In THE OLD WAYS, Cristina, a journalist of Mexican origin, travels to her ancestral home in Veracruz to investigate a story of sorcery and healing. There, she is kidnapped by a group of locals who claim she’s the devil incarnated. Whether or not she is truly possessed is left to be determined as she undergoes a variety of rituals to cleanse her of the demons that have taken hold.
Recently, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Dolores got to sit down and chat with Christopher “Chris” Alender, director of THE OLD WAYS, and Ben Lovett, composer of the soundtrack to the film. Throughout the course of the discussion, they spoke about the film, the source of inspiration in making both the film and the soundtrack, and their collaborative process throughout the course of making THE OLD WAYS.
Editor’s Note: There are spoilers featured in this interview.
How did you both become involved with the film?
Chris Alender: I developed it with my friend and writing partner Marcus Gabriel who came up with the initial idea. We have been working together since the mid-nineties when we were in college. In particular, we were looking for something, kind of contained, that we could get off the ground on our own instead of trying to go through the studio system, so I was involved from page five or six, once Marcus started writing it.
Ben Lovett: Very similar story for me. Chris and I have been working on things for a really long time and I think it has been naturally building towards him directing his own feature. We’ve worked on shorter formatted things and other projects that I have scored with Chris as a producer and I think it was inevitable that Chris was going to be behind the camera on a feature and I was fortunate to be the first call or at least as far as I knew I was, so that was enough for me.
Chris Alender: I called John Williams.
Ben Lovett: But he was not available.
Chris Alender: He did not respond. We have kind of a gang of people that we have been making stuff with for upwards of 20-25 years. It’s kind of just a, “Hey, we’re getting the band back together,” kind of thing. Here’s what’s happening next. We kind of forget to ask each other if we want to be involved.
Ben Lovett: I think, if I remember right, he sent me the script and said, “Hey, this is the next movie you are doing.” I think that was about the extent of the process that preceded me in getting started.
The film doesn’t seem to be too gory and it seems to be more psychological.
Chris Alender: As far as the gore goes, I’m not a big gorehound, slasher fan. I like all types of movies. I don’t particularly gravitate towards extremely violent movies. I like more fantasy and supernatural things that come with a lot of world-building and that kind of approach towards them.
Why did you choose Mexico as the setting?
Chris Alender: As far as Mexico goes, Marcus is Puerto Rican and the early ideas of this script were based on the stories that his mother told him because she was born and raised on the island. They were very Catholic and he was shocked to hear stories from her about witchcraft and Brujeria which was very different from his day-to-day life. But she had these experiences when she was young. We put an extreme version of it in the movie. The little girl is there witnessing some kind of ritual with her mother. His mother had come down the stairs in the middle of the night, she had heard weird sounds and her Dad was in a metal bucket in the middle of the living room with chicken feathers everywhere. Someone was chanting in a language that she didn’t recognize and it was very traumatizing to her as well. He probably heard that as a teenager and for thirty years had said, I’ve got to do something with that. The more we talked to other Latinx friends and family, the more we found that everyone had one degree of separation from something similar. Something interesting in the pseudo-occult world, somebody like an aunt who believed in bad energy or cracking the egg or cleansings. Those kinds of things. We started to scratch at that and it started to reveal all kinds of exciting anecdotes and stories. We just started to crank them all up to movie-level extremes.
Ultimately, we placed the location of the movie in Mexico because as we started to develop the look, feel, and language we wanted to convey visually, that location had the perfect blend of all the influences that we were getting excited about. Veracruz is on the edge of where the Aztec Empire and the Mayan Empire overlap a little bit and they’re also on the east coast so you Caribbean influences and obviously, you have all the Spanish, like post-Colombian Catholicism. All of those influences. It had all the influences that we wanted to draw from.
As we researched Brujeria, there was never a set book that says “this is how you do it”. It’s very personal and local and very cobbled together from their own life experiences. That gave us the place that had all of those things that we really wanted to draw from. Then we discovered that there is a town there, Catemaco, that is the Brujo capital of the world. They have a whole festival every year and people come from miles around to place curses on people who’ve done them wrong or try to solve their alcoholism or just get tattoos and have fun. It all fell together there to be the actual location. Once we started thinking about truly getting lost in the jungle. Puerto Rico started to feel a little too small for being in the middle of nowhere and this part of Mexico is huge. There’s a lot of opportunities for wandering off the beaten path and getting disconnected from urban society that a lot of us are used to.
