Jon Knautz’ THE CLEANING LADY is a mysterious slow-burn psychothriller about Alice, a love addict, who takes a disfigured cleaning lady, Shelly, into her life, when complications ensue. Alexis Kendra both helped write the movie and plays the role of Alice, and she hits just the right note as a beautiful woman with a troubled inner life. Meanwhile, Rachel Olig as Shelly plays a haunted character with her own hidden demons. Daily Grindhouse got the chance to sit down and chat with co-writer and director Jon Knautz about portraying troubled personas, working with a repeat cast and crew, and why we relate more to flawed characters. RLJE Films will release THE CLEANING LADY on VOD, Digital HD, and DVD.
Daily Grindhouse: How did you come up with this idea?
Jon Knautz: I can’t tell you how I came up with it, I can tell you when I came up with it. I’m not really sure how it came about. I came up with the original concept of it maybe fifteen years ago. Well I guess I can kind of say how. I used to work in the projection booth of the AMC movie theaters. It’s dark and weird and creepy up there, and there’s always two of us, and I worked with a fellow who was the nicest guy. But there was something very strange about him, and he was very interested in my life, but if I would ask him anything about himself it was always a mystery, he wouldn’t tell me anything. There was this one day we had sort of gotten to know each other, his car had broken down and he needed a ride home, and so I gave him a ride, and we were going up into the middle of nowhere, and all the sudden we were on this dark highway where there were trees on either side of us and he said “Just pull over here.” And I said “OK,” and he just got out of the car and walked into these dark woods. And I was like, “That’s so interesting.” And I never forgot that, and that sort of made its way into the film, and that sort of stuck with me, because it was so weird, and I was like “What, do you not want me to know where you live,” there was something secret and odd about it, and I’m like “Who does that, you know, takes off into the woods.” I don’t know, these movies come from so many little ideas that come into your head over the years, and then you start to connect them after five or ten years, and you’re like “Oh, those two things sort of connect,” and then you start to put the story together.
Daily Grindhouse: What was it like to work with Alexis Kendra as both a writer and an actress?
Jon Knautz: We’ve worked on several projects together before that. It was good. I mean, we sort of have a system that we do when it comes to writing, we kinda take, I wouldn’t say we’re writing together so much, it’s sort of like I’ll take a section and she takes a section and then we sort of combine things. In terms of work with her as an actress, she’s great, because being that she was so involved with the script it made it easier, there was such a story in there, and she understood the character so well, obviously.
Daily Grindhouse: What was it like working with the rest of the cast, particularly Rachel Elig, who was so good as Shelly?
Jon Knautz: I worked with Rachel on a film I made just prior to this one, she came in and played a small part and I thought she was fantastic, so I always kept her in my back pocket so to speak if the right role came along. And I knew she was completely ready to dive in and sink her teeth into a kind of weird role, a quiet role, and really commit to it. So she was the one. She was great. It took the two of us right from the start to kind of figure the character out, especially her body and the way she moved, but we did pretty quickly. She started walking around, and we did this little test like “How would Shelly walk?” and she tried a few versions and all of the sudden we just kind of found the right one and yeah, she was great, real committed.
Daily Grindhouse: The violence in the film seems very natural. How did you do the effects in the movie?
Jon Knautz: Without special effects. Without CGI, I should say. I just don’t like CG violence, it rarely works, especially blood, so to me there’s no other way to go about doing it other than practically. And I think when you know you’re gonna do it practically, it helps focus you on what the details of the violence will be, because there’s only so much you can do practically. It helps you figure out how the violence will look, and what the violence will actually be, so that you can execute it practically. There was never any idea of doing anything CG at all. We had a special effects guy, Kelton (Ching), he was fantastic. He did all our practical effects, and he did Shelly’s face, and he did the mask that she wears, and all the blood and fun stuff. He’s fantastic, he’s kind of a one-man show when it comes to doing all those special effects.
Daily Grindhouse: What was it like both writing and directing the film?
Jon Knautz: I think those two go hand in hand pretty well. Even if I don’t write a project I’m directing, I still like to get pretty inside the script, so you know, the visual storytelling comes naturally after the writing process, so I don’t know if I could direct something where I don’t get at least somewhat intimate with the written material. So the fact that I actually wrote the script, it was great. It made the process feel much more natural moving into the directorial phase.
