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Grimmfest 2022: An Interview With John Ainslie, Writer/Director of Do Not Disturb

Photo courtesy of John Ainslie

I was surprised to find just how much I liked Do Not Disturb (a black comedy about unhealthy relationships with a smattering of blood lust) when it played at Arrow Video FrightFest. So, when I heard it was also playing at Grimmfest, a favorite UK festival, and that the man behind it was available for an interview, it didn’t take me long to get it arranged. John Ainslie’s head was clearly spinning a little with “is it seven or nine?” festivals this month that the film is traveling to: “keeping track of them all and delivering them all is a little demanding,” he told me, “at least compared to making them.”

John has been described as a director, cinematographer, film writer, and composer; I asked him how he sees himself. “I use the word filmmaker,” he said. “Composer is a new thing. Originally, when I was young, I played with a number of bands. Music was my first love. I carried a record player around a lot; if my Mom took me somewhere, I’d sit quietly listening to music. I got into film naturally from shooting music videos and skateboard videos, but I was also into film at a young age as a film lover. I mean I loved films but never thought I could make them until I got to high school and saw that other people made them. I grew up in the eighties on big films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and couldn’t conceive of making that kind of thing, but then I started to see things like Mean Streets—hand-held and very accessible—and Annie Hall, that was a big influence on me. I steadily realized it was possible to make films without aeroplanes, falling boulders and you know, big stuff.”

John had grown up in Canada, so I asked him what took him to Miami, where Do Not Disturb was made and set. “My wife, who also works in films,” said John. “She also produced Do Not Disturb. She got tired of sitting ankle-deep in snow, waiting for a bus that didn’t come. If you’ve ever lived in Toronto, you’ll know their transit is terrible. So she spent a lot of her time Googling warm places to work. Miami came up as an opportunity and she applied for a job at the University of Miami and now she’s a professor there. And that’s great, because we used a lot of their gear, and they’re supportive with the shooting.”

Do Not Disturb opens with a couple on their way to a honeymoon break in Miami, and it’s clearly a sunny city, a real change of environment for them. I couldn’t help wondering as I watched the film does this kind of thing really happen in Miami? “I’ll bet this isn’t even the most outlandish thing to happen there,” laughed John. “I think a lot of things happen in Miami that we never get to hear about.”

So why did he choose to set it there? “Well originally when we wrote the script, it was to be set in Mexico,” John said, “which is where the peyote [a catalyst in the plot] came from. I’d done a lot of traveling through Mexico instead of college, and I loved the country; then I wrote this movie. You hear stories about dumb tourists who go to Mexico and pick the wrong batch of peyote. There is a (theoretically) true story about a man who did peyote and then woke up having eaten his arm down to the bone. A story about a couple who’d been camping, and the guy came to check on them and found the guy hanging body parts in the trees. So it’s part fiction and part real. Mexico was very hard to achieve, and there were some unique challenges in terms of being a Canadian filmmaker going down there on a limited budget. So when we moved to Miami, it made sense to rewrite it for that location. I’d been working with one of our executive producers, Michael Baker, for years on this script, trying to find a home for it; and then the pandemic hit, and filming became impossible.”

John Ainslie, writer/director, with cast and team on the set of Do Not Disturb
Photo courtesy of John Ainslie

I had been wondering why it had taken so long to get the film to market. “It took a long time because no one wanted to make it,” John said bluntly. “That’s the truth of the matter. When I first wrote it, I pitched it to a lot of people. Some people were looking for more tropey, formulaic horror, I guess; there wasn’t a very big body count in our film and no gore for virtually the first hour. Maybe a trickle of blood, but nothing substantial. Anyway, that eliminates a large group of the horror market. Then no one wanted to make a cannibal movie in which the hero was a cannibal. Then you know, Raw came out: I was in Toronto when it played TIFF and I could see that it was possible. So people’s attitudes about whether or not it was possible were opened up, and that the film could be done in a certain way. I mean there’s a lot of Troma-style films about cannibalism that worked very well, and this is not like that, and it was hard to get people to conceive what it was like because there weren’t many examples prior to Raw.”

I’d looked recently and seen just how many films there are featuring cannibalism, a wide range that includes quite serious (or art-house, perhaps) films like Trouble Every Day and We Are What We Are. I asked John why he thought audiences were intrigued by the subject of cannibalism. “I think they are as scared as they are intrigued,” said John, “because I think it’s a real thing. You’ve got the Ravenous model of eating to survive, and the Claire Denis film was a huge influence. I think genetically, there’s got to be some reason why we have this make-up; a history of ‘head hunters’ and that kind of thing that we grow up hearing about. And I’ve read that if a mama bear is lost in the woods with her cub and there’s nothing to eat, the solution is for the mama to eat the cub; because the mama can then survive and make more cubs, but the cub wouldn’t be able to survive and make another mama. So that’s got to be in our mammal DNA somehow, and we suppress it, like many other things. Horror comes best from the things we suppress and come to the surface.”