Ben Lovett: I think I can pack my side into one general answer. You mentioned internal demons versus the spiritual demons. There was a clear metaphor system at work there between addiction and possession and what the story was commenting on in a broader sense than just the plot that sort of moves the action along. That’s usually where I try to start to focus initially to generate a kind of thesis aesthetically of what kind of music and what the tonal palette is going to be. There would be some very frightening and very horrific moments, but those are really, when you pull back, a very small part of the sum total of those moments are very small compared to this story of someone going back to re-explore the culture that she’s become disconnected from but feels that is still very much a part of her. What her complicated relationship is to her family and what the arc of that is and how our character Cristina moves from one extreme of that to the other.
To sort of be embraced and embrace something that is a fundamental part of her personality.
That was kind of the guiding light for a lot of the music and ironically enough, the spooky stuff is a little more straightforward in terms of figuring out what it is you have to do musically to make those moments work. But you have to really take a lot of care to calibrate what your ambitions are for the music around what the performers are doing and what the camera is doing and what the director is doing with the more intimate parts of the story.
What was essentially the musical palette? I can identify certain things, I hear strings and I think I hear horns, but there are also sounds that I can’t really identify.
Ben Lovett: That’s always an exciting part about film music in general, getting to explore a new palette of instrumentation. On this one, there seemed to be such a rich opportunity to dive into instruments that I have never been able to work into a score, which is a lot of traditional Mexican folk instruments. So a lot of those instruments, even at times, things that may even sound like they could be electronic or synthesized, these sort of drones and these kind of washy, sound textural environments are just layers and layers of an instrumentalist, Martin Espino, who we brought on board as sort of a musical and cultural consultant for the score. He is a specialist in certain types of instrumentation that are very much traditional to that very specific part of Mexico. He’s a broad expert on these things, but we loved that he was very versed in that Veracruz region of music. For me, creatively and artistically, it really wasn’t an exercise in trying to write traditional Mexican folk music, more than employing some of the instrumentation that is used in that kind of music and putting it into a different context. Using it in a different way so that it sounds familiar and helps you identify the environment, but it feels off-center from how it is traditionally used.
Chris Alender: One of the principal themes or arguments in the movie is are the old ways better than the new ways or is there a synthesis between those and is that always evolving. The idea that there’s always something older than the good old days that anybody can remember. Before now there was Columbian, but before that Pre-Columbian, Aztec and Mayan, and probably stuff before that that nobody necessarily remembers. That was what was so cool about having Martin involved because he is an expert on Pre-Columbian instruments and actually has them made from scratch based on archaeological finds and he refines them and learns how to play them. If we had gotten a hold of some of these items and given them to Ben and the people he works with who are experts in instruments and all kinds of things, they wouldn’t necessarily be able to generate sounds from them, let alone pleasing sounds, because there are no notes. Ben really had to almost go in reverse where they would just do these long exploratory sessions with Martin just playing the instruments and making sounds and seeing what they could do. Because some of them only had two holes, a thumbhole or two, or maybe none. You just hold it and put your mouth on it. Some were made of gourds and all kinds of things. They would ingest all of this interesting audio and see what came of it. Ben could say more about this, but I think they would do multiple sessions, get it in and stew on it, see what they could do with it. Then come back and say okay, now we have an idea about how these can go together and how we can supplement this. It was a lot of give and take.
Ben Lovett: That’s good that you mentioned that because I sort of overlooked it. That’s a key fundamental difference in scoring this film than the traditional approach where you would write the notes first and then have the performers play the notes. Where this was done entirely backwards. Where we started with Martin doing performances on these instruments to find out what all kinds of sounds and textures that he could make with them. Then because, most of them, if not all of them are handmade, and the notes that they land on aren’t necessarily like, you know – if he plays a B flat or that’s the nearest note on the piano, it’s not necessarily going to sound like a B flat that you are playing on a piano. It’s going to be in its own world of tonality. We had to tune our instruments that we would put with that to match the natural sounds made by these homemade instruments that he played. Doing it the other way around would have created tonal problems trying to match instruments that make the sounds that they make and there’s no way to change that.
[Note: these are instruments that cannot be tuned in the modern sense, since they are from a culture and a musicality that does not use the concept of tuning and does not make instruments that can be tuned. They are from a society that predates that musical concept.]
Ben Lovett: We cataloged tons and tons of sounds and found the ones that were going to be the most useful to the story and then started to build the rest of the world of music around those.
Chris Alender: Similar to the way that the story was structured, a very separate New World/Old World line and then as the movie progresses and as Cristina, the character, start to embrace the past and try to harmonize it with her present-day, Ben started to meld those together and suddenly you have guitars melded together with ancient clay flutes. Hopefully, it comes together for the audience in a harmonious way, no pun intended.
