Deep Fried Interview: Haunt director Mac Carter
(Above) Director Mac Carter in front of the haunted domicile at the center of Haunt, released today on home entertainment platforms by IFC Midnight.
When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Whatever the equivalent proverb is for filmmaking, director Mac Carter embraced it on the supernatural horror film Haunt.
Shot on the Red Epic in Salt Lake City, Haunt was intended to be lensed in a house surrounded by lush foliage with a Ouija board at its center. Then Utah dumped an unseasonable load of snow on the production and Hasbro refused to allow the movie to use its trademarked Ouija board. Carter turned both curses into blessings, shifting Haunt’s surroundings to a wintry landscape accentuated by cool blues and abandoning the Ouija board for a more cinematic “ghost box.”
The director talked to Deep Fried Movies about dealing with obstacles on set, how Steven Spielberg scarred his childhood and why it’s always a good idea to put Jacki Weaver in your movie.
The Plot: When a family moves into an isolated house with a history of violence, the clan’s teenage son and his mysterious new neighbor explore the abode’s dark past via a ghostly radio hidden away in the attic. Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver co-stars as the house’s previous owner in this mixture of supernatural horror and character-driven teen drama.
(Above) Carter talks over a scene with Haunt stars Harrison Gilbertson and Liana Liberato.
You’re from New Jersey, you’re a lifelong comic book enthusiast and you now work as a commercial director. What else can you tell me about your background? How’d you first get into production?
Well, I’m a nerd through and through. I can promise you that. There was a time when I was convinced that I would go on to become a comic book artist for Marvel or DC. I’ve been a huge comic book guy forever. When a bracing review of my art by the esteemed (and brutally frank) John Byrne (an artist for runs of X-Men and Fantastic Four for Marvel) left my confidence a burned-out husk, I decided to set that pursuit aside.
Because I am also one of those guys who started dabbling in Super 8 at a very young age, I thankfully had filmmaking to fall back on. (If you missed my early opus, Murder By Suicide, you really owe it to yourself to track down a copy.) I had an enormous appetite for watching films as a kid. My parents would drop me at the theater at the start of summer and pick me up the day before school was back in. I survived on nothing more than Red Vines and popcorn for weeks at a time. Of course, the Summer of ’82 was huge for me. [Ed. Note – The summer’s releases included E.T., Poltergeist, Tron, The Wrath of Khan and The Thing]. Eventually, my love of movies brought me out to Los Angeles to pursue film school at USC. I also did a stint as a movie theater manager and I put in a fair amount of time as a production assistant for the likes of Michael Bay and David Fincher. So, I’ve been around it for a while.
I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had never met John Byrne, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to have that thought.
Since The Amityville Horror’s success in the midst of a late-1970s recession, haunted house movies have a habit of flourishing during times of economic hardships. Why do you think there’s been such a surge in that subgenre recently and what made you want to make something in that genre?
I grew up on a steady diet of haunted house films. From Steven Spielberg’s Something Evil right through Poltergeist, I saw them all and anything related, like The Omen series or The Exorcist. To the detriment of getting a good night’s rest, I watched way too many of these on late night television. I just dig them. I’d love to offer you up a clever cultural theory that would explain their current popularity but, sadly, I’m just a director. I will tell you, though, why they appeal so much to me: they’re fucking scary! When these films are done well I am genuinely frightened during the experience of watching them. I’m engaged. And I know a lot of other people are too. I cover my ears, I close my eyes and I turn away from the screen. I do! Good comedies make us laugh. Good horror films make us cringe. There’s value in that for me, not only for the passive thrill (which is very real), but also the thoughtfulness that the experience engenders in me. If something makes me laugh, I enjoy dwelling on why. And if a horror film makes me change my pants, well, that’s good, too. Call me weird.
There’s no question that much of the recent surge has to do with the wild success of a number of these films, namely Insidious, Paranormal Activity, Woman In Black, etc. and their producibility at a modest budget. The return on the investment can be sweet. But the reason I’ve always been interested in directing a haunted house film comes purely out of my respect for the genre. Like I said, I have a deep love of these films. Finally getting the opportunity to play in this sandbox has been a dream, er, nightmare come true. Bad joke, but true nonetheless.
You’ve told this story a few times in past interviews, but I’m going to ask you to tell it again. Can you recount your childhood-scarring experience with Steven Spielberg’s TV movie Something Evil?
Damn you for making me recall any of this! Glowing. Demon. Eyes. That’s what I saw in my bedroom window until I was 13. I’m not joking. Curled up under my bed sheets, I would watch that window until the sun started to rise. I had Spielberg’s Something Evil to thank for that – and the fucking idiot of a babysitter who let me stay up and watch it with her. It was about a family that moves into a haunted country farmhouse. The boy in the film was played by Johnny Whitaker from (the TV show) Family Affair. Before we all decided we had at least one surrogate in the enormous Brady Bunch, Whitaker was who most boys related to on television.
Anyway, in the movie Johnny discovers a trove of jars filled with demon jelly (don’t ask). Glowing eyes in the farmhouse windows ensue. And my childhood nights went right down the shitter. Thanks, Mr. Spielberg!
A friend thought it would be a good joke to find a bootleg copy for me. It sits unwatched on my shelf of DVDs to this day. That’s no lie.
I read an interview with Stephen King once in which he talked about Stanley Kubrick calling him during preproduction on The Shining and telling him he didn’t understand how a ghost story could be horrifying since the existence of ghosts meant there is some sort of life after death. Haunt is the first horror movie I can remember verbalizing that sentiment.
That choice – for Sam [the neighbor played by Liana Liberato] to explain her enthusiasm for exploring the supernatural – was Andrew Barrer’s, the writer of Haunt. From draft one it’s been in there. I always understood it as an answer to the many haunted house films that never offer up an explanation for why their protagonists would willingly flirt with horror and death despite an awareness of the potential consequences.
