Sunday, November 20, 2016

Entering TRIP HOUSE: Patrick Meaney on making horror movies

Patrick Meany, in the white shirt behind the camera, directs
2016 is the year of Patrick Meaney. 

Earlier this year he released the critically acclaimed NEIL GAIMAN DREAM DANGEROUSLY a documentary about the bestselling author. I found it one of the best cinematic biographies I’ve ever seen (Here’s my review). Recently Patrick has shift gears and has begun sneak peaking his genre busting horror film TRIP HOUSE and again he’s hit it out of the park.

For those who are unaware Patrick Meaney is a filmmaker best known for his documentary work focused on comics and their creators. He's done films on Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, and Chris Claremont.  It’s one hell of a body of work, with most of films considered the source for information on their subjects. TRIP HOUSE his new feature and with it he moves away from documentaries into the realm of horror films. And again he has made a film that hits the ball out of the park.

TRIP HOUSE is the story of four old friends who meet up on the eve of the wedding of one of  one of their number. Wine is drunk, conversations are had and intruders arrive. Unexpected things happen and the horror genre is turned on its head in unexpected ways. 

I was blown away by TRIP HOUSE (my review is here). It marvelously didn't go where I thought it would. It scared me and delighted me and made me go "wow".  Best of all it made me think a great deal. And when it was done I did what I did after I saw DREAM DANGEROUSLY, I emailed Patrick to ask if I could send him some questions concerning the film. He said yes and what follows is out brief email conversation.

A couple of quick notes

First because the film is only beginning it’s journey to you I have intentionally not steered this into a deep discussion of the plot. I’ve tried to not be specific- despite my wanting to be. That said there is one spoilery exchange toward the end (the question begins with a mention of it being a spoiler). I know that may clue you into stuff but it was something I had to ask

I also want to say that because I spoke with with Patrick earlier this year I didn't cover the same ground as the first interview (the earlier interview is here).  This interview is much shorter. Yes there is some overlap but that was because the questions are referring to different films.

Before I give you over to our talk I want to thank, Patrick Meaney for letting me see his films and talk to him about them. I want to thank him for his unending patience. I also need to say that in all seriousness it has been one of the coolest things that happened all year. Getting to talk to a director twice is an extreme rarity, and to do so twice in one year on very different films is pretty much unheard of.

Patrick, the next time you're in New York I owe you dinner.
Steve Cleff's poster art
STEVE: The most obvious way to begin this is to ask since you are best known for directing documentaries, did you have any trouble going from doing films like DREAM DANGEROUSLY or TALKING WITH GODS to doing the narrative TRIP HOUSE?

PATRICK: I’ve always directed narrative stuff, from back when I was in high school, so I’m used to that form of storytelling. The biggest adjustment was just the challenge of getting the project going. Docs require a budget, but there’s a much lower barrier to entry. You can just get the camera and go, narrative, even at the absolute bare bones micro budget level that we were working with on this project, requires a lot more resources, prep and is a more intense process. It’s more about executing a clear plan than filming a bunch of stuff and seeing what happens. So, it was harder in that respect, and more challenging to raise the money for, but creatively, it was a pretty smooth transition.

STEVE: This leads me to ask the typical questions- what was the budget? How long did it take to out together? How long did you shoot...

PATRICK: The budget was micro budget, under $150K, and it took me about a year of talking to people and hunting around to find the financing. Not easy!

We shot the film for thirteen days, so it was on average seven pages a day. And when you have a bunch of action scenes, makeup effects and so many cast members, is pretty tricky. It’s not only hard on a logistical crew level, of setting up lighting and shots, but for actors, it can mean swerving between wildly different emotions and moments in the character journey in quick succession, so it’s not easy.

STEVE: How do you classify the film? The easiest thing to call the film is a horror film, but that is kind of lazy since the film straddles so many other genres. Are you okay with it probably ending up with a horror classification? Were you looking to upset the status quo and expectations by crossing genres?

PATRICK: I’d say it’s a horror film, but that’s partially for ease of marketing. Horror is an easier label to get people engaged with than “psychedelic head trip” or “magical realist thriller.” I wanted to have enough horror tropes in there to help us make the film viable to appeal to the kind of genre audience that is willing to watch micro budget movies like this. I’ve seen a bunch of really good low budget dramas or comedies at festivals that just don’t have a viable path to get out there. But the genre audience is supportive of lower budget and newer content, so it’s a nice place to be.

