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Q&A: Director Chris Trebilcock talks “THE DARK STRANGER”!

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A common, yet vastly sweeping question often thrown out to horror lovers is….what is horror? Everyone has their own take on the answer, as unique as the person giving the response. With all the intensely evil happenings in the world today it has become tragically safe to say that the scariest demon out there is more often than not the one that reside in our own minds. Mental health is a serious issue and is killing far more people than any slasher in a horror film ever could.

This inner demon takes on a life of its own in THE DARK STRANGER, the first feature film by Toronto native Chris Trebilcock.  The title character himself is played by screen legend Stephen McHattie (A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE) and the cast is rounded out by Katie Findlay (THE KILLING) , Enrico Colantoni (PERSON OF INTEREST) and Alex Ozerov (A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY). FANGORIA spoke to Trebilcock on the opening day of the theatrical run for THE DARK STRANGER…

FANGORIA:  What were the films or other artistic inspirations for you growing up?

CHRIS TREBILCOCK: I loved horror films from a young age, starting with Jaws and Halloween. But in my teens I wanted to be a writer and a novelist, so I briefly dropped out of high school and self-published several short novellas. Writers who influenced me greatly were Kurt Vonnegut, Pauline Kael, Somerset Maugham and Stephen King. An odd mix, I know. To name just a few filmmakers who inspired me: John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Dario Argento and Brian De Palma. I also really like a lot of Robert Altman’s films. I like artists who can work within a genre and make it their own, return to themes that matter to them personally and explore them differently with each now movie or novel. 

FANG: Did any of these inspirations play into how you wrote and directed THE DARK STRANGER

TREBILCOCK: Oh definitely. I’ve long been a fan of stories within stories, which is something Kurt Vonnegut has done masterfully in his books like SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. I wanted the graphic novel that Leah creates in the film to be a way to take us inside her imagination and show her fears and desires in metaphorical fantasy terms. Directing-wise, it’s impossible not to be influenced by other filmmakers who inspire you, like the way John Carpenter uses foreground and background to build suspense, or the way Dario Argento and David Cronenberg create really original and memorable visual FX to take us into their worlds. You try to be inspired by the best but also not too derivative, try to make the film your own. 

FANG: How much of your real life experience had influence in the writing of THE DARK STRANGER?

TREBILCOCK: I struggled with depression growing up, as many people do. The only relief I found was in my writing. Sometimes that’s still true. I’ve always wanted to write a script that addressed issues of depression but do so in a way I hadn’t seen before, where we see the world through the eyes of someone with these concerns. Make the depression tangible, like it’s a real adversary that needs to be defeated. That’s what THE DARK STRANGER represents. 

FANG: Can you tell us about the experience of casting of the film?

TREBILCOCK: Finding the right person to play Leah was key. We really lucked out with Katie Findlay. Not only is she an amazing actress who instantly grasped the character but she’s also a huge comic book nerd too. She brought a realism and an emotional intensity to the part that really elevates the film. Likewise, finding someone to play THE DARK STRANGER was also a challenge. You want to find an actor who will take it seriously and not just camp it up.

We were blessed with Stephen McHattie coming on board to play the dual role of THE DARK STRANGER and Randall Toth. He can be unbelievably menacing by doing very little. Just a look. But in real life Stephen is a very kind, smart and thoughtful person. He’s worked with everyone from David Cronenberg to Zack Snyder to even Roger Corman. Enrico Colantoni was great to work with, as was Alex Ozerov as Leah’s younger brother. Alex is a major talent.

FANG: The graphic novel/illustration aspect of the film makes it a very unique viewing experience. What were you looking for in the artist to make these visuals come to life on the screen? How did you get involved with the artist who created these visuals?

TREBILCOCK: The artist’s name is Sean Scoffield. I met him years ago when I was making a short film called Autobiography of an Insect, which has some similar story elements. It was about a shy comic artist in university who falls in love with his professor. We go in and out of the artist’s comic he’s creating. I needed to find a comic artist to do the illustrations. I went to a local comic shop called The Beguiling where they had up the original drawings used in the graphic novel adaptation of David Cronenberg’s EXISTENZ. They were darkly beautiful images. I asked who had done them and the store owners said it was a guy named Sean Scoffield and they put me in touch with him. On THE DARK STRANGER, Sean did all of the character designs and the backgrounds, which were given over to Keyframe Digital, who did the actual animation. Keyframe also did all the live action CGI as well for the film. Sean and I looked at many different types of comic art and graphic novels to gain inspiration for the right dark fairy tale quality for our illustrations.

