Eric D. Howell talks horror with a lot of heart in his directorial debut “VOICE FROM THE STONE”Movies/TV,News Howard Gorman
Cutting his teeth as a special effects artist, stuntman and second unit director, Eric D. Howell went on to study a screenwriting degree when he realized that, in order to direct his way out of a problem, he also needed to be able to write his way out of a problem. One thing lead to another and it wasn’t long before his short film “Anna’s Playground” was shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination. And whilst it didn’t quite make it into the final few, it opened the door and earned him both respect and representation which ultimately resulting in the script for his directorial debut, VOICE FROM THE STONE, reaching his hands.
With this tale of love, loss and grief and all of the fears and horrors that go along with that all set to release this Friday, Howell spoke to FANGORIA to explain how this sui generis spin on the classic ghost tale resonated so strongly with him, urging him to bring the story to life…
FANGORIA: Why this particular tale for your directorial debut?
Eric D. Howell: I had been sent a few scripts previously but this was the first one that really resonated with me. It was from the writer Andrew Shaw and he did such a wonderful job of translating the book into this story. As often is the case, the script is quite different than the actual novel but what I think was interesting about this was the central idea of the indelible nature of a mother’s love for her child and her refusal to leave a child behind and this notion of whether or not we are dealing with a malevolent force. There was just this brooding Gothic romance hidden within there and I think it’s an attractive combination that didn’t go down the straight genre path.
FANGORIA: From a director’s perspective, how did you approach tapping into the aspects of loss, grief and isolation?
Eric D. Howell: It was very much an ensemble piece and each character had this larger than life character – the mother, Malvina – who affected each and every one of them by the loss that they each feel for her. What’s interesting is that she’s the voice that can still be heard and yet everyone else in the house has almost gone mute. So there’s this melancholy brooding mood over the entire house and nobody’s able to function until they deal with the fact that they feel this loss and understand that love can still exist even though that person no longer does.
FANGORIA: Emilia Clarke’s character is hired primarily to help the son with what is chalked up as a psychological ailment. Were mental health professionals consulted during the writing stages at all?
Eric D. Howell: We didn’t necessarily deal with professionals with regard to what Verena’s character experiences because that could literally either be something she’s really hearing or she’s feeling so much empathy for what the boy’s feeling that she begins manifesting it herself. What I did do some research on with professionals was about Jacob. This boy’s behavior of pushing Verena away is actually very legitimate. Any time there’s that kind of loss, a lot of children will do everything they can to push everyone away and test those around them to see who will actually stay and who won’t. And it’s those people who are resilient and who stay that that kid will attach to. That is what Verena represents in the film. She refuses to go away and that’s where the maternal romance unfolds. And again, that’s kind of a story I hadn’t seen before.
FANGORIA: As this is a period piece set in the ’50s, did you give much thought to making certain aspects more timely and relevant?
Eric D. Howell: This is a film that is sparing and sparse. There are no huge monologues in there. It is a period film in dialogue and in context but I feel that we made a specific choice to follow the aesthetics of a ’50s film. Contemporizing it? Yes! Of course, language is not spoken the way it was then but we definitely intended to keep you in this 1950s fairytale and didn’t really try to make it hip and contemporary in that sense. I’ve heard people describe this as a Merchant Ivory ghost story and I think that’s really appropriate for the kind of movie we were trying to make.
FANGORIA: You couldn’t have asked for a more committed cast.
Eric D. Howell: Emelia was the keystone to everything. I know we had definitely considered her early in the process but we were uncertain as to whether or not she felt too young. But when we came back after the project had gone on hiatus for a year, it was like this epiphany happened and there was no question. She was absolutely perfect and we went after her with all her heart. After that, it was the process of who was Malvina? Who was Emelia trying to replace? That was a conundrum as well but I instantly knew we had the right person when I met Caterina (Murino). What’s interesting about casting is that when you find yourself trying to convince yourself that somebody is right, that person is not right. As soon as you meet the right person, the light goes on and you know that’s it. And that’s really exactly what happened with Caterina and also with Marton (Csokas). Once you start with the first cast member or two, the rest kind of pieces itself together and then it’s about finding the people who can do the work when you’re casting a child and Edward Dring was a bit of a dream and did a spectacular job for us. And then, as it was an Italian story, we rounded it out with what I would call Italian royalty: Remo Girone as the housekeeper – a phenomenal icon in Italian cinema – and Kisa Gastoni who is just as significant in Italian cinema.
FANGORIA: The other key character is the castle which is just as stunning as it is disturbing.
Eric D. Howell: Well we had an exterior location and an interior location because the rooms in the exterior location were too small to put anamorphic lenses in and such. For the interior locations I chose somewhere that had never been filmed in and they basically said, “Hell no! Go away, we’re not allowing you into the house.” But as the movie was shut down, I went back and spent time with these people who had owned this castle for 1200 years. Essentially I had to become family with them and that’s when they let us in in the end. Had we not taken that amount of time to make the film, the locations just would not have happened. I look back in the rear view mirror and think how hard it was but everything really worked together to get us to this place.
FANGORIA: Michael Wanmacher’s score is out of this world and works so well at enhancing the different emotions portrayed in the film.
Eric D. Howell: I’ve worked on three short films with Michael and I’ve known him for years. I knew the kind of music I wanted for this film before we ever started filming and two of the pieces that you hear in the film were actually written before we ever started shooting the film. I was able to play a couple of pieces while we were filming some scenes so the people could hear what this was going to sound like. Michael knew that this was a story about a voice and so both of us knew that this needed to be a score with woodwind and a cello because the cello and the viola are so close to the human voice. We really took a classical approach with no brass. It’s a stunning score and I think it’s Michael’s best work to date.
What was phenomenal was that once we’d put it all together, I sent the film to Amy Lee of Evanescence and she absolutely loved it and called me straight back and said to me, “What are you thinking?“ She seemed rushed for some reason. I told her that we wanted the first thing the audience hears to be a woman’s voice. She hung up the phone and came back the very next day with 40 seconds of a song called “Speak to Me,” sung from the point of view of the antagonist, the dead mother, singing to her child. So there we were, five grown man standing round a computer crying when we heard this thing and we flew her out to the studio. She wrote the song with Michael, we recorded it with a piano track, brought in a full orchestra and recorded the other pieces and then we went back to the location where we shot the film and made a music video. We shot that music video because I feel like the trailer of the film showed some of the scares but the song and the video really shows the heart of the film that we made.
FANGORIA: Is there anything you’re working on right now that you’re able to share with us?
Eric D. Howell: I’ve got one script that has been picked up called THE REVOLUTION OF CASSANDRA that is being turned into a graphic novel at the moment and it’s sort of an Indiana Jones type character but it’s a female hippy with dreadlocks and Birkenstocks who goes on an adventure through the middle of a war zone. And then I also have an action/adventure/romance called KILLING ROMA which I would describe as LOST IN TRANSLATION meets LEON THE PROFESSIONAL. It’s about a meticulous and compulsive assassin who is forced together with a suicidal femme fatale in the middle of a romantic city. She forces him to promise to kill her by the end of the night but they end up falling in love and get into all sorts of mayhem and trouble and become each other’s undoing…
VOICE FROM THE STONE is out now! Check out the trailer below: