Exclusive: Director Andrew van den Houten


Two years ago, ComingSoon.net was invited to the set of a low budget sci-fi/horror film called Headspace, which was shooting scenes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the basement of a church. It was the first time this writer experienced what it was like to make a movie, and at the time, I had a chance to meet director/producer Andrew van den Houten, who was making his first feature film. A few months later, we drove upstate to visit a house where Van den Houten was shooting a few flashback scenes with Larry Fassenden and Sean Young, who play the main character’s parents in what would become the film’s opening sequence.

Last month, Headspace was finally released on DVD by Freestyle Home Entertainment, and it’s not your average monster movie. Though much of the horror and gore comes from creature attacks, there’s a more cerebral premise and dramatic elements mixed in with the bloodletting. Headspace stars Christopher Denham in a breakout performance as Alex Borden, a 20-something guy who has been getting splitting headaches and seeing strange visions, which are often followed by gruesome deaths, all of which point to traumatic experiences from his childhood.

Having spent many years as an actor and producer, Van den Houten is a really smart guy whose film school background allowed him to deeply analyze David Cronenberg’s work when the director’s name came up during this recent interview with ComingSoon.net.

ComingSoon.net: This is a pretty complex story. Was this a script you developed or something you found?
Andrew van den Houten: I’m psyched that I can tell you about it, since so many people don’t know about it. We found the script from a kid in West Virginia. Basically, he had written seven screenplays and this was one of them. He had Emailed it to my producing partner Bill Miller over the internet and when we read it, we were absolutely fascinated and intrigued. We thought this would be great if we could a.) make it a monster movie, and b.) bring it back to New York City and shoot it not in the suburban area but an actual urban setting.

CS: You’ve been producing and directing a lot of shorts, so why did you decide to make this your first feature as a director?
Van den Houten: It had that element of “Scanners” a little bit, and I’m a big fan of Cronenberg. I love that reality/non-reality thing, too. For me, I think Alex Borden’s character was such an intriguing character that I could relate to, and I thought it was an interesting idea to play with the dormant portions of the brain and find a way to tie it into a narrative that was ultimately leading to a nice little horror yarn that has a compelling visual movement to it as well.

CS: Were all of those horror movie elements in the original script?
Van den Houten: We struggled from draft 15 to draft 20 to really make sure that there was more clarity in the horror elements, and that they were a little more impactful. I remember the Boat Basin bathroom scene where Lloyd meanders in there and after Sammy walks in and he discovers him under that stall, it turns into this cacophony of horror and a bit of a freak show in the bathroom. That was one of the scenes we added later, and one of my favorite scenes for sure, horror element wise in the movie.

CS: But the original script wasn’t set in New York?
Van den Houten: No, no, Troy McCombs’ original script was first titled “Access Knowledge” and it was all located in the suburbs. It was definitely a script that needed to have rewrites done, and when we did those rewrites, I was keeping in mind locations that I could access in New York City.

CS: Shooting in New York, it must have been hard to get all those locations while keeping it in budget. As a producer, how do you go about doing a movie here within a decent budget?
Van den Houten: I grew up in New York City on 79th and Broadway, so the whole movie takes place pretty much around the ten block radius from where I grew up. I was able to utilize a lot of my friends’ places and really get locations from people I know.

CS: You have a lot of newcomers in the movie, but you also have small parts for known genre actors like William Atherton, Olivia Hussey and Udo Kier. Did you get them involved using the normal method of sending the script to their agents?
Van den Houten: Well, Udo Kier I met through his lawyer who had seen one of our short films in L.A., and then through his manager, I got in touch with Olivia Hussey. Dee Wallace, I contacted her agent up directly and then they said, “You should consider Sean Young” because they were representing her at the time as well. William Atherton was friends with the writer of the movie, and Larry Fessenden had worked with Bill Miller, where Bill had shot second unit for one of his films. Mark Margolis, I actually cold-called the agent as well, and told him I was a huge fan of the role he played in “Pi” and told him there was a similar role in “Headspace” for him, and it all kind of fell in place.

