While attending the Sundance Film Festival, I had the opportunity to take part in a round table interview with the cast of THE NIGHT HOUSE which included Rebecca Hall (The Town, Christine), Stacy Martin (Nymphomaniac, High Rise) and Evan Jonigkeit (Bone Tomahawk) as well as the director, David Bruckner (The Ritual).
THE NIGHT HOUSE is an intriguing and multilayered film with shifting narratives that lead you down a dangerous path while also exploring your worst fears about loved ones. During the chat, the cast and director talked about the process of bringing the film to life as well as how they feel about the movie and the themes that it explores.
*Note: Questions asked are from me as well as other journalists attending the round tables.
Round Table Question: What drew you to the roles and what was it about the script and/or the characters that really brought you to the table?
Evan Jonigkeit: I was drawn by these folks because I thought their work was really terrific and then I read the script. I thought it was a really cool, strange challenge to play with. An idea of what an entity might be and what that sort of space would be like to live in. That was a fun and weird challenge for me.
Rebecca Hall: I thought that the character [Beth] was really strong. I thought it was really interesting to see a woman in a horror film who is going through grief and is not sitting in a corner crying the whole time. A woman who has all this rage is something that I thought would be a really interesting thing to explore. I also saw David’s movies and I was like, “This is a good idea”.
Stacy Martin: It was for a lot of the same reasons, really. We [David] spoke on Skype and I really enjoyed our conversation. It was the way he was talking about the film and what he wanted to achieve. The different levels of grief that he wanted to explore. I think I have a fear of horror movies where I find it very hard to watch them. I will close my eyes for half of the movie, so there’s also this thought that I’ll sort of baptize myself and do a horror movie. I don’t know what’s going to happen tonight.
David Bruckner: She hasn’t seen [the movie] yet.
Round Table Question: It seems like there are always new films coming out in the horror genre, so I’m sure a lot of our readers would want to know: why should they pick THE NIGHT HOUSE when there are so many horror movies out there? I know it’s a great film, but they don’t know that. Can you elaborate on the uniqueness of the film and what makes it a little different from other horror films?
David Bruckner: I think that on some level and I’d guess it might be a bit of an acquired taste; I would say that THE NIGHT HOUSE is trying to do a lot of new things with old traditional tropes. I think at the center of it, as Rebecca mentioned, we have a fascinating central character. The movie largely follows her singular experience as she investigates the unexpected death of her husband and digs a little too deep into who he was and puts herself in peril. We have an amazing performance from Rebecca and the wonderful cast. I think the movie explores not just grief, but depression, anxiety, and what we owe to one another as friends. The complex and influential nuances of a powerful relationship. It is a very fascinating relationship that we’re exploring throughout the film. As a director, very personally, it’s only been a very few times that I read a script that genuinely frightened me. It hit some things, in the more subterranean regions of the narrative, that would not leave me alone personally, that followed me home at night, and that I couldn’t get out of my head. The movie’s a bit of a brain teaser, it’s got a mind-bending element to it, so be careful with how much you try to understand it. You may put yourself in peril. That’s a little bit of the message from us.
Round Table Question: Because there are so many horror films, what was it about THE NIGHT HOUSE in particular that made you want to be a part of it?
Rebecca Hall: I have kind of a funny relationship with horror films. I don’t really like blood, gore and extreme violence for no particular purpose. I’m very against the idea of some sort of torture porn situation, which I think sometimes these horror films can go into. But when I actually think about it, some of my favorite films, and the films that I respect the most, are horror films such as The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby. I think there’s something in the fact that horror films, because of the extreme nature of the subject matter, you’re sort of pushing human experience to a limit. You’re able to explore things that are not so easy or obvious to explore in a living room drama. I think that it’s that crossover. When something in a horror film takes on the themes of metaphorical significance and isn’t just an exploration of ghosts, but an exploration of grief or whatever it is masquerading as an exploration of grief, depression or anxiety. Masquerading as to what it is like to be haunted. It’s then when I think it starts to get really interesting and potentially exciting, so I’m always drawn to it. It’s not the genre that I’m necessarily die-hard about or that I love every horror film, but I do like a lot of them when they’re done well because it has that potential.
