In recent years, I’ve gotten the biggest kick out of interviewing first-time filmmakers. The come in all shapes, sizes, ages, sexes, colors and nationalities, but they all seem to have a cautious optimism, bordering on wild enthusiasm about getting that first feature film done and in from of an audience (almost always at a film festival). Some cut their teeth for years making quality short films, others do commercials and music videos, and still others have a healthy combination of the two/three. There’s almost never an ounce of sarcasm, cynicism or sign of being jaded by treated like crap by Hollywood or financiers or micro-managing producers. The bottom line is, they got the film done, with all the glorious limitations that a small amount of money and even less time grants you.
I was recently offered the chance to do the first-ever official interview with director and co-writer Alistair Legrand, whose first effort, THE DIABOLICAL, is world premiering at this year’s SXSW Film Festival on Monday, March 16 in one of the festival’s coveted midnight slots (11:45pm, actually, at the Stateside Theatre), and I was eager to make that happen. The film, co-written with Luke Harvis, stars Ali Larter as a mother living in a house she believes is haunted by creatures that appear and disappear with a flash of light and a hint of familiarity to her and her two young children. The film is at times quite scary, but it dares to be surprising as well, as the story goes from traditional ghost story (complete with paranormal experts that set up shop in the house will all manner of sensors and cameras) to…something very much of this world…sort of—I’ll say no more.
With that, please enjoy my interview with Alistair Legrand, which I hope is the first of many as the years go on. And before of severe spoilers, primarily from Legrand. I don’t think they’ll hinder your enjoyment of the film even a little but, but they are definitely spoilers. Read on…
Capone: Hi, Alistair. How are you?
Alistair Legrand: Good. How are you?
Capone: Great. So you have me at a distinct disadvantage since you’re a first time director. I have no idea really who you are or where you come from. What can you tell me about yourself in terms of the film world, your influences, and your film education?
AL: [laughs] Well, that’s a mighty question. I have been obsessed with film from a very young age, like many directors. I went to film school in Canada. I went to Vancouver Film School, and then I moved down to Los Angeles because I couldn’t work as a Canadian. Here I worked in commercials for a long time, just as a PA and a coordinator, and I used that money to fund music videos for bands I found on Craigslist, because these days, the best learning environment I think for a filmmaker is making music videos actually. It’s not like the ’90s anymore, or even the early 2000s. The budgets are $500. You don’t get a lot, and you have to learn to do a lot with very little money, and that’s pretty much where I started to learn to become a director and going off the seat of your pants, and figuring out how to make things work even though you don’t have a lot of resources or time. I did that for a while and was writing screenplays at the same time, and finally found the right company to make my first movie.
Capone: You said you’ve been a movie fan from a young age. Can I ask how old you are?
AL: Yes, I’m 31.
Capone: In terms of horror films then, what were some of the filmmakers and works that you were kind of drawn to and inspired you to start off in that realm?
AL: Well, I wasn’t really allowed to watch horror films as a young kid. So one day—I must have been seven-years-old—my parents went shopping and left my sister and I alone, and I snuck off to the TV and turned it on, and CRITTERS 2 was playing. The movie CRITTERS 2 shocked me, and that’s where my obsession with horror began, because they jump into the suit of an Easter Bunny and eat him alive, and I’d never seen anything like that [laughs].
But then in 1992, I had a profound moment watching BATMAN RETURNS. That was the first moment where I started to realize there was someone behind this extremely creepy, uncomfortable movie. Even though it was BATMAN, it was so intense. I was only nine years old, but I came out of that pretty much a changed person, and I immediately wanted to figure out who created that. I didn’t really understand what a director did, but I was just like, “There’s got to be someone behind this.” And I started to learn more about good-old Tim Burton.
Capone: You discovered atmosphere and production design
AL: Yeah. The gothic horror quality to that movie was really a big thing. And then later on, when I was in film school in the early 2000s, the French Extremist movement was going on, and I discovered Aja. I went to the Philadelphia Film Festival, and I saw two movies in a row: HIGH TENSION, didn’t know anything about it. And then I saw SYMPATHY FOR MR VENGEANCE and I came out of that just like, “Why are we making movies like this here? This is horror.”
Say what you want about the ending of HIGH TENSION, it’s just such an incredibly well done, amazing movie, and it’s horror that looked beautiful too at the same time. That was like a pretty big moment when I was like, “Yeah, I have to make horror movies.” And then I started to discover movies like INSIDE and FRONTIER, and I was like wow this is really exciting. In France, something similar was going on to ’70s America when Tobe Hooper was making TEXAS [CHAIN SAW MASSACRE].
Capone: So you basically went from the wading pool of CRITTER 2 to the deep end in a very short amount of time.
AL: Yeah, of course before that, I was a horror fan, obsessed with Fangoria. I worked at a video store for about seven years of my life.
Capone: So with THE DIABOLICAL, where did the first ideas come your head, and what were those first ideas?
