Sundance: Room 237 Director Rodney Ascher on His New Documentary The Nightmare

By
Rodney Ascher, at Sundance Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

One of the most intriguing — and most discussed — films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is a curious documentary called The Nightmare, which recounts and restages the experiences of various people who suffer from extreme forms of sleep paralysis. The subject is fascinating enough on its own, but The Nightmare was directed by Rodney Ascher, who made a splash at the 2012 festival with Room 237, his experimental documentary about different, out-there interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. As might be expected, The Nightmare, not unlike the previous film, is by turns playful, probing, and terrifying. Ascher intercuts his interviews with reenactments of his subjects’ nightmares, but he also unveils the filmmaking apparatus itself at times, occasionally showing the film crew lurking silently during his interviews, not unlike the dark, quiet figures who sometimes visit these people in their dreams. We spoke to Ascher about his creepy new film, what possessed him to make it, and why he chose this kind of hybrid approach.

So, what possessed you to make a movie about sleep paralysis?
It’s a topic I’ve been interested in personally since it happened to me 15-plus years ago. After Room 237, I was scratching my head about where I wanted to go, and had two or three things I was thinking about, and this seemed like the juiciest one after I started researching the topic again. I was struck by how many people out there were both sharing their experiences and also desperately searching for answers. Because when it happened to me, the internet wasn’t what it is, so everybody was suffering in silence. But now it was easier to reach out and connect. 

How did you find these subjects that you interview in the film?
At the beginning, during our research, we would find people who had written something provocative about their experiences. A friend of my producer’s found the guy in Manchester. Different members of the team found people cruising through message groups, YouTube videos, and a half dozen books that had been written. And then when the film was announced, people started finding us. Chris, who’s featured in the film pretty prominently, emailed me directly and told me a little bit about his experiences. We found a couple more from the hundreds and hundreds of people who were messaging our Facebook group. 

Had any of your interviewees seen Room 237? And were they at all worried about how they might be depicted or how their experiences might be interpreted? Many people saw Room 237 and thought your subjects were crazy.
I get what you’re saying, but everybody in 237 was pretty happy at the end of the day. These movies are what they are. I hope that the participants ... are happy to be involved. That said, I didn’t talk about 237 with any of the participants in this film, so I don’t know for sure how familiar they were with it. But I would assume that a guy like Chris or Forrest would have seen it. Especially since so many of these people reached out to us. 

The film is kind of a documentary-narrative hybrid. You’re interviewing these people but you’re also reenacting their experiences. Was that always the approach you’d planned? Were you ever tempted to go straight narrative with this?
I wasn’t tempted to make it a straight narrative. Some variation of what you saw was the plan ever since it came together. But the style, the reenactments did change, and there were a couple of “Eureka!” moments about the way to do it. At one point, I was thinking we would do it on a soundstage as big as an airplane hangar where you would see all the sets standing at once, sort of like Dogville or Our Town. But through both inspiration and limitation, it evolved to what you saw. 

Did you set limitations for yourself early on? For example, in Room 237, we never saw the people being interviewed. Did you have any of those kinds of “rules” here as well?
There were some. First off, it was only, “Let’s just talk to people talking about their own first-person experiences. Let’s not talk to doctors, sleep specialists, or historians – folks who’d be coming at it from some set of remove or professional detachment.” There’s a lot that you can do on the topic from the perspective of both science and history. I read a couple of books that had great stories that I would have loved to adapt. But we wanted to find our own people. Stylistically, I decided to do it all on a set, and not to shoot in any houses. There wasn’t a Dogma 95–style manifesto, but there’s sort of maybe an instinctual quality: This isn’t what we’re doing, this is what we’re doing, that sort of thing. 

