Crafting “horror for humanity”
Grace stars horror’s cutest heroine Jordan Ladd (Cabin Fever) as Madeline Matheson, a young pregnant woman who ends up in a horrible car crash that kills her husband and leaves the fate of her unborn baby in question. Madeline decides to bring her stillborn baby to term, though the overly-loving mother isn’t quite prepared for what happens next.
As was the case with the French horror film Inside, there’s something about using pregnancy and childbirth in a horror context that bothers people enough that most filmmakers (and studios) would normally shy away from the topics. While some might expect Grace to be sensationalistic, it’s by no means a modern-day version of It’s Alive!, as Solet instead handles the subject matter in a tasteful and authentic manner. And yet, the results are so visceral and intense that the film’s Sundance premiere saw not one but two people passing out from the experience – both men, no less. It’s certainly a credit to any horror filmmaker to be able to get such a reaction.
Sadly, we didn’t get a chance to see the movie in a theater with fainting men, but there’s little question the film is one of the more effective amalgams of real and supernatural horrors we’ve seen in some time. ShockTillYouDrop.com had a chance to chat with Paul Solet about Grace which, like many Sundance films, started its life as a short.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: This was very different than I expected from reading the description in the Sundance catalog. I’ve never seen the short, but were you always planning to make a longer movie and ended up making the short until you could get financing? What was the original plan?
Paul Solet: Initially I wrote a feature and it was a vastly different feature. In a lot of ways, it matured a great deal, but initially it was a feature. When I first got to L.A., I started showing it to people and people liked it, and I got some offers on it, but I wanted to direct it, and they wanted to buy it. I took some meetings with people and it just sorta became clear that it wasn’t going to be given the sort of attention and passion – I really always believed in this story. It runs really deep for me at a personal level and I think it addresses themes that are just so universally intriguing to people that it just sort of would be a shame to have it not executed properly. They said, “Well, why should I give you a million bucks or something?” I had done shorts, but I hadn’t done anything above 35, so I made the decision that the next thing to do was to do a short and give it studio-quality intention, so we did a real short. We shot it on 35, we cast it right, we got Liza Weil and Brian Austin Green. We basically did a pitch film, but it was designed to stand alone. I’m a story guy, and I really wanted to find a way to encapsulate the story without spoiling the feature, so I basically took the key beats in the first act of the feature and distilled them into a five minute 35 millimeter pitch film short. I didn’t want it to just end up on people’s desks, you know? I wanted it to get around and to actually be able to play. So it did really well in the festival circuit and it played a couple dozen festivals and it won some awards and got some attention. It got the attention of Adam Green, so that’s where that relationship began.
Shock: At what point does the short film end?
Solet: It ends literally where the first act of the feature ends which is, you know, post-birth, midwife returns to the room and… It worked very well. There’s still three acts, you know, it was a three act story without a spoiler, so the goal was to leave you saying, “What happens next?”
Shock: That’s really cool, because I think you get to a point while watching this where – and I don’t want to spoil anything – but you expect certain things and then when it doesn’t go that way, you think, “Oh, interesting.” Let’s talk about casting Jordan Ladd for the feature. As far as I know, she’s ever been a mother. What was the appeal to her to do this really tough, tough role?
Solet: Well, to me, I’ve always liked Jordan as an actor and I have a connection to her through my mentor Eli Roth. I never had met her, I always wanted to meet her, you know, I loved her in Cabin Fever and I’m a horror geek, you know? Jordan’s one of our favorites. To me, what makes Jordan right for this role is that she has sort of a natural empathetic quality. It’s very difficult to not like Jordan Ladd, and that’s exactly what we needed. We needed a protagonist that you couldn’t write off as being like a weird vegan nutball. You could not have that. It needed to be a situation where everyone is coming at this from a rational standpoint. Given their experience, what has happened to them, the decisions they are making, are rational, and she needs to remain sympathetic. To me, Jordan’s very difficult to push into this corner of a very isolated freak of some kind. It just doesn’t work that way. And it’s a good point â she’s not a mother. She read the script and absolutely loved it, just fell for it, but she fell for it so much that when we met she said, “This is such a great script I don’t want to f*ck it up and I’m worried because I’m not a mom that I’m not going to be able to make it authentic.” Our first meeting was four and a half hours long, like my car was getting towed literally, so we really, really connected and it was really clear to me that she’s a person that loves deeply, and that’s what we needed to get.
