With slight elements of an Indian folklore-infused A Nightmare On Elm Street, writer/director Bishal Dutta delivers a hard-hitting and terrifying original horror story with It Lives Inside. Sam is desperate to fit in at school, rejecting her Indian culture and family to be like everyone else. When a mythological demonic spirit latches onto her former best friend, she must come to terms with her heritage to defeat it. Dutta joined us to chat about tapping into folklore, the struggle of duality, the real-life family story that inspired It Lives Inside, the best ways to transport a demon, potential sequel concepts, and an upcoming project with James Wan.

Watch our full interview right here, and read more below.

There are elements here I would describe as an Indian Nightmare On Elm Street, and I don’t want people to get the wrong idea. I don’t want people to think we’ve got a wise cracking demon here or anything like that, but it definitely had echoes of that for me. Was that something that you were thinking about at all when you were making this?

I think you hit the nail right on the head. I mean, A Nightmare On Elm Street was such a massive influence and certainly Poltergeist was an influence, and that era of cinema. It’s kind of that amble and adjacent sort of horror that was so exciting to me. Stephen King stuff, I read It a bunch of times while making the movie, and it just felt like there was an opportunity to do a movie that tapped into some primal fears, some primal insecurities, but then to further the conversation by making it specific to my experience and the experience of many other Indian Americans around this country, around the world. That was very much the project of the film, was to have this very familiar and sturdy foundation, but within that foundation, to explore something that felt unique.

You just, touched upon it right now, but your main character Sam, is very much of two worlds in more ways than one, and I think it’s relatable for a lot of people. I think many of us feel this weird in between, and you perfectly captured that. But you did it in even visual ways, like her wardrobe. We got an Evil Dead shirt at one point, but mixed with traditional Indian attire. Was that very important to you to convey?

100%, it was. I think you just tap perfectly into this idea of someone living in two worlds. What was important to me was that, as personal as the film is, as specific as the film is, that it tap into a very much a universal feeling. That it didn’t limit itself to a very small, specific audience. Because I feel that what you’re saying about people living in two worlds, I think it’s true in so many different contexts today, and across lines of race, and gender, and however one identifies. There’s a certain feeling that who you are at home may not be who you are outside, and there’s a clash of those two things. I think this particular conflict that Sam has with her parents, and then at school, it just felt like there was an opportunity, again, to bifurcate her experience and create this sort of binary world. But then to say nobody ever really does live in the binary. Nobody is one or the other. That everybody synthesizes identity from thesis and antithesis. That, I guess, was the intellectual grounding of the movie.

But then to your point, it was very much about turning that intellectual idea into something visceral. I think movies have to be visceral, and I think they have to be felt more than they have to be thought about. In this case, it was really about taking that and imbuing that bifurcation into every element of the film. For example, with the music of the film, composer, Wes Hughes, who I’ve worked with a long time, we were using these traditional Indian instruments like the Tanpura and manipulating and distorting them in very American ways, like Trent Reznor, for example, that kind of thing. We were always thinking about how can we make the two worlds clash in every part of the filmmaking.

Everything you’re looking at, everything you’re hearing, you’re living in Sam’s world of duality, and that was one of my favorite elements of it.

Right, exactly. Just like I was. Those were little touches and there’s just so many opportunities within a film to fill it with visual clues and fun things. For example, the mascot of the school, we based around the werewolf from Ginger Snaps. There’s just so many opportunities to pay homage. I felt like what was a great opportunity in this film, as much as this dramatic, cultural story was in the foreground, I wanted to take place in this aesthetic world of the horror movies I grew up in. For example, when they go up into the attic, we tried to model that after the attic from the opening of Hell Raiser. I just wanted the audience to feel like they were inside of this constructed horror world of these movies that I love so much.

There’s something cool that does to you, I think, subconsciously while you’re watching it as well, because there are elements that feel slightly familiar but unfamiliar. Again, you’re clashing that duality because it’s a monster, it’s a demon. You’re basing it on Indian folklore, a lot of us are not familiar with that. But you’re putting it into these somewhat familiar feeling things.

What was so fun about it, really to that end, is, bringing Indian mythology to the Western world and to Western cinema. There was a feeling that, “Okay, I’ve heard these stories growing up, these ghost stories, these demon stories, but there’s nothing in here that isn’t universal to everybody around me.” That’s what was so exciting. It felt like we were doing something different, but the more that I pulled our stories into this particular context, the more I realized everybody’s going to get this. Everybody’s going to understand these core fears if I can communicate them properly. So again, to your point, it was that the more specific the film got, the more universal it started to feel.

Every culture has our unique boogeymen. We all have this list of these are the tales that we heard growing up, and I feel like it’s such an untapped well in horror. All of us have all of these things that we could pull from, and I’m just so glad to see this original, fresh take. You introduced me to a demon and a monster that I’m not familiar with, and now I have a new fear unlocked, so thanks. I’m like, “Ah, shit.”

