David Opie: Hi David. Thanks for talking to us at Flickering Myth. In the Dark is a great indie horror, something’s that all too rare these days. What inspired you to make a horror film for your third feature?
David Spaltro: It was sort of just fortuitous timing, really. I had been in development on a third feature film Wake Up in New York, and slated to go into production in Spring 2014, but that Winter hit a financing snag that sort of put the breaks on it at the time. I was a little burned out after all that work, and not sure if I should take a break and go back to trying to get that back up again, or look at a different project, when I was contacted to meet with an investor who wanted to make their own feature, a horror film, and needed a script. I took the meeting, thinking it was just to write a film, and ended up being offered the reigns to direct it as well, after pitching a few story ideas and what was possible. It was a mad dash to complete the script, but literally 14 months after that meeting, I was able to hand the investor a completely finished horror feature. I had no real intentions of delving into the genre, at least at that point, but I was starving creatively to try something different, and saw it as a good chance to grow and learn as a storyteller, and add something different to the character drama/comedies I was known for, while hopefully still retaining my particular voice. It was a unique, very rare instance where someone says they have a particular budget, offering a writer-director the freedom to play with that canvas, as long as it’s within the confines clearly of a horror genre film and something they can use commercially.
DO: In The Dark pays homage to some classic horror movies. Did you watch many in preparation? What are your personal favourites?
DS: I sort of rekindled my love for the horror genre, and definitely dove into a lot of old favourites, as well as viewing a lot of films from different periods and international locations. The ones that always stuck out for me, and that I most drew from were the early films of George Romero, Wes Craven, and of course John Carpenter who’s really sort of the spiritual Godfather of this film. A personal favourite of mine that I think is most an inspiration from his catalog was Prince of Darkness which is really about science confronting faith and superstition with just a lot of dread and character work. It’s really surreal, too. Also, the works of Stephen King and how a lot of his stories don’t even become horrific until about 1/3 of the way in, he very slowly draws you into a very enjoyable story with rich characters that you care about, and then when he starts unleashing Hell and darkness on them and the reader, you’re just terrified and disturbed because you totally forgot what you were getting into. I wanted that same kind of mood, atmosphere, and dread in the film. Also early seasons of the X-Files, their camerawork and mood, was something I wanted to reference. In a lot of ways, Lynn is my Scully and this is my attempt at an X-Files episode. Of course, everything lives in the shadow of The Exorcist, so I tried to steer away from too much in that realm, as anything that comes after is just some form of knockoff. It’s untouchable in its ability to not just generate fear, but emotion from an audience. You’re exhausted and moved after watching it, even today.
DO: Themes of the struggle between life and death are prevalent throughout most of your work. Is that a conscious decision? What draws you to these themes?
DS: I think every good artist finds a question or theme that is either prominent or subtly involved in all their work, even when it’s for hire or someone else’s project. Scorsese talks about the idea of redemption and the struggle of light and darkness with the streets, religion, relationships. In a lot of ways, the same story told in so many different ways with many different avatars. For me I guess, the singular themes that always come back to me are “faith” and “family”—I feel like there are so many mysteries in this life, and that life itself is kind of this incredible journey that we all get to go on, and while none of our roads are the same, even when they converge, no matter who you are, it’s always going to end in death. We’re all going to die. It’s inescapable, so once you confront that… what do you do? I feel like the older you get you start, you start to learn more about the meaning of the things you do have, the power behind that and the relationships you form. Not status, accumulating accolades or wealth–even accomplishments end up accounting for nothing more than a fancy scrapbook. It’s the honest connections and little acts you make on a daily basis that have the most ripple effect of influence and change in the world and the people around you. I feel like a lot of my work is about characters confronting their faith, mortality, and their life up until a certain point, and finding their path (at least for the moment) changing—I like what it does to people and how they react in those situations. My producing partner, Lee Gillentine always jokes that we’ve created our own genre “fucked up people, trying to do good”.
DO: Lynn Justinger’s character is sceptical of the paranormal at first. Do you think that there could be any truth to real life paranormal accounts?
DS: Ever since I was a kid, I was always pretty fascinated with the supernatural, monsters, or real life mysteries, and I’d devour all of those books, staring at the images for hours. These days, as an adult, while I never discount any explanations of possibilities of anything, I’m probably more skeptical in most respects to the paranormal. I think what makes life and human experiences fascinating is that there’s so much we know, and so much we’re learning every day with technology, history, psychology, but the more data we get, the more different mysteries unfold. It’s like a cosmic rubix cube. I think a lot of the superstitions and mythology is what makes us who we are as people, but also as artists and storytellers. Until then, I’ll remain an ever vigilant ‘atheist searching for a miracle”, and just enjoy the ride.
DO: What is your favourite moment in the film? What are you most proud of?
