David Bruckner’s The Night House, which recently made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in the Midnight category, is the second solo feature directorial project for a filmmaker that has been part of a horror/genre filmmaking generation that banded together for some notable anthologies (V/H/S, etc.) while finding their own voices behind the camera.
We seized the opportunity to speak to Bruckner, not simply about his latest film, but also the films that preceded it.
Tell us what the film is about.
It may be tougher to describe than anything else I’ve had an opportunity to work on. On the surface, it’s about a woman investigating the unexpected death of her husband, which starts to uncover all of his dark secrets. It’s very much about grief, anxiety and depression. It’s about what we owe to one another and the responsibility we have toward one another in times of emotional peril. It’s a labyrinth of sorts – a bit of a mindfuck movie. It's about how indulging in negative emotions can sometimes lead us down a path that makes us vulnerable to harm.
When we talk about psychological horror and being able to do it well, nuance is such a key and those shadings within. Here, you have such a great person to work within those shadings with Rebecca Hall.
Talk about how the two of you, working in tandem, worked to get that underlying stuff that makes a film like this really work.
We were extremely fortunate to have an actor of Rebecca’s caliber come on board. For her to embrace the material on the very short and sudden timeline that we had was, I think, a fearless act. We had to really go with our gut moment-to-moment. We were moving so quickly. And the movie is something that’s challenging to get your head around. In a positive way, aspects of the movie are so confounding – by design. And that speaks to both the literal nature of the plot, but also the emotional landscape of Beth, our lead [character]. Rebecca was not afraid to balance on a tightrope the entire time and really just trust me and trust herself in ways that I thought were astounding.
This is a film that, by its very nature, in many ways works on the concept of dread in horror, maybe more so than jump scares and that sort of thing. What are your thoughts about that process – the building of anticipation for something that may or may not be coming down the pike later in the film? How do you approach that?
I think it’s about finding the tiny dilemmas scene to scene that we are able to relate to that have the ability to conjure an anxiety that is unexpected for us. You know, you go to a movie expecting to confront ghosts, the supernatural, fight your demons, your monsters, whatever they may be that we will put onscreen. But what you’re not prepared for, maybe, is how to talk to someone who has recently gone through a loss. Or how to bring someone back who seems to be heading down a dark path where you feel a certain responsibility but don’t know the right thing to say or whether or not you should cross a line there. Or whether you should indulge and look further into the details of someone you loved’s life than you should otherwise do.
I think those are very relatable small moments that hit us in unexpected ways and I think the audience is caught off guard when you find yourself relating to those moments and it makes you culpable in a sense. And then stacking those experiences on top of one another and then when you get those memorable big-scare beats, then you benefit from the ride up in a sense.
As a film fan, as opposed to being a director, do you handle those moments well? Sometimes as a filmmaker, it’s easier to orchestrate that than to watch it.
I think I’m most vulnerable when someone can call out a character’s actions onscreen in a way that I can relate to. For me, some of the most painful moments are when you look at the screen and you say to yourself, ‘I would totally do that.’ I think the vulnerability that comes from that can be quite intense when watching a movie. But I’m also one for a great jump scare. I try to forget I’m a director and the very best movies are the ones that cause me to forget and get out of my filmmaker brain and enjoy the ride.
It’s been more than a decade since The Signal, so let’s go through your film journey looking back from your perspective now. When The Signal was first revealed, audiences were seeing it for the first time and you were seeing their reaction, what was that moment like?
The Signal, for me and the tight tribe that was around me at that time, it was a very collaborative project with several directors, the acting troupe, and the producers were all close friends of ours in Atlanta that had come up doing a lot of work. That was a movie that we made for $50,000 and shot in 13 days. We never expected it to get into Sundance, never expected for Magnolia to come in and buy the film and suddenly for it to be reviewed in publications that we admired, like FANGORIA, so it was a shock and a whirlwind and incredibly exciting. I think at the time we had no idea what it would lead to. There was also an awakening for me and a responsibility. It was like ‘Okay, we broke through a little bit more than I thought we would, so maybe I need to go and learn a little bit more about this. I need to write really hard for a few years and crank out a few screenplays that nobody will ever see.’
There was also a sense of ‘I’m not ready for this.’ We were just messing around. But I love the movie. I stand by it, and I still go back to it.
It holds up. When you’re making a film like that and you’re just trying to ‘get the shot’ each day and make this film, complete it, create this thing, you then transition to something else when it makes a splash like that and becomes this ‘thing.’
Well, there’s something about that ‘garage band’ vibe that you’re always trying to get back to in a way. You take on all the infrastructure of a larger feature-film operation and sometimes the spontaneity and/or naïve fearlessness that you had at that time is something that is lost and you’re always trying to get back to.
Let’s talk about the two anthologies, V/H/S and Southbound. Again, there is a core group, actually a little bit larger than a core of people working within genre and horror that were banding together and contributing to these projects. Talk about the process for you with your participation (‘Amateur Night’ in V/H/S and ‘The Accident’ in Southbound).
