Interviews · Movies

Fantastic Fest: Talking Misery and pleasure with the stars of ‘Gerald’s Game’

Two actors find the energy and the emotional truth in the room.
By  · Published on September 28th, 2017

Two actors find the energy and the emotional truth in the room.

The IMDB plot synopsis for Gerald’s Game reads, “While trying to spice up their marriage in their remote lake house, Jessie must fight to survive when her husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her handcuffed to their bed frame.” The film’s runtime is 103 minutes. With very few exceptions, the story rarely leaves the bed, let alone the room itself. In the wrong hands, Gerald’s Game could have easily descended into unwatchable, exploitative ugliness. For a myriad of reasons this year, it is not a story I wanted to see mishandled or downright botched. 2017 has already brought us a rather varied selection of Stephen King adaptations, and we all understand that his brand is certainly not an assured seal of approval. Why take the chance on a script that so easily could have resulted in Graveyard Shift instead of The Shawshank Redemption? Who would sign up for such a potentially horrendous challenge? Who would strap on the handcuffs, and who would jump into the rotting corpse on the floor?

It had to have been the most miserable filming experience. I can’t imagine being in that room for the entire shoot.

Bruce Greenwood:  It was so not miserable.

Carla Gugino:  Isn’t that interesting?

Bruce:  It was so not miserable. We were so into supporting each other, all of us, not just Carla and I, but the two Mikes and the crew. We shot it in sequence, so we all took the ride together, and as physically daunting as it was for Carla, which was undeniably difficult, the energy was always really, really positive.

Carla:  You know, I think if we were making something that we didn’t feel was something worth making, like you know if you’re on the set and you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t working.”

Bruce:  Yeah, we would have changed the project, you know …

Carla:  For sure. Because all of those elements that you’re talking about were true. It was hot in there. It was small. It was cramped. It was physically uncomfortable, but we were so excited about the story that we were telling and so intrigued by, also, in the short time frame that we had, it really required fast thinking and thinking on your feet, and also …

Bruce:  And emotionally, it felt like it was true.

Carla:  Exactly.

Bruce:  It felt like the time was well spent.

Carla:  Yeah, I know, it’s interesting, you know? It’s funny to say that because I don’t consider myself masochistic in any way, but that aspect of it was more like metaphorically important for the character, and therefore, became kind of a non-issue. I mean, there were definitely a couple of times where I think I was more exhausted on the emotional front even than the physical.

Bruce:  Having to make those transitions between was – we would shoot on the same day, 12 minutes apart. We would shoot the haggard, ravaged, exhausted, beaten up version of Jessie and then she had 12 minutes to turn around-

Carla:  Literally 12 minutes-

Bruce:  Through a wall and turn the camera around.

Carla:  It was really crazy.

Bruce:  And come back fresh and different.

And a totally different persona.

Bruce:  Completely different.

Carla:  Yeah.

Bruce:  Watching from without, watching that transformation happen was like, “Wow. I’m working really hard and I cannot imagine finding the focus and energy to make that switch.”

Carla:  Wow.

Bruce:  But it was fun to watch.

Carla:  It was so cool to have the … Because we’d never met before, and you know you never know. I mean, I knew that he’s such a wonderful actor

Bruce: But there were arranged marriages-

Carla:   Yeah, totally, and if you’re a professional, you have to figure it out no matter what and create something that maybe isn’t natural, but it’s so wonderful when … just in our first rehearsal, we were like, “Oh thank God. Okay. Great. Here we go.” We were saying it’s interesting. It’s interesting, a movie that’s about trust issues and lack of trust and secrets and all of those things, that in order to make a movie like that, you have to trust implicitly the person and the people that you’re making it with.

Bruce: And you don’t realize until you get into the room with somebody that you respect instantly, what a big relief it is and how much extra work you have to do if that doesn’t happen to be there because it isn’t always there.

Carla:  Right.

Bruce:  Because people have different processes and personas, and sometimes it gels and sometimes it doesn’t on the rehearsal level. It’s funny. The minute you walk in … When we met and began to work together, just all that extra work evaporated because the extra work we have to do of trying to fill in blanks where you don’t quite understand where a person is coming from and all that stuff was not there.

Carla:   I think also because we were dealing with such a serious subject matter, we were also able to sneak in miraculously with Mike and Trevor and Kate and Henry when they were down there, and just actual like meals with glasses of wine, talking about life and the movie. You know?

Bruce:  Yeah, yeah.

Carla:  It was an incredibly bonding and … It was a special experience in the midst of the challenges.

