Prince of theater is known across the globe for its scenery (kvetch with Benedict Cumberbatch), Julio Maria Martino teamed up with David Hauptschein (whom he worked with on 7 theater pieces) to produce his first movie : Country of hotels. It’s an horrific and thrilling behind-closed-doors movie which blurs the line between reality and supernatural, in which characters deemed with regrets and sins follow one another.

Country of Hotels tells the stories of the desperate souls who pass through the doors of 508, a room on the fifth floor of an anonymous, decaying hotel. We are taken on a surreal and blackly comic journey down its lonely corridors and behind its out-dated furnishings and stained surfaces. The story plunges us into the ever-turning carousel of haunted lives who check in and check out of the establishment.

What made you want to produce a movie in which many characters end up in a hotel room ?

The film was conceived as a project between myself, as director, and David Hauptschein, as screenwriter. We picked a hotel room for reasons that were both practical as well as artistic.
We knew if we were going to get a film made it would have to be for very little money. But we also didn’t want to make the kind of low budget film which was « made in the streets », which we felt was a style more suited to social realism, urban thrillers etc. We wanted to create a film set in an environment we could control as much as possible, using built sets. Both the writer and I are attracted to existentialist drama, such as Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Sartre’s Huis Clos, so a room in a dilapidated, mysterious hotel seemed well suited for this kind of endeavour. Hotels are evocative, poetic places, not just in film, but also in theatre, literature and music. They are settings which can function simultaneously at a realistic level as well as a metaphysical one. You can step into a hotel, anywhere in the world, and often you aren’t entering a place that evokes London or New York, or Paris, but rather the «world of hotels ». A guest entering a hotel for the first time is very much a « stranger in a strange land », so it’s the perfect location for an existentialist / absurd drama.

At the start we thought we might make a short film, or perhaps a series of thematically linked short films which were all set in the same hotel room. But, little by little, the idea developed until it became a feature film, mostly set within the confines of a single hotel room, plus a few supplementary locations: the corridor outside the room, the hotel lobby; and some curious places seen on Room 508’s television.

There are really interesting choices regarding the art and scenario in the movie. The first one is the television which is mirroring the phantasms of the characters ? Where did you find the idea of showing on a screen the deepest desires of the characters ?

I’m really glad you saw the television as revealing the hidden desires and fears of the characters. That is how I see it as well. However the editor, Peter Allison, and I spent a lot of time « covering our tracks », so that the idea was present, yet not completely obvious. For me the television acts like an extension, or the voice, of Room 508. It is a disturbing, mentally unbalanced voice, emitting seemingly random, quickly changing scenarios, like a person with severe bi-polar disorder « rapid cycling ». Right from the start, when the comedian on TV is joking about fucking himself, we know we are heading into an unhinged, unstable universe. It’s a kind of « Look Out Below » moment that sets the tone.

The idea for the television was in the script from the start. David, the screenwriter, is fascinated with televisions as a dramatic device. TVs often feature in his plays (but usually with their backs to the audience, so you can only hear the audio). Therefore, it was second nature for him to employ a TV as an integral feature in the story. When I was reading the screenplay for the “Brenda and Roger” segment, I saw the TV as if it were a portal into an alternate reality. The camera locks its glare on the TV and then slowly penetrates it. We stay there, trapped in the television for several minutes, the channels flipping at short intervals. Suddenly, we are presented with a strange paradox: we find ourselves on a channel which appears to be transmitting hidden CCTV footage of the hotel room itself. Brenda walks naked into the room from the shower. We are spying on something forbidden, something we shouldn’t be seeing.

When we finally come out of the TV, it’s almost as if we are exiting into a changed world. Have we been released back out to « reality » or have we travelled deeper into a new reality, under the malevolent control of the room and the TV ?

The second idea I found brilliant is the way you broke the frontier between reality and supernatural. When a character is about to die or disappear, there’s a grave digging itself in the painting on the wall. Just as if the souls of the dead were disappearing in this painting. How did this desire to incorporate supernatural through the painting come to you ?

I’m really glad you like the painting as well ! The painting wasn’t in the shooting script, and at that point we had a somewhat different ending to the film. The story of how the painting came to be a feature in the film is a bit complicated, but I think it’s a good example of creative risk-taking that paid off.

