Dark Side Magazine at FrightFest 2022 – James Whittington chats with John Ainslie, writer and director of Do Not Disturb

One of the most striking movies of FrightFest 2022 is the intense psychological piece Do Not Disturb. We dared to knock on writer/director John Ainslie’s hotel door to chat about the movie.

DS: We first knew of your work from the superb movie Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, did that film open many doors for you?

JA: I’m always surprised when people know that film, but everywhere I go in the world someone has seen it. Thanks to Slamdance I was able to see it again a few years ago at the ArcLight downtown Hollywood on printed film with dust and burn marks and it was awesome. Having that film on my resume has never hurt me, that’s for sure. The industry was very different back then. People weren’t making low budget movies by the thousands every year and almost everything was shot on 35mm film. So, it was a lot harder to get something made. Especially outside of LA.  I was also in Canada at the time where the film wasn’t really appreciated, much less heard of by the funding organizations. Over the years as that film has survived it’s definitely lent me a lot of street cred, at least in the genre world which conveniently is where I want to be working.

DS: What inspired you to write Do Not Disturb?

JA: The idea started with me writing “honeymoon couple develops a cannibal sex fetish” down on a piece of paper. I rarely ever know what I’m writing about thematically until I’ve written it. I just know the conflict and the character and let it play out. Then as I read it, I figure out what trauma in my life caused this creative burst and finesse. I was happily married at that time, but I reflected on my past relationships and the way I behaved and was treated, and I saw the connection there – of being in this lust fuelled relationship and literally consuming each other in so many ways. It just kind of made sense and I realized that being in a bad relationship is a lot like being eaten alive. While the concept is pretty crazy and makes people think of the gore, I never treated it that way. I always felt like I was making a serious film that just happened to have a lot of blood at the end. The comedy just flowed naturally from the absurdity.

DS: It’s a raw, and emotional story of two very lost souls, how did you go about casting the movie?

JA: Casting is both one of my favourite and least favourite parts of making a movie. On one hand you get to learn about all these talented actors you want to work with and on the other hand you can only cast one. After a few minutes of talking with Kim, I knew she was the one and never wavered on that at all. I don’t really know exactly why in terms I could quantify. It’s just a feeling. But getting to that point was a journey. I’m always looking at actors. Watching reels and interviews or even reaching out to other directors to see auditions. I like to know who’s out there and what they’re capable of. So, I always start by reaching out to specific actors or agents and asking for a self-tapes. I actually had a couple actors in mind for the roles ahead of time.  I tried to do a normal casting call, but that was a bit of a nightmare as I wanted to cast it a couple months ahead of time to give the cast time to prep the role. The actor union doesn’t like that idea. They want you to cast a couple weeks ahead of time and you can’t audition union actors until the union approves you. That took them two months so most of the agencies wouldn’t even submit their clients and I ended up getting literally thousands of non-union actors submitting self-tapes… none of whom I could hire, but I watched every single self-tape that came in. By the time the union approved us I had already cast Kim so we never did get to see a broad range of union talent. Not that it really mattered in the end, because Kim was perfect. I find the entire casting procedure to be impersonal and unproductive, but it’s just something you have to navigate to get to where you want to go. Part of the process and you just have to keep pushing for what you want because it’s the most important decision you make as a director.

DS: Kimberly Laferriere and Rogan Christopher who play Chloe and Jack have a natural onscreen connection; did they rehearse for long?

JA: We weren’t able to do any official rehearsals. I worked with each of them individually and then they worked together on key scenes. I’m not a huge fan of rehearsals as a director. I like to be surprised. I prefer to talk in general terms about the character and then get more specific as we get to know them together. Not only making the actor an equal partner but empowering them to fully own the character and making sure they have what they need to do that. I know what I want, but once I get to set, I really like to stay open and just feel the performance. To work it organically with the actor and not over think it. I do a lot of preparation and planning, but I’m ready to abandon it all the second I see something special an actor offers me. You can’t really plan the magical moments. You just have to do the work and let it happen. Then hope you’re rolling when they do. It’s literally about just shutting off the thinking part of your brain and just feeling it. Kim and I, for the most part would just look at each other after a take and ask each other how it felt and 100% of the time we either agreed it felt right and moved on or weren’t feeling it so we would do another take. Kim and Rogan worked together on that connection. They’re both strong actors, so the less I interfere the better after a certain point. You just have to trust that you cast right and let them do their thing.

DS: Where did you shoot the movie as it does look like a real hotel location?

JA: We filmed the inside of the hotel room up in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada and the exteriors in Miami. We had planned on building the hotel room as a set so that we could move walls around and slowly close in on the as the movie progresses. But a week before we went to camera the set wasn’t ready and it wasn’t going to happen at a level of quality, we felt comfortable with. So, producer Rechna Varma spoke to the hotel manager where we were housing the crew and they agreed to let us use this amazing room that used to be a conference room. Cinematographer, Scott McIntyre and I were able to replace the lighting fixtures with film fixtures that we could control via iPad and he set up lights outside the windows (it was on the ground floor) to imitate the sun and those became our key lights. When Jack looks out the window at the city, that was shot a month later from Scott’s hotel room when he came down to film the exteriors. Filming the exteriors in Miami was super fun. A real return to the type of filmmaking I grew up doing. It was just Scot and I with Kim and Rogan for a lot of it and for the beach scene we had two students to camera assist and grip. I recorded sound and hid mics in that pink bag they carry around and had the cast push record sometimes. Within an hour of showing up Rupinder was carrying a cooler for us. It was a really fun shoot. Real gorilla and Miami is just an amazing place to shoot where the people are super enthusiastic and excited to help. When Scott and I were shooting the airplane shot we had a random truck driver stop his truck and block traffic for us so we could get the shot. It was pretty great. Especially after shooting for so many years in Toronto where everyone just hates you because there’s a film shoot on every corner stopping traffic.

