Toronto 2017 Interview: Brian O'Malley and Charlotte Vega Talk THE LODGERS
While most horror films of today struggle to out-shock one another, thankfully there are still auteurs like director, Brian O'Malley (Let Us Prey), who delight in a slower, more gracefully paced approach to eeriness. Like a rich work of gothic literature, O'Malley's The Lodgers weaves a tale of dark ancestry and a damning heritage inflicted upon two innocents, nestled in the woods outside the view of prying townsfolk eyes.
Set in rural-Ireland of the 1920s, The Lodgers coops two twin teenagers, Rachel and Edward (played by Charlotte Vega and Bill Milner) inside an awe-striking mansion, withering with decay and neglect. Gone are the caretakers and parental figures who bestowed life and education onto the enfants-terribles. All that remains is a sinister presence that haunts their legacies and imposes upon them three foreboding rules: “be in bed by midnight’s bell, never let a stranger through your door, and never leave each other all alone…”
I dare not spoil what grave repercussions occur, should these governing laws of their estate go unheeded, but I will hint that it involves a visionary hell of watery phantoms and unspeakable demons lurking beneath the surface of the twins’ precarious comfort.
I had the chance to sit down with director, Brian O'Malley and star, Charlotte Vega on the morning after The Lodger’s TIFF premiere, to shed some light on this darkly-gorgeous film.
So how was the premiere?
Brian O’Malley (BM) - It was quite nerve-racking but it was actually really good. The print looked amazing and the sound was phenomenal. Got a lovely response.
How long has it been since getting the script - the beginning of the project to completion?
BO: For me over two years. We shot the film in October - November last year and finished it in April. For Charlotte, it is how long? A year and a half?
Charlotte Vega (CV): I found out in April of last year.
BO: Over a year for Charlotte.
How did you get the script?
BO: The producers, Julianne Forde and Ruth Treacy of Tailored films of Dublin. They were at a screening for Let Us Prey at Fantasia 2015. Crowd was over-responding. Afterwards, they contacted me and said, “We have this script. Would you like to read it?” I read it. Within about 10 pages - It was actually the moment in the film when Rachel turns to Sean, “You won’t follow me all the way home limping like that will you?” He goes, “I would if you ask me to.” Oh my god. That is an amazing exchange. That was it. I kept going at this point.
Charlotte, What was your first impression of the script and the project?
CV: I got the script and read it immediately without stopping. It came off the page for me. The way it was written - it was written like a novel; so beautiful, so elegant that I felt like I was already in that little world of David Turpin. But then I was reading the character and just thought, “I have no chance, I am not right for the role.” My audition scene was Rachel reciting the poem. It was so incredibly beautiful it gave me goosebumps.
BO: We saw quite a lot of people. But Charlotte came in and got through a few different scenes and absolutely nailed it on every scene. It was kinda like, ‘that’s all really’.
Did you have an appreciation for gothic literature?
CV: It is not something that I really know much about. I am not massively into horror. I’m too scared. I’m such a scaredy cat. It was so different to anything that I ever worked on before. It was so beautiful. I didn’t think horror film was gentle or stunning to watch. It was very magical in a way and very captivating.
I can’t say that I am familiar with the ghost stories of Oscar Wilde or Shirley Jackson that you referenced in the TIFF film catalogue.
BO: Somebody referenced. I would be curious. Oscar Wilde, that I am familiar. Shirley Jackson, I’m not. I’m really fascinated to see where it comes from.
Was there any pre-existing material you did take inspiration from?
BO: I discovered the world of ghost stories through the 1961 Deborah Kerr ghost story, The Innocents. This film has parallels in many ways. It was a big influence. That, to me, was a great story. Obviously that was 50 years old. The modern references were The Others, The Orphanage. It would be really nice if our films were considered to be in that homage. Those were some modern inspirations.