AL: The earliest ideas were wanting to make a really good abduction film that explained—well, I can’t reveal too much about this because it factors into the plot.
Capone: I’ve tailored my questions not to give away too much. That’s up to you.
AL: I was just interested in, what if the “greys" or people who are abducting human beings were just us but evolved over many, many thousands of years. I was trying to figure out a new way to tell a ghost film is the best possible explanation of why I wanted to start thinking about this idea—exploring the next dimension.
Capone: Sure. That’s one of the things I loved about the film. As someone who watches as many horror films as I can, there are a couple points where I thought, “I know where this is going,” and it went in a completely different direction. This idea that it starts out as a ghost story—and you even drop hints about who the ghost is—and then it becomes science fiction by the end. I love that there are a couple of moments like the beginning where you bring in those paranormal experts to assess the house and they’re like, “Nope. Get out. This is horrible.” When you entered the world of horror, did you at some point say, “I’m going to try to do something that I haven’t seen.”
AL: Oh yeah. My writing partner and I always tried to approach it in a way… we like to combine genres and we really just wanted to do something that we would want to see in a theater, and I know that sounds very simplistic. We want to see something really cool that we haven’t heard about before. That’s why when you read Ray Bradbury or the best science fiction authors, they’re always doing something to make you pause like, “Oh yeah, I have never heard of that.” Growing up of course we were always influenced by James Cameron and Spielberg. Cameron was always making movies about humans hurting themselves, so that was always a strong influence. We always loved the idea of an evil corporation and how things can get out of hand.
Capone: The first half or so of the film is genuinely scary at times. How did you learn or teach yourself those rhythms and establishing where the best places to put these scary moments were?
AL: I love haunted houses. I’m obsessed with scares, and how people build those and manufacture an environment where you’re walking down a hallway, and something jumps out at you, and you’re going around another corner. I just love the idea of relentless terror, where you don’t really give the audience a break. Of course, you’re getting to know the characters, but we also just have like a scare-o-meter where we want to make sure we’re keeping everyone on the edge of their seats. I have ADD, and I can’t stand being bored when I’m watching horror films. I think if you’re going to make a horror film, make a horror film. Try not only to be really terrifying, but also try to be really entertaining at the same time. The whole roller coaster analogy always works well.
Capone: Was one of your key things with your writing partner to say, “Let’s just do something different. Let’s make it surprising.”?
AL: Definitely. We wanted to keep people guessing. That’s for sure. That’s why you watch movies in the first place—wanting to see something that you haven’t really heard of before, and also at the same time, just constantly being surprised. The goal with the scares was to always make sure that they were grounded and, when you finish watching the movie, you go back, and they all make sense in a way. We’re not just doing a scare just to do a scare; it’s not just a cat flying out of nowhere. They’re all justified by the actual story itself. It was fun to mold everything into one hopefully tight little ball. Even though when you’re dealing with what our ending is, it gets difficult.
Capone: You said that at some point one of these scripts that you wrote finally got to the right people. Talk about piecing together the financing, the casting, the early-stage elements.
AL: Well, I met Ross Dinerstein, who is the producer of the film, and I had an interview with his company about a different script, and they asked me if I had anything else, and of course I did and told him the plot line of this film, and they got very interested in that. It was a whirlwind. We wrapped a year ago, two nights ago, pretty much, and before that it was the six-month process from writing the script, getting it going, casting, and doing everything. It was just so fast. As a first-time filmmaker, I couldn’t ask for a better experience because it was so quick. And the company was behind me from the get-go. The development was minimal, they were pretty hands off, and very responsive to my ideas.
It all comes from music videos, when I would do them, making things look a lot bigger than we could afford, and they were always behind that. I would always bring up simple things like let’s use anamorphic lenses, because we’re always going to be in this very confined space, and let’s make sure we go out early and find the special effects company that’s actually able to handle this and not do it for a lot of money. In the development, we said we wanted to make a movie about characters that you actually care about. It’s not just teenagers. In a lot of horror movies, as I’m sure you’ve seen, you don’t really like the people, which we always think is really strange. They were responsive to that and totally behind the story from the start. And then I met the wonderful Ali Larter.
Capone: That was my next question. How did you manage to get a script to her?
AL: My producer got it to her people, and Ali was gracious enough to have lunch with a very nervous me. She is such an intelligent human being, and she had already known the script so well that she just wanted to sit down and hear me explain it in my words, and what I thought it was actually about, and from that she agreed to do the project. She’s our superhero.
Capone: Do you remember specifically anything she responded to, either in the story or about her character?
