SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Culture Shock,” the July 4 installment of “Into the Dark,” streaming on Hulu.
When Gigi Saul Guerrero set out to take the helm of the July 4th installment of “Into The Dark,” the director had a very specific vision for the tone. The plot of the film centers on a young, pregnant woman named Marisol (Martha Higareda) who crosses the Mexican-American border illegally and wakes up in a “Pleasantville”-style small town. There things seem idyllic with their bright colors, cheerful neighbors and volunteer spirit, but soon enough cracks in the veneer begin to show through. The town is not real at all, but instead a virtual reality simulation that immigrants have been hooked up to in a lab.
“The brutality and the inhumane subject matter is there, and unfortunately we see that every day for awhile now and it’s quite heartbreaking. I didn’t want to make something as heartbreaking that we’d have trouble watching —because we already have enough trouble watching it every day,” Guerrero tells Variety.
Therefore, Guerrero wanted to lean into the surrealism of genre to allow the audience to “escape the realities and experience the horror that we live in in a different way.”
The horror genre has been Guerrero’s playground of choice for the better part of the last decade, and she shares she normally has a Super Soaker filled with fake blood with her on set. “Actors know, with me, they’re not going home clean,” she says. But for “Culture Shock,” she wanted to save more of the visceral horror for the end, focusing first on an increasingly “uncomfortable” feeling as the audience follows Marisol’s struggles to understand what has happened to her just as she is trying to piece everything together.
Guerrero created three distinct worlds within “Culture Shock,” starting first in Mexico, for which she wanted to “bring a lot of culture.” Guerrero was born and partially raised in Mexico, before moving to Canada in her adolescence. She previously directed the short horror film “El Gigante,” which was also a border-crossing-gone-wrong story.
“I felt it in my heart,” Guerrero says of the “Culture Shock” script. “When I read the script, it was just really refreshing and really exciting. I really, really wanted to tackle that story, which is so relevant today. [Having] the perspective of an immigrant who knows the culture inside and out, I pitched my heart out, and it was amazing that [Blumhouse] immediately saw that for me.”
The other two worlds Guerrero had to create for “Culture Shock” were the false “Pleasantville” and then the reality of the lab in which the immigrants were being kept. For the former, she shares that one of her biggest inspirations were the propaganda posters from the 1950s.
“They were too-perfect, but at the same time they looked very timeless: They looked like they could belong in any era. And that was exactly what I was describing: We are in a timeless Pleasantville. It feels vintage, but we can’t tell where,” she explains. “What if those propaganda posters came to life? We feel on edge.”
Furthering that feeling was the use of Marisol’s point of view. Guerrero worked with cinematographer Byron Werner to design shots shots in which the camera stood in for the character, slightly breaking the fourth wall during pivotal interactions and arrivals within the virtual reality simulation. The duo worked closely, Guerrero says, to balance the visual elements and style that would be true to a virtual world without tipping the truth about that world too early to the viewing audience.
“It was really tricky,” Guerrero admits. “You have to be able to tell a consistently, and equally, linear story for our audience and our character.”
One essential part of the puzzle for Guerrero to work out was the sequence of Marisol waking up in the virtual world. While at first glance Marisol appeared to be stuck in a “Groundhog Day” scenario, each time she awoke, she was in a newly-colored dress and had memories of the past days. Her confusion at what was happening only intensified with the repetition of some of the actions, which in turn was designed to feed the audience’s confusion.
“We feel uncomfortable because we are exactly on the same journey as her,” she says.
Another important element to this was “making all of the characters around her clueless,” Guerrero says. “Even when she’s bringing back Santo, it’s still not giving her answers.”
But once Marisol awoke in the real-world of the lab, things took a different turn. While Guerrero says the script described the lab as “more old-school, vintage,” she wanted to make it “as savage as possible” so that “if we compare the two worlds, it’s going to impact people insanely.”
This came into play through elements such as the feeding tubes that the immigrants were hooked up to so they could stay in the virtual reality experiment as long as needed. Visually, Guerrero wanted the lab to be “dirty and grungy,” a mix of a “butcher’s room with the fridge part and a jail cell.” She also wanted verite responses from her actors, choosing to roll cameras from their entrance into the space. Shawn Ashmore’s “disgusted reaction” to the feeding tubes, for example, Guerrero shares, was his action reaction before she had called “action” but was “too fun and too real” not to use in the final cut.
“We shot this truly in order, at least in worlds. The last stuff was the last stuff we shot. And the actors had been so used to very open, real worlds almost, that shooting this last was really a blessing in disguise because they felt the ickiness and the smallness and the intensity,” Guerrero says.
While the production schedule worked to the benefit of the storytelling, she continues, the fact that immigration is such a hotbed of discussion in the news and on social media is also a benefit to this film. “Just to bring up the conversation of what is happening, it encourages the world — and encourages America — to be better,” Guerrero says. “It’s not just about today. Immigration and border crisis is going to be something that happens for quite some time — and not just on our side of the world. It really feels timeless.”