Overlook 2017 Interview: Julien Jauniaux Talks Lovecraftian Nightmare AN ELDRITCH PLACE
The Overlook Fest is in full swing, and besides feature films, immersive experiences and panels the Timberline Lodge also welcomes a select 16 shorts from all corners of the world. Among them we find festival favorites like A Nearly Perfect Blue Sky (click here for our interview with Quarxx) and also works that are just now starting to make a splash, like Julien Jauniaux’s An Eldritch Place. The short tells the story of Abdel, who accepts a job as a night watchman and promises to keep an eye on things in Francis’ garage. When he stumbles upon his employer’s strange secret, an occult world opens and threatens to swallow him whole.
Having had its world premiere at the 2016 H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Providence, the Belgian short has so far been accepted into 14 international festivals, including The Boston Underground Film Festival, where An Eldritch Place proved a tasty treat opening for The Void.
We sat down with writer-director Julien Jauniaux and dug deep into the reaches of the beyond.
ScreenAnarchy: How did this short film come about? When did you first have the idea for An Eldritch Place, and was it difficult to get your short made?
Julien Jauniaux: It all started some three years ago, when I was still in film school. I had this friend who was studying neuropsychology and she had to do a sleep deprivation experiment. It only paid 40 bucks but she was my friend so I figured, why not? For the experiment we had to stay awake one night while she studied the effects on the brain. After three hours it got very boring [Laughs] and that’s why I began imagining various stories and I wrote them down in a few sentences. An Eldritch Place was one of them.
I set the story aside, finished film school and studied visual effects in London. When I came back to Brussels I realized I had to do something. I needed a sort of calling card as a director and I decided to further develop An Eldritch Place. I had my script and the skills to pull off a specific effects-heavy scene but hadn’t found the right people to work with yet. I wanted to start with the final scene because I didn’t want that part to look horrendous. […] Once I had found someone who could help make it a reality, that was the decisive moment. I knew I could make the short. What followed was a crowdfunding campaign, which I also managed. I had to improvise here and there and found the two main actors on the go.
The title is an obvious reference to the literary world of H. P. Lovecraft. You also allude to The Color Out of Space in your work. What makes this author so fascinating for you and why did you want to become part of the Lovecraftian mythos?
I first discovered H. P. Lovecraft through Alien. My favorite part of that film is the beginning, when they find that ship and don’t know where it came from. I loved the sense of mystery in the opening.
I started to read the short story Dagon, which would become the main influence on An Eldritch Place. I always wanted to adapt that novel into something and actually, when I was younger, I tried to make a series of comics, but I had to scrap that and never pursued that career. Anyway, after reading Dagon I became obsessed with Lovecraft and read everything of his. After that I noticed his strong influence on everything I had read from Stephen King and several other authors as well.
What I really liked about his stories is the sense of vertigo you get when reading because at some point it forces you to think about the cosmos. It’s deep and sort of terrifying but not because of monsters but because we realize how insignificant we are in the whole universe …
As opposed to greater forces that are at work and remain mysterious.
Exactly, and what I really wanted to do with An Eldritch Place, because it’s a short film and I didn’t have a big budget but also because it’s the essence of Lovecraft, was to try to show viewers the visible part of an iceberg. You only see the top part and beneath it there is a whole other world. You catch a glimpse of something greater and scarier, and that will drive you mad. That’s what I love about Lovecraft.
How difficult was it to create that ‘Eldritch Place’ or Lovecraftian dimension, particularly finding that balance between showing something without revealing too much?
I had a lot of restrictions so that helps narrow down what you can show [Laughs]. But restrictions are a very good tool for creativity. It actually helped me a lot because when I was writing the script I wanted to have a backstory for our main character. It was getting all over the place. When I narrowed it down to what I really wanted to tell, I was only left with one guy who is witness to something more … That’s actually something I noticed in a lot of Lovecraftian short stories. You always experience them through the point of view of the main character who bears witness to another guy doing something strange or crazy. […] You only catch a glimpse of someone else’s story and you have to try to understand it but it defies reason. With An Eldritch Place we only follow the main character’s POV and that’s what helped me get across that sense of loneliness […] I also wanted to tap into the notion of peeling back layer after layer. It starts of strange, in terms of lighting and setting but what was really fun for me was trying to make it weirder and weirder, without giving away too much.
In An Eldritch Place your protagonist is transported to another dimension, but we only see a beach with a giant statue of Cthulhu in the background. Similar to how The Void ends, with viewers catching just a glimpse of those imposing black pyramids.
