[SXSW Interview] Anna Halberg, Spenser Cohen & Scott Glassgold for BLINK

[SXSW Interview] Anna Halberg, Spenser Cohen & Scott Glassgold for BLINK
Still from BLINK l Courtesy Screen Gems
After being violently pushed from a window, Mary wakes up in the hospital, almost completely paralyzed. Trapped inside the prison of her own body, Mary’s only way to communicate is by blinking her eyes. She tries to warn the nurse that a sinister, inhuman force is trying to kill her. But when strange things begin happening around her, she realizes it may be too late to stop it in Anna Halberg and Spenser Cohen’s latest collaboration, BLINK.

Ahead of its world premiere at SXSW, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Sarah Musnicky spoke to Co-writer/Producer Anna Halberg, Co-writer/Director Spenser Cohen, and Producer Scott Glassgold about BLINK, the first short out of Scream Gems’ Horror Lab. During the discussion, they chatted about how they came to be involved with Scream Gems, the difficulties of certain moments being achieved practically, and what future goals are surrounding Scream Gems’ Horror Lab.

BLINK, the first short with Scream Gems, how does that feel? Especially playing to a live audience?

Anna Halberg: We’re so excited to be a part of the program and it’s really great to be back in person here for the festival. I haven’t even seen the movie on a big screen yet. So I can’t wait to see it with an audience.

How did you guys get to be involved with Scream Gems? Did you guys already have the BLINK screenplay already written out? Talk to me a little bit about that.

Anna Halberg: Yes, so Scott Glassgold over here started the program, and we’ve been trying to work with him for a while actually. He came to us when starting this and said, “Hey, you guys don’t happen to have a short film or something that might work for the studio,” and we had this idea for BLINK actually, as a feature first. And so, we kind of reverse-engineered the feature film to be a short proof of concept and came on to work with him on a project.

Scott Glassgold: The idea for the lab always was two things at once. It was to offer an opportunity to talented emerging filmmakers, Spencer and Anna, and simultaneously, whatever we were making, it was always an eye towards being able to be expanded into something larger, so that we weren’t just sort of making a short in a silo. It could be something that could ostensibly serve as an intellectual property to grow further.

That does answer my question about whether or not this would be adapted into a feature. Because having watched it, it opens itself up to expansion rather easily.

Spenser Cohen: Yeah, so we actually had the idea for the feature first, so we know what the movie is. And then we reverse-engineered the short back, which is kind of what would be the opening of the movie in a way.

Very smart. So, what was the inspiration behind BLINK?

Spenser Cohen: So, the inspiration behind it was I’ve only ever had sleep paralysis one time. I woke up in the middle of the night and my body was frozen, and the only thing I could move was my eyes. And I remember, like my heart was beating and I had anxiety, I was like, I cannot move my body. What’s going on? And then I remember hearing a noise and my eyes kind of like ping-ponged over into a dark corner, and it was like, truly the fear that I felt in that moment was just not being able to move or do anything was like a 15 out of 10. I told Anna about it the next day, and she had a similar experience, and we realize we spend a third of our lives in bed, which is supposed to be a place where we’re safe. And, if you’ve ever woken up at three o’clock in the morning, you realize very quickly that you can feel afraid of your own room or the darkness there. So we wanted to kind of tell the story about that kind of universal fear. At least, for the short.

And when it came time to bring the short to life, I noticed that there were a lot of practical effects that you guys did. How difficult was it to execute those, especially the bed raising by itself?

Spenser Cohen: It was all very difficult. Nothing came easy on this one. Like, for example, the bed one, that should have, in theory, you think like, Okay, we have to raise the bed by a window. It shouldn’t be tricky, but it only ever went up a certain angle, and we needed her to go much higher, and no one could figure out what to do. So, the three of us actually huddled together in a corner, and we were like, Okay, we have to get this shot. It’s not working. What do we do? We took the mattress off the hospital bed, and we put every apple box we had off the grip truck on there. So, we rigged it with bungee cords and we probably put like 15 apple boxes. Then we put the mattress back on. And it was like again super low fi, like film school mentality in terms of like, let’s just make it work. And then we did that shot, and the bed was elevated to a point where it looked like she would actually go out the window. But that was almost on every shot. We would have to huddle together creatively and try to figure it out.

Anna Halberg: And we had a really limited amount of time and money to work with. So we had to problem solve quite quickly.

Spenser Cohen: Yeah, and we did try to do everything practical. There are some CG elements obviously, in there and we augmented things, but we always started from a place of let’s just kind of get it on the day, because it always looks better, and there’s just a texture to it all when you can feel it in front of you. But it was a challenge. Everything was challenging.

In the end, when you’re seeing everything happening in her eyeball, I’m assuming for practicality purposes and time purposes that was done in CGI.

Spenser Cohen: It’s more practical than you think. So, we shot so that we pushed into her eyes, obviously, giving the performance acting to nothing there. Then we shot a plate of the room with the door closing and we put that into basically baked that into her eye. And then, the nurse was created completely digitally and the creature was completely digitally for most of it. Like when it crawls down in front of her, and then it’s an actor in the full wardrobe and makeup. We have like a really cool monster makeup on a really tall actor we have playing this part. And, at that point, it becomes practical again. He shot on a blue screen, so both of the things were shot and then brought together. A very complicated shot to pull off. It took us a very long time.

It looked complicated while I was watching it, but I feel guilty admitting that I couldn’t find as many of the practical, so I’m wondering if that was just how it all came together. If that’s why my brain registered it as CGI-focused.

Spenser Cohen: I mean, that’s also just I think the work of the VFX team was great. Like, again, not everything you’re seeing besides the nurse and the creature is real. So, everything in the eye is actually shot from that room put in there, and then again the last few frames of the short is a real person that’s sort of been augmented a little bit. So it’s a blend.

And then, a little birdie told me about your upcoming feature Horrorscope. I was wondering if we could chat a little bit about that since that’s also a Screen Gems project. Did you guys get tapped for that after BLINK?

Anna Halberg: Yes. So, we made the short and then came on to write this feature, which we’re also directing. So this will be our directorial debut.

Spenser Cohen: And we’re hoping to launch a brand new horror franchise with this. It’s super cool, original and hopefully, will scare the shit out of people.

Reading over the synopsis, I thought this is every Angeleno’s worst nightmare, with astrology being a whole thing here. So, have you guys run into any difficulties in adapting the novel into screenplay form?

Spenser Cohen: We’ve never read the novel. I may be getting this wrong. But there’s a novel that exists with that name and we weren’t interested in it, because I believe it’s a kind of high school slasher story, which is not really what we want to do. And we just said, Well, we have this other thing, and if we can do something with it, this is what we would do. So, we basically have the title and everything else is an original story that has nothing to do with it.

And switching gears over to Scott with regard to Scream Gems. What can people look forward to on the docket for the horror lab?

Scott Glassgold: That’s a great question. I mean, look, I think the proof positive is in what these filmmakers did with BLINK. So, I think it really demonstrates that this is a worthwhile program. We have one or two projects that we’re hopefully going to announce soon, and we want to iterate this process, right? We want to give more filmmakers the opportunity to do something special and really we should also be…SXSW is really giving us a great platform too. It all really came together perfectly. I have to really acknowledge Screen Gems for underwriting this program, giving filmmakers the opportunity to show what they’re capable of. So we really want to sort of rinse and repeat, if you will, and maybe we’ll bring it the Scream Gems back to SXSW every year would be a great goal.

That would be great, especially from so many indie filmmakers, a lot of them do horror. And so it would be a great platform to sort of jump on to.

Sarah Musnicky
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