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Interview: Iain Softley for "The Skeleton Key"

By Paul Fischer Monday August 1st 2005 10:50PM
Iain Softley for "The Skeleton Key"

Britain's Iain Softley is nothing if not diverse, from "Backbeat" to "Wings of the Dove," "K-Pax" and now his latest film is the gothic, New Orleans-set voodoo thriller "The Skeleton Key".

Set largely in the dark backwoods just outside of New Orleans, The Skeleton Key stars Kate Hudson as Caroline, a live-in nurse hired to care for an elderly woman's (Gena Rowlands) ailing husband (John Hurt) in their home...a foreboding and decrepit mansion in the Louisiana delta.

Intrigued by this enigmatic couple and their rambling house, Caroline starts to explore the old mansion. Armed with a skeleton key that unlocks every door, she discovers a hidden attic room that holds a deadly and terrifying secret.

Returning to a sultry but undeniably fascinating New Orleans at the city's renovated Ritz-Carlton hotel, Paul Fischer talked to the director in part 1 of his report on this often intriguing film.

Question: When we were on the set, we saw a scene that indicated a romantic subplot between Kate and Peter?

Softley: I was surprised by that, because that was one of the things I thought would be in the movie. I thought that there was a sort of... I don't want to give away the ending. But obviously, there is sort of a... as far as this film has any romantic interest, it's the two of them.

It seemed to be, on one level, that was a legitimate conclusion. The end of the film, the relationship between the two characters changes. It just seemed that was the wrong tone, or the wrong emotional moment to leave the audience with something so specific as a kiss. Certainly, there was very strong audience reaction against it when we previewed it.

Question: What was the attraction of this film?

Softley: I've always loved this genre, and actually tried to get a film off the ground about seven years ago, set in England. I took it around, and the studios all said, 'No-one's ever going to go see supernatural movies ever again.' About a year later, a couple of films called The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project came along, and they tore up that particular script.

The reason why was, I thought it was very interesting to deal with the way the normal world comes into contact with the unknown. With the occult, or things outside of what one would call rational, normal experience. And so films like Don't Look Now, Rosemary's Baby, Kubrick's The Shining, even in a way, 2001 is about the scientific world coming into contact with something that is outside... that, you know, has some kind of dimension.

I think the thing that distinguishes both films, because they are about where the real world meets incidents of beliefs that challenge rational, sceptical people... Part of the architecture of those films is that you start with very naturalistic environments. And real people.

That's why we ground the character of Caroline in the hospital in the beginning. She's a real person, and it's about character. I think these kinds of films, like The Shining and Rosemary's Baby, require great actors. And great actors are attracted to these films maybe more than, say, a horror genre film. There are in that quest [to play] real people in extreme situations.

Question: Do audiences expect twist endings nowadays? Did you have to create that?

Softley: No. I mean, this was the original script. This was the first draft of the script. I was brought the script by Ehren Kruger and Daniel Bobker, his producer. We took it to just a small number of studios, and I'd just done K-Pax with Universal, so that was its natural home. That's what it was.

I don't personally like even revealing what the nature of the ending is, because I think if you're not expecting a particular ending the enjoyment for the audience is more. I'm always trying to think as an audience myself, I actually try not to watch trailers. If people talk to me about a movie I haven't seen, I [covers ears]. I think to be fair to audience, so they can actually get value out of the $9 they just spent, the less they know about what happens the better.

It's not giving anything away to say that I was attracted to elements in the story that one would call very 'un-Hollywood' -- the thing that's interesting is, the actor were totally struck by that. They were thinking, 'We're not going to be able to keep it this way, are we?' The preview audiences were absolutely stunned that they were watching a Hollywood movie like this, and were absolutely convinced that those elements in the story weren't going to the changed.

Even the online sites, Ain't It Cool News and such, were like, 'Hey, watch out. They're going to mess with it, and it's gonna...' you know. To me, it's, um... I was talking to Kate about it the other day and we sort of had to pinch ourselves -- 'We got away with it.' I think if there is a reason why I find that ending appealing is it's not a something that people get a chance to see in a mainstream film with recognizable actors; I think that it's more like an independent film.

Question: Please talk about working on location in New Orleans.

Softley: It was a significant thing to enable me to get my idea for the way I wanted to make the film. I always wanted to make it as a location film. Part of what appealed to me about this is that it's location-specific. It's about a real place that has a particular belief system, that you don't get anywhere else in the world.

I think if you've got those ingredients, that you can actually research -- I'm doing it now with [?] it's got the sense of Venice -- obviously, the accepted wisdom is that it's more economical to shoot in a studio. You don't have to do the night work at night, you don't have to haul great equipment with cranes and lighting gear an hour and a half across country.

But I had this feeling that I wanted this film to feel very authentic and have an almost like a documentary feel to it... not to be gothic-y in any way. I spent a lot of time down here, and I wanted to reflect that. We couldn't initially find a house down here that was suitable. It was Kate's pregnancy that actually gave me the extra time to find the place. And when I found it, it was like, 'I have to shoot in this house.' What really helped that decision economically was that tax benefit that the State [of Louisiana] was able to offer us.