But, part of the goal was to do something different with the genre. I wanted to bring some of the more out there concepts and storytelling that are commonplace in comic books to the screen, and have the sort of ‘casual surrealism’ that comic book readers are used to, but can sometimes be hard to grasp for movie audiences.

STEVE: One of the things that sets the film apart from anything remotely similar is that the film has a weight to it. The characters all seem to have back stories and lives that bleed off the screen. There is weight to their choices and their lives that you don't find in most films never mind horror films. It's almost as if the film was a novel or was adapted from one. Was that intentional and how did you manage to achieve that?

PATRICK: It’s funny you say that since some elements of the film were inspired or based on a web series that I had created with co-producer Jordan Rennert years back. The process of doing that web series was shooting stuff over a way too long period of five years or so, and in doing that, it was fun to be able to write things based on what I saw the actors doing or new ideas popping up over time. So, the characters of Matthew and Katrina were heavily inspired by material created for the series. It was streamlined and changed a bit to fit into a film context, but the essence of the relationship came out of years of work and thought about those characters. The same is true for Spencer, whose story was drawn from the backstory for one of the major characters in the web series.

One of the things that I do when I write a script is write lengthy backstories for the characters, even minor ones, to try to figure out where they come from and why they behave the way they do. So the character of Gwen actually started out as a supporting character in another script I was working on, someone who was very sarcastic and cynical, and I started to write up a backstory for her, and came up with the idea that her father was a professor who’s slept with one of his students. Normally you’d take that story from the angle of the professor whose life is in upheaval or the student who is suddenly in an awkward situation, but I tried to think about what it would mean to have that legacy and live in a college town where everyone knew what happened.

So I really liked this character and felt like she would have a lot of interesting conflicts and personality. So, when I was coming up with the idea of Trip House, I wanted to bring these characters who I had developed and put them into a story that would largely delve into character rather than being plot centric. And, I had a lot of details in mind that didn’t necessarily make it into the script but informed how I saw the characters.

Then, the actors bring their own spin to it, and their own experience. I sent these backstories to some of the actors, but others preferred to create their own spin on it. But, it was rewarding to hear Chloe as Gwen’s mom echoing stuff from the backstory when we were improvising on set that wasn’t included in the final script.

STEVE: What is the web series? If we watched the series will we see the connections?

PATRICK: It’s called The Third Age. I’d consider it basically my film school, getting to shoot a lot of content and experiment and have fun just making stuff. You’ll definitely see the connections, and a few shared cast members, though it’s nowhere near as polished as Trip House. There, we were working with only a budget to buy the actors lunch, so having 12 crew members and a little bit of money on Trip House felt incredibly luxurious to me.

STEVE: I can sense that you were influenced by Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison and other writers but at the same time you don't play by any of their rules. You steadfastly and brilliantly go your own way-several times I thought you'd go left only to go right. Did you find it hard not to riff or borrow on material from people who are obviously important to you? The same question goes for the conventions of the horror genre did the story go as you wanted it or did you have to steer it away from being cliche?

PATRICK: I was definitely influenced by Grant and Neil’s work, but for me, it’s more about them staking out new territory in which to tell stories than looking at specific stories of theirs that I wanted to homage. So, having a more flexible reality, where time and space and fantasy and reality can all blur between each other is something I love in their storytelling, and wanted to do in the film.

I think the biggest influence for me from the two of them both as writers and in the context or interviewing them was hearing about how they pull stories from the world around them. Grant pulls so much from himself and Neil pulls from the things he sees in the world and I tried to similarly bring in the conflicts that I observe in the people that I know or the struggles that people have and make it relatable.

I think there’s some people who want to make horror movies, with blood and gore and just want enough character stuff in there to get the plot moving. And there’s other films that are more slice of life, think the new wave of TV comedies like Master of None, Girls, Love, etc. that are all about showing everyday life for a certain group of people. I’m equally interested in both aspects, I love the horror and weird elements, but I also love the simple character scenes, and finding a way to marry the two of them I think helps steer clear of horror cliche, because I’m not thinking how can I get another murder in this script, I’m more thinking what is true to the experience for this character.

STEVE: That's one of reasons I think the film is as strong as it is it is entirely character driven. I love that the fantastic element fits in perfectly and doesn't seem tacked on.

PATRICK: That goes back to one of the things that Grant told me, which was he tries to make stories that depict the way he feels about stuff, rather than the way it actually is. So, a grand cosmic Superman epic represents his inner turmoil when his father passed away. I like the idea that when thinking about a character, you use what’s possible in film to bring the emotion to the audience and immerse them in it. I don’t generally like movies that put a lot of distance between the character and the audience, I prefer getting immersed in someone’s subjectivity.

