CS Interview: Co-writer/director Aaron B. Koontz on The Pale Door
ComingSoon.net got the opportunity to chat with co-writer and director Aaron B. Koontz (Scare Package) to discuss his ensemble indie western horror pic The Pale Door, which is now available in select theaters and on digital platforms! Click here to rent or purchase The Pale Door!
Looking back at the conception of the story for the film, Koontz explained that it spawned from his desire to “make a really violent, kind of dark and broody Western,” given his love for the genre, and that after first trying seven or eight years ago with one that he jokes “was really bad,” the pieces began to fall into place for the current project after being approached by Universal Pictures.
“I sent it to Noah [Segan], and Noah and I were working on other stuff and it just wasn’t where I wanted it to be,” Koontz recalled. “Then, after my first feature, I was asked by Universal to pitch on a witch movie, after the success of [Robert] Eggers’ film. So I was like, okay, I’ll come up with an idea. I was like, wait a second, this could be a way to fix this Western, and because there were pieces of the Western I really liked, but the second half kind of fell apart, but I really liked kind of the character building and some of the stuff that was there. So we just kind of put these two ideas together and decided to make this witch Western. Once that happened, it just kind of all clicked. When we pitched that to Universal, they wanted nothing to do with it. They just wanted a normal witch movie. So they’re like, ‘Nope, that’s not there’ [laughs]. So I had this concept that I thought was really cool, I never fully developed it, and then I actually was on a panel, a screenwriting panel with Joe and Keith Lansdale, we happened to both be Texas-based filmmakers and writers. So we were talking about writing screenplays and we kind of hit it off, and during that panel, I told the story about pitching to Universal. And Joe literally turns to me and says, ‘That’s a damn good idea. You should do that.’ The next thing you know, we’re out to dinner and then, they’re helping us develop it. And then we wrote The Pale Door.”
Though bringing these two different concepts may seem like a challenge of balancing the two tones to some, Koontz expressed that he “didn’t find it that difficult” as the way he and co-writers Cameron Burns and Keith Lansdale approached the characters and their journey lent these “these natural sensibilities” to the story.
“These men are kind of like, in hiding, and they kind of have their own rules that they kind of live by, and then, they’re brought out of their element, and that’s what I like to do,” Koontz explained. “I like the fish out of water stories, the people that are out of their comfort zones and having to do that. So once you’ve established and grounded those characters, it then was about them reacting to the horror. Then, once they’re there and you’ve kind of established who kind of fits what motif within the gang, then the horror can just accentuate these sensibilities that exist with them, you know? So if somebody’s more violent or somebody’s more reasoning or somebody’s more logical, then they’re the people that are dealing with the horror in those ways.
“So Dodd, for example, Bill Sage’s character, we establish as a bit of a savage and some of the stuff, what’s he doing, but we wanted to hint that there’s more with all the characters we wrote, there’s more than the surface and there’s more about what they’re trying to say and do,” Koontz continued. “But then, once kind of the shit hits the fan, to sort of say, he’s one of the ones that’s like, ‘All right, I’m going to go out there and go out on my own terms, then. I’m going to go take them with me.’ Then Wylie’s more logical and like, ‘Let’s talk about this, let’s think about this.’ Lester’s more, you know, ‘I just want to protect the kid. Let’s just get out of here, I don’t want to have anything to do with this.’ If you establish those personalities earlier, then it allows you to react to the horror in a different way. So it kind of fell together relatively nicely. I will say that Joe and Keith, Keith in particular, really, really helped with getting those voices to those characters in really unique ways so that we could accentuate it appropriately.”
Aside from the production of the film itself, which Koontz described was “complete hell” as they went against hail, lightning, flooding and category five tornadoes, the co-writer/director found his biggest challenge in bringing the film to life was finding a way to highlight the “brother-centric story that had a lot of heart at its core” while still tapping into the “absurdity” of the story.
“At the time, I’d done a lot of research on like, the Salem Witch Trials and there’s a lot of things I was fascinated about, that whole background,” Koontz noted. “And then, you know, loving Westerns as I had, they’re all criminals, all their friends are dying all the time. It’s kind of crazy, when you think about what that world was like, and when I started to merge these together, I tried to find a throughline and that was tough. It was tough to massage that because I wanted there to be an opportunity to parallel—I didn’t want this to be a black and white thing, where like, cowboys good, witches bad. I wanted to talk about their backgrounds, how people become the people that they are, and the opportunities for us to change as individuals, and the opportunities for us to say that hate and violence is—hate’s a learned thing and violence begets more violence. If there’s a way to explore that and parallel, maybe Maria, the witch’s background to the cowboys’ background and the gangs’ background, that it humanizes them in unique ways so that the ending, there is something there that might feel hopefully a little more poignant. And just to have that sentimental ending within this bigger thing was a really hard thing to manage for an absurd portion. Although the crazy things that happened before that, to try and have that land was definitely hard to balance.”
The cast for the film is composed of an ensemble roster of indie horror talent and when it came to building his crew, Koontz joked with his casting director, David Guglielmo, that he wanted his cast to be the “Avengers of indie genre actors,” which included a few of his longtime friends and frequent collaborators along with talent he’s been longing to work with.
