John and the Hole is a contemporary fable about out-of-control selfishness in a family. John is at the precarious age of puberty and needs to bond with his family, but they only have time to give him instructions to climb the ladder of success. His way of getting their attention is strange, but isn’t harmful, and ultimately it’s instructive for his parents and sister. Director Pascual Sisto and screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone frame their story as a fable but present it in naturalistic images. When understood as this fable approach, John’s behavior makes perfect sense, like Goldilocks and similar characters.
We spoke with Sisto during Sundance about the disappointment and highs of getting into Cannes last year, Robert Bresson’s influence on the project, his thoughts about people calling the movie Michael Haneke’s Home Alone, and how his fable has a moral without moralizing.
The Film Stage: What was it like to get into Cannes and then the festival was cancelled?
Pascual Sisto: It’s the highest and the lowest at the same time. It’s like a very conflicting feeling. On the one hand, getting the Cannes label was probably the most encouraging, supportive thing we’ve received during this whole year. It was at the peak of the pandemic, I was in New York, I couldn’t escape. So I was locked in here and we had just finished the edit, literally for the Cannes deadline, and then submitted the film. At the time, the pandemic started getting stronger, and stronger, so we decided to take a little break after the cut was done. That break became longer and longer, and it became more infinite. So there was a time that the world, everybody can relate to this––it was a very dark time for all of us. We didn’t know what was going to happen to the film. Theaters were closing, everything was changing, the whole landscape was changing. And then suddenly, Cannes comes along, announces their selection; even though they were not going to have a festival, they at least released their selections. I really liked their purpose in that because they felt that was the most they could do. The easy choice would have been to cancel the festival and not make any selections and just move on to the next year. But they all felt that it was important to support the films that they already had selected, because the selection process did happen before the pandemic, so that didn’t change for them.
Will you talk about creating the character of John? He’s deceptively complex throughout the movie. You think his motives are plain and obvious, then you see he’s building a web.
It was a very complex character from the beginning, He had to have enough distance and alienation from the world. But at the same time, he has this really visceral need to feel something. It’s a very conflicting and contrasting position in many ways. When I talked to Charlie Shotwell who plays John, we discussed that and then one way that we broke it down is I think people are different depending who they talk to. You behave in a certain way when you talk to strangers, you behave in a certain way when you talk to your parents, to your grandparents, to an old stranger lady in the street. Your voice changes, your inflection changes, So we broke the character down into a few different characters. We kind of started with that and as we went along, and as he got deeper into his confusion, and the state that he was trying to find himself out, we started switching the characters a little bit and the way he would react to different people. I think that gained in the complexity of Charlie’s performance and he was quite incredible at switching between them. I think on a technical level there was the one thing that we did to create this character that is both likable, but you don’t know to trust him or not. He’s both naive and innocent, but also calculated and cold.
Is John on the spectrum?
He’s not in particular; to be autistic, of course, there’s elements that people might identify in certain disorders. We actually wanted him to be normal, but there is some level of apathy that happens in his life. I will say there was that case, the affluenza case with the kid that was coming from a rich family and had all these things, and one of the lawyers was defending the case in a way saying he suffered from affluenza: an inability to express feelings because of his affluent lifestyle.
That was a very strange case, and not that this film is inspired by that, but it sort of happened in the creative process. Obviously, John comes from an upper middle class family, he has a certain degree of buffer between himself and the world. So he is in a safe space with a lot of protection around him. I think that is what makes him not know how to express emotions. To be honest, internally, I think he does have a very deep, emotional level, but it’s just like his inability to reach it is what causes that distance. Through the film, he’s trying to feel these things and trying to feel for himself.
It’s apparent that the story is a fable but it’s shot in this very naturalistic way.
It’s part of how we approached everything. When we did decide that it was a fable, with the title and story within the story, there’s a lot of elements that lead to this being a fable. But the idea was to do like a contemporary interpretation of what a fable could be. That required to shoot it in a realistic, naturalistic way that we could identify ourselves with. For example, with the Lily character, we created a meta narrative. We pull back and view the story from a third-person point of view. Immediately we go back to the family waking up in the hole. There’s this changing the perspective of how the narrative is viewed. But I am more of a realist in that way. I like things that I can relate to better than when it becomes purely fictional and purely magical and a make-believe world.
Will you talk about framing the fable with the mother telling the daughter the story of John the Hole?
The film is based on a short story, but the Lily character was not in it. So while we were developing the screenplay, this character emerged. At the beginning, it was a purely instinctual, part of the creative process in a way like that she came out and then we knew that we wanted to frame the story within the story. We wanted people to know that this was a fable. At that point, everything that you had seen, suddenly you pull back and you reframe it as something else. The mother asks the daughter, “Do you want me to tell you a story?” And there’s Charlie and the Spider, which is the story of John’s gardener or John and the Hole, so suddenly, it makes you see like everything within itself could be potentially a different story. As we continued writing along, suddenly we were back to the fable, which in theory is the fictional part of the story, but it was becoming very real. Then suddenly, we were naturally interested in what happens to the reader, what happens to the audience, what happens to the one that was observing this, and how is she being affected by this story? For me, there was something really interesting about going back to her and, without revealing much because I do think it’s important that it remains open and open to interpretation, what it creates is that each one is experiencing adulthood in a different way. Lily’s being immediately abandoned in a very abrupt scene. And it’s a very dramatic, abrupt moment that it’s absurd, it’s something that would not really happen to a 12-year-old. So she is forced into adulthood, while John is forcing himself through a very indirect way, by trying to have more time within himself. Both opened up the story and it made it more universal in a way, it’s not just about this one kid, it’s about all kids. That’s what made it the most interesting, and something that we really like.
