If you’re not already familiar with the film, it’s a family-friendly chiller starring teen heartthrob Chris Massoglia (The Vampire’s Assistant) which tells the story of two brothers who discover a bottomless hole in the basement of their new home.
As the brothers explore the depths of the mysterious hole, they soon discover that their deepest fears and darkest nightmares are coming to life. Explore new depths of horror!
Is it true you used to be a film critic and what’s it like being on the other side of it?
I reviewed movies from 1969 to 1973. I actually had a magazine print a lot of the reviews I’d done and I had to write a preface saying, if I knew then what I knew now I would never have been as glib!
And you dabbled with art… do you think this background informed your films somewhat?
I think so, because I wanted to be a cartoonist and I lived and breathed cartoons. In fact, I used to go to the Saturday matinee and I’d watch the cartoons then leave when the feature came on. And there’s a cartoonish sensibility to a lot of the movies I’ve done because of the anarchy of Warner Brothers cartoons – that definitely made its way in to my work. And then there was Mad Magazine, which was a very influential satirical magazine when I was a kid. All those things are in there.
How has your life changed since Gremlins?
Before Gremlins I was a B picture director and then I made Gremlins which was a B picture on an A budget and suddenly I was an A picture director. But whether or not I was really suited to be an A picture director is open to question. But I played a lot in the big leagues, met a lot of interesting people and that was all fun. The fuel of that movie kept me going for a number of years and somehow I’ve managed to stay in the business, whereas a number of my contemporaries have not.
What attracted you to this script?
This was not unlike a number of other scripts I get sent. Horror movies with kids in them – I get a lot of those. Often they’re not very god because they’re predictable. But this one I found pleasantly unpredictable and I didn’t know where it was going. I didn’t know what was in the hole and I found that the answer was surprisingly poignant. And I liked the characters. I thought the kids were very well written, they didn’t sound like Disney Channel kids – they sounded the way real kids talk. And it seemed like a movie that would be up my alley.
The downside is that it seemed like things I’d done before and I was running the risk of repeating myself. But because the situation was different and the cast was different, even though there were similarities, I thought I could make this into something that was unique from the other stuff I’d done.
What qualities did you find in Chris (Massoglia) when you were looking for Dane?
It’s interesting when you try to cast kids in that age range- an eleven year old and a guy and girl of seventeen – the kids who are available come in clumps. And in any given season there may be a bunch of good kids, or there may be a bunch of Disney Channel rejects.
Kids who have been taught to be cute, kids who are phoney…and you just don’t want to go there because you’ll never make it work. In this particular case there were a number of kids who were promising. But oddly enough Chris had the least experience. But he seemed to be more natural and more real. He certainly wasn’t polished and showy in any way. I find it takes the pressure off if we let them audition together. So in this case we did boys and girls together.
We did the Haley Bennett part and she read with a couple of kids and then read with Chris. And there was definitely something there – there was a spark going on. And they were definitely better together than when they read with other people. It seemed clear this kid was everything we were looking for. The problem with this kind of movie is that you’re also casting a mother and a brother and they have to look like they belong in the same family. So there may be a mother you want, but she’d never be the mother of these two kids and the same for the brother. So it’s an ensemble – you don’t always necessarily take the best kid – you take the best kid for the ensemble.
As it turned out, we sort of keyed everything off Chris, although we knew we wanted Nathan as I’d seen him in another picture and he’s just such a pro. But we didn’t know if he’d be available because he had a pilot to do, so we had to get a back-up. Some of the back-ups looked a little more like Chris but none were as good as Nathan and luckily we got Nathan – half of the movie is him. Haley had done a couple of other pictures, there was something slightly exotic about her and yet she could still be the girl next door. Plus, she was really smart. The idea in these movies is the girl is always ahead of the boys and she was ahead of the boys. So it really worked out very well in terms of the chemistry. It was fun going to set every day.
Chris really seems to ‘get’ the movie?
He was very good in it. I don’t know how much he drew on it, but he bought things that weren’t necessarily there. That was great. Plus we shot it all out of sequence. And we shot it in Vancouver in the coldest winter they’d had in ten years and it was supposed to be summer.
