Interview: WE ARE STILL HERE Brings Dangerous '70s Horror Back
I visited the set of We Are Still Here year and was able to speak to Geoghegan and Stevens on their process, why horror is so attractive, and of course, about the film.
ScreenAnarchy: What is it about horror and thrillers that are so fun? There's a darkness to they types of films you produce.
Travis Stevens: I think you can use it as a starting point to explore ideas. With this film, it's the idea of family struggling with grief and isolating themselves. Antichrist is a good reference point where the husband thinks he's doing something good and it's the last thing the wife wants. You can use the genre to look at ideas.
Ted Geoghegan: I have no idea. Everyone who knows me knows that I'm not a dark person. I'm light, and I'm emotional. I was originally very scared of horror films. It wasn't until high school that I discovered them. I think of them as a roller coaster and it's an incredibly wild ride. You get on one, and have moments when you're so scared that you question whether through it, but of course you are, you're totally safe. It's a quick, safe thrill that gives you a little glimpse of mortality and lets you go to bed safe at night. I would never bungee jump, but I love roller coasters.
As a producer, how do you choose the projects you get involved with?
Stevens: I work a lot with friends because there's a trust there and you can get more done when you trust the other person. But really, does the project excite me? Is it an interesting idea? With Ted, when this script came up, it was a really solid haunted house movie with a twist, and we pushed that further and further. You want to finish the experience feeling like you've pushed the genre further into something interesting.
Do you feel like non-studio horror films have really exploded over the last decade?
Stevens: They've been consistent. Right now, there's a great envirionment in which to make these movies. It doesn't cost that much money to make these films, and there's a consistent market for them, so there's a return on the investment, which is good. More importantly, there's a network of filmmakers who are trying to do interesting things with cross-pollinating ideas, like with "mumblecore," which is a silly name. Genre filmmakers have flourished over the last ten years and have influenced each other.
What influenced We Are Still Here?
Geoghegan: Both H.P. Lovecraft and one of my favorite Lucio Fulci films, House By The Cemetery. The characters in my film are named after characters or actors in House. It was a stellar concept turned into a good movie. My hope is that my film is a stellar concept turned into a stellar movie.
Lovecraft based his work in both fictional and actual New England locations. You also chose to base your film there. What is it about New England that made it the perfect place to set We Are Still Here?
Geoghegan: I've always had a soft spot for New England. There's something both gorgeous and terrifying about it. I grew up in rural Montana and I feel the same way about it. There's something about the calm, and I think Lovecraft felt the same way when he wrote out here. It's such an idyllic place that you can't help but wonder if there's something dark under the surface going on --- which this film plays very heavily into. We originally were going to film in the fall, but Travis threw out the idea of shooting in the cold, windswept winter that no one ever really shoots in --- and we've discovered why --- it's ungodly cold. But it's really opened up something special in regards to films like this.
Stevens: Whenever you do a horror film, you want it to have its own texture and flavor. This is a story of a couple and their grief, and to have that physically represented with the barren trees and cold, is great thematically. It's such a creepy thing, the way the snow settles in the trees.
Did you get your dream cast right away?
Stevens: Ted had Barbara and Larry in mind from the get-go. You go through a process I like to call "going to dinner." You're going to invite this person and this person, who else should be invited to the table? It's got to be a good fit of people. You've got to get people that you can buy as those characters hanging out together. We went through a lot of agencies, and people would suggest people that so didn't fit. We had been so clear on what we wanted, and they gave us people that didn't fit at all.
Geoghegan: As a testament to who they are and how they portray themselves --- Larry, Barbara, Lisa, and Andrew work so well as real couples.
Can you tell me more about the main locations for the film, such as the house?
Stevens: We have friends in the area, and one of them reached out to his congregation. One of the members had this house that was built in 1853. The story of the house in the film was that it was supposedly built at that time. I know everytime you have a haunted house movie, they say "This place was really haunted!" But there were several times where people would be in that house, and doors would open, or you would feel something. It was just an old house that you know is something there. Even the homeowner said they had a weird experience when they first moved in. We were there for the bulk of the film because the house is a main character. The production designer put in some wood paneling to add a '70s touch to the house.
What can you reveal about the film's special effects?
Stevens: The film starts off as a couple that moves into a house, which we've seen before. But pretty quickly, there's a twist to this haunted house movie. The ghosts have a physicality thing where they're actually there doing crazy shit. In the third act, the townspeople attack and it's kind of a home invasion film. We have a lot of head gags, things exploding, and people being torn apart. For a haunted house movie, it gets really physical. I think it was important for Ted to push things further than Insidious or The Conjuring did, where they dragged people under beds and stuff.