A slightly odd genre in terms of the static is The Hunger, the Tony Scott movie. It was about a strange symbiotic relationships of people who have been around in a long time at a quite strange house. I took inspiration from that. I like that strange sexuality in that tone of the film. There is a lot of shooting into mirrors in that, which I did in this. It was directly inspired. The twins’ lives mirrored each other. The mirror is a conversation between the two in the mirrors.
I firmly believe in making a horror movie that you have to find inspiration outside of horror so you can make sure you make something that has a voice that stands above everyone else’s horror in some way. The inspiration beyond horror for me is The Duke of Burgundy. I really love that movie. A really special movie. But not necessarily what some horror fans would have interest in whatsoever. For me, there was something about that atmosphere of the film that I found completely mesmerizing. I love the music. I love sound design. It also got this very strange sexual story.
Speaking of films outside of the horror genre, during THE LODGERS, I found myself thinking a lot about Melville's LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES.
BO: It’s amazing you said that because the screenwriter, David Turpin, said that was the inspiration for him - Les Enfants Terribles.
The siblings living in a claustrophobic mansion…
BO: Yeah, you’re 100% correct on that one.
Can you guys talk to me about the mansion, the house?
CV: Loftus Hall is the most haunted house in Ireland. How can you rate a house? Is there a second most haunted? A third most haunted? It was an incredible house. It feels like it was made for the film. When you are in there, the staircase, everything was so stunning. Being in a house where it is actually creepy. The floorboards that actually creak. The rooms that you can’t go into. It really helps especially for the acting.
BO: It is a very tangible atmosphere in the house. It was probably the most atmospheric building that I have been in. When you step across the threshold like David Bradley does in the film, it feels like you are stepping across a threshold in time. You literally step inside a time capsule. Because the house hasn’t been painted and stripped and painted and refinished and placed, the evidence of everybody who has lived there, it is still there in many ways. Like the stairs, people run up the stairs. hundreds of people’s hands are still in that staircase. It still has that texture.
We had to dress the room. It doesn’t look like that. When you are in the room and particularly when the crew isn’t around, you kind of sit on one of the chairs. You really do get a sense that there was a child probably at some point who played in this room with their toys, who looked at the window and grew old and died. You kind of feel that tension. It was remarkable.
Charlotte, what was the creepiest moment of that shoot, if you had to pick?
CV: The bath scene. Even when we were filming with the smoke and light. Putting myself in Rachel’s shoes, I thought if that was happening to me, I would probably collapse to the ground and faint. What would you even do if that happened to you? It is crazy. The panic. I felt that it wasn’t easy to get into that but the atmosphere helps so much. It definitely, for me, was one of the creepiest.
What was one of the most exciting moments for you, Brian, behind the camera?
BO: There were so many because once you put a camera - the lens - on that house and point at something, everybody would look at the monitor and say “Oh My God, look at that.”
I can actually tell you the moment. I had been discussing deeply what I wanted the film to look like and all the references that we watched. The production designers were totally on board with what this film was going to look like, yet we hadn’t seen it because we hadn’t put a camera onto that place.. The first day of the shoot, the first scene we shot of the whole movie, Charlotte entering into the dining room for breakfast with Edward. It was the wide shot where she goes to the windows and opens the curtains. I remember when we set it up and I had the monitor and looked at it and Charlotte opens the curtains and shocks of lights came in. I said, “Oh my God, there it is. That’s the movie that I was hoping to create.” I knew from then on that the DP and production designer knew what I wanted. It was a sense of relief.
It struck me as a cold shoot. Would you say that is accurate?
CV: A little bit.
BO: The house is colder inside, a lot colder, than the outside.
CV: It looks like that house has never been warm. Everyone is always looking after you making sure you are okay. Once you are in the scene, you are in it.
BO: From my perspective, Charlotte and Bill had this amazing relationship on the set. They were like best buddies. In between takes, they were all laughing and giggling. It was sweet to observe, but as soon as the camera turned on, she literally transforms into this other person as you see on the screen. I remember saying this to her during the shoot, that when she is doing the scenes and I am watching her on the monitor, I believe 100% that she is Rachel. I don’t think she is Charlotte Vega. That for me is quite amazing.