Monday, December 21, 2015

BEST HORROR MOVIE OF THE YEAR: WE ARE STILL HERE (2015)—The Evening Class Interview With Ted Geoghegan & Travis Stevens

I could make a list this "Listmas" season. I could rattle off my top ten, or my top five. But why go through all that when—in my estimation—there so clearly is a top contender in this year's clutch of horror films? Namely, Ted Geoghegan's We Are Still Here (2015) [Facebook], which premiered to rave reviews at SXSW 2015, but which I caught mid-summer at its Fantasia screening in Montreal where—in his introduction—Geoghegan specified how much it meant to him to have his movie play the Concordia Hall Theatre at Fantasia, "the most important festival in the world." He couldn't think of a better festival to play horror, sci-fi or fantasy than Fantasia, whose audiences "get" these films, and which makes him feel "a lot less lonely."

"I grew up with the video store being my babysitter," Geoghegan explained. "Big box releases of Lucio Fulci's movies and Mario Bava's movies are the reason I got into film as a fan." We Are Still Here is his love letter to all those weird, ultra-melodramatic, mindfuck films from the late '70s. I could hardly wait after seeing the film to sit down with Geoghegan and his Snowfort producer Travis Stevens to talk about the project.

[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!]

* * *

Photo: Daniel Bergeron / Indiewire
Michael Guillén: Since I'm catching We Are Still Here at Fantasia, speak to me about "bringing it home" to Montreal and, perhaps, about why you elected to open elsewhere first?

Travis Stevens: When you decide to make a movie, you're always focused on what's in front of you. On the flight up here, when I really thought about the journey this movie had taken, and the fact that it had started with a coffee date across the street from this very building, I was like, "Wow, it's really crazy." At the screening, having it play so well, it was like being home. You can lose track each step of the way because it's such a long journey to get a movie made and out there, so it was really nice to have the journey come back so vividly.

Premiering elsewhere, a lot of that is about when you shoot the movie, when it's finished, and trying to shrink the window where the movie's just sitting there doing nothing. You basically want it to premiere as early as possible so that the buyers can see it as early as possible so that the investors can recoup their money as early as possible so you can move into your second film as early as possible.

Guillén: At its Fantasia screening, I was sitting a little behind and across the aisle from you and Ted and could watch you watching the movie. Watching you two added a lot to my enjoyment of the film because you were having such a good time with the audience reception.

Stevens: As I mentioned to you earlier, it was awesome watching Ted hit a guitar solo and watching the crowd respond to it. [Turning to Ted.] What was it like for you? What was it like being in a room where everyone got everything you were trying to do with the movie?

Ted Geoghegan: It was pretty awesome! It's definitely the most well-received screening we've ever had of the film—not to say that it wasn't well-received elsewhere—but, the audience at Fantasia is so genre-savvy that even the little intro speech that I've gotten oh-so-accustomed to doing felt completely unnecessary. I felt like I was preaching to the choir. There was no need for me to say, "If you grew up with '80s movies on big box VHS…." and I look out at the crowd and think, "Well, of course you did. Every single person in this room grew up with those movies." It was definitely a pretty awesome feeling just to hear the reactions non-stop. I've never been at a screening where literally every single gag got a reaction. That definitely says something for the audience and how the audience views movies like this.

Guillén: Talk to me a bit further about "shrinking the window" for the film and why that's important.

Stevens: We went into We Are Still Here with a partner who said, "Hey, rather than lose the momentum that comes from festival buzz, why don't we set a release date really close to the premiere and see how that plays?" That was kind of a new thing because normally you spend a year on the festival circuit, the movie comes out a year later, and then you have to rebuild the buzz. We premiered We Are Still Here in March and were out a few months later in June and the festival awareness of the film made the release work.

Guillén: That speaks as well to how viewing habits are changing over the years. You basically leapfrogged theatrical? You didn't feel a need to have a theatrical release?

Stevens: No, it had a theatrical release. A lot of these smaller genre films will have a "day and date" theatrical. We got up to 20-30 cities. It was like old school indie film releasing where you're in Cleveland, you're in North Carolina….

Geoghegan: "Wokashaw has a screen that will like us…."

Stevens: [Laughs.] Yeah, it was a weird thing where we had to have it in certain theaters in order for certain VOD providers to pick it up or charge a price point for it—some of it is a technicality of sorts—but, we were in New York and Los Angeles. It was nice watching it on a big screen with a big crowd; but, the thing is: nobody gives these movies a chance to grow an audience anymore.

Guillén: It's that first weekend or nothing?

