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Q&A: Actors William Mapother and Rya Kihlstedt Face Off in “THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE”

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When you decide your directorial debut is going to be in a horror subgenre as crowded as demonic possession, you’d better have a fresh take and the right cast to pull it off. BURIED scripter Chris Sparling may have achieved both with THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE.

Out this week on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD from Anchor Bay Entertainment, THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE is shot, edited and performed like a documentary, whose central conceit—the first government-verified possession case—is as bold as the filmmaking is thoughtful and restrained. The goal is to have us believe, were we to stumble upon the film with no prior knowledge, that we’re truly witnessing the mysteries of the eponymous parapsychology lab from the 1970s. At the center of the story is lead researcher Dr. Henry West, played by William Mapother (LOST, THE GRUDGE) and their most significant and terrifying subject, Judith Winstead, played by DEXTER’s Rya Kihlstedt. In an effort to prove the existence of psychic abilities, Dr. West instead uncovers evidence of demonic infiltration—and when the U.S. government is brought in to verify their findings, the push to weaponize Judith’s powers leads to frightening developments. FANGORIA got to chat with both leads about this unique take on a classic subject.

FANGORIA: What drew you both to this particular project?

WILLIAM MAPOTHER: I loved both the concept of creating a mock documentary from supposedly found footage and the setting of a parapsychology lab in the early ’70s. And of course, the execution; Chris Sparling did a terrific job with the script.

RYA KIHLSTEDT: I read the screenplay and thought there was something really fascinating there, especially with so much mixed media, including stills, Hi-8 and smaller cameras. There have been a million possession movies, but not told from this point of view or in this way.

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FANG: Did the pseudodocumentary style affect the preparation or performance of your roles?

MAPOTHER: Not entirely. If you’re playing the scene honestly, it doesn’t matter if someone’s watching or not. There are a couple of aspects that were different. At times, one of the cameras was a security cam up in the upper corner where the wall meets the ceiling, and sometimes when there’s a camera further away, small moments and expressions don’t register. You have to adjust your performance to the distance of the camera, just as you pull your performance back for a close-up. The other effect was that if the camera was operated by a documentary crew [within the film], the performance might change because the character would be aware that someone from the outside was witnessing what was occurring in the lab.

KIHLSTEDT: I don’t think it affected the process, but what it did affect was that we had to do a huge number of takes, since we’d have to go back and redo the scenes for the still cameras. At one point, Chris told me the number of photos [that were taken], and it was in the tens of thousands.

FANG: Both of your characters are only revealed through other people’s stories and archival footage; neither of them get to tell their stories first-hand. Did you find opportunities and/or challenges that came with that type of storytelling?

KIHLSTEDT: In some ways, the movie does circle around Judith, but it’s really driven by everybody else’s point of view of her. When you start to break down a script, you take into account what everybody else says about your character, and that’s a big part of what you build into it.

In the film, you get tastes of these people but nothing complete about any of them, and I found that so interesting. Knowing less can be such a powerful thing. There’s meaning in what you choose to share.

MAPOTHER: Some [actors] believe it’s best not to worry about what other characters say about theirs, and they’re going to play it the way they want. Another approach is to make their opinions your concern in order to create a more cohesive film.

Between those two, I kind of struck a middle ground. If the others’ observations were right on, and if my character made them too obvious, then in a way, their observations might not even be necessary. And if there is no basis for their observations, then they would appear unreliable. But if there’s a partial basis, then you get a bit of a tension between the audience noticing things that seem to be accurate and things that don’t. It pulls the audience into an imaginary participation, and they’re evaluating what those other people are saying instead of just swallowing or rejecting them wholly.

FANG: Rya, how did you tackle playing a woman who is possessed? Did you find inspiration in other similar movies, and how were you able to make Judith your own?

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KIHLSTEDT: I watched some of THE DEVIL INSIDE, but then didn’t watch any more. I realized that trusting my instincts and trusting Chris—who had seen most of the possession films—would be more helpful. I didn’t want to feel any limitations of copying or trying not to copy what had been done before.

Having come from years of dance, what I wanted to bring to it was the physicality of [the role]; I respond to things on a physical level. If something were to live in your body, where would it live, and how would that feel? [In the movie], they talk about a back injury that happened to Judith that debilitated her, and also opened her up and allowed this [possession] to happen. I felt this needed to start in the shoulder, neck and spine and then work up.

As Chris and I went through the script, we talked about it in degrees. We would assign degrees of possession, if you will, to know how much or how little control she had, so that I understood when she was not herself because she was being controlled by something else.

There were a couple of hard days of being in restraints and being in that glass booth all day. I would get bruised up [in the restraints] and imagining a shoulder and back injury, my right shoulder and back were up, and my left were down, and I was so lopsided. I had some serious chiropractic work afterward [laughs].

FANG: Had you two worked together before, and what was your experience collaborating on ATTICUS INSTITUTE?

MAPOTHER: We had never met, and from our first rehearsal, we got on very well. We have a similar process and became good friends outside the production, and have remained very good friends since. Rya is very dedicated, and off set is goofy and warm and nothing like her character, so we had a terrific time.

KIHLSTEDT: William could not have been more open, and we asked for rehearsal time from the beginning. We both work kind of slowly, circling and talking and feeling, and we got to explore and play. He’s the real deal; he knows what he’s doing, and it was a blast.

FANG: What was the atmosphere like on set?

MAPOTHER: I would say it was pretty serious for a couple of reasons. One, because of the tone of the film, and two, because we were on a very tight schedule. While it wasn’t tense, everyone was very focused. We had busy days, and every step you take away from the tone of the scene when you’re not shooting is another step you have to take back when you start up again.

FANG: How was it working with Sparling? How did he fare as a first-time director?

KIHLSTEDT: He did an amazing job with a complicated project. He was open to hearing our input, but very clear about what he needed and what his vision was.

MAPOTHER: I really liked working with Chris. He had planned it all out, not only because of his personality, but because he was working with such small bits of material, so he had to preplan everything. He had to figure out what each camera angle was going to convey, since he wasn’t going to have a lot of options to cut to something else. He was willing to consider [other options] that wouldn’t violate the puzzle he had created, but because he was the only one who had the whole puzzle in his head, it wasn’t clear what was going to violate it and what wasn’t.

At a certain point, we just turned ourselves over to him. When we were able to play things differently, he was more than happy to try those approaches. I really enjoyed working with him; he was very prepared, and he’s going to be a very good director.

Writer/director Sparling discusses THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE in Fango #339, on sale this month!

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About the author
Kim Garland
Kim Garland is a writer/director from NYC and a columnist for Script magazine. She is currently completing a trilogy of short films set in an underground world in NYC where people can resurrect from the dead. You can follow Kim on Twitter at @kim_garland.
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