I recently had the pleasure of reviewing a film titled Ava's Possessions that, as well as being well made and entertaining, was original. (Review) Originality is getting harder to come by in any genre, but no more so than horror. Thanks to filmmakers like writer-director Jordan Galland for breathing new life into the genre that the future of horror looks a little bit brighter.
Nav Qateel: First of all, congratulations on the film! Hugely entertaining.
Jordan Galland: Thanks so much! Means a lot!
Nav: What got you into filmmaking in the first place?
Jordan: Growing up in the golden age of VHS spending hours wandering around the isles in video stores, selecting way too many movies, more than I could watch in a weekend, I absorbed a lot of films, and developed an obsession for them. Film is a combination of many different art forms and mediums, photography, storytelling, drama and music. And I dabbled in all of those in my teenage years — when I was 12 I became interested in photography, brought a minolta with me everywhere, and was lucky enough to have a neighbor who was a professional photographer, and gave me access to his dark room, as long as I brought my own developing chemicals. I also wrote a lot of one-act plays and monologues, inspired by Eric Bogosian’s stuff, when I was about thirteen. Then I turned those one-act plays into screenplays, and eventually wrote something I could shoot on my own, which was the short film Smile For The Camera. But early on, Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives and Manhattan Murder Mystery were big inspirations for me as a writer, because they were filmed in the same Manhattan I was growing up in, and they had a sensibility and humor I very much related to, so I just wanted to play in that kind of universe.
Nav: Where did the idea for Ava's Possessions come from and can you talk us through the development a little bit? It's such a rare treat to see something original these days.
Jordan: The idea for a recovery movie about a girl who had just been through a possession and an exorcism only came to me after two years of obsessively writing treatments for possession films and never quite cracking it, never finding the angle that felt fresh. Then one day, it occurred to me and the same afternoon I realized there would have to be a recovery group for victims of possession, then I spent a year developing the script. People have said that my film is a bit of detective story as well as a possession film, as if that is a unique idea, but the truth is there is always a detective character in a possession film, and in The Exorcist, the best of all possession films, one of the main characters is a police detective, investigating a murder, so I think that’s an inherent part of the genre— I just made the victim becomes the investigator, and put that tone more at the forefront.
Nav: Did your studies in Mythology help when you were writing the script? You go into some fascinating detail on the background of Ava's demon.
Jordan: Studying Myth at NYU certainly opened me up to the vastness and global interconnectedness of various historical myths and the similar ways in which good and evil have been sparring across the world since the beginning of time. What I find most interesting is that the further back you go, the less defined is the line between good and evil. For instance by the middle ages, dragons were clearly portrayed as an evil monster that a good Saint had to fight. But a thousand years before that, dragons represented a wisdom and magic that could be used for either good or bad, a powerful creative force that could be destructive but not necessarily bad. So the demons in Ava's Possessions are inspired by that idea. The Church treats the demons as pure evil, but, just like in Star Wars, sometimes you have to go to the dark side to restore balance to the Force, which makes the darkness a kind of necessity, and therefore not necessarily all bad.
Nav: One got the feeling that you spent an inordinate amount of time casting Ava's Possessions, such was the care that went into each character. Can you talk us through your casting decisions, and how you finally settled on Louisa Krause as Ava?
Jordan: The character of Ava is in every scene, and requires a lot of range, since she also has to play the possessed-Ava, without a whole lot of makeup or special effects to make that transformation convincing. Louisa Krause was recommended to me by one of my producing partners who had cast her in a previous film. I was familiar with Louisa’s work from Young Adult and Martha Marcy May Marlene, and then I watched King Kelly, which she stars in, and from that performance, which was demanding, I knew I would be lucky to have her star as Ava. The grueling schedule is always a concern for a short shoot on a small budget, because you need an actor who is really down for uncomfortable late nights and who will get along with all the other actors in smaller roles. I didn’t know Louisa personally but then one night, before we had made the offer to her agents, I spotted her across the room at a party. I decided to introduce myself, without mentioning the script, just to say we had mutual friends and that I was a fan, and sort of see what she was like. She was so friendly and sweet, and we talked for a long time. I didn’t mention the movie, but I could tell she would be a joy to work with, so the next day we made the offer. That was January and we shot in June.
The other characters were cast throughout those months, with many, many auditions for other parts. The role of Ava’s sister, Jillian, I was happy to cast Whitney Able, who’s work I knew from Monsters, and who I had met once at a friend’s wedding. She was, likewise, a great talent and easy and pleasurable to work with on set. Always ready to experiment, and always offering great ideas.
Annabelle Dexter-Jones, although I’ve know her for a long time and am friends with her brothers and sisters, got the part because of an amazing audition, against fifty other talented actors— and her performance in the film far exceeded her brilliant audition.
Wass Stevens, similarly I’ve known for a long time, also got the part the old fashioned way, just being the best in the audition. I was a fan of his work from House of Cards.
The parents, William Sadler and Deborah Rush, and Carol Kane as the proprietor of the witch store, were all cast very late in the game, just because of scheduling conflicts and script changes, but I was quite ecstatic to get them in the movie as well. Lou Taylor Pucci was cast a month before shooting. We hadn’t met before but I’m a fan of his, and he was friends with several actors in my previous films. Zachary Booth auditioned— when he came into the room to read for Roger, I was a bit star struck, because I’d seen him in every episode of Damages, and loved him.
Nav: Because you gathered together such a great ensemble, did you write extra dialogue for any of the characters? It must have been difficult having all that talent together but only so much dialogue to go around.