Did you have any filmmaking influences on this movie?
I’m quite a film buff in a way. So I watch a ton of films and they’re part of my psyche. It’s very hard to dissect the movie and see where my influences come from. There’s been a lot of reviews already mentioning Michael Haneke. Sometimes a part of me thinks that’s limited in a way. I understand that they are probably the most popular right now, but there’s many others. Bresson, for example, is the one that initiated this certain style of having a very clinical study of the psychology of characters. He would only use 50 millimeter lenses, so he had a certain style that I think carried on in certain independent films, in certain European foreign films. I saw a lot of Bresson before approaching the film.
So when people jokingly say, John and the Hole is like Michael Haneke’s Home Alone, is that funny to you, or is that annoying?
It’s both now. [Laughs.] I think the context gets forgotten in many interviews and reposts and reposts, but at the beginning, it came out of a conversation of how most people in the industry always want to have two films in comparison to what you’re doing. It’s like a frame of reference. It gives them something to grab on. Even when we were in the financing stages, people were like, “Oh, it’s this meets that.” They always want like that grounding element that will give them something that’s pre-existing that they can hold on to. So in a joke conversation, I think our screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone brought up that it’s like Michael Haneke’s Home Alone, but in a way that to some people that really struck through and they really understood it, because obviously, it’s none of both in a way, but it has the austerity of Michael Haneke, in some ways. The one thing I can appreciate about Haneke is that he’s very economical, which comes all the way back to Bresson, he’s very economical in his choice of shots. He’s not going to give you more shots than you need, he’s not going to give you more things than you need, he’s gonna give you the essentials. In a way, it’s a form of minimalism.
I think people who want to go see Home Alone in this film are probably going to get disappointed. I think it could be misleading in some ways, and I think it’s important that they know that it started kind of in a humorous way.
Fables are supposed to be morally instructive. They’re simple tales, sometimes for children. So what I want to talk about is the moral of this movie, but not to reduce it into such simple terms and not to say that you have a message for your movie. But being that it’s a fable, morals are a part of it.
John’s family are routinely concerned with their own lives, almost exclusively, until John puts them in the hole. The first time we see them, they’re at the dinner table, all focused on their own thing. But at some point, after they’re in the hole, the mother turns her attention to John, and he only releases the family after his sister apologizes to him. There’s a quiet reconciliation. It’s almost as if that deprivation from their lives was necessary to show how deeply wrong things were in their home.
That’s it. That’s incredible, you already answered the question, in a way. It’s very powerful, what you just said. That scene with John’s sister is very important. Asking for forgiveness without really knowing or understanding the exact reasons why. I think that’s one of the possible messages in a way that there’s some unseen, unspoken elements that are hard to pinpoint, but that you understand that they might have caused some damage.
I think there’s dangers in silence and dangers in avoidance of confrontation. It’s like being at a Thanksgiving dinner table. Nobody wants to talk about the real things. Nobody wants to talk about the actuality of life, everything’s beat around the bush. So I think that, for me, was the most important thing that they acknowledge that something might have gone wrong, but yet do not know what it was.
The difference between the first dinner scene and the last dinner scene is the essence of the movie to me. That you can see the same shot in a movie with a completely different context. In the first shot of the movie, you just think, “Oh, that’s just a normal, regular family having that dinner together.” And then in the second scene you know something deeply traumatizing has happened and how they’re dealing with it and how they move on for the better or for worse. Some people think they got closer in the hole. They were able to, on a primal level, find their inner selves in a way and maybe now they communicate without language, maybe now they can communicate on an existential level. So there’s many interpretations of it.
I think it’s important the idea of the fable being not an anti-fable, but we are obviously very aware that fables do teach you a lesson in the end. In this one, we’re a little bit left with this openness, and that’s part of the contemporary version of the fable. I think if you tell fables today, they don’t have an answer because we’re much more aware that things are not as simple as black and white and things are not so reductive that you can say this is the way out. There’s fake news all over the world, there’s misinformation. My intention in framing the entire film is, a lot of films tend to be like closed circuits. They are self-fulfilling prophecies and they answer all their own questions and they finish in a very complete way. I’m much more interested in leaving a few exposed wires, in a way that, for some people, it might short circuit. Other ones might complete the circuit in a way. It might lead them to something else. So it was important to us to not give you the one particular reason. It’s not that there’s dysfunctionality in their family about one specific thing. It’s about many small little unseen things.
John and the Hole premiered at Sundance Film Festival.