but you don’t often see it combined equally with a strong dramatic character story too.

And a lot of times you’ll see gore shot as cut-aways to a close up and invariable, not only does the lighting not match up or the prosthetic look like silicone, but it’s a forced edit and never feels like it matches the rhythm of the scene and takes you out of the cinematic trance. We did some of those types of shots on 2nd cameras, but my editor, Jordan Crute and I, tried not to use them.

I prefer to just allow the gore to happen in as wide a shot as possible and keep the focus on the character and story rather than the gore. The violence has more impact if we care about who is involved in it. I try to approach those sequences like a documentary for the most part. This involves a lot of rehearsal time before you even get the blood out and then you have to hide the tubing and try to get the angles and timing right and it’s a real challenge. Plus, you have an FX guy complaining that you can barely see his work on screen and pushing you for a close up harder than an actor ever will. And then you realize in a wide the carpet and wallpaper and everything is going to get drenched in blood whereas in a close up you can drape it in plastic to protect it… but you know, a carpet is nothing an insurance claim can’t fix so you can get it in a wide the way you need it.

We did two takes on the neck squirt because the actor had put his hand up to cover the wound, but that also covered the spray you’re paying so much for. I ended up using that take because it felt natural that a human would do that and the result was that the blood bounced off his hand and into their faces, so you still get the effect. It’s not the usual shot like that, but it felt really natural and I think when you’re watching a movie you really judge the characters on a “would I do that?” scale.

It's interesting, because to increase the impact of the gore developing strong characters is a must, but to do that you often get labeled as a slow burn or hear things like “takes a while to get going”, but then the gore-fest films get picked on for having no substance. You can’t win so you just make the film you want to make. There’s a fine line you’re searching for and hoping to find to maximize the impact of everything.

There is certainly an audience for both styles and both have merit, but when you play in the middle it can be tricky. End of the day your movie is sold to people and in order to do that they need to lump it into a category. There’s an audience for character driven films and there’s an audience for gore driven films. There’s also an audience for the films in the middle, but they’re harder to categorize.

Who are your favorite horror directors currently working? Anyone fresh on the horizon to keep an eye out for?

There are quite a few, but I really only have one answer – Ana Lily Amirpour. Her features are hyper original and very well crafted. There’s a lot of really talented directors out there, but she really stands out for me and my own taste. When she makes a movie, I really want to see it and I know I will want to see it again. Most of the things people critique her for is what makes her films so unique and exciting. The bottom line is she really knows where to place the camera and how to move it and speak in a cinematic language. Her dialogue is irrelevant because the camera is telling the story and her skill in sound is equal to her camera choices. I mean, you could watch Bad Batch without sound, or at least with just the music and no dialogue track and it would still work. Which is way more interesting for me personally.

Others who are making a mark on horror and showing incredible craft are obviously Jordan Peele and Robert Eggers. Those guys have kind of created their own league in the past few years.

Ana Lily Amirpour, Director of The Bad Batch and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Do Not Disturb is a very squeamish film. What makes you squirm in films (or are you as desensitized as I am?)

Injustice makes me squirm way more than blood and guts. I’m so familiar with the process that my head is generally piecing together the way in which a gag was achieved rather than digesting the impact. I clearly must be desensitized, because I never felt any of the gore in Do Not Disturb went all that far. While we were filming, I like to be close to the actors and sometimes I operate the camera on handheld setups, so whenever I would go back to the monitor to check with our producer Rechna Varma and I would see her and the scripty gagging I knew I was on the right track.

At our Popcorn Frights premiere here in Miami there were some great audience moments. Some great gasps and groans and gagging. At the climax of the film there is this moment of silence and some dude just said “What. The. F*ck?” really loud. Couldn’t have timed it better and it kind of reflected the entire audience. Which, going back to the beginning of this conversation is why we made a “movie”. Movies are made to be enjoyed in groups and no genre does that better than horror. That collective fear and excitement makes the film better.

Thank you for your time and your work here. Is there anything additional you'd like to cover? Any future projects you want to plug?

I would love to say I was in production on my next one, but alas I’m back to pitching. I don’t think it will take another seven years, but who knows? Getting a movie made is next to impossible and getting more difficult all the time. The more I make the less I understand and sometimes I wonder how any movies get made at all.

This was the first time I composed the score to a feature and that is definitely something I want to do more of. My first love was music, so returning to that while composing the score was really great once I got over the fear of failure.

I have a script that was an Academy Nicholl Semifinalist in 2020 called “she came knocking” that I would love to make next. I also have a lower budget half found footage film called Hollywood Rejects Strike Back that I have been pitching and I’m at the script stage of a couple more – one is film about a woman pregnant with a cult leader’s baby who is trying to escape and the other is hyper violent revenge film, which is something I’ve always wanted to make.

Hopefully I’ll be able to get them financed and we’ll get a chance to talk about them sooner rather than later! Thank you so much for the interview!

Do Not Disturb is still touring multiple festivals, including the upcoming Grimmfest and the Austin Film Festival. John Ainslie can be followed on Instagram @jainslie, for updates on where to see the film.

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