Anthony Scott Burns uses his latest film “Come True” to investigate the boundaries between reality and the illusory realm of dreams. At the center of this examination is a nightmare-plagued Sarah, played by Julia Sarah Stone who can be seen in films such as “Allure” and “Weirdos.” Sarah has a nonexistent relationship with her mother, and spends her evenings either sleeping on slides in a local playground or crashing on a friend’s floor. But when she enrolls in a sleep study, she begins to realize that there’s something strange about the haunting figures that lurk in her subconscious.
We spoke with Stone over Zoom about her character Sarah and how she modeled Sarah’s development around the different stages of the sleep cycle. We also discussed Stone’s already prolific career and the terrifying depths of the human brain.
What excited and drew you to “Come True”?
I was excited about it from when I first got the script. It was one of the rare times when I received a script, I started reading it, and I couldn’t stop until I got all the way to the end. No breaks, nothing. I just sat there and zoned in on the script. It's interesting because this isn't usually my type of genre, but there's something about the character of Sarah and her drive, the quality of her being a fighter and causing the story rather than being a victim to it. She is obviously a victim of the circumstance, but she doesn't let it control her, so to speak.
So I was really drawn by that and I fell in love with that character when I was reading it for the first time. I think I also really love the psychological aspect of it. I got excited about the research that would be involved in terms of just the psychology of sleep and Carl Jung’s theories of the personas and the psyche.
Have you ever actually experienced any sleep issues like nightmares, sleep paralysis, or sleep walking?
No, actually. I'm one of the lucky ones that way. I don't know why, because based on everything else about my brain, I probably should have sleep issues, but you know, that's another story. But yes, I sleep very well actually. I've never had sleep paralysis, thank goodness, fingers crossed. I watched a documentary when I was researching for “Come True” called “The Nightmare.” It was probably one of the scariest movies I've ever watched because when it ends, you just have this moment of “Oh, this isn't fiction, this could literally happen to me tonight.”
I had already known about sleep paralysis, but I hadn't gone into that amount of depth on it. So that was definitely something that I learned a lot about as I was putting myself into THAT head space of what [sleep paralysis] does to you psychologically.
As the movie progresses it feels more and more like a dream. So what was it like embodying that kind of headspace?
I definitely put a lot of work into marking out the arc that Sarah goes through throughout the script. Anthony had already split the script very, very smartly into three chapters. So I was using those [chapters] as general markers and I split those a little bit more into sub-chapters. When I was looking at the different stages of Sarah's journey, if you want to call it that, I was looking at the different stages of sleep and how that relates to her headspace.
You said “Come True” isn't like your typical genre that you work in. Do you like the horror genre at all, or is this a new foray for you?
I like it! I don't tend to watch a lot of it. I have so much respect for the horror genre and I think it's so cool how these genre films have people that feel so strongly about them. I love anything that gets people, for lack of a better term, to nerd out. I love anything that does that to people. Getting to see a little bit of what that audience is like has been really cool to me. I'm pretty selective about the types of horror that I watch, really only just because I get scared very easily. I have a level of empathy and second hand pain that I’d just rather not put myself through.
What has it been like interacting with the horror community with “Come True,” if you have at all?
I really do wish that the timing had worked out so that it wasn't COVID time when this was coming up. I've been to Fantasia once before, and I wish that I had gotten to go in person with this film because the energy, the excitement, and the love for the genre is so palpable. But, even just with the online interaction, people are very excited about this movie and it gets me excited. I feel so proud of this thing that we made that people believe in so much. It almost feels like the little movie that could, with its micro-budget and the eight-person crew. That was a very intentional choice that Anthony made, and I think we all knew that it was going to be good. We didn't know that it would have this kind of reception, so it's heartwarming and it's very exciting.
That is so exciting too, especially because, like you said, the crew was tiny. Anthony was the director, the writer, the cinematographer and the composer. What was it like working with him and such a tiny crew?
It was a treat. Honestly, I had never and have never since, worked on a set that was quite like this and it felt like a little family. It was a very long shoot. It was about three months. It was long because we had short days, but we were able to get so much done and capture so much footage. We shot for about eight hours every day, rather than the usual like 12 to 16.
