Q&A: “6 SOULS” screenwriter Michael Cooney
In his numerous genre screenplays, Michael Cooney has demonstrated a penchant for dealing with issues of disturbed minds. Like his 2003 hit IDENTITY, his latest feature 6 SOULS takes a frightening look at what happens when multiple psyches inhabit the same mind—this time with a supernatural backstory. Fango spoke to Cooney about scripting scary split personalities…and his past directing a killer snowman.
6 SOULS (opening in select theaters this Friday, April 5 from Radius-TWC) stars Julianne Moore (see interview here) as Dr. Cara Harding, a disbeliever in disassociative identity disorder who has to alter her thinking when she takes the case of a man (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) named David…and Adam…and maybe more. As she investigates the case, she discovers that his problem may have less to do with psychology than with the occult—in particular, a backwoods culture with an ominous influence. Originally filmed as SHELTER, 6 SOULS is part of a Cooney résumé that also includes the 2004 Ryan Phillippe/Sarah Polley-starrer THE I INSIDE, the 1997 TV movie MURDER IN MIND…and, in a change of pace, his two features as a director, the campy direct-to-video JACK FROST flicks.
FANGORIA: After IDENTITY and now 6 SOULS, it seems you have a great interest in stories about multiple personalities. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MICHAEL COONEY (pictured right): Absolutely. In fact, MURDER IN MIND is another one, and those three sort of form a trilogy of looking at multiple personalities from different points of view. It’s something that has always interested me for subtle reasons. When I’m writing, at the end of the day—I’ll have been writing for a few hours—I’ll look down and see my own handwritten message that might say, “Pick up milk, the dry cleaning, do this or that,” and I’ve obviously been on the phone with someone, and I have no recollection of that phone call—I’ve been so focused on one thing. It’s just fascinating to me that that can happen.
6 SOULS has one interpretation of disassociative identity disorder in that nobody calls the lead character, played by Julianne Moore, by the same name. It’s not something you notice, it’s not brought out and made clear, but if you watch it again, you’ll notice she’s “Mom” to some people, “Caroline” to others, “Cara” to some, “Dr. Harding” to others. She has different names to different people. And in life, people have different roles depending on the situations they’re in; I’m a different person on the phone with you now than I am when I’m playing with my kids at home. And that interests me; even though people think of disassociative identity as this awful disorder, in fact, people do carry part of it with them in everyday life.
FANG: How did you come up with the concept of combining that with the supernatural in 6 SOULS?
COONEY: That came directly from my research for IDENTITY. What will happen whenever I’m writing a thriller is that I’ll know what my ending wants to be, so I’ll do my research, and when that no longer leads me to where I want to end up in the story, I’ll stop reading those materials. For IDENTITY, I started reading about the history of multiple personalities, and it wasn’t too long ago that this was thought of as possession, and would be dealt with via an exorcism. I thought that was just fantastic—that not too long ago, someone with this terrible psychiatric disorder would have been treated that way—and then I thought, “What if, in fact, that wasn’t too far from the truth? What if we shouldn’t have gotten away from that much spookier interpretation of what’s going on?”
FANG: When you were coming up with that side of the story, did you do additional research into the culture of the hill people, and the myths and legends attached to that?
COONEY: Absolutely, and the script itself evolved. IDENTITY was one that just went into the hopper; it was bought in November and made in April—just super-fast. Whereas this one went through quite a bit of development. It actually started off set in Salem and dealt with the witches’ history, and to be honest, it needed to find its soul. Because IDENTITY was a success, this script—it was called SHELTER then—sold very quickly because of the heat on IDENTITY. And then we looked at the thing and thought, “Well, it doesn’t quite have its soul yet.” That’s when we started thinking that maybe Salem was too much of a cliché.
So I went back to the drawing board, looking at, “What could that history be?” I started to read about the wonderful legends of the local Indian tribes, and the culture and mythology of Scotland, because that’s where the Scottish settlers ended up. And the wonderful amalgam of these two histories and mythologies gave us this mountain culture that I felt had a lovely blend of organized religion and something more earthy and soulful, which is represented in Frances Conroy’s character, Mrs. Bernburg.
FANG: How much did the filmmakers and cast contribute to developing those themes? Did you work with them during production?
