What will it be like when the aliens come to call? Will they make their intentions known, or will they be shrouded in mystery?
In the new sci-fi-horror anthology PORTALS, directors Eduardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale, Liam O’Donnell, and Timo Tjahjanto give us their take on what first contact might look like, and the results are magic.
In the film, a series of world-wide blackouts act as a harbinger for the appearance of millions of cosmic anomalies. While many flee from the objects, the real terror sets in as people are drawn toward, and through, the portals.
If you want to get me excited for a film, the three best words to use are “horror,” “sci-fi”, and/or “anthology,” so you can imagine how pleased I was to get to speak with Eduardo, Gregg, and Liam about the creation of this trippy, tense, and extraterrestrial exploration.
In the new anthology PORTALS, you directed a segment about the fallout of an alien invasion at a 911 call center. How did you get involved in the project?
Eduardo Sanchez: Chris White, who was one of the producers, contacted me about doing the anthology, which was called DOORS at the time. It was about these portals opening up all over the world. The whole idea was kind of up in the air as far as what [the portals] were doing. [They’re] like a doorway into another dimension, and [Chris White said] you can do whatever you want with it. He told me that Brad Miska was involved, and [Gregg Hale and I] worked with Brad before on V/H/S 2, which was a great production. So Gregg and I were really excited and said “Yeah! We’re in.”
Ours was going to be the introductory segment, so for us it was really exciting because it was the first time you see humans interacting with a portal. It was just this great little Lord of the Flies [scenario]–an opportunity to put people in a room, introduce this alien thing, and then [watch the characters react], which is really the fun part, you know?
So it was kind of easy to get [into the idea]. We were excited to do it.
For me, what was so creepy about the segment was the juxtaposition of order and chaos. These 911 responders are trying to save lives and then this alien thing is thrown into the mix.
Eduardo Sanchez: Yeah, it’s like they’re the first line of defense, and they’re completely losing their shit. So, it’s like kind of hopeless after that.
In addition to co-directing “The Call Center” with Gregg Hale, you also edited the piece. Do you prefer to edit your own work?
Eduardo Sanchez: Honestly, I think I’m probably a better editor than a director. And I think I’m even a half decent director because I think I’m a pretty good editor. I like editing. I feel like sometimes it’s a little incestuous to edit your own film, even though I’ve done it before, Also I’m pretty lazy sometimes. Editing a feature is just a big, daunting task, and it really helps to have somebody else that you trust come in and bring a different vision to what you shot. It brings out a lot of things that you as the creators don’t see. I really love that.
Since we were co-directing [on PORTALS] I felt there was enough separation [between] me and the material to help me keep a little distance as far as like bringing something new to the edit.
I really do love editing. I would love to edit somebody else’s feature. I just haven’t had the time to do one, but I would love to do it.
PORTALS is certainly a horror film, but it’s also a sci-fi film. Are you personally a fan of the sci-fi genre? Did any particular films or books inform your work on the film?
Eduardo Sanchez: I love science fiction. I probably love it more than horror. I mean, I love horror, but horror is scary. Sometimes it’s not the most comfortable experience to watch a horror movie.
When I was in college I went through dozens of science fiction books. I found a used bookstore and I would just go through Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. One of my favorite movies is 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Somebody else asked me if any movies inspired “Call Center.” I had never really thought about it, but the idea of treating the interior of the call center almost like a spaceship. The walls are kind of bare. It’s very technical and looks kind of like a control center. There was nothing homey about that place.
That’s what I love about 2001: A Space Odyssey, the design of the ship and just how realistic it looked. It was the first time that science fiction didn’t look like Flash Gordon. I love that type of science fiction where there’s a certain amount of technical precision. I think that in the “Call Center” we wanted to bring that kind of claustrophobia. We don’t we have HAL 9000 but, we do have the portal. And it’s almost like the portal is watching them.
You’ve gotten to be a part of some of the biggest styles of horror films ever, first as a literal founder of the found footage genre, but also as part of the anthology style of horror filmmaking with V/H/S 2 and PORTALS. Why do you think the horror genre works so well inside these different filmmaking constructs?
Eduardo Sanchez: I’ve had this discussion with many people as far as the importance of The Twilight Zone. I’ve been talking to people about the new Twilight Zone as compared the old, and the fact that the new Twilight Zone is an hour-long show. All the old episodes were a half hour. And I think there’s something more effective about a shorter [run time]. It’s really the difference between a short story and a novel.
It’s the idea that you get in with one concept, one big idea, and then you dive in and examine it in ways that a longer piece doesn’t have time to do, because a longer piece has to move on to the next part of the story.
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that at least I grew up watching The Twilight Zone. That show was so inspirational to so many people in the business that it set up a narrative pattern that is still being followed to this day.
You’re collaborative work with Eduardo Sanchez is legendary at this point, thanks to the popularity of The Blair Witch Project. Can you give us some insight into how you two like to work together?
Gregg Hale: We’ve been working together for over 23 years now, so it’s kind of crazy.
Really being honest with each other is a big part of it. [With PORTALS], I think it started with us being enthusiastic about the idea and having a way that we wanted to express that idea.
