If writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski aren’t on your radar yet, they are about to be. Originally beginning by co-writing short films together, Collins and Piotrowski have since gone on to co-write such horror films as Siren (based on the segment Amateur Night from the horror anthology V/H/S)as well as the acclaimed horror/thriller, Super Dark Times. For their latest film, the co-writers delve into the themes of grief and loss through the lens of a supernatural experience in David Bruckner’s terrifying new film, THE NIGHT HOUSE.
Recently, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew had the chance to speak with Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski where they discussed everything from how they both came to conceptualize the story to how the mythos of the Caerdroia came to be involved in the script and ending with how moving it has been to see people respond to THE NIGHT HOUSE.
Thank you both so much for taking the time to speak with me today. THE NIGHT HOUSE is such a multifaceted film. How did this concept come to be?
Luke Piotrowski: In some ways, we built it as a container for our “murdered darlings.” Pieces of old spec scripts that were too ambitious or pitches that didn’t go anywhere. More conceptually speaking, it came from trying to scare one another. And ourselves. At the time we wrote the first draft, neither of us had really had to confront grief in the way that Beth does. But I knew it was coming. It still is. It’s inevitable. And it scares me. Loss scares me. I often wake up in the middle of the night, wrestling with mortality. Just suddenly, brutally aware of the certainty of death, the finality of it. One day I’ll be nothing. The next morning I wake up and that existential dread tends to fall away. But I’m never more afraid than in those moments. And as a horror writer, it’s like, “Well, shit. Is there a movie in there? Can we bottle that experience? Can we craft a horror film out of those late-night fears and insecurities?”
It goes without saying that Rebecca Hall was unbelievable in this film. What was it like when you learned she would be embodying the character of Beth?
Ben Collins: I don’t think we ever let ourselves get attached to any specific casting for Beth while we were writing the script, but we knew the list of performers who could accomplish such a demanding role was probably very short, so if we didn’t get someone amazing we would never be able to get the movie made. I had been a fan of Rebecca’s for many years, and in 2016 I went to the Sunset 5 in West Hollywood and watched Christine in a near-empty theater at 2 pm on a Wednesday and the movie completely blew my mind. I couldn’t imagine a trickier narrative to tell on screen and Rebecca was stunning to watch in every frame. I became kind of obsessed with the movie and took a lobby card on my way out and put it up on the magnet board above the desk in my apartment where I worked at the time. I don’t think I had the hubris to even imagine she would be interested. But that lobby card from Christine is still on that board to this day. That’s a long way of saying that when we heard she was interested it felt like both an impossible dream but also fated somehow. We didn’t get to see her in the role until we saw dailies and immediately it was clear that she understood every nuance and syllable of our dialogue but also brought more dimensionality to the character than even Luke and I understood. We had the pleasure of being on set for a week and I can say with confidence that Rebecca is the most impressive performer I’ve ever seen.
Luke Piotrowski: I remember telling David Bruckner, “Good luck picking just one of these takes to use.” Every little variation she would do of each line and moment was such a complete performance. She’s a maestro. I think we’ve been spoiled forevermore!
Something that I wasn’t familiar with in the movie was the Caerdroia. Can you tell us a little bit about it? And was the statue that Beth finds a replica of a real statue?
Luke Piotrowski: I’ve always been interested in folklore and mythology. I love it when the supernatural in a film or novel has that odd, textured feel of real magic. The act of ritual is another thing that scares me, funny as that sounds. Even benign or benevolent religious ceremony tends to creep me out. So when we started to elaborate on the supernatural elements of our story with things like binding spells, I started snooping around. The Louvre Doll that you see in one of the occult books in the film is real. The more stylized, erotic version Beth finds is an elaboration of that, an eerie clay doll from the 4th century that was discovered in a vase alongside a tablet bearing a “binding spell.” This image of a woman, bound and pierced with pins… it was too thematically perfect not to embrace.
The caerdroia elements were similar. Real “magic” that was thematically relevant. So much of the movie is about how familiar spaces can feel unfamiliar in the wake of trauma. We knew we wanted to play with that. The familiar made uncanny by circumstance. There’s a short story by Arthur Machen, a Welsh writer and a precursor of Lovecraft, called “The White People.” It deals with magic that’s performed by walking in a certain path. That introduced me to the caerdroia and “turf mazes” constructed from hedges or stones. Swedish fishermen supposedly constructed mazes to elude evil spirits who brought bad luck. You go to the center of the maze, then find your way back out, leaving whatever it is that might be after you trapped inside. That’s how it all came together. Your own house is a maze. Sure, you can use it to try and trap a spirit, but then… can’t it trap you too?
When writing this were there scenes that really unsettled you that you knew would be terrifying once you saw them come to life on screen? Furthermore, when working with David Bruckner, a friend of yours, was it easier to trust that your vision would come to life on screen?