In pre-production our production manager Mike McLoughlin found a second hand painting of a landscape that he thought would be suitable for the hotel room decor; at this point it had no figures in it. It was just a cheap mass-produced landscape. A few days before we began shooting, Mike suggested that the painting might change season as the film progressed (summer, autumn, winter, etc); something he would do by scanning the original and altering it digitally; we’d just replace the original in the frame with the digitally altered versions as the seasons changed. I agreed to this idea, without thinking too deeply about the implications, but acknowledging to myself that it was an idea which might need to be developed further as part of a « language » within the film. As we entered the final week of shooting, I had been begging my producer Saba Kia and assistant director Markus Meedt to have a few hours in the schedule, just for random pickup shots and experiments. Amazingly they found us half a day, which is a lot in a shoot that was approximately 20 days total. During that half day (in which we filmed all sorts of useful things that ended up in the final cut) I managed to shoot quite a lot of footage of the painting, examining its texture; panning across it, zooming into it, and moving in and out of focus. At this point I still didn’t know how we were going to use the picture. I kept thinking of the film’s title Country of Hotels and the countryside landscape of the painting. I wondered if they could be made to connect in some way. Just as the TV was a portal, maybe the picture could be another portal, somehow connected not just to the title of the film, but also the origin of the hotel staff… what if the painting was of their homeland? … what if their “homeland” was actually the painting itself, in some strange way? Part of this train of thought was inspired by Sabrina Faroldi, the actor who played The Maid (someone I have known for many years) who told me very bluntly in the middle of the shoot « You need to decide for yourself where these people are from! »

The next stage in the development of the painting happened during the edit. I began delving into the idea as if it were a series of threads which I could tease out and pull, from the very beginning of the film, through each section, and then tie it in a bow at the end. In particular I got excited by the idea that the camera would somehow travel « inside » the painting. We would go deeper and deeper into the landscape, over a fence, through the trees in the background, and suddenly we would end up in a “hidden” part of the painting, that was invisible on the surface of the canvas. In this hidden clearing, we would see Sammy (the hotel handyman) digging graves.

So Mike McLoughlin drew the extra « hidden » sections of the painting, and the little figures of the hotel staff; images we could « cut to », or « fade into », once we were viewing the painting in extreme close up. We used these moments at various key points as you described; as if the painting (like the television) reflected a hidden part of the room’s consciousness.

The final development came when we were in the middle of editing the last scene, where the camera rotates in a 360 degree motion around the room. I was discussing the matter with the writer David, explaining that we needed to come up with the picture’s « final state », i.e. we needed the concluding image of this new structural element we had built into the film. It was David who came up with the idea that the last time the camera travels into it, the painting should suddenly become « real » and we should see Sammy walking towards us out of the woods as a live, filmed image; as if the painting has come to life (but as also as if it was mirroring the television in some way). So we shot the scene in the woods. Playing in the editing room, we came up with the image of Sammy’s eyes poking through the clouds above the wood. I’m very pleased with that image. I think it gives the moment a very creepy, spectral feel that’s also slightly mentally unhinged. It’s also the only « exterior » shot in the whole film, which is great as it’s an exterior coming out of a very « interior » space.

The number of the room is 508, does this number have any meaning ?

The number 508 was chosen by the writer, who works very intuitively and tries not to intellectualise his decisions. Neither of us likes to intentionally insert hidden meanings or clues inside our work. We want to create a complex world that can be explored and re-visited multiple times by the viewer, worlds that live on in the imagination of the viewer after the film has ended. I want people to exit the film believing that only the hotel staff – Sammy, The Maid, Mr Salber and The Desk Clerk – know the real meaning behind number 508.

Country of Hotels is behind closed doors. I love this kind of movie. Do you have any references of movies which inspired you to create your own ?

In preparation for making the film, I studied several films which had long been an inspiration to me, and which also had much of their dramas set in tightly enclosed locations; the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink and both Polanski’s The Tenant (Le Locataire) and Rosemary’s Baby. Also, with regard to Polanski (along with David Lynch) I don’t think there has been a better director for filming « dreams » or a « dream state » and generating a sense of the uncanny. Apart from a couple of moments, I tried to avoid jump scares, and use more subtle means to destabilise the viewer. Rear Window was a huge inspiration and resource for me, in the way it dramatised so much of its story within the confines of Jimmy Stewart’s living room.

