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2016, 80m, horror, mystery
When Marina calls Gideon, he thinks for once nice guys don’t finish last.
However, their “date” turns out to be a newspaper assignment in the crumbling old brownstone where Marina’s arrogant boss, Trevor, plans a séance to expose a psychic — and prove once and for all that his wife’s best friend is dead… and gone.
But Trevor’s wife isn’t alone sensing otherworldly restlessness. The dead woman’s daughter swears objects appear and disappear. The psychic’s terrified assistant sets out more talismans and charms.
And now Gideon sees visions of a mysterious woman in blue light...
Produced by: Meg Sweeney Lawless, Alan McIntyre Smith, Jay Stern
Cast: Jun Naito, Marina Franklin, Mina Sands, Mickey Ryan, Mary Micari, Joe Franchini, Marian Brock, Paul Herbig
10 questions with Spirit Cabinet director, Jay Stern at the half-way mark.
Monday, March 14th, 2016
1Hey Jay! What was the initial seed that made you want to make Spirit Cabinet? I was putting together a feature film called "The Adventures of Paul and Marian," and we had a delay that pushed our shooting back by several months. We had a crew and many cast members ready to go, but weren't going to be able to use them. Rob Eggers, the production designer I was working with on the movie at the time, had just worked on a theater project at an old brownstone in the Bronx and said that if we ever wanted to shoot a creepy movie, he could get us access to it. I discussed it with M. Sweeney Lawless, she wrote a script, and six weeks later we were shooting.
2Your film is spooky but doesn't rely on blood and gore to get scares. What do you think about modern horror films? Horror is one of today's most dynamic filmmaking genres. It encompasses high and low budget, high and low concept, comedy, experimental, you name it. And horror is a great playground for low budget independent filmmakers. If you make a somewhat interesting horror movie, you're pretty much guaranteed reaching an audience since horror fans are so actively searching for new movies. And if there are enough thrills in your movie you can be forgiven almost everything, from low technical quality to lazy storytelling and bad acting. I love how active the horror world is. That said, I really don't like horror movies. I definitely don't care for torture porn and gore. Unless the gore is over the top, then it's funny. M. Sweeney Lawless, who wrote the script and produced the movie, calls "Spirit Cabinet" a "nice little seance movie" and considers it more of a mystery than a horror movie.
3Which films were you telling your crew to watch as references for your film and why? We made it all so quickly that there wasn't much time to sit around and look at things. I originally wanted to go for Hitchockian suspense, but we only had 5 days to shoot the entire movie so we ended up going handheld. Alan McIntrye Smith (the DP) and I are big Bergman fans and some of his ensemble pieces were certainly in my mind as we worked on the movie. But I doubt any of that shows in the finished product.
4Robert Eggers (the writer and director of the indie hit The Witch) was your production designer on this film. How did you meet and what was it like working with him? I met Rob on a short I produced many years ago. I liked his sensibility and resourcefulness and I knew I wanted to work with him again. Like most members of my team, he's also a director, and I think that really helps, since directors heading departments naturally think about how their choices affect the whole movie, rather than their specific area of the production. Rob is very detailed in his work yet was able to assemble all the props and design elements really quickly and on the cheap. We didn’t have any kind of budget for production design, so Rob and our wardrobe designer Polina Roytman worked out a color scheme and some basic rules to make our lack of resources an aesthetic choice. This is the kind of thinking you really need from a designer on a low budget film.
5M. Sweeney Lawless wrote the script to Spirit Cabinet. What was it about the script that made you want to direct it? What was your collaboration like? It was pretty much the inverse -- we had a location, a specific cast we wanted to work with, and a genre, and Meg wrote the script to those specs. She and I have worked together on all kinds of different projects for many years so it was a really easy collaboration. All of our key positions -- writer, producing team, the DP, sound, production design, wardrobe, etc. -- were filled by people who had worked together before, and that's one of the things that made this movie possible.
6You were able to get a team of people to compose this film. What was that process like? I asked David Noon, a composer friend of mine, to write the score. He hadn't written a movie score before, but I thought he'd be great for this. He didn't have the time, but he offered me any of his compositions to use or adapt for the movie. Zach Abramson, who wrote the score to my first movie, and who was also composing the music for "The Adventures of Paul and Marian," happened to be a former student of Noon's, and he came on board as a music supervisor, arranger, and composer. We ended up mostly adapting passages from Noon's string quartets, but Zach, being the brilliant composer that he is, even ended up adapting a passage from a percussion symphony of Noon's for the movie -- for strings. The vocal music is a piece of medieval music I came across while we were editing the movie. I thought it was a great fit and Zach adapted it for the movie. I have to say the process of developing the score was really fun, and we the recording session with the string quartet was a blast.
7Which filmmaker has a career that you admire and why? Ingmar Bergman had the career I would most like to have. In his prime, he was directing a movie in the summer and a play in the winter with the same team of actors and much of the same design team. But I don't live in 1950s Sweden and that kind of career doesn't happen these days. I think any filmmaker who is able to consistently work and do the kind of work he or she wants to do has it made. The German New Wave directors - Schlöndorff, Herzog, Wenders, they all do this. John Waters too. And Woody Allen. And I think Robert Eggers is off to a pretty good start!
8Can you share a war story from the shoot? Oh god, it was all such a nightmare. We had NO time - just 5 days! - and were shooting 20+ pages a day. I had some sort of flu and completely lost my voice. As one of the producers I was acutely aware that something minor could happen at any moment that would completely derail the project. With just 5 days to shoot, a flat tire or a sick cast member could have been disastrous. I think the worst moment was when a huge storm hit, one of those nor'easters we get in the NYC area in the spring. There was something like three inches of water in the basement and we had to bail it out while not electrocuting ourselves. I also remember stuffing towels under the crack in the front door to the brownstone to keep water out of the set. One good part of this story though: you can hear some of the storm on the soundtrack, and it's pretty creepy sounding.
9You were very excited once you heard about our website and wrote me some very nice emails. What are your thoughts on the current state of indie film and distribution? It's a pretty depressing scene out there for actual independent filmmakers. None of the bigger distributors know how to make money any more, so the kind of support and channels we had several years ago aren't there anymore. I also work in theater, and as competitive as that world can be, it's nothing compared to the indie film world. One of the things that's great about fandependent is that it's potentially a place where all kinds of filmmakers can come together and share their work. If we're giving it away for free these days (which seems to be our only option) then we might as well do it on a platform like this one. I really don't know what else to say about the current state of indie film without sounding just too depressing. We should all probably consider a less-expensive art form. Like macrame. Or poetry.
10What's next? I have a bunch of very different things in the works. I'm bringing a play I directed several years ago to Chicago this summer for a commercial run. It's a very fun (and very bloody) musical called "The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady." M. Sweeney Lawless is helping me develop a new feature to shoot on a Greek island in early 2017. And I've been asked to work on Volker Schlöndorff's next feature shooting in New York this April.
About the Interviewer: Ben Hicks
Ben Hicks is a writer/director and co-founder of Fandependent Films. Ben is currently working on making Fandependent Films awesome and is finishing up his first feature film entitled Kids Go Free to Fun Fun Time which was selected for the 2017 IFP Narrative Lab.
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