Part of the reason I think we’re still together is that we do collaborate well. We respect each other’s ideas. Ed and I have lucked out that temperament and circumstances and things have kind of lined up that kept us not killing each other for the past 20 something years.
You mentioned you’re a sci-fi fan. I’d love to know what kind of sci-fi gets you excited. What movies and books in the genre have inspired your work?
Gregg Hale: Ed and I both started our filmmaking journey by watching Star Wars. I don’t know if Star Wars is actually science fiction or not, but definitely there’s science fiction-ish stuff to it.
In terms of melding science fiction and horror, I think Alien is probably the granddaddy of them all. And really Aliens later [showed me] how powerful that combination of science fiction and horror can be.
I find it really exciting when people can pull off science fiction ideas for little to no money, which was part of what we found appealing about PORTALS. It’s like, “OK how can you come up with a science fiction concept that you can make on a shoestring budget?” I enjoyed that process.
You’ve gotten to be a part of some of the biggest styles of horror films ever first as a literal founder of the found footage genre, but also as part of the anthology style of horror filmmaking with V/H/S 2 and PORTALS Why do you think the horror genre works so well inside these different filmmaking constructs?
Gregg Hale: That’s a great question that I actually haven’t been asked before. It is something that Ed and I talk about a lot.
I think it’s because horror is the most flexible genre there is. You can have sci-fi/horror, you can have [horror]/comedy, or you can have a period piece, or you can have basically a family drama with horror elements. I just think it’s the most flexible genre, and therefore I think it fits with any approach.
Same with anthologies, right? There’s this is something about horror’s flexibility where you can break it up in these little bite sized chunks and it’s super effective.
And you’re dealing with horror fans, who are unique. Horror fans are willing to give anything a shot. Not to say that they’re not critical, but they’re definitely willing to give anything a shot to see if it will be effective.
Looking at your film resume, you’re clearly a sci-fi fan, and more specifically it seems you’re a fan of the “extraterrestrials as threat” subgenre. What about that particular subgenre interests you?
Liam O’Donnell: You know, it’s funny. It’s one of those things where I am a fan of it, [but it’s also] defined everything that I’ve managed to get made. Obviously, I love a bunch of different genres, but for whatever reason the alien ones are the ones that actually are going to production.
With Skyline, what I really liked about [the subgenre] was shaking up characters and putting them in a corner–a completely insurmountable corner. I also love that it’s a very malleable genre. You can still ground things in some form of logic, but because it’s alien it really gives you a lot of freedom to explore crazy new ideas.
I like the idea of putting characters in an insurmountable corner. As a writer how do you dig deeper to raise the stakes even further? Where does the inspiration come from? Is it logical, or do you let your mind dream?
Liam O’Donnell: That’s something I’ve been working on–trying to come at things from a more thematic character standpoint than when I started. When I started, I was very concept driven. I loved Independence Day and War of the Worlds, the bigger alien invasion movies. [I would start with the big concept], then I would find characters and situations and try to add personal experiences into it.
[Personal experience] definitely is what informed PORTALS. [The film] is without a doubt the most personal project I’ve ever made. My wife and my daughter play the wife and daughter [in the “The Other Side” segment]. That’s our SUV they’re driving. Not to mention I lost sight in my right eye when I was 4 years old from an optic nerve glioma. I always wanted to explore something like that, something a little bit more personal.
I’m really intrigued by the personal nature of your work on the film. Now that PORTALS is complete, does it still resonate as your experience or has it now moved into the world of fiction?
Liam O’Donnell: It definitely still resonates as my experience. I just saw the first piece of fan art. Someone drew a picture of Neil with the big black eyeball, and it touched me because it’s always been a part of myself that [I’m] very self conscious of. [The type of thing] in your own reflection that you kind of have a lot of self loathing about. So to take that imagery and make it cool and, in a strange way, empowered definitely touched me and made it feel a little bit different.
The reason why I got involved with the project was because of the other filmmakers. I think everybody my age is a huge fan of The Blair Witch Project and [the way] it changed horror movies. And we all share the experience leading up to [seeing it] and then searching the internet afterward. So to have my name on the same movie as Eduardo and Gregg was definitely a dream come true.
Speaking of of getting involved, can you tell me a little bit about how the script was developed. I think the birth of anthologies is always really interesting and often very nebulous, so I’m always really interested in how they begin.
Liam O’Donnell: I think you’re very astute in calling it nebulous. From what I’ve heard, Chris White and Brad Miska came up with the concept and reached out to different filmmakers. They shot Timo and Eduardo and Gregg’s sequences before mine. So they brought those to me and asked if I had an idea for a wraparound to turn the film into a feature.
From a writing standpoint it was a very specific challenge because it was like “I see what’s happening in this one, I see what’s happening in this one, there’s certain rules that are established and certain rules that are broken, so how can I do something that can complement them [while still doing] my own thing?”
I keep coming back to the word “challenge” because it was almost like [with my characters], putting myself into an insurmountable corner and [asking], “how do we get out of this?
It was definitely like unlike anything I’ve ever done before, and I’m really proud of how it came out.
**These interviews were edited for clarity and length.
PORTALS is now available in theaters and On Demand and you can read our review here.