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FANG: Will there ever be a THE DARK STRANGER graphic novel?

TREBILCOCK: I wish! We had planned on there being a comic tie-in originally but unfortunately the hectic production of the film and the lengthy editing process, with all the animation and VFX, didn’t give us time to pursue it. 

FANG: As with many indie films there are multiple roadblocks along the way that filmmakers must work with to be able to complete their project. Were there any particular obstacles that you ran into while filming and what were they?

TREBILCOCK: The script had a long development process over six years. Aspects of the story were a hard sell to some people; explaining how THE DARK STRANGER preyed on artists through their work was a concept some found hard to grasp. 

In terms of the shoot, we filmed in my house where I lived since the early ’80s. My father, Michael Trebilcock, very graciously let us film there. But when you bring nearly fifty people into a house it gets cramped very quickly. It wasn’t like shooting on a set on a sound stage where you can remove walls to make more space. We had to turn off the heat halfway through the shoot because one of the radiators was leaking and the house became freezing. It was the tail end of winter. We did have two days on a sound stage on the set of the comic book forest, where Leah has her final showdown with THE DARK STRANGER. That was also time consuming. Every time we did a new camera angle we had to move the fake trees around in the background to make the forest seem larger than it was. Also, getting the right level of smoke on the forest set could also be a challenge. 

FANG: Do you have any specific standout memories from while you were filming?

TREBILCOCK: I remember the first day of shooting, the first morning. Everyone arriving. It fully hitting me that this isn’t a short film I’m making with a bunch of friends which I’m paying for. I’m working with very seasoned actors on a feature with other people’s money. I suddenly had a private moment of fear and anxiety, thinking maybe I can’t do this. But then everyone came into the room we were going to shoot our first scene in. Something clicked in me and I was able to overcome my fear and just get on with it. 

FANG: What kind of camera did you use? What was it about that camera that you wanted to help you get the look you wanted to achieve?

TREBILCOCK: My amazing cinematographer D. Gregor Hagey could speak to this better than I could. We used two cameras: The Red Epic and the Red Scarlet. The Red Scarlet was the main camera used for shooting the dialogue scenes. The Red Epic was used for sequences that portray Leah’s distorted frame of mind because the Red Epic is able to do swing tilt shots and has a very shallow depth of field as well as do slow motion. Some of the films Gregor and I looked at and drew inspiration from were SPIDER (2002) and BARTON FINK (1991). Both very creepy interior films. 

FANG: One interesting aspect of the film is that it is not your average ‘horror’ film. It is really a very dark story about struggles with mental health and the types of evils that prey upon those that struggle with it. How do you think that will resonate with horror audiences?

TREBILCOCK: I hope people will be able to recognize that the film is about an artist struggling and overcoming their depression. It’s not a body count movie, but it still delivers scares and a creepy atmosphere. Some reviews felt it shouldn’t have been a horror film at all, that it should have just been a character study, and the final showdown with THE DARK STRANGER turned it into a standard genre film. It was always meant to be a horror film that also dealt with the serious issue of depression. Why can’t horror deal with serious issues, not just deliver the gore? And to not have a final showdown with THE DARK STRANGER wouldn’t make any sense, as well as being unsatisfying. And it was always intentional to end the film somewhat ambiguously, to question how much of what we’ve seen has been real or just a comic that Leah has created.

FANG: Where can people see the film?

TREBILCOCK: The film will be released on VOD in Canada on July 21st. The film is scheduled for US release across all major digital, EST, VOD, streaming, TV and DVD platforms in October by genre distributor Terror Films. The film will be on iTunes, Vimeo & Shaw On Demand.

FANG: Is there anything else you would like FANGORIA readers to know about yourself or the film?

TREBILCOCK: THE DARK STRANGER has been a labor of love for everyone involved. It may not be perfect but it’s a film that sets out to scare as well as inspire you. I’m very proud of it, and want to thank everyone who was a part of bringing it to life, especially my two producers, Glen Wood and Paula Devonshire. Thank you for this interview. 

About the author
Amy Seidman
Amy Seidman is a Toronto based writer for Fangoria Magazine, Delirium Magazine, Shock Till You Drop and Thrillist. She has a tattoo tribute to Castor Troy from Face/Off and is currently working on her Bates Motel fan fiction "Masterbates Motel." She is proud of her life decisions. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram..
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