First Fango Set Visit: SXSW Horror “HAUNTER”
It is a conventional stance of Hollywood ingenues to rise to prominence through roles in horror movies, only to disparage their genre origins once presented with opportunities more palatable to the mainstream. This is refreshingly not the case with Abigail Breslin, teenage star of ZOMBIELAND and Oscar nominee for her precocious performance in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, whom Fango catches up with on the set of Vincenzo Natali’s HAUNTER.
As frequently quoted in previous interviews, young Breslin is indeed one of us, a fright fanatic of the card-carrying, flag-waving variety. “Everybody pretty much knows now that I’m a big, big horror movie fan,” she says. “I’m the person my friends will come to during Halloween and ask, ‘What’s a really good horror movie to watch?’ because I watch them year-round.” She proceeds to discourse knowledgeably about genre topics at large (from her love for the immediacy of found-footage films like THE LAST EXORCIST and QUARANTINE to how, in the increasingly improbable event that ZOMBIELAND 2 comes together, she’d love the opportunity to play her saucy, streetwise Little Rock as a ghoul) while taking a break from shooting HAUNTER, which marks her first lead role in a full-on horror movie. HAUNTER (making its world premiere next month at SXSW) is also the much-anticipated return of director Vincenzo Natali, after his bio-terror conjecture SPLICE slew audiences worldwide.
For Breslin, Natali’s presence was the true appeal of signing on to HAUNTER. “I loved SPLICE, so I was so excited to get to work with Vincenzo. SPLICE is more ‘creepy’ than ‘slasher,’ which is what I like. I wanted to do a horror movie, but I wanted to do one that was right for me, and HAUNTER is very cool and unique. The camera guys are always sitting there geeking out over all the cool shock moments, so I’m very pleased.”
In HAUNTER, Breslin plays Lisa Johnson, a high-schooler who died in 1986 on the eve of her 16th birthday. Now a ghost trapped in her family’s former house, Lisa must battle some very evil influences to help the new tenants avoid the same mortal fate that befell her years ago. It’s best described as a reverse ghost story in which the spirits consigned to the house are menaced by the living, and the deeper plot details are being clutched close to the vest so as to preserve the mystery of the film’s overlapping honeycombs of time and space. Scripter Brian King (who previously collaborated with Natali on the industrial-espionage thriller CYPHER), says that he first drafted HAUNTER during horror’s brief-yet-prolific torture boom of the past decade. “At the time, that’s what everybody was doing,” he recalls. “I always find that with horror movies, if you can invest yourself in a character instead of them being disposable, it becomes that much scarier.”
Natali agrees, and says it was this restrained approach to generating fear that most intrigued him when he decided to tackle King’s script. “I made a pledge at the beginning of production that there would not be one drop of blood in this movie, and this is coming from someone who’s not shy about using blood in films—I’ve made some pretty gory ones. In this case, I felt it would be inappropriate. I also felt that I didn’t want to have much in the way of digital effects—that we would use old-fashioned techniques and rely on atmosphere more than anything to create the scares. HAUNTER does fall into that old-school ghost-story category, but at the same time, I believe Brian has written something that far exceeds and goes into a different place than any of those movies have before.
“In part, that’s because the story is told from the point of view of a ghost, as opposed to a living person,” Natali continues, “and one who’s aware she’s a ghost right from the beginning of the film, unlike in THE OTHERS or THE SIXTH SENSE. In a way, where those movies end, ours begins. Then it goes further, because it’s about the interaction between the various strata of reality that exist within the house, and it takes on a very labyrinthine dimension.”
Natali promises that HAUNTER will be a contemplative experience that goes beyond simple spooks and shrieks. “I was drawn to the notion that everything appears normal in this household, with this family living in a nice home in the mid-’80s, but there’s something deeply wrong, and only the daughter [Olivia, played by Eleanor Zichy] is aware of this. It’s that sense of something boiling underneath the surface that we aren’t generally aware of, or are maybe in denial of, that is very intriguing to me. And HAUNTER goes into that; we discover that within this house, there are layers of reality. It is a haunted-house tale, but with much, much more going on. One of the most influential and inspiring movies for me in directing HAUNTER was Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA, because it’s about two women who sort of fuse into one, and without giving too much away, similar things occur in HAUNTER. There’s a metaphysical element going on that pushes it a little further than the average ghost film.”