Shock: I think the fact she isn’t a mother helped her play a character who was a first-time mother. I think if you had someone who was a mother it would be a completely different performance.
Solet: That’s a great point. That’s a great point. But at the same time we went to great lengths to have what a first time mother would learn. We had her spend time with mid-wives, we had mid-wives on set, we had her learn to move, learn how she would groan, learn how a pregnant woman touches her belly, how she moves, how she walks, how she sits on a chair, all these things.
Shock: In this movie, you explore some interesting themes about the bond between mother and child, which doesn’t necessarily need to be done as a horror or genre film, and there’s nothing really supernatural – or at least not overtly so. Did you always want to explore these themes through the horror genre?
Solet: That’s a great question. I mean, you know, you’re right. This is a theme that comes up all the time. You see it on Lifetime every other show, and for me, I want to change the channel generally. At the same time, it is a fundamentally intriguing theme and it’s almost impossible not to have an intense personal reaction to this stuff. So the thing that I love so much about the genre and that I see sort of – it’s such a shame it’s not taken advantage of when you have more paint-by-numbers horror stuff coming along that is just purely visceral is the potential for, you know, the arena of genre â you pull something into it and you make your own rules. You pull a theme like this into it and you can just peel the ceiling back and you can just blow it open and just exponentially just blow it right the f*ck open and do whatever you want. All you need to do, as a writer and a storyteller, is “Keep the world consistent and I’m with you.”
Shock: The horror genre tends to be male-driven, but that’s changing with teen girls rushing out to see horror remakes like Prom Night. You would think that older women might be interested in this – though it might also put them off childbirth. Who do you feel is your audience when you’re making a movie like this? Do you think about what they would get out of it either positively or negatively when they watch the movie?
Solet: Well, I mean, I’m definitely a story guy and I really try to focus on story. I believe that sort of if you do your job with the story it transcends and it’s accessible to people. So I don’t try to focus on, “Who is my demographic? Is it men, is it women, is it this?” I try to say, “What appeals to humans?” I want to go deeper than that. I want to penetrate deeper than that because to me the movies that last, the movies I love, the movies I remember are movies that penetrate much deeper than any specific sort of demographic. This is horror for humanity, that’s what I want to do. As a horror guy, I’m always looking for…you know, we want to be scared again. Like, I can’t get scared anymore, you know? And it sucks. Like nothing gets under my skin except what gets under my skin which is this stuff. The body horror. Even as a man, the idea of carrying your own dead child to term is just so potent to me.
Shock: There’s realism to it.
Solet: And it’s real, exactly.
Shock: You talked about how horror has changed. Every modern horror director talks about how they want to capture the feel of ’70s horror movies like Rosemary’s Baby and Exorcist. This has a great feel and Jordan even looks like a young Mia Farrow with her long blond hair. It must have been something very conscious to try to go for that feel, which I think you’ve successfully done. Did you go back and watch those movies to figure out why those movies still have such an impact nowadays?
Solet: Well, firstly, thank you very much. That’s a tremendous compliment. That means a great deal to me. I definitely didn’t set out to capture the movies of the ’70s, but what the movies of the ’70s have is absolutely the same stuff we were going for. Back then, the goal was not strictly a gut punch, it was a soul punch. They kicked your soul and dragged it around the room and the way they did that is they reach into your head and they reach into your heart. And that’s what Grace tries to do. You know, there’s been all this buzz about people fainting at the premiere and all this stuff, but it’s really worth nothing that those were men and they were not fainting because of gore. They were fainting because of the subject matter because it’s so uncomfortable, and that to me is the ultimate compliment.