Question: What about the casting of Kate? How did you choose the 'romantic comedy girl' for this role?

Softley: I saw [something] in the character of Kate Hudson, as opposed to the roles that she's played. When I met her, I was struck by how similar she was to the character of Caroline. In fact, she's said herself that she thinks that this part was the closest to who she thinks she really is. Caroline is an empowered female leading role. She's being forced by external events to shed off some of the frivolity of a 25-year-old.

There's a kind of sense of reality, you know, of her family, her father... a sense of the real world. I think particularly after Kate had the baby, she was able to bring even more of that maturity. But when I first met her, she was talking like a 35-year-old rather than a 25-year-old.

She's very direct, very confident about what she thinks, she very mature in the sense that she listens to other people. She engages with other people, is a strong character, and has a very serious side. I was just struck by how like the character she was, and I think the fact that she was more recognizable, perhaps, because of her romantic comedies... there's that empathetic side, was a nice counterpoint to the character that, in other hands, might have been too expected. And maybe too solemn.

Question: What are you doing for the DVD?

Softley: The DVD is going to have a significant deleted scene, when Caroline and Jill go to a spiritualist church in New Orleans after the [unintelligible] at night, and they get drawn in. It's a spiritualist church that has a kind of dimension to it that's very local to New Orleans; which is the Black Hawk Cult. The Native American spirit of a black hawk is incorporated into an essentially Christian ceremony.

That's a great scene, actually. It was kind of transient in the movie, but as a standalone scene it's fabulous. There's a lot of DVD extras in the form of documentary. I got a documentary crew together with a cameraman that I worked with before, and a friend of mine who came down from London. They actually lived with us here in New Orleans.

There's a bunch of stuff on hoodoo, there's a documentary where we actually film the Conjure of Sacrifice being recorded down here, which is fabulous. We see the candles being lit by hoodoo practitioners who were actually doing that song, and spells are being chanted, and it's very cool.

Question: Will you do an unrated cut?

Softley: There isn't really anything unrated here, because it's not a horror movie as such -- there are no entrails on the wall [laughs]. What's scary it what you don't see, and it's about your imagination. It's about the occult in the real sense, in other words, the hidden. So I never really thought about the um... I think, actually, for the lynching scene there is a slightly less-cut version. The MPAA asked to take a couple of cuts.

Question: How do you persuade an actor of John Hurt's stature to take on an essentially non-speaking role?

Softley: This is the question I like answering most: John Hurt's agent pursued me for the role. It seemed to me self-evident, on three or four levels really. One, if you're an actor of John's calibre, the challenge of playing the multi-dimensional aspect of Ben; of being able to be skilful enough to communicate that with just your eyes. The eyes of course, are the most expressive tool in an actor's repertoire when it comes to film.

I can't remember reading a review of an actor's in any film, ever, saying what an amazing voice they have. I've read reviews where they've said the voice is over the top. The voice really is a significant tool for a theatre actor, which John is. In terms of his film career, it's really his eyes. I think he's elevated the role and obviously he saw the potential for that. I completely concur in terms of John Hurt's 'stature' -- but he's maybe a little bit unrecognized in Hollywood.

The Elephant Man was, I guess, an independent film, but he hasn't really been embraced in the way that say Anthony Hopkins has, or fellow British actors. Alan Rickman, for example, has a sort of theatre background. I think John is excited about film and he thought this was a great opportunity for him and he took it with both hands and kicked it out of the park.

Question: The movie has a lot of hoodoo and voodoo -- did anything weird happen on set?

Softley: Yeah, the crew said that whenever we did those scenes the cameras kept breaking. This is what we believed. My DVD crew... this friend of mine is a very unexcitable, rather dour Englishman... and he said, 'Something very strange happened in that house while I was filming yesterday.' He was in there on his own in the actual house by the bayou, and he was walking up towards the attic to get some shots for the DVD, and he said, 'I heard somebody following me, and I turned around but there was actually nobody there.' He carried on, and he heard footsteps again, but when he turned around they'd stop. I'm glad that was him, and not me.

Question: It was probably a giant mosquito. How did you guys handle that aspect of filming on location with Louisiana's 'state bird'?

Softley: The mosquitoes were a real challenge through all of it. Particularly since were shooting splits; we would often do a short scene before sunset, then of course that hour when the sun goes down you hear these sounds and see clouds of mosquitoes. So everyday, there would be on display different techniques in the combat of mosquitoes. People who were the virulent anti-smoking members of the crew were smoking massive cigars to ward off the mosquitoes.

The crew also put their faith in having Bounce dryer fabric softeners under their hats and they had them across their necks. There's a local brew that some of the local crew gave us that's a citronella mix. But the best solution -- which wasn't available to the actors -- was something our cinematographer Daniel Mindel got a bulk order of online, and that was mosquito suits. He'd used them when he was in Africa, and we all went around like bee-keepers.