Geoghegan: With Insidious and The Conjuring, both films feature physical ghosts that can actually interact with people. I just kept thinking, "Why aren't these ghosts killing anybody?" They jump out and scream, and that's it. These ghosts are so upset about what's happened to them, that they physically take it out on the next family in the house. The effects were all handled by Oddtopsy Effects and Marcus Koch, a very old friend of mine. I've been working with him since 2002 on a variety of films, starting with Demonium, a German film by Andreas Schnaas, which I co-wrote, up to Sweatshop, which we did together a few years ago. I think Marcus is one of the finest effects man in the industry. He came to me very early on when he discovered that the Dagmars were burn victims, which is one of his specialties. He does these wild, stylized burn make-ups and pitched his ideas to me, which were sensational; I knew he had to be a part of it. Marcus also does gore, so we kept him on to do all the other effects.
He worked with a very small, but dedicated team; shop supervisor Heather Buckley, Cat Bernier, and shop assistant Mike Brunner. A really stellar four-person team. Not only did they come up with amazing monsters, but there were moments where Travis jumped out at them and said: "Hey guys, we need to do two more additional complex deaths tomorrow," and they delivered. Marcus is great with molds but also incredible with sculpts. One of our actors is 82 years old, and the idea of putting him in a head cast... We weren't sure we wanted to do that. Marcus molded him from looking at his IMDB photo. It's unbelievably detailed. The goal is to nothing digital in the film; everything is practical effects.
What happened to the original family that made them so vengeful?
Geoghegan: The original family are the Dagmars, and they move to Islesberry in 1859. The man opens up a funeral parlor, and the town is so happy that someone is there to do this for them, that they build a home for the Dagmars. But when they start building, they dig a little too deep and end up unearthing an ancient, Lovecraftian evil that has no physical form, but this darkness. In an attempt to plug this evil, the town builds the home and lets the Dagmars move in. They go about their business, but the darkness calls out to the town and lets them know that it needs a sacrifice to be sated. The town decides to sacrifice the Dagmars by burning them alive in the basement of the house. The fury and anger of the Dagmars are such that the darkness can't contain them and spits them out. They're so upset about what's happened to them, and so intent on remaining in the home that they stay, and the town covers it up. But 30 years later, the darkness wakes up and demands a new family, and so the town puts a new family in the home to be killed. Sometimes, the town has to come in to kill these families, and sometimes it relies on the vengeful Dagmar family to kill them off.
The town looks at this as a means to an end. No one relishes the idea of doing this, but they understand that this is something that needs to happen for their town to flourish and continue on. Not one single person in the film believes that what they're doing is a bad thing. Anne and Paul move to this place to move on, Jacob and May come to help them, and even Dave (Monte Markham), the patriarch of the town, who ultimately tries to sacrifice them to this house, does so purely for Isleberry, the town he lives in and loves. Even the Dagmars, these vengeful ghosts, are the victims of a home invasion. They moved into this house and were murdered. All they want is to exist in the house in peace, yet every 30 years, a new family shows up to be sacrificed. They're so angry that new people come in that their frustration has to go somewhere, often murderously.
As a first-time director, what surprised you most on this set?
Geoghegan: I would say this even if Travis weren't sitting next to me, but it's been working with Travis. I've heard really good things about him as a producer, and I can't imagine pulling off this film without him. As a first-time director, I had really detailed ideas of what a scene would need in my head. Once we were on set, I tried to deliver that exactly as I'd envisioned it, and it took someone like Travis, who's used to being on set and delivering new, interesting takes on existing themes, to make things bigger and more exciting. It's a testament to his producing skills. Some of the most thrilling and creepy scenes in the film are complete re-structures based on what would work best. I'm not opposed to killing my darlings, but it was a matter of looking at them in a different light and discovering there was more to what was in my head.
Stevens: You just gotta go with what the essence is in a scene. If you get into a location where what's on the page doesn't match up, if you know the intent and essence, you can adjust to the reality. I say this all the time: on low-budget movies, you can't fight reality. You don't have the resources to turn this location into something it's not.
I've heard rumors that there going to be a prequel or a sequel.
Geoghegan: I never thought of it as anything other than a stand-alone film, but ever since we started shooting, everyone keeps telling me that they would love to see the story of the Dagmars moving into Islesberry. We're definitely going to have to step up our game if we do an 1850s period piece.
Stevens: Can we call it a "creep-quel?"
Geoghegan: You got it!