In Axelle Carolyn’s latest film, THE MANOR, Judith Albright (Barbara Hershey) moves to Golden Sun Manor, an assisted living facility with a sterling reputation, after experiencing a mild stroke that diminishes her ability to care for herself. But despite the best efforts of the staff, and a budding friendship with fellow senior Roland (Bruce Davison), strange occurrences and nightmarish visions convince Judith that a sinister presence is haunting the massive estate. As residents begin to die mysteriously, Judith’s frantic warnings are dismissed as fantasy and with no one to believe her, she must escape the confines of the manor of fall victim to the evil that dwells within it.
Recently, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew had the opportunity to interview writer/director Axelle Carolyn. During their chat, they discussed everything from how the story for THE MANOR came about to the importance of representing an older demographic of women and wrapping with how the team tackled creating the creature featured in this film.
Hey Axelle, it’s such a pleasure to speak with you today about your film, THE MANOR! To kick things off, can you talk a bit about how this story came about?
Axelle Carolyn: I have always been kind of scared of what it means to get older. Even as a child, understanding that I’m going to see my mom change, I’m going to see people get more fragile, get more vulnerable, become somebody I can’t communicate with in the same way, it was always terrifying and then realizing later on that I would be in that situation too. I think when you’re 20, you don’t think about it too much, but then there’s a point in your life when it starts creeping up on you. That [feeling of], oh my God, this number is going to keep going up and how scary is that? I feel like, especially as women, we don’t have a lot of positive role models to look forward to. It’s very much a certain type of – there are amazing characters, amazing actors, anybody would love to be Sigourney Weaver, anybody would love to become Judy Dench or be M in James Bond, but they’re very few and far between.
In horror, we have a history of using older women as objects of terror instead of anything positive and so, I really wanted to have something to show that we could have a lead character who’s in her seventies and is badass, gorgeous, fun, charismatic, and exciting. And then have a movie that deals a little bit with the themes of what it means to be older and how to age gracefully. People always seem to think it’s this idea of you just having to accept whatever comes to you and to stop being rebellious and stop being everything that makes you the youthful 25-year-old you may have been. And I was like well, fuck that. I want to deal with this in my own time. So, that’s where it came from.
When I think of older women in their 70s spearheading [horror] films, not many come to mind outside of The Taking of Deborah Logan and The Relic. So, when it came to putting together the cast, what was the search like?
Axelle Carolyn: It’s funny, Jill Larson from The Taking of Deborah Logan is one of the characters in the movie. She is so wonderful. She is one of Judith’s friends. She’s one of the people that she needs early on and she’s fantastic. She will lift an eyebrow and express five different things and she just doesn’t need to do much at all. Everything is in her eyes and she’s just so phenomenal. The costume designer was really good and he came up with very individual looks for every one of the characters and for her, her looks were so gorgeous that I kept two of the dresses because I had to have them [Laughs].
As for Judith, I was a big fan of Barbara Hershey, of course. I was aware of Bruce Davison, Fran Bennett, who terrified me when she was in Craven’s New Nightmare. I came up with a list for the lead and [Barbara] was very high on that list and it was just wonderful to get to work with her. The other actors were often people that the casting director would put forward and I’d be like, oh my God, yes. Do you think we could speak to her? Do you think we could have him? It came together really nicely and they got along really nicely, too.
One of the best parts of the film, in my opinion, is the relationship between Judith and her grandson, Josh. It’s a relationship that we don’t see too often. Can you talk about the importance of that relationship?
Axelle Carolyn: I agree. I think it’s something we don’t see very often, even a girl with her grandma, we don’t see that much. I don’t know why it ended up being a boy. I guess it just somehow made sense in my head. Maybe it was the fact that I can imagine Judith getting along with men and women and that being kind of in her interests. I think a lot of us horror fans grew up having a lot of male friends because of our interests not being considered feminine and, at the time, that not being very acceptable in some ways. And I just imagined that Judith would be the same kind of person. She’s into dance so clearly, she would be with people of all genders, but maybe the fact that she’s into horror as well, it’s kind of hinted at. There was a little scene that we took out where she was discussing the fact that she was the one who would watch horror movies with Josh because he wasn’t allowed to do it at his house. And that was part of the things that I would bond with my grandparents.
My parents were very, very strict, but when I went to my grandma’s she would be like, Oh, I recorded Bruce Lee last night, or, I thought you might like this movie, and she didn’t know anything about movies [Laughs]. She didn’t do it because she was passionate about it. She just did because she thought, well, I’ve heard of this and I know that kids today are into this and you might be interested [Laughs]. Sometimes she was wildly off the mark but sometimes, like in the case of Bruce Lee, I have this very vivid memory of watching those movies when I was way too young to watch it and it was just great. That’s the kind of relationship I had in mind, was just that kind of like similar interests were being a little bit more permissive, but in a way that’s kind of bonding and fun. And I wanted her to feel like she’s an equal to her grandson, like not something where Oh, I’m just hanging out with my older relative. Instead, it’s we hang out because we have fun and we love each other. And that was very much kind of the crux of the movie. If you don’t believe in that relationship, I don’t think that the movie is going to work.
The nursing home that Judith moves into is stunning. How did you come about finding this Manor and were you able to film inside the building or did you have to do that on set?
Axelle Carolyn: It’s this gorgeous house. It’s called Stimson House. They shot the exterior of House II to that house, which I didn’t know when we were going scouting and I was like, this looks kind of familiar, and then I looked it up and yup, it’s the opening shot of the movie, literally [Laughs]. I explained to the location people from the start that I didn’t want them to be in a typical sterile environment. I don’t want this movie to be depressing. I didn’t want this movie to be super realistic, either. I like when things are slightly augmented and slightly leaning ever so slightly towards kind of a fairytale or Gothic kind of territory and so, that felt more comfortable for me. And then, when they mentioned this house, I was like oh yeah, we have to film there. And there’s a little bit of a battle because it’s not always the most practical environment but we ended up shooting three weeks in there and I just loved that place. Some of the exteriors are actually just little patches of grass around the house and then if you move the camera just a little bit, you’ll see there’s a church just right behind or there’s massive traffic because we’re in DTLA, so it was very much [about] picking the [right] angles.
Without giving too much away, I would love to briefly talk about the creature and, knowing your love of monsters, if you were able to have it created practically?
Axelle Carolyn: It’s a full guy in a suit and that was something that I’ve been dreaming of doing my entire life because I absolutely love monsters and classic performers. It was such a dream come true to get to do that and it was such an important element for me to try to build something that would look cool and iconic and different, and not to make it like a smaller version of Groot [Laughs]. I have to credit the guys at Illusion Industries, Todd Tucker’s company, they designed something that was gorgeous and between a tree structure and a skeleton. I brought over images for reference that had textures and shapes and then they came up with and made these beautiful busts to show…the whole process was just a delight. It was so much fun. Then I had this amazing performer, Mark Steger, who’s super accomplished and knows how to move, so it was really fun.
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