At 8.23 she phoned her daughter.
It was the last call she ever made.
Would-be scary movies are a dozen a dime at the moment, with audiences it seems never getting tired of being frightened out of their wits. If you are a horror fan, you will no doubt already be aware of the The Pact, which is to be released in UK cinemas on June 8. Two weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend a preview of the movie, and can definately tell you that the film works with an audience and has plenty of the ingredients to satisfy lovers of this kind of movie. This week, I am even luckier to have the writer and director of the film answer some questions about it.
NM: I grew up in New England and have been watching movies obsessively since I can remember. When I was very young, many of the films that made the biggest impression on me I saw on television, 1950s horror and science fiction movies. When all the other kids were out playing sports or doing something healthy, I was watching stuff like TARANTULA and THE THING THAT COULDN’T DIE.
I made my first film when I was 10, on Super 8mm – a horror movie. Ever since then, I’ve made short films. And when I wasn’t making films, I was watching them, in theaters or at home – all kinds of movies, my favorites being art films, horror movies, film noir, or any kind of B” movie. I dreamed of making features myself but never had any idea how I could get the opportunity to make one.
NM: As an adult, I began writing seriously. Just like with the short films, no one was paying me to do this — I just realized that if this was my dream, to be a writer/director, than I had to do both of those things constantly, regardless of success. Finally my work caught the attention of some film festivals, and eventually I got paid to write. Not much, but enough to rationalize continuing to do it. It was all of this experience that led to writing and directing THE PACT.
DL: The Pact began life as a short film. Did you always envisage it as something which could be expanded into a feature, or did you one day just go: “hang on, I’ve got an idea which could just work…..”?
NM: I never originally intended the short to be a feature, but some of the ideas in the short had come from a screenplay that I had written years before and never really had finished to my satisfaction.
The short is a strange film in that it’s more a character piece than a straight horror movie. It doesn’t have a traditional pay off, and that was by design. But when I premiered it at Sundance it was clear that what I was doing with the camera was working, because a lot of people got freaked out by it. Three days after the festivals I met with Content Media, who proposed financing a feature. After years and years of writing I knew I could come up with a feature inspired by the short, since I had been practicing for this opportunity for about 20 years.
NM: At first it was difficult, but I’ve found there’s always a way into something, you just have to work at it until something hooks you in. What I decided on for the PACT feature was it be all about uncovering things, about revelations, about seeing — whereas the short was all about not seeing. In the end I had two completely different movies, with the same core material. The feature was finished less than a year after the short premiered. It’s still hard to believe.
DL: Did you deliberately watch lots of scary movies prior to writing and/or filming, maybe to see what worked and what didn’t?
NM: I had a whole lifetime of watching scary movies to prepare! That was what was great about making it. It felt completely natural to tell this story, it was the fulfillment of a dream to finally make a horror movie.
NM: It’s interesting you spotted PHENOMENA, I just watched it again a few weeks ago and was struck by how much had rubbed off on me from that movie. So many of the strong sequences in that film are the kind of things that I was trying to channel. While putting THE PACT together, I would sometimes show my DP scenes from movies. The park scene I think you’re talking about is actually modeled on a scene in BLOW-UP. But Argento took everything from that movie, so it’s a kind of sideways homage.
THE PACT moves between genres, from a ghost story, into a kind of giallo movie, into a more physical slasher movie. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice to do that, but in retrospect it does reflect my taste in horror movies.
DL: Did the script change much during shooting?
NM: We made the movie so fast, there was no time to change it. There was only one scene shot that wasn’t used, that explained more of the rules of the ghost. It slowed everything down so we left it out. Aside from that, we used everything.
DL: It seemed to me that, with this film, you went for old fashioned, practical special effects. Was this a deliberate decision to get away from CGI [which I personally feel is overused], or did you just think it suited the picture better?
NM: Yes it was a deliberate decision to do everything practically. A computer was only used to remove things. The reason for that was I like to look through the camera and see what I’m getting right there, not leave it to the vagaries of an animator. Plus, your film gains something – a soul.