Daily Grindhouse: Why do you think it was necessary for Alice to be a love addict in the story?
Jon Knautz: I don’t know if I’d say it was necessary. I think it was necessary in the sense that I think the lead character should have a flaw, something they struggle with. Moreso that we can identify with them, because we all have something, God knows, some addiction or something that we battle, so I think it really came from that, and that we sort of expanded on that concept from that narrative and fit it into the whole storyline, but it was really a character flaw, to show that character in a more realistic way.
Daily Grindhouse: What was it like pacing the slow buildup of the film?
Jon Knautz: Well, I wanted to do a slow burn kind of film. I wanted to do something that took its time and crept up on you. You know, a lot of people will advise you to get to the goods, get to the action sooner. And I think that works in a lot of cases, but some of my favorite films take such a wonderful amount of time, unraveling. And I think I was really inspired by that. You know, films like Audition, which I’m a big fan of, it just takes its time. You know, it allows for the drama to exist so that when the horror occurs, there’s more meaning to it. I guess that was the intention there. Anyway, there’s some logistical limitations on a small budget. You’re conditioning your screenplay so it can be executed properly within your given budget, so that also limits you at times. It’s maybe not allowing as much action to be happening. But once it starts to happen, you kinda gotta stick with it. You can’t have some big stuff happening and then nothing happening for a really long time, and then you bring it back again. It doesn’t work like that. So anyway, I was a fan of the sort of slow-burn approach, so I wanted to give it that sense.
Daily Grindhouse: It seemed there was a theme or statement about physical beauty in the film. Was that something you had intended?
Jon Knautz: Yes and no. I mean yes, thematically it’s alive. No in the sense that I’m not saying anything about it. I’m not trying to make a statement. I think when you start to—I’m not really a fan of being aware of the theme and shaping a piece of material around that theme. I’m more interested in writing material and seeing what themes come out of it, and then letting them do whatever it is they do. Maybe they go just a little or maybe they come right up to the surface, I don’t know. As we were writing this particular story, you start to pick up on things as the writer, that there’s a thematically, perhaps even in our own subconscious, some things go with the idea of beauty, or the idea of longing for beauty, or the idea of somebody who looks different and not being happy with the way they look. But no, it wasn’t something that was blossoming to the point where I was consciously trying to make a statement about something, but certainly, it’s alive thematically throughout it, and you can sort of take what you like out of it. But at the end of the day, it’s a psychothriller, it’s not a sort of statement about beauty.
Daily Grindhouse: Do you think there was anything about this movie that turned out differently because of the budget constraint you had to work within?
Jon Knautz: Out of all the films I’ve made, I’d say this one was closest to the vision I had, because I really considered the execution, the physical execution, of the film a good fit. I tweaked the script so that I felt I could execute it properly. That’s what I’ve learned over the years. I think that when you’re young and you’re starting out, you get really excited about a scene in your script. And then you get the budget, and you realize “Oh, it’s going to be tricky to do it with this budget,” and you just can’t lose that scene in your script, you’re so like “I gotta do the scene where the car flips over,” and it sucks, because you really can’t, you really don’t have the budget to do it, but you still attempt it anyway, and it ends up not being that good. I always use the snowboarding analogy, it’s like you can’t land a 10-80, but you know you can land a 1-80. Just land the 1-80. Because if you land it really well, no one’s gonna think about “Oh, I wish that was a 10-80.” It’s better to just do what you know you can pull off. So everything that I was able to do in this film I was happy with, because I really considered it before we went into production knowing that the budget was.
Daily Grindhouse: The film was very stylishly shot. How did you work with your cinematographer on that?
Jon Knautz: My DP’s great. His name’s Josh Allen. We’ve known each other for a very long time, he shot my first feature film, called JACK BROOKS MONSTER SLAYER. I actually met him even before that, we shot a short film together back in 2004 I think. And then we lost touch for awhile cause I moved back to L.A. and he was still in Toronto, Canada. So we sort of lost touch for quite awhile. And all of a sudden, six months before we made THE CLEANING LADY, he called me and was like “Hey, I moved to L.A.,” and I was like “Great,” and we started hanging out and I said, “I need someone to shoot this” and we have a great work relationship, where we’ve done several projects in the past, so there’s definitely a communication that’s good, and he is such an artist that I trust him completely. I don’t need to oversee his work at all. I just trust completely what he does. He’s fantastic.