It’s been a fantastic year for fans of Stephen King and Joe Hill. We’ve had the final chapter in the IT saga with IT Chapter Two, the adaptation of Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 which premiered on AMC (and is now streaming on Shudder), as well as a new book from King himself, The Institute. As the King renaissance continues to gain more and more momentum, fans now have the chance to digest more his work, and that of Hill’s, outside of just their written content. The latest work of theirs to be given the big screen adaptation is the novella, IN THE TALL GRASS, helmed by writer/director Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice).
For the release of the film, which had its World Premiere at Fantastic Fest and centers around a brother and sister who find themselves lost in a field of tall grass after trying to rescue a young boy, I had the opportunity to chat with Vincenzo about his latest film. During the interview we discussed everything from adapting King/Hill’s story, as well as casting Patrick Wilson, and the process of creating a terrifying location encompassed by tall grass.
It’s such a pleasure to speak with you today, Vincenzo! To start things off, what made you decide to take on Stephen King and Joe Hill’s novella?
Vincenzo Natali: I am a huge Stephen King and Joe Hill fan. The story was actually presented to me by a producer and I almost said no because it was too obvious a choice because this story, being trapped in some metaphysical maze, is very much in wheelhouse, I have walked that path before. But in this case, there was something to it that was unfamiliar and really new to me, so I jumped in with both feet.
I would say the most impressive aspect of the film is the field in which our characters get lost. What was it like bringing that to life?
Vincenzo Natali: It was really exciting because I knew, even reading the story, that there was a visual opportunity here because it’s such a lush and beautiful environment. It’s oddly jungle like even though it’s something that could grow in a Kansas field. All of those things drew me to it. I was also really captivated by the idea that while it’s an environment it’s a living organism. It has all these many, many thousands and millions of components, it really is one entity. There was something very unnerving and alluring about that.
I absolutely loved the casting, especially that of Patrick Wilson as Ross Humboldt. How did you go about casting him and was he familiar with the story?
Vincenzo Natali: I don’t think he was familiar with the story. I didn’t think we would get him, he was very high on my list and we were almost like, “Nah, he won’t do it” (laughs). We tried and by some miracle he said yes. I don’t want to say too much about the character because I don’t want to give anything away to those who haven’t read the story, but what’s so great about Patrick, aside from being a terrific actor, is he’s a matinee-idol handsome and it’s not what you would expect from reading the story. I think he gave that character a spin that is very special and unique. For all the things he does, it’s really fun being around him. I find his character to be really magnetic and charismatic and Patrick plays him with such zeal. He’s a very Stephen King character.
Speaking of Stephen King, did him or Joe Hill want to be involved with the filming at all?
Vincenzo Natali: They are very differential, especially in the early stages. Part of the option deal with them is that they do have say but they never exercise it, they are really generous with the people that they collaborate with. As the filming went on, Joe became a little more involved in a really great way, he wrote a wonderful speech that’s in the movie, but mostly it was just kind of a sense of moral support from them. It took a long time to get this movie made, about 5 years, and they really stuck with us the whole way.
When it came to adapting the novella, what were some of the challenges you faced?
Vincenzo Natali: The real challenge was the grass itself, and the organism that is the grass, because there’s no template for how to make a movie like this. We really had to engineer it and RND it all ourselves with the additional pressure of having to schedule around an organisms whose life cycle is based on weather patterns that we don’t control. A few months before I was shooting, the grass was not even close to where it was supposed to be in terms of height. It was terrifying, but eventually when it grew, it grew fast. It’s an amazing thing to walk in the field and be surrounded by ten foot grass cause you instantly lose any sense of direction, there’s no reference points or anything, it’s exactly like the movie.
Lastly, there were a lot of themes at play throughout the film. What was the strongest one for you and is there anything you would like viewers to take away from the film?
Vincenzo Natali: I think the movie is ultimately about redemption. A reference point for me, actually, was the myth of Orpheus and the underworld. Orpheus goes to the underworld to save the love of his life, Eurydice, which is why I made Travis a musician. The character of Travis is not really in the [novella] – he’s mentioned in it but he’s not really a character in the story. In some ways, the film is extremely faithful to the story but it does branch off a bit. The big alteration from the story is that Travis comes into play and has a big weight on his shoulders. He left his girlfriend when she was pregnant and wanted her to have an abortion and now he regrets that and has come back to find her. It’s really about him redeeming himself. There’s some discourse about what is redemption because the rock is also offering a kind of redemption, but in my mind, it’s a false redemption because it says, “Touch me and everything will be great”, which is a thing that a lot of religions do or claim to do. I don’t think redemption is easy, it’s hard, that’s the whole point and I think the film is dealing with that. Also, because these people are trapped in nature, there’s a notion of where are we as humans in the grand scheme of things and, in a very Lovecraftian way, the rock represents something that is much older than people, suggesting we are only here for a little while.
IN THE TALL GRASS is available to stream on Netflix. For more about the film, check out our review here.