Talking The Business Of Nightmares With The Filmmakers Behind ‘The Night House’ And The ‘Hellraiser’ Reboot
If you’re looking for a psychological horror with pedigree, The Night House is it. Snapped up by the prestigious Searchlight Pictures in a deal said to be in the neighborhood of $12 million shortly after its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020.
Rebecca Hall plays a wife, Beth, grieving her recently deceased husband, Owen, played by Evan Jonigkeit, in the lakeside house he built for them. However, Beth senses that she’s not alone, and a ghostly presence leads her to discover that her husband had some dark secrets. The nerve-shredding genre movie is one of this year’s best films.
The filmmaking team boasts director David Bruckner and Phantom Four’s Kevin Levine and David S. Goyer, one of the industry’s most prolific producers. I caught up with the trio to discuss The Night House, killer casting and reuniting to bring horror fans the highly anticipated Hellraiser reimagining.
Simon Thompson: Let’s start with the fact that The Night House first screened some 18 months ago at the Sundance Film Festival.
Keith Levine: Yes, January 2020. It only played twice. Nobody has really seen the movie until now.
Thompson: The reaction coming out of Sundance was very strong. It played very well, and then you guys had to sit on it for a year and a half. You obviously didn’t intend for it to be that long. Were you tempted at any point to not hold out and just put it out there via streaming
David S. Goyer: No, we were never tempted. In fact, it was a very ample offer that Searchlight made for this, but we had bigger offers that didn’t involve a purely theatrical release. We just absolutely felt we wanted this to be seen in theaters. If you think about a communal experience, a film viewing experience, funny movies, and scary movies are the ones that work the best when you have other people.
David Bruckner: So much of the film is immersive by design. You never really know what you have, and you’re unsure how it will connect to the audience. It’s so surreal to be pressing through a very condensed post-production period, and you lose perspective on the material. When we got to that first Friday night screening at Sundance, it was midnight, those moments started to land, and you could feel the audience’s energy; that’s when it was really clear.
Levine: I think it’s not like that for some of the stuff we work on. We put so much time and energy into this, specifically the sound design and the more atmospheric elements that have made the film so successful as a project. The idea that those elements wouldn’t get to be seen working at their highest level did not appeal. It was something we all wanted to hold out for.
Thompson: You mentioned that The Night House played in the hallowed midnight slot at Sundance, and expectations are always high for movies that do that. You were clearly confident that it would deliver.
Levine: We were rushing to finish it.
Goyer: We barely made it (laughs).
Levine: We were very humbled by the reception from the programmers and the idea that they wanted to place the movie in a big spot. We felt very encouraged by that. Rather than feeling like finishing the film at a clip was a lot of pressure, it became this motivator of excitement for us.
Thompson: Why are movies like The Night House, which are effectively ghost stories, so rare?
Bruckner: This is a haunted house film. It’s also a bit of a gothic romance, and some people will say a psychological thriller. We wanted to use all of those tropes and devices as a means to explore a character and the inner psychology of this woman, Beth, who’s going through this completely impossible, very recent, and sudden tragedy in her life. For me, it’s essential to embrace the genre and never be above it. These films are tough to make. It’s quite a humbling experience. We’re filmmakers that love this stuff, and we want to revel in it. We don’t want to have to define something as necessarily a drama or a horror film. It’s very exciting that it can be both.
Levine: It’s also about stripping it down and making sure it works on both fronts. We obviously have the mega-talented Rebecca Hall who, if we pulled out all our scare moments, you’re captivated watching her, going on the journey with her and her character. At the same time, we have all these genre elements, which we think we’re doing well, and they would stand up on their own. We were trying to do a few things, especially with this Negative Space Man concept, which is what we call our outline of Owen’s shape that we personified. We were trying to do that genre stuff in a unique way. When you mix the two of them, you get to go back and forth.
Goyer: Almost everything I get involved in is a genre film or show, and I’m unapologetic about that. Everything I’m involved in always has to work on two tracks. It has to work as a horror film, and if it does nothing else, it has to be scary. If it isn’t, then who is going to give a shit? It also has to work, in this case, as a story about grief and as a drama piece in the same way that The Dark Knight and Batman Begins did. Every time we get involved in something like that, we’ll go through a process and say, ‘Okay, let’s put aside all the horror and scare aspect and assess it as a dramatic story. Does it work? Now let’s put aside the drama, and does it work as a horror film?’ One can’t undercut the other.