CS: Chris Denham is a pretty amazing find, too. Had he done much before making this movie? How did you find him?
Van den Houten: Chris Denham had done a play, “Master Harold and the Boys” in Circle in the Square theatre in Manhattan on Broadway with Danny Glover. I had not seen that play, but I met Chris through our casting director Cindy Rush, who brought him in as well as Erick [Kastel]. The moment I saw him, I knew he was Alex Borden, there was no question. He’s now going on to do “Charlie Wilson’s War”, which is Mike Nichols’ latest film, playing in scenes against Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Hanks. It’s great seeing that we’re picking talent that are going places and actually really taking off. He had one of his own plays produced recently, and he also did “Red Light Winter” for Adam Rapp, so he’s got this strong theatre background. He’s really getting to capitalize on that, while he’s now starting to become a bit of a movie star, which is great. We all want him to become largely famous and then all of a sudden, “Headspace” becomes another movie to take a look at for a fanbase that maybe we wouldn’t want to venture in there unless they had been fans of somebody like Chris to start with. Horror fans appreciate it, and I definitely think there are a lot of fans outside of the genre that are watching a movie, too, that like that very psychological element. Chris is doing great, and we’re going to actually be producing his directorial debut with my company next spring.

CS: You mentioned Cronenberg earlier, and I wanted to ask if you could elaborate more on your horror influences for this movie.
Van den Houten: Yeah, CronenbergÂ… I always feel that his visuals are really, really strong. I think he always has a very organic feel to his films in the sense thatÂ… Let’s do a comparison and I love this comparison. If you look at the film “The Matrix” and you analyze that movie, there’s definitely a framework within a framework. Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ” is basically the same story as “The Matrix” except it’s told in a much more organic feeling way wherein you’re starting the film in a world that is not urban and it starts in a church. It’s a moral dilemma where technology comes into play, and Cronenberg’s unraveling of that story, we kind of go in and out of this virtual reality world. The two worlds blend and we’re really confused as to where we are throughout the film and ultimately, it does resolve itself quite well. The point is that his architecture for that film is really put into what would be a small rural town outside of a city way back in the woods. His set design is very real. When the bone gun that Jude Law’s character utilizes in the film, it’s so interesting that he chooses to do it out of bone. It’s almost the antithesis of modern-day technology. I think Cronenberg always finds a way to tell a very modern compelling story, whether it’s “A History of Violence” or “eXistenZ” or even going back and looking at “Spider” and he finds a way to tell it in a regular normal atmosphere, a place that everyone can relate to, without having to necessarily blow up the production design budget and create a $50 million movie. He can accomplish the same storytelling in a much more contained lower budget, because it’s such an organic feel to his filmmaking. His visuals are very colorful, lots of shadows as well. He has a very good sense of lighting and the way that his camera moves, he captures his characters in a way that you’re let on just enough to keep following it throughout his narrative.

CS: I’m guessing you majored in Cronenberg in film school. Did avoiding the use of CG in your movie come from the same school of thought about keeping things organic?
Van den Houten: Again, I think the more you can stay to the basics and keep it real in the sense of using resources that although yes, there is access to CGI and it does become cost-effective at times, I think the more organic you can keep a film, the more real it seems. There’s something really nice about special make-up effects vs. CGI generated effects. Unless I’m doing a movie like Fessenden, a low-budget indie film. The Ti West film “The Roost,” I thought they utilized CG in that movie very well and still maintained an organic feel, and I think that comes through in his film, because they kept it very dirty and muddy and shot it in on 16mm with a “Blair Witchy” feel and all of a sudden, bats are flying through the frame. They can get away with CGing with them because bats are black and the amount of detail that one has to have on those bats is not that great where there are hundreds of them flying at you, so you get away with them in a movie like that. But a movie where you’re dealing with a particular creature or having SPOILER having her head blown off, much better to do it the way, at least in the horror genre, the rules are generally to be maintained towards special make-up FX, those are the parameters people like to work with.

