Willem Dafoe's Latest Nemesis is Hostile Architecture

In the newly released film 'Inside', the beloved character actor destroys museum-quality art and design objects to escape a dangerously sleek New York City penthouse.

Credit (all images): Wolfgang Ennenbach / Focus Features

In the newly released film Inside, a disturbing painting stops brazen art thief Nemo (Willem Dafoe) in his tracks as he breaks into the impossibly sleek abode of an unnamed Pritzker Prize–winning architect. He stares and utters “WTF” before continuing his search for an elusive self-portrait. The painting in question is a tentacled work that anchors the owners’ suite, and one of 34 other pieces commissioned to create the residence’s collection of drawings, paintings, and new media under the direction of curator Leonardo Bigazzi.

The prescient moment foreshadows the rest of the film, which Nemo spends turning the art and collectible design objects into tools that defeat the film’s sadistic antagonist: the penthouse. In the extended absence of human touch, the residence appears to fend for itself, weaponizing its high-tech security and HVAC system to trap and psychologically torture Nemo over the course of months. “You have the first look then you think, ‘Oh, this is big, this is huge. This is so nice.’ But when you start looking in the corners, you see that it’s a dead place,” production designer Thorsten Sabel tells Surface. “Everywhere you find these little hints to loneliness and emptiness.”

Dafoe is effectively the film’s sole cast member, though he shares the spotlight with a roster of real artists, ranging from Egon Schiele, Joanna Piotrowska, Petrit Halilaj, and more. “It was a real pleasure to have Leonardo and the real artists [involved] because normally in movies, you’re not allowed to use real art as we did here,” Sabel says of working with Bigazzi.

The film owes its few moments of levity to the relationship Nemo cultivates with the artworks: on the verge of starving, he attempts to eat rotting oranges he finds in the bedroom before realizing they’re objets—part of an installation by Spanish artist Alvaro Urbano. “There’s a subtle sense of humor in some of the choices we made with the artworks,” says Bigazzi. “It’s a labor of trust and a very generous gift because the artist is contributing to the vision of someone else, which is not what usually happens.”

Surface chatted with Bigazzi and Sabel about mining inspiration from the works of Jean Prouvé and Oscar Niemeyer, and the inhospitable homes of collectors. 

There’s a prevailing sense of discomfort and hostility in this home. Nemo, who’s well-versed in art and the collection he’s here to steal is made viscerally uncomfortable by some of the pieces. Tell me about the choices you made to cultivate that.

Thorsten Sabel: We took [inspiration from] Brutalist architecture. It was always the idea to make something [uncomfortable] but impressive. If you really look at it, it’s cold. 

Leonardo Bigazzi: Visiting collectors’ apartments, sometimes you have that sense of discomfort. Some of the most beautiful design objects, they’re not comfortable. It’s more for the way they look: minimal and pristine, and as Thorsten was saying, cold. Because of the way the art collection is constructed, we were building a character [and] materializing the personality of an antagonist that’s never visible.

Where did you look for inspiration? Do the sets or art collection reference a specific architect’s practice, a famous collection, or pieces of collectible design?

TS: I like Oscar Niemeyer and Gottfried Böhm, who built concrete churches in Germany. These two architects are my heroes. They inspired me to make this huge concrete cage—that’s what it is. It undersigns Nemo’s emptiness and loneliness.

LB: I was invited after many months, years, I would say, that [film director] Vassilis Katsoupis had been developing these thoughts by himself and then with Thorsten. For me, it was about going down memory lane and thinking of all the private art collections I’ve visited and how some of the works end up being the direct manifestation of the owner’s personality. 

Can you expand on that?

LB: There are two very interesting spaces, when you visit an art collector’s house: the bedroom and the studio. Those are places where very intimate works, especially drawings, are exhibited. In the film, the collector’s studio has a beautiful work by Super Studio, the radical architects from the ‘60s. He’s an architect, but this references architecture that breaks the norm, that goes beyond the idea of a functional building. Then he has the Egon Schiele drawings. My references were people I’ve met: collectors in New York and others already in Thorsten’s vision.

Nemo breaks so many pieces that seem inspired by recognizable collectible design or decorative artworks in his attempts to survive. What were some of the most fun things to see him destroy?

TS: We’re not allowed to make one-to-one replicas. There are just hints and inspiration in what we made. We were inspired by original Jean Prouvé chairs because we knew that you can’t buy them anymore. They’re just in museums now, so if this collector has eight of them at his dining table, it’s crazy! It was really nice to do that. He also takes a bronze statue from Lynn Chadwick to bust open the pantry. It was very good fun, but it’s not always a design decision [to replicate] some of the furniture. It has to be logical because Nemo tries to make tools out of pieces of chairs. For that, you need the right chair.

When he floods the penthouse, most of the collection is destroyed by water damage or later by Nemo himself. How many replicas of the artwork and sets were created to pull that off?

LB: There were 38 works and 25 artists involved.We didn’t have multiple replicas of the works. Once it’s broken, it’s broken forever.

TS: It worked because we shot chronologically. We didn’t destroy the originals, but we didn’t need lots of replicas.

LB: Every artist was involved in the process, either of having the originals on set or making the replicas themselves. The David Horvitz neon, the moth [costume] of Petrit Halilaj, and the oranges of Alvaro Urbano are actual artworks on set. The replicas were often made by the artists themselves and shipped to the set because they wanted to have control of the process. When they allowed us to, Thorsten’s team did an incredible job, and were very precise on how to replicate them. For example, a painting in the living room by Maxwell Alexandre was commissioned and painted based on his drawings by a team in Belgium.

TS: And at the end, he fucked up everything with the rain. It was quite difficult to get this set waterproofed. The water was really rising up to eight inches, and it had to hold. We did it all in the studio. It was real!

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