It’s actually funny because the filmmakers of The Void also did a crowdfunding around the same time as me. I knew what I was going to shoot but I still needed the budget for those last effects-heavy shots.
Did you create the effects yourself?
I did the visual effects (green screen) but the special effects, the design and makeup of the monster, was created by Alexandre Dorlet and Jake Kokot of Proteus Workshop. They worked on the design and look for about one month. For my part, creating the look of the other dimension with green screen, I did some research and location scouting. I found a shipwreck in France and decided to check that out. In An Eldritch Place it sort of resembles the spine of an old monster piercing the surface of the ocean.
Many filmmakers have been fascinated by Lovecraft’s works. Guillermo Del Toro wanted to adapt At the Mountains of Madness while John Carpenter and Stuart Gordon offered interesting takes on the Lovecraftian mythos with films like Re-Animator, From Beyond, and In the Mouth of Madness. But overall most adaptations seem to have delivered mixed results. Why do you think it’s so difficult to do justice to his writings?
When you read Lovecraft it’s very dense, with a lot of heavy descriptions and little action. It gets you in a certain mood and his works are really more about atmosphere than they are about story. I think that’s the mistake many directors have made in the past. They wanted to adapt the story, the plot, but not the universe. And that was the strength of Lovecraft, he really created his own universe. […] His best stories are epic, suggesting a sense of scope just beyond what’s visible. Really, he’s more than just a writer; that’s why we use the word Lovecraftian so much.
Carpenter and Stuart Gordon helped define what Lovecraftian horror looks like; what an Eldritch atrocity is – that thing that you cannot recognize.
In the Mouth of Madness remains an underrated film that smartly bridges the worlds of Lovecraft and Stephen King by placing the focus on the bestselling author Sutter Cane, who tries to bring ancient beings back into our world with his stories. Was Stephen King’s From a Buick 8 also an influence on An Eldritch Place?
[Laughs] I hope King won’t be suing me. No, it’s funny but I did read From a Buick 8 one summer when I was a kid and I guess it always stayed with me. It’s also a slow-burn book with only the ending revealing certain aspects from another world. I definitely think that novel has been one of the main influences. […] The first shot in the garage, revealing the car, also consciously recalls Christine. I made An Eldritch Place for genre fans but tried to include some red herrings in the first part as well.
Speaking of Carpenter and showing your love for genre film, we have to talk about the soundtrack, which is also inspired by eighties synthwave.
Well the soundtrack is an interesting case because Sarah Boom composed it in two days, but this was before I even started crowdfunding. Her main theme really helped determine the atmosphere as well as carve the rhythm of my short film. It’s very slow with recurring rhythms and I wanted my images to reflect that. With another type of music I might have shot it in handheld fashion.
An Eldritch Place is your first short film. What are you most proud of and, looking back on the entire preproduction and shoot of the film, what would you do differently?
Well, the good thing about making a film when broke is that you have total artistic control. Now, being accepted into 14 film festivals so far I feel really vindicated. What I’m most proud of is that you can make a movie in a basement with a few lights from a hardware shop and still get to Overlook and Boston, if you are a creative filmmaker.
I’m also very grateful to my entire crew, who were all willing to work for free. Sometimes people don’t get that we crowdfund simply to have a small budget to be able to make the film and create the effects. But then there is no money remaining for cast or crew […] You have to be very transparent about that from the start. My goal for my next movie would be to be able to pay a crew.
In terms of doing things differently, if I had the money, I would have hired a production assistant and, assuming I would have a more expansive story with better characters and more backstory, I would take the time to get the actors together and work with them. Because now, as soon as we had the money for the actual shoot, we had to do it live, almost without rehearsal.
What do you hope audiences will get out of watching An Eldritch Place?
I’m hoping for two different reactions. From a filmmaker's perspective I’m hoping that someone sees An Eldritch Place and is maybe inspired to try to make his or her own, understanding that you don’t need the latest 4k cameras as long as you have a concept and story that works in a short.
For the general audience I hope to have recreated the same feeling I had when first watching Alien; to spark the imagination.
What are you currently working on? Do you have more Lovecraftian madness in store for us?
For the moment I’m writing a feature film, which is also Lovecraftian but a bit more action-oriented. I cannot tell you much because it’s still in the writing process but it’s a Lovecraftian heist thriller. And I’m also helping a friend write his own movie.
Sound like you’re keeping busy.
It’s to keep me sane [Laughs].