There’s a scene in the movie where they’re walking down the street and we had to take the breath out! Every time they opened their mouths this breath would come out – it either looked like they were smoking cigars or it was freezing! So we spent a lot of money taking out breath visually, and yet we had to spend twice as much because it’s a 3D movie and if you do it one eye you have to do it on the other eye. So I turned to the producer and said – this is the last exterior we can shoot here, we have to do the rest in California. We hadn’t done the pool scene and I said they’d crack their heads jumping in to the ice – it was so cold.
What qualities do you have that make you a good director?
I’m patient – which I think you have to be to be a good director, because so many things can go wrong that you didn’t expect. And there’s so many things people ask you to do every five seconds, so many decisions, that you have to be able to make them, you can’t dither. You have to just know what you’re doing. It becomes instinctual, that just comes from doing it a lot. I don’t know when I was starting out if I had that talent. I remember on my first movie Hollywood Boulevard, I had one more day to shoot and there were no over-the-shoulder shots – I had done all my shots as close-ups or group shots – nothing when I was over the other person. And the only time I did it was when Robby the Robot was in the shot and he was so big there was no other way of doing it. So looking at the movie, at the last shot of the picture, I saw my over the shoulder shot! I knew then I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Do you find that working a lot of child actors you became a bit of a dad on set?
That’s exactly how you feel. When I did Explorers there were three of them, away from home because we were in northern California and I could hear everything they said on the headsets – they forget when they’re wearing microphones that everything they say can be heard by the sound man and the director. I would hear them talking about sex, about life, about schools, or whatever, and it was so fascinating that they sounded exactly the same as did when I was in school.
That was 1985 and here I am and it’s the same thing. All of the vernacular is different but the attitudes are the same, the fears and the questions are the same. It’s like having your own kids for the time you are shooting the movie and you start to feel a responsibility.
Working in Hollywood have you had to face any personal fears?
Only of not working!
Was it a stipulation of getting the finance that you’d have to shoot in 3D or was that your choice?
No, I asked them if we could and there was some research done about how many other pictures were coming out in 3D and how many other theatres would be equipped to play them and they said OK and actually gave me a little bit more money to be able to do it.
I thought 3D would actually enhance this story. Because I didn’t just want to do it for the sake of it, because it is a little bit more harder doing a 3D movie. The only thing we didn’t count on was the glut of fake 3D movies that started to come out, which ate up all the theatres we thought we would get. So here we were with this award-winning 3D movie – it one best 3D at Venice – and we couldn’t get it booked because there were these fake 3D movies that were blurry and dark and people hated and yet people were still paying to see them. And they were keeping my picture off the screen.
So I don’t know if the producers were thrilled that I talked them into doing 3D but that was the hold up. Studios that release these fake 3D movies are letting the public down. And it’s insulting to the audience and sooner or later the audience know- it’s suicidal, they’re killing the golden goose and this is the first iteration of 3D that worked and didn’t give people headaches. It is easily projectable and hard to screw up and they nonetheless could force it to go down the drain.
Are there any particular challenges for you the director shooting in 3D?
There are two camera but they are actually quite small because they are video. You have to over light the set which makes it seem odd and look like a sitcom. But you have a 3D monitor on set so you can check the shot and fiddle with the depth and get an idea that you may want to do it differently to get that effect. I think it may be added two or three days to the shoot and that’s just the amount of time it took to talk about it and adjust it. But it doesn’t take longer to shoot.
Were there any scenes that were particularly hard to shoot?
That clown sequence! Here I am years later after Gremlins and I’m standing on a freezing sound stage in Vancouver and working with this damn puppet and thinking why am I doing this to myself! Because it’s tedious and complicated and involves lots of people with rods and green sceen and composites. And here I am doing it again!
What are you most proud of?
Considering what it could have been like, the scene takes place down at the bottom of the hole is better than it had any right to be.
Was the tone of the film always on the page?
I didn’t want it to be gory and horrible. The idea was that it was an adult story but we had to tell it in a way that was suitable for kids and yet parents would get and understand the deepness of the drama, without necessarily letting the kids know how dark it is. So that was a bit of a tightrope walk but that was one of the things that made it interesting. And frankly it’s one of the things that gives the movie any power. Because if they just open up a hole and monsters come out – we’ve seen that. And there have been numerous pictures – many of which have titles similar to the hole.