“I’ve known Pat for a long time, I was a producer on Starry Eyes, that’s where I first met Pat and Noah, so I knew I wanted them in something,” Koontz explained. “We Are What We Are was one of my favorite films, I thought Bill Sage was just—he’s so good in everything he does. Even Zachary Knighton, I loved his performance in The Hitcher remake, I loved Happy Endings, as a complete aside. I just thought he was an actor that I knew had opportunities to do something more unique and kind of go there in different ways. So it was fun to kind of challenge him with that and he just knocked it out of the park. You know, Devin Druid, Devin Druid was the one that was the kind of—we had the catalyst for everything. We had to find our perfect Jake, and we searched forever to find Jake. Someone told me to watch—there’s a bunch of really good young kids on 13 Reasons Why, and this was for another film, not even for this one. We were looking at it for another project, and I watched it and I circled him immediately. I was like, whoa, this kid is good, like, this kid’s really good. We had some amazing people that kind of read for us, but Devin Druid blew me away. And then, I saw him and Zachary Knighton looked alike, and I wanted Zach in this. So then we kind of paired them off as brothers and sort of kind of piecemeal from there. But even Stan Shaw, Stan’s such a veteran. He’s been around for so long. That guy has more movie stories than anybody I’ve ever met in my entire life.
“It was just so amazing kind of piecing the gang in that unique way,” Koontz continued “Tina Parker from Better Call Saul, I mean, it’s just, again and again, once you get a few dominoes, they all start to kind of fall into place. And we were just giddy. I was like, ‘Whoa, it looks like we’re getting another one, another one.’ I’m unbelievably proud of what that became, and then the other core piece was Melora Walters, who was like, my first choice, was who I wanted for Maria from the get-go. I’m a diehard Paul Thomas Anderson fan, and Magnolia is actually the reason why I went to film school, like quite literally the reason. So bringing her in and have her be the Madame of these witches was like, everything to me. And that kind of became the glue that kind of countered off the rest of these characters. But I’m so proud of the cast. I thought David did an amazing job and I am really, really lucky to get the people that I did.”
Though he had his wishlist and hopes for building his cast, Koontz stated he mostly didn’t write the characters with any specific person in mind for each role, instead loosely basing them on the real life Dalton Gang while “creating these unique voices,” but also noting there was one person he did have in mind for a particular role.
“I knew that Noah was going to play Truman, I will say that, I did know that Noah was going to play Truman,” Koontz revealed. “I love his dad jokes, that he’s kind of done, now that he’s a father and where he’s moved in his life, I want him to play a little goofier character, maybe a little closer to the Kid Blue in Looper. So we had a little fun with that, because I needed that character to kind of counterbalance like the solemness of Chief, played by James Whitecloud, and Duncan and all of them, just to find the right ways to balance those people, I thought to be a lot of fun.
“We wanted everybody to have kind of a different style and dialect,” he added. “I mean, Pat Healy in particular created an entire dialect for his character. He’s a meticulous character in Wylie, so he dresses meticulously, he talks meticulously, he walks differently. He’s just got like, a different kind of aura to him than say, you know, Sam Shaw’s character in Lester, you know, or Dodd, in how they balance. So once we kind of had ideas, and I loved that all these different gang members existed from the Dalton Gang, and it was a brother gang in Oklahoma in the same time period. And once we kind of had that, it was like, well, how do you make them unique? So then we were just trying to kind of find unique aspects.”
One thing in particular that he spent a lot of time curating was the “very specific film grain” he and director of photography Andrew Scott Baird placed on to film after their original plan to shoot on film fell through, which resulted in giving it a specific texture that he felt helped capture the tone and period of the piece.
“We looked a lot at probably The Assassination of Jesse James, was probably the one that we referenced the most, like the train robbery in that is perfect and it was a night train robbery,” Koontz excitedly described. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, like what did Roger Deakins do? Because whatever Roger Deakins did, let’s learn from that the best that we can.’ I will say I loved the 3:10 to Yuma remake I thought from James Mangold was also one that just, the way that they captured the action, the way that the kinetic nature of the camera, of the close-ups I thought were really great, and so we referenced theirs. To kind of mix that where once the film goes to night, it stays night, you know, basically other than one kind of flashback sequence. We were lucky to be in this contained town in Guthrie, Oklahoma. We had one massive moon light that we kind of used to really kind of accent this, and I thought Andrew just did a wonderful job, you know, within the team like, lighting this, especially on an indie like this on the scope that we had to pull that off. There’s certain places in the film where you have to move fast, and you’re just like, ‘Look, let’s just kind of get this scene.’ But then there’s so many others where like, ‘Let’s take the time to really kind of showcase the cinematography. Let’s really kind of showcase.’ I mean, even the lighting and the church, where it’s like upside down and stuff, we have the lights going up and angling differently and all of this stuff, there are so many little things, little touches that we put in there that I was really proud of what we were able to pull off.”
The Dalton gang finds shelter in a seemingly uninhabited ghost town after a train robbery goes south. Seeking help for their wounded leader, they are surprised to stumble upon a welcoming brothel in the town’s square. But the beautiful women who greet them are actually a coven of witches with very sinister plans for the unsuspecting outlaws-and the battle between good and evil is just beginning.
The horror western pic features an ensemble cast that includes Devin Druid (13 Reasons Why, Greyhound), Zachary Knighton (Happy Endings, Magnum P.I.), Melora Walters (Big Love, Venom), Bill Sage (Power, Hap and Leonard), Noah Segan (Knives Out, Scare Package), Pat Healy (The Innkeepers, Bad Education), Stan Shaw (The Monster Squad, Jeepers Creepers 3), Natasha Bassett (Hail, Caesar!) and Tina Parker (To The Stars, Better Call Saul).
The film is co-written by Koontz, Burns, and Keith Lansdale and directed by Koontz. The Pale Door is now in select theaters and on digital platforms and VOD!