Evan Jonigkeit: I also think that there’s a thing with horror as a genre that’s really wonderful. It’s a sense of relief. What happens is that you get a moment to regroup, so you’re pushed to that precipice. The good ones have this metaphorical undertone where it’s making you inspect all these things about yourself, then you have these moments of relief. This one, in particular, a lot of that is cerebral, as opposed to just trying to fabricate anxiety. It’s a bit of a brain bender and so the cerebral nature of it forces you to go further and further into the situation. Then something would shift and we’d be back into different scenarios or situations or a different version of reality, there would be this immense sense of relief, cerebrally.
Stacy Martin: What I really enjoyed about this script is that on every page, I didn’t have that feeling that I don’t think that I can cope with this. I find horror movies physically quite painful because they affect me so much. But with this one, it was totally different. With this one, it was talking about grief, but it was also about love and the way that we expect a loved one to be or ourselves to be loved. So I kept having questions and then finding an answer and having a question until I got to the end. You’re almost unsatisfied, but in a way that isn’t painful or torturous. It is sort of like a psychology lesson where you get really enlightened at every turn. And it’s the first horror script that I’ve read and not thought I can’t deal with the way that it’s manipulating my feelings.
Round Table Question: When it comes to team dynamics and that process, sometimes these things are written and then they are created and it’s straightforward. Then, in some circumstances, it’s more collaborative and you’re changing things on the fly to adapt to the changing circumstances. Can you elaborate on how this movie flowed for you as a team?
David Bruckner: It was a very quick shoot for the ambition of the project. I think early on with our conversations, we realized we were going to be guided by God throughout the shoot. For me as a director, if I had my way, everything would be planned and we would shoot 15 takes of everything just to see. It would be completely exhausting for completely different reasons, but with this, it was just a complete high wire act. We were all dropped in the middle of it and had to get to know each other. We had to figure out what these moments were on the fly with the camera rolling. Again, I think the script provided so many twists and turns, so many different ways to interpret it. Not just on a metaphorical level of how you read it, but even internally in each scene. There are a lot of dynamic shifts and changes that happen deep within. For me it was fantastic to trust all of the actors and leap in, to go with the flow and find it as we rolled camera.
Nightmarish Conjurings: As actors and the director, what was the most important part of the work for you? What did you either get from it or what did you feel like you were putting into it?
Evan Jonigkeit: I think that the question of grief and how it plays with the mind is what was really articulated by these two in a really wonderful way. As I watched them sort of work with it and on it, it further deepened my understanding of it in a way that I thought was really important. I think it’s something that’s very rare, especially in genre films.
Rebecca Hall: I second that on some level, in the sense of grief as an emotion, trying to explore what that does to people. Trying to be true to that, to provide something as an actor that people can relate to. Honestly, on a more basic level, I just like to be used as an actor. I like to have my capacity fully utilized and be able to do as much as I possibly can even if that means taking on something that I am not sure that I can do. Something that is frightening to think about, to actually use all of your capacity as an actor in something. This thing actually demanded that of me as an actor. It was a question, in relation to that, the thing that you want out of it the most, is to make sure that you bring something useful when you are being used.
Nightmarish Conjurings: I think that, as an actor, if you go to capacity, there’s the potential for growth.
Rebecca Hall: Yeah, you don’t know where your boundaries are. I am always kind of doing that and looking for that.
Nightmarish Conjurings: You push to the boundary and suddenly you find, well, that’s not really a boundary, I have more.
Stacy Martin: I was really interested in this image that we have of the other women. How the storyline of the other women is portrayed or told. What was interesting here is that these scenes were so interesting and complex and they became alive and very different when we played them. To be able as an actor to read something and have an interest, but then for the scenes to really play out differently, rather than playing an idea. When you’re playing something that is being stereotyped or cliche, you want to find something new and you want to find compassion as well.
Or you want to find ways that the character might not be the same as you, but you want to find out how your character survives in this sort of situation. That’s what this script does in a very, very human way, even though it pushes boundaries. You’re faced with emotions and facts that we’re not always willing to face. It’s something that you crave when you perform. If I go home in the evening and I’m not exhausted, I think there’s something wrong. The problem is I haven’t run the full mile. I haven’t sweated enough.