AL: Yes. She is a new mother herself and she wanted to do a horror movie. She’s been in a lot of these films where she just has to act tough, and pretty much just be that character, and there’s no real explanation for it. And she wanted a story of her reacting to it from a mother’s standpoint. What would she actually do? She was always on my case, every scene we would go over and over, she would be like, “Would I actually do this? What would I be doing? Wouldn’t I always be taking my kids out of the house?” If you watch POLTERGEIST with Ali Larter, she will just be like, “Nope. I would never do any of this.” Her favorite part of POLTERGEIST is when they go to the motel. She’s like, “That’s what you would do.” She was great to work with.
Capone: The only time I ever got to interview her was several years ago when she was about six or seven months pregnant with her first child. And I know she had another one last year or early this year?
AL: This year.
Capone: Like in January, I believe. But I just remember thinking as I was watching this, this had to hit her like right where it counts. This is her way of dealing with this; this is not the character. If I remember correctly on the horror sites, the first poster for this film showed up around Halloween 2013. According to your timeline, it doesn’t even sound like the film had been shot yet.
AL: No. I wasn’t even story boarding yet. They had to make something for the American film market. They went and made that back-and-white spooky image that has pretty much nothing to do with the film. We filmed this February of 2014. I had a nice chunk of time to sit down with a story board artist and go through every shot and make sure., because we had a very tight shooting schedule, as a lot of these horror films are these days, and we had to make the most of it.
Capone: Would you have done anything radically different if you had more money or more time?
AL: More time is always the best thing you can buy. That’s what I learned. Of course, watching it, I would love more time with certain sequences. More days would be wonderful. I would love to use the South Korean process of having six months to film two scenes. That would be incredible. It is what it is, and we’re really proud of it. We definitely pushed everyone to the extremes, and I’m sure the special effects company wanted to murder me after a while, but they did such an incredible job. Everyone worked their tails off just to get it done.
Capone: Do you have an idea of what the film’s release schedule is going to be?
AL: We’re looking at the middle of October. The week of October 16 would be our release. That’s what it is tentatively, right now.
Capone: Is that theatrical and otherwise?
AL: Yeah, that would be theatrical and on demand.
Capone: Talk about the importance of you of world premiering at SXSW.
AL: Yeah. This is the first time the general public has seen it. I’m so curious as to what people are going to make of it. Because the only people that have seen it now are crew members and of course some buyers. I have no idea what people are going to make of it. I have shown it, of course, to my film-nerd friends, and they all love the ideas in it, but I can’t wait to just hear the feedback—good or bad—of what people are actually going to make of it. I’m sure there are going to be a load of questions about a certain subject in the film, and I just can’t wait to start having that dialogue with people.
Capone: So are you going to be in Austin long enough to see any other films while you’re there?
AL: I really hope so. I love the midnight sections of the film festivals. So I’m hoping to run around and see as much as I can. I am dying to see EX MACHINA, and that is playing, so I’m definitely going to try and get into that screening.
Capone: So moving forward, you said you had other scripts. Are the other scripts of a horror variety, or are you mixing it up going forward?
AL: We generally stick to genre stuff. We just love writing thrillers, horror. We have a few things in the pipeline. We’ve already started discussing the sequel to this film.
Capone: Of course, I can’t even ask you questions I want to ask you about that, because I can’t even imagine the direction you’re going to go in. We can’t talk about that without ruining the ending.
AL: Yeah, marketing this movie is going to be very challenging. But I really would like to do another horror film next. There’s something that I’ve been working on for about four years now that’s near and dear to my heart that’s more in the vein of THE HITCHER.
Capone: I’m all in favor of encouraging filmmakers to branch out and try different things. At the same time, we hate to lose the ones that get it right. So I hope you do continue.
AL: No way. I love scaring people. Halloween is my favorite holiday. I love horror in every shape and size. It’s my one true love and I want to keep making them for sure. Of course, I love Sam Raime, and he made A SIMPLE PLAN. I’d love to make my A SIMPLE PLAN one day.
Capone: I imagine that watching this one a second time, it would be a completely different movie. But I dig movies like that, where you can still enjoy it, just for different reasons, the second time around.
AL: It’s definitely designed for that. I you watch it again, a lot more of the mystery gets revealed.
Capone: Alistair, best of luck in Austin. Maybe I’ll run into you. What day is the premiere?
AL: The first night is the 16th, and the second night is the 17th. Monday and Tuesday.
Capone: Maybe I’ll try to make a trip over just to say hi.
AL: That would be amazing. I have been reading your articles since 1998.
Capone: Oh man, you’re making me feel old. I believe that’s the first year I started writing for Ain’t It Cool.
AL: In my high school, I would just print out as many film articles as I could from Ain’t It Cool, Dark Horizons, all those earlier sites. I’d just be in the back of the classroom highlighting as much as I could. It’s amazing to finally talk to you.
Capone: Well, 1998 isn’t that far off from when we started. Best of luck with this. If for no other reason, I’m always happy to see Ali Larder get a leading role.
AL: She’s so good.
Capone: She’s one of the unsung heroes of genre work, and I love seeing her get leading parts.
AL: Yeah, I hope she gets a lot more. Thanks, man.