A self-described “jack of all trades,” Ted Geoghegan has served as a writer, producer, and publicist in the film industry. We Are Still Here marks his directorial debut, adding another feather to his cap.
I had a chance to speak with him about his film, to learn more about his influences and outcomes.
C. Rachel Katz: You wrote the story about three years ago, and it says “based on a concept by Richard Griffin.” Can you tell me where the story came from?
Ted Geoghegan: Basically what happened was about three years ago, Richard, who's a friend of mine, told me that he was interested in working on a project with me. He said, “I always wanted to do a take on Lucio Fulci's House by the Cemetery,” which is one of his favourite films. And I said, “Great, it's one of mine as well.” He gave me some loose ideas, like it might be an interesting concept that instead of moving to the house with the child, [the family] would move to the house and they'd already lost their child. He gave me some rough ideas that I ran with, and I wrote a first draft of the script.
I fell so in love with the screenplay that I asked Richard if he wouldn't mind if I shopped the script around and tried to find financing for it myself. He was, and is, a wonderful chap, and has ten projects a year, so he has no shortage of work to do. So he said, “Yeah, go. Go see if you can make this thing happen.” I brought it to my friend Travis Stevens at Snowfort Pictures, who in turn brought it to Dark Sky Films, and just like we were making a movie.
CRK: Has it changed much since that first idea was put to paper?
TG: Certain concepts have changed slightly. The real meat and potatoes of the film has not changed at all. It's essentially the same story, this ode to the films that I grew up watching. The '70s and '80s genre cinema. Just embracing the absurd and having this very heavy, melodramatic story that isn't meant to be taken to seriously, but isn't meant to laughed at. It kind of walks a fine with what it's trying to do. Thankfully, based on the reviews that we've gotten so far with the film, most of those people get what we were going for with this movie. They understood the style and tone that we were attempting.
CRK: I know Eurohorror and Fulci were big inspirations for you—you already mentioned House by the Cemetery—but I also hear Lovecraft was a source of inspiration.
TG: I am a huge Lovecraft fan, and I think Fulci put a lot of Lovecraft in his films without realizing it. He did things that felt very much in line with the mythos that Lovecraft had created. Even going so far as to set a number of his films in New England, which of course is Lovecraft's stomping ground. When I was putting it together, I wanted to make sure there was more of a direct reference to Lovecraft throughout the film.
That is one area in which the film did change slightly. There were actually many more Lovecraftian references in the the first few drafts. As we fine-tuned the script, we started realizing that the best moments in Lovecraft's stories are the ones where people aren't turning into fish monsters, or screaming out “Cthulhu!” It's something completely different. So we decided to take a more subdued approach to Lovecraftian horror and really focus on the subtle things that made Lovecraft so creepy. Just the concepts, like a sleepy New England town that has this very dark secret; these townspeople have banded together to keep these secrets their own, and not let outsiders know just how nefarious their plans are. Certainly, there's an ancient evil under this house, that's heavily hinted at, some sort of elder god-like thing. Just little things like that.
I feel like the best way to play it is to treat your influences with respect and not hit the audience over the head with them. For Lovecraft enthusiasts, there are some actual, rather direct references. There's a reference to the hospital over in Essex County, which is Miskatonic University. Little things like that that the average Joe wouldn't catch, but if you are a scholar of Lovecraft you might get a chuckle out of it.
CRK: Correct me if I'm wrong, but is there a Changeling reference in there too?
TG: There's no direct reference to The Changeling, but I feel it's very much in line with my movie. Mainly because [The Changeling] is about a middle-aged man fighting a ghost. And this film of mine also is about middle-aged characters fighting off the supernatural. It's a concept that I don't think is seen very often in modern horror, so I wanted to embrace the idea of having the central cast be in their 50s, facing off against the supernatural threat.
CRK: You wrote the roles of Anne and Jacob for Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden. How does that affect how you write? Which came first, the characters or the actors?
TG: Barbara and Larry are very dear friends of mine, so I think in that capacity the actors came first. As I started writing the film, when the character of Anne started to come into her own I realized, omigod, I'm writing Barbara. Similarly with Jacob, the more I fell in love with this hippie-dippy, silly, new agey stoner, I was like, this is totally Fessenden. It's him to a tee. In that capacity, I think yes, the actors did come first, but the story ultimately happened as it was going to happen, regardless. I knew where I wanted these characters to end up, I knew what the endgame of the film would be, so for me it was really just a matter of getting everyone there. And if by chance I happened to be able to work with two of my friends, that was just a bonus.