That was an initial concern of mine. I never liked the title but couldn’t come up with a better one! There was a movie called The Gate, in which kids do exactly the same thing but little monsters come out. And I didn’t want it to look like we were stealing from somebody else. I wanted it to look like something unique. I like to think we did justice to the script. Obviously if we’d had a little more time and a little more money it could have worked out a bit better. But considering what it is – I’m happy.
It’s very clever that Dane’s fear of his father manifests itself in this almost comic book character baddie rather than fears of a dad that beats up on his kid…
That would never have worked. You would lose the fantasy element which I think is so important in a film like this because this is the way this kid imagines his father, he imagines him as this big brute. And remember, he was a lot younger so that’s another reason he would be a big brute. But the trick of shooting that character without revealing what he really looked like and then being able to replace him at the end with a normal size actor, was pretty tricky and it involved a lot of fooling round in post production.
Because the guy who played the father has one of those Richard Keel deep voices that –people see on science fiction shows where they lower their tone. He was a good actor but we had to loop him with someone else and then we wanted to make sure we couldn’t see his mouth moving so there were a lot of moving blacks around in post, which you can do in digital. That’s one of the good things about digital is that you can mess with the picture – you can blow it up, you can slow it down. If there’s a mic or script stand in shot you can get rid of it by taking a piece of wall and putting over here. You couldn’t do that when I first started and I just kept thinking about all the movies where I would have loved to go back and fix all the mistakes as it’s so easy to do now.
Are you a fan of Blu-ray and DVD?
I have to be because I used to be a huge 16mm collector and what people now do with their home video libraries, I used to do with my 16mm library. 16mm is very clumsy – each film comes in two or three films and you’ve got to thread it and project it and focus it… it’s very labour intensive. Now you can have the entire film on this little disc and you put it in and you can run it on this huge scene with great sound. Plus, there’s extras galore – extra scenes, and it’s almost as if directors can’t complain anymore when people cut their movie. As long as it’s in the contract that their version will be put on the DVD. Fine, you get the best of both worlds.
So I have this huge DVD collection and I have this website called trailers from hell where we run trailers from old movies with commentaries from contemporary directors including me. And I have a trailer collection and so now I have a huge DVD collection. The problem is, in ten years you’re not going to have DVDs it’s going to streaming video. So what’s going to happen to these discs and whether you’re going to be able to play them, I don’t know.
What about Blu-ray?
Blu-ray is great, it looks terrific, but is it going to be enough to salvage the DVD business I’m not sure.
Did you consciously think about the DVD extras while you were shooting?
We had so much trouble getting it distributed we hadn’t really thought much about the DVD. And then the other question is will the DVD be in 3D and what kind of 3D players will there be because we don’t want to do those dreadful blue and red glasses, comic book 3D because it’s just awful. It works a bit better on black and white but it’s awful on colour.
But Cameron is working on his 3D Avatar blu-ray. I’m sure the technology will be there but will it beat the end of Blu-ray? Or will the technology be ready just in time to stream it and what will you need on your TV? What kind of box will you need to convert it to 3D. TVs are 3D ready now, if you buy a new one, but how long will it take for the Blu-ray to come out and what technology will be ready at the time?
What reaction did you get watching it with an audience?
I have seen it with an audience at the AFI, Venice Film Festival and Toronto film festival it plays pretty good and they pretty much jump in all the right places.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got some projects of my own I’m trying to get finance for. This is a terrible time to be breaking in because there’s no structure – half of the companies that used to distribute indie films are dead.
The American indie scene is a disaster – the list of undistributed indie films is immense and there’s no one to distribute them because the big companies saw the pictures were making money, so they bought the smaller companies but the films didn’t make enough for them and so they killed the companies.
There’s Focus and Summit but not very many left. And how many can they put out each year – not many – and what sort of theatres do they play in. A picture I saw here last time, a British film – Centurion – which I thought would get a major release, was playing little arthouses. I thought it was a good, commercial movie. It’s a very strange time and I don’t know what the future holds. I think in five years you’re not going to recognise the way films are distributed.
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