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Q&A: “AVA’S POSSESSIONS” Writer/Director Jordan Galland Talks the 12 Steps of Humorous Horror

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Got a problem with spirits? Demon grabbed your soul? Jordan Galland’s AVA’S POSSESSIONS has just the 12-step program for you. The writer/director talks his horror/comedy, out on DVD today from Entertainment One, in this exclusive FANGORIA interview.

You may not be responsible for your actions while “under the influence” of some supernatural being, but once it’s been exorcized, you’ll be tried and sent to Spirit Possession Anonymous for all the bad that went down. The eponymous Ava (Louisa Krause, interviewed here) has to attend that group, as well as apologize to the owners of the places she trashed and the people she hurt—and, given all that blood in the living room, probably killed. All that murder and mayhem was not her fault, though; it was the fault of a malignance known as Naphula the Anointed. Now all Ava needs is some self-control and a sponsor, and maybe she can beat this thing…

FANGORIA: Why take AA into demonology?

JORDAN GALLAND: I wasn’t trying to make a statement on AA at all; it was more that I love possession films and wanted to make one, but I was trying to find a new angle to approach it with. I was fascinated by the way people in recovery have inner demons, and drugs and booze can be demons, and also we call wine and alcohol “spirits,” so it was about playing with and exploring that metaphor. I also wanted to explore what would happen if a woman had to get her life back together after being possessed, so that inherently had a kind of recovery arc to it.

I found that there was a real natural humor to be had there, talking about possession in this matter-of-fact way, and the recovery-group idea was very funny to me in that sense. I don’t think recovery groups themselves are funny, but the idea was, what else would you do after going through a possession? You would want to meet other people like yourself. Then the idea occurred to me that if you broke the law in various ways while you were possessed, and society couldn’t necessarily prove that one way or another, you would either go to jail or go to this program. That had a strong, firm logic to me.

Also, the types of things that demons have their hosts do in most movies like this are taboo sorts of actions: Girls will become promiscuous or talk about sex and curse, like in THE EXORCIST. So that inspired me, because there’s a demonization of women that happens in this slut-shaming culture we live in, and a double standard for men. I feel like the conversation about this is now a lot louder, and we’re changing our views on inequality, but traditionally, for the last, like, thousand years, there’s been this double standard. There are a lot of levels on which this story works.

FANG: How closely did you want Spirit Possession Anonymous to mirror actual 12-step groups?

GALLAND: Well, I felt passionately that their guidebook had to be a believable prop. It was very much inspired by the HANDBOOK FOR THE RECENTLY DECEASED in BEETLEJUICE. I could visualize what I wanted it to look like, so about three months before preproduction—which was two months before I could hire someone to do it—I started designing the book. I was thinking about this story I read about DR. STRANGELOVE: In the War Room, where the president sits with all his generals, Stanley Kubrick wanted the actors to feel like they were playing poker. So he made the table green, even though it’s a black-and-white movie and the audience wouldn’t know that; it was just for the actors. So I felt the handbook needed text to feel real for Louisa, because there were a bunch of scenes where she had to read it. It was 200 pages, which was too much to write from scratch, so I took some stuff from demonic books, and used the AA handbook as a base; I found-and-replaced “alcoholic” with demons and spirits. I had 20 copies printed up by a very reasonable company someplace in Pennsylvania that I found on-line, and they did a beautiful job.

AVASPOSSESSIONSGALLAND

FANG: How did you arrive at the movie’s specific demon?

GALLAND: I definitely didn’t want it to be the devil, because then it would become a grand battle between heaven and hell. I wanted there to be this varied mythology, with the people Ava meets at Spirit Possession Anonymous having been possessed by other demons, and on one level I thought of them like Greek gods, that array of different characters. I decided [the one that had overtaken
Ava] should be a real demon, so I looked up and researched ones that didn’t have a lot written about them on-line and needed a little fleshing out. Naphula—or Vaphula is another name for him—is an actual demon you can look up, but there’s not a lot of detail on him. So I came up with more details and had him carry a drum and came up with the way he looks. It was really fun to do that.

FANG: How did you approach the presentation of the demon-possessees?