That’s amazing. Let me tell you where it came from. Actually, this movie came from a story that my grandfather used to tell. Supposedly, as a young man in India, he went to a family friend’s house and his friend’s daughter was carrying around a mason jar, an empty mason jar, and she would talk to it. One day, he was like, “Hey, there’s nothing in there,” just making sure, and she got mad at him and she opened the jar and threw something at him. Of course nothing came out, but then my grandfather went home and just weird stuff started happening. He’s hearing galloping horses in the middle of the night. People are knocking all hours of the day, nobody’s there. Then the big one, he leaves a pack of peanuts out one day, he turns around, he hears chewing, and the peanuts are gone. My grandfather just is out. He dips in that moment. He’s out of there.

But that was a story that I grew up hearing it, and I was like, “This is interesting. There’s something really here that I feel like we could tap into.” Then reading all these interesting mythologies, I landed on the Pishach, and I was like, “This thing is the embodiment of isolation, and loneliness, and anxiety,” and it felt like it was so current. That was the beautiful thing about these boogeymen that you’re talking about, is that they are embodiments of things that we are all dealing with all the time. That’s why I think more people should be making movies about these boogeymen,

If you had to transport a demon, let’s say for some reason you are the keeper and the caretaker of a demon what receptacle would you choose?

I wouldn’t do the mason jar personally. Personally, I wouldn’t. That seems a little flimsy. What’s unbreakable? Those Nokia phones are pretty unbreakable. I’d put in one of those maybe, through the USB port.

Is that the premise for the sequel? Did you just give away?

That’s it. I think I just figured it out with you on the phone. Yeah, they going to go into the old Nokia phone. Absolutely.

Two movies that I really enjoyed this year are Talk to Me and It Lives Inside. I think a couple of the things that these have in common are they are original stories, and they also feature, not just one, but a cast of characters that I actually give a shit about. So the stakes feel very high to the point where I’m like, “If something happens to the mom or the dad or the friend I’m going to riot.” What do you think is the key to creating characters that the audience is that heavily invested in?

First of all, I loved Talk to Me. I thought it was the coolest movie and I had the best time seeing it. I’ve seen it twice. I plan to see it again. But that film also had that same effect where I cared so much about those characters. When the film had me completely in its grasp and it knew exactly when I was at my most vulnerable and punched me in the face with it, you know exactly what I’m talking about, that is great filmmaking. That’s a command over audience. Part of it comes from really trusting actors. I thought that actors in that film were amazing, and I’m so proud of the actors in this film. Megan Suri, for example, she brought so much to the character.

My approach, generally, is I try to write as much as I can onto the page when I am writing of the characters and it feels kind of surface. People are talking about what they feel. Then as we get into the process of figuring out how do we bring this to life, what I find is that the actors internalize so much interesting stuff that is underneath the dialogue, that then when I get in the editing room, I feel like I can cut so much dialogue because their faces are doing so much of the work. I think it’s that sort of general approach with characters where, with the actors, we try not to reference other characters in movies. We try to talk about real people in our lives because that’s really what makes the horror genre so compelling, and why it has so often not relied on kind of the traditional movie star, why it has always demanded a certain every-man quality to its characters.

I think Talk to Me has this, I hope our film has this, that you can go to these movies and say, “That’s my family,” in some respect, “That’s my family.” Because what’s so important is that the audience can transport themselves into these characters, right? So I think that’s really what makes these kinds of movies special is that we’re trying to make real people in the audience feel like they’re right up there on the screen.

If you were to program a double feature with It Lives Inside, what would you pair it with and why?

There are so many. I think the one I would pair it with is probably John Carpenter’s, Christine. I think Christine is one of the greatest films ever made. But I remember watching that film and, first of all, finding its genre iconography to be just unbelievable. The flaming car is so apocalyptic and so interesting. But I remember that film, my first viewing, thinking this film affords so much interiority and so much kindness, almost really, empathy, towards its teenage characters. The Keith Gordon performance, you remember, as they’re driving to the garage at the end, it’s such a layered and nuanced performance. That one was really a key reference for me as the tone I wanted to strike, that this is a real character piece. That the horror isn’t Michael Myers invading the suburbs, it’s not that in this one. In Christine, it’s very much something coming from within, a yearning, this loneliness, so that was a film that was such a cornerstone for me.

Also, you touched upon it here, but I feel like I have such an appreciation for a title that is doing way more than you realize until you watch the movie.

It means a lot of things. We were so happy when we landed on it because you’re absolutely right. As the audience that hasn’t seen it yet, within the marketing, they can contextualize it a certain way in the trailers and the posters. But hopefully, after getting to the end of the movie, they’re thinking of that title in a completely different way and understanding that this really informs a lot of the themes that we were trying to communicate in the first place.

Are you in the process of working on something with James Wan?

I am working on something with James Wan, and his producing partner, Michael Clear. This is an incredible movie. It’s one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. I didn’t write it. A incredible writer named Josh Rowlands, wrote it. It’s a movie that if we could go make tomorrow, I would love to. It’s brilliant and I think it’s going to be so wonderful when we get to make it.

Amazing. Is there anything else you can tell us about it, or are you sworn to secrecy at the moment?

I think I’m mostly sworn to secrecy, but I can tell you that what made me so happy about it, and what is just so incredible about it, is a genre film that takes place in a Toys”R”Us. That’s what I can tell you. It’s going to be so good. I’m so excited to make that film.

It Lives Inside is currently in select theaters + available Digitally. Also available on DVD November 7.

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