The Sublet, Terrifyingly Familiar–A Feature and Interview with Director John Ainslie

by on Nov 27, 2017 in Nonfiction | 0 comments

The Sublet, directed by John Ainslie, is a psychological thriller starring Tianna Nori and Mark Matechuk. The film won both Best Cinematography and Best Actress at the Phoenix Festival (U.S.) Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival in 2016 and has been widely regarded around the world. This summer The Sublet debuted in America, and you can now watch it streaming on Amazon and iTunes, or pick up a copy of the DVD from Amazon or direct from Black Fawn Distribution.

This is an intense film that toys with the viewer, making you question whether anything you’re seeing is real, or if it is all a manifestation of the main character Joanna’s (played by Tianna Nori) depression. Everything about the film is heavy and claustrophobic and all too familiar, the dread building as we watch Joanna move through her days.

As a woman who made the decision to be a stay-at-home parent, I felt myself relating with Joanna. It was my decision, it was what I felt was best for my family, but staying home—purposefully cutting myself off from outside adult interactions—was much harder than I initially thought it would be. I found myself in this endless loop of getting up, taking care of my daughter, and moving through my home in a daze. It was something I struggled with personally, and seeing it play out on the screen, seeing Joanna spiral into that horrifying routine, was incredibly unsettling. When she’s pleading with her fiancé Jeff (played by Mark Matechuk) that she doesn’t feel right, that he doesn’t understand, I could feel her desperation.

Watch the trailer for The Sublet here.

The Sublet is an eerie film that tackles very real issues of postpartum depression, not feeling at home in the place you live, and insecurities within a relationship tearing it down. The supernatural element was woven carefully among all of these to tell a story that feels natural, but at the same time is completely terrifying. That’s why I was so excited to have the chance to talk with director John Ainslie.

APEX MAGAZINE: John, you are both one of the writers and the director of The Sublet. Where did the story start for you? You wrote the film with Alyson Richards. Who had that initial idea and how did the writing process go? Did you immediately know you’d also be stepping into the directing role?

JOHN AINSLIE: The idea started with Alyson wanting to produce a low budget horror film, and I signed on to write it. We had been friends for a long time at that point and had worked together before a few times. Originally there was another director loosely attached to the idea, but then when I was able to set up the deal with Black Fawn we both just decided to get it made rather than keep working on it. She was in the middle of a bunch of her own projects at the time so it made sense.

Alyson was living in sublet apartments down in LA, and she and her partner always felt creeped out by them, as if someone were always watching them. That was the nucleus, and then I added the supernatural elements, and she and I just kept building layers and layers to the story. To the point where it got extremely complicated and was nearly impossible to understand or follow unless you had been along on the ride with us building it. So then we started to strip the layers away and weave the story that ended up being the film. And then once I got to set I reworked some of it to fit the location and cast and schedule. I tend to rewrite a lot. Up until we’ve shot the script is open to be modified and even then we reshot some scenes after the fact, too.

It was a long process as both of us were doing other projects and both of us had just become new parents. So we would Skype each other in the middle of the night every couple weeks and just hack it out. We’d get really excited and write in bursts and then get stumped and do nothing on it for months. The story is rather simple, but the layers are confusing, so it really becomes a matter of isolating Joanna’s state of mind and then working every scene for how that relates to her story. Because I wanted it to be interpreted though Joanna’s mind, everything needed to be filtered through her lens and every scene had to tie back to her so that you become invested in her journey. Then when details emerge that contradict what you saw Joanna experience the idea is that you get defensive the same way she does and when evidence is provided that contradicts an earlier scene you then question what you think you saw. In theory anyway … if you like the film I think it works. If you don’t like the film then it’s needlessly confusing and disjointed I guess. It’s a risk, but why play it safe?

AM: I was really struck by the lighting in The Sublet. You don’t think of light as being heavy and or foreboding, but the hazy texture and the blue and gray tones that the lighting lends the film really add to the overall apprehension and unease. Was this an effect you knew right away you wanted to create, or was it something you played around with until you got just the right look?

JA: I’m glad you enjoyed it because that hazy texture just about killed me! Greg Biskup, our cinematographer, and I worked together to create that look. Greg and I were on the same page right from the moment we sat down for our first meeting. We nailed down a lot of the look in what was essentially his job interview. We both think and see light the same and had the same vision for the film’s look. I sent him hundreds of source files from different films and still photography as well as Renaissance period paintings to build off of. I didn’t really have to explain much because we were always on the same page. And Greg knows how to frame a shot, so really, we did loads of prep together and then on set it was mainly just about execution for him. I didn’t really have to be that active on set, he knew the scene from our prep period and my shot list and on our drive in to set every morning we’d go over it again so by the time we shot, I could be free to work with the actors, and he’d set the shot up and we’d shoot. Was a really great experience and I hope to work with him again because the relationship on set was just so fluid.