CRK: The house, too, is a character. And then there's the Dagmar family who take up very little screen time but have a big influence on the story.
TG: Absolutely. The house is definitely a main character. When we arrived in Rochester, we were still trying to negotiate which house we were going to use, and as soon as I saw the one that's in the film, I immediately stopped looking and stopped all discussion and said, “This is it. This is the house from my script.” I just knew that we had to have it. Thankfully, it came together rather quickly. The homeowner was very amenable to us shooting our film there. We had really amazing art direction and they were able to turn that house into a home built in the 1860s that was now in the 1970s, 1980s.
The Dagmar family—they're very interesting characters. They don't take up a lot of screen time. They're these weird physical ghosts. They're almost more like zombies that ghosts. Which is very much a nod to John Carpenter's The Fog, Captain Drake and his pirates. Similarly, the idea was even though they don't take up a lot of screen time, they are main characters. They are deeply integral to the plot, and they have to land. Every shot of them has to work. We went through a rather intense few days trying to get the look of them just perfect before we started shooting. Much like the house itself. On day one I couldn't describe how excited I was that everything had somehow come together.
Ted Geoghegan on the 'We Are Still Here' set
CRK: In addition to the maturity onscreen with the characters, the there's a certain maturity to the film's look and feel. As I understand, the atmosphere's due in part to your cinematographer, Karim Hussein. You shot the movie on the RED Dragon, but Karim used a bunch of old lenses he had.
TG: Yes. We're the second feature ever to shoot on the RED Dragon. And as far as I know we're the only to feature to actually finish shooting on the first version of the RED Dragon. There was another film that was being shot and the camera was recalled, and they sent theirs back. We kept ours. I'm quite happy that we may be the only film ever shot on version one of the RED Dragon. And it looks gorgeous. It's just amazing footage. I think not only is that due in small part to the fact that it's quite a nice camera, but also the fact that Karim brought his A-game. He's one of the most talented DPs I've ever met. I loved his work in Hobo With a Shotgun and Antiviral and I wanted him to bring a bit of that same retro eye to this film. He's very familiar with Eurohorror so it wasn't necessarily a matter of me giving him a pile of DVDs and telling him to watch them. He already knew the look and feel. He knew what camera angles and what camera motions would feel the most authentic to the period. Like you mentioned, he brought with him this treasure trove of antique lenses. I believe most of them were Russian, from the '50s. We cranked these things over the RED and just suddenly the image became so cinematic and really started feeling like something special.
I was happy to work with so many friends of mine, considering this was my first time directing.
CRK: You've seen the film industry from all sides, as a writer, a producer, a publicist, and now as a director. What's that like? Did having all this other experience help or prepare you to step into a directing role?
TG: I think it did. I think especially my work in PR really did. I'd written several films. I've been a writer since 2001, and I've been producing things since 2007. I really didn't get a feel for directors and what they dealt with and what they did on a daily basis until I became a publicist and I found myself interacting with directors on a fairly regular basis. I feel like it's kind of a conglomeration of everything. I'm kind of a jack of all trades in this industry and it felt really nice to try directing, to see if I had it in me.
As I said, I'd been bitten by the bug with this screenplay that I loved so much. I hope that I get to keep doing it. I certainly don't see myself stopping working in any of those other parts of the industry. I think in this ever-changing film landscape that we live in, it's very important for people to be able to wear a lot of hats, because you never know what you're going to be called on to do. While I'm very grateful to have directed, and I hope I get to direct again, I'm certainly not opposed to working in any other facet of the industry. I consider myself very fortunate to work in it at all. Give me job and there's a very good chance I'm gonna take it.
CRK: In a Q&A with David Hayter, he said the best thing about being a director was that no one could change his script.
TG: I'd say that's true for the most part. But if you're a first-time director and you've got an incredibly talented, seasoned cast and crew, they can't necessarily tell you to change the script but they can nudge you in directions you didn't see initially. And that can be a pretty amazing thing. While some things were changed on set, I feel like they came from a really good place. I had a blast. I think that every change was made for the best.
CRK: Any future projects you can tell me about?
TG: Right now I've written a new screenplay. I don't know if it's necessarily going to be my next project but it's something that I'm really excited about. I also have a concept for a movie that I don't have scripted yet, but I'm very excited about it as well. Both of them are complete one-eighties from We Are Still Here, but are still very much genre films. One is an action horror-film that's extremely gory, and the other's a sci-fi horror-film that is also extremely gory. I don't think I'm done getting my hands red yet.
CRK: Thank you, Ted Geoghegan.
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