I mentioned this to Mike and Trevor, but I was really scared to watch the movie. I read the book when I was younger, and I did think it was the unfilmable novel, and I was worried it was going to fall into exploitation areas, and from my perspective, it certainly didn’t and it was a tremendous surprise of the festival. But did you have fear when you got the script or when you were signing on …

Bruce:  Before reading the script, yeah, there’s that fear. If you read the book first, I think this can lean in the wrong direction really easily, but the script was very clear in terms of her agency.

Carla:  Yeah, it’s interesting because I read the script before I read the novel because I hadn’t read the novel. So in reading the script, it was super clear. This person is not interested in those exploitative elements. It was just apparent. That being said, I did feel like, oh, we have a really interesting tonal balance here, because we are dealing with an extremely intense subject matter and a complicated one within a purely delivered genre film by our master genre writer and, you know, Mike is so amazing in this particular genre as well.

And so I needed to speak to Mike. The moment I spoke to Mike, I felt completely like, “Oh no, we’re gonna do something really interesting here.” And in fact, I love the use of this woman being forced to face her demons. We can all attest to it, you will never go to those places that you have … There is a reason that we have kept these things down, anything we’ve kept down for that long, there are reasons. And we will never choose voluntarily to go back there. It’s just survival instinct. And so only when forced will you actually look something like that in the face. And generally, when you do, it begins to lose its power.

And so I then looked at it in this more archetypal kind of way and, you know this story is such a personal story for these characters. I was really excited to do it within this genre. I was really excited by that challenge. But I think your tentative feeling about it is something that made me … I relate to very much so, and in fact was one of the reasons that made me want to do it, because I felt like, “If we hit this just right, I think we can pull that off in a way that’s really special.”

Bruce:  And you can describe that survival that results in a life that is muted. So yeah, you survive by withholding, but your life is attenuated in a negative way.  There’s a cap on it where you can’t express and you can’t live and you can’t experience …

It traps you.

Carla:  I had a woman of mentor very early on in my life when I was 16 who said to me, “When you’re on your deathbed, make sure it’s your life you’ve been living.” And it was such a simple statement but it is the truth, which is … So many people because of the terror of something like that happening, especially when you’re so young, and by people who you really trust … Don’t have the tools to live their life. You really aren’t actually fully alive, so I think in seeing this woman find herself and her life and begin to live it is cool.

Was there a moment in the screenplay that you knew you had to nail to make the whole piece work?

Bruce: I’d say the screenplay is full of those moments. It’s not as though it all rests on … I mean the movie hinges on the experience she has with her father in the bedroom, that second experience, where he so deftly creates the world that she can’t get out of. But in terms of what we have to play, there wasn’t an extra scene.

Carla:  Yeah, there wasn’t any filler in this movie.

Bruce:  There wasn’t any bridging stuff that helps … There wasn’t exposition that you have to supplement with some kind of arbitrary emotion in order to get through the exposition, it’s just so common. This is all informed from the very beginning.

Carla:  You know, I think the things we’re laying in because there was so little time to understand their relationship at all because it begins where the story begins. I think it was about laying in something that … hopefully trying to create the sense that these people did have a history and a history that at some point was good, and yet that there was always a part of her that she was always unable to access and he was unable to access, and that created frustration in him, and then he acted out in a way that probably wasn’t the best way but … You know, so in order to create that moment where we’re going to this to this cabin to try this thing, it was about us doing a lot of work just to bring those people together so you believed in this couple. And fighting for something.

Bruce:  We did distill the sense of history down to that one moment where we’re driving away from the dog and it wasn’t scripted – remember, we’re driving away from the dog saying we’re not gonna go pick it up, she goes, “We’re not.” But that was the only time we had to show that there was a …

Carla:  That they know each other.

Bruce:  And that they can make each other laugh and it’s not all, “Our marriage is a desperate failure and this is the last attempt to try and save it sexually.” It wasn’t just that. There was something there, something that had atrophied.

There was a life before the film starts.

Carla:  Yeah, and I think the thing for me that was just key to accomplish and if I didn’t accomplish it the movie wouldn’t work, I guess is just the notion of allowing her to truly become hopeless. Jesse One as we would call her. And that Jesse Two was kinda unmoved by that and very clear-focused about seeing the her that she couldn’t even see herself, seeing the power that she had. And trying to keep them separate because we were shooting so fast and we were turning around in 12 minutes. It was like having to really rid myself of one and find the other perspective, so that felt like a key challenge that technically I had to keep, almost mathematically just reminding myself, “Now you’re this person, that one’s gone right now.” Because I felt like if they start to bleed … And they start to bleed a little intentionally towards the end. Once Jesse One wants the real Jesse to starts to gain her power, Jesse Two can soften just a little, you know.