Shock: Going into this movie, you might have some impressions what it’s about, but do you think some people might be put off by the subject matter and a fear they might see or experience something they might not want to see or experience? Does that worry you at all?
Solet: I feel like it’s not my job. I feel like it makes me less effective at my job to be concerned with that stuff. I try and focus on what’s going to be effective for this story. My allegiance is always to this story. In a story like this, you’re dealing with very provocative subject matter, you’re going to insult people, you’re going to scare people, you’re going to make people uncomfortable, and apparently you’re going to make people pass out. So to me, strong reactions with provocative subject matter are essential. If we’re not getting them, we f*cked up.
Shock: I also wanted to ask about the vegan animal rights element of the story. It seems like a throwaway at the beginning, but it does turn into a running subplot of sorts, and I was curious why you wanted to include that?
Solet: It’s another great question. It has to do with the protagonist Madeline’s arc because she needs to start in a place where she literally can’t even hurt a fly and by the end she’s willing to perform the ultimate sacrifice.
Shock: What was it like for Jordan to experience that kind of intensity on set? It doesn’t seem like the kind of movie where you can say “cut” and everyone can start cracking jokes. The whole thing seems very intense. How did she go through this and what did you do to help her stay in that zone?
Solet: There’s a whole different bunch of compartments to that question. We tried to provide her with as many tools a possible to keep her in this dark place as possible. One of them was my composer Austin Wintory who is just amazing. Last year he had a film here that won the Audience Award called Captain Abu Raed. He’s very young and he’s up for a BAFTA. He’s very, very good and he’s a close friend. Usually you bring a composer in right at the end of the project, but in our case, Austin and I have been friends and working together on this project for three years. He read every single draft of the script. And the composer never gets to do that. He made sure that he had no other responsibilities. He flew himself to the set in Canada and he moved around the set recording the tones of the house, the creaking floorboards, everything. He caught the couch. I mean, it’s basically method composition. I’ve never seen anything like it. One of the things he did when he came to the set is…we always wanted to keep it stark because you know the horror clichÃ© of like, “Bah bam!” It’s manipulative and to me, it’s just another piece of lazy storytelling. So what he did was, he composed 20 cues to give the actors on set â not to be used in the movie. So we could help cast and crew on the set for playback feel sort of the rhythm of the scene and the emotion with the intent of them pulling it out. That kind of humility for a composer, there was never an intention to ever use this music. No one’s gonna hear them, but that dedication to the story and to the film, there’s not reason for me to ever work with another composer.
Shock: Why did you decide to make the baby a girl? Was that very important to the story?
Solet: Well, you know, I never really gave it a tremendous amount of thought. I’ll get back to you on that. Literally it sort of seemed so intuitive that I never questioned it at all.
Shock: What about the challenges of shooting with a baby on set, can you talk about that?
Solet: There are very strict rules about how you can work with babies. And even beyond that, unless you’re a sociopath, there are things that make it even more restrictive. I’m not going to manipulate a baby. It’s notoriously difficult to work with babies and animals, and stunts. So when I showed people [this], “Oh, okay. That’s great kid. Your first feature and you’ve got a baby, you’ve got a cat, and you’ve got a car crash? And you’re going to shoot 192 scenes in 17 days? You’re going to do that? Good luck.” But you know, I basically made a decision to allow the baby to dictate the terms of the drama. Just sort of trusting in the universe to allow the baby to provide us with something better than I could’ve elicited anyway. One of the things you do is you cast parents, and we cast just a beautiful couple that were dedicated, and really interested in the filmmaking process, and totally understood that there was not a bit of exploitation in this crew, or in our intention, in our mission, and they were just present.
Shock: Did you use just one real baby or did you have twins?
