ARKHAM SANITARIUM: The Director Speaks And Reveals The First Trailer
[Our thanks to Dejan Ognjanovic for conducting the following interview.]
We have covered upcoming indie feature Arkham Sanitarium a fair bit already and now that shooting of the film is over, its director Andrew Morgan is subjected to a torturous examination in order for us to decide whether his Lovecraftian anthology is blasphemous or respectful to the Great Old One. The result is the exclusive, illuminating and quite promising interview below.
The first and most obvious questions would be: a) why Lovecraft? and b) why did you choose these specific stories?
I'm a huge fan of Lovecraft's work and I've always been fascinated by his stark, uncaring vision of the universe - his stories are really bleak and that's something we wanted to capture in Arkham Sanitarium.
The stories we picked were mostly dictated by the budget - 'The Thing on the Doorstep' was always in there as I came up with some ideas for adapting that over 10 years ago - for the others, we went through everything Lovecraft had ever written before settling on 'The Shunned House' and 'The Haunter of the Dark'.
The key was in finding stories that had commonalities in their narrative so we could get the most use out of our sets, wardrobe and props. Our approach to the production design for the film was to work with the bare minimum we could get away with but always to make it of the highest quality that we could afford.
There seems to be a consensus about the difficulty of translating Lovecraft from the page to the screen. Did you feel any difficulties in adapting his stories? Even more specifically - do you feel that there is something about Lovecraft that makes his prose harder to adapt than that of other horror writers?
There's this myth that Lovecraft is impossible to adapt but personally, I feel that's more to do with the poor quality of most of the adaptations out there. There are two types of Lovecraft films - the fan films that might attempt to be faithful but are ultimately constrained by low/no budgets and a lack of decent locations/sets and limited options for cast - often these stories are updated to take place in the modern day in order to save money and it's hard - really hard to do that with HPL's work - those stories are a product of their time and in order for them to work, you really need to set them in a period before mobile phones, the Internet, automatic weapons and nukes - of course, period costume and sets/props cost money so it's tough being a low budget filmmaker and attempting to do Lovecraft 'right'.
The second type is the 'Hollywood' adaptations - whilst they also tend to be pretty low-budget (albeit in the low millions rather than the low thousands) these pictures don't really take any risks - rather than appeal specifically to fans of Lovecraftian horror, they try to make their movies as all-encompassing as possible - understandable as they're looking to recoup their investment but ultimately the stories end up being diluted into some vague approximation of what a horror film 'should be' rather than what was intended with the source material.
With regards to our adaptation, the only story I really struggled with was 'The Haunter of the Dark' - it's a fairly simple tale told from the perspective of an interested observer commenting on the strange circumstances surrounding the death of the protagonist, Robert Blake - a literal adaptation would have basically been a 30 minute voiceover which clearly wouldn't work so I had to take a few creative liberties with the story.
Whenever I'm forced to make changes, I dig deep into what's there and try and find ways to build on existing elements - in the case of this story, that meant expanding the role of Blake's friend, Ambrose Dexter (who's only mentioned in passing in the original) and also investigating Blake's past which includes elements inspired by Robert Bloch's 'The Shambler from the Stars'.
Your script seemed pretty effective in that regard, but how did you deal with the task of actually shooting it? How much of the written words and their desired impact ended on the screen?
As is often the case, the planning of the movie and the actual shoot were two very different things - difficulties in raising the finance (and our investor skipping town on us) meant we had to rethink a lot of the logistics less than a month before filming was scheduled to start. We had to cut a few of the more elaborate scenes (mostly because the budget was no longer there for the extras' costuming).
That said, we still managed to have all the planned sets, plus the props, period wardrobe etc. that were necessary to tell the stories and we were blessed with an extremely talented cast who went above and beyond to deliver great performances within the punishing shooting schedule. We didn't get everything we needed so we're planning to do some reshoots and pickups in the next month or so but overall we were delighted - as a scriptwriter, there's nothing more rewarding than seeing your characters come to life and as a director, I was very happy with everything we were able to achieve.
Ultimately, the fan community will be the judge of how well we did but in writing Arkham Sanitarium I set out to make the Lovecraft movie I've always wanted to see - the end result isn't quite there but it's pretty damn close.
