The drama, horror and surrealism of ‘In the Shadow’: An interview with filmmaker Nicole Elmer

Nicole Elmer/courtesy photo

Nicole Elmer is an award-winning filmmaker, writer and playwright. She studied acting and film production at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and The University of Texas at Austin where she received her degree in Radio-TV-Film.

This year, her film In the Shadow premiered at the Cine Las Americas International Film Festival as part of the Hecho en Tejas division. The film tells the story of Diego, a gifted healer living in isolation on a small island in Puerto Rico, whose quiet life is disrupted when Hilary, a documentary filmmaker, arrives to work on her project on migration and identity. Intrigued by what she hears on the street about Diego, Hilary tries to get closer to him. He allows her into his life, but as the two become attracted to each other, Hilary discovers Diego’s “gift” also comes with a curse, an uncontrollably violent one that brings painful consequences and changes to both of their lives.

“My co-producer, co-writer, and the lead actor, Jorge Sermini, is from Puerto Rico,” said Elmer. “We were working on a different script when he proposed the idea of a healer with a dark side.”

“Jorge has a childhood friend who lives in Culebra and at the time owned a restaurant and had access to a few small villas. Jorge contacted him and pitched the idea of filming down there with a small crew and cast, and the next thing we knew, we were in pre-production for about eight months with the intention of heading down to Puerto Rico to film,” Elmer said.

Although Sermini’s idea of exploring the alternative side to being a healer was perfect for a dark, scary film, he and Elmer had more in mind: They wanted to use the movie as a vehicle to look at the negative things that can come from trying to alter fate.

“Culebra is gorgeous, and you can place a camera just about anywhere and get an amazing shot,” Elmer said. So, this fact, with being able to stay in the villas and use the restaurant as a location, encouraged us to shape the story around this island and the locations that exist there naturally.”

In the Shadow is a unique blend of drama, horror and surrealism. This amalgamation of genres came from Elmer’s dissatisfaction with the current constraints of each genre.

“While North American culture doesn’t generally recognize ‘healers,’ many other parts of the world do and they are a vital part of their culture and belief systems,” said Elmer. “Despite one’s perspectives about healers, whenever human kind decides to meddle with death and illness, we are essentially trying to alter fate. As is evident with global warming, people messing with nature tends to produce some nasty results. So, we thought that maybe healers also have to deal with the messy side of removing illnesses. Thus was born the character Diego, and when the film starts we see him retreating from the limelight of his gifts, performing a ‘healing’ as a favor, but also having to deal with the backlash of this.”

Also, as often happens with projects like films, editing the film became a central part of the process and allowed the filmmakers to add more layers to the story.

“We were certainly conscious that horror films tend to be made without a lot of emphasis on the ‘art’ of cinema,” said Elmer. “There are exceptions; Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf are a few that come to mind. But I felt disgruntled as a director to know that today, horror is mostly about gore, shock, the typical monster or creature as the antagonist, attractive teens getting wiped out violently, but never really extends beyond this. I wanted to create a film that incorporated the element of horror and fear, without being only about that. I wanted to utilize the tools that are part of the filmmaker’s arsenal, like editing and setting up extreme wide shots on a gorgeous island where you can see for miles. The film in its screenplay stage was about a dark love story with one person of this developing partnership dealing with something of a ghost with a vengeance, so to speak. The film as it is now still contains this, but has become more surreal through the editing.”

Besides co-writing and editing, Elmer also co-produced the film. According to her, putting together a movie with a low budget forces filmmakers into many roles while simultaneously making collaboration an essential element.

“The nature of low-budget filmmaking often requires the filmmakers to do multiple things, as there usually isn’t money to have a full crew,” said Elmer. “But I did co-produce with Jorge Sermini who opened the doors to being able to shoot in Culebra, in addition to wrangling all of our Puerto Rican talent and local support down there. Jorge and I wrote the script together, and we also brought in local playwright, Jason Tremblay, to shape some scenes and offer some crucial feedback on structure. I edited most of the film, but editor Tag Simler did the scenes with Danny Trejo in addition to cutting our trailer. So I had lots of wonderful help!”

'In the Shadow' movie poster

For Elmer and her team, bringing the movie to Austin was a great experience and it gave them a chance to actually reap some satisfaction after many years of hard work during which some of those involved hadn’t had a chance to see the final product.

“We started this film as an idea in February of 2008, so to have it screened over four years later means a lot to us,” said the writer. “We’ve put so much time, and, quite literally, blood, sweat, and tears into this movie. It’s great to able to share it with our fellow Austinites, and some crew and cast who have never seen even a rough cut of it all these years.”

One of the cast members was local icon Danny Trejo. Despite his bad man looks, Elmer is yet another filmmaker who describes the tattooed actor as a pleasure to work with and a dedicated professional, even when the Texas summer heat puts him to the test.

“Danny was great to work with,” said Elmer. “He is such a gracious man and spends many of his working hours as an actor helping smaller projects from “unknowns” like us.  Our set of the scenes with him was extremely hot, as we shot those moments here in Austin in the middle of July in a non-air-conditioned warehouse. He had to wear pants and a long sleeve shirt and was such a sport in what was easily probably 110 degrees, if you include the heat the set lights contributed.  He was kind to everyone on set, and such a great person to be around. I would enjoy working with him again.”

Elmer recently made a rough-cut of her second feature, a film she shot in Austin last summer. The new film is currently titled What’s the Use? and is a coming-of-age dark comedy about a young girl who sets out one night to get revenge on a loan shark who has threatened her father’s life. Along the way, she meets a lot of strange Austinites before she gets her revenge and reveals a tragic secret about her family. Elmer is obviously doing her part to keep Austin weird.

“We shot with local actors and a crew of three people over 21 days in one of the hottest summers Austin has seen,” said the filmmaker. “I tend to have a pattern of shooting in the heat and am looking forward to shooting a film in a cold bleak winter!” We plan to have a polished cut of the film by the end of 2012.”

A much larger budget film titled, “The Short Life and Extraordinary Death of Francis Tennessee” is also in the works. It tells the story of a young puppeteer who learns she is dying of a rare heart condition when she meets a much older cemetery caretaker and falls in love. Elmer described is as “Amelie meets Harold and Maude, and believe it or not, a romantic comedy.”

To learn more about Nicole Elmer’s projects, visit As for In the Shadow, stay tuned and watch it as soon as it’s done with the festival circuit: the genre-mixing film is dark, entertaining and well-written.

Watch the trailer for In the Shadow below.

Gabino Iglesias

Gabino is an Austin writer and journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Business Today, the Austin Post, San Antonio Magazine, Bizarro Central, Divergent Magazine, El Nuevo Día and others.

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