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Q&A: Director Alistair Legrand Talks “THE DIABOLICAL” Ghosts With a Difference

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THE DIABOLICAL is a haunted-house movie about strange skinless ghosts that disturb a family’s home—but there’s more to them than meets the eye. FANGORIA spoke to director/co-writer Alistair Legrand about his unconventional frightfest.

Coming to theaters, VOD and iTunes October 16 from XLrator Media, and being screened for free by FANGORIA in New York City next Monday, October 12 (see details here), THE DIABOLICAL stars FINAL DESTINATION and RESIDENT EVIL veteran Ali Larter as single mother Madison. After she and her children Jacob (Max Rose) and Haley (Chloe Perrin) have suffered numerous visits from the strange specters, science teacher Nikolai (Arjun Gupta) tries to determine their origin, leading to some surprising revelations. Legrand, who scripted the film with Luke Harvis, talked DIABOLICAL with us at following its world premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival.

FANGORIA: What was the origin of THE DIABOLICAL?

ALISTAIR LEGRAND: Wanting to do a haunted-house film with a twist, and trying to figure out a way to combine science fiction and horror in one big movie.

FANG: How did you find your cast?

LEGRAND: I found Ali through my producer, and the children through an extensive process where I saw hundreds of kids, trying to find the right ones who were as natural as possible—and we got them. Arjun we cast at the last minute—he came in and just destroyed it.

FANG: What are the most important aspects of shooting a haunted-house film?

LEGRAND: The big thing is getting to know the characters and making sure we like them. In a lot of the modern ghost films, you don’t really care about the people being haunted. We wanted to build a strong bond between the mother and her kids, so you actually become concerned about their well-being through the rest of the film. That’s a big Amblin thing from back in the day, that the people are natural and believable. Also, making sure the house interiors have a lot of space and scope, so you never know when something’s gonna come out of the corner and try to get them, and that there’s a sense of dread and tension throughout every frame.

FANG: Can you talk a little bit about Ian Hultquist’s music?

LEGRAND: I wanted a unique horror score that felt much bigger than you’re used to in this sort of thing—more Hans Zimmer, in a way, but also combining strange elements from music I was enjoying at the time. I was listening to a lot of dark, moody electronics from artists like Haxan Cloak, and this guy named Clark. I found [Clark] because I approached his people about wanting a very original feel that was also big at the same time, and they recommended Ian from the band Passion Pit. He had the perfect sound for it, and was brilliant at creating something huge out of nothing.

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FANG: Can you talk about the look and feel of THE DIABOLICAL’s supernatural elements?

LEGRAND: The monsters were influenced by David Cronenberg, in terms of making sure they were based in reality, so when a ghost appears, it doesn’t just look like a transparent white thing. Not that that’s bad; we just wanted something truly terrifying yet grounded and believable. We tried to create ghosts that looked as much like people as possible, so that you’ll never be able to tell what they actually are, until you figure out what’s going on.

FANG: You approached them practically, from a special FX standpoint?

LEGRAND: I love practical monsters. When I’m on set, I like to be excited by seeing a creature emerge from the floor and slither toward an actor. That it creates a good sense during shooting of what we’re trying to do, and helps the actors adjust their performances. They’re reacting to something that’s actually, tangibly there.

FANG: What is your attraction to the horror genre, as a young filmmaker?

LEGRAND: I’ve always loved horror, from when I was a kid reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I love being scared. It’s one of the most exciting human sensations, and this is one of the more interactive genres. It’s also one where you can throw all the other genres into it and play around. I love Halloween and haunted houses, and I’m obsessed with figuring out ways to terrify people.

FANG: What is the key to frightening an audience?

LEGRAND: My key to it is providing an image they’ve never seen before in a horror film. Making sure that whatever’s scaring them is created as viscerally as possible, so there’s not a lot of quick cuts but an incredible sense of dread as it’s coming at them.

FANG: Shooting practical FX in a haunted-house film, it’s also about the lighting choices and the palette you’ve chosen.

LEGRAND: Yes, 100 percent. My cinematographer John Frost and I love films like the original ALIEN, where they hide the creature as much as possible. It works so well, making audiences imagine what’s out there. So we tried to keep the creatures as mysterious as possible, but at the same time, we come from a world of music videos where we tried to make everything look painterly and beautiful, and we love to make scenes of horror look as gorgeous as possible.

FANG: Would a lot of that have to do with camera and lens choices?

LEGRAND: Yeah, anamorphic helps. I love shooting anamorphic because it softens detail. I hate digital for many reasons, and one of them is the sharpness. Using older anamorphic lenses, you can make everything softer, and it works well with skin. It allowed us to retain a…I wouldn’t call it an old-fashioned value, but a more cinematic one.

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FANG: What were your influences while making it?

LEGRAND: Robert Zemeckis was a huge one. James Cameron films. Early Spielberg, and anamorphic films of the late ’70s/early ’80s. The Spielberg influence is that sense of mystery and wonder, trying to keep the surprise for later on and making sure that the children are as believable as possible. That’s why we all love E.T.—the kids aren’t perfect, they’re all talking over each other, there’s cigarette smoke in the room, they’re obnoxious—they’re real, y’know?

FANG: The anamorphic look and the synth score also suggest the work of John Carpenter from that period as well.

LEGRAND: For sure. Carpenter’s always been a huge influence on me, especially with the anamorphic, and not a lot of cuts. He’s really good at setting up a frame and making sure you’re so engaged; you sit there watching a long take, and that sense of dread is unbeatable. The Carpenter thing will always be a part of my DNA, but it was important for us to not be distracting about it. I don’t like when people get too obsessed with the homage. We just wanted to take bits and pieces and create our own thing.

The most important thing is to remember that you’re not making a movie just for the guy who’s seen a lot of John Carpenter movies. You’re making it for the 12-year-old who’s turning on Netflix and wants to be scared with his friends at a sleepover. They won’t get your cutesy use of the John Carpenter font. They want to be engaged in a whole new way, and won’t understand your obsession with a synth soundtrack; you need to make them as scared as possible. You have to make sure you’re telling your story, and not get distracted by making sure people know you love John Carpenter or Steven Spielberg.

FANG: Do you think the horror genre is misunderstood, maybe even dangerous?

LEGRAND: Oh, completely. It’s so weird—it’s like porn sometimes [laughs]. Every time I go to a Christmas party or something, people ask, “You make horror movies?!” I’m like, “Yeah! This is what I do.” And they go, “You…you really want to do that?!” People just don’t get it. They think if you make horror movies, something’s wrong with you, or, “Why don’t you just make good indie dramas?” But once you get to know horror, you realize that it’s such a great playground to tell so many different stories. It’s the most exciting genre, because you get to create something new with each film.

FANG: Thank you for talking with us.

LEGRAND: I love this. I’ve had a subscription to FANGORIA since I was 12 years old, so this is amazing!

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About the author
Heather Buckley
Heather has a dual career as a Producer (Red Shirt Pictures) and a film journalist. Raised on genre since the age of 13, she’s always been fascinated by extreme art cinema, monster movies and apocalyptic culture. Her first love was a Gorezone no. 9 bought at Frank's Stationary in Keyport, NJ. She has not looked back since. Follow her on Twitter @_heatherbuckley
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