COONEY: Oh, absolutely. The script is 99 percent mine, but what’s on film is 99 percent those actors. What you write and then what an actor brings into it, even though the dialogue is exactly the same… These performances are just fabulous. When you write these things, you don’t think, “Oh God, that’s gonna be difficult. I wonder how they’re going to do that.” When I wrote IDENTITY, it didn’t occur to me that these poor actors would have to be soaked by rain for six weeks; then you turn up on the set, and see the glares that you get from the cast…
So I wrote 6 SOULS, and then Jonathan came along, and he is so dedicated and wonderful, and took on the part as if it were his own movie. The two main roles he plays, David and Adam—he did the research, got the dialect coaches and created those characters. What I love about those performances is that it would have been very easy to make them big, theatrical performances, and they’re not. It’s the subtle things he does between them, the sort of things that you’ll only see if you know about them. He has a tension in his neck; his shoulders are slightly tense in one and not in the other. It’s one of those performances where if you sliced it to the center, you’d see that he’s got it right all the way through.
FANG: What were directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein like?
COONEY: Fabulous. They are lovely, wonderful people. It was strange watching them direct, because their process is different. Sometimes when you see when other [pairs] direct, there is this absolute, moment-to-moment collaboration that happens. But these guys have been friends since they were 8 years old, I believe, making movies together for all these years, and they actually swap off day for day! One will sit there chilling out, drinking a cappuccino, and the other takes over all the responsibilities. And yet they know each other so well that from day to day, it looks like one mind has done it. They’re from Norway, and they had this wonderful tradition that at the beginning of every day of shooting, they’d gather the entire cast and crew and tell a story about a moose. It created this wonderful family very quickly. They are very clever directors.
FANG: The scripts that you’ve written and others have directed have tended to be very psychologically dense character pieces. Then, when you turned director, you went entirely in the opposite direction. Can you talk a bit about the JACK FROST films?
COONEY: Absolutely. JACK FROST was the most fun I have ever had. It started off as a big-budget production; there was a good Hollywood director attached to it, and it was right when TERMINATOR 2 had come out, so there were going to be all these special effects of a serial killer made of snow and ice and water. That then fell apart, and a year or so later, someone said, “Can you make it for half a million dollars?” We said, “Oh yeah, sure, we can do that! No problem.” No one else would direct that, so I said, “Oh, I’ll do it!” And as we started to go into production, we said, “Look, for half a million dollars, we’re not going to be able to make this a serious, dramatic, scary piece.” We looked at the snowman we had created and felt, “We have to be faithful to what that snowman is. That snowman isn’t scary. If it’s killing people, that’s going to be terrible for the characters, but it ain’t frightening.” So we had to take that on board.
I think the original JACK FROST has this lovely, confident tone in what it is. It knows it’s not trying to be serious, and everybody involved knew they were making the same movie. The one character I think is well-formed is the lead, the sheriff, beautifully performed by Chris Allport, whom I surrounded with a bunch of loonies. That was the idea—that you had one central character who was trying to be sane, with all these oddballs around him. It was so much fun to do.
FANG: Do you think you’ll direct again anytime soon?
COONEY: Well, when I look at what James Mangold did with IDENTITY and what Måns Marlind and Björn Stein did with 6 SOULS, I don’t think anyone should let me anywhere near a camera again. Unless they want to make JACK FROST 3; then I’m the perfect guy for the job. Once you have seen what a good director can do, once you see how they elevate your piece and make it so much more, you hand it over and trust them. I’ve been very fortunate with James and Måns and Björn that they created such beautiful pieces. So, no. I’m not gonna say no if someone says, “Here, do it,” but I do not actively seek it out.
FANG: Do you have anything else coming up scriptwise?
COONEY: Yeah! I’m always working. I got slightly off track trying to get into television, but I’ve got my head screwed back on, and I’m writing a great, dark thriller with a nice twist at the end that hopefully no one will see coming. What is really exciting for me is my 8-year-old daughter came up with the title; it’s called IN THE DARK. That’s my daughter’s title, and she wants 10 percent of it—we’re still in discussions. But it’s a good, dark, spooky piece, and I’m loving writing it.