Stevens: Even a movie like It Follows (2014) where their first weekend was on two screens and it did really well, instead of letting that grow over six months—like they would in the '90s, where they kept it in those two theaters for six months and built the audience and then went wide—now they're like, "Oh, we should go wide right now!" It all dies.

Guillén: Let alone that there's the social issue of people getting killed in theaters these days so that home entertainment systems feel safe, satisfying and, for many, preferable. Do you think the theatrical arm is going to become less important for genre films?

Stevens: My feeling is yes, unless the theatrical experience becomes something special, like what the Alamo Drafthouse is doing, or similar chains, where—you're not just choosing to watch a movie at home, or even out—you're having a meal or having some kind of special event around the screening. If distributors and exhibitors spent more time re-creating the theatrical experience, there could be really good money there.

Guillén: As I mentioned to you, Travis, when we chatted in front of our hotel, I wasn't aware until recently that you are the energy behind so many of the genre films that I've enjoyed in the past five years (A Horrible Way to Die, Big Ass Spider!, Cheap Thrills, Jodorowsky's Dune, Starry Eyes). It was about five years ago that Colin Geddes first brought to my attention the concept of "elevated genre." Can you both speak to where you fall within that? With so many indie genre films being made, what is it about "elevated genre" that you wanted to capture or that you feel you have captured with We Are Still Here?

Geoghegan: For me, I feel as though playing something unconventionally can be such an amazing boon for projects. Calling our movie "a haunted house movie" marginalizes how many different things it does. I think that's why people have responded so strongly to it. It's not just another haunted house movie. It plays with a lot of the traditional tropes but becomes its own thing. I feel that audiences are responding more and more to films that do that. They're starting to actually see some of the passion behind films like these. Travis mentioned It Follows earlier, which is such a great example of a film that's elevated genre. It's smart and has incredible subtext and speaks to kids without them even realizing that it's speaking to them. We need more of that. I don't want to see something that's been done a hundred times. That's why I was so excited about working with Travis because I feel everything he works on takes a concept that's tried and true but then does something unconventional with it and turns it into something special.

Guillén: The genre hybrid has also become such a kneejerk formula and I would say that the elevation of genre rests in how a filmmaker sophisticates that hybrid. As an audience member, let alone a critic, I've become frustrated with how so many horror films I see are being played for laughs.

Stevens: Because that's simple. I dislike the term "elevated genre" because, for me, it's like the term "grunge" to describe a rock band. A band doesn't set out to be a grunge band; they're a rock band. But such terms make it easy for people to wrap their heads around what differentiates them. With any film in any genre you should be trying to do something new, or something true. Especially with horror, I think what happened was that the people making horror films and the people watching them were riffing on the same old thing over and over again. Around the early 2000s when cameras started getting cheap enough and production started becoming cheap enough so people could start making their own movies, there were kids going out there trying to do something fresh with it, and some were successful, and that's what sparked the idea of elevated genre—which happened all over the world—but, now, it's just a misused marketing phrase for people to invest in your film or distributors to convince people their film is good.

Guillén: When it should be quality filmmaking from the get-go?

Stevens: Exactly! In general, what are you setting out to do with your movie? Even if it's not thematically groundbreaking, there should be some aspect of it that we haven't seen before. With Ted's script, yes, he wanted to honor the movies that he grew up with, but by layering in certain film techniques and by referencing different types of films from the era—and there are a number of layers going on—Ted's movie says, "Hey, we're trying to do something more ambitious than slam a cupboard, now you jump…."

Guillén: Or get dragged under a bed?

Stevens: Yeah.

Guillén: We Are Still Here definitely harkens back, as you intended, to the Lucio Fulci era, but I would even reference Val Lewton in that you use the unseen to build fear. It wasn't until way into the film that, as an audience, we finally see the true threat. Until then, you used those slow zooms into the dark hole in the basement wall to imply an ominous presence. You created a tension between light and dark, such that when you had that first flashlight streak across the basement wall, I shrieked. That was when I realized I was going to love your movie. I thought, "They have the tension down in the pacing." Can you speak to your sense of that pacing? And how you knew to use that pacing to effect scares?

Geoghegan: It being my first time to direct, I certainly learned a lot on set about how to set some of that up. On a script level, we'd always known that the film was—I don't like to use the term "slow burn" because, not only is it misused, but it also implies a rather tense fuse burning throughout the entire film that eventually explodes—whereas, this film plays for drama in its first act. It's really about these people and their loss and it just so happens there are some shadowy figures in the background; but, your focus is on the human drama of these two—and eventually four—characters. As we were shooting it, we all had a very good idea of how this was going to lay out; but, ultimately, in the edit we got to toy with how much of the ghosts we were going to show and how much of the tension we wanted to build through sound effects and music. The methodical pace of the movie started rearing its head in the edit, which I found exciting. While shooting it, I knew exactly how I wanted it to lay out but it wasn't until we got to tweak a few of those moments that we went, "There it is! That's exactly how it's supposed to land." That was fun.

