Around this time last year, I had the chance to check out the new horror anthology, NIGHTMARE CINEMA, as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival. The anthology is separated into five different stories from directors Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, David Slade and Ryûhei Kitamura and is centered around five strangers that are drawn to an abandoned theater where they are forced to watch their deepest fears come to life.
For the release of the film, we had the opportunity to speak with director David Slade about his short, THIS WAY TO EGRESS. During our chat we discussed everything from how he got involved with the anthology, to the inspiration behind his short, and the use of practical effects.
Hi David, thank you so much for speaking with me today. To start things off can you tell us how you got involved with NIGHTMARE CINEMA?
David Slade: Mick Garris is someone I’ve known for awhile. He’s a lovely human being. Over the years, he’s brought things to me and eventually said, “I have this thing. It’s an anthology. Basically, you’ll have complete freedom and [can] do anything you want. Are you interested?” And I said, “Let’s do that.” And then somehow we managed to pull it off.
Can you talk a little bit about your short, THIS WAY TO EGRESS? It is based on a short story by Lawrence Connolly, correct?
David Slade: It is. I read the story in the early 2000s and I wanted to adapt the feeling that I got when I read it because it was familiar to me and it was interesting. I also believed that there was a way to make this sort of cinematic truth that was entirely subconscious and about feeling and not necessarily words. I set about adapting it as a screenplay for a feature film with my very good friend Charly Cantor. Charly was a really good friend who I’d known for a very long time. We adapted it into a feature-length film and then he was struck down with cancer a few years back. I carried the idea and the story with me for fifteen, sixteen years. I found the feature-length was too painful to look at, but I felt if I went back to Larry’s short story…perhaps we could do a different iteration for now until it was less painful to look at a feature-length. So, that’s what we did. I contacted Larry and I said, “Look, I’m just going to do a really stripped down version of the short story and closing scene,” and Larry agreed. I wrote the first draft, but it needed an extra scene and Larry, who actually read [the script], actually helped write the extra scene for me that I loved. Then I went out and got as many friends together, including a few of them who had made movies with me. Elizabeth Reaser, who I was really happy could come along, was someone I had worked with before and just did it as a favor for me. It was a cool, little family affair. It didn’t really fill the hole [of Charly], but it kind of helps having done it. It’s quite an emotional thing for me.
I remember when I was talking to Mick he had mentioned that in terms of challenges faced, your short was one of the more complicated ones due to it being in a government building and having all those practical effects. Can you elaborate on that?
David Slade: Yeah, I wanted to do most of the things practically because there had to be a sense of realism to it. To me, the thing about horror as a genre is it’s one of the purer forms of cinema because largely, what you do with cinema, is you use the devices of it to communicate an idea. I believe also that when it actually works beautifully, it can create extremely beautiful nightmares. So, to me, I wanted a surface level that was completely believable. I didn’t want the backdrop standing out and that stuff. We started with the practical aspects of it and had prosthetics for Ezra Buzzington. Again, [he’s] an actor I’ve known for a long time and came along to play both Ron and Mitch, the two cleaners of the film. Also, Bronwyn Morrill, who played the receptionist, had a whole head prosthetic by the end of it all. There was a lot of digital clean-up and massaging, which is often the way it works, but most of it was done practically. I also wanted to use a real location. I didn’t want to build a set for it, I just wanted a sense of realism. Not even that you just see it, but that you feel it. I didn’t want it to be a fantasy piece. I kind of wanted it to be, you know, a portrait of someone losing their mind perhaps or any number of open interpretations. I just wanted you to look at the people and believe them, even the ones who don’t look too human.
The performances were so genuine which is why I think this short was so terrifying. What was the casting process like?
David Slade: Thank you. I knew I needed actors I could trust and so what I did was I went for people that I knew would be sympathetic doing it and people who had really impressed me. I had pretty much worked with all of the actors beside Bronwyn, who played the receptionist, and Macintyre [Sweeney] and Lucas [Barker]. Elizabeth Reaser was traveling a lot so I emailed [the script] to her and had a really long phone call about it. But it was really interesting that I never sat down to interpret the story to anybody. I just talked a lot about the feeling and what it meant to me and everybody got it. Everybody understood it in some way, you know? In terms of the rehearsal process, we just read it for a bit. I don’t really believe rehearsal is about performance. Usually, that’s the actor and the power that they have that they bring. We went to a safe room where [the cast] could do anything they wanted to and we kind of just sat and read it. I gave a list [that was] a series of little tasks to push out the word and face what [the film] was. Patrick Wilson actually makes a surprise cameo appearance as Eric Sr., the dad. The husband on the phone is Patrick, who knows Elizabeth as well, and I had worked with him on my first movie and he’s a good friend and did me a favor recording the phone call session. It was quite emotional, but it was about trust as much as anything because the things we were doing were crazy. There is no basis for these kinds of performances, the performance that [Elizabeth] has to give. Confession. Push through. Revelation. Not knowing and being afraid. It took trust and I was really grateful to the actors for trusting in me.
Lastly, are there any other projects you’re working on right now that we should keep our eyes out for in the future?
David Slade: Hundreds of them. Hundreds and hundreds of them. The last thing that I’m working on right now is BARKSKINS, a television series. I’m directing the pilot episode and then producing it. It stars David Thewlis and is based on the Annie Proulx novel of the same title. I don’t know when it will hit the screens, but it’s shooting in July, I think. I have several films, two of which are really moving along at a great pace. I always want to talk about the novel COME CLOSER by Sara Gran, which I will make. I’ve been trying to make it for a long time and that’s beginning to move also. It’s a story about demonic possession from the inside. The novel is astonishing and I’ve been trying to make it for years. We’re getting closer is all I can say and we’ve got the financing now. We just have to find the person who will play the lead. It may not be the next film, but maybe, it’s a great novel.