Solet: We had two babies, but our hero baby, the real baby you see on screen, Tenae, was such a beautiful, awesome little actor that we hardly had to do anything else. The only time you’re going to see anything else, is there’s some insert shots which I’m sure you spotted, yeah.
Shock: You mentioned earlier that when making a film, you can’t think of the audience, but having experienced the audiences at screenings and doing the Q and A’s, what has the reaction been? Did you have any women swearing off childbirth?
Solet: We have had women actually swearing off of childbirth in sort a humorous, you know, appreciative way. The thing about our genre is that so frequently women are alienated, neglected, and it’s important for me to sort of really detonate that convention. This film is just not â we’re just not going that way. So it’s really awesome to see in our audience just across the board, just sort of a completely gender-mixed appreciation for the film, particularly with women. You’ve got men passing out, you’ve got women – at both of our screenings so far – we’ve had multiple women say, “I can’t believe a man wrote this. This is so authentic. How did you do this?” My answer to them is always, “I did it by recognizing that I’m not an expert and accepting in soliciting input from women, and listening and incorporating it and rewriting and rewriting for years.” We play for two very different audiences. We had this sort of the primetime genre Blair Witch Project slot for the midnight audience here, which was amazing. You’ve got sort of a room full or us, just fans, like, “Yes!” and everybody was into it. It feels like just much more sort of like a visceral roller-coaster thing because that’s what we’re there for. People that had heard of the film for a while and were ready toâ¦ But at the next screening we played it was exactly the reaction that I had sort of when writing hoped to elicit with each of these beats and it’s very gratifying. I like to sit right in the front row and then I turn around and I just watch them because I mean, there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing this beat that you’ve concocted, and that you sort of orchestrate it for years, and you watch people and they just have exactly the same reaction.
Shock: One of the conventions of horror you did keep â and I’m not going to spoil anything here â is that you left room for a sequel. In theory, you could do another movie continuing this story. Can you talk about going with a more conventional horror ending, especially because one would assume having worked on this movie for so long, you wouldn’t want to necessarily do another one.
Solet: As a storyteller and as a screenwriter it’s just as important for me to know where they’re going after the credits roll as where they came from before. If I don’t know those things I’m not prepared enough to do the movie. So I want to know. I love these people, I’ve lived with them for years. I want to know what happens to them. I care about them. So I want to answer that question. I need to answer that question for myself. If it ramps a sort of â what’s going to happen to these folks? All the better, you know, if I leave you thinking, I want to leave you thinking.
Shock: Well, it’s great that you don’t necessarily have to do a sequel; it’s actually somewhat better if the sequel goes on in your head. One would hope you wouldn’t necessarily do a sequel just for the sake of it. Any idea what you’re going to do next now that you’ve got this out of your system?
Solet: Yeah, you know, I’m always writing my own stuff. If I don’t write I get sick. So I always have a stack of sort of passion projects that I want to do for myself. It’s important to me right now to make sure that â yes we have distribution â but it’s important to me. There’s just nothing sadder to me than discovering a movie five years after it came out and saying, “How the hell did I miss this?” And you’re like, “How the hell did all of my friends miss this? I’m plugged into the genre scene, I read stuff, like, what’s going on?” To me, that’s like â you know, it’s just so sad. I don’t want to see that happen to Grace. I want to make sure that the people that would love this film get a chance to see it, that they hear about it. So to me it doesn’t stop and it’s not yet out of my system. It doesn’t stop once we call, “Cut,” once the film in premieres. Now just another mission begins, another stretch of the journey begins, and we’re going to take the film on a festival tour.
Shock: So is it going to more festivals? Do you have any idea what’s next?
Solet: Three days after I get back from Sundance I go to France for GÃ©rardmer. (A French genre festival where Grace is in competition.)
Look for more on Grace here on ShockTillYouDrop.com once it gets a release date.
Source: Edward Douglas