We jumped back to the subject of getting this film to market and talked briefly about fellow Canadian Justin McConnell and his documentary Clapboard Jungle, which was about his struggles in getting the remarkable Lifechanger made and marketed. “I was in touch with a producer friend of mine and he said ‘congratulations on getting the nearly-impossible done’,” said John. “I’ve had four scripts come to screen and hopefully the next one will be made, and they never follow the same model: every time you make a film it’s like the first time of making one.”

As for this film…one of the most successful aspects of Do Not Disturb was the cast, especially Kimberly Laferriere as Chloe and Rogan Christopher as Jack. I asked John how he had selected a pair with that chemistry. “It was a challenge,” said John. “Rogan and I had known each other for a long time. He wasn’t originally cast, but having looked for actors for a while, just kind of turned to him and said ‘why don’t you do it?’ and it was perfect. I struggled to find anyone for Kim, and I’d looked at thousands of tapes. I had one other option to consider, but then it turned out Kim and I had the same agent, so I passed on the script to see if she liked it. She read it and we talked on the phone for three or four hours; not really about the film, but about relationships, and dealing with toxic relationships, which she’d dealt with a lot. I don’t think it’s unique that women have experienced that in their lives, but she had some very relevant stories to tell. Not about cannibalism…

“Kim and Rogan both trained at the Playhouse in New York, which tells me right away that an actor can act; and they both work similarly. The challenge with Rogan was that he had to play such a jerk that occasionally I had to keep reminding him ‘you’re a jerk, you can’t be so supportive, you’re the problem here.’ So that was fun, but hard for him (because he’s not like that). And Kim just dove into the character; being on set with her was effortless. We just felt it or didn’t feel it, didn’t talk too much, and kept it simple.”

She was spot-on in that role in my opinion, and it was fascinating to see the reluctance to take part and then embracing and learning from what was going on in her character arc over just a few days. “Yeah, and she really understood that,” said John. “She was very sympathetic to Jack as a character, and sometimes would say ‘he’s not a bad guy.’ I had to stress to her: ‘you’re being gaslit!’ And she completely changed by the end of it.”

John Ainslie, writer/director, with cast and team on the set of Do Not Disturb
Photo courtesy of John Ainslie

The character of Jack was interesting: although John might have had to tell Rogan “you’re a jerk,” I don’t think a person is one hundred percent one thing all the time, so I get that she could relate to him. There was a lot of nuance in the writing of both characters. But now while touching on that topic of their relationship, I confessed to being wary when I first started watching the film, when I first saw where it was going: I had wondered to myself whether I wanted to watch a film about a controlling man written by a man. John had already mentioned that women don’t have exclusive rights to that experience, so I asked what it was he wanted his audience to take from the film. “I’m older now,” John said, “but this film is the product of some failed relationships and a good relationship that I’m in right now. I think there is a lot to examine with traditional gender roles in relationships, especially once I had kids, and my friends had kids, we found that changed the relationships and expected duties. It was interesting to see how some people step into some duties and other people step into other things. I looked back on relationships I’d been in during my twenties, and I wanted to exorcise that and confront how I behaved and changed, so I put it into a movie. There are situations here that are similar to situations I’ve been in, and situations we can all identify with, and I have a lot of late-twenties, early-thirties men cringe at the film and say things like ‘I can’t watch this with my fiancée because there are too many similarities, she’s said these exact same things to me.’ I think it’s a good thing if some people will reflect and maybe change how they behave in a better way. You get comfortable in relationships, in jobs, in life; and we find ourselves in these struggles and learn how to cope with them, rather than looking at how to move on. And that’s how Chloe starts: she has been in this relationship for over a decade; and she’s also a woman who is nearing forty, wants to have a child, that clock is ticking, and time is running out for her. She has invested all this time into a relationship with a man and is now realizing this may have been a bad investment. But the question of whether she might want to start over is on the other side of that scale. Men don’t have to go through that, or even acknowledge it or consider it.”

Not in the same way, for sure, I agreed. “Right,” said John, “or they have more time to consider it. A man can wait until the age of seventy to face that dilemma, at a push. But even at my age, keeping up with a five-year-old isn’t easy. Then if you’re a man like Jack, you wouldn’t make the attempt to keep up with the five-year-old anyway. Those kinds of men who date that way don’t end up being great parents, so we’re talking about people who make poor decisions or are selfish; borderline narcissistic, perhaps.”

I think both the people in the Do Not Disturb central couple made decisions without thinking them through thoroughly. “Right,” agreed John. “Or maybe overthinking them. He definitely doesn’t think enough, but with Chloe, it’s more complicated. Imagining alternatives is something she’s unable to think about. She wants an alternative but can’t quite formulate how to achieve that. Until the end…actually, I’m not sure if she does: she just removes the barrier that has kept her from exploring alternatives.”

I didn’t want to talk about the ending too much though. “It’s interesting,” said John, with a laugh. “I do that a lot, and I know it’s wrong, but I don’t feel that the experience of this film matters whether you know the story or not. It’s such a weird experience.”