Thompson: Let’s talk about some of the influences on the movie. It’s a very original piece, but I was getting hits of the original The Haunting, a little bit of It Follows and What Lies Beneath, and a few other things.
Goyer: I can see that. Those are decent. I would also say a little bit of Don’t Look Now.
Bruckner: We talked a lot about the horror novel House of Leaves.
Goyer: I love House of Leaves.
Bruckner: It definitely is that whole concept of architectural horror, of changing spaces as a reflection of changing minds. There’s this house as a representation of a marriage. That book opened a lot of doors as far as how you could push a piece of literature where the genre was concerned. One thing that we wondered about in this was if you could carry multiple interpretations simultaneously instead of bringing the film to a particular point. Sometimes there’ll be a read on something that is a literal read on the material, and then there’s the metaphorical. One of the joys of this script was that it had multiple dimensions and interpretations happening at once, so we charted all of those out. I don’t feel like we’ve seen enough architectural work that should be its own sub-genre.
Thompson: It’s very theatrical, and Rebecca Hall has a strong heritage in that space. Did her experience help guide you and what you were doing?
Bruckner: Rebecca had a really intuitive approach to this from the beginning. We all recognized that the character’s experience is something that none of us have experienced. You’re finding her in the four to eight-day window after the sudden loss of her husband. Most films that explore grief cut to six months later, once reality has settled, and they are dealing with it. This is the in-between state. She’s reeling. It’s very hard to control where the character is going to go, and it has to be this very spontaneous, high wire act in a way. Rebecca understood that from the jump and told us, ‘I’m just going to run with this. Sometimes I want to be unpredictable, and you don’t always know where it’s going to take me.’ There were moments in the film where I didn’t necessarily know what she was going to do. In that sense, it felt very much like a collaboration instead of saying, ‘Here’s the vision. Interpret this.’ We also had a very truncated schedule where every time she walks through one door, it’s a different day on a different week. It was tough to keep track of. Not only did the movie have a puzzle-like, labyrinthian quality, so did the process of creating it.
Thompson: Rebecca has headlined smaller movies and independent movies, so this is probably the biggest movie that she’s headlined. Was there any pushback because she’s not considered a marquee actor?
Goyer: As you know, we ended up financing the film independently, and Searchlight came on after the fact. There were definitely, for lack of a better phrase, more prominent names discussed, but we always really wanted Rebecca. She represented the quality that we were going for. You can sometimes get jumpscares in a programmatic way if you don’t care about the characters. To make jumpscares effective, you need to have dread, and to have dread, you need to care about the character. How do you care about the character? Well, it’s partly in the direction, but mainly in the performance. Rebecca was a name that came up very early on, and I just thought we needed someone that good.
Levine: She was always the target. We had to play the game a little bit, but she was always who we talked about. The character on the page had these layers and ferociousness, and there were only a few people we thought could even bring her to life. Rebecca was always at the top of the list.
Thompson: We’re talking about casting, and the husband in this, Owen, is someone who is hardly physically in the movie. He’s in a photo and a handful of other scenes. Getting that casting right for someone who’s fundamentally not there but has a crucial role, that’s a very different process. I’m assuming it’s even harder to cast a role like that?
Levine: Oh, yeah. Big time. Evan, who does a fantastic job in the movie, his actual character only appears in these home videos and a few other scenes. He just had an audition tape that floored us. We watched a bunch of audition tapes, and he had a legitimately haunting one.
Bruckner: Evan tapped into something, and when you find it, you’ve got to hold on to that as best you can. He was very involved in how the character worked throughout the film. A lot of times, Owen exists in photos around the house, and those photos tell a story. There’s an emotion that’s happening on its face, and they are reaction shots. We would treat those photos like scenes. He’d ask, ‘Am I asking her a question here? Am I judging her? Does she miss me, and do I know it?’ We actually had different pictures that we would try out on the walls while filming, almost as a different take to see which would work better in the edit.