In terms of how little do we show or how much do we show, we had this conversation on set numerous times: you can flip a script to a horror movie to where it says, "She walks down the dimly lit hallway with a figure behind her" and you go, "Ooooooooh, that's scary!" But it's taking that one sentence and actually making it a scary image on film that's the challenge. There were times when we were like, "All right, we got her walking down the hallway" and she's walking down the hallway and it's not scary at all. [Laughs.] It's so scary on the page, so why is not scary on film? For me, it was certainly an act of discovery as a first-time director to realize there is a craft to taking it off the page. For all my years as a screenwriter, I've always felt, "Well, I wrote the damn thing", but it was exciting to learn there was a lot that goes into crafting something as scary or as tense or as funny on the screen as it is on the page.

Guillén: Certainly some of the success of that pacing has to do with the characterizations of your actors and how they give flesh to the script. And specifically in We Are Still Here, I was struck by the age of your characters. They were predominantly middle-aged, which generates a completely different dynamic than if they had been teenagers in the same situation running around making stupid decisions.

Geoghegan: Right.

Guillén: Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but nothing annoys me more than teenagers running around in a movie making stupid decisions. Can you speak to why you made your cast of characters middle-aged?

Geoghegan: The horror movies that I grew up watching had middle-aged characters. Some of my favorite films from the '70s into the early '80s have middle-aged characters. It's not an issue. It's not something that felt different at the time. I didn't grow up with these movies even thinking, "It's interesting that I like this movie with these older people in it." I watched The Changeling or The Beyond because they were scary. These are movies where the central cast would be anywhere from 40 to 60. I started realizing how much I missed that and—even though I'm a huge fan of slasher movies—it was the slasher craze in the early '80s that took the focus off the adults and started putting it on the horny teenage kids, which became the selling point of the movies: the sex and violence, as opposed to a more mature style of storytelling.

Maturity comes not only from the script but from the talent that's involved. One of the reasons my movie works so well is because of the gravitas a lot of actors brought with them into the film. They have years and years, decades, of experience that helped shape the maturity of the movie. I've had several people mention, "We Are Still Here is very mature and you're only 35." I wrote it attempting to be as mature as possible and aping a lot of the situations that I had loved in more mature horror films that I'd watched growing up. But I do also think a lot of it is due to these people coming onto my set who have been acting longer than I've been alive, in some cases twice as long as I've been alive.

Guillén: I was equally struck by the elemental binary between the wintry snow and the fiery ghosts. Can you speak to that decision?

Geoghegan: That was Travis's call, weirdly enough. The first version of the script was actually set in Autumn and Travis brought up the idea that upstate New York in the dead of winter would change the dynamic of the film a lot.

Stevens: Sometimes an idea will come purely off the surface, as with the older characters—"That's different. I haven't seen that in a while. I like it."—or the third act—"That's great. A slow burn into total chaos. I haven't seen that before." Opting for snow was a similar thing. We had been at a festival in Boston, I was driving home to Vermont, then was out for a walk that night and I thought, "The winter is cool. The way the sound carries—how silent it is and what you hear the trees doing—that's a creepy environment. I should try to find a horror film to do in winter." Then when Ted's script came in, I thought, "Oh wow. What if we put that in winter?" The initial idea was just surface but then I started analyzing how winter would isolate these characters even more and—as you said—provide a juxtaposition to the burnt ghosts. Sometimes a deep idea can be triggered by a surface thing and then it works out really well.

However, shooting in the snow was unbelievably miserable. I had been reading about The Revenant and its production schedule and thought, "Yeah. Shooting in the snow is incredibly brutal." We suffered every day; but, we ended up with images that—if we hadn't—the movie would have been a little less interesting.

Guillén: Your cinematographer Karim Hussain was quite brilliant in what he captured with his interstitial landscape imagery. Case in point would be his initiating shot of—what I call—snow devils. It was beautiful, but also somehow ominous at the same time.

Geoghegan: Those wisps of wind and snow were not only the first image of the film but the first shot of the production. We snow-shoed out into the fields behind the house, set up, and waited and waited and waited for that perfect gust of wind to go by.

Guillén: In contrast to that snow, let's talk about your burning, vengeful ghosts. How did you go about creating them? They were effective.