What kind of challenges did not having any “experts” on-camera present? For example, I noticed a lot of the nightmares presented were sexual in nature. Do you wish you had had somebody onscreen tying those things together?
The people that I respond to the most are both candid and introspective. And of course, that kind of symbolism rises up pretty quickly; after all, we are dealing with the subconscious and what lurks in there. But if we had a Freudian psychoanalyst talking about what he thought, for example, the metal claw meant, he probably wouldn’t have had that many ideas that were too different from what came to your head as you watched the film. 

I’m fascinated by the way you very consciously reveal the filmmaking apparatus during some of your interviews. For all the film’s jump scares and tales of nightmarish happenings, the eeriest thing for me was a shot of an interviewee, with this creepy, lone arm holding a camera on the far left side of the screen. It made me think about how the act of filmmaking is akin to an out-of-body experience.
I don’t think I’ve ever articulated it that way, but I’m responding to it as you’re saying it. We’re also dealing with different levels of reality. A cinematic-style reenactment is one layer of reality. A talking-head interview is another, although sometimes I would try to reveal some of the mechanisms even within the interview — like the lighting gear or an extra person. When a crew comes to shoot your story, there’s a frightening element with all these people coming into your life. And although this is a documentary, every documentary has layers of artifice — ours more than most. So let’s put the cards on the table about that. Also, did you ever see Demons 2? It’s actually kind of an influence on this movie. It’s the eeriest thing at the end when they go to that soundstage and everything is operating automatically. Is that the filmmakers who are putting the characters through these trials? Every time I try to explain some of this stuff, I find a different metaphor. But it felt kind of right. 

In some cases, it seems that you’ve got the interview subjects playing themselves in the reenactments. Were you concerned about their ability to act at all?
But they weren’t being played by themselves. They were all actors. 

What?? Whoops! [Laughs.]
I’m glad you responded to that! We weren’t able to do incredibly extensive casting, but I was very happy with the people we were able to get, and some of them looked quite similar. 

So, let me rephrase the question! Why didn’t you let the interview subjects play themselves?
[Laughs.] I just felt freer doing it with actors. Although I was trying to get sketches and for people to describe their experiences as clearly as possible, I also wanted some freedom to interpret it myself. I should note that another reason why they were so convincing was because Courtney, our wardrobe stylist, had this wonderful idea that never would have occurred to me — she dressed them in colors and patterns reminiscent of what they were wearing in the interviews. I was impressed with how she was able to subconsciously enhance that connection. 

What about the jump scares and other more overtly “horror” elements in the film? Was that something you had always planned?At the beginning, I wasn’t necessarily sure I was going to do that. Certainly I wanted it to be evocative of a horror movie itself. Because this experience is akin to a horror movie, but there may be sort of a two-way relationship with horror movies. These experiences might inspire horror movies, then the people who see them might have nightmares based on those horror movies. These are all intertwined. And I wanted the audience to be scared the way the subjects of the film were. When Forrest in the interview talked about the thing that came out of the closet, I thought, Well, I guess we’re making a horror movie, and we’re just going to go for it.

Room 237 was quite a phenomenon. And also strangely controversial, with some criticizing the film for legitimizing some out-there theories about The Shining. What was the most surprising reaction you saw to the film?
First off, the most surprising thing about that movie was that it broke so much wider than my grandest ambition for it. It made it easier to get this new one off the ground. 237 was something I chipped away on nights and weekends for a while. This was a day job, which was pretty luxurious and pretty awesome. Besides being surprised that so many people were into it, people who were skeptical of things said in the movie, some of the complications and contradictions between the people didn’t occur to me. I didn’t resent anybody’s reaction. For me, there couldn’t have been a more perfect reaction than people having a debate about what the movie was trying to do. If the debate about what The Shining is about is mirrored in some small way by a debate about the meaning of Room 237, that couldn’t be more rewarding to me. It’s sort of like the comedian who talks about those fish — the Jesus fish — on the back of car bumpers. And then skeptics had the fish with the four legs, the Darwin fish. And then there was a bigger fish that was coming and eating the Darwin fish. “How can you not believe in evolution when it’s happening on your bumper?”