GALLAND: I approached makeup artist Joelle Troisi, whom I had worked with on my first film ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE UNDEAD. I liked her creative approach to the vampire look we had in that film, so I contacted her for this before I even knew if we had a start date, or even if she was available, because she’s been working on bigger movies and TV shows. I started talking to her about what was possible on a low budget; I wanted to use contact lenses and give each demon specific traits—a little feline here, a little birdesque thing there—and see how we could make them unlike BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER demons, not just prosthetic stuff. The things Eva did when she was possessed, before the movie starts—some of them were of a very sexual nature, and I wanted to make sure she was sexy as a demon, and that the audience could believe somebody would be attracted to her while somehow also having the balance of her being f**ked-up and dark. Joelle and I e-mailed back and forth with ideas and references, when she didn’t even know if she could work on the movie. She was just being really sweet and helpful, and luckily she was able to.

FANG: How did the casting process work?

GALLAND: Ava was the first piece of the puzzle. One of my producers, Carlos Velazquez, was working with on Louisa Krause on another film [THE ABANDONED], and raving about her, even before he knew about this movie. So when he got involved with AVA’S POSSESSIONS, he was like, “You gotta consider Louisa!” I watched every movie I could find that she was in—KING KELLY and MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE. It was awesome, because I love YOUNG ADULT, and I remember being like, “Oh my God! She’s the girl in YOUNG ADULT, and it’s the funniest moment in the movie!” I knew I was not gonna get any luckier than that. So that was the first step. Then we had a great casting director, Stephanie Holbrook, who really got the characters. She brought in so many different people.

FANG: How did you come to cast veteran genre actor William Sadler as Ava’s father?

GALLAND: He’s legendary. The casting process was awesome, but we were getting really close to production and it wasn’t clear when William was going to be able to do it schedule-wise. So it wasn’t until a couple of days before we started filming—we weren’t shooting in sequence, we were doing some intense scenes at the end of the movie toward the beginning of the schedule—that I met him for the first time. I was like, “I love DEMON KNIGHT, I love DIE HARD 2!”

FANG: And Carol Kane, as the occult-shop owner? Another legend.

GALLAND: We had another actress who was originally attached to play that role, and she couldn’t do it for various reasons at the last minute. We had to regroup—this was like two days before filming—and Carol was on the list, and it was just like, “Yes! If she’s a real possibility, we’ve got to do what we can to get her.” She was flying back from Paris, and her agent said she read it on the plane and she would do it, but she wanted to talk to me. It was 1 in the morning, though she had just come from France, so it was like 5 in the morning for her. She called me, and suddenly I was talking to Carol Kane, and she was like, “Listen, normally I’d have a lot of time to prepare for this, but I don’t have a lot of time, so you’ve just got to tell me your ideas and we’ll go from there.” I said, “OK, let me get back to you.” I didn’t sleep; I just stayed up all night thinking about it. And then in the morning, I was able to give her a bunch of ideas and directions. She was so sweet and so involved, and truly created a character in two days.

FANG: Were a lot of your team experienced in the horror genre?

GALLAND: They’ve worked on all different types of movies, but they’re all fans of this kind of thing, so that helped. I would give people DVDs to watch—THE FLY, BLUE VELVET, LOST HIGHWAY–just to immerse everybody in the movies that were influencing me. Even TRUE ROMANCE, which is a cool, youthful rock ’n’ roll movie—I wanted to bring a lot of different elements together, because if you’re gonna make a movie, work hard on it and ask people to watch it, what’s gonna be special about it? It can’t just be paint-by-numbers. And in the end, I feel like it can be easy to do that with genre films, because there’s a formula to them that can be easier, and that can work.

FANG: What is the influence of BLUE VELVET on your film?

GALLAND: Frank Booth seems like he’s got some demons, and they’re very real and very strange, and the character of Jeffrey Beaumont has this wide-eyed interest in being a detective. Then there’s the way the movie approaches just any mystery, it doesn’t matter what it is; you want to discover what’s going on in other people’s lives. In this case, Ava is looking into her own life, but it’s not her own life, so there’s this sort of haze and ambiguity about it: “Well, I did these things, but it wasn’t me, but it was me. Why did it happen, and who’s hiding something from me?” So there’s that mystery element to it.

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