Ben Collins: Honestly from the beginning, the goal was to only write scenes that we found unsettling. After feeling like all our best ideas had been compromised by the studio development process we wanted to just completely indulge ourselves. Part of our process going back to when we started writing together 12 years ago, is that we each write separately and therefore get to be the first reader to the other’s work. So the scare scenes, in particular, are often the result of us trying to one-up each other in terms of how scary we can make it. But that also extended to the ideas in the script. As writers, a story has to live in our heads before we can make a movie out of it. So for us, ideas can be more upsetting than any jump scare. There are several scenes that get into existential questions and writing that stuff means living in that space and that can be a weird place to go on purpose. We wrote the first draft in 2014 so by the time we got to see it on screen the feeling was exhilarating.
Luke Piotrowski: It’s funny, the scene in front of the mirror has ended up being this really emotional and haunting moment… that soon escalates into something frightening. I love how it turned out but I definitely remember writing versions of that scene that really pushed the envelope. And just really pulling at the darkest threads within myself, wanting to offer myself up to the dark.
As far as Bruckner is concerned, there was never much concern. He got it. From our very first conversation after he read it when we were all just being coy and flirty about the possibility of him directing it. He talked about how it bothered him. That was exactly what we wanted. Like Ben said, the horror of ideas, the horror that follows you home. The jumps and jolts will come, that’s a given. But we could tell right away that the three of us would be a united front when it came to preserving the mystery, the uncertainty, the danger of the film. The stuff we felt was scariest.
Ben Collins: We’ve told this story a few times now, but Bruckner was honestly our first choice to direct, even before the first draft was completed. When I look back on the more naive days of 2014 I don’t know if we really had a clear picture of what exactly Dave would do with the material cinematically. At the time he was known for being a star director in horror anthology films and was trying to make the transition into feature directing. It was our manager at the time, Nate Matteson, who introduced us after he signed Bruckner at Sundance the year V/H/S premiered. That led to our first paid writing job adapting his short film Amateur Night into a feature (Which ultimately became Siren, directed by Gregg Bishop in 2015). We had a really good experience developing Siren with Dave and a big part of the process became endless phone and skype conversations that we joked were more like group therapy than any Hollywood development. Luke and I have known each other since I was 15 and we’ve always enjoyed talking about our personal fears and anxieties and using those things in our work. With Dave, we found someone else we both felt we could share those things with and I think that more than anything gave us the confidence that material as dark and existential as THE NIGHT HOUSE was right from the start and would actually appeal to him in the same way it appealed to us.
Of course, it was three years before he found time to read the draft we sent in 2014, and only after he had gone off to Romania to make The Ritual and returned to LA with lots of excitement about what would be his next movie. So the process began in earnest with Bruckner in 2017 and from the moment he was involved the visuals started to take shape. Specifically Dave’s unique idea for how to visualize the negative space left by the absence of someone. That’s a great example of something that we could never have described on the page, but through talking with Dave about the ideas and the themes he pitched this wild idea and we all set about trying to figure out how on earth to accomplish it. Luckily Dave has a lot of talented friends and was able to convince genius Pat Horvath to basically create and execute that effect on set.
With this film now being out, what has been the most exciting part in regards to hearing feedback from audience-goers? With all the themes present, is there anything in particular that you hope viewers will take away after seeing the film?
Ben Collins: The film hasn’t even been out for a whole week and already some of the responses online have been incredibly moving to see. We tried to believe this movie could work on a pure genre-entertainment level, but the most rewarding responses come from people who have had personal experiences that make them connect with the deeper themes of grief and depression. We never set out to “teach a lesson” to anyone, we don’t pretend to be any wiser or knowledgable than anyone else.
Luke Piotrowski: I agree. To be honest, responses like your own. There’s a sort of subtle nod exchanged between people who wrestle with this stuff it feels like. For the most part, I know I was just shouting into the abyss while writing. Getting the movie out, at last, it feels a bit like sitting up, looking across the abyss, and seeing others shouting into it as well. Like the song by the Police, I feel like Sting finding the beach strewn with other SOS bottles. “I’m not alone in being alone.”
The ending won’t work for everyone but it’s also been gratifying to see that for some it really has. That mainstream audiences are willing to go there and allow the personification of abstract concepts to be part of their horror films. Again, it goes back to my interest in folklore. Myth and fairytale. We, as humans, have always given names and voices to the forces that control us.
When dealing with themes like this, we have a responsibility. Grief and depression, that shit doesn’t get exorcised in the same way as a demon or a ghost. You can’t tie it all up with a bow. If we as writers want to use the supernatural as a stand-in for real-world struggles, then our resolution has to align with that and not be disingenuous. For me, when Beth says “I’m here” in the final reel, that’s a statement of affirmation. “I’m here.” You’re safe now. We won’t be safe forever, but we can be in this moment. And sometimes that’s enough.
For more on THE NIGHT HOUSE, check out our review here. THE NIGHT HOUSE is now in theaters.