The music is very exciting. I can hear a lot of that. It seems like your filmmaking and Ben’s musicianship and composing was working together really strongly in that.
Chris Alender: Thanks. On a lot of the rough cuts, we only used Ben’s music. He’s done other projects based in Latin America that did draw more from a sort of, I don’t know what you would call it, archeological instrumentation…
Ben Lovett: Folk horror.
Chris Alender: We used a lot of that in our temp score on set as playback if I have to redo a take. Some of our best shots in horror movies are not interesting at all on set. It’s like a slow dolly behind someone standing in a corner. But then we play it back with some cool music and it’s like oh yeah, this is going to be good. There was a lot, very early on – even in the script, we found this thing called the Death Whistle that was found in burial tombs and for years they didn’t know what it was. Then one day, scientists blew into it and it made the most horrifying sound ever. We called up Ben as soon as we heard that, while we were still writing the script and said, “This has to be part of the score.”
Ben Lovett: That was the first thing that I remember about the origin of this project, Chris playing me the sound of that, and I thought that it was the most terrifying sound that I’ve ever heard. So I was immediately intrigued.
Chris Alender: The line between story, score, and sound design was very blurry in this production. Since we had kind of a shorthand for years and years working together, it was easy to trust each other and be like, “This is going to be cool, right?”
Ben Lovett: It’s really served us, in no small part because we had to do our post-production during the thick of Covid. So not even being able to be in the room once we got to that stage, but having that amount of trust and sort of a shorthand of communication, I think, really really served the movie as opposed to, I’m sure probably plenty of people trying to do the same thing with a lot of people that they were probably working with part-time. Who didn’t have a workflow established or a sort of communication and they’re trying to work all of that out on the fly while trying to navigate the tricky logistics of doing all that last year when everything was shut down.
I think there’s a really nice synergy with the sound design, the direction, and music that really does a lot of good for the film. Being able to cede some of the direction of the film to others is not generally what people think of when they think of what a director does.
Chris Alender: I’m not a huge subscriber to what they call auteur theory. I like the sandbox kind of approach where we get all of our friends, and we become friends because of working on projects together, and they’re all extremely talented. It’s super exciting to get people involved who have a point of view and are better than you at something else and can bring something to the table. That’s my favorite part about all of this really, I can’t play an instrument, but would this be like what it’s like to be in a band, like a jam band or something, that’s the closest that I can get to it. That’s always been a feeling that we’ve had, springboarding off of each other’s ideas. It doesn’t matter where the credit goes, the best idea wins. Try to make something that people want to watch and hopefully you get to make another one day.
I know because I’m Chicana, Mexicana, and Native, there’s a weird crossover between Catholicism and witchcraft, Brujeria, and Santeria. Correct me if I am wrong, but it doesn’t seem like the demons are overtly Catholic as in something like The Exorcist. It’s different.
Chris Alender: We tried to make it very regionally specific. This demon, coming from this cave, which is an entrance to this part of the demon world. So he was very influenced, even design-wise – which you don’t get to see him, just a few frames of him. If you could see, he’s very influenced by that region. We were looking at a lot of archaeological books of skulls, royalty, and children that had been elongated. They had squished their skulls to make them long, like the Alien head in Alien. The Geiger head. That was something that the tribes down there had done. We saw teeth that they had drilled into, drilled holes into the center of the teeth, and put jewels in them and gold and other stuff into the teeth. Pictures of these priests with really amazing headdresses that had feathers and all these great things going on. There were these Aztec drawings where they had hands on their face. Very unique to the region and interesting. We thought, what if they didn’t invent that, what if it was something that they had seen? That they were just ritualised versions of a presence, a deity, or a demon, something that they had actually come across. I think the Mayans and Aztecs did this as well, when a boy came of age, they would send him down into this cave and send him in there for a week with nothing. They thought that this was an entrance to the Underworld. It was a test of their mettle, to make sure that they could become a man or a warrior. If they came out alive in a week, great, if they didn’t, they succumbed to evil.
All of those things, we just kind of started to massage into the idea of where this demon came from and what it looks like. If you freeze frame the movie, you can see the shape of his head is that elongated shape. There’s a close-up in there where they find some of the teeth as well as the jewels.
Ben Lovett: You see him in the boy once.
Chris Alender: And the mom in the beginning. We tried to make it very specific to the people there. Not trying to be generalized. It’s our Bruja’s world. It passes from person to person. There’s the idea that strong familial tough love is maybe the only thing that can help someone overcome this. That’s one of the big themes that runs through it.