Rebecca Hall: Or you’ve wasted something. I just wanted to say something about the scenes between the women in this film and it’s something I keep neglecting to talk about. It’s one of the main things that attracted me to the script. The relationships with other women are unusual in this kind of genre because it’s often a lady being super terrified or focused on their relationships with men. It was interesting that the outlets for this character and the complications are in crucial scenes with other women and it is quite refreshing.
Nightmarish Conjurings: That was one of the things that came up in my conversation with David. Those relationships between the women were at the heart of the script and the movie. It is a rare thing. Not just in horror, but in film in general.
Rebecca Hall: Yes, female friendship is an undermined topic. It’s the truth. When it crops up, it’s either overly simplified…
Nightmarish Conjurings: Yes, it’s played as dancing in the kitchen.
Rebecca Hall: Yes, exactly.
Nightmarish Conjurings: You were saying earlier David, that you weren’t going from A to B to C. You were flying free rather than just trying to get the shot.
David Bruckner: Yes, I was discovering a lot. The script is dense in a way that I took away different things and there are many levels and interpretations there. As Stacy said, for example, you can’t act out an idea. She is, in some ways, a doppelganger to Rebecca’s character, Beth. There’s a lot of different takeaways when they engage with one another, particularly in a very pivotal scene in the movie. But when you’re up there sitting at the kitchen table, staring across from each other, it becomes something very immediate and very real between these two actors. For me, I revert to a very basic sort of direction. A basic, but more action-oriented direction, more about what this character may be experiencing, in this character, at this moment. The movie always kind of had those levels to it. It had all kinds of other stuff going on. It depends on how you look at it. But I think the female friendship at the center of the film, though they initially seem like a standard supporting character. One of the things that we identified and talked about a lot was that a lot of the heart of the movie lived there. It becomes a much more pivotal relationship than maybe the audience expects. Both Beth’s relationship with her friend Claire and her neighbor Mel serve as off-ramps to her descent. In a lot of ways, the degree with which they can get through to Beth I think emphasizes the thematic point that we kept coming back to. That it is a movie, on some levels, about help and about what we can offer one another in states of emotional peril.
Round Table Question: It would seem like it is primarily her [Beth] perception but you really don’t know. At first, she is discovering things and you don’t necessarily know what’s real and what’s a psychological element. Was there anything challenging for you being in this particular role? I know you talked about extremes and you did that wonderfully with Christine. In this particular role, what did you find difficult about the character?
Rebecca Hall: I tend to either do roles that are big characterizations or American versions of myself. The ones that are big characterizations come with the roles that are challenges that occur before the movie and are about finding my way into the character. The other ones don’t come with that but are more operating from the mindset of just being in the scene, reacting instinctively, and believing it. I don’t know what’s going to happen. The hidden challenge with this one is that I was on my own for most of the time. Actually, it’s difficult because you really get so much from other actors. I really love other actors, they’re great. But to just be doing this alone in a box, I mean, you do this in front of a mirror to practice maybe, but that shouldn’t be the end result. So I found myself having to find that from other sources and it was draining. It was about making sure that I wasn’t coming back to the feedback. “How was this?” “How am I reacting?”
Round Table Question: So it takes place primarily, I assume, within the house? Were you trying to add an element of isolation? Was it challenging since it was one location or was it easier to get the tone and feel of what you wanted?
David Bruckner: My movie before that was almost adventure horror, up in the Carpathian mountains, I was just like, “Ah, I’m going to just make a movie in a house. It will be so manageable.” But no, it was pretty complex. We had a really great location, a cliffside vista, for what would be the Night House, but the house changes throughout the film in curious ways. So we built a lot of different sections of the house on a stage. To add complexity to an already complex narrative, I was joking that every time Rebecca walks through a door, it was a different day, on a different week. A lot of that was played in real-time and we were constantly bouncing back and forth from the stage to the real location. It was a bit harrowing in that regard, but I think that you look for imagery that can support that isolation in any way that you can. To a large degree, enter it through Rebecca. We fall into this situation and follow her lead and her experience with the palette that the crew and I have created. There’s a couple of lines in the opening, then there are about ten minutes of the movie where there’s no dialogue.
Round Table Question: So it’s very intimate.