STEVE: Did you intend to structure the film as a "horror" film from the start or did the story just evolve that way? Do you think it could have worked any other way?

PATRICK: That was always the intent. I was looking at pretty limited resources and trying to figure out how to make a unique movie that was mostly in one location and be doable on a small budget. So, I liked the idea of a house that was a kind of crossroads in time/space, where strange things happened. I think you could make a movie with a similar story that doesn’t have the supernatural elements, but is more of a Big Chill vibe, where the characters all interact with each other and come to the same conclusions in a different way. With the actors we had, I think it would have been a good movie, but I think that’s been done before, and using the genre elements let me approach that same sort of story in a fresh way.

STEVE: Curse you for coming up with the Big Chill reference I wish I had thought of it.

PATRICK: I had actually never seen the movie when I wrote the script, but someone who read an early draft of the script was like “Oh, this is like The Big Chill meets The Shining.” So I checked out the movie and saw there was some structural similarity. It’s such a great structure as a writer because you have this inherent mystery and tense dynamic when people who were once very close but have drifted apart come together. Learning more about them makes you understand each person in different ways.

STEVE: Was the cult in the film based on any real group?

PATRICK: Once I had the idea for this house where strange things happen, I was always imagining it was due to a “reverse seance” where someone in the past opens up a gateway to the future. My original idea was that it would be people from the 1920s, which might have been too close to some of what Grant was doing in The Invisibles. But, I started reading a book about Charles Manson, and the opening of it had Manson on a dance floor and people saying they saw lightning coming off him.

So, I extrapolated the idea of what if someone like Manson really could do magic, and had these sort of powers he claimed to have. I was particularly fascinated reading about how Manson was able to manipulate people into following him, killing for him and doing whatever he wanted. I wanted to create a character who was charismatic and watch him break down the psyche of someone to the point where they would kill for him.

But, I also wanted to have Frazer be a bit more sympathetic than the real Manson, and developed the idea that was a scientist who got lost in his quest for power. It was a hard part to cast, and we read a bunch of people, but when Dove came in, he had this intensity and charisma that made you feel like “yeah, joining this cult is a good idea.”

STEVE: Where did you get the idea of how to cross the time barrier? That was something that has hung with me since I saw the film.

PATRICK: It all started with the idea I had of someone killing themselves, but smiling as they do it, because they’re just that much of a believer in what Frazer was trying to do. So, the original opening scene was someone slitting their throat and smiling as Frazer watched them die. I changed it to a drug since that fit better with the scientist idea and felt a little fresher and more thematically on point.

And there’s power in that sacrifice, it’s a classic magic or sorcery trope, a blood ritual to affect the world.

STEVE: I don't think the throat slitting would have been as effective because the shock is we don't know for certain what is happening. I think it’s perfect the way it is.

How much research did you do in to magik and sorcery? Did what you learn that make you change your script, of course that’s assuming you weren't well versed going into the writing.

PATRICK: I read a bunch of things about magick when working on the Grant doc, and just generally being interested in the occult and strange things. So, this is a mix of riffing on that, plus trying to imagine it from a scientific perspective, since that’s who the character is. He says when they’re doing the ritual “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed,” so it’s applying a scientific principle to this weird ritual.

But, as far as I know, no one is able to manipulate space-time like they do in the film, so you can’t make something like this too realistic.

STEVE: When you were shooting did you stick strictly to the script or did you allow things to play out and see how they went?

PATRICK: We changed things often on set. When you’re writing a script, there’s always a desire to “trim the fat,” so if a scene begins with someone saying “Hello, how are you?” you’ll probably hear a note of get right into it, and wind up with scenes that are very business oriented. But, that can be tricky for the actors since you have to jump in in the middle of something. So, in most scenes, we’d have the actors improv a bit before getting into the scene as written. In some cases, we didn’t use it, but a bunch of exchanges in the film do come out of that dialogue.

The biggest change was Chloe Dykstra’s character, who has barely any lines in the script. But, watching the scenes as we filmed them, it felt too fast and too impersonal. So, we came up with the idea of having her talk to Gwen quite a bit, and shot a lot of improvs of her trying to dig into Gwen’s insecurities. And it was a real product of collaboration, with the actors all thinking of what she could say to get under Gwen’s skin the most.