Back to how all this almost killed me though! We used a lot of haze. Like a lot. I love the texture the haze brings to the image, and it served to really close in around Joanna—as if even the air she breathed was against her … which in a way it actually was I guess … At times, we couldn’t see across the set for all the haze we were filling the room up with. And because the sublet was a set built inside an old warehouse it meant that even if you could open the fake windows you’d just be inhaling old warehouse air. That combined with the stain Vince Moscovic, our production designer, used to do the floors with had me coughing up blood by the end of the shoot. I really like the look though. You do what you have to do. I think it was worth it, but I really had to be conscious of limiting the baby’s exposure to this. There’s less haze in most of the baby scenes for that reason.

AM: Throughout the film we see Joanna going through the same motions—she wakes up, showers, pours herself a cup of coffee, adds the sugar, looks out the window, cleans. In many ways we think of routine as being comforting, but Tianna does a wonderful job of showing how being a stay at home mom and having this monotonous day to day routine can really be horrifying. Joanna is losing herself in the motions and this seems to be unrelated to the presence that’s in the house. Do you think if Joanna had been more connected with the world around her—maybe joined a moms group, or set up regular coffee dates with friends—or if her fiancé Jeff had been home more, that she would have been less effected by the presence?

Color composition plays an important role in The Sublet

JA: That’s exactly it. I’m no doctor, or a woman for that matter so I hate speaking on this with any type of authority, but from what I understand, postpartum depression is a pretty natural hormonal reaction to a fairly traumatic emotional and physical shift in a woman’s life. Because we as a society have been taught to suppress so much of what we’re feeling and show any sign of weakness, this problem is rarely talked about. Plus, most mothers don’t want to share that they had the thought of driving a knife into the soft spot on their newborn’s head or drowning their baby in the bathtub or simply whipping it across the room, but these are things that well-adjusted moms of fully grown and healthy children have told me they had thought of when their babies were first born. So generally, a new mom might have these types of thoughts, but because they’re well-adjusted they suppress them, and if they’re supported by the people in their lives the stress of a newborn is eased and they cope and move on. In cases where moms have killed their children it’s almost always the case that they felt alone with the burden. It’s these cases that develop into psychosis and result in the mother killing her baby. And it’s way more common than we want to believe.

It’s something that is difficult for anyone to identify with, but it’s a feeling I wanted to build within the viewer—the idea that you can’t trust yourself and that you feel repulsed by your own thoughts. So my task with Joanna was to create a character who is dealing with something few people understand and she’s dealing with it inside her head.

I played with that by creating the routine, and slightly modifying it, and then flipping it at the end, what you thought was comfort really wasn’t and revealing that maybe this thing you saw Joanna do didn’t happen the way you saw it. It was pretty tough keeping track of what was real and what wasn’t and the routine and isolation was part of that.

I hadn’t really thought of it until this question, but I just moved to a new city (Miami) where I don’t know anyone, we’re renting a house and I’m taking care of our youngest son while my wife focuses on her new job. I haven’t found a diary of a previous tenant or heard any voices and the walls aren’t bleeding so I think I’ll be okay! I’m a writer at heart, though, so I like being alone most of the time anyway.

AM: Talking about the presence, the way that Joanna slowly morphs into the woman from the past is incredibly creepy. You could see the horror coming over her face as she realized that she was doing things and acting in ways that were not her. Then she would defiantly shut that one door and pull herself back from the brink, and as a viewer, I found myself cheering, thinking maybe she was going to pull herself out of this. What was it like working on those scenes, knowing that there’s this very literal back and forth going on between Joanna and the presence, and with the emotions of the viewers?

JA: Tianna would be better to answer that since she did most of that work. For me I just tried to create an environment for her where she felt supported and safe to try things out. I would run as many takes as she wanted or wait as long as she needed to get herself mentally ready. So many performances play the emotion on the surface, but as an actress she understands that it’s really about having the emotion and the suppressing it and then somehow emoting that to the camera subtly.

I gave her like a ten-page backstory for Joanna that outlined most of Joanna’s major life events starting at the age of five. Small details of her life that would be buried in the character’s mind, and then outlined her dating and school experiences, her friend and family, trying to build a real person that informs what you see on screen. She took that and changed it to who she thought the character was, and we worked off that and always had that between us so we could refer to it in any scene as we worked.

I gave her a playlist to listen to so on set. She would disappear into a corner with her headphones and do whatever she needed to get into Joanna’s head. I pushed hard to make sure we shot as chronologically as possible. I just couldn’t imagine a scenario where block shooting made sense for this film and her in particular. The fun thing for me was keeping Mark Matechuk, who played Geoff, away from that. Keeping him and his character entirely obtuse of Joanna’s suffering I think helped his performance.

AM: It would be very easy to see The Sublet as a metaphor for postpartum depression—everything from the way Joanna sleeps all the time, her disintegrating relationship with her fiancé, the way she feels about her body, her desperation to feel at home, the comments made by several people that she’s missing. Right up till the final scene, I was wondering if maybe there was no haunting, whether everything that was happening was a manifestation of Joanna’s depression. With a topic that can be very sensitive for a lot of people, did you have any hesitation about making a movie that seems to bring that to the forefront? Or am I reading more into her actions than you intended?