CS: How did you find the guy who did all the make-up effects?
Van den Houten: Jamie Kelman had gone to college with my producing partner William Miller at NYU, so it was a perfect fit.

CS: You also just produced a movie based on Jack Ketchum’s “The Girl Next Door,” which is more dark drama than horror, right?
Van den Houten: I did a panel [at the Fangoria Convention] with Jack Ketchum, the writer of the book “The Girl Next Door” but not the writer of the screenplay, and Greg Wilson the director, and Blanche Baker, who stars in the movie as Ruth Chandler. Jack Ketchum is notoriously a horror writer, so he has a huge fanbase in that world, but I feel the book we bought is his most significant in that it’s based on the true story of Gertrude Baniszewski and the child abuse case that took place I think in ’66 in Indiana. Ketchum wrote the book, taking that case and decided to recreate it and fictionalize it in the world that happened in 1958, pre-Kennedy assassination. He also changed some of the character but tells the same story, and the story is absolutely one of the most horrific things I’ve ever heard about. When I read the book, I was so furious I almost threw it out the window halfway through it but I had to see how it resolved it. It sits with you for months on end, nightmares ensure, and then you start questioning your own morality and why things are the way they are when it comes down to people who have been victims of child abuse. This film we’ve made is able to touch all of those buttons I feel well, and that’s kind of why I had to make that film, because I knew that producing that movie would not only be a full time job to produce it, but because producing that film would ultimately lead to helping create awareness and really get people angry about what happens with child abuse.

CS: Actually, looking over the movies you produced, there aren’t a ton of horror movies in there. Is this a genre where you’d like to continue working or was this a one-off?
Van den Houten: I love the horror genre. I think it’s one of the most fun genres to work in, because there’s never a dull moment when you show up on set. You’re either dealing with the supernatural or you’re dealing with people being mutilated or dealing with sex or dramatic narrative that leads you down a path that you shouldn’t be going down. There’s something always fun and wrong about doing something that’s a little evil in cinema and pushing the envelope. The horror genre is very Shakespearean. It’s very humanisticaly tragic like “Hamlet” or “Macbeth.” I love horror movies, I think there’s a great range to be explored. Ultimately, I feel that I would take whatever the best story is that needs to be told. If a comedy came through that needed to be told, I would consider doing it. Right now, I’m looking for a movie to direct next summer and there’s a couple different projects, one is another Ketchum novel that I’m considering maybe doing. I have between now and maybe January to pick a project, so I’m going to take my time and find the right script. If something comes to me packaged already with a director and the script is great, I’ll step back and produce again.

CS: As far as “Headspace,” has there been any talk about doing a prequel or sequel or anything else with the idea beyond the one movie?
Van den Houten: We do have a sequel written and we’re ready to go with it, but we want to just see how people respond to the first one, and so far, everyone seems to be overwhelmingly pleased with the way the movie turned out. We want to make sure that when and if we do a sequel that the first movie really performs the way it needs to to justify it. We don’t want to be telling stories that the fans and the audience don’t want to see. I think there’s a good chance we’ll be making a sequel.

CS: Did you ever think about spinning it off into a TV show? It seems like the perfect premise for that kind of world.
Van den Houten: It’s definitely something I would go to SCI FI Channel and say to them, “Listen, here’s this movie we’ve done, let’s talk about a TV show.” Yeah, there’s definitely that potential, and I would love to see that happen, but right now, we’re just so focused on our ’07 titles, narrative features. Showtime and Starz Encore are going to be putting out “Headspace” starting in November. I’d say there’s a two-year window to really get the game plan together for how we move forward with that film.

Van den Houten’s Headspace is out now on DVD from Freestyle Home Entertainment. You can buy the DVD here. The Girl Next Door is being prepared with hopes to debut it at next year’s Sundance Film Festival.