Some people who have seen the film say that the wallpaper in Room 508 reminds them of the carpet in The Shining, and I agree it’s similar. I chose it because our Production Designer Mike Mcloughlin, who was brilliantly resourceful on very limited means, showed me a handful of samples ten days before we were about to start shooting. I had to make the decision that day and we didn’t have time for any mistakes. So, I chose the best wallpaper; it had a puzzle element to it and the colours evoked the right world.

What are the difficulties we face while making a movie with a concept like yours where the majority of the action happens in only one room (production, rhythm, etc) ? You are familiar with theater, you produced several theater plays, so you are familiar with working in closed quarters. Does your experience in theater helped you in creating this?

I felt I needed to work hard to not fall into the trap of making a filmed play, with the camera simply recording the dialogue of a scene. Because so much of the story takes place in a single room it was a challenge to find creative ways to avoid that pitfall. This was especially important to me because both David and I came from a theatrical background and I wanted to avoid the label of having made a « theatrical film ».
Each time David wrote something that I felt was too reliant on dialogue to tell the story, I would go back to him and we would hash out a more visual solution or set-up. I was always trying to incorporate movement or action into the scene. Each time we did this we came up with a better solution to the scene in question.

Together with the cinematographer Stefano Slocovich, I spent a lot of time creating a visual grammar for the film i.e. telling the story cinematically, through images and montage, and not through dialogue. I was always telling myself that even though there is a lot of spoken dialogue in the film, the basic story of each segment should be understandable even if the sound was turned down. Stefano was completely central to this work, and I couldn’t have done it with a less committed collaborator. In order to vary the visual language of the film as it progressed, we adopted a slightly different shooting style for each section. We weren’t overly strict about it, but for the « Brenda and Roger » section we used the camera jib / arm to give the scenes a voyeuristic feel; for « Pauly » we used the camera in a more classical / static fashion, occasionally using tracking shots; for the « Derek and Vic » section Stefano used the camera hand-held in order to create a more frantic, unhinged, feel.

We also played with spatial distance as much as possible, for example deploying macro lenses to get microscopically close to some objects (such as Pauly’s toes when he’s lying in bed shivering with cold, or Brenda’s face when she is applying make-up). And because we were working on sets (not found locations) we could remove walls and shoot from a greater distance, from above etc. This allowed us to subtly change the spatial sense of the room in the mind of the viewer. If we had been using a found location, such as a real hotel, none of this would have been possible. It would have resulted in a film that felt cramped and mind-numbing, not controlled and claustrophobic.

This hotel room set, how did you imagine it ? (disposition of the elements, accessories, color of the wallpaper, etc). There’s a detail which amused me: the black dolphin put on the desk, does it have a meaning too ?

I’m glad you liked the black dolphin! This was one of many objects found by the Production Manager Mike Mcloughlin. It doesn’t have any special meaning, but it was intriguing so we made it a feature of the desk. For me it evokes a sense of freedom that is completely absent in the world of the film. Now you mention it, I wish we could have found more use for it in the film somehow. I like it when objects are « discovered » and then become part of the visual language of the film. Sometimes I will encourage an actor to play with a prop (object) and incorporate it into his or her actions in a scene. American actors are particularly good at this kind of improvisation for some reason. They can pick up an object, improvise with it in a sophisticated manner, and it becomes poetic and part of the story. Brando playing with the glove in On The Waterfront is a classic example of this. As a director I am always encouraging actors to use objects on set in this fashion.

As I said above, the characters take turns in the room 508, all committed sins, have unspeakable secrets, is that a metaphor of our society ? What’s the message you were willing to convey with your film ?

While we were filming I used the metaphor of Purgatory as a shorthand to illustrate the world of the film to the cast and crew. Each of the main characters enters Room 508 and meets their reckoning. In that sense the world of Country of Hotels is an existential « no man’s land » where the hotel guests come face-to-face with their own weaknesses. But that’s just one interpretation – it’s not the writer’s, and it doesn’t have to be anyone else’s either.

We really don’t want to have a message that can be easily extracted from the film and put into words. In Country of Hotels we are trying to work at the level where we are having a conversation with the viewer’s unconscious / irrational side not their wide-awake rational self. We’re interested in creating a world that is more like an extended lucid dream or a nightmare you can’t escape from. I believe our dreams and nightmares always have a message for us. Our unconscious mind is trying to tell our conscious minds something; but the message is obscured and not easy to decipher. It is open to interpretation.

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