Visual artist Pascual Sisto’s feature debut “John and the Hole” hits theaters Aug. 6 after a long wait — the IFC release was a prestigious Cannes 2020 Label selection, and it also played at Sundance earlier this year. Sisto was also named one of Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch in 2021. A cross between an unnerving fable and thriller, “John and the Hole” is written by Nicolás Giacobone, who adapted the screenplay from his short story “El Pozo.” Film stars Charlie Shotwell as a young teen who traps his family in an abandoned underground bunker and plays at being an adult. Film also stars Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Ehle and Taissa Farmiga. Sisto came to the U.S. from Spain to study filmmaking and is also an accomplished artist, having mounted exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe. Sisto talked to Variety over the phone recently. The conversation has been edited for length.
Does filmmaking give you more freedom than other art forms? Or is it just a different kind of freedom?
I moved to the country to study film. I moved to L.A. to study at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. And so that’s been like my childhood dream, you could say. I’ve been wanting to do film all along. I think in the process, I became interested in other forms, other moving image forms like video installation and video art, but then I did a bit of sculpture and photography.
In all fairness, I believe fine art has much more freedom than film in some ways, because first of all, it allows me to make things on my own. I don’t require a crew. I rarely require a budget. It’s some things that are much more intuitive and impulsive. You don’t depend on narrative structures. You don’t depend on finances so much because there’s no box office. So that is a much more liberating thing, but cinema has something that it just creates a much [stronger] connection on all levels — on an emotional, intellectual, psychological, visceral level. It’s still the medium that I’ve always wanted to do.
How has fine art impacted your filmmaking?
I think in essence, it’s that it’s being able to like shake myself up and take all the things that were holding me back in some ways. …
And it allowed me to explore areas that I would never have done with film alone. I got into animation and I was able to play with narrative, then also play with more visual language and coming back to this project with it just gave me the freedom to be able to know when a certain shot needs to play for two minutes, for example, and it allowed me to not have time restrictions on certain moments. Whenever I was doing more of the fine art work, I was always watching film. My main input always was filtered through films.
So I feel like I never left the idea of filmmaking. It just diversified what filmmaking means, and it opened it up a little bit. It stretched the meaning of filmmaking to me.
Why did you want to tell this particular story?
I was in conversation with Nico [screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone] and he sends me everything that he writes, and we are always in conversation creatively. And so it’s like a creative, collaborative practice that we have together. And he sent that one [story] and we did respond to it. I mean, immediately we started discussing it visually and we started discussing some character traits and some personality traits of the characters. So, in conversation, it became a film.
The films blends genres in a way.
I just think people are tired of the same old ways of telling stories. And we always knew that the premise of the story could feel like a horror film, but we always found that it wasn’t a horror film. So I think I would say that the film is not a genre film, but it’s genre aware in a way that it makes sense. It’s aware of all these languages that exist around it. And of course it’s a thriller, but it’s not going to be like the Jason Bourne thriller, but it’s going to keep you engaged in a more subtle, quiet [way] — you know, slowly, like a slow burn. Because of course, we’re in this suspenseful state that we don’t know what’s happening with him and we don’t know what’s going to happen.
The sound design was very compelling and added to the tension of the film.
I mean, first of all, I want to say that I worked with Nicolas Becker, who was an incredible sound designer and he’s, he’s the guy who did “Sound of Metal.”
Our references were the same. So we didn’t have to overexplain ourselves. We could immediately say something and he knew exactly what I meant. We talked about all the layers [of sound]. I remember hearing an interview that he did where he talked about this film that he worked on that I think they, they layered like 27 tracks of silence together.
And that for me, conceptually, was like, it blew my mind and I was really excited about the idea of what can you do with silence? Because of course, silence is a big part of this movie as well. And how can you build this tension?
And we started talking about the low level sounds like the refrigerator or little sounds that you hear and how we are introducing them slowly. So a lot of it was like fading sounds in as the scene progressed, for example, there was a lot of that. And also he worked with this sound artist, Guillaume Malaret. He created synthesized insect sounds so we were able to work with him and have access to his library of sounds.
And he created this sort of like oral landscape of synthetic sounds that for me was really interesting because the idea that John does feel like he’s in a synthesized world, like for him, things are not fully real. He’s trying to experience reality and it feels synthetic to him.
Charlie Shotwell turns in a strong performance.
He had an innocence that’s beyond his acting skill. He had an aura to him that it was like very magnetic already. And for me, it’s incredible that both the writer and myself both had this intuitive reaction to him.
And somehow you’re like, “Hey, you like him” … and that was important to me that even though this is a character that could probably lead some people to think of sociopathy and the fact that he does this act [puts] him in the evil side of things.
But I also wanted him to be a normal kid and have a level of like naivety and innocence and be charming his own ways.
What’s next for you?
I’m on the last final stages of my second script with Nico. This one we wrote together.