Of all the films playing at this year’s Film4 FrightFest, we were particularly excited about Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here. A wintry Lucio Fulci homage with a cast including genre legends Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden, the horror had built up excellent word of mouth on the festival circuit, and it did not disappoint (read our review here).
It’s the story of Anne and Paul Sacchetti (Crampton and Upstream Colour’s Andrew Sensenig), who move to an isolated country house following the death of their teenage son Bobby. They soon find out that the house has a history, and that Bobby’s spirit might not be the only one trying to communicate…
We had the chance to sit down with Geoghegan the morning after the film’s FrightFest screening to talk about his inspirations, why melodrama isn’t a dirty word, and why the cab driver in Ghostbusters is one of cinema’s greatest spirits.
You’ve been working in film for a while, had you been looking to make your directorial debut?
I wasn’t actually, as weird as it sounds I’d actually written the script for another filmmaker. A friend of mine who does low-budget films in the US had reached out to me and said how much he would love it to do a take on House By The Cemetery, the Lucio Fulci film, and that’s one of my favourite genre films of all time. So I wrote it for him with the vague concept of a House By The Cemetary-esque film, and it kind of turned into its own thing, and this filmmaker is very busy. I reached out to him very humbly and said “I know it’s a shot in the dark but you’re quite busy, would you mind if I shopped it around and just saw if I could find a place for it?” And he was very kind and generous and said “Sure, see if someone’s interested.”
And very quickly I found out that people really liked the script. I brought it to Travis Stevens who’s a very dear friend of mine who runs Snowfort pictures, who in turn brought it to Dark Sky Films, who in turn are the financiers, and it came together shockingly fast. But I had never written with the intention of directing, I fell in love with it after I’d written it. I’ve written a lot of films and the good ones the director gets credit for, and the bad ones, it’s a mix. Sometimes the director gets blamed but a lot of the time the screenwriter gets blamed. I thought, “I love this script, and if the movie turns out great, I think I want the credit.” That was really what it came down to, testing myself and seeing if I am capable of turning a good script into a good movie.
You mentioned at the screening that you think the film has an odd, specific tone. Did you find that the people you were working with got that quite quickly?
I’d like to believe that they got it but I don’t really think they did. I think the majority of people working on the film were just trusting me. Especially when we delve into the melodrama, and melodrama’s something I love. I think that word is often looked at as a bad thing, like “Oh, so melodramatic.” Most of the films that I genuinely love with all my heart and soul, especially so much of the 70s Euro horror, it is heavily steeped in melodrama, it almost feels like a stage play with these huge gesticulating movements and everything’s over enunciated and everything is over dramaticised. I like that, I find that very comforting.
I always refer to this movie as like a warm blanket, it’s cosy to me, it feels like home. I was very grateful that the cast understood what we were going for from day one, they completely understood the art of melodrama and never veering it into camp, because that’s very important.
My worst fear is that the movie would have come off as a campy. These are very real scenarios, they’re very real people but there’s an air of the surreal to all the proceedings, to every conversation. I’m very grateful that the audience gets a chuckle out of the scene where old man Dave gives them the whole terrifying history of the house and then as soon as he’s done, literally two minutes into them sitting down together, he gets up and says “Well we should be going!” He literally arrives to tell them a two minute ghost story, drink their whiskey and leave. That’s it. But there’s no outright humour in the situation, it’s played completely straight and the characters even go “Oh you’re leaving!”
I love that awkwardness, I love that weirdness because I don’t think films do that anymore. It’s so by the numbers and everything has to feel almost hyper real, and I’m just not a fan of that. I live in reality all day every day. When I watch a film I like being taken outside, even if it’s a realistic situation, I like it portrayed in a way that makes it feel unreal.
You said that you’d written Barbara’s role for her, did you have any other actors in mind?
I had written the role of Anne with Barbara in mind, but I’d written the script for someone else, so I never actually thought Barbara would play the role. As soon as I was able to take the script and make it my own, I took it right to her. I had also written the role of Jacob for Larry Fessenden who’s also a very dear friend of mine. I felt very blessed that, not only both of the people that I had written the roles for were able to be in the film, but that they’re both very close friends and collaborators. It was nice having a safety net especially on my first time directing, to not only have Barbara and Larry but Travis my producer is my friend, my DoP Karim [Hussain] and my special effects supervisor Marcus [Koch] is a very dear friend that I’ve worked with for almost 15 years. So it felt wonderful to be on this terrifying set and be surrounded by people I knew loved me and had my back.
