Leo Francis' Exclusive Interview with Mac Carter (Haunt)
2014 has been a pretty stellar year for horror so far, and IFC Midnight has been putting a ton of amazing indie films up on the big screen where they belong. Movies like The Den, Almost Human, and Mac Carter's horror film debut, Haunt. His ability to build tension and his decision to focus on the love story between the two young leads elevates what could have been another run of the mill haunted house film into something more enjoyable. Mac was kind enough to agree to answer some of my questions in this exclusive interview for The Children of Samhain. A special thank you to Mac for taking the time out to do this. I appreciate it.
Leo Francis: Your directorial debut was a documentary about the history of DC Comics. Were you inspired to make a documentary from your work on Spellbound? Why DC Comics? What is your favorite DC Comic?
Mac Carter: Comics are a longtime passion of mine. My garage is stuffed with boxes and boxes of them. Anyone who knows me knows I'm a deeply committed fan. So when a friend at Warner Bros. asked if I'd be interested in taking on the history of DC in a doc, I jumped at the chance. I loved every minute of the research and interviewing. What a way to spend a year! "Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics" was my valentine to the comic books that have thrilled and entertained me for years and years. "Spellbound" was made by two of my best friends. I was only there to offer support and eat pizza off the craft service table. What's my favorite DC comic? There are too many! Look, I'm a huge fan of the Trinity--I'm a sucker for nostalgia. Give me a great story featuring any of those guys and I'm hooked.
LF: What inspired you to make a horror film. What was it about the script that drew you to the project? The Haunted House concept is being pretty heavily used lately, were you ever worried that it might come across as derivative or were you confident that your film would stand out?
MC: I'm very much a guy who enjoys everything genre. That includes horror films, and haunted house films especially. I've been directing commercials for years and years while always on the lookout for an opportunity to get into a feature. Horror films are a gateway genre. They're very often lower budget endeavors driven and marketed largely on the concept. "Haunt" was just that kind of opportunity. The script by Black List writer, Andrew Barrer, then called "Animal," was sent to me by a producer friend, Ronnie Eisen. He thought I might be a good fit for the material and he knew it was moving quickly toward production at QED. The night I received it, I read it front to back three times in a row. It wasn't without its warts and blemishes, but I thought it was full of creepy atmosphere and I found it a genuinely frightening read. And more than anything, I loved the relationship between Evan and Sam at the heart of the story. I felt if I got that right, the film could connect with an audience--call it a Romeo and Juliet horror story! That was my thinking back then and it remained my goal throughout the production. I totally understand the question about the threat of appearing derivative in a well-worn genre. Frankly, I do think the story leans heavily on horror tropes, often by the writer's design in an effort to comment on the genre, but I tried to never let that become an obstacle to my process. Some of those bits got reworked, some got cut altogether, and some remain in the film. I just committed to making any touch that felt overy-familiar the best version of that trope that I possibly could.
LF: Have you always been a fan of the genre? What was the first horror film you ever saw that left an impression on you? What do you think draws people in general to horror films?
MC: Man, am I glad you asked that! Steven Spielberg made a television movie called "Something Evil" starring Jody (Johnny Whitaker) from "Family Affair." He was the celebrity surrogate of all suburban boys in the 70s, a fact I'm sure SS was keenly aware of. It was about a family moving into a country house possessed by demonic forces. Some idiot babysitter let me watrch it with her and it ruined my childhood nights. For years, I saw glowing demon eyes in my bedroom windows. I am not shitting you, it haunted me forever. Eventually, I began to appreciate the raw power of movies because of the experience (I would have loved to have learned the lesson another way, but we all come to our passions in our own ways, right?).
I don't know why people love horror films the way they do; that's a question for someone above my pay scale. But I do know this: well done horror films are a truly visceral experience. They frighten us, plain and simple. In a world full of more and more entertainment options they continue to cut through the clutter and move us. That's not easy to do today.
LF: I actually felt that your direction and the performance of the ensemble are what made this film stand out. What other genre film makers were you influenced by? How was it working with such a talented cast?
MC: Thanks for the kind words. Making movies at this budget is an out of control, hang on by your fingernails experience. Cameras break down, snow falls, time flies: that's the nature of the horror film beast. One area of the filmmaking I was consumed with giving my undivided attention was the casting and direction of the actors. Superstar casting director, John Papsidera, found me Liana Liberato and Harrison Gilbertson for Sam and Evan and without those two the film wouldn't have succeeded as well as it has. In a word, they were amazing. The producers got the script to Jacki Weaver and she agreed to join the cast early on. I'm a huge fan--if you haven't seen "Animal Kingdom" you owe it to yourself to throw it on this weekend, it's one of the great films of the last ten years--and she was a dream to work with. Ione Skye had a small part but was pitch perfect as Evan's mother. The rest of the cast we filled out during pre-production in Utah, and every one of them was as deeply committed to the film as I could have asked for. Working with this cast was far and away my favorite part of the year-plus I spent on "Haunt."
While no one in particular influences my work, there's no shortage of filmmakers that I think are brilliant in this genre. I'm sure I borrowed from more than a few, from Spielberg to Kubrick to Carpenter to Wan to Alfredson, and everyone in-between. Thanks, guys.
LF: I tend to prefer indie-horror films to the big budget studio releases, mostly because the indie film makers are able to take risks they normally wouldn't be allowed to take. I also think that the true test of a great director is what they can achieve on a limited budget, and you seem to have achieved that. Do you feel budget restrictions forced you to be more creative, and do you think that yielded better results?
MC: Again, thanks. Our budget was a challenge. That's true. In our case, I don't think that produced gutsy choices or creative solutions. I can understand how on a different film, a passion project for example, that might happen (Go, Ti West! Go!) but that just wasn't the case with us. From the outset, we were up against so many obstacles that is was purely a matter of survival. All of the constraints called for a breathless, non-stop attack on the day. That was a huge lesson, and incredibly invigorating. Also, I wasn't afforded the kind of freedom you associate with lower-budget filmmaking because the material didn't originate with me--I was a gun for hire. I was tasked by the producers--a very accomplished team--with delivering their script, word for word, and I took that directive very seriously. Having said all of that, it was thrilling to work on "Haunt." And to be perfectly clear, every chance I had, I tried to bring something of myself to the film. I can't wait to jump into another film regardless of the budget.
LF: Really the only thing that didn't work for me was the CGI effects. In general, I'm not a fan. Was that your decision or did it come from the producers? Why was the decision made to use digital effects instead of practical?
MC: We used both. Given our budget, our original intent was to feature a practical ghost at the center of the film and that was supposed to be the extent of our VFX. The producers had a relationship with Weta going back to their time working together on "District 9." They called New Zealand to gauge their interest in helping us out and Weta jumped all over it. They designed our creature, created the appliances that would let us turn an actress into the ghost, then sent the whole kit over with a team of artists--Sarah Rubano and Joe Dunckley--to shepherd us through the production. These guys are big time pros (LOTR, "Spider Man 2," "District 9," "Elysium," etc.) I have to say, they were amazing. They came through in a big way for us, including resources we never could have afforded. If you look closely, you'll see Galadriel's gown in our ghost's costuming and Gandalf's beard in her stringy hair! But in the end, we needed something more to help our scares. It was decided that we might be able to help ourselves with some CGI. As you've pointed out, we were on a tight budget. We didn't have a lot of bucks left over for VFX, so we kind of got what we got. Which is not to say that the artists weren't talented or hard working. They were. All of them. We just ran out of time and money. I don't disagree with your criticism of the work. I'm sorry we let you down there. We'll do better next time, I promise! For the record, here's my take on this whole argument of practical versus CGI: you use whichever tool is right for the job. Any director worth their salt will give you that answer. So much goes into the decsion making of these choices; you have to be open to all possibilities.
LF: You really show serious promise as a director within the genre, and I look forward to your next film. What are you working on next? Will it be another horror film?
MC: I love this genre and would happily do another. I created "The Strange Adventures of HP Lovecraft" published by Image Comics. Told you I'm a comic book guy! It's a horror action story that finds Lovecraft at the center of the uncanny mythology that features in his work. I'd love to take a crack at that some day. Lovecraft is one of our most deeply underappreciated authors. And Hollywood, in particular, has found it difficult to bring his work to the screen. Just look at Del Toro's problems with "At the Mountains of Madness." I'd like to be the director that cracks this case.
Okay, on to the Lightning Round....
LF: Nice. What scares you? We're all scared of war and disease and unpleasantries like that. But when it comes to horror films, what genuinely scares you?
MC: Dark. Fucking. Basements.
LF: Name a film you walked out of at the theater.
MC: I have a very high pain threshhold but I just could not finish "Twilight."
LF: If you could punch one person in the face, who would it be?
MC: Guy Woodhouse. That guy's a dick.
LF: You got to interview some ridiculously big names for your 2010 documentary Secret Origin in addition to working with Ione Skye and Jacki Weaver in Haunt. Did any of them make you feel 'star-struck'?
MC: They all made me feel star-struck! And I hope they always will. I never want to take what I do for granted.
LF: What's your favorite horror film of all time and / or the scariest movie you've ever seen?
MC: "The Shining" is the undisputed heavyweight champion of horror movies and always will be. The scariest movie? "Something Evil." Leave it to Spielberg to screw with my childhood.
Another thank you to Mac for taking the time to answer my questions. Haunt is available on iTunes, VOD and in selected theaters. Go check it out and support indie-horror. Cheers.
- Leo Francis