SXSW Interview: Writer/Director Travis Stevens for GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR

Travis Stevens first came on my radar during the release of Sarah Adina Smith’s acclaimed thriller, Buster’s Mal Heart, because of Stevens’ production company, Snowfort Pictures. Since then I’ve watched as Snowfort has continued to produce quality genre films, many of which have cemented themselves in the hearts of horror fans far and wide.

Now Travis has stepped into a new role as director for his first film, GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR, which just saw its World Premiere at the SXSW Film Festival this weekend. The film, which is a modern version of a haunted house tale, is both refreshing, thought-provoking, and unsettling with visually striking camera shots and subtle scares that will leave you feeling chilled to the bone.

For the release of his feature film debut, I had the chance to speak with Travis about GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR where we discussed everything from the true story surrounding the house, working with CM Punk, and how the #MeToo movement fits within the themes of the story.

Congratulations on GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR! We really loved the film and are so happy to see it having its World Premiere at the SXSW Film Festival. To start things off, can you tell those who may not be familiar with the film a little bit about it?

Travis Stevens: GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR is a haunted house story for 2019. We start with a bit of a familiar set up of a family moving into a house to have a new start; however [over the course of the film] the house begins to reveal the rottenness of some of the characters.

GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR is your feature-film debut and not only did you direct it but you also wrote the story. What pushed you to want to direct this and how did the story come about? 

TS: The idea to do a movie in that house came from my producing partner Greg Newman who lived in the area. When the house came on the market, he started doing some investigating and found out that the house had a long history of terrible things happening there. He thought it was a really great idea to shoot a haunted house movie in an actual haunted house. The initial idea for the film came from Greg and then it became a process of trying to figure out what story to tell there. In the course of hearing lots of pitches and looking at the material nothing felt fresh, but during the process of going through all that I came up with my own take on a story. Eventually, it got to the point where it seemed like I should give this a try. I think for me, creatively, my take on this particular story was looking at the history of the house which was reported to have been a bordello in the past. The fact that it sits across from an old German church seemed to be a great starting point for what to explore in the story.

I really enjoyed all the performances in GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR; however, I really felt like CM Punk stole the show. Can you talk a little bit over the overall casting and how you knew he was the right person for the role of Don?

TS: Don has this ability to draw people in. He has a charisma and I think a lot of his success in life has been his ability to get people to like him, so it was important that the actor portraying him had that charisma. This is a Chicago movie, we wanted to cast and crew it with as many Chicago locals as possible, and those two factors pointed towards Phil Brooks (aka CM Punk). He came highly recommended from Bobcat Goldthwait who had worked with him and mentioned Phil to Greg. That stuck in Greg’s mind, so when we were looking for the cast, Greg mentioned Phil. I had only known of him through his fighting career, not really from his wrestling but from his MMA. So on one hand, we knew that character of Don needed that charismatic element and on the other hand, we knew Phil as just this really hard working, ego-free guy who was willing to put in the work, it just seemed like the perfect fit. We started talking and immediately he was excited about this challenge and working with us. [GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR] was Phil’s first feature, my first feature, and most of the other actors first feature so it was a lot of fun for all of us to go into it together and establish that trust together, it was a fun process.

Travis Stevens

One of my favorite aspects of the film was the unique camera work – whether it was the shots that showed Don fixing underneath the sink, or the mirror shots, or even when Sarah grabs a beer for the first time. Was that approach always what you envisioned? 

TS: Yeah, before even a word was put down on the page I set out on what my goal would be. I wanted it to be a tense and visually striking haunted house movie and I wanted it to be the best that I could make it of those qualities. That meant every scene that I wrote and every scene that I blocked and shot with directed that. That’s how the mirrors came in and being inside the walls looking out –  a lot of those visual languages of the film were dictated by just trying to do inventive things with this subgenre. Then you try to tie it in with the characters as well. I wanted to introduce Don in a mirror because we aren’t actually seeing the image he’s projecting, so we really played with that. We didn’t want it to be stuff you’ve seen before. Our cinematographer Scott Thiele really tried to push visually what you can do on a small budget movie.

While watching the film it reminded me in a way of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” as well as having these empowering and relatable themes reminiscent of the #MeToo movement. Was that intentional? 

TS: Yeah, 100%. I don’t want to oversimplify the movie but it’s about a shitty husband. It’s a movie about not giving in to our lesser selves and it’s a movie about the rage that comes from being discarded and being treated as a ‘thing’ for somebody else’s pleasure. My approach was to try and slowly reveal those elements of the film. We start the story from Don’s perspective, from the traditional alpha male perspective, and over the course of the movie reveal what’s really going on. Much like when Don starts tearing up the house we begin to see just how rotten a person he is and as we go further, we reveal what the theme of the film really is. In the third act, it becomes Liz’s story and we see her character without Don’s perspective and we see her on her own terms and how she engages with the house.

Last but not least, what are you hoping audience goers take away from this film? 

TS: I hope they are having a blast watching it and I hope that after they leave the theater, and over the course of the next few days, they think about it more. In any movie, you hope you’re improving someone’s life a little bit. I just hope that the idea of not treating people like shit but instead being the best version of yourself as well as being honest with yourself and the people in your life is something that I think would be really great for people to walk away with.

Phil Brooks as Don Koch in GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR | Credit: Andy Goodwin Photography | Copyright 2018 Queensbury Pictures
Shannon McGrew
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