While Halloween may be over, that doesn’t mean the horror has to end there. At least, that’s what we’ve learned since viewing the latest installment of the Blumhouse and Hulu collaborative “Into the Dark” series. The latest installment titled PILGRIM focuses on a family that’s trying to get back to the roots of Thanksgiving, with the mother organizing for Pilgrim re-enactors to come to the house and remind them of their privilege. However, things go horribly wrong and horror ensues.
For the release of PILGRIM, I had the opportunity to talk with the director and co-writer of the episode Marcus Dunston. During our chat, we discussed everything from the creation of the story (which is terrifyingly based off on true events) to how they came to pick Thanksgiving as their focus and wrapping with the message audiences should take away from the latest “Into the Dark” installment.
There is a lot to talk about in terms of the creation of this story. Can you elaborate on how the story was brought to life?
Marcus Dunstan: The story was brought to life through Noah Feinberg. Noah was the full conduit that brought us all together, including Patrick Melton, and it is based on a true story. The last image in the credits is the actual photo of young Noah and the Pilgrim that came to his home and never broke character, inspiring a duration of terror. The first draft I read was by Noah and it was awesome. It instantly grabbed every image that was protected by the framework of Norman Rockwell and the stimulus that we are supposed to be seeing in the Thanksgiving season by just slowly burning it all away (laughs). It really, also, goes back to Blumhouse, as they curated such a wonderful atmosphere to inspire and create and protect people who have the most wild tales to tell.
When it came to working with Blumhouse, did you have a choice over what holiday you wanted to focus on?
Marcus Dunstan: It happened quite quickly in that working together we always seemed like ships passing in the night. Then this one came and I remember one fateful interaction with Ryan Turek in the lobby of Blumhouse, I got to hug my old friend and shake his hand as well, and then I met producers and whatnot. I was just fortunate enough to begin climbing up the totem pole into a chance to make one of these. When that transformed, the Halloween episode, Uncanny Annie, was already going down the chutes and they had a couple of ideas here and there for this holiday. They had other materials that were coming to be and [for the] Thanksgiving [episode], they had this story by Noah. Just the fact that it’s based on a shocking true story was something I leaned right into. I could say I chose it but really it was just the one and I was just lucky to be there at the right time.
I really loved how the film felt so contained with the focus of the film inside and outside the house. It made you feel like you weren’t even safe inside your own home, which is terrifying. What were some other tricks you used to help build tension?
Marcus Dunstan: We tried to throw some affection back to the television movies from yester-years. The original Kolchak in The Night Strangler was actually a TV movie that turned out so well that they put it in theaters because it was a slow burn to the point of intensity and you fell for these characters. This felt like that type of opportunity. I know that Hulu and Blumhouse TV have collaborated so that there’s a wider, bigger sandbox. Our opening title cards, created by the great Melanie Kwan, is a bit of a throwback to what used to be the title cards of ABC’s Late Night Movies. We thought, what would a modern-day version of that sensationalism be. Ultimately, it was tied all together with the wonderful score by Douglas Pipe, who brought in all the dark whimsy of Krampus to this world. It really needed to sort of be a microcosm of everyone’s experience. We were also so fortunate that our location manager, Tawny Fernandez, found this house. We had to go through the routine of seeing all the other backups, but it all just fell together. I think everyone saw a version of their own Thanksgiving in [this house].
One of my favorite moments from the film was the pool scene. If there is something I’ve learned from talking to directors this year it’s that filming in water is a beast. What was it like bringing that scene to life?
Marcus Dunstan: It was sort of picking which moment had to turn up the volume and doing it in such a way that it never felt like a compromise to anything else on either side of it. What was wonderful about the Blumhouse TV model, in particular, was that our two producers, Alex [Koehne] and Lauren [Downey], had made several of these episodes, so I was really the only new person in the mix. It was so nice to be educated on “Here is where you can push”, “Here’s where you should pull back”, “Here’s the best way to utilize the resources at your disposal” and the result was building what was arguably one of their biggest set-pieces. All of that was real, built and practically done. Then a brilliant shop selection by Lyn Moncrief, the director of photography, allowed for the use of this particular camera so we could do a master of something that would normally take a week. Everything was done with 100% safety, 100% respect for covering it, and amazing performances, which were anchored by Peter Giles and Reign Edwards. The benefit of finding that great location was that it was all real. The only thing that’s fake is we added the music afterward. But when that shot follows Reign Edwards into that water in that chair, all of that is in one, because that’s how it went. It was really a credit to a number of really smart and crafty technicians to figure out the best way to do this. That whole sequence was actually shot only in one night because why not – it was the night of the summer solstice so it was also the shortest night of the summer. So, in our final shot, the sky was turning a light blue and the only fake part of that entire sequence is we digitally erased the palm trees. You know you are with a great team when it feels fun like you are getting away with something special.
Lastly, since this episode is about Thanksgiving, what would you like people to take away from the film?
Marcus Dunstan: What if something could hear your inner voice? What if there was something keeping tabs of the wishes of the fake smiles, of those quiet moments of danger and sincerity? And what if that voice had a response when you least expect it? I think we would all be grateful then [laughs].