Definitely. That idea that someone that doesn’t have their family and their culture close to them can fall prey to things like the drugs, the demon, and the direction of her life. Going off track like that is getting away from your center and your history.
Chris Alender: Exactly. And exploring the idea that there are multiple ways that people try to help somebody in need like this who has an addiction or something and a lot of people who fail at it. There are people who are enablers, people who gloss over it, but then there are people who are going to fight for it and not be afraid of retaliation from the person. That’s our character Miranda, played by Andrea Cortés, to be that very strong, supportive, but unflinching presence in this person’s life who can actually help her get through it. We streamlined the movie a lot, there are other characters, other behavioral types like the mother from who she inherited this behavior from. Finding that person who can actually help you fight this is very important.
It is. Also, in my opinion, it has something nice to say about elders. Having respect for elders and their talents and their knowledge.
Chris Alender: Absolutely.
Ben Lovett: An interesting thing that is represented by that and I mentioned it earlier. There’s always something that is older than the thing that is old to you. But there’s that conversation in the film, where she says that someone needs to carry these traditions on and he’s like, it’s going to die with her. She’s the last of the people. I think that that exists at this point in the culture. There are things about the previous phases of the culture, in every different culture and country, that are starting to pass away with different generations as they move on and are not being adopted into these new versions of the culture, even though these cultures are all based on these practices and derived from them. There’s a little bit of that commentary threaded into the DNA of the movie about that as well.
Chris Alender: We practice what we preach. We had our elders doing stunts. We didn’t pull any punches with anybody.
Christopher, in working with the actors, obviously you have a very collaborative way of working as a director, is it the same with the actors? How do you work with them?
Chris Alender: Absolutely. In particular too, because each one of them were either immigrants or first-generation Americans, who had their own point of view. Some are from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, all over the place, but each have their own stamp to put on it and their perspective for that. That was super important for the authenticity. Even the little thing like trying to figure out the blocking for the scenes, we’d say, we already did this, so now we want to find something different for Sal, something you can do during this ritual. He responded, well, I’m in an Aztec dance troupe. We’re like, What? You are? He says, Yeah, I’ve got all the stuff, the costume, I could do that. So he brought in his own, I can’t pronounce it, but there were these things that guard the lower part of his legs.
Ben Lovett: They were like a seed pod.
Chris Alender: Yeah, they kind of shake and they’re kind of like a maraca kind of sound, but they are attached to his legs. He brought those in and started to dance to make the sounds, so we recorded all of that as part of the actual score. Just those little touches. Julia [Vera], who plays Luz, had this story that her mother had always told her about this healer from her town. Everybody came from all around to be healed by this woman. She was very expensive so people found it difficult to pay her. She had always thought, if she has this gift, she should give that freely to the world. We really wanted to work that into this character of hers, this person who doesn’t accept payment. That’s why there’s junk everywhere because people, without her will, just make some sort of donation to her life. So she’s got stuff everywhere. There’s a little burial area and there are little offerings everywhere and over time, I imagine that over time that would just grow and grow and grow. It enriched the movie.
From Cristina’s POV, it’s got a very narrow point of view, so it doesn’t have that many locations. We tried to inject that in the details. Hopefully, people will watch it carefully or watch it a second time and notice. There’s also this idea of the characters, and this is kind of spoiler-y, there are people who are antagonists who halfway through the movie become protagonists. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t lying to the audience in our approach to try and make these people seem threatening and dangerous or scary. On a second watch, we wanted to make sure that the audience wouldn’t think we were cheating. I had a lot of conversations with Sal [Lopez], in particular, because he’s kind of the strong man in the situation, pouring milk down her throat, and things like that. He asked, “Why am I doing that?” I said, “Let’s think about it like you’re a vet technician. You’re the assistant to the vet and there’s a sick horse and you can’t communicate to the horse that this medicine is what you need. The horse is going to kick you in the face and break your neck. So you just have to be rough because you’ve already been kicked in the face seven times. That really seemed to help him. He takes no joy in what he does from a process standpoint. His character just knows that it is necessary to achieve the goal of rescuing people. I think those kinds of conversations were very helpful in bringing stuff to light. The questions that they asked me were just as valuable as the stuff I spouted out in response.
I think that’s actually true culturally as well because, in my family, when you were sick, they were going to do whatever needed to be done so that you didn’t die and not really bother about whether you liked it or not.
Ben Lovett: I think what I said about tough love and especially how that crosses over into the themes of possession and addiction and the metaphor system of that is very clear. Sometimes that’s the only way to get through to people who are struggling with whatever their own demon might be that’s causing them to act however they are.
Chris Alender: In our kind of first world generation of people, we’re disconnected from the ramification of not doing things the right way.
Do you both have some projects in development? Some projects that you are working on or that are in development? I know, pandemic, but do you have anything coming up?
Chris Alender: Ben’s got a lot of cool stuff coming. He’s got two movies coming out this week!
Ben Lovett: I’ve got one coming out tomorrow. It’s called The Night House.
Oh my God!
Ben Lovett: Have you seen it? Is it on your list?
I saw it at Sundance back in 2020 and I loved it. I don’t know how I didn’t know that.
Ben Lovett: So you’re one of the few people who knows how long it’s been that we’ve been waiting for this to come out.
Chris Alender: The score is different though. It’s different from the one that you saw because they did more work on it after you saw it. It’s new and improved.
Ben Lovett: If you saw it at Sundance, definitely see it again because the pandemic gave us the opportunity to go back and fix some things and for me, that was the opportunity to see the whole movie as one finished thing and decide where we could go back and tweak some things. Obviously, the picture didn’t change, but we could do some things on the music and sound front.
Chris Alender: That’s the biggest thing that we lost as a filmmaking community, the ability to see our movie, basically to test screen it with humans, because our movie, THE OLD WAYS sold at Sitges, and they had some in-person screenings, but we couldn’t go because the borders were closed. We sold it to Netflix out of that. By the time that it was at other festivals, in April of 2021, where we could see it with humans, we had already delivered everything to Netflix in March. With a lot of the other films that we had done, we got to go to Toronto or Sundance or Sitges and see it a couple of times there or to another festival and see it with a completely different group of people who react very differently, like a Texas audience, versus a New York audience or a Canadian audience. Because even if you sell it at the first one, they say, “you have to deliver in six months or four months because it’s going to come out in 10 to 12 months.”. So you have time to make some adjustments which we’ve always done on the movies that we produced. So this movie was already out the door before we ever saw it with people. I’m sure I would have changed something if I had seen it with people.
Ben Lovett: There’s nothing more instructive than getting to see a room full of strangers watch your movie. You see it in a whole different way.
Chris Alender: Because they’ll laugh, in a good way or a bad way. They’ll fidget. That’s the best thing for me. There are times when you’re just thinking, people are rustling, let’s shorten this part or you’re at the Alamo and you can hear plates. That’s not a good sign.
Ben Lovett: Stand in the back and you can see how many people check their phones.
Chris Alender: We lost all of that but we were happy with the final outcome. Ben’s got some other fun stuff coming out soon too.
Ben Lovett: Fortunately, they announced Broadcast Signal Intrusion. They dropped a release date and a trailer. It’s a film by a director who originally introduced Chris and I named Jacob Gentry that comes out October 22.
Chris Alender: I didn’t even see that. I’d like to see that, that’s exciting.
Ben Lovett: I just found out last night, so that’s when it will be available for streaming and all of that. There’s a soundtrack for all of these. There’s a soundtrack for THE OLD WAYS coming out on August 27th which is the Friday of next week. The Night House has a soundtrack coming out, and then there will be a soundtrack coming out on the date, October 22nd, that Broadcast Signal Intrusion comes out.
Chris Alender: Jacob (Gentry) and I, we’ve been making movies since we were in middle school, early nineties. Jacob and Ben went to college together, so that’s how I met Ben through the college connection. David Bruckner, who directed The Night House, is part of the gang too. We’re all just former Atlanta people who dreamed of going to Hollywood and it only took us thirty years to do so. Marcus and I are working on a new movie that we just finished a draft on and that we’ve shown to some new fans that we have in the industry because of this movie. We’re shopping that around. We’ll see how this movie goes because we’ve already got the story broken for a sequel with this if people want it and/or like a TV series.
Ben Lovett: I love this as the idea of a 90 minute pilot for a TV series because of the way the movie works. I could tune in for an episode of this world and this particular set of characters and this kind of problem to deal with. I love the idea of that format. I think that would be cool.
Chris Alender: We made this book of demons. We have already figured out a lot of the demons in this world. It’s a rich world and once we’ve kind of set the table it would be great to go back.
THE OLD WAYS is now available on Netflix, and Dolores cannot recommend it enough. It’s a different sort of film about possession, exorcism, and addiction in Veracruz, Mexico, and she thinks you will find that it is rich with meaning and gives fans of films about demonic possession something new to be scared of. If you’re not convinced, go and check out her review from Sitges.