In Pascual Sisto’s “John and the Hole,” his feature-film debut, Charlie Shotwell plays John, an affectless 13-year-old boy who discovers an abandoned bunker in the woods behind his wealthy family’s house. Having found it, John decides to drug his mother (Jennifer Ehle), father (Michael C. Hall) and older sister (Taissa Farmiga), and put them in the hole — for no decipherable reason John can articulate.
The movie then goes back and forth between John — mostly alone, and perhaps even lonely — and his family, struggling at the bottom of the bunker. They’re hungry, scared and in cramped quarters that are becoming increasingly foul.
The scenes in the hole were filmed on a set on a soundstage; the rest of the movie was shot, Sisto said, “with exterior, real space.” When John is speaking to his family — or, more accurately, not speaking to them, but appearing above them — those interactions were shot in two different places. “I worried at the beginning that we have to intercut between these two worlds,” Sisto explained at Variety’s Sundance Studio presented by AT&T TV. “You’re always wondering how it’s going to work with the editing — back and forth with the editing. And it worked seamlessly.”
For those down the hole, according to the actors, it was easy to get into character. Farmiga said, “We filmed a dinner scene together, and then all of a sudden, we’re in the hole!” They got to know one another quickly. “When you’re that intimate with someone, all of a sudden, there’s that closeness already,” she continued. “You didn’t have to work too hard at it.”
Ehle had the same experience. “You didn’t have to make a big leap to feel how strange it was.”
“Actors are strange people,” she said with a laugh. “We’re used to being intimate with people we don’t know that well — quickly.”
For Shotwell, who as the cryptic John was in a lot of scenes by himself, he enjoyed the experience: “It’s always a great opportunity to be alone. Not very much dialogue, not doing much — just be a character.”
Shotwell added, “I know it’s not supposed to be funny, but just the thought of a kid alone in the house, and he doesn’t really know what to do — I just love that idea.”