Gil Kenan’s remake of the classic horror movie Poltergeist storms into UK cinemas today, produced by Sam Raimi and starring Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt in the roles made famous by Craig T Nelson and JoBeth Williams.
We got the chance to talk to Rockwell about why he was excited and nervous to star in the reimagining of Tobe Hooper’s classic, the challenges of keeping an effects-driven horror realistic, and the brilliance of Galaxy Quest.
So what drew you to Poltergeist?
I thought it was a good opportunity. I play a lot of psychos and stuff so I thought to play a regular dad in a mainstream kind of movie was a good opportunity for me, you know what I mean?
There’s obviously a strong creative team. Gil Kenan directed Monster House, and David Lindsay-Abaire wrote Rabbit Hole…
Yeah, I think I sort of got convinced by the director to do it because the first draft was not the kind of character that I want to play, and then he said “I want to shape it around you.” David Lindsay Abaire who’s a great writer, he was willing to do some writing sessions in New York and so we sort of camped out in a hotel room and we rewrote the part.
Me, Gil and David got together like three times in the hotel. We got together and that really helped. We were very much on the same page. [Gil] was great. He was awesome, Gil’s like the sweetest guy in the world, he’s such a nice guy. And I knew Rosemarie [DeWitt] was doing it, she was already signed on. So that’s what sort of convinced me to do it.
Were you a fan of the original movie?
I love the original film, I thought it was amazing. I was quite nervous about it because I love the original film so much, you know. I actually thought about the original quite a bit. I talked to JoBeth Williams and Craig T Nelson at one point, I called them after the read through, I was concerned that we would do justice to the movie so I called them and they were very nice.
There’s a really strong cast in this movie; along with you and Rosemarie there’s Jared Harris and Jane Adams…
Yeah, we’re all theatre actors and we were all on the same page. We all knew each other from New York, so we were all…it was very cool. It was like going back home, you know, we’re doing this horror movie. Sometimes it was silly, using green screen and stuff like that, it’s very strange to do a ghost movie, it’s hard. You’ve got to use your imagination.
How was it working with the child actors?
Working with kids, it can be challenging, but these guys were great. These guys were really game and [Kennedi Clements] is phenomenal, she’s something else, man., she’s really something. She’s a great improviser, they were all great. This little girl is really something special.
Yeah, sure.The script was really solid but there was always a little improv. I think with these kind of movies, you’ve got to open up your environment, it’s about realism, you’ve got to make it real. It has to be real, otherwise nobody can get soaked into the reality. In Alien, if you’re not buying the human, you’re not buying the alien.
There were rumours that the film was going to be for children but I think your quote about that actually said it was more from the perspective of the kids…
Yeah, that got misinterpreted, I think someone thought I said it was a kids’ film, it’s not a kids’ film. What I meant to say is that it is from the kids’ perspective, it’s from Kyle’s perspective, the 12 year old boy. He’s kind of the protagonist in the film. And so in a way you could say the parents are supporting characters.
Was Sam Raimi much of a presence on set?
No, he would come on and disappear, I never saw him. He was like a ghost himself, you know? I’m really a big fan of his so I wanted to talk but I didn’t really get a chance to talk to him that much.
Are you a horror fan in general?
I am. I would have screenings of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby in my trailer while we were shooting just to kind of keep up morale, I’d force the actors to watch these movies! Just to keep our head in the game because it’s a very long shoot.
You’ve not really done much horror at all. Was that a conscious decision or do you work on a script by script kind of basis?
It’s pretty much script by script. There’s no gameplan, you’re just trying to do stuff that appeals to your emotional life and it’s pretty random, and yet there’s probably some kind of unconscious personal agenda that I’m not really conscious of but there’s some kind of…I’m sure there’s some theme in a lot of the parts I play. I think heartbreak would probably be, if you were to look at all the roles, I think you could see some heartbreak somewhere in all the characters, whether it’s a backstory or in the actual plot of the film, I think for some reason that comes to mind. Whether it’s comedy or drama, it’s probably a similar theme.
You’ve done big movies like Iron Man 2 and cult classics like Galaxy Quest. What do you find people recognise you from?
I think the biggest ones are Green Mile, Charlie’s Angels, and Moon. Moon’s a big one and Green Mile. Those are probably the three biggest ones. Galaxy Quest is a beloved film which I’m really lucky that I was a part of it.
We love Galaxy Quest and quote it a lot…
Yeah, me too, me too. I love Galaxy Quest.
Moon definitely seems to have taken on deserved modern classic status now.
Yeah, it didn’t necessarily have mainstream success right away but then it built, it had stamina. And so I think it was a beloved film in the industry that year, and then years after it’s become a science fiction cult movie. And we just kind of lucked out and we had a good opportunity and we had good people working on it. And there was a writer’s strike so we had all these people helping us with the technical aspect that we wouldn’t normally have had, I think, because there was the writer’s strike.
A lot of your movies seem to have found their audience after they came out. Assassination Of Jesse James, Gentlemen Broncos, Galaxy Quest…
Yeah, yeah, it’s funny how that happens. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is one that people tallk about years later. It’s kind of my whole career is like afterlife, you know! [laughs] I’m very excited about Don Verdean [from Gentlemen Broncos director Jared Hess].
We’re definitely looking forward to seeing you with Jemaine Clement.
Oh my god, he’s amazing. Have you seen the vampire movie, What We Do In The Shadows? It’s amazing. I’ve never seen that guy’s first film called Boy, have you seen that? I gotta see it. I think I might work with this guy, he’s a great director but it was almost like Waiting For Guffman with vampires, it was amazing. Yeah, Jemaine is a genius. He’s like Peter Sellers or something, he’s fucking amazing. And Danny McBride is unbelievable, so we have a great cast, Will Forte, Leslie Bibb, Amy Ryan, it’s an amazing cast.
Finally, do you have a favourite horror movie?
I guess it would have to be The Exorcist as my all time favourite. I thought The Conjuring was very good. I love Rosemary’s Baby, Alien, you could almost put that in a horror category even though it’s a sci-fi. The Thing is a pretty great movie. I think it’s a pretty amazing film, no CGI back then. It’s amazing. And I think that’s coming back. Gil did a lot of in camera effects which are good.
Poltergeist is in UK cinemas now. Read more about the film in the new issue of SciFiNow.