One of my favorite indie flicks of 2020 so far has been THE DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL, a surprising hidden gem of a film set in the seedy underbelly of Niagara Falls that tourists don’t normally see. Recently, I was lucky enough to speak to the director, Albert Shin, where we discussed the fascinating story behind the film, why he wanted to become a filmmaker, and of course, horror movies.
Hi Albert, I watched THE DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL last night and I really enjoyed it. I liked the suspense and the music, I thought they were great.
Albert Shin: Oh wow, thank you! I’m a big fan of the music in the movie. It’s my favorite thing as well.
Along with directing the film, I also saw that you were a co-writer. What inspired the story?
Albert Shin: Crazy enough, it’s sort of based on something that happened in my own life. My parents used to own a motel, kind of in the shadows of Clifton Hill, much like in the film. This was a long time ago when I was a child. We used to fish along the Niagra River all the time. My dad’s a big fishing guy. I wandered off into a forested area by myself where I saw what looked like a kidnapping.
I was really young, probably about five or six years old at the time, and it was hard for me to reconcile what it was that I was seeing. It probably just made me feel funny more than anything. [It was] strange and weird and I probably repressed it a little bit. By the time I was a teenager, it was more of just a story to tell at a party or something. Just like a cool story. It turned into more of make-believe and fantasy than real life. Every time I would tell the story it would just get bigger and bigger and weirder and stranger until the point that it stopped being anything close to what happened. And then as more time passed, you start to question if you even saw anything to begin with. That line between memory and truth was kind of a genesis of this whole thing. We went and actually shot the prologue of the film in the exact same place that I saw this thing happen. It was kind of a strange, surreal kind of cyclical thing in my life.
Wow, that’s crazy. Did you ever find any information about what happened?
Albert Shin: This was all pre-internet obviously so very much like in the film I went to the library. I went through old microfiche and looked through times when I thought this could have happened. I never found anything. I was looking for if there was a kidnapping or some sort of grisly child murder, anything like that, and I never found anything. I have a very visceral memory of specific things: I remember a man taking a boy and very violently throwing him in the trunk of a car and beating him with a tire iron, and then slamming the trunk and driving off. Almost exactly how it is in the film, I remember seeing that. I can put it to a specific place and everything but I never found anything. Maybe it was an abusive father or something like that and a child’s imagination and memory just turned it into something else. It was more about what it did to me and how I thought about it and reflected on it that was really the genesis of this movie.
That’s insane! I have to ask because I’m a huge fan of David Cronenberg, how did his casting of Walter come about? Did you have him in mind when you wrote the character?
Albert Shin: When you watch the film it almost feels like it was written for him. It just fits him like a glove. I’m just an up-and-coming filmmaker and wasn’t presumptuous enough to think that I could write a part for David Cronenberg and then get him to be in my movie. It definitely was not written with him in mind specifically, but what I did need was somebody. Walter is an older gentleman and it was always designed to have somebody that comes with an inherent persona. We were having a really, really hard time casting this part, nobody was quite right. It was coming down to the wire and we still had nobody cast. My producer, who knows David a little bit personally, was like, “Maybe we can ask David Cronenberg.” In my mind, I was like well, he’s going to say no. He’s going to be like, “Who the hell is this guy? I’m busy.” But we sent him the script almost out of desperation really and he read it immediately and responded to it. I met with him a day or two later in his kitchen and we talked about the part. A couple of days after that he was coming out of the Niagara River in scuba gear. It all happened within a week or something. It was crazy.
The biggest lesson there was nothing ventured, nothing gained. Maybe the popular opinion is like, “Well, he’s not going to do it” but you don’t know unless you try it. Every movie you make you need certain things to kind of break your way and this was one of those things for this movie.
How did you know that you wanted to be a director?
Albert Shin: I never really had any other hobbies in my life. I got into movies when I was a little boy. I was like the Cable Guy. My parents owned a restaurant, they were gone 365 days a year, so I kind of raised myself. My brothers were just feral children running around the house. For whatever reason, I just gravitated towards movies and I really got into them. I deep-dived into cinema and everything else and that kind of naturally transitioned into me wanting to make movies. That’s really all I ever wanted to do and I never gave myself the means to do anything else. I never gave myself an out, so I’m stuck doing this.
Well, I have to say that what I’ve seen, you’ve chosen the right direction. What can we expect to see from you next?
Albert Shin: Thank you. That’s a good question. I’m kind of working on a few things that are in the post-development stage. I like to jump around genres. It’s not like I’ve made 15 movies and people can point to all these different genres. DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL is much different than my last film, which is a chamber drama in a Korean farm between three women. It deals with pregnancy and motherhood, it’s very different. I’m hoping my next one will be just as different. I’m trying not to pigeonhole myself and trying not to get predictable. I like making films where I’m a little nervous about failing very gloriously in front of everybody so I think that’s an interesting place that I can make my movies out of, anxiety and fear. There have been so many movies, cinema’s been around for over 100 years now. Working in genres and finding ways to support them and do something a little bit different while trying to find surprising new ways to make an engaging film and doing it in a different way. DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL was part of my exercising in trying to do that.
One last question for you. What is your favorite scary movie?
Albert Shin: My favorite scary movie? Well, the film that ruined my childhood…It’s a very boring and predictable answer but it was Kubrick’s The Shining.
DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL is now in theaters and available on VOD.