At first people thought, 'Well, that's crazy.' And by the end of the shoot everybody, at sunset, was wearing these. Except the actors. Kate was such a trooper. The scene in the swam, where she's kind of paddling through, she was looking at us on the boat, covered [from head to toe] and spraying ourselves, smoking cigars, and... [laughs] And she was getting absolutely bitten to death.

Question: The thunderstorms and lightning are authentic to the New Orleans setting, but how much did you stage, and how much is natural in the film?

Softley: It was a combination of both. It was amusing, because on the first day we had a rain scene. We put the rain in ourselves. It's a very difficult thing to do on a movie, because you've got foreground rain, and mid-ground rain, and background rain and they all need different lighting. If you don't light it enough, you can't see it but if you light it too much it looks fake... it's very difficult to get an even spread.

The combination of the fantastic special effects guys, and the lighting -- the lighting cameraman, Daniel Mindel, and Mitch Dubin, who is Steven Spielberg's camera operator, was... just knowing, and the light, and being able to direct... very, very technical. I didn't realize that though, because the first day we did it, it was like, 'That's just too much.'

About two hours after we wrapped, we were driving back to New Orleans and the heavens opened and sky cracked, and whole swamp lit up around us. I had told them, 'Maybe we'd better turn down the rain a bit,' but the next morning I said, 'You know what? Don't bother turning the rain down. I think we need to crank it up a bit.' So it was a combination. It was kind of a revelation to all of us how fierce it could be.

Question: Does being British give you a different perspective on this?

Softley: Maybe. My knee-jerk reaction is to say that maybe because it was slightly more documentary and kind of lower-key in terms of glamour, but there are many American directors who have that sort of eye. I think there is something about being an outsider, particularly in this film...

Kate herself goes into a scenario that she finds unfamiliar. You maybe pick up on things that you quickly kind of see as distinctive that maybe somebody who's more familiar with that world doesn't. I had a connection on another level, which is the music.

When I first flew in, it was a strange feeling of going somewhere that I'd always felt I had a familiarity with on some level. I've been listening to music that was either from New Orleans or influenced by here, all my life. The references in the songs are to the city, the bayou, and you know, having a competition with somebody using magic. I mean, how many songs do you know that mention New Orleans in the title?

Question: What local bands did you use in the movie?

Softley: The Rebirth Band was in the bar scene. On the first day I got here, I landed at 5 in the evening and by 1:00 a.m. I was in The Maple Leaf listening to The Rebirth. We had a much longer scene showing them, actually, in an earlier cut. They're playing at the [movie] premiere in L.A. next week -- we're taking them up there.

There's another local band who's playing in the second club scene, when Jill explains the difference between hoodoo and voodoo to Caroline. It's a band called The 3rd Infantry, and they actually wrote a song for us -- it's a 'bounce' song, which is actually New Orleans hip-hop. It's called Bounce That Thang. The mind boggles! [laughs] There's a nice kind of spin of the whole music thing, which is really interesting to me and just worked for the film in more ways than I thought.

On one level, it's a reservoir of the oral history of the region. I mean, the whole reference to the slave experience is in Delta blues. There's also a lot of hoodoo references; mojo, I'm sorry Austin Powers, isn't what you think it is. It's a bag of spells to ward off... um, Robert Johnson mentions foot powder. There's a whole kind spirituality side to the music as well, and a ritualistic side. It's kind of a cross-over between religion and entertainment. We've gotten a top club DJ to remix the Conjure song in the movie, and it's already really taking off in Europe. So thousands of miles away from New Orleans, hoodoo is at work to the sound of a different drumbeat.

Question: How familiar were you with hoodoo before taking this movie on?

Softley: Not at all, but in retrospect I went back and listened to all those songs and realized there were all these references. I kind of thought, at first, that hoodoo and voodoo were sort of similar and that one was another word for the other, or sort of an alternative. Then I was aware in common parlance of hoodooing -- it just means you're kind of working spells.

I was reading To Kill A Mockingbird with my daughter the other week, and the character Boo Radley refers to them finding these effigies and coins in the trunk of a tree. That's all authentic hoodoo ritual. And one of the kids turns to him and says, 'I don't believe in any of that hoodooing.' So it's the kind of stuff I'd heard, but never actually specifically worked out what it was.

Question: What are you working on at the moment?

Softley: I am working on an erotic thriller, as opposed to a supernatural thriller. It's set in the South of France and is based on a book by Sebastien Japrisot, who wrote A Very Long Engagement. [I plan to go] as erotic as I can with it. It's an independent film, and it hasn't been cast yet.

Question: What are you own beliefs when it comes to the supernatural?

Softley: I think I'm somebody who isn't aware of the degree to which I do believe. I would always say that I'm a rationalist and a sceptic, but one of the reasons I realized I'm so interested in this music is that it's kind of the appeal of the occult, in a broad sense, of what's hidden, what's kind of... and sort of the spirituality. The idea of some kind of magical, shamanistic thing. I mean, you know, that's how music has always worked.

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