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Q&A: Director Tedi Sarafian Talks “ALTERGEIST”

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With paranormal thriller ALTERGEIST (see review), Tedi Sarafian (TANK GIRL) successfully makes the transition from screenwriter to director. Following its November 7th premiere, Sarafian sat down with Fango to discuss the problems he faced while filming, what he learned, and the haunted house which provides the film’s backdrop.  

ALTERGEIST concerns King’s Ransom Winery which. “With a long history of bizarre deaths and strange phenomena, is widely considered one of the most haunted places in North America. Led by Theresa Augland, a group of six paranormal investigators conducting a search for evidence of the other side begin to witness strange happenings. As long-buried memories and deep-seated fears bubble to the surface, they are terrified to learn that even the winery’s ghosts fear the truly sinister presence that has haunted the family estate for generations…”

FANGORIA: What do you think was the most difficult aspect of making the transition from screenwriting to directing?

TEDI SARAFIAN: You’re dealing with a much larger group of people. With screenwriting, you have your executives, your producers, and it is very specific for what you need to do. When you’re directing, you’re getting the same, except you’re getting it from a higher army of people – and you’re spinning many plates. You have to make critical decisions, because certain things have to be done by a certain time. Whether you have to get a shot off, or you have to get the rewrites to an actor, you’re now under the gun.

FANG: At the premiere, you mentioned that ALTERGEIST took close to four years to be finished. What were some of the obstacles?

SARAFIAN: There is a saying – good, fast, cheap. Pick two. We did not have the budget that other movies would have, where they can just push things through, or once they get the visual effects back, it looks the way it should look. We went through many FX houses, we went to many editors – and you get what you pay for. All of that stuff really slowed the movie down. The time it took to transcode the film, the time it look looking at the film and realizing we didn’t have enough footage to get it to that 90 minute point, and having to go back in and get more money together. And then putting the crew back together, shooting some more footage, then going back and looking at tape, and now the film is kind of taking on a new organic shape – and following what that is. It is a process – like writing a film, doing the rewrites, and going through and watching it evolve, except it happens much slower in the low-budget filmmaking world. It’s much slower. We started this film with a certain number, and did very well, and then slowly kind of creeping up with what the budget was in order to get it to what it is now. Whereas opposed to something like THE CONJURING or other movies, they come out of the gate with multiple millions of dollars. Their editors are well respected, they have the luxuries, and they go to the visual effects houses that they know are going to deliver. Obviously that is going to be much faster.

FANG: Do you think the setbacks benefited you in the long run?

SARAFIAN: I do, I think so. Now, granted, I think that in the long run if you had more money from the get-go, we would have been able to just immediately have those things in the screenplay. That would have changed things around. We would have shot a screenplay that was much longer, and had those themes that we talked about having. We would have got those right off the bat.

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FANG: What inspired you to include an extraterrestrial aspect to a ghost story?

SARAFIAN: I don’t think of it as extraterrestrial – as I think of it as multi-dimensional. There is so much information on the internet about entities out there that have an ability to navigate between the physical and the astral – that have a dark agenda, that are in a place where they need something from our physical plane. And our movie delves into that. We call them the Altergeist – the high-ghost, the high-spirit. In my film, I illustrate a lot of the beasts that many people have – whether it is spiritual and it is out there. I went into the film and kind of wrapped my arms around those concepts and illuminated them in this project.

FANG: With that in mind, is that what drew you to the winery with its whole haunted setting?

SARAFIAN: Actually, what happened was that this movie started off as an experiment. [Producer] Aaron Heck had the equipment, and we were just going to go up—both put in a little bit of money—and go shoot a movie. It’s tough fun. And not really think of it being some incredible, GONE WITH THE WIND production. We just wanted to have a good time. So, we went up to the winery and he gave me the haunted tour. He told me of all the things that happened, and slowly a story started to emerge. As that story started to emerge, and we started lining it out, I really kind of thought, “this is a ghost story.” I thought well, maybe it’s the ghosts that are afraid—what are they afraid of? I got on the internet, did some research, and suddenly the film ALTERGEIST came to me.

FANG: Knowing the history of the Korbel House, could you see yourself spending a night there alone?

SARAFIAN: I was asked to when I was up there for the screening. They didn’t have any room available, so the only room available was in the old Korbel House. I declined. Not because I am a ghost believer—I am actually a skeptic. But, there has been such weird stuff that happened in that house. There are so many stories. Shooting the scene with my niece in the upstairs attic, and the weird things that happened with that. All of sudden, there was glass all over the closet that nobody put there—and the weird writing on the walls. “Now I go to the Guerneville Bridge to meet the devil”. Other members of the team that spent the night there, they heard lights turning on, doors opening, EMF meters going off—and all that. I have too much stuff in my life right now to worry—without not having a good night’s sleep [laughs]. So I decided to stay in a hotel.

FANG: What’s next?

SARAFIAN: I am casting a film right now called LILITH, which has a sort of supernatural, BLACK SAWN-ish tone. It is very scary, but it has got strong characters.  I’ve learned things—little inventions that keep the story going, keep the suspense, and give the people the scares—but have the scares be meaningful to the progression of the story, and not just gratuitous. All the things you learn along the way make you a better filmmaker. It’s your progress.

For more on ALTERGEIST, visit the film’s official site.

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About the author
Michael Alexander
Michael Alexander is a writer, designer, and so-called ‘movie snob’. Hailing from suburbia Ontario, his degree pertains to History and Political Science - yet he has always been an avid film watcher. After writing an essay on A Clockwork Orange in University, he realized film history trumped learning about the Korean War. And so it began
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