One of the great things about doing a movie as opposed to a book or a comic is you have a unique person whose only job is to be each character. They’re thinking about only one thing and it’s great to use their insight and personal perspective to bring something to a character that I might not have thought of.

STEVE: you budget time for the improv when planning the shoot?

PATRICK: The whole process of making a movie, on this budget, is figuring out the right compromises to make. Every person is looking at their specific element, be it lighting, production design, or whatever else. So, they’re going to want to take longer, and the director’s job is to figure out when something is “good enough” to move on because I’m always aware that having the perfect lighting or set design doesn’t mean anything if we have to rush through the time with the actors.

So, it’s a flexible thing. But my goal was always to light in a way where we didn’t need to switch lighting setups once we got going and could just focus on the acting. And I think it comes down to knowing when there’s a scene you need to spend a lot of time with and develop in more depth, but if it feels right from the start, just shoot on and move on and bank that time.

STEVE: The casting is damn near perfect, so I was did you write to the cast or cast to the script? Did you have to change things up?

PATRICK: There were a few people in the movie I knew I wanted to be in it right from the start of the script. I had met Amber Benson doing the Grant documentary, and I love her acting, so I’d always wanted to do a project together. I had just shot a short with Tiffany Smith and Chloe Dykstra so I had them in mind pretty early in the process.

In a lot of cases, there were people I had in mind who didn’t work out for whatever reason. But, I could not be happier with the cast we had. I did auditions with co-producer Jordan Byrne, and we saw a lot of people. I’m not sure how it is for other people, but when I’m casting, you get a lot of “I guess that person could work” auditions, then when it’s the right person, there’s no doubt. So, when Kaytlin Borgen auditioned for Gwen, everyone in the room instantly knew she was perfect. Same for Whitney Moore as Katrina.

I was so impressed with what everyone brought to their part, and it was just fun getting to work with people who knew their characters and were ready to bring this crazy script to life.

STEVE: Spoilery territory- How hard was it for you not to go for the gotcha ending that everyone expects? Also none of the main characters die. Did anyone try to talk you out of the happy ending?

PATRICK: I hadn’t even really thought about that until we started screening the movie for friends to get feedback and they were surprised that everyone lives. The movie, despite being a pretty rough ride for the characters, ultimately has an optimistic message. And I never thought about having any of the characters not make it to the end of that journey. I wanted them to overcome their issues, and it just felt right to have it end that way.

STEVE: How do you feel about the modern trend toward gotcha endings so you get that final scare/sequel opening? How do you feel about horror films seeming to always end pessimistically? Are you an optimist or pessimist?

PATRICK: I’m not a huge fan of that final zinger ending in most cases. Looking at a movie like The Guest, it has a really great, organic ending, then just tosses a final twist out there. It doesn’t feel true to the movie, but I also understand why and allow it since it doesn’t really negatively impact my opinion of the movie. It’s been happening since Carrie, and is sort of a trope of the genre.

But, that’s also where I didn’t see this in typical horror movie terms. I wouldn’t want to have an essentially optimistic ending, then have a twist that it was all a dream they had while dying or something like that.

While it’s certainly hard to stay optimistic on a week (ed. Note- This was done a day after the Trump election as President) like this, I think people are essentially good and things are getting better, but it’s not easy. And that’s what this movie is about, it’s about going through a lot of awful stuff to come out cleansed. So I think I’m an optimist, though it’s not easy.

STEVE: Did you have to change things to get financing or any other reason? Is this the film you intended to make?

PATRICK: I was very lucky because I had almost no oversight on the movie. I reached out to a contact I had met a while ago with information about the project to see if he’d want to invest. He called me and said “First off, I’m going to invest. Second, send me the script, I know you don’t want my feedback so I’m not going to give it to you. But I’m just curious.” So, that was great.

The thing I will say is that artists are often romanticized for having no oversight and total creative control. But, along with my producing team, particularly Jordan Byrne and Amanda Sonnenschein, we really put this movie through its punches in post. I got a lot of feedback from people and made many, many changes to try to make it the best movie that it could be. That meant shifting some scenes around chronologically from the script, changing voiceovers to clarify things and making all kinds of other changes.

It’s very hard to finish a cut of the movie, feel like you’ve nailed it 100%, then get feedback from people saying they’re confused or had problems with certain stuff. But, I always think of the fact that on Game of Thrones, their first pilot got a disastrous response. They retooled and now the show is a legend. So, I tried to figure out the way to make the best version of this movie, and one that is accessible to people without compromising the integrity of it. I know it’s not a movie for everyone, but I think that thanks to all that feedback, the movie turned out so much better, and is the best representation of what I set out to do.