I couldn’t entirely help it either. There is a strangely hopeful feel about the ending; I asked John if that is what he had wanted. “Yep, for sure,” he said. “Everyone has this connotation that breaking up with someone or divorcing someone is a bad thing, but it’s not. It can be, for sure, and certainly is for some; but at the same time, it’s very worthwhile, a departure into a new life. We don’t really talk about that, but it’s true for so many people who have gone through troubled relationships and escaped. We only have one life, so you don’t want to spend it struggling every day. Life is a struggle enough, without facing more with the person you sit and drink your tea with every morning.”

Do Not Disturb poster
Poster courtesy of John Ainslie

The strapline for Do Not Disturb declares that “love is all-consuming” which didn’t quite fit for me. I asked John if he had come up with that line. “No,” he said, “the company who did our poster wrote that. We thought it just had a great ring. Love or lust can be all-consuming, and I do think it applies to part of the film. Mine originally was ‘love, lust and carnal desire,’ which people felt was too intellectual.”

We debated a little about how some words work for the content of the film, but not so much for the tone, and looked at other words (like “toxic”), which could have been included in the strapline. “It’s funny,” John mused. “You write a film for reasons, then you direct a film for similar reasons; but then when it’s time to selling the film, those reasons go out of the window when other people take over. This one has been fortunate, pretty consistent. But my first feature, The Sublet, is kind of like The Others, a slow-paced psychological thriller horror; in the UK, though, it was marketed like a slasher, if you look at the poster. I’m sure a lot of people rented it and didn’t get what they were expecting.”

Looking beyond the festival journey that Do Not Disturb is currently taking, I asked John whether there is a distribution deal to take it to a wider audience. “I think so,” he said, “we’ve had a few offers and waiting for Screamfest to wrap up, see what happens there, and then we’ll make a decision. It’s been well received; in North America and Europe, at least. We haven’t screened it anywhere in Asia so far. The UK seems to love it, I’m overwhelmed with how it’s gone down there.”

So what’s next for John Ainslie? “I’m writing something I want to do with Kim again,” he said. “I’ve got two things I’m working on in that department, but also I made a short film called She Came Knocking in 2017 that I’m pitching. Then I’m also working on a medium-budget film called Hollywood Rejects, about an actress who’s fed up with the industry and goes on a sociopathic rage across LA, confronting everyone who’s done her wrong. I don’t do much without blood and guts in there somewhere, so it has that, but it leans more into the comedy. Do Not Disturb leaned into comedy too, of course, but it wasn’t the primary thing.”

The occasional change in tone to wake the viewer up to what was going on is where I mostly found comedy in Do Not Disturb. “It releases tension, too, of course,” said John. “There are a couple of scenes that are just so bizarre and dark that if you weren’t laughing, I don’t know what you’d be doing.”

We both agreed on one scene like that; when the couple’s holiday friend Wayne (played by Christian McKenna) comes looking for his wife. “Yes, that one especially,” John said. “That scene toys from angle to angle about comedy, drama, horror. Even as I was shooting it, I was concerned with whether it would work or not; and even editing it was challenging. We thought at first that he’d come in thinking his wife was leaving him, a real pity party; but that didn’t work, even with a dozen takes. So we switched it and Christian came in aggressive, and right away it was great, and we used those two takes.”

It was clear that I shouldn’t have gone to my closing questions just yet; remembering that scene, I asked John whether they had made the film in a real hotel, and if so, how that had worked out. “It worked out to an insurance claim for a blood-soaked carpet,” he said. “We had planned on shooting in a studio and building the hotel, and I’d had this concept of walls getting tighter and tighter to reflect their psychology, but that wasn’t going to work. So a week before production, we ditched that idea and decided to shoot in a large room; this hotel had a large room that used to be a conference center and they had turned it into a deluxe suite, and my wife and I basically dressed it and made it work. The only problem was cars in the driveway and so on; it’s not really a problem, but when you’re making a film, you’re conscious of horns honking and kids talking, you hear everything and lose your mind a bit.”

John Ainslie, writer and director of Do Not Disturb
Photo courtesy of John Ainslie

Finally, a final question: will his soundtrack be made available? “Eventually, yeah,” John said. “I think when the film comes out, I’ll put out a soundtrack. Whether or not the distributor will be a part of that, we’ll see; I still own all my own music, so I’ll do it regardless. I’m trying to put out a rock and roll album in January with my own music. It was fun, though. I always use the same composer, but he was not available this time, because he is really good and so booked on five other things. I worked with another composer, and it just didn’t feel right. In the meantime, I’d fooled around with this virtual synth on my own and created a temp thing. Then we started comparing my temp to what was coming in, without telling people which was which; and everyone picked mine! So I figured OK, I’m not just an egomaniac director, I can do this. I work hard not to be that jerk because that’s natural, so it is hard. If you’d asked me three months earlier if I could score a film, I’d said no: I didn’t know the software, the instruments. So that is probably the proudest I am of this project and I’m hoping to score some more.”

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Written by Alix Turner

Alix discovered both David Lynch and Hardware in 1990, and has been seeking out weird and nasty films ever since (though their tastes have become broader and more cosmopolitan). A few years ago, Alix discovered a fondness for genre festivals and a knack for writing about films, and now cannot seem to stop. They especially appreciate wit and representation on screen, and introducing old favourites to their teenage daughter.

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