For me, it was purely an effort to ground Sam, in a very small way, in the real world. I always appreciated that moment, and I believe Liana did too, because we made it a priority to create characters and situations that felt believable and relatable. That was the idea anyway.
To answer Kubrick I have to turn to our old friend HP Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” What’s more unknown than death? When you strip everything away, aren’t all these movies really founded on that fear?
There’s a scene in Haunt in which we briefly glimpse Night of the Living Dead playing on a television set right before the character of Evan ventures down into the house’s basement. Romero’s zombie epic has long been considered in the public domain, but what other factors went into that choice?
It was zombies or Betty Boop!
I didn’t realize that Hasbro owned all the licensing for Ouija boards. Did the Hasbro folks offer any specific reason when they rejected your request to use the board in Haunt? Vincenzo Natali’s Haunter recently featured a Ouija board. Seems odd that they’d give the OK to one haunted house film, but not another.
I’m no lawyer, but yes, Ouija is a brand name owned by Hasbro. I still haven’t seen Haunter, but Natali’s an established director – and a good one. I’m glad it worked out for him.
We were absolutely convinced that we would be featuring a Ouija board in Haunt. Andrew had written one into his original script, the producers loved the familiarity of the game to audiences and they were convinced it was available to us under some fair use doctrine. My art department had begun pulling every board they could find in Salt Lake City, but something about it nagged at me. A week removed from starting production I begged the producers to check with our legal department about the use of a Ouija board. They checked with Hasbro. Hasbro said no. No fuller explanation was offered. All of us immediately freaked out. Thankfully, Andrew is brilliant under pressure. He spent the night brainstorming and Googling and came back to us in the morning with a handful of alternatives. Thus was born our steampunk ghost box.
I guess some people might think the moral of the story is, ‘Don’t ask if you don’t want to be told no,’ but I like to think of it as one of those crazy, fortuitous turns every movie needs to be successful.
Using the ghost box instead of the Ouija board ended up being a blessing in disguise for you. What can you tell me about that prop?
I can tell you that it began life as a portable hair dryer. My genius production designer, Giles Masters, cobbled it together from bits and bobs after a quick weekend scouring Salt Lake City antiques shops. He brought it to the producers and me and we were blown away. Suddenly, we had all kinds of cinematic opportunities and the scenes came to life in all kinds of different and exciting new ways. It really became the signature prop of the film. As you say, it was a blessing in disguise.
You also have a background in comic books, so I’m assuming you can draw with some skill. Did you storyboard the film? If so, can you think of one or two situations from the shoot in which you had to deviate from those storyboards because of some unforeseen obstacle?
I had a really talented artist, Mark Yates, help me with a few sequences, but otherwise I storyboarded most of the film myself. I actually enjoy that process and I do it for my commercial work, too. It helps me wrap my head around a scene in a fuller way before I go to shoot it. Now, how often did I deviate from my boards on Haunt? Every day, all day long. Inevitably, we would find ourselves behind in our shooting schedule and we would start to whittle down the shot list to pick up our pace. In fact, there were many, many times when I had to abandon all the coverage I had planned for a scene and just shoot it from one angle. It hurts in the moment, but that’s just the nature of filmmaking at this budget.
The house location is such an integral part of the film. Are the interior and exterior shots from the same locations or did you build any sets for interiors?
We needed six discreet locations to put together our Morello House — six! — but I think it all turned out for the best. Giles built our attic on stage. Everything else was on location.
Here’s a location related story…. The script originally called for a skinny-dipping scene at the Morello pool. We found an abandoned pool and refurbished it. We were in October at this point — in Salt Lake City, don’t forget — so the water we filled it with was pretty fucking cold. An early season snowstorm turned the cold water into ice. We brought in special heaters to warm the pool over the course of the week prior to our shoot, and we did manage to get the temperature up… to 40º! During our lunch that day, the actors convinced me to let them do the critical scene in the freezing water. I was never prouder of Liana and Harrison (Gilbertson, who plays the new homeowner’s teenage son). They were that deeply committed to the movie and I told the producers that’s what we wanted to do. Of course, rather than risk multiple cases of pneumonia shutting our production down, the much smarter producers squashed that idea and we re-wrote the scene.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a film shot in Salt Lake City. How did you end up shooting the movie in Utah? I’m assuming there is some sort of production tax credit.
Bingo! Utah’s tax credit was a huge draw for us, but not the only one. Without the haunted house, we couldn’t have made the movie there. Fortunately, we found the house on our first day of scouting in Salt Lake City. We were blown away by our luck. Of course, when we found the house it was the middle of summer and it was nestled deep in a lushly wooded area. It was secluded and mysterious. Exactly what we were looking for. But by the time we started shooting, all the leaves had fallen off the trees and we discovered we had neighbors on every side of us no farther than a stone’s throw away. Still, we made it work. I had a great time with everyone in Utah and I’d go back there again in a second.
With the unexpected snow you faced and having to change your hero prop at the last minute, you certainly learned the value of being flexible as a director. What other lessons did you learn while directing your first narrative feature?
Every day brought new lessons. So many of them. No doubt about it. But one stood out for me more than the others: attack each day with relentless energy. Shoot, shoot, shoot. The time you have behind the camera is invaluable to the telling of your story. Use every second of it to the film’s advantage. Make the producers drag you off the set. By the time you get into the editing room all of that will be forgotten and the only thing that will matter is that you got that one additional take or angle that makes the scene sing.
Oh, and always, always get Jacki Weaver to play the creepy, scary matron at the center of your film’s mystery. She’s the best.