Well, V/H/S was very much a remote process. Brad Miska had the original idea, and Roxanne Benjamin and The Collective were producing. They had come to me off of a recommendation from Jacob Gentry and I saw who was on board, and I was a huge fan of Joe Swanberg and Ty [West] and Glenn [McQuaid]. I didn’t know the Radio Silence guys yet, but I would get to know them, and of course Adam [Wingard] and Simon [Barrett]. So, I just wanted to be a part of it. We made my section in Atlanta, shot over five days. And I didn’t see the completed V/H/S anthology until it premiered here at Sundance at The Library.
So that was flying blind in a whirlwind of a different sort. Not only do I love the movie and think it’s scary as hell, but so many of the films coalesced around similar themes, but it also sparked a lot of great relationships for us. We went on to write stuff with the Radio Silence crew, my writing partner Nick Tecosky and myself, and I got much more involved. I kind of went underground a little bit after The Signal.
Southbound was a little different. It was a few years later. We had projects in development, films that almost happened but didn’t happen, and we were maybe a little bit grumpy about it. Radio Silence and Roxanne had gotten together and had a loose concept for another anthology. We got in a room with Pat Horvath and started talking about what we could do differently. V/H/S had had two sequels by that point; anthology had a bit of a resurgence in the horror genre, so Southbound was a little bit of an experiment in the medium.
They had this wonderful idea that we called 'zipper transitions' – an element that you’re following in one story that suddenly transitions instantly into another story and you don’t really know when one story ends and another begins. It was there that we began developing it and took a trip out to the desert, just as a crew of directors, and came back with a loose concept for the movie and ran with it. That one – like The Signal – was very much a family operation and a really good time in movie-making.
Which brings us to The Ritual, which among horror film fans has a little bit of a 'secret handshake' fandom to it. If you know, you know, and you pass it along.
Thanks. That’s very generous. It was a very different experience for me. I was really eager to do a solo feature and I had a bunch of stuff kind of fall apart and this was a script that came to me from a company called Imaginarium, out of London. I read the script, loved it. Read the book, loved it. And the universe just kind of presented an eject button: you can go to London and Eastern Europe and shoot a movie completely out of your element – your first feature in another world. So, I pressed the button and I left, and a few months later I was in a forest on a plateau in the Carpathian Mountains shooting a giant monster movie with a bunch of British actors. I was able to pull a few of my people out there, but it was very much as if a lot of the themes in the movie felt very familiar to me making it. It was a lot to confront, I’ll put it that way. We spent 33 days out there in the woods and lost our minds a little bit and came back with this movie.
I had no idea what it would be and how people would accept it, and it’s been really great to see that some people have really embraced it and understood that we took a traditional story and tried to do something different with it. Yeah, I’m grateful.
But let’s talk about the difference in that before you DID have a band around you, a group – all experiencing the premiere and the reviews. And now, it’s just you. Did those earlier experiences kind of soften that entry for you, to take that on and experience it? Or did you feel like they threw me out in the deep end of the pool and now I don’t have my lifeguards around me?
Yeah, I would say that it was a little bit harrowing in that way. But I think presenting a film into the world is one of those most surreal aspects of this entire process. You’re nose down inside of something just trying to keep a vision in your head from start to finish and then as quickly as it began, it suddenly gets shoved out into the world and there are a million and one voices talking about it and loving it and hating it. It’s next to impossible – at least initially – to find consensus. For me, it’s helpful to build a little distance there from what’s going on and to hold fast to what YOU believe and what you loved about the content and try to hold on to it just a little bit and not become too preoccupied with the external – sales and real-world considerations that are due. To some degree, you just gotta try to pretend that it’s just like another video game.
That brings us to the topic that I wanted to wrap up this interview with, and that is the general reception that genre or thrillers or horror projects get within the critical community. I consistently rail against what I see as the ghettoization of horror. Certainly in the past few years, there have been a number of films that I feel I can point to and say 'That’s art.' Yes, it scares the crap out of you, but it is art. As a filmmaker working within the genre, is that something you care about – the artistic perception of the work – or are you fine just saying, ‘Have a great time at the theater'?
The idea of prestige is a curious one. In my 20s, I was working at a theater, a tiny workshop theater in Atlanta called PushPush, and we were doing Pinter and Naomi Wallace and Friedrich Schiller by day and go throw blood on the walls at night and shoot our little genre shorts. In that period of my life, the idea that there was a dividing line between high art and low art seemed preposterous. It is all the fine game of holding one’s attention and communicating an idea, and tropes are as much a part of the language in horror as they are in drama or any other corner of the medium. I think it’s funny that there is such a distinction and I think people still hold on to the idea of horror that dates back to a particular window of time in the ‘80s, which I would also argue is not a lower form of art by any means.
I think people are opening up to horror and it’s having a renaissance, and I understand what you are saying. My ear is particularly sensitive to it. All of us that make horror, write about horror, and love horror are pretty keen to pick up on that condescension. I think it’s an exciting time right now. I think people are turning a corner in how they view horror. Processing negative emotions and bad feelings is a great reason to go to the movies. And horror does that better than anything else.