Movies

Interview with HAUNT Director Mac Carter

We had the chance to interview Mac Carter, director of Haunt. The horror film stars Harrison Gilbertson (Need For Speed), Liana Liberato (Trust), Ione Skye (Wayne’s World, Zodiac) and Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom, Silver Linings Playbook).

Carter is a New Jersey native, the L.A.-based storyteller started directing award-winning short films while earning an MFA from USC’s prestigious School of Cinematic Arts, Film & Television Production.

Haunt follows a family that moves into a beautiful, sprawling dream home. One problem: it’s cursed, having caused the deaths of the previous family to occupy it, leaving only one survivor (Jacki Weaver). The moody 18-year-old son and his mysterious new neighbor/girlfriend inadvertently awaken something in the house while also violently shaking the many skeletons in the many closets. Mac Carter’s atmospheric debut feature is an unusually character-driven haunted-house film that isn’t afraid to take the action outside.

IMG_6038Up until now you have been involved with documentary filmmaking. What made you want to do a movie that isn’t a documentary?

Like a lot of directors, I began in commercials. I still do them today; Chevy, McDonalds, MasterCard, all that sort of thing. Those opportunities have been an invaluable experience, and I hope to make many more, but I worked my way through film school behind the dream of making features. The first feature that came my way—in this case through a well-placed friend who knew of my passion for comic books—was a documentary for Warner Bros looking at the history of DC Comics. I jumped at the chance. To call me a fan doesn’t begin to do the depth of my nerdishness justice. Boxes full of four-color pulp make my garage unusable. So, I made “Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics” and it was a total thrill for me the entire time I worked on it. I got to meet all those amazing creators who I’ve admired on the title pages of all those great comics: Gaiman, Morrison, Pope, Adams, Waid, Levitz, Johns, and many more. And I got to talk about comic books. A lot. I was in heaven. A true Agent of Geek. So, it wasn’t so much an interest in documentary filmmaking that had me directing that movie but my deep, deep love of comic books. That brings me to “Haunt.” I dig genre films. All kinds. It’s always been my dream to make genre films and I’ve always felt that horror would be a great place to start. When a friend, Ronnie Eisen, passed along the script and told me it had some industry buzz, I sat down and read it that night. Front to back. Three times in a row. It scared the shit out of me–that’s a credit to the phenomenal writer, Andrew Barrer. After that, I was determined to get the gig. I met with the producers and I guess my passion shone through. Lucky for me.

How did you make the transition to directing a feature film?

As you might have guessed, there’s some real concern about hiring commercial directors to helm narrative features. They’re such different worlds in every way. Many commercials have huge budgets, fat schedules, and lots of filmmaking toys to play with. Exactly the opposite of a lean production on a modest horror film like “Haunt.” On the other hand, commercial directors like Ridley Scott, David Fincher, or Spike Jonze, to name a few, often bring innovative approaches to narrative and fresh visual design to feature filmmaking. In my case, it took some convincing to earn the producers’ trust. No doubt about it. I will say this, it didn’t hurt to be a well-informed fan of genre films and stripped-down filmmaking techniques in general. Just having that deep well of knowledge to draw on in my conversations with the producers gave them the confidence that I had really thought through our film down to the smallest detail. Of course, once we were on set the hard work really started and I learned a lot about how to approach the day-to-day filmmaking. I’ll give you this one example… The film opens with a prologue involving the father trying to contact his dead children using an EVP, or ghost box. It involved a hefty number of camera set ups and even several simple stunts. Ordinarily, you’d schedule a day or more to film a sequence as complicated as that. In commercials, we’d find a way to turn it into a three day shoot. On “Haunt,” we did it before lunch. Learning to attack the shooting day with boundless energy and enthusiasm, and setting aside any preconceived idea in favor of a better one, was a huge lesson for me and one I’ll take into every film I make from here on out.

Was there a specific movie that inspired you to become a filmmaker?