DS: The sequences where Chloe and Jack first try the drug are incredibly inventive, how long did they take to get right?

JA: Realistically, a few years… conceiving those scenes in my head was easy enough thanks to all the research I did taking LSD as a teenager, but executing the scenes and explaining it to sober people was a challenge. I had people try to tell me to add effects, but I was pretty adamant about playing it straight and making the high sell with the edit and broken continuity. Moving people where they shouldn’t be and playing with what a viewer is used to seeing and then just flipping that and creating a discomfort in the viewer’s perception the way you might experience the narcotic is way more effective, I think. Having characters stoned on camera is like comedy, you have to play it straight for it to work. I practiced some of the perception stuff back in The Sublet. Very little of that was in that script, but once I got on set I realized I could figure things out like moving actors behind the camera and then ripping their shirt off and wetting their hair so that when they enter the frame again it makes no sense and then when they act like hours have gone by, but we haven’t cut it creates unease in the viewer. I shot a short film version of those scenes essentially to practice those scenes and figure them out. It took days of talking and pages of overhead drawings to explain what I was doing to people, but it really allowed me to explain it better once I got onto set for Do Not Disturb.  Rechna, who produced both the short and feature knew what I was doing, Kim and Rogan seemed to get it, or at least just trust me enough to not question it too much and just do it – they’re great like that. Scott worked really hard with me in prep to make sure we executed camera right, but the real unsung hero in all this weird timeline stuff was our AD Stephen Clarke. He harassed me non-stop every free second we had to explain the continuity of the script to him so that it made sense. He made me fill out an Excel spread sheet and would ask me questions non-stop. I think he lost some hair trying to map out the timeline, but it’s probably because of him that we got it right and that there is a logic to the order of events if you really stop to figure them out. I would love to do it again with a steady-cam and maybe thirty more takes, to get it perfect, but we didn’t have the money for that. I’m happy with how we executed it. It definitely works and is effective and a really fun sequence to watch. And the icing on that cake is the Nero track Must Be the Feeling I was able to licence. That also took years, but I had written the scene for that remix version by Delta Heavy and shot it in a way where we basically had to have that particular song. Which they always tell you not to do, but I think you need to be a little indulgent and indignant sometimes if you’re going to consider yourself an artist.

DS: Which scene was the hardest to get right?

JA: Every scene has its own challenges, but I feel like most of the scenes weren’t that hard to get. I certainly don’t recall struggling to achieve many. The Wendy under the bed was hard because we had to build a stage and it was awful to put the actor through hours of makeup and then shove her under a bed to get covered in cold blood. The neck slash was a lot of work, but we got it on the first take even though we did two. Patrick reached up and covered the spray on the first one which kind of defeats the purpose, but after watching it in the edit it felt more natural for him to do that and I kept it. When Wayne walks into the room, Christian and I struggled with the tone a bit. We thought he should be sad and embarrassed and we did maybe seven takes like that before we admitted it wasn’t working. So, we switched it to him being aggressive and suspicious and Rogan played off that and it felt really great. But those are just normal on set challenges. Nothing ever works the way you think it might. Nothing is ever easy so I think I’m always ready for the worst so nothing ever seems that bad. But I mean, every day on set is a good day. Life off set is what is hardest for me. Making a movie is a real privilege. It’s so hard to get anything to camera so once I get there, I really try to enjoy every second of it, because I never know if I’ll ever get back.

DS: There are some grim and superb effects on show, how did you create the “flesh-eating” moments?

JA: That was always my fear – would that look good or not? And when we were filming it, I went back to the monitor after the one scene and the producer, the scripty and make-up all looked nauseous and complained that they might throw up if we did another take. So, we did a few more takes because I knew we were on the right track. It was just silicone and fake blood. Kim does most of the work selling the rips and chewing and her general genius in front of the camera.

DS: I describe it as Trainspotting meets Ravenous, how would you pitch the movie?

JA: Those are great films to be compared to. Revenous is such a darkly underrated film. I hadn’t put the Trainspotting connection together, but it’s a good one. Clearly the diving into the toilet scene made an impression on me, because I unknowingly borrowed from it here with the mirror and the pool scene. I always pitched it as Springbreakers meets William Friedkin’s Bug, but I think it grew a life of its own. I’ve heard it compared it to Requiem For a Dream and Natural Born Killers. That would make sense as I bet I watched Natural Born Killers maybe a million times when I was teaching myself to edit.

DS: Have you ever had a holiday from hell?

JA: I was actually going to say no before I remembered a couple things. I got dysentery in Calcutta. I remember eating at a restaurant and looking over and feeling badly for the old man washing the toilets. As I finished my meal, I looked over and saw the same old man washing the dishes with the same dirty rag. Ten days later I was 30 pounds lighter and near death. Hadn’t occurred to me before, but maybe that experience influenced this script a bit. There were definitely dark days in that Calcutta hotel room with my girlfriend at the time. We were both convinced we were going to die and we were both too weak to do much about it. The other thing was being attacked by two guys at knife point in Mexico. That was an unpleasant experience, but I wouldn’t consider either to be all that hellish. Just stuff you experience that informs your writing. I recommend going out and getting some near-death experiences. I guarantee your writing will thank you.

DS: So, what are you up to at the moment?

JA: I’m writing on a couple tv shows which feels about as opposite to Do Not Disturb as you can get. I’m also trying to get a couple features financed that I’ve written. One leans into the comedy a bit more and the other into the suspense. I also have an action and a modern Western I want to make one day, but who doesn’t?

DS: John Ainslie, thank you very much.