I don’t want to spoil the ending of the film by any means, but you have … There is a horror that you have to surpass.

Carla: Yes.

And that’s a very horror-movie moment.

Carla:   Perfect horror, absolutely.

And just in the crowd that I saw this morning, really affected them.

Bruce:  (Chuckles) Some discomfort?

A lot of discomfort. And when I went to get a coffee afterward … I was eating my croissant and I still felt very squeamish.

Carla:  Yeah? (Laughter)

Incredibly effective. Can you talk a little bit about playing that Scene?

Carla:  I mean obviously that prosthetic was so beautifully made. And basically what we did was we pushed the limits as much as we could because, again, if you have a director that you don’t trust and that you think might put you in harm’s way, you have to protect yourself. And in this case, Mike was like, “No, no, let’s just take it off.” You know what I mean? He was so much more … he was like what you’re describing. Even he was like, “I can’t stand those handcuffs for five minutes, so you just have to tell me when you’re,” you know, so, “Okay, I think we should stop it now. Are you okay?” I was like, “I’m gonna let you know how far I can go with this.” And so basically we did it as tight as we possibly could to be able to get it through, so it was incredibly painful actually to do what I was doing.

But then 50% of it is that 50% of it is acting. But there needed to be some reality to it in order to even have the struggle and know how long it might take and all of those things.

Bruce:  Painful enough to inform.

Carla:  So, exactly. Yeah, it was creepers from the beginning. When they came and showed us the prosthetics as they were building it. Thankfully I have a very strange not-queasy stomach when it comes to those things. I’ve watched brain surgeries to research for characters and I’ve … one of our writers on San Andreas literally broke his foot on a boat with me to the point where it just turned like that (mimes on her own foot how the bone completely twisted around) and everyone … I don’t know what happens, I go into a mode of clinical … I don’t know, something strange happens. So thank God I was okay looking at it, but I was like, “Whoa, this is so much worse than I thought we were gonna make it.” We’re going there.

I’m so glad that I was able to talk to you because … That you had such a good time on the set, because it was really harrowing, to say the least. Have you had a chance to watch it with a crowd?

Bruce:  Nooooooo!

Carla:  No. Tonight is the first time!

It’s gonna destroy Fantastic Fest.  It’s gonna be a great screening.

Carla:  It’s so cool to hear. We were actually just …

Bruce:  Lamenting.

Carla:  Yeah, saying there’s no … You can’t wish for anything better than something to be really streamed on Netflix because they are extraordinary at what they do, but we were just saying it would be so wonderful to add … and I guess we add it tonight. But to add some sort of communal element because comedies and thrillers and horror films just are exponentially strengthened by a group.

Bruce:  The collective experience of it in this kind of things, something that you take the energy from. You feel people’s fear and that’s kind of what you’re there to be.

Carla:  And it’s so fun to be harrowed together. You know what I mean? You’re looking at the person … It’s mind-blowing. Frank always does this, it fucking drives me crazy too. He always does this … Put your knee down for one second if you don’t mind. Like right before something really scary is gonna happen (Carla death grips Bruce’s knee).  Inevitably. It’s so mean, but it’s also now become part of my … I don’t get that knee-grab, then I’m like …

It is exciting to have it go through Netflix. It’s gonna be in everybody’s home.

Carla:  Yeah, it is.

Bruce: Yeah, everybody’s radar. It’ll pop up there.

Carla:  And what I love about what you’re talking about is part of the nature of the harrowing quality of this movie is the fact that Mike holds back so expertly in so many instances and then goes full on when it needs it, and there’s this wonderful kind of measured … It’s almost like a musical piece, you know?

Bruce:  And there’s a lot of attention in the way he wants.

Carla:  Yeah, and it’s really …

Bruce:  He doesn’t like the jump scares and he’s much more willing to hold back and not cheap out. Not that they’re cheap and out. Not that they’re cheap, that’s fine for that kind of movie, but he really has the reins really, really tight in it. Let’s go completely. A couple of minutes after you’re ready for it.

Carla:  Yeah, and it was interesting cause he cast in this case, the two of us and I would say that probably about the whole cast, and Kate in Hush was like that too. It’s like he cast this sort of emotionally open, sensual, heartful people and then his style has this incredible austerity to it. And precision, and … We’re obviously precise actors as well but there’s this cool combination of that. There’s no moment that is extra. It’s just interesting.

Bruce:  He doesn’t guilt.

Carla:  Yeah. It’s an interesting balance there.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)