io9 recently caught up with the filmmaker to discuss his breakout film from Neon, and how demons of Hindu mythology inspired the coming-of-age creature feature produced by the same folks who brought audiences Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Megan Suri (Pokerface) stars as Samidha in a refreshing story about mothers and daughters facing generational curses together—in the form of a soul-sucking demon that preys on the pain and loneliness of those dealing with isolation.
Sabina Graves, io9: Congrats on the film, I’m such a fan of global folklore and demons of myth. It Lives Inside really brought lore I’d never learned about and melded it with a relatable coming-of-age story. How long did this idea percolate in your brain and what informed it being your debut feature?
Dutta: I knew that I wanted to make a horror film as my first film. It felt like there was an opportunity to tell a very personal story within the medium but then also to make that personal story feel very universal and to make it feel very relevant to everyone—no matter where you’re from, no matter how you grew up. And part of it really came from these sort of ghost stories that I heard growing up, and that I didn’t take seriously growing up. But then as I got older, I was like, “What if this was true?”
My grandfather, as a young man in India, went to a family friend’s house and he found this family friend’s daughter had a jar, a mason jar that she talked to, and it was empty. And one day he said to her, “Hey, you know that this thing is empty, right?” And she got mad at him and she opened the jar and threw something out at him, but nothing came out. [He] goes home and just crazy stuff starts happening—galloping horses in the middle of the night, he’s hearing this knocking all night long and then the big one: he gets out a pack of peanuts, leaves it on the table, [and] he hears chewing. When he turns around… it’s all gone. And then my grandfather… he’s just out of there and immediately leaves. This was this was a story that I heard so many times growing up. And I was like, “Sure, Grandpa, sure thing,” right? But then as I was coming up with my first movie, I was like, these kinds of stories, these ones that are kind of passed down, there’s something so unique about them. There’s something in here that’s going to resonate with a lot of people. So that’s really where the idea came from—to take those kind of stories that we grow up hearing within our cultures, and make this big monster-movie demon creature feature out of it.
io9: It was so eerie and fun. And I loved the creature design. What were your inspirations for that? Was the soul-eater based on any artwork of the Pishacha, or descriptions of what people saw in their accounts of it?
Dutta: Absolutely. I mean, first of all, it was about taking in the kind of cultural artwork that exists in our in our texts and thinking about it as an interpretation. I worked with Todd Masters on this; he did the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact and is a brilliant monster designer. We talked a lot about, how do we take these ideas and make it into this very physical, real thing? And I’m so glad I got to work with practical effects for this movie because the movies that inspired the visuals, they were incredibly textured. I think a lot about, in Hellraiser, the half-formed Frank when he’s regenerating—like the slimy, sinewy sort of texture of that. Or I think about Pumpkinhead or I think about the end of The Fly. Those are movies that really stayed with me for that sort of textural quality. So we talked a lot about, how do we make this thing feel like it exists in a three-dimensional space in our reality, and yet still be true to it as this idea of the embodiment of hate and anger and loneliness. It was really that balancing act of trying to keep it feeling realistic to what an audience would buy as a creature that could exist, and then also being truthful to its source in the mythology.
io9: Amazing. One of my favorite things about the movie is how it taps into that first-generation anxiety of not being from where your parents are from, and then also not feeling like truly being from where you grew up. What was so important for you to capture and honor in regards to that child of immigrants experience?
Dutta: I certainly relate to [main character] Sam’s experience, and I’m trying to work in a lot of those very specific anxieties that I had and I know certain other people had. When I went to school, a big fear was that I would smell like Indian food, right? And now today I’m like, “It’s the best smell in the world. I want to smell it anytime I can.” But there were these all these anxieties. But I think at the core of it, what I felt was that there’s a sort of binary experience. It’s weird because that binary experience is built into the film where people ask me, “Is the film an Indian film or is it an American film?” And to me it’s both—just as I am both. The thematic challenge of the movie was positioning, especially Sam and [her mother] Poorna on two sides of that spectrum, that sort of thesis and antithesis. But by the end that we don’t say one of them is right, but that they meet in the middle and kind of synthesize a final answer to this question of identity.
io9: Definitely. I related to the mother-daughter relationship in this in that same sort of regard. I grew up not entirely relating to my parents in many ways, but I did relate and feel more drawn to how, in Mexico, we celebrate the presence of those we’ve lost through Dia de los Muertos. I felt visited by family I didn’t get to know—that sort of generational healing through cultural roots. I’ve loved the spooky and the supernatural all my life for that reason. And it hasn’t really been until recently where, like, my mom gets it now. Was that the case for you growing up, or did it play a role in inspiring the genesis of the film?
Dutta: I think so. And I think you touch on something that is that is so correct, which is that there is a divide, just as there is for every parent-child generation. With immigrant parents, especially, there are certain things that you can’t relate to because they grew up in a completely different place. But then the things you can relate to, you latch onto them so much more. So to your point, that love of horror and thrillers. I think about this a lot with my parents. My parents came here in ‘97 and they didn’t speak the best English at the time, but they went to see Titanic three times that year. I think about what Titanic means and I think about what movies mean, and it’s something that I am so excited to share with my parents when I can. There’s this sort of communal experience of sitting in a movie, especially being scared by a movie in the same way that their kind of ghost stories scared me when I was younger. Cinema is this incredible tool that we have to connect with our previous generations.
io9: Yes, and I can also tell in your film you have such a love for cinema. What were your genre touchstones thematically and what movies inspired you?
Dutta: I thought a lot about what I call the sort of Amblin-adjacent kind of horror films of the ‘80s. I really thought a lot about Nightmare on Elm Street and Poltergeist, for example. I became very fascinated by these movies that felt very latent with meaning, but weren’t necessarily trying to, on the outside, be subversive or be particularly thematically heavy. So I thought about Christine or about Ginger Snaps.
io9: Love Ginger Snaps.
Dutta: I mean, it just so perfectly marries the horror with the drama to capture what this experience feels like. And I think one of the things movies like Ginger Snaps or Christine showed me is that there is such a magnitude to the emotions that you feel as a teenager that, really, horror is the most honest genre to explore them with. It’s really how big those things feel at the time. So those were massive influences, I think, in terms of storytelling. I don’t know that I’ll ever get over something like Aliens or Terminator 2. Those were two movies growing up where they really encompassed what they wanted to do with cinema and that kind of thrill ride—that total control that the filmmaker has on the audience is kind of an up and down roller coaster, the peaks and the valleys. Those were movies that I still go back to, Jaws certainly. I was thinking a lot about something like The Karate Kid, you know, and how do I incorporate the texture of a movie like that.
io9: It also gave Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibes.
Dutta: Someone just mentioned Buffy and it’s that kind of nexus of the teen experience in horror. You could even look at something like Teen Wolf. I wanted to make something that felt fun, like those movies and would still give me that kind of feeling when I was 13, 14, 15, watching stuff like Insidious or Sinister or Paranormal Activity in theaters. Watching those movies and being like, “Oh my god!”, seeing this in a theater with people screaming and laughing—there’s nothing like it.
It Lives Inside opens September 22.
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