HAUNTER’s action is mostly confined to the interior of the Johnson house, although the setting shifts in time through a variety of historical eras. As the crew bustle along, busily redressing the house set for a new scene, there is an air of urgency and purpose not often found on most Hollywood hurry-up-and-wait film productions. Later, after the film has wrapped, Natali explains that accommodating various schedules meant HAUNTER was shot at a sprint. “Usually it’s a long journey for me to make a movie, but this one kind of fell into my lap,” he says. “It came together in a matter of a few months, and then we shot it in 25 days. I feel like I just jumped off a steam train. Thank God it went smoothly, because there wasn’t any margin for error.”
The unfailingly polite Natali adds that the time challenge proved stimulating, and improved the film in many instances. “There are advantages to shooting quickly; it keeps a certain energy going on set. That’s good for the actors, and to some degree it’s good for me, but it’s tough. I haven’t had that short a shooting schedule since I did my first film [the cult favorite CUBE].”
Breslin (who followed up HAUNTER with a terrorized role in next month’s Halle Berry-starrer THE CALL for another genre specialist, Brad Anderson) has also enjoyed the hectic pace. “It’s been crazy; we’ve been doing intense stuff all day long,” she says. “Yesterday it was a tunnel submerged in water, today we’re lying around in cat litter [serving as a substitute for furnace soot]. Every day is fun like that. And it is definitely creepy to be in a tunnel where the only light is coming from my flashlight underwater. It kind of awakens the horror fan in me [laughs]. It’s going to look very cool.” She was somewhat less enthused when it came time to shoot a fire stunt and confront a private phobia. “I hate fire; I have a huge fear of it. We had to do some stuff with flames, and nobody really knew that I had that problem. They just saw me standing there, shaking.”
A professional since age 3, Breslin powered through the scene, validating earlier praise from the HAUNTER crew. “We definitely had Abigail in mind,” producer Steve Hoban (of SPLICE and the GINGER SNAPS trilogy) says, “because when it comes to 16-year-old girls with any kind of marquee value who are excellent actors, there are two or three in the world. It would have been impossible not to think of Abigail immediately. And she had read HAUNTER without us even offering it to her, although we were going to. She loved the script and loved the role. It was very easy.”
Natali is similarly effusive about his lead. “Abigail was amazing, and perfect for the part. She’s a very bright young lady, and brought a lot of herself to her character. Lisa comes off as being smart, but vulnerable and emotional—all the things you’d want for a teenage ghost hero [laughs]!”
As the setup for the upcoming shot is close to ready, it’s interesting to note another unusual feature of the HAUNTER set. In an industry where the screenwriter is an eminently expendable figure, King is nearby for consultation and to write revisions. “I’ve always had a hand in writing my other films,” Natali explains, “and the only ones I haven’t written, or been involved in the writing of, are the ones I’ve done with Brian. It’s amazing to have him here, and great to have that resource. We will change things on the fly, which is very often necessary due to the limitations and realities of making a film, but sometimes we’ll also be inspired be something we see on set, and take advantage of that. For instance, Stephen McHattie, who plays The Pale Man and is the villain of the piece, is just so good that we realized almost instantly that we wanted to give him more to say, so Brian extended an existing scene with him late in the movie.”
Sure enough, the next scene features McHattie’s Pale Man, standing in the wood-paneled front hall of the Johnson house in filthy coveralls and rubber boots. He’s got a hideous grin spread across his craggy face, and he hums a whispery lullaby in his diesel-engine-groan of a voice, sending a wave of shudders through cast, crew and, yes, this FANGORIA correspondent. King comments that he and Natali toyed with the idea of a prosthetic facial appliance to intensify the Pale Man’s weirdness, but once McHattie, best known for his tour de force in Bruce McDonald’s PONTYPOOL, stepped into the part, King says those plans were dropped immediately.
Natali calls ‘Cut,’ and as Breslin and McHattie head off for a break while a new scene is prepared, the director says he’s aware he’s in the enviable position of working on something fresh, a film that can offer audiences surprises as well as chills. “It’s hard to get something new made, whatever that is,” he acknowledges. “There are a variety of factors conspiring against originality. One of them is economics, because movies have become so expensive that no one wants to take risks—hence the proliferation of remakes and known properties. Something like HAUNTER is really special, because it is new. I mean, it’s not reinventing the wheel—it’s not an experimental film—but Brian’s script cuts new inroads into the genre, and mutates it in an interesting way. And here we have a rare exception where a film like that came together easily. Usually it’s very difficult to convince people to invest in something they haven’t seen before.”