I'm mad at In the Tall Grass director Vincenzo Natali, and I tell him as much as soon as we start talking. I've been mad at him for years, ever since the opening scene of Cube—you know, the one in which a man, suddenly finding himself trapped inside a futuristic maze, is chopped up into little meat hunks with razor wire without warning—messed me up so much as a kid that I had nightmares. He laughs and thanks me. Consider him not forgiven.
Natali has long been one of the must-watch names when it comes to big, strange, transgressive filmmaking. His movie Splice is an underrated Freudian body horror about two scientists who create an experimental human-animal hybrid. It's something that, naturally, goes terribly awry, and includes one of the more unnerving sex scenes in cinematic history.
Today, we're talking about Natali's In The Tall Grass, a new Netflix movie based on a short story written by the father-son combo of Stephen King and Joe Hill. That's an impressive amount of pedigree to live up to, but Natali is certainly up for the task. In the film, a brother and sister are lured into a vast expanse of—spoiler!—titular tall grass, to help a lost child. They soon learn that once you're in the grass, there's no getting out. It "moves things around", the boy later tells the stuck siblings.
All throughout, Natali deftly handles King and Hill's work, warping the duo's source material into one of the year's most frightening movies. A scene in which the siblings come agonizingly close to locating each other before they make the discovery of the grass's truly horrific nature is chilling and brilliant. Natali has always taken dark pleasure in messing with characters who end up unlucky enough to be in one of his films, and In The Tall Grass leans into some truly gruesome torture doled out by the mystical field (and its apparent custodian, played by a chillingly cheerful Patrick Wilson).
GQ spoke with Natali about keeping the secrets of how he made this film look so damn good, hiring Patrick Wilson to play a grinning baddie, and expanding a short story into a feature-length film.
GQ: So how did you discover this story? Were you approached, or was this something that you wanted to make for a while?
Vincenzo Natali: Kind of both, I guess. I was shown the story by this producer friend of mine. I really immediately connected with it and came up with the notion of how to turn it into a feature film. I pitched it to Stephen and Joe, just by email, and they approved me to buy it through the famous $1 deal. And then, in very short order, I was writing it, ready to get it out into the world. And then it took five years.
And in those five years, the way films are released has changed so much—especially the Netflix distribution model. When did they come into the picture?
I would say a year and a half ago, maybe a little bit more. I just couldn't seem to get it going. Sometimes we were told it had no value on the marketplace. But then, suddenly, It came along, and it was all everyone's talking about. Then Netflix was really kicking into gear to have their original movie productions where a couple of Stephen King movies did very well for them. And so the stars aligned and all a sudden, we were given a green light. We were off to the races. But it was really only under those specific circumstances the movie could happen. It is a Stephen King movie, but it's unusual. Joe has a very particular flavor to his writing, I think in a wonderful way. Quite quirky. So it didn't go a long way from Stephen King horror but it is a little stranger than that—and therefore, I think, more interesting
How much of Tall Grass was filmed in an actual field and how much of it was it constructed on a set?
You know, I'm kind of reticent to say. I don't know if I like when a film gets deconstructed as soon as it comes out. There's a certain kind of magic that gets lost, I think. I will say: we shot in a real field as much as we could, and it's all real grass. There's no way to synthetically manufacture that stuff. And it's pretty wild to step into. When we were shooting, the crew had whistles so that if they got lost we could find them. I wanted to make nature a character in the movie, and a lot of the beauty just comes from the natural setting.
I feel like the movie is actually quite relevant. The day that we premiered at Fantastic Fest was the day of the climate demonstrations. I think we're finally becoming very aware and sensitive to what's going on with nature and the planet. And this movie has a lot to do with that, with our relationship to nature, and an ancient order we have no business messing with.
I'm a huge Patrick Wilson fan, and he's such a perfectly corny creep in this. It's a very small cast, so to have him as the deranged spokesperson for the grass looks like it was so much fun on set.
It was fun. When I knew I was directing this, he was right at the top of my list of actors. We were incredibly lucky to get him. And then he embraced the role in a way that I think makes Ron a very magnetic and flamboyant character. I hate to give away too much at this point, but he's kind of the engine of the film. He's so charismatic and wily. Actually, that's maybe where we departed a little bit from the original story. In the novella, the character's very much like a Jack Torrance type. Patrick is so effervescent. And he's so handsome in that matinee movie way that there's just something really appealing about him... but threatening at the same time.
There's a lot added to this film to expand it from its short story origins. But you also actually cut quite a bit from the opening, where Cal and Becky are on their road trip. Why was it important to get them in the grass pretty much immediately?
I shot a scene in the car where Becky and Cal were talking right at the top, and I cut it because it just started to feel like it was giving us backstory. And I should have known better that the most interesting backstory we find about our characters are always through actions. When you're working with a small ensemble you have the luxury of time with the characters, and you get to learn about them as they go through whatever they're going through rather than broadcasting to the audiences from the beginning who they are.
I feel like there's definitely a much less interesting version of this movie where you get to the 25-minute mark, and it's like, "Okay, they're going into the grass now."
Oh yeah, and in our version—I don't think this is really giving anything away—20 minutes into the film, it reboots itself. Right? And you're introduced to a new character, you don't even know who this person is. And I think there's something very exciting about that. Because it's unexpected and unconventional. I've always been drawn to that kind of left-turn, to keep the audience on their toes.
This interview was edited and condensed.
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Originally Appeared on GQ