ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with director Vasilis Katsoupis about Inside, which is now playing in theaters. The director discussed working with Willem Dafoe, shooting chronologically, and the movie’s themes.
“Inside tells the story of Nemo, an art thief trapped in a New York penthouse after his heist doesn’t go as planned,” says the logline. “Locked inside with nothing but priceless works of art, he must use all his cunning and invention to survive.”
Tyler Treese: You originally came up with the core idea of Inside in 2010. It’s been a decade of trying to bring this to life. Now that it’s finished and you’ve seen the final cut, how does it feel to have all this work behind you and that the world gets to see your art after so much work?
Vasilis Katsoupis: Flying to the clouds, I think [Laugh]. It’s such an amazing feeling, not only that this film is made, [but] that we got a really nice reception on our film. I really wanted to make this film correctly so it took me small steps, step-by-step. That’s why it took so much time. So I’m feeling very happy and relieved, actually, because for me, it was a huge responsibility.
Willem is alone for so much of the movie. There’s a lot of silence. It’s a lot of going off his body language and how he’s interacting with the apartment that he’s in. What impressed you the most about how he was able to be so compelling without the need for another actor to bounce off of? A lot of that goes to also the crew and your camera work here, but it stays compelling with just him on screen.
I would start with saying he’s a work of art by himself. He’s one of those actors that you can not take your eyes off of him when you have him in front of you. Everyone knows that he’s an amazing actor, but the best thing that happens in the film is that he was a co-conspirator and a co-creator. Many things that you see in the film, we worked on them together. He was coming up with great ideas, and even if I had some idea when coming on set, he would try them immediately. This is how we cooperated in this film. That was a pact that we made. We had a beautiful script written and we knew that this script would make a good movie, but we should expand.
After creating such a good environment and shooting chronologically, that gave us this freedom of trying new things that were not scripted. At the end of the day, we ended up with many scenes that we shot unscripted. They ended up in the film — I think 30% of that, you see in the film. So that’s the hugest quality of Willem as an actor –he became the film. He became so inside and involved in this film that I consider him a co-creator.
You mentioned the film was shot in sequence and that’s rare enough. Then to use the script as a blueprint is also so interesting. How was it getting that trust from Willem that he was so willing to experiment and go off script and bring his own ideas to the table?
I think it started when I was in the last drafts of the script — I involved Willem in that. So he was reading the last drafts and we were exchanging notes on that. So our collaboration started even before shooting. On the other hand, I think he took a huge risk. I mean, obviously, working with a first-time director is … it’s a big risk. But on the other hand, my responsibility was in a really high level. I couldn’t sleep at night while we were shooting because I felt this huge responsibility — “What am I doing here?” If I do something, it has to be good, for him not to be embarrassed to be in the film, so it’s not watchable. So that’s how it went.
It’s very watchable and is very visually appealing. I love the, the imagery of how contrasting it is because we have him struggling to survive and trying to escape while he is in this luxury apartment filled with smart devices and priceless art — all the luxury you could imagine. Yet he’s going back to the core tenets of survival like finding water and needing to eat. Can you talk about that contrast there?
Yes, I really wanted to do the premise of Robinson Crusoe — this castaway. I really wanted to put this premise in the middle of a metropolis. That the big difference between those stories is that in my film, the hero is surrounded by life. He can see the people walking by, he can see the cars, he can see, he can see the helicopters, the other buildings, the people in the buildings across. But nobody can see him and nobody can actually help him. So that was something that I really wanted to explore.
Then, visually, I really wanted to have this dialogue between Nemo — the character — and the environment of the apartment, because the apartment is the co-star of the film and reflects the absent one — the owner. So the apartment needed to be designed to reflect the personality and the character of the owner. So for these two entities to have a conversation. So that’s why we really needed to conceive a legit art collection that reflects the aesthetics and the character of the owner. So that was the journey that we took for that.
You have the closed-circuit television feed that Nemo is watching and it’s one of his few ways of looking into the rest of the world there. It’s almost a type of voyeurism where he is watching the cleaning lady and growing obsessed in ways. What did you find most interesting about having him being able to look at the rest of the world while being trapped?
In the film, I needed a Friday or a Wilson. I think the CCTV — and especially in the cleaning lady — works like Friday in Robinson Crusoe or Wilson in Castaway. So narratively, that was the vehicle. And also, for him to look at life, that it’s still inside this building. There’s people living, people coming by, and he actually starts fantasizing a relationship with them. He sees them every day. He understands their schedule and he makes stories with them. Because the TV doesn’t work, he can only get some pixelated porn and this telemarketing TV shows, [but] they’re all scrambled, so there’s no entertainment for him. So it works also as an entertainment device, the CCTV.
One thing I noticed was the character is named Nemo, but he also winds up interacting with a fish that’s like the fish that Willem voices in Finding Nemo. Was that just a happy accident?
It was a really happy accident, like many in the film. It was funny because the story behind that is in the fish tank, I really needed to be with saltwater to make it not drinkable. So we needed tropical fish for this collection of fish. It was funny that while we were shooting, he told us, “You know, I played this fish here.” It’s the same with Nemo in the film and the animation. I didn’t know that. We didn’t know that, it wasn’t on purpose, but it worked perfectly because it is commented on by many, many people.
You mentioned this is your first fiction feature and you’ve worked on documentaries in the past. It doesn’t feel like your first feature when you’re watching it — it’s very confidently shot and comprised. So what was the biggest surprise or challenge while shooting Inside that came up that will prepare you for your future projects?
The thing is that to tell you the honest truth, I’ve done only one documentary. I’m not documentary director. I’m shooting commercials in Greece and that helped me a lot. The commercial production aspect helped me a lot with this film. Also aesthetically, it helped me. It was a difficult shoot with a limited budget. I really had to be very clever in designing the shots and also very fast.
Steve Annis is the director of photography of the film. Coming from the commercial work, that was something that we found together, that we could shoot more stuff and be faster. Also, the commercials helped me to be very fast in solving problems because you don’t have time. When you’re shooting commercials, in a day, you have to do so many things. So that was something that really helped me to do my first fiction debut film. But also after that, I learned a lot, and I learned a lot also from Willem while shooting. That was an amazing thing that happened to me, as well.
It’s hard to imagine anybody else in the role of Nemo in this movie besides Willem. Was he your first choice?
When I was thinking about the film … I would sound arrogant to say, “Yes, I’m going to make a film, and this film will be with Willem Dafoe.” I mean, someone would slap me at that moment, you know what I mean? Of course, he would be my first choice. I mean, I remember that 13 years ago, some journalist made a piece on me for the commercials things, and she asked me, “If you make a feature, who would you like to make with?” And I said, “Willem Dafoe.” And I found it again six months ago. I completely forgot about it. That was something that I wanted to do. He was my dream actor to do a film. But when things were coming together, yes, he was a first choice. It’s a dream, you know? And it was in my dreams to do that, and the dream came true.