STEVE: I have to applaud you for understanding that some people may not like the film. I know some filmmakers don't understand that, I had a PR person tell me recently that one of their clients can't understand why everyone doesn't love their film. Is this acceptance something that you've learned or always had? Do you read all your reviews?

PATRICK: It’s so hard in the test screening process because you’ve worked with a big team to create a movie that you feel is incredibly special. It takes so much time to make a movie and so much hardship, you have to believe in that story, and are incredibly invested in it. Plus, no matter when in the process, when you finish a cut you feel like “Wow, I nailed it. This movie is great!” So, to have someone come in and say “Yeah, but this is confusing and this just doesn’t quite work” is not easy to face. But, I always see it as the difference between the original Star Wars and the prequels. It’s not great to do exactly what you want without facing honest feedback from people.

When it comes to actual reviews of the finished film, I like to read them all, but what I keep in mind is that there are movies I absolutely love that were poorly received by critics and audiences. But, it’s the very thing that some people don’t like that makes me love it. So, a movie like Michael Mann’s Miami Vice is a good example. He could look at the critical response and feel disappointed that the movie didn’t resonate, but I loved it so much.

I just try to be realistic that even the best movies have people who don’t like them. I try to take lessons about why people might not respond to a movie, but trying to please everyone is insane. You’ll never do it.
Patrick Meaney and Neil Gaiman

STEVE: Because you've made films about Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison I need to ask, have they seen the film?

PATRICK: Not yet, but I’m definitely going to be sending it to them to check out. I think it will be cool for them to see the influence of their work spreading out beyond comics and on to the screen.

STEVE: Where do your viewing tastes lie? Are you a big fan of horror and of the "cabin in the woods" genre that this riffs on?

PATRICK: I watch a lot of movies, and particularly here in awards season I’m freaking out and seeing three or four movies a week. I love really good genre movies. Something like It Follows or The Guest were a big inspiration in carving out the sort of sophisticated genre nitch I’m hoping to hit with this movie. But, I like all kinds of movies beyond genre stuff. Directors like Wong Kar-Wai or Terrence Malick are a huge inspiration in the way that they construct their films. They feel more like music than traditional narrative cinema, and that’s something that I tried to replicate.

In terms of the cabin in the woods genre, I loved Cabin in the Woods. I saw it opening night in the theater and it was such a crazy ride. Evil Dead 2 is also deservedly a legend. 10 Cloverfield Lane from earlier this year was also a fantastic riff on the one location horror genre. But, most of the horror that I like is more in the “elevated genre” realm, and I’m not someone who grew up watching every Friday the 13th or Halloween movie.

The most recent movie I saw that I really liked was 20th Century Women, which is beautifully constructed and features fantastic acting all around. Would definitely recommend it.

STEVE: Have you met some of the directors who have inspired you?

PATRICK: Living in LA, I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of the directors I like to talk, but I haven’t met too many of them in depth. The best moment for me was meeting Wong Kar-Wai at a party at comic-con. I was there with my DP Jordan, and we always talk about a shot we really like that Wong Kar-Wai does, so we asked him to recreate the shot with him and us in it. But, he was like “No, let’s do it different,” so he put my girlfriend in there, had a guy at the party use his hand to bounce light on to us then took an awesome photo.

STEVE: What are the release plans for the film?

PATRICK: We’re hoping to play some festivals early next year. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a sales team who sold several of my docs, and they’re going to be shopping the film. It’s hard to say now, but I’m hoping it will be available on VOD by Spring or Summer of next year. Keep an eye on my twitter (@patrickmeaney) or the Trip House twitter (@triphousemovie) for all the details. I can’t wait for the movie to get out there to an audience.

STEVE: What's next for you?

PATRICK: I’ve been busy working on three scripts that I’m going to work on developing and hopefully be shooting sometime in the not too distant future. One is a Western tinged noir thriller, one is a conspiracy thriller and the other a grounded fantasy. But I’m hoping to reteam with some of the Trip House cast and team to bring them to life.

I’m also working on a couple of documentary series pitches, which hopefully will be going forward next year. It’s so tough raising the money and setting up distribution for each project individually, being able to do a series would be fantastic because it would mean just focusing on making the best movie.
Patrick Meaney (to the right in the jacket) directs a scene

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