I’ve been making movies since I was eleven. I was one of those kids. I started on a friend’s handheld Super 8 Beaulieu and never looked back. Weirdly, my first film was a horror about a guy who accidentally kills all his neighbors while attempting to take his own life—“Murder by Suicide!” (Cut me some slack. I was eleven.) I’ve always loved going to the movies, too. My parents would drop me at the theater on Saturday morning and pick me up Sunday afternoon. Movies (and comic books) were my thing. I devoured them non-stop. That’s a little backstory for you, now let me answer your question. It wasn’t any single film that convinced me to take the plunge and make filmmaking a career, it was a summer—the celebrated Summer of ’82. Yes, I was smitten with “Jaws,” “The Exorcist,” “Star Wars,” “CE3K,” and many more before then. Yes, I gobbled up everything I could find on making movies, read every article written about directing (thank you American Cinematographer, Cinefex, Starlog, and Fangoria!), watched my favorites over and over on bootlegged VHS tapes, and eventually tried to emulate them in my own amateurish way. But up until The Summer showed me the light, I was bound for a career as a middling comic book artist. (I say “middling” because that was confirmed for me by no less than John Byrne. If you’re not ready for the hard truth, don’t ask John.) 82’ saved me from that abyss. It tickled me in all the right places. It cemented my desire to make movies and I shot out of New Jersey in my grandmother’s powder blue Nova and didn’t hit the brakes until I was enrolled at USC’s film school in Los Angeles.

What was the most challenging aspect of shooting the film?

This one’s easy. From the get-go, I wanted the relationship between Evan and Sam to be as honest and compelling as it was in Andrew’s script. I was determined to get our teen lovebirds right. That was the challenge I set for myself. Anyone who loves this genre knows that unless you care about the characters at the center of the film the horror will never be truly frightening. That all starts with casting. Joss Whedon said, “Casting is storytelling.” I believe in that. Thankfully, casting director, John Papsidera, agreed to come aboard “Haunt” and help us out. John is an industry giant and I knew with him making the calls we’d get to read all the best talent available in town. The one caveat I asked of John was that we look at actors to play their actual ages in these parts. There’s a huge difference between a twenty-year-old and a seventeen-year-old. I truly believe that. There’s an innocence that falls away during those years. To me it was critical that it be present, specifically in Sam. Harrison Gilbertson and Liana Liberato were my Evan and Sam the instant they walked through the door and began to audition. They were so thoughtful and so convincing with their parts that they made it impossible to consider anyone else. Getting that casting right was a huge challenge that I felt we had met—our leads had chemistry. On set, I worked tirelessly with those guys to create convincing characters that an audience could relate to—it’s probably what I’m most proud of about “Haunt.’ For me, mission accomplished. If you love a good teen romance at the heart of your horror story, I think you’ll enjoy the tale of Evan and Sam.

Haunt is more than just your typical haunted house story. What elements went into creating a unique terrifying experience?

“Unique” is a tough threshold in this genre. I understand the hunger for it, believe me. But genre, by definition, relies on familiarity. Haunted house movies bring out a fan base that expects certain things of their haunted houses. So, I never once dwelled on how I could make “Haunt” totally unique. Rather, I was consumed with giving the audience a believable and relatable experience. I knew that there were all sorts of haunted house tropes at play in Andrew’s script, many by design. Some of them we took out, some remain in the cut, some of them we changed. I hope that the final product is a film that offers a satisfying familiarity, with some novel wrinkles, a really great look, and some amazing performances.

Here’s some interesting trivia along those lines… Andrew’s original script had the teens communicating with the ghosts in the house utilizing a Ouija board. I wasn’t convinced Hasbro would give us permission to show the board because I knew they had a Ouija movie in the works. I asked our legal department to investigate. Long story short: they turned us down. While the producers and I spent the night tearing our hair out, Andrew went to work. He brought us back the EVP ghost box the following morning. He deserves every bit of the credit for that. It’s like another character in the film. Genius! It was one less trope being featured (or cliche to be avoided, depending on your point of view) but winding up with our steampunk ghost box as a consolation prize turned out to be one of those great strokes of good fortune every production needs to be successful.

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Do you prefer to use CG or practical effects?

Every haunted house story needs a ghost. Ours was no different. During my years directing commercials, I’ve had the good fortune to work with both CG and practical effects. I love getting my hands dirty in this stuff—it appeals to my deeply nerdy side and has since “Star Wars.” Thanks, Dykstra! There’s no debating whether one is better than the other. You use the tool that’s right for the job. All sorts of factors influence which one a filmmaker should choose; expense, time, and of course, which approach is going to deliver an effect that looks bad-ass. Very early on, the producers and I decided that we needed to go with a practical approach for our central, uhm… let’s call it a presence. Enter Weta! My amazing producers had an ongoing relationship with Weta from their time doing “District 9” together. We called New Zealand and they were happy to help. We talked about our needs and they responded with some mind-blowing concept art. But that wasn’t all. They sent us Sarah Rubano and Joe Dunckley to bring this presence to “life.” These guys are superstars in the world of practical VFX and they thankfully managed to squeeze us in between the LOTR: Hobbit films, “Elysium” and “Spiderman 2.” See? I’m not exaggerating. Superstars! Every morning they would spend six hours prepping our lovely actress, Kasia Kowalczyk, and then tirelessly attend to her on set during her scenes. They were amazing. And so was the presence. Here’s a tiny bit of trivia: the shroud worn by our presence was a gift from Lady Galadriel and its hair was shorn from Gandalf’s own beard. No lie. Look closely.

