Usually when you finish watching a movie, the first thing you ask the person next to you is, 'Did you like it?' " notes Joe Houlberg, whose Ecuadoran thriller Thirst screens this week as part of the Chicago Latino Film Festival. "But that's not the right question to ask in this movie," he says. "It's more about, 'What did you feel?' It's a movie that you have to digest. It takes you a while to really understand what you felt and if you liked it or not. It's not a movie that finishes right when it finishes."
That sort of mystery is more common to Latin American thrillers than to their Hollywood counterparts, which tilt toward action, suspense, and tidy conclusions. With no music score and precious little dialogue, Thirst is a languidly paced psychological study of four young friends who arrive at an old country house for some rest and relaxation but soon begin preying on each other's nerves. Sara, the main character, is blind, which complicates her romantic relationship with the narcissistic Jose. Her cousin, Carolina, has brought along her own boyfriend, Pedro, but sexually they're less interested in each other than in respective flings with Jose and Sara. This volatile situation gathers tension for an hour and a quarter, and true to Houlberg's promise, you may be taking some of it home with you.
Houlberg, 30, is currently enrolled at the School of the Art Institute, completing his first year of study toward a master's degree in film, but he already has a professional track record back in Ecuador. Growing up in Quito, he started making short videos at age 11, after his father bought a Hi-8 digital camcorder. Both his parents had flirted with creative careers—his father had studied as a fine artist before going into the petroleum industry, and his mother had worked briefly as an actress on a TV soap opera—but the movie business in Ecuador is so small that Houlberg had never considered filmmaking as a profession until his father suggested it to him. Shortly after he earned a bachelor's degree in filmmaking from the University of San Francisco Quito in 2010, he was hired as a director by Vertigo Films, a local production company.
An opportunity like that would be hard to find in the U.S., and Houlberg took advantage of it, directing commercials and also serving as a producer and assistant director on dramatic and documentary features. "That was a great experience," he recalls. "After working on those movies—which were really low- budget, they were almost like a guerrilla working process—I was like, 'OK, I feel I can make my own movie.'" Once he set out to produce and direct Thirst, his association with Vertigo proved even more helpful: the company allowed him to borrow its new, state-of-the-art Arri Alexa digital camera, which contributes to the movie's subtle soft-focus effects.
Houlberg had spent about a year on the script. The story of the four friends was inspired to some extent by Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), another tale of people trapped together in a remote location. Houlberg was fascinated by Kubrick's idea that "when you're not in your usual space for a long period of time, your real instincts start to come out. When you're in your home, you know the space, you're in your comfort zone, and you pretend to be this calm person that has no problems. But when you're out of that zone, these things start to come out, these psychological things, these emotional things."
Another model was Frenzy (1972), Alfred Hitchcock's ice-cold thriller about a "necktie strangler" on the loose in London. Houlberg's favorite part was the spider-and-fly scene in which the killer traps a woman in her office after hours and toys with her for close to ten minutes before strangling her. "She already knows that this is the guy, but she's trying to act normal to escape from the situation," Houlberg says. "He knows that she knows, but they both play the role as if they're having a normal conversation. I really love that idea of characters in a space pretending to act as if they don't know, but they both know that they both know!" In Thirst, Pedro sits on a couch across from the blind Sara, quietly masturbating; she seems oblivious to his presence, but is she? Earlier, Carolina comes on to Jose, standing over him and knocking his knee back and forth between her legs; Sara is sitting right there but doesn't know what's going on. Or does she?
Armed with the Arri Alexa, Houlberg installed his cast and crew at the Hacienda San Isidro, a 300-year-old estate about 30 miles from Quito, in the Valle de los Chillos, for an 18-day shoot. The property included a giant garden with a lagoon; the camera crew were lodged in a room once used to prepare the dead for burial services in an adjoining chapel. As in The Shining, the lodging almost becomes a character in the story; particularly striking is the giant half-moon window, brutally symmetrical in the Kubrick tradition, where Sara confronts a long-buried childhood memory.
Thirst may have been shot in less than three weeks, but Houlberg spent three years in postproduction. Originally the script had included a second, more horror-oriented story line about an indigenous woman of local legend, but after completing three different cuts of the movie, Houlberg decided the two stories were working against each other and excised the second one almost entirely. Coming up with funds for editing and color correction was another challenge, though Houlberg managed to finish the movie with a prize from the Consejo Nacional de Cinematografia del Ecuador; a second prize from the organization provided him with funds for publicity and promotion.
When Houlberg, eager for a change of scenery and a broader education in film, decided to get an MFA, he looked at programs across the U.S. and Europe and finally settled on SAIC because it allowed him to chart an eclectic course of study instead of repeating basic production classes he didn't need. Once Thirst has screened at the Chicago Latino fest—Houlberg will attend both shows—he'll turn his attention to the movie's general release in Ecuador, scheduled for this summer, and to two other features he's been writing, an "ironic comedy" and another low-budget drama for a small cast. The Ecuadoran release is much on his mind: "I have no idea how people are gonna react to the movie, but I'm really interested in that, because I feel like Thirst pushes the limits in the conservative mind that most people have in Ecuador." Like his movie, Houlberg isn't finished. v