DS: I’m really proud of the work Gus Sacks, our cinematographer, and his team, including gaffer Andrew Sacks and Key Grip Alexa Wolfe, did with building the overall look of the film, the shadows and the dread, particularly on a limited budget and shooting schedule. Also, the combined efforts of our composer Fritz Myers and sound designer/mixer Carlos “Storm” Martinez really are what made the film work. No matter how strong the performances, camerawork, editing, and script– a horror film truly lives and dies on how it sounds, and those guys respectively knocked it out of the park. My favorite scene in the film is the twelve-minute plus sequence between Lynn’s skeptical character and Grace’s mysterious, tortured girl, where the film finally reveals itself and everything changes. It’s just this giant back and forth scene that we shot in one whole day that runs the gamut, and both actress–two of my absolute favourites –just brought their A-game and go for the full ride, their abilities our greatest special effect. In terms of pacing, tone, performance–it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done.
DO: I’m always impressed by directors who write their own scripts. What do you enjoy more? Writing or directing?
DS: A few years back, I’d have told you writing by a large majority. The last few years and projects, as I’ve gotten far more comfortable and experienced in the director’s chair, I’m going to tell you that directing is finally winning. I’ve been adapting a screenplay I plan to direct from a horror novel “A Short Stay in Hell” for the last two years, and I’ve directed two shorts films The Cat’s Cradle and Drug Mule in the past year that I didn’t write. Seeing how much I can bring to someone else’s story in execution and development has really turned a corner for me. I still love writing, and do it every day. I’m sure I have a lot of my own stories I still want to tell, but I’m now seeing how much creativity I can bring to directing a project, and shepherding it through all its phases has really move me into that creative headspace.
DO: Which writers and directors inspire you and influence your work?
DS: Martin Scorsese–the visceral and visual nature of his films, and the editing and musical combination. John Carpenter’s ability to use space, convey mood, and build tension. I’m also a huge fan of Danny Boyle and Billy Wilder because of how strong their voices are, but how different every film and story they made is. I’d most like a career like theirs. Billy Wilder, particularly could go off and do The Apartment–which is a perfect film, and then do Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard. In every one of those films, you can tell it’s his, but they’re such different animals and genres. I’d like to be able to fluctuate like that– tell solid stories with strong, diverse characters in all different genres, but have people still see my voice and perspective in them.
DO: The entire cast of In The Dark is impressive, but Grace Folsom steals every scene she’s in. You worked with her previously on your last feature, Things I Don’t Understand. How did the two of you first meet?
DS: Grace is one of my favorite gifts of the universe, and just a terrific friend, collaborator, and muse. I was casting Things five years ago, and watching a variety of tapes for the supporting-role of “Sara”, a young woman dying of cancer, who helps redeem the main character. She sent in this video on her laptop that stopped me dead in my tracks. I watched it three or four times and was blown away. When I brought her in she just crushed it again, with myself and the other auditioners in the room fighting back tears. She became the heart and soul of Things I Don’t Understand, and in my opinion, one of the many reasons the film really works the way it does. She’s this powerhouse of an actress, getting better and more experienced all the time. I had written a much different role for her in Wake Up in New York and when that fell apart, I knew if I was going to pull off what I needed to with this film on a limited budget and shooting schedule, I’d need the heart and soul of Grace and her abilities to help anchor it. She more than crushed the part, and her taped audition on this one blew everyone away as well. It’s very rare you find an artist who just gets the work you do, and understands your voice. Grace is one of those people who not only understands what I’m trying to do, but helps elevate it with her work, dedication and craft every single time.I don’t want to make a film without her!
DO: Horror movies often develop into franchises. Could you ever imagine filming a sequel to In The Dark? What direction could this take?
DS: I definitely both wrapped up the story, and leave it opened to continuation, and while I don’t think I’d go off and do a sequel to this film, I know exactly as a storyteller what would happen next and, in my own mind what that film would be. Without spoiling the film, we’d take the main character at the end of the story and follow her newfound set of circumstances, putting her in the position of another character in the previous film. A total role reversal to dig deeper into their psyche and character, flipping the narrative on its head.
DO: What’s next for you once promotion for In The Dark is completed?
DS: I took the summer off to collect myself after 14 straight months of work on In the Dark. Before we start on the festival circuit with that, I’m back to the game of trying to get up Wake Up in New York financed, which will close off the NYC Valentine Trilogy that I started with my two previous films, while fixing up the screenplay for A Short Stay in Hell with writer Vance Tucker, as well as taking meetings for various other projects as a director. I’m also writing two TV pilot/miniseries, one a revisionist hockey fable set in early 90’s Buffalo called Welcome to Hockey Town and another black comedy, Spooks, set in the world of the CIA/black ops. There’s a horror/thriller spec I’m also almost done with called Relics that I’m really excited about. It’s one of those ideas that’s been in my head germinating for a long time, so I’m very curious to see what will come of it, and everything else.
Many thanks to David Spaltro for taking the time for this interview.
In The Dark debuts on the festival circuit this October and Things I Don’t Understand is available for renting/purchasing at http://www.tidu.vhx.tv. For more information, visit the official In the Dark Facebook page here.