Geoghegan: The idea was to do something slightly fantastical but still somewhat grounded in reality. You have this family that was burnt to death in the 1800s but we didn't want them to look like true medical journal burn victims. Having them be jet black like shadows seemed fantastical and fun and felt like something we hadn't seen that much before. A lot of the inspiration came from Marcus Koch, our main special effects supervisor, and his incredible special effects team. He's well-known for his burn make-up so we told him, "Use that burn make-up that you do, but do something different with it, do something that makes it a little more fantastical." He created authentic burn make-up, then covered it in a black ash. The clothing they're wearing is also black.

We tweaked that idea of how to make them—not fake—but fantastical. There's a reason why they all have hair. Of course, if you were burned alive, you wouldn't have hair. Even Papa Dagmar has a beard mushed on to his face. You only catch glimpses of this, but it's those glimpses that help set them apart as original and different. The three actors who worked with us completely got into these roles. It wasn't like a stock stand at the end of the hallway. They roll. We had back stories for these characters. We pushed them to emote. For those quick, little glimpses that you get of them, hopefully they come off as real as the living, breathing characters in the film. At the end of the day, there's all these families in the house and the Dagmar family, the ghost family, is one of the most important. For us, making sure that the Dagmar family landed as actual characters—even though you don't see them very often—was definitely something we were determined to nail.

Guillén: Who was your effects team?

Geoghegan: The company is called Oddtopsy FX based out of Tampa, Florida and run by my dear friend Marcus Koch. He brought in his own team. They worked 24/7 for a good month and a half.

Guillén: Did they also do the final credits sequence?

Geoghegan: You mean the newspaper sequence?

Guillén: Yes.

Geoghegan: No, we had a different team for that.

Guillén: That was another interesting creative decision to provide the film's back story through that newspaper sequence.

Geoghegan: There was a long discussion about how much do we tell? How little do we tell? At one point we toyed with the idea of having that newspaper sequence at the beginning of the movie to offer more context for people before everything happens. Once we started placing in those moments, we started realizing that the mystery of this family and this house is the joy, especially of the first act where you know something is off but that's all you know. I think of the newspaper clippings at the end as an Easter egg for people who want to stay and sit through the closing credits. They're extremely detailed. I wrote all the articles, to the point where—with the Blu-ray—you can pause it and read the whole history in these articles. That was really fun and done by Glenn McQuaid and Lee Nussbaum, who are digital effects artists and directors themselves. Glenn is well-known for I Sell the Dead and he also does the Tales From Beyond the Pale radio show.

Guillén: Over the last 7-8 years of covering genre films, it's become apparent to me that there's a collaborative network of creative agents who are all helping each other with each other's projects. Is this essential at this point? And how much of that played into your having the opportunity to actually direct a film?

Geoghegan: It played a massive part. If it wasn't for this supporting network of people, I wouldn't be here as a director, but I wouldn't be here as a publicist. I don't believe in karma, but I do believe that—if you're a good person and hang out with good people—good things tend to happen. The genre scene right now—especially on the independent level—is filled with the most helpful, collaborative, caring people and I'm happy that so many of them opened the doors that led me to Travis. I'd like to think that not only do I consider them friends but they consider me a friend.

Stevens: The cross-pollination that happens is similar to the music scene. Your band opens up for another band and you jam with their guitarist. That energy that's being transferred between these filmmakers—"I want to read your script" or "You're going to direct this script I wrote" or "I'll produce the one that you wrote"—is how it works. Ted worked with Evan Katz and I on Cheap Thrills. That brotherly, in-the-trenches-together kind of thing, means, "I like this person. I want to work with them." Evan helps us by coming to screenings at my house. This collaborative process is 100% a huge factor in why these movies are at the quality they're at.

Guillén: Which speaks as well to the necessity of wearing multiple hats? You started out in sales, Travis? You finally got production by mastering sales? And you've been doing publicity work, Ted, for years, crossed over to screenwriting, and now directing. Wearing multiple hats is also a prerequisite in today's independent genre filmmaking?

Geoghegan: For me it's a necessity, not only out of an attempt to move forward professionally, but as a personal necessity. I'm a workaholic and I don't think I would be happy being just one thing. I have to have my hands in lots of different places in order for a feeling of fulfillment. I'm deeply fulfilled by my movie. I love that I wrote it, I love that I directed it, and I can't wait to do other things; but, I also love the fact that I can come to film festivals like Fantasia and be a publicist and still interact with people and have a conversation like this one. Especially in the current cinematic landscape we're in, the more hats you wear, the better off you will be.

Guillén: It seems altogether more honest. I was amused by your Facebook post after your Fantasia screening where you said, "I'm a star tonight, and a grunt the next." [Laughs.] Thank you both so much for your time. I'll leave you be so you can go catch your evening cocktails.

Stevens: It's really important to be drinking day seven in a row!!