The filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini drew attention with their first feature film, American Splendor, back in 2003 when they earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Since then, their work has spanned across the documentary, comedic, and dramatic genres, with films like Nanny Diaries, Girl Most Likely, and Cinema Verite. Now, the duo turn their eyes to the horror-thriller genre with their latest project, THINGS HEARD AND SEEN.
THINGS HEARD AND SEEN follows Catherine Clare (Amanda Seyfried) reluctantly trades life in 1980s Manhattan for a remote home in the tiny hamlet of Chosen, New York, after her husband George (James Norton) lands a job teaching art history at a small Hudson Valley college. Even as she does her best to transform the old dairy farm into a place where young daughter Franny will be happy, Catherine increasingly finds herself isolated and alone. She soon comes to sense a sinister darkness lurking both in the walls of the ramshackle property—and in her marriage to George.
For the release of THINGS HEARD AND SEEN, Nightmarish Conjurings had the chance to chat with co-writers/co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, where they discussed the appeal of Elizabeth Brundage’s novel for adaptation, how Amanda made the perfect Catherine, and how a creepy upstate New York road name sealed the fate of their set location.
What was it about Elizabeth Brundage’s novel that made you want to adapt it?
Robert Pulcini: We spent half our lives up in the Hudson Valley, and we’ve been looking for a long time to find something that really fits that world that we love so much, with the drama of the season changing and the spookiness of the fog, and all the things that we love about that area that so many writers have written about, you know, from Washington, Irving, [etc]. And then, I read about this book that was written by someone who lived in our town upstate, and I was just really intrigued and I picked it up and just fell in love with it. I had Shari read it and, as that was happening, it was starting to get national attention and great reviews. So, I reached out to Elizabeth and we just really hit it off. We had a lot of things in common, and we saw the story in the same way. So, she took a leap with us.
For the characters, how was the casting process? Did you have people in mind? Or did you just have open casting?
Shari Springer Berman: Well, you know, it’s funny, because Amanda [Seyfried] was someone that I’ve been a huge fan of since Mean Girls, and then I saw her in this HBO show, Big Love, which was a drama, and she was amazing in that, so I knew she had this great range. We loved her for it, and when she agreed to do the movie, we called Elizabeth Brundage, the author, and she said she got chills, and we’re like, why? And she said, “Because when I was writing the book, it was Amanda’s face I saw” and we did not know that. It felt like it was meant to be, that Amanda was in the DNA of this character.
James [Norton] was the first actor we’ve met with. I loved him. [I] was a huge fan of his from the British television he had done, and really saw him in this role. We met with him and it was great. And then we get the call. He can’t make it work with his schedule. He’s doing The Nevers. So, we were like, “Okay, what do we do?” And we went on this long journey of trying to find someone else but always, in the back of my mind, it was James Norton. Then I got a phone call one day, “They pushed The Nevers. James has a window. He’s in.”
Wow, it all worked out. This is your first horror/thriller correct?
Shari Springer Berman: It is.
Robert Pulcini: We’ve written them before, but we never directed them.
Were there any films that you drew inspiration from for this movie?
Robert Pulcini: Definitely. We kind of gravitated towards movies like Rosemary’s Baby, The Changeling with George C. Scott. We were big fans of Don’t Look Now, the Nicolas Roeg movie. We looked at movies like What Lies Beneath. Movies that are about relationships and have a supernatural element. The Others, I think, is a beautiful movie. I think horror movies can sometimes be the most expressive and the most beautiful visually, and so that’s why we’ve always wanted to work in the genre.
So, this is a genre you both always wanted to work in.
Shari Springer Berman: Absolutely. The movies that Bob just listed are some of my favorite movies. So yeah, we love it.
Oh, that’s so wonderful, I’m happy to hear that it’s a genre that you both love so much.
Shari Springer Berman: We’ve watched Rosemary’s Baby, like 1000 times.
Robert Pulcini: And, of those movies, you know what will happen, but you can’t help but get caught up. Or The Shining. That’s another movie that I think is really about a relationship, you know, an abusive relationship.
I love the location that was chosen for the house and how the film primarily takes place in that one location. How was that process and of finding that house?
Shari Springer Berman: That was really hard because you needed it to check off so many boxes, and we really didn’t want it to feel like a traditional scary movie house. We didn’t want that Disney haunted house look, and it also wasn’t written that way in the book. It was an old farmhouse that had a history to it, had some beauty. It was on a beautiful piece of land. It was supposed to be a working dairy farm before they move there. So, we needed a big, huge barn. The other thing that made us throw 50% of the houses in the garbage was we wanted it to be isolated. A lot of those houses are very close to the road. You want to feel like Catherine and the family are very isolated. It took a lot of searching to find the right house. It was really funny because Bob sent me a text while out on a scout and I was doing something else, I think I was working with casting, and he sent me a text saying, “We’re going to this house. I’m feeling really good about it. It’s on Skunks Misery Road.” And I was like Haha, you’ll definitely find a scary house on Skunks Misery Road. And he was like, No, really, that’s the name of the road. And I was just like, Okay, this is the house. And it was.
Oh my god, I love stories like that. When it came time to visualize the book for the film, did you always know that you wanted to take the artist’s work and use it as palette for the way the film looks?
Robert Pulcini: Yeah, the movie is set in the world that gave birth to the Hudson River school artists, the painters, their landscape painters. One of them, in particular, is George Ennis, who is one of the greatest, and he was very influenced by a philosopher named Emanuel Swedenborg, a spiritualist who claimed to speak to angels and devils and spirits and believed that the spiritual world is ever-present, and is living amongst us and, as expressed through nature, you can really feel the spiritual world through nature. So, George, the main character, that’s his kind of specialty, is that school of painters. He’s an art professor. So yes, it was so great to have such a palette to work from, you know, all these great paintings, landscape paintings to look at and think about how we wanted to express the setting, and we used it a lot.
Shari Springer Berman: And there’s even one shot in the movie where we sent the cinematographer to Kaaterskill Falls, which is famous for being painted by Thomas Cole. Later on, when George is teaching in the class, that actual painting is up on the slide and it’s almost an exact replica of it from film to painting.
Switching gears, I really enjoyed how the séance was done. Was the presentation of that something you both came up with it?
Robert Pulcini: We just wanted it to be specific. I think that it needed to be specific and interesting too, you know, like, in The Changeling, for example.
Shari Springer Berman: I love The Changeling.
Robert Pulcini: Great, great séance. I think there are several séances in the book. The communicating with spirits is part of the whole Swedenborgian belief system.
My last question for you is what is it about the genre as a whole that you enjoy most in using it as a way to explore non-supernatural themes?
Robert Pulcini: Well, I just love the cinema of horror and suspense. And, like I said, I think sometimes they use music and sound and visuals in a way that is pure cinema. I love all horror movies. I like jumpscare movies. I like monster movies. I like all of them. Personally, I like the kind that lingers after you’ve watched them and kind of haunts you because the characters are so real. When you watch Rosemary’s Baby, it’s not really that scary as you’re watching it. But you’re just so caught up emotionally with these people that it really stays with you, and I’ve always wanted to do a movie like that.
Shari Springer Berman: And also the idea that it allows you to explore some kind of societal issue. In Rosemary’s Baby, it coincided with the release of the birth control pill. And it was like, suddenly, these women had control of their sexuality. And also just the fear of having a child, it’s terrifying. This was about the fear of a marriage, which can be really terrifying, and that real life is really kind of terrifying, even more than you know. So, I like using those ways to explore it.
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