We talk with the directors of Evil Eye, Elan and Rajeev Dassani, about what inspired their emotional Welcome to the Blumhouse installment.
Welcome to the Blumhouse opens up opportunities for diverse filmmakers, which the directors of the Evil Eye entry elaborate upon.
Amazon Prime’s horror library has greatly benefitted from the addition of the new Welcome to the Blumhouse anthology film series. Each entry in the series tells a completely new story that indulges in a different kind of genre and pocket of society. All of these films are thematically tied together with what they have to say about the human condition and overlooked margins of society.
Each of the films that are premiering on Amazon’s Welcome to the Blumhouse block are great representations of the ambitious tastes of Blumhouse. All of these films feel personal in different ways, but Evil Eye digs into family drama and customs that normally don’t get highlighted in horror or genre films. Elan and Rajeev Dassani, the directors behind this project, get detailed on the difficulty of adapting a series of phone calls into a movie, the film’s influences, and how to successfully play around with genre expectations.
What drew you both to this project and did the script change much during development after you got involved with it?
Rajeev Dassani: So we were sent the script last year by Blumhouse and Amazon and we absolutely loved it. We had never read something before that had balanced our background as Indians and our mythology with reincarnation with this kind of family drama, that’s also combined with a supernatural thriller. Doing all of that in one film is really clever and we just loved the combination. In terms of what changed–we made a pitch on it because the original audio play is done entirely through phone calls between India and America. So a lot of it became about how to make that cinematic. A lot of our thoughts on how to visualize the project came from adjusting certain things—for example, all of the underwater scenes, the flashbacks, the representations of the mother’s imagination—all of that cinematic stuff is what we helped bring to the table.
Elan Dassani: We also wanted to push the idea that the audience isn’t sure if the mom is just obsessive and has PTSD, or if she’s actually right. We wanted to really push that doubt so the audience also doubts themselves. That was important to us.
Rajeev Dassani: Yes, in the original play I believe the mom is a little more convinced throughout that she’s right. In the film there’s a lot more questioning over whether she’s right or wrong.
You both have a background that’s largely in visual effects. How were you able to help apply that knowledge to Evil Eye as directors?
Rajeev Dassani: It was helpful in the sense of how to get a good handle on the visualization of the film. We shot all of the scenes with the actors in New Orleans, so the idea of creating India even when you’re somewhere completely different—right down to the smallest detail—is a lot of work. Even though it’s this chamber drama, you still get this larger scope of India and the rest of the world. How to tell the montage pieces was also a big deal since they’re this other big stylistic aspect that’s not present in the original script.
Elan Dassani: Another thing that’s kind of cool that we discovered in trying to make a phone call cinematic is that in a normal conversation you play off someone’s visual cues, but on a phone call you can’t see each other so you can actually react more honestly because one character may not realize that her mom doesn’t believer. You get gestures like characters rolling their eyes that we can use to our advantage and provide cues to the audience that the actors themselves aren’t seeing. That was a fun visual tool to explore.
There’s a very distinct look that’s present with Evil Eye. Were there any other films that you turned towards as influences when developing the movie’s style?
Rajeev Dassani: I can think of Get Out as the big obvious one. It has this stylistic, singular piece that everyone remembers. The Sunken Place is a very specific thing and we wanted to have something like that. Obviously not that, but something that’s still memorable and help you remember the film. All of this drowning imagery is present that’s teased right from the beginning with water.
Black Swan was another big influence just in terms of a work where characters are losing their minds and there’s visual representation of what’s happening. In that there’s a lot of body horror going on over the impact on their bodies. Here there’s a mom who can’t stop thinking about how her abuser drowned thirty years ago. So watching her daughter drown and herself drown in her own doubts and fears became a very key metaphor. It’s no accident that during the big action finale the abuser tries to drown her daughter in the sink. That was very purposefully designed.
Elan Dassani: Also look to things like Hitchcock. He has such a visual flourish. Look at things like Vertigo where there’s this “falling from heights” effect that continues throughout the film and the beginning and the end are both set in high places, but by then everything has flipped, including the main character.
The film very effectively lays out the “rules” for the Evil Eye idea during the opening credits. Why did that seem like the best way to introduce everything and was that always part of the plan or was it a later addition?
Rajeev Dassani: We definitely wanted that the Evil Eye idea was represented there. There’s always a question of whether you’re spoon-feeding the audience too much and laying it on too thick or are you doing it so subtly that people are just confused. We tried to find a balance and what we discovered is that the idea to make the title sequence informational came during post-production. We realized that we can make this beautiful, fun to watch and cool, but also informative. I think that’s what the best title sequences do. They’re not just pretty, but they serve some function.
Elan Dassani: Also, frankly there were people who had seen some of the earlier cuts who were like, “Wait…is the Evil Eye bad or good?” So we figured that above anything else should be clear. It’s clear to us because we grew up with it.
Rajeev Dassani: Our editor came up with the specifics for that title sequence, so I’ll give her the credit for that.
Evil Eye explores both the pros and cons of an over-involved family. Expand a little on that and why these dynamics are so important to this story?
Rajeev Dassani: What’s nice is that we keep seeing that dynamic in different cultures. It really comes from this idea of people who care about you turning into misunderstandings, which then turn into assumptions. We all have people in our lives who we love and care about, but we may not completely jive with them. We wanted to tell a universal story here, but to us universal means authentic, and authentic means specific. So I think the Indian dynamic of arranged marriages and the mom’s level of involvement is specific to what we grew up with. Everyone has to face the dilemma of how much you let your family be involved in that capacity and when you push back. Do I listen to everything that they say, or do I think for myself? When our mom first saw the film she said, “So the mom’s always right? Okay, good to know.”
Evil Eye cleverly tows the line between feeling like a romantic comedy and a psychological thriller. What was exciting about finding this balance and playing with expectations in that regard?
Rajeev Dassani: That was a real key for us with the film and something that really spoke to us. We like that it starts a little more comedic and is almost a rom-com. A lot of our cast have comedic backgrounds, but specifically Sarita Choudhury, which is part of why we thought of her for this role. She does bring this balance of deep drama, but also humor. What’s fun about it is that at the start you assume that this is going to be some stereotypical, overbearing Indian mother. She kind of starts in that place, but the reality of it is that Sarita has tackled all of these roles that have sex and violence in them. She’s able to transform what should be a one-dimensional character and give it this great depth. That’s all achieved by this mix of tone and to have these clues slowly seep in.
Elan Dassani: Also, audiences want to be surprised and so it’s nice when you can start them on one path where they think they know what’s happening, but then it shifts from a rom-com, to a drama, to a PTSD story, to a legit supernatural story. It’s fun to keep switching that up.
Rajeev Dassani: It’s also very hard to do because audiences are very smart these days. They’re very good at parsing thought. So we had to really think about how we surprise people.
This is the first big directorial feature debut for the both of you, but have you thought about what you’d like to tackle next and if it’d be a similar kind of genre film, or something totally different?
Rajeev Dassani: We like the smart genre space. We like films that make you think, but also entertain you. Films like Get Out, The Invisible Man, but also Looper, Ex Machina, Split. It’s likely that we’ll kind of end up in the space of supernatural or horror. This was a great springboard. I’m hoping that we can move up in budget in scope. We’d love to be at Denis Villeneuve’s position in a couple years. That would be the dream.
Elan Dassani: But to also keep mixing things up and to not just do the same thing. Looking for strong and varied projects.
Next: Everything We Know About Welcome To The Blumhouse
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