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Haunted Houses and Gothic Dread: An Interview with Brian O’Malley on The Lodgers (TIFF)

the-lodgers

By Jeremy Carr.

The Lodgers is a gothic horror tale set in 1920 Ireland. Directed by Brian O’Malley, it is a stately, tempered take on the traditional haunted house scenario. Centering on orphaned twins Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner), the film picks up as the youth have just turned 18 and a familial curse – preventing them from staying out past midnight, leaving the residence permanently, or inviting anyone else inside – is tested by external influences that threaten their isolation and natural curiosities that challenge their beliefs. Stirring up a hypnotic brew of methodically conceived imagery and an ominous, nearly wall-to-wall score, O’Malley crafts an unsettling picture that relies far more on a brooding tone than conventional moments of quick, fleeting shock. For years, O’Malley has been enhancing his formal arsenal through work on television commercials, short films, and his 2014 debut, Let Us Prey. Here, he takes that honed visual style and infuses it with genre staples like lurking shadows and a menacing ambience, but updates the premise with a modern tinge of sexual provocation. The second feature film from Dublin-born O’Malley, The Lodgers is set to premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Was this an original script from David Turpin, or is there a legend of some sort that inspired the story?

It’s a completely original script born out of David’s deep and dark mind. The film reads like some sort classical novel though.

I understand the house where it was filmed (Loftus Hall) is supposedly a real haunted house?

Yes, the house is coincidentally 666 years old and is said to be Ireland’s most haunted house.

Did you get any sense of that?

No, I didn’t. For me, it was a really positive space. I’ve been fortunate to shoot commercials all over the world and that was the most remarkable space I’ve ever been in. It’s an absolutely incredible house. One of the people working on the film did have an experience during the shoot, a member of the crew. The bed that’s in the master bedroom, where [the characters] end up toward the end of the film, he slept in it one night. He laid his head on the pillow and after a few minutes, he heard footsteps circling the room above him. He had other strange encounters, as have others, but I didn’t personally.

Was the film shot entirely on location? Were any sets involved?

There were no set in the film whatsoever.

Given the prominence of the house as a central site and narrative component, how much of your production design was specifically tailored to the structure? Did you have to add much of anything?

There were certain expectations in the script. It suggested the third floor, where the master bedroom was, and in the script, you need for [the characters] to see from that third floor down to where the trapdoor is, and we couldn’t find that. So, once we fell in love with the house, because it matched so perfectly in so many ways, we altered the script so that the master bedroom was dead center between the two twins’ bedroom. That works on screen. We were also extremely fortunate in that house – which was unfortunate for the property – because in the 1990s, when it was derelict, the roof leaked and destroyed the floor at the bottom of the stairs. So, when we arrived, it was just sheets of plywood over the new beams that had been placed. The floor around the bottom of the stairs had no historical merit, so we were allowed to cut the floor, insert our own floorboards at the trap door, and add the water tank beneath. I don’t think we would have normally been able to do that, so it really did seem like the film was destined to be shot there. And it looks exactly like what you would expect the house to look like when you read the script. It’s gothic and strange.

I had the sense you were particularly exact with some of your compositions and camera movements. What kind of pre-planning went into the style of the film and did the setting – interiors and exteriors – play a large part in that?

You’d be absolutely right. That’s the kind of director I am. I like to preconceive as much as I possibly can. I storyboarded the entire film, every single scene, every single shot. There were 350 pages of storyboards, which took me six months to do. As we found spaces, I was still drawing storyboards and had to alter them to reflect the space I knew I had. I’m glad you spotted that because that’s entirely intentional. I don’t shoot a few different angles and hope for the best in the edit. