Capone talks horror and haunted houses with THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT director Peter Cornwell!!!
Published at: March 26, 2009, 10:48 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here, continuing with some of my SXSW coverage, which included a mildly awkward situation that I honestly don't find myself in that often: interviewing the director of a movie that I didn't like that much. The film is THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT, which isn't an unmitigated failure by any means. It just isn't that scary. And if you're going to limit your blood, guts, nudity, and language with a PG-13 rating horror film, you should at least be scary. But the film has elements that I was able to find value in, and young, Australian director Peter Cornwell does a decent enough job creating and sustaining a creepy atmosphere even if a meaningful payoff is lacking. There are some visual touches--including the poster-worthy ectoplasm regurgitation sequence--that is quite nice, and the young actors in the film are better than I'm used to seeing. I'll go more into what I didn't like about the movie in my review on Friday, but the bottom line is when faced with the prospect of interviewing Cornwall, I hesitated but ultimately said yes because I wanted to pick his brain and talk horror with him.
CONNECTICUT is Cornwall's first feature (his short film WARD 13 is tremendously terrifying), but he told me after our interview wrapped up that it wasn't supposed to be. Nope, his first film was supposed to be DRAG ME TO HELL. He and eventual director Sam Raimi has about a dozen production meetings working out the script, storyboards, casting, pretty much everything that leads right into making a movie. But when Raimi saw a window in his schedule to director one smaller-budget movie before launching into SPIDER-MAN 4, he decided to direct. Cornwall said that he is still on deck to direct something for Raimi's Ghost House production company, but Lionsgate's THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT was in need of a director and he jumped at the chance to be that guy.
Above all else, Cornwall is a great guy. After out interview, we ended up in the lobby of his hotel just shooting the shit for 45 minutes about all sorts of things, including horror, 3-D, and many other geek topics. The guy knows his shit, and I believe once he's a little more free to pursue his own vision, he'll make a truly outstanding movie. It's easy for me to talk horror shop, especially with a director, so that's what we did for 20 minutes in Austin. I may not have liked the film, but I liked the guy who made it. Enjoy…
Capone: So how did a nice Australian boy like yourself get hooked up with Hollywood so early in your career?
Peter Cornwell: Yeah, I fell off the straight and narrow [laughs]. I made this short animated film; I essentially set up an animation table in the bedroom of my house and shot this thing. Then after years of hard labor, it eventually got completed and caught the interest of producers, and I got an agent. I was looking at quite a few different things, and then this project came along. One thing led to another, and I got to direct it.
Capone: Did someone bring it to you and ask if it was something you'd be interested in directing?
PC: Actually, I'd been pulled from another previous project, and I just really liked the script.
Capone: Had you heard this story about this family in Connecticut before the script dropped in your lap?
PC: I hadn't heard about it, but I saw the documentary about it. The writers had been working with Carmen [the real-life mother who had the events in the film happen to her and her family; her character is played by Virginia Madsen in the movie] for a couple of years on the script. They'd figured out how to make it structurally. I just thought it was a ripping yarn, and I saw all of these opportunities to visually creating all of these original scares. That combination of the original elements really appealed to me--the embalming room downstairs, and the history of embalming in the house, these really weird seances that happened in the '20s, the photos you see in the film of these people with this really meaty ectoplasm, the death photos.
Capone: Showing those death photos at the beginning was a great way to open the film. Those photos freak me out like nothing else. I've seen other films that have shown those before, and you forget that for a time, those posed images of dead bodies were just part of the funeral package.
PC: And we tried to make it clear that those photos were taken in the house, and they'd take the bodies and set them up in different rooms in the house. It takes time to explain these things, but I think people eventually do figure that out.
Capone: Oh, I thing people got that. The photo that freaked me out the most was of the twin brothers--one living posing with his dead brother. Why would anyone think that was a good idea? How early in the process of making this movie did you first meet Carmen?
PC: The writers had been working really closely with her. She was happy with all of the drafts of the script.
Capone: What was more important to you: having a solid narrative thread, or telling the story as accurately as possible?
PC: It has to be first and foremost a movie; we're not making a documentary. It had to be not just a haunted house film but one that covers some new ground and as different as you can to make it an interesting haunted house film. Given that, the heart of the story is exactly what happened to the family--they relocated to this house, the basement was a mortuary, and then all this stuff started happening.
Capone: Last night, Carmen was hesitant to, as she put it, "dissect the film," in terms of what really happened and what didn't. How many of the details were added by the writers and how many are fairly close to documented truth? There's some pretty outrageous stuff in this movie, and if any of it is true, I don't want to ever set foot in Connecticut again.
PC: [laughs] If you see the documentary, you can see that a lot of the scenes are very close to what's in the documentary.
Capone: Would you like to include the documentary on the DVD? Is that something you have access to?
PC: I don't know. It's something we might consider, but they definitely exist as two different ways of telling this story.
Capone: Did you ever get to meet Carmen's son, who's at the center of all of these terrible occurrences?
PC: No, we only really got Carmen's rights to these characters, which is why we changed the names of all the characters and had to change a few factual things. We left all of that to the legal department.
Capone: There is a section of the film where you leave open the possibility that the son might just be crazy, since he's the only one seeing these things. That was a smart move, I think.
PC: Yeah, the family doesn't start seeing things until much later in the story. People say, "Why don't they get out of the house sooner?" But really, Virginia doesn't see anything until pretty late in the piece. It's like Stephen King says when he talks about supernatural aura. I think in any thriller, you need to isolate the protagonist. And in supernatural thrillers, the protagonist needs to get isolated from even his closest friends, because they're seeing stuff that no on else is seeing.
Capone: For a first-time director of a horror film, you have a pretty solid cast--an Oscar nominee in Virginia Madsen and the great Elias Koteas. Plus I've liked Martin Donovan I've loved since his days with Hal Hartley…
PC: Me too. Luckily, he didn't have a hand grenade on him. [laughs].
Capone: Kyle Gallner, I've seen in a lot of TV in recent years.
PC: Yeah, he's the Flash on "Smallville" and did a season on "Veronica Mars," and he played someone's son on "CSI:NY."
Capone: I think he was Gary Sinese's sort-of stepson. And I also recognized him from the most recent season of "The Shield."
PC: Right. Because my background is in animation, I really went out of my way to learn everything I could about acting; I even took acting classes. I didn't want that to be a blind spot. Even though I'm not a great actor, you don't need to be good to see who is really good. He came in and did a killer audition. You could just see he'd be really good, so I was excited to put him in the film. And he's just such a likable guy. You really feel for his situation at the start of the film.
Capone: We were debating about his pallor; he's so damn pale. And I was making the point that you were deliberately making him a color that was between the dead boy's coloring and the living, because he was literally going between the two worlds.
PC: Well, we did pale him down, but he also stayed out of the sun before shooting and stopped exercising. But we did want to give the impression that he physically reflected the ghosts that he was seeing.
Capone: Tell me about some of your favorite haunted house films
PC: I think my favorite is the Robert Wise version of THE HAUNTING, which kind of blew my mind because you never see the ghosts. There are just these really classy sequences of the camera doing it's thing. There's that classic scene of the two women on the bed, and you know there's no one else in the house. And outside the door, you hear this "bang, bang, bang." Then the camera comes over and goes up the crack in the door to the door knob. And you're just going, "What the hell is on the other side of that door?" You're creating it in your own brain, and I think that's what's different about that movie. If you know there's a guy with a knife, that's straight suspense, but this is different, when you mind is constantly changing what you're scared of.
Capone: Well, the mind can always create something far more scary than any movie can.
PC: Right. It's like Stephen King talks about that scene, and says, if you open that door, ah, it's only a 10-foot monster. [laugh] Or a 50-foot monster. That said, Stephen King says he likes to open the door and show the monster, which is what we do as well. But I think, we're still mysterious. One things about the supernatural is that it is unknown, and we don't really understand it. If everything made complete sense and was fully understood then it wouldn't be creepy anymore.
Capone: You do find a way to capture that "mysterious noise" element that THE HAUNTING did so well. When I play that film for friends, I turn it up really loud to make the walls shake. And you have a great soundscape for the film. Were you torn between showing more or showing less? Or was showing less not even an option?
PC: I think there are different ways of doing it, but what's good about this one is that even when you see the ghost, you don't fully understand what's going on. There's still an unknown quantity. You don't know why they look the way they do, and what they're on about. One of the things that really attracted me to the story…in a lot of haunted house films, the ghosts are angry because the house was built on an Indian burial ground, whereas this one, you know something weird happened in the basement. What the hell happened down there, and what was with all of these seances? I think even if there are people that don't find the film that creepy, they would still be interested to find out what happens at the end of the film. I know people that didn't think THE RING was scary, but they still really enjoyed the film because they wanted to know what it was about that videotape.
Capone: How long did you work on getting the look of the ectoplasm the way you wanted it? You said you'd seen photos that featured that phenomenon. Did you base your design on those?
PC: It's based on that. It's based on what I first visualized when I first read the script. They described it as slimy bacon [laughs]. That's pretty much how it started. Being an animator, you visualize things in your head, so it's pretty much how I imagined it when I really put my mind down to it. I think, in the script and the real reports, they say it forms into hands and other body parts, but I liked the idea of it being so messed up that it never quite forms into any human shape.
Capone: Obviously the money shot of the stuff coming out of the kid's mouth is CGI, but did you ever concoct a physical embodiment of the ectoplasm. I seem to remember a shot where you see liquid pooling around his mouth when he's lying on the ground.
PC: We have the drool coming out, yeah. [laughs] You do see flashes of real ones in the movie, or photos of supposed real ones. Ones they claim are real. But it's ectoplasm, it's very different than the GHOSTBUSTERS version of ectoplasm. No one's ever really done it in a movie before. I think POLTERGEIST 2 did this thing where it comes out of a guy, but it's never really represented the way the photographs from the '30s show it. That's why the marketing department came up with putting it on the poster. It was one of the original things about the film, that aspect of it. And you look at it and go "What the hell is that?"
Capone: Did the actors, especially the ones in the family, make an effort to bond to make their relationships seem more authentic?
PC: Virginia was great. She was taking us to dinner all the time and hanging out with the kids. She rented a boat one weekend, and we went down the canal in Winnipeg one weekend, which is frozen over in winter but in the summer is quite warm and summery. It was really cool. She was a real social coordinator, going bowling and stuff. She is really good at that.
Capone: In a film like this, the house might be the character you have the toughest time casting. Talk about finding this house.
PC: I wanted to find something that had an interesting interior and wasn't just a box. The design of the real house in Connecticut was just a big box. But because it's a movie, we wanted a staircase, we can get some interesting angles up and down. So I think the house we found was really good. And what's interesting, so many haunted houses are these really huge houses, and that didn't make sense since this house was supposed to be cheap to rent. So the house is actually pretty small; I don't know how it comes across on film, but it seems bigger than it is. Little details like that make it all seem more credible hopefully. We just went around and looked at a whole bunch of houses, and this one just turned up. I'd already story-boarded a bunch of scenes for the film before we found the house. Part of pitching myself for this film included me story-boarding some scenes, even though we had no idea what the layout of the house was going to be. So I had to reconfigure everything based on the actual house. We only got the house about a month away from actually shooting, so we had to re-visualize all the scenes in the house.
Capone: And you still managed to find a house that looks like it has a face on it, which is a key thing.
PC: I know, exactly, which was great.
Capone: Thank you very much, it was great talking about horror films with you.
PC: Thank you, thanks a lot.