Jordan: Sometimes, and more often than not, the performance in a film is not about dialogue at all, but in an actor’s face, in what he or she is not saying, and the words become like sprinkles on top of the icing which is the performance. So the cast often enjoyed that sort of work. And of course, some lines and scenes were cut in the editing room, so there was more dialogue in the script, and we shot than you see in the finished film.
Nav: As well as being a talented writer, you're also a very visual storyteller. The film opens on Ava's exorcism which we see from her POV. I was immediately reminded of Franck Khalfoun's Maniac. What was the story behind the exorcism sequence and were you tempted to do more POV shots?
Jordan: I wanted the film to be from Ava’s perspective, but I also wanted to open with the exorcism when Ava is possessed. Since she doesn’t know what happened to her, I had to be careful with how we portrayed the exorcism. It had to be POV shots, and kind of fragmented and confusing, in order for it to be consistent when she come out of it, and needs to be told what happened to her.
Nav: You're clearly a hands-on filmmaker in almost every aspect of the craft, and you edit your own movies. Are you reluctant to let anyone else cut your films?
Jordan: I always try to get someone else to edit my films, but budget always prevents it, and as a result, I’ve become an experienced editor. So much so that I now take jobs editing other people's films, and trailers. I found I have knack for it, maybe because of my background as a musician, there’s something intuitive and musical about film editing. I also think there is a great tradition of certain filmmakers who have influenced many of us, who were hands on. But I truly believe in the collaborative process of it. I love hiring talented people and encouraging them to do their best work. And the truth is that Daniel Hahn, who was an assistant editor on my last film Alter Egos, contributed a lot as a co-editor to Ava's Possessions, and hopefully in the future I can just hire him to be on it full time. We didn’t have the budget on this.
Nav: The music by Sean Lennon was quite simply fantastic, which helped elevate your already solid material. Did you offer any input on how you wanted the music to go, or did Sean have carte blanche?
Jordan: We were very collaborative with it, and I was there with Sean for the entire process, partly because it’s just awesome to be able to work and hang out with your best friend, putting the finishing touches on a film together, doing creative work. Its the dream. And partly because, having done two films together previously, we learned that this was the most productive way to do it. But mainly because it’s fun spending time together, and making the score was essentially very similar to making a record, which is what we used to do a lot when we were younger— record albums together.
Nav: Among my favorite scenes were the ones with Ava at group therapy. Because of the camerawork and character interactions, at one point it actually reminded me of the opening diner scene in Reservoir Dogs. What were your favorite scenes to shoot and why?
Jordan: That’s cool to hear, thanks! Reservoir Dogs is one of my all-time favorite films. In that scene I was using some of the group therapy scenes in Fight Club as a reference, and also the interrogation scene in Basic Instinct, where each line there’s a specific camera move, creating tension (minus Sharon Stone’s legs crossing moment of course).
One of my favorite scenes to shoot was the scene where Ava first walks into the church, late for her S.P.A. meeting, and we have all these wide angle shots of Geneva Carr, possessed, chained in the harness. I was really going for A Clockwork Orange meets Beetlejuice vibe. Another one of my favorite scenes was Ava in bed at the beginning, as the Priest played by John Ventimiglia tells her what’s happened to her. Partly because that was one of the first scenes I envisioned when I started writing the script, so it was kinda surreal and magical to film that scene specifically.
Nav: You're an accomplished musician and filmmaker. Do you have a preference? Which do you find gives you the most satisfaction?
Jordan: Filmmaking, definitely. But I still compose and record music all the time— I developed songwriting habits for years when I was younger, in a band, so I still keep a notebook in which I jot down song lyric ideas every day. I often work with singers on their material, and compose music for Casey Neistat’s films, and I often do indie jingles for commercials. I’m slowly working on a new solo record, but I’m being very picky about what songs I’m deciding to put on the album. I don’t want to repeat myself musically or lyrically at all.
Nav: I read that you were adapting Ryu Murakami's 'Coin Locker Babies' for the screen, which I'm excited about as I'm a huge fan of Japanese cinema, cyberpunk and anime. How far along are you in the development stage and what kind of look and feel are you going for? The novel covers so many themes.
Jordan: We started working on that in 1999, and I’m sorry to say that we had to give up the option on it several years ago. We had a great cast, and great script, but the budget was too small, and we needed more money to make a film that was worthy of the book.
Nav: That's most unfortunate. Which filmmakers inspire you and why?
Jordan: I undoubtedly will leave out someone — I find inspiration in a wide array of films, with all different styles, from all different periods, but the filmmakers I love have sort of held the same place in my heart since I was little are: Kubrick, Lynch, Scorsese, Polanski, both Tony and Ridley Scott, the Coen Bros, Hal Ashby, Michael Mann, Herzog, Woody Allen, Cronenberg, Friedkin and more recently, from teenage years to now, Tarantino, Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Fincher, Nicholas Winding Refn. I love them because their films draw me in completely, the storytelling becomes fully immersive, and when I’m done watching one of their films, the memory of it is like the memory of traveling, a trip to another country, where the culture made a lasting impression, or a dream I woke from feeling like the dream changed me. Each film is a world unto itself. And that inspires me to daydream, think about new stories and attempt to make my own movies.
Nav: Other than editing Adam Green's Aladdin, do you have anything else cooking at the moment that you can share with our readers?
Jordan: I’m prepping a new script I wrote called 'Devil's Fork,' with a company called Fortress Features. It’s like Se7en meets Adaptation. I’m very excited about it. Music-wise I just produced an album of covers for a singer named Madison, so that is coming out soon.