British music video director makes an auspicious dramatic debut with his retelling of the true story, The Amityville Horror, this time starring Ryan Reynolds and Australia’s Melissa George [Alias]. A classic tale of haunted houses and grisly murders, Douglas gives the story a new and eerie chilling reality. A man going somewhere, Douglas is a director going places, and equipped with energy and a sense of humour. He talked to Garth Franklin.
Question: How did you get this gig?
Answer: How did I get it? I have no idea. There’s nothing I’ve ever done which sets me up to do horror.
Question: How much were you influenced by Japanese horror film, especially The Ring?
Answer: How much was I influenced? I would say 7. If 10 is copying, I would say 6 or 7. Do you understand the answer? Quite a lot, I mean, when I was trying to immerse myself in a lot of films to see where this film would go, I found that I looked at two things mainly, I looked at The Shining once hard, not as a spectator anymore but as a storyteller, and I looked at a lot of Wes Craven’s films, because he’s such a master of the mechanics of suspense, you know, timing, and then I looked at a lot of Japanese, Chinese and Korean horror films, because I felt that I was really interested in trying to find ways of making newer scares. Not least because there are so many horror films around, and I just didn’t want to tap into the same imagery that all the horror films are tapping into, even though I’m probably guilty of doing that.
Question: Was the original film an influence?
Answer: No, I deliberately didn’t look at it again, I saw it as a kid, as a spectator, and I can remember it pretty well, the only thing I remember are the braces on the young babysitter. So we changed braces to big tits..
Question: What was is it about taking a horror movie from the ’70’s and updating it – is it that you have better technology to tell the story, it’s just the right time to do them – why bring these back and retell them?
Answer: I don’t know, you’d have to talk to somebody smarter than me to do that. I thought that one of the things that was kind of interesting was that clearly there was a kind of great – when you look at those films now from the ’70’s, you gotta say, ‘Why was it such a kind of prolific period for horror?’ Vietnam was certainly going on. I’m reaching now, but culturally we look at – we’re not just led by the nose in the things that we gravitate to, so it’s not just studio heads saying, ‘I reckon the audiences are ready for 20 horror films,’ I think that what happens is, they can try that but if as audiences you’re not going to respond it, they won’t work. So it could be that there are these kind of cultural bubbles, these bubbles, right now there’s no question that we’re just eating up horror.
Question: What were the challenges of doing this movie and making it for a contemporary audience?
Answer: It was a big creative decision to – this could easily have been a more contemporary film. We would have saved money and time by not having period cars and period telephones, it is a little bit anachronistic, it’s a definite hybrid film, I don’t think they even had girls like that in the seventies, like the babysitter, they certainly weren’t built like that. And men certainly weren’t built like Ryan, like Charles Atlas. They had a lot of body fat, he didn’t look like Ryan Reynolds, so it’s kind of a hybrid, it’s not a pure seventies film, but I think the inherited wisdom was that in some way the original film has so much equity, a kind of familiarity that because we wanted to somehow tap into that, for commercial reasons but also tap into the idea of it being a true story, that at some level we wanted to be able to say, ‘Based on a true story,’ because that has so much value in a horror film. And it’s clearly elaborated on, and bent and twisted and speculated, but there really were those grotesque murders, and there really was a scandal one year later where the place was considered haunted and the Lutz family left. So I think in a sense, I’ve kind of answered it, do you see what I mean?
Question: What do you think PETA’s reaction will be to the dead dog?
Answer: Oh don’t. We don’t see a dog. We assume it’s a dog. What did you see?
Question: A chopped up dog.
Answer: You’re absolutely right. You know what? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. What are they going to say about sticking a finger in a child’s (head), what are they going to say about a child being on a damn roof anyway?
Question: How did you get away with actually being able to do that?
Answer: You mean, technically how did we do it? We just had a lot of the same girl.
Question: And her parents were quite willing to let her do it?
Answer: We just gave the parents drugs and used replicas. It’s on the damn roof, and I was petrified, absolutely petrified. And nobody in the crew could walk that line, and the child got up there for twenty minutes, we’re in our condors with her, she was on wires, but it still so high, after 20 minutes she was completely comfortable. It’s astonishing. It’s astonishing. It was high. It was really high.