Most previous attempts failed to capture the specific Lovecraftian atmosphere and to hint at the cosmic, unnameable horror. What was it like walking the thin line between Pulp and Metaphysical Horror? How did you avoid falling into the abyss of schlock which threatens even the most adept filmmakers who venture into the Lovecraft territory?
That's an interesting question - and honestly, not something I even considered whilst writing the screenplay - my goal was simply to create the most authentic adaptation possible whilst still being an entertaining, visual experience. My rule was that, if it was pure Lovecraft (i.e. lifted straight from the stories) then it was fine - the biggest challenge was when I had to divert away from the source material (dialogue mostly and also parts of 'The Haunter of the Dark') - each time I did, I'd keep writing 'til an alarm bell in my head started telling me 'you've gone too far off track - rein it in!' - then I'd usually backtrack and revise my additions/changes until they fit the tone of HPL's story and felt credible within the body of work he'd created.
Regarding avoiding the 'abyss of schlock', I think that comes from a number of factors - the most important of which being the script, but also casting choices, directorial style, visual effects - a whole bunch of things really. We always knew Arkham Sanitarium would be a somber film - I mean, seriously - it's pretty damn dark and depressing - but that's the world Lovecraft created - people go mad and/or die horribly - there's no happy endings and any victories are short-lived at best.
Lovecraft's concepts usually require elaborate set-design, difficult locations, imaginative, gargantuan creatures, complex practical and visual effects etc. Obviously you thought that you could revive those concepts with a very, very low budget. Do you think that you managed to get it done without too many sacrifices (pun intended)?
That's partly the reason we picked the stories we did (and linked them with an original story set in Arkham Sanitarium) - it allowed us a certain degree of re-use of sets, props and wardrobe - we were always telling ourselves that 'if we can't do it properly we won't do it at all' - as an example, one of the stories we seriously considered adapting was 'The Call of Cthulhu' - we had a great take on it - very faithful with just some slight changes but the kicker was Cthulhu himself - we didn't want his first movie appearance to be marred by inadequate CGI so we reluctantly decided against it.
That doesn't mean that we won't have some great visual effects in our movie - quite the opposite - but in my opinion, it's better to do less and make it really good than try and over-stretch yourselves and end up with something mediocre - so no Cthulhu in our movie but The Haunter of the Dark is looking really good - we're also faithfully recreating a number of Lovecraftian locations including The Shunned House, The Church of the Starry Wisdom, The Crowninshield Place and Arkham Sanitarium itself (based largely on Danvers).
Where do you stand in the long debate between "less is more" and "show me the damn thing" approaches to horror?
I think there's room for a bit of both - Alien was masterfully shot and the scenes where you really can't tell what the creature is are the scariest in the whole movie - when you finally see the creature, it loses some of the fear-factor because it's a guy in a suit. John Carpenter's The Thing however, showed you everything and the creature was so outlandish, so brilliantly designed and executed that every time it appeared it was horrifying.
Whilst Lovecraft was very vague when it came to describing his creatures, his stories have captured the imagination of some incredibly talented artists over the decades - for Arkham Sanitarium we've taken inspiration from everything from Chaosium's incredible artwork for their role-playing game to the fantastic range of Lovecraftian statues made by SOTA - there's some amazing interpretations of Lovecraft's creatures out there and we see no reason that they can't be brought to hideous life on the screen.
Tell me a bit about the IndieGoGo campaign for the post-production of your film: what is its purpose and how does it work?
Your US readers are probably more familiar with Kickstarter but IndieGoGo is much the same thing - basically you promote your project on their website and they provide a means for interested parties to contribute towards it - it's not investing as such (you don't get any ownership of the project or profit-share), it's donation-based funding. Typically contributors receive 'perks' for their donation and we've got some great ones lined up for Arkham Sanitarium including signed posters, DVDs, props and the opportunity to win the journal I've used throughout the making of the film.
All the money raised will be used to finance the post-production of Arkham Sanitarium (the score, audio-post and visual effects) and we'll be keeping contributors posted with updates on the progress of the film and exclusive behind-the-scenes material - more details and an extended trailer can be found at http://www.indiegogo.com/survivor_films.
Interview by Dejan Ognjanovic.