The rest of the cast was hired through traditional casting means and I feel very lucky to have gotten all of them. I think Andrew [Sensenig] is phenomenal. Lisa Marie I think is such unconventional casting and very fun, she’s never had a role this big in her whole life. She’s always been more or less a cameo in her films, so it was really fun to explore the quirkiness of that character with her.
Monte Markham who’s a legend, he’s been acting since the 50s, who plays Dave, he’s amazing. He’s 82 years old and he had more youth and more excitement on that set than anyone else. Monte starred in a William Castle movie, he was in Airport 77, he was the lead in one of the sequels to The Magnificent Seven. He’s just iconic in terms of cinema and most people don’t know his name. But when they see him they just know his face and his incredible voice, so it was exciting to have someone with such gravitas on the set.
And as a geek Susan Gibney who played the bartender Maddie, I’m not a Trekkie, I’m a Trekker, but she was Dr Leah Brahms on Star Trek TNG, she was the woman who created the warp drive on the Enterprise and Geordi La Forge fell in love with her. I grew up watching Next Gen, and being able to have an alumni in the cast was so fun because she just dove in and gave that minimal role her all and I think that’s why people remember that character.
The effects in the film are excellent and the Dagmar spirits look amazing. Were you confident that you could pull it off on this budget?
Part of the reason why I wanted to use Oddtopsy FX is because I’d worked with them for well over a decade and their speciality is ultra, ultra low budget films. So to bring them on a project that is still a low budget film but had more of a budget than they were used to working with, it really allowed them to spread their wings. I think they were doing things that they never thought that they would be capable of doing, and Marcus Koch who runs Oddtopsy; I’ve always loved his practical effects. He’s known for doing splatter effects so he got to have a ball at the end of the movie when it gets really gory but I kind of pushed him with the Dagmars and I said “They’re not supposed to be disgusting, they’re supposed to be fantastical creatures.”
The big influences for the Dagmars were, of course, Captain Drake and the pirates from John Carpenter’s The Fog. But also one of my favourite ghosts as a kid is the cab driver ghost from Ghostbusters, who is only seen for a split second. There’s a great moment when all the ghosts get out and the guy gets into a cab and he’s like “4th and Lexington!” and you see this rotten corpse driving the cab.
And it scared me so much as a child, so I said “Use the cab driver ghost and the pirates from The Fog and just kind of mesh them together.” I loved the look of them, I love the fact that they have long flowing hair because it’s sort of surreal. I didn’t want them to look like a medical journal corpse that’s been burnt; I wanted them to have these fantastical elements. My joke is I say I want them to look like really cool action figures. We hired real actors to play them too, we wanted them to have a certain poise and to carry themselves in a certain way.
Elissa Dowling (A Night Of Nightmares, Tales Of Halloween) is the mother ghost and Guy Gane plays Papa Dagmar. He’s a very well known Civil War re-enactor in the US, he worked on House Of Cards, and he really helped us land the period look of the Dagmars.
We really wanted to drive home that they’re real people and they have their own troubles. They’ve had just a shitty a life as the Sacchettis. So to have actors play the Dagmars and have such wonderful effects on them really lands that they’re not token villains or token ghosts, but that they’re characters.
The reaction to the film has been excellent so far. Given that odd tone, it must be great to see people connecting with it.
Yes, for a film that while making I was not sure how it was going to land with the populace, I’ve felt very lucky and very blessed that people have responded so warmly to it. I wanted it to land with everyone but I knew in my heart that horror fans were going to love it, so it’s a real pleasure seeing people are not horror fans, people who love 70s melodrama and love soap operas, love made for TV movies, these things that were all very heavy influences on the film, embrace it, and it’s been really nice. I’m really excited and I’m really stoked to see how British fans are going to respond to it when it comes out.
We Are Still Here is released on DVD on 19 October. You can order it for £10.75 at Amazon.co.uk. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.