Thompson: He is also the Negative Space Man, a character we never see in the movie, and that’s entirely voice work. There’s a seduction and a sensuality to it, this very edgy tenderness, and I imagine getting that tone right and delivery is critical?
Goyer: There were many, many iterations of the voice. I don’t know how many David did, but we kept debating how much to process it or not.
Levine: In earlier cuts, it was David Bruckner doing the voice.
Bruckner: We found a way that you could lean into a microphone and let the wetness of your mouth stick around at the end of sentences. We asked ourselves, ‘Can somebody be across a room and say something to you, but it feels like they’re whispering right in your ear? Can we create that in sound design? Can you get that sense that the hair would stand up on the back of your neck that something shouldn’t be that close to you, and yet it is?’ We did some of that on set and then some in the booth with Evan. He must have said those lines an incredible number of times.
Goyer: The aspect of nailing that voice was a post-production event. Matthew Greenfield and David Greenbaum at Searchlight were fantastic. They were challenging us into the weeds on that.
Bruckner: We took it further. It sounds a little different than it did at the Sundance test. We were able to keep the performance element there. There’s something about it that I think is a little matter-of-fact element to it that is frightening, and I can’t put my finger on why. If you tip too far in something that’s trying to spook you out, it all becomes a little “haunted hayride” or something.
Levine: We watched some Japanese horror films from the 90s and listened to vocal textures, we listened to stuff like Professor Xavier in X-Men when he whispers in your ear, we listened to all kinds of stuff. We also did our due diligence and asked how we differentiate this. How do we make this voice stand out and be iconic? We did a lot of homework.
Thompson: And while we’re talking about horror and iconic things, you’re working on Hellraiser together. Did that come out of you working on The Night House and deciding that you wanted to replicate that experience?
Levine: I’ve been working on Hellraiser for 11 years. I was a studio exec on it, so I’ve been involved in the product for a long time. We had a great experience together, and we were thinking, ‘What can we get the band back together on?’ It just kind of felt natural. David Bruckner wasn’t officially involved when we were formally involved, but our intention was always to have him as part of it.
Goyer: It’s the same with Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski. They wrote The Night House and Hellraiser scripts. Keith and I started speaking to Spyglass about it, and as soon as those conversations were becoming real, we just said, ‘Right, let’s get David and Ben and Luke on this. Now.’
Thompson: David, you’ve done original movies up to this point, this will be your first IP, and it’s a big one. What’s your approach?
Bruckner: Well, it’s sacred material for people like us, in some ways. There was a little bit of hesitation for me at first. I wanted to make sure that I had a grasp on this and that there’s something here that’s really achievable. Clive Barker’s original is formative. I saw the first Hellraiser when I was too young to understand it, and it scared me. I saw it a few years later, and it hit me that it was about a lot more than I thought it was. It changed again over the years. It’s deceptively complex. What has been really illuminating about this process is that there’s so much fantastic material to pull from that. There’s so much that we can do with it. At a certain point, the pressure of managing the reboot kind of goes away, and giddy horror fan comes alive a little bit, and you realize that there’s so much potential here. Who wouldn’t want to open the box again?
Thompson: You refer to it as a reboot, so it’s a reimagining, not a continuation?
Bruckner: It’s a reimagining. We would never remake the original film. It can’t be done. There are other fantastic stories to tell in this universe.
Thompson: Are you building a new universe with multiple movies?
Goyer: I don’t believe in ever working on a movie, presuming there will be more. You can leave breadcrumbs and avenues to explore because I think it’s interesting not to answer every question. When we were working with Christopher Nolan, I would say, ‘If you have a good idea, use it. If it would be interesting to burn a bridge, burn it. Don’t save something for the sequel or presume that there will be another one.’
Levine: We’ve got to make one good movie first.
Thompson: You obviously have love for Clive Barker, so if Hellraiser goes well, could you do the same with other properties in the Barkerverse, such as Nightbreed?
Levine: I think they’re currently doing a Nightbreed TV show with the director Michael Dougherty. Everything Clive has written appeals to us in one way or another.
Goyer: All the way back to those Books of Blood and The Hellbound Heart, those original stories are so rich. There are so many crazy ideas. The guy has an insanely fertile imagination.
The Night House lands in theaters on Friday, August 20, 2021.