“I’m not interested in Emotion.” Willem Dafoe Takes Us ‘Inside’

We chat with director Vasilis Katsoupis and actor Willem Dafoe about 'Inside' and how shooting chronologically emotionally charged the performers.
Willem Dafoe Inside Vasilis Katsoupis

Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with director Vasilis Katsoupis and actor Willem Dafoe about Inside and how shooting chronologically emotionally charged the performers.

Few films shoot chronologically. More often than not, movies film out of order based on when it’s most cost-effective to shoot specific scenes. While it’s the practice, it can be a nightmare for actors who have to bounce around an emotional narrative, relying heavily on their director to keep it all straight. Navigating the internal scale is just as difficult for the puppet master as the puppets, but it’s the job, and the job has to get done.

Inside was the rare exception. For practical reasons, director Vasilis Katsoupis had to shoot the film chronologically. When Willem Dafoe recalls the experience, he bounces up and down in his chair. We’re all chatting about the ordeal via Zoom, and starting the conversation with this timetable gift from the gods injects an immediate energy. Dafoe raises two thumbs into the air and rattles off his enthusiasm.

“I think it just keeps you very present,” he says. “It lets you deal with what’s in the room. So, particularly when you’re inventing things and when you’re connecting the dots of major events, you’re inhabiting the room. You’re not anticipating, oh, a scene that’s happening later, a scene that happened before. You’re not dealing with anything that’s outside the room. You’re dealing with everything that has a kind of concrete nature, and that’s a good place to start.”

In the film, Dafoe’s art thief enters a collector’s penthouse only for it to transform into a cage. The advanced security system malfunctions, creating an impossible escape. Initially, he waits for his partner-in-crime to come to his rescue. Then, he waits for the police. No one comes. Hours turn into days, days into weeks.

Magnificent works of art surround him, but there’s not a drop of water or a sandwich. As the madness sets in, the set reflects his torment. Dafoe tears into the art, walls, and furniture. No way they could restage the production. The continual environmental destruction created a unique opportunity. A pragmatic must yielded a bonus result.

“It helped us to have a great collaboration,” says Katsoupis. “And a fruitful collaboration to try other things, to treat the script as a blueprint, but have other ideas to explore and shoot more difference scenes.”

Working through the script chronologically also allowed the creators to improvise a little and, in doing so, push the story in directions not necessarily detailed in it. How Dafoe interacted with his surroundings, where he chose to go, and what to do with it caused additional creation. Of course, he never knew whether his actions would ultimately land in the movie, but he knew that the constrictive shot order glued him to the present. Other movies don’t have such freedom, and frequently, the viewer can sense the fabrication.

“There are movies,” says Dafoe, “sometimes, that point too much to the outside of the movie, and you feel it. You can feel that they’re stepping out. You feel that people are trying to sell you something, or they’re trying to push something, or they’re forcing an idea, or they’re trying to wrap it with an intellectual concept. This, as we’re making it, it’s very experimental. We’re doing things that we don’t know whether they’re going to be in the film or not, but they’re connected. It gives you a relationship to everything in the room and gives you a relationship to the time that you’re spending there.”

Once trapped in the location, working with what they built around them, the actor and director discovered the flaws in the script. Some aspects they simply could not accomplish the way they were imagined on paper. Since they were bulldozing their way to the finish line, the solutions had to come fast and couldn’t negatively reverberate through their remaining days.

“Numerous new ideas were necessary,” says Katsoupis. “I think we were coming every day with a, ‘Why don’t we try this? Why don’t we try the other thing?’ Things that were written in the script often wouldn’t work, and we would have to find something else to work. But I mean, the set, the environment, and the way we were doing this film fed us with more things to explore.”

Grounding emotion to the set due to the narratively forward schedule speaks directly to Dafoe’s acting philosophy. As some performers discuss finding their character through costuming, Dafoe speaks just as strongly about achieving character through props. The exterior drives the interior.

“I’ve always loved props,” says Dafoe. “I’ve always loved doing physical things. In the theater, the thing that I always respond to is simple tasks. The idea of doing simple tasks. It’s the color, the feeling of how you do them, that really is the performing. I feel that about everything. I’m not interested in emotion. I’m interested in doing things and having an experience. The emotion comes from that experience.”

Overthinking the character or the performance is an actor’s enemy. Stick to the script. Plant yourself in the set. Start moving, and the internal life will bubble out. Delving too far into motivation distracts and places you outside your character. It’s all in the title; stay Inside by engaging truthfully with your venue.

“My approach is always very physical,” continues Dafoe, “and tries to be very practical because that’s the way I feel like it’s rooted. It goes beyond you. It’s factual. It’s objective. It’s clear. And then, if you commit to that, something very subjective happens. If you’re working it, if you’re trying to inflect it, if you’ve got an idea about what it’s supposed to mean, you’re out of yourself, and you’ll never get to that clarity.”

According to Katsoupis, the only challenge in shooting chronologically is the lack of reshoots. Dafoe, on the other hand, sees that as just another blessing. The filmmakers must work with what they got, no ifs, ands, or buts. Yet, the director also remembers when the film wrapped, Dafoe told Katsoupis that he wished there was something wrong with the footage so they would have to do the whole thing over again.

“What a sweet guy,” says Dafoe. “That was a way of saying, Vasilis, I love you.”

Inside is now playing in select theaters.

Brad Gullickson: 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)