David Bruckner: Yeah. Some of my favorite moments in the movie are just Beth doing small things and packing the house, rather violently.
Round Table Question: Rebecca, I’m curious, you had mentioned stepping behind the camera and congratulations on your opportunities to do so. I think we all borrow from people we admire, so having worked with David now, if you had one takeaway, what would it be?
Rebecca Hall: He always knew exactly what lens to use exactly at the precise moment and I think that that’s a really geeky, nerdy type of thing. I don’t think that a director absolutely has to know that, there are great directors who don’t, but I was fascinated that he was able to say, “No, what we want is absolutely a 75 right now.” Because, having now directed a film, I found myself thinking, “To put up a 50, no, no, that’s not what I’m after.” I thought, maybe one day I’ll be able to say, “I know what we need now.” and I’ll be able to say, “let’s go with the 35”.
David Bruckner: I was just desperately trying to look like I’m in control.
Rebecca Hall: Oh no, it was very impressive.
Evan Jonigkeit: From our first friendly conversations, I saw David as being both someone who was very logical, which is something that I sort of need and thrive on, but I also saw him as being like “let’s just go for it!”. There would be these moments where he would say “It needs to be like this” and you would watch as they tried to unravel the puzzle for the logic and then he would be like, “no, let’s just trust this.”. I would think, yeah, you do need to trust that, that’s a great instinct. You know, not get mired down all the time, even though logic is so key, obviously.
Rebecca Hall: I do think that David has a very particular sensibility of what the audience is going through at any given moment. You’re very in tune with that. “We’re going to need to feed them this right at this particular moment for them to be mystified by that three scenes later.” I think that that kind of eye on how the audience is receiving everything, which is difficult to keep track of when you are shooting something, is very unique, and particular, and impressive.
Round Table Question: I am very interested in the personal aspect, have you experienced grief or dark moments, I know I have. It’s a very tough place to be. If you have, do you mind sharing that?
Evan Jonigkeit: I never have. I’ve had no grief in my life, it’s been perfect.
David Bruckner: Lucky.
Round Table Question: Or a dark moment?
Evan Jonigkeit: I think everybody has. In terms of how to express it? It’s sort of why we as artists say “I like to express it in this way and this is private and for my friends and family to talk about and for us to unpack.” It’s the psychology of me and the way I lean on my community and that’s one of the most beautiful things about being an artist. You have this wonderful outlet to go through things that a lot of people don’t get to do.
Rebecca Hall: I don’t think I realized this at the time, I suppose that like two years ago, I went through grief. A very good friend of mine died and my father also passed so and I wasn’t thinking about that when I took this film. But I always think that there is an element of that where there are things that are parallel and you don’t even know why you want to go to a place, but there you are.
David Bruckner: I second that. I don’t think that it is ever a conscious decision, at least for me, that here’s an experience in my life, I want to express this in film necessarily, so much as like, “I’m intrigued by this for multiple reasons. I don’t know why, but then when you get into development, you can’t help but run into yourself.
Rebecca Hall: Exactly. There’s always something that is actually drawing you to something, I find.
Stacy Martin: I don’t realize it until after I’ve shot the movie. Suddenly, I think, “that’s why I did that.”
Rebecca Hall: Or I needed that to go there because I was opening up something about myself that I didn’t quite see until I did that. It’s a mystifying thing. I don’t think you can ever ask us to explain it.
Round Table Interview: Is there anything for you, Stacy, on a personal level?
Stacy Martin: On a personal level a bit less, I struggled a lot as a kid because I moved a lot. I found it very hard to feel stable and that’s something that I’ve always found difficult. I think it’s one of the main reasons why I’m an actor now and why I love storytelling. To kind of channel my anxieties or if I feel depressed, I try to channel it to something productive. Yes, it’s not therapy, there’s not a resolution, but there’s a collective human resolution and I think a lot of artists do what they do, or paint or direct because they need an outlet that’s different than just talking to their friends and family. Not that one is better or worse, it’s just a different way, I think, of understanding things and emotions.
Rebecca Hall: It’s about understanding. You don’t work out what you feel and then make a piece of art, because you know how you feel about it. You make a piece of art because you need to know how you feel about it.
For more on THE NIGHT HOUSE, check out our review here.