Question: Did you worry about having a John Landis moment?
Answer: Absolutely. I was genuinely, I could barely sleep because that’s what was mandated –
Question: It would have been the end of your career?
Answer: It sure would. It would have been the beginning and the end. It sure would. That wasn’t why I was worried. I just –
Question: How did you keep the kids from getting scared in situations, not just doing stunts, but in these scary moments? Even the makeup would have been scary to them.
Answer: You know, it’s funny, I think they have a far greater sense of what’s real and what’s playful than we do. I think we hit a certain age where we start to confuse reality. Remember there were long debates about Columbine, people flailing to find how Columbine could happen. ‘Oh it must be the videos they watched.’ It must be this, it must be that. And none of that’s true. The kids in general, up to a certain age, there’s clearly playtime – horror – and real time, in a way that we lose I think as adults, so the child, Jodie, Isabella (her credit is just Isabel) , it tickled her pink to come out and have lunch with us with (her makeup on) and it ticked the other kids, because that’s play. Of course, none of the children are seeing the whole film or the context of the whole film, so you’re not creating fully rounded nightmares in front of them.
Question: What do you tell them, what are they aware of when they’re shooting?
Answer: With Jodie, I just told her this is playtime; we’re just playing dead. She knew exactly what she looked like, I’d go, ‘Play as if somebody just shot you, just play that.’ It was very strange and I thought hard to actually figure out that kind of – where it would be play, because I don’t want give them trauma. I think the adults are more traumatized than the children.
Question: On films like this there are always stories about bad shit that happens during productions – is that true?
Answer: Yeah, that’s true. And to this day I don’t know if that was practical jokers. Obviously everybody who’s working on it is in the kind of zone, and the house was – if you did nights, and you left at four o’clock in the morning, if you’re the last one out, it’s a dark house, so there were things. Stuff like lights going on, people would lose equipment, I mean lights in the whole house, not just an occasional light. The light bulbs would be screwed out a half turn by the morning, just strange things like that.
Question: Did you have any nightmares?
Answer: Did I? I was so tired, I was sleeping five hours a night, you don’t have time for REM let alone a nightmare. I had nightmares about whether by the end of the schedule I’d finish the damned story. Those were my nightmares.
Question: Can you talk about the house, because the house is the key to the success or failure of this movie, how do you create that house and make it as chilling and realistic as possible?
Answer: I think you do a very simple thing which is you give it a face. There was a point in whole scouting kind of designing preparation process where some people wanted it to be a just a full on haunted Victorian house. And I’m tearing my hair out, going, ‘No, no, it’s got to have a damn face.’ It can’t just have pointy bits like Van Helsing, it’s got to have a face, because this is what we respond to, and I think that was certainly – I remember the poster for Amityville more than I remember the film. And the poster had eyes, and the balcony was teeth. And it’s a Halloween mask. And that’s so deep, that imagery.
Question: Do you know if the owner of the house kept the façade?
Answer: I don’t actually, they talked about – they fought us tooth and nail of course for so long to up the price, but I don’t know if they did. I think for fun they were going to keep it for awhile, because it was an architectural hybrid by the end. It was a Victorian house, it’s a Midwest Victorian house, and we just bolted on this Dutch colonial face, architects would have had nightmares.
Question: When were you the most scared?
Answer: Literally scared? When the child was on the roof. The discussion that we were just having. I got one little kind of tremor, and I’m a rationalist, I got one tremor – the door handle. We’d shot the library scene, do you remember the library scene, have you seen the film? And the library was in this beautiful Catholic seminary just outside of Chicago, beautiful place, and this library had those door handles, the seminary had these door handles, so I kind of … did I steal it? Anyway, somehow one ended up in my pocket. So we one of the scenes where the doors slam and then the last button (?) and that little piece of horror was the door handle which goes upside down. I didn’t know if it was going to make the cut. And for some reason, I don’t believe in the supernatural and I don’t believe in God, but for some reason when that turned upside down I got a chill. Now is that something deeper than the rational mind? Is that such a strong, deep-seated, icon that if you do that you’re calling up Satan? I got a kind of chill, and that’s probably the only one, because the rest of the time I was in the same world as Isabella, I’m playing horror, I’m playing dead bodies, I’m trying to make it as grotesque as I can, as maggoty, but I was in Isabella’s frame of mind for that.
