Writer/director John Ainslie is celebrating the world premiere of his film Do Not Disturb and it’s definitely the kind of film that gets you thinking. Thankfully, John was kind enough to take time to answer some of my burning questions about the movie.
The premise for Do Not Disturb is very niche: can you pinpoint the moment that the idea came to you?
I wrote “honeymoon couple develops a cannibal sex fetish” on a piece of paper and I have no reason why. I jot down a lot of premises all the time. Some stick and some don’t, but this one stuck and it wrote out quickly. As I reworked it, I sort of saw it as a way to understand behavior in relationships. There was something about the comparison of physical consumption like cannibalism and the emotional consumption of a toxic relationship that just seemed to work.
Love is a pretty powerful drug that can make you do stupid things. Especially when you’re young. You get jealous and manipulative and even though you’re aware that what you’re doing isn’t right, obsessive love can make you lose your rational thought. I wanted to play with that and really amplify behavior. Then I added some narcotic consumption and confronted traditional gender roles and mixed it all up into a blunt and honest portrayal of a relationship meeting a horrific end.
While the film is funny and gorific at times I made sure I always treated it like a drama and centered it around Chloe’s emotional journey. Everything flows from her and her search for agency.
You’ve spoken with great pride about how you and your wife were able to work on this together: how did her influence and input help you on this project?
On any movie I dive into I like to have a team in place I can trust to have my back when something goes wrong. On a film set, something goes wrong every day so to have someone you trust and can rely on 100% is invaluable.
She also knows and understands my vision better than I do at times. Unfortunately for her she had to live with me and listen to me ramble on about the film for a decade so she knows just about everything there is to know about it. When I get into trouble on set, she’s there on the monitor to remind me of what I was going for and keeps the big picture in mind while I’m knee deep in the minutia.
She also gave me loads of great feedback on the script as I worked on it, from large story points down to the simple way a woman may or may not react to a situation. She’s a filmmaker so we’re always bouncing ideas and our work off of each other which is great to have.
I really love Chloe’s character. Did you always know that she would be so strong or did that develop as you wrote?
It was delicate balancing act the entire time from writing, through production and even in the edit to get her character right. She couldn’t be strong off the top, because her narrative journey is to find her strength. She also couldn’t just be a push over to Jack’s bullshit either because then we wouldn’t care about her so I added her quips and jokes as a means of fighting back against Jack’s attempt at dominance. We need to want her to succeed, not pity or feel protective over her. We need to believe she has the strength inside her from the beginning.
A lot of that balance really comes from Kimberly. We work together on the character progression, but the subtle details of who Chloe is and how she expressed inner strength has to come from her in the end. She has to believe in Chloe in order to be Chloe. And that’s not really something you can force as a director, you just have to trust that the actor will find it. Which Kim really did. She really blew me away watching her work. She’s a very talented actor and she’s a woman so I trusted that she knows more about being a woman finding her strength than I do.
With this film and your previous film, The Sublet, you have a knack for seeing things about women that most people choose to overlook. What draws you to a female character more than a male character?
It’s not really a conscious choice, but yeah, for some reason I seem to lean towards female protagonists. I’ve never really put much thought into it – it just sort of feels right and most of the story ideas I come up with seem to have female protagonists. I don’t always think of character gender right away as I’m starting out a story, but then as I develop an idea it just seems to fall into place on its own. Obviously writing for women means that I have to do some extra work and get female feedback, but to be honest I don’t really understand men and the way they behave either so it isn’t that different. It’s just a matter of being true to a character and not forcing my own will onto them. Letting the character speak to me and tell their story without shading them with my own bias.
Do Not Disturb takes place mainly in a hotel room: what were both the advantages and disadvantages to this?
I kind of love hotel rooms. The idea that we share this building for a limited time with complete strangers and we have no idea what is going on behind the closed doors is a really fun place to set a film.
The biggest practical advantage of course was budget. Being able to shoot the bulk of the film in one location allows you to focus as many days as possible on the filming instead of unit moves and largely the reason I was able to get financed and get the film made for as little money as we had.
In terms of shooting, it’s both good and bad. On the one hand, you really get to know where you’re shooting, but on the other it can be a challenge to find fresh angles every day.
Scott and I made sure we weren’t always shooting from the same corner, but rather than fight it, like I did on The Sublet, we used similar setups in line with the repetition of the story, but modified them slightly usually by moving Chloe to a point of power as we move along the narrative. We also sort of tightened up our lenses a little bit in the 2nd half, shying away from the wides and moving her closer to camera, so that Chloe would take up more of the frame. We also, gave her clean frames as she moves further away from Jack emotionally. In the beginning he’s almost always in her frame and when they argue I would have him pacing between us and her to sort of create a sense of frustration in the viewer that aligned with how she felt. Even cutting away from her as she talks, like the way he’s not paying attention to what she’s saying.
Being in that room really allowed us to use the light we blasted in through the windows to tell the story better too. Chloe is always closer to the window, closer to the light, but when she’s making decisions that go against her core she’s separated from the light or in Jack’s shadow. Every time she does something that he’s pushed her into doing she’s in his shadow until the end when she’s found her agency and she emerges from the darkness to the bright sunshine. On our limited budget, this would have been very difficult to achieve changing locations all the time.
The biggest advantage of the hotel room was that I could wake up and be on set in a matter of minutes. We stayed in a room a couple floors above set and we put my parents in a suite and they would take care of our kids while we made the film.
The biggest disadvantage was probably that we had to replace the carpet because the blood wouldn’t come out. Hotel guests apparently don’t like blood stains in their rooms. Who knew?
Do you have your next project lined up and can you speak about it?
I don’t have anything financed yet, but I’m hoping to soon. I have a feature inspired by my short film she came knocking. It’s about an Uber driver who witness’ what she believes is a husband abusing his wife. When no one will help her, she ignores standard procedures and takes matters into her own hands. The script was a Nicholl Semifinalist and I was pitching it before Covid hit, but then shifted my focus to Do Not Disturb.
I also have a fun little found footage film called Hollywood Rejects Strike Back about an actress who is at her wits end and decides to have her BFF document her journey across Hollywood to confront everyone she believes has screwed her over.