The happy family

JA: That’s a great question and one I’m shocked to have not been asked by anyone until now! I did have a lot of reservations about dealing with postpartum in a haphazard manner in a film. Because while I use postpartum in my narrative, I never really tackle the issue in a serious way and at the end of the day this was a horror film that was going to be marketed and sold as a horror film, even if it’s really more of a psychological-thriller. So, for Tianna and I, we just talked about being truthful to the character and what she was going though. Tianna did a lot of research on the subject and spoke to moms who had gone through it and showed them the script and they gave us feedback on the diary. It’s a subject that I’ve been fascinated by for a long time. In high school, I sat next to this girl on the bus and we would chat about music and whatever. Then maybe ten years later, I read her name in the newspaper that she had stabbed her children and husband and slit her own throat and it must have had a pretty strong impression on me.

But yeah, I’m glad to hear you had that thought, because it was my intention. There were versions of the script where Alyson and I had the whole thing revealed to be Joanna as a homeless woman living in a warehouse and reliving the whole thing in her mind years after it actually happened. But I could never really find a way to make that work perfectly. Black Fawn were pretty insistent that it was a ghost story because ghost stories are easier to market, and they as a company have needs for the film outside my creative vision obviously, which I understand and agree with. So I kind of worked with that and created a story that hopefully can work both ways. For me and Tianna, it’s in her head; for my producers, it’s a ghost story. I’m glad it works both ways and I think the ambiguity plays to a better film in many ways.

And I’m glad that I navigated a sensitive subject without offending anyone. I still get the occasional email from a mom who is so happy with the film, that Tianna and I put a mom on screen who wears dirty track pants and wakes up without her makeup at four am. That whole movie thing of women waking up with full makeup, wearing a push up bra is so tiresome, and for me it just takes you out of the film. Anyone who has ever taken care of a baby for any period of time knows that little things like going to the bathroom become almost impossible, but we’re all caught up in the façade and most films keep the façade going. I’m not really interested in that. The first thing I said to Tianna when I called her to offer her the part was that I wasn’t interested in pretty; she was going to look run down and tired and not everyone is into doing that on screen, but she jumped at the opportunity and welcomed it fully.

AM: I can’t wait for the Apex Magazine readers to get a chance to see The Sublet! Can you let us know where people will be able to see it and when?

Things get messy for Joanna

JA: I know there are DVDs available on Amazon, because my mom bought one for me for my birthday as if I needed a copy when I have the master on a hard drive in my closet. So it’s available on Amazon for sure. It’s also on the iTunes store in US and Canada. And you can buy a copy directly at

If you have readers in the UK, the film is called The Resident, because they said English people wouldn’t know what the word sublet meant, but now I hear from loads of English people saying the opposite … so, who knows? And in Germany it’s called In the Dark for some reason.

AM: Before we go, I have to ask, what are you both working on now? Where can we find more of John Ainslie?

JA: My first film, Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer,is on iTunes and is a completely different side of me, but a very fun watch. It stars Robert Englund and is more of an action/comedy. And next up, I’m currently packaging a script that I hope to be shooting spring or summer of 2018. It’s an action/thriller and will be very different from The Sublet in many ways. I’m very excited about the project and to be working with an actor whose work I’ve admired for about twenty years now, but I’m not allowed to say who just yet so you’ll just have to wait and see!

AM: Thank you so much speaking with me. The Sublet was great! I really enjoyed getting the chance to see it.

JA: Thank you so much for taking the time to write about it and discussing it with me.


Canadian Film Centre alumni John Ainslie is best known for the throwback horror comedy feature Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer. His screenplay was nominated for a Fangoria Chainsaw Award and the film won Best Midnight Film at the prestigious Sitges International Film Festival. Prior to writing, John worked as a Director of Photography and won the Borsos prize of Best Cinematographer at the Whistler Film Festival for his work on the feature SK8 LIFE. In 2016 John wrote and directed his first feature film—the award winning The Sublet. A psychological thriller Ain’t it Cool News describes as “scares and shocks to a nerve shredding level.” It premiered at Whistler Film Festival and won the awards for Best Actress and Best Cinematography at Blood in the Snow Canadian Film Festival.

Lesley Conner is a writer/editor, managing editor of Apex Publications and Apex Magazine, and a Girl Scout leader. When she isn’t handling her editorial or Girl Scout leader responsibilities, she’s researching fascinating historical figures, rare demons, and new ways to dispose of bodies, interweaving the three into strange and horrifying tales. Her short fiction can be found in Mountain Dead, Dark Tales of Terror, A Hacked-Up Holiday Massacre, as well as other places. Her first novel, The Weight of Chains, was published by Sinister Grin Press in September, 2015. Best of Apex Magazine: Volume 1 marks her debut experience in anthology editing. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two daughters, and is currently working on a new novel. To find out all her secrets, you can follow her on Twitter at @LesleyConner.

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