Question: Did you have to work with the child to get him over the chopping the wood scene?
Answer: That’s a psychologically scare, isn’t it? I was in many ways, I felt more comfortable, more confident as a storyteller in that world sometimes than I was in the full-on bloody horror world, because those are my chops, that’s what I like, I like what kind of dysfunction, what can we describe here, how can you be so suggestive of violence but no where near violence. And I thought that was a very strong scene actually as well. And I thought Ryan was phenomenal in that. I thought Jesse James, the kid, was just phenomenal. Isn’t that a great name? What else are you going to be? You’re either going to be a cowboy or an actor.
Question: Did you ever go to the real Amityville house?
Answer: No, I never went there. I looked a lot of pictures. I looked at a lot of newsreel footage for those sequences in the film that are newsy, so I looked at a lot of stuff there.
Question: Is any of that real in the film?
Answer: A couple of things are actually. In that collage the funeral was real, most of it we reconstructed.
Question: Is the house still vacant?
Answer: No, people live there. They changed the number, it’s like if you change the number, you’d better change the design mate, because everybody knows the house.
Question: Why would anybody live there?
Answer: I don’t know. Here you are in New York, which is phenomenally expensive, and you find this house, and it’s a beautiful house, right by a river, and you go, ‘So it’s clearly haunted, so how much will you drop?’ You’ve got to do that, haven’t you?
Question: Can you talk about working with the editors on the collage sequences, how much of that is mapped out and how much is instinct?
Answer: That’s choice of the editor really. What I would do in those kinds of areas would be to brief the editor, ‘This is what I want overall, the feeling of it,’ whether it’s being uncomfortable, or whether it’s information, what it’s meant to make you feel, and obviously the story point that it has to deliver, and that’s it, and I would go away for two days and come back and they would do whatever they do, smoke pot or take drugs or whatever they do, to be able to edit that fast. I don’t know what they do frankly, stay up late, I don’t know. It’s so fast, isn’t it? But Chris Wagner cut Man on Fire, god, I felt slow compared with Man on Fire.
Question: Does doing a movie like this put you in a box as a director in Hollywood?
Answer: I’m about to find out, aren’t I? Honestly, I’m about to find out, I have no idea. I know that I’m developing something with Steve Golan (?) who did Spotless Mind, and that’s likely to be a different kind of film. It’s a project called The Spinning Man, it’s a psychological thriller, and developing meaning we’re working on the script together, it’s not green-lit or anything like that. But I would think that certainly it would be easy, if this is successful this film, if it does well, then of course it would be easy for studios to make me the go-to horror guy, and I’m not sure how I feel about that, because I actually enjoyed it. I enjoyed thinking of that stuff.
Question: Would you do a remake of 2 and 3D?
Answer: Under certain circumstances, yeah.
Question: Could you get away with a sequel?
Answer: I think because we left Jodie in the house, I think they could. I personally don’t know how much juice there is, I wouldn’t, I think we squeezed it pretty dry.
Question: Is there another seventies horror film that you would like to do?
Answer: It would be so bold to do The Shining, wouldn’t it?
Question: It’s already been remade for TV with Stephen Webber.
Answer: I’m not sure, didn’t they remake George Romero’s film Dawn of the Dead. Is it too soon to make Shaun of the Dead? (laughs) I loved that. That was funny. Interestingly, some of the things that I’m seeing already, are actually a bit like The Ring, they are more that, it was an answer to that very first question I think, some of the things that I’m seeing are American or English language remakes of Asian films, you know, Chinese, Korean, Japanese films.
Question: Do you think there is too much of that?
Answer: I don’t know, I understand why. I don’t know that it particularly interests me.
Question: They don’t do as well as the originals.
Answer: That’s not true. The Ring did incredibly well. I think because maybe it was one of the first ones to show us that slightly new imagery. If it twists enough it would interest me. If there’s enough difference, but I don’t know about remakes again. You know, you get measured by something else, and that’s the danger of remakes. Oh, it’s not as good as, or you’d better make it better than … it was a tall order to – I hope this is better.