DL: One of the things I liked best about THE PACT was the elegant, graceful camerawork by Bridger Nielson. I loved the way the camera often glided down the hallway. Did you have a good idea from the outset how you wanted the film to be shot?
NM: One of the interesting aspects creatively about making the movie for me was that it was all kind of a riff on this short that I had just made, with the same core crew of DP, Production Designer, Editor, Composer, etc. When making the feature we had a sort of mythology for the world that we all had built into the short. For that reason, Bridger and I had a very specific idea about how the camera should move based on the feel of the short. The camera moves weren’t difficult, it was just that there were so many of them. So shooting the film became the task of trying to get as many of these shots as we could get on our extremely limited time and budget. Almost everything you see in the movie is no more than two takes, sometimes just one.
DL: I also really liked how you used quiet, or minimal noise, a great deal. The climax, while still as gripping as they come, borders on being almost silent [or at least it seemed to me], deviating considerably from the typical climax you get in films of this kind at the moment. Did you make a conscious decision for the film to be like this?
NM: It seemed essential that the climax play out quiet, to put us in the head of our lead. And silence is underused in movies nowadays. Filmmaking now tends to use sound to cover up poor directing.
DL: Was it an easy shoot?
NM: Making any movie is hard I imagine. But – you’re making a movie, how cool is that? We had 18 days to get all of what you see and it’s crazy to think we pulled it off. We did over 40 set ups a day on some days, which is a staggering amount.
DL: Was Caity Lotz your first choice for the lead role? She is fantastic in it
NM: We looked at a lot of young women for the lead and when Caity came in to read for the part I immediately knew she was the one. Caity has a toughness that you can’t fake, a confidence that the character needed. That’s what I look for when casting – something they possess that you can always count on when you turn on the camera.
DL: Was it easy getting a ‘name’ like Casper Van Dien?
NM: Casper heard about the movie from his manager and came in and read for the part. I could hardly believe it. He’s an amazing guy.
When we shot with him we really tried to make him look tired and kind of aged for the part, but it was impossible — he’s just way too good looking, every time we’d try to mess him up he’s just have those movie star looks shining through, it was frustrating!
DL: Though they have been a staple of the horror genre for decades, it seems like the last few years or so, ghost tales on film have really taken off in a big way, with audiences flocking to them. What do you think it is that is attracting people, especially at the moment, to this kind of movie?
NM: I think the 1990s were a hugely influential decade in horror that filmmakers are still mining. After a period where it was really hard for any good horror movies to get made, we had the J-horror explosion of RINGU and JU-ON, as well as the two key supernatural horror movies that we’re still seeing endless versions of in all shapes and sizes – THE SIXTH SENSE, which rebooted big Hollywood horror movies, and BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which started the “found footage” genre (which I hope will die a horrible death soon). Whatever the result of what all of those films spawned, each of them are very strong examples of genre filmmaking.
DL: Do you think the success of a good scare is more in the build up or in the pay-off?
NM: I know that some people really look at scares as math or something, and that you need a certain number to keep your audience happy. It starts to feel a little cynical to start dissecting it too much. It should all come from story and what the moment calls for. There’s no formula. I mean, some people are completely terrified by my movie, while others don’t find it frightening at all. You can’t control it, and I dig that.
NM: Yes, I really want to make another horror movie! I just finished writing what I want the next one to be and I’m really excited.
DL: And finally, can I ask you to name your top three horror movies, the three you would take with you on to a desert island?
NM: Three, that’s tough. Well I’ll start with primal horror, so let’s go with ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932). Then let’s move to the high art side of things, so I’m taking THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991). Finally, let’s get our hands filthy with an image of hell on film – THE LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET (1977). I’d be happy to watch that triple feature once a week!
I would like to thank Nicholas McCarthy for taking time from his busy schedule to do this interview, and we at Horror Cult Films hope his movie is a success so that we can see more tales of terror from this talented writer and director!