So that was very different, but it almost felt like a 12-hour day because we spent so much of that time being in the story. There was so little time put into changing the set-up, flipping the camera around, and moving equipment because there wasn't that much equipment to move. It was just Anthony and his camera, so for a lot of the time if the shot was changing, it would just be Anthony going to a different corner of the room. It was very intense, but so, so fulfilling.
It felt really nice to have that kind of creative space, and he's the kind of director who values that a lot. He very intentionally gave us the space to play and to find chemistry in the scenes and to follow whatever impulses came up. I think it was valuable, not just for the film, but for me as an actor, and I'm really grateful for that.
With room to build on the chemistry, did you do any improv with the scenes at all? Or was it all pretty much sticking to the script?
We did a little bit. The script was already very good. I don't tend to improv a lot just personally, as an actor. The way I work is essentially like the script is my Bible and every choice that I make for my character is based off of what they say and what they do in the script. Even just their grammar and vernacular, I try to take indication from all of that. So there wasn't a whole lot of improv, but there were times when Anthony would tell us to improv if we felt like it.
There was one dialogue scene where he had us do it silently. So for one take, we sat there and said everything that was in the dialogue, but with looks and body language. That was actually the take that ended up in the film. It's so fulfilling and so fun as an actor to get that kind of play and experimentation on set, because it so rarely happens since everything is usually on such a tight time crunch.
You have a rather prolific career already and you worked on a lot of pretty intense movies pretty recently. Are you drawn to those kinds of movies or do they just happen to keep falling into your lap? What has it been like working with such intense subject matter during your career?
Oh, that's interesting. I don't know if I do a lot of that type of movie because I'm drawn to it, or maybe it has something to do with my look and that’s the type of script that got sent to me. I'm not sure, but I definitely enjoy it. I gravitate towards scripts where I see something in the story that I find is an important message or has the potential to open people's minds. And I think a lot of the times those types of stories have some intensity to them.
Related to that, what's it like occupying those kinds of head spaces? We talked about that a little bit with “Come True,” but what is that like for you over and over again, to keep occupying these intense emotional spaces?
It can be a lot, especially when it's three months of it. There's other projects, too, that come to mind that were particularly intense shoots, “Allure” being one of them. For that one it was really just me and Evan [Rachel Wood] in every scene and there were few moments of levity. It can be exhausting, but I think I've learned to have a process, especially for those types of [emotional] scenes, that is very self-preserving. I don't tend to use my own life experiences or my own personal emotions as inspiration, or as a method to get into the character’s emotions. I tried that for a very short time when I was first starting out and I quickly realized that it's not really reliable, and it's not the safest or the most self-preserving way to do it.
So the way I work is, essentially to put in a nutshell, is at the end of the scene, everything between action and cut, if it's an intense emotion, I'm experiencing it in my body physiologically. But at the end of the day, that emotion belongs to the character and not to me personally. After “cut,” it's really a matter of my body going through something, but me personally, I am not in danger. Sometimes it can take a little bit to calm my body down and to get back to that homeostasis. But you get practice with that. Having such a supportive crew and cast is also so very helpful. Anthony really created a great environment for sure, for “Come True.”
In your research about sleep and looking at sleep paralysis, what did you think about this whole idea that people who have sleep paralysis see the same thing?
I think it's one of those things that we'll never know and we can only theorize. To me, I find it more fun to just say, “I can think what I think, but I will never know for sure.” What place do I have in saying that this is what I believe is the reality of why this phenomenon happens. Because we don't know. I think it's fun and it's also terrifying, that we have things like that. It's like outer space or the deep sea, or what happens when we die.
That reminds me of a moment in the documentary, “The Nightmare,” where a guy had sleep paralysis and there were eyes looking at him from his chest. Then, his roommate wakes him up and they realize that they both saw the same thing at the same time while they were both having sleep paralysis. My brain just went nope, let's not think about that ever again. I went to sleep that night thinking, “Okay, now that I know about sleep paralysis, I am so much more likely to have it, that's awesome. Great to know.”
"Come True" will be in theaters are on demand on March 12.