Were there any moments during filming that you or the cast got scared because you were so immersed in the story?

One of the great surprises to me during the making of “Haunt” was just how scary it can be to film horror scenes. I don’t want to give too much away, but let me share one such moment. We were filming in an old, dark basement—not the sort of place I’m comfortable in, well, ever. But to make matters worse, we’re filming this totally horrific event. Our victim is shrieking and crying as she goes under the blade. The hair on the back of my neck is standing on end, my eyes are welling up, and I’m totally swept away in the performances. With one final scream the VFX guys release the blood and it sprays everyone in the scene. Our super professional actors stay in character and the real villain of the piece lets out this insane, maniacal laugh. I swear to you my heart skipped a beat. I had to step outside and catch my breath. It was an amazing moment and it made the cut. Look for it, it’s there. The actor later told me they were only laughing because the blood was tickling them as it was running down their face. But it worked. No doubt about it.

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You were able to pull together such a wonderful cast – Jacki Weaver, Ione Skye, etc. What was it like working with such talented actresses?

Pulling together any cast takes a team effort. Yes, I had a hand in it but I couldn’t have done it without the diligent efforts of John Papsidera, our casting director, and the hard work of our talented producers. We had a great team of producers that pushed and pushed to find us the right actors. While I was focused on casting our young leads, the producers were speaking with Jacki Weaver about getting involved. I think it’s a testament to Andrew’s creepy script that she agreed to come aboard. When we finally did come together, Jacki and I really hit it off. Jacki is the sweetest, gentlest, most soft-spoken actress you could ever hope to meet but she has this unbelievably wicked sense of humor, too. I love her for it. And she brings all of that to her roles in what feels like effortless technique. Her character, Smurf Cody, in “Animal Kingdom” gives you a glimpse of that unpredictable duality. You’ll also see that with her Dr. Janet Morello in “Haunt.” Janet holds the key to the mystery behind the horror vexing the kids but after losing her family to the house she has little interest in getting involved again in any capacity. Jacki plays that struggle wonderfully. In one scene, the kids go to her for advice and she reluctantly invites them into her apartment. After they explain their problem, Janet offers up a firm warning. Without announcing it to anyone—including me!—Jacki spoke the warning in hushed tones once and then quickly repeated it in a scream at the top of her lungs. Everyone on set jumped. That’s no lie. The line blew out the sound guy’s hearing for several days but it was worth it. Tender, unpredictable, and mischievous, that’s Jacki. You’ll know what I mean when you watch her. I love Ione, too. Always have. She’s such a grounded actor. She had a smaller role on the film but she brought her signature charm and grace to the part. She was a total pleasure to work with.

There are many different types of films that are part of the horror genre. What were your influences for this film?

Surprise!—I’ve got a lifetime of horror films stewing in my overworked brain. Impossible for me not to have been influenced by many of them. But that’s a cop out. So let me start here… Alfredson’s “Let the Right One In” is amazing for so many reasons, specifically the young relationship at its heart, and I thought about it often when I worked with Harrison and Liana. I’ve always had a soft spot for “Something Evil” and “Poltergeist.” Nobody does a family in distress like Spielberg. Masterful. So what about haunted house films? No doubt I owe a great debt of gratitude to the likes of “The Amityville Horror” (’79), “Insidious,” “Burnt Offerings,” “The Changeling,” “The Others,” The Haunting,” and many, many more. If you’re looking for a common denominator, it’s this: there’s a stylish but classic approach to the filmmaking behind all of those films that speaks to my own director’s voice. It’s that simple.

What projects are you pursuing for your next film?

Before “Haunt,” I created the Image comic book, The Strange Adventures of HP Lovecraft (Have you slipped my Agent of Geek membership card in the mail yet?). Universal optioned it for Ron Howard to direct as his first horror film. I wrote the first draft of the screenplay before handing the reins to a more accomplished screenwriter. It eventually went into turnaround and the property has reverted back to me. I own it. I want to make it. Like Del Toro, I believe Lovecraft’s cosmic horror done properly is going to make for some mind-blowing movies. I hope I get to prove that to audiences. Call the studios! Take to the streets! Demand your HPL!

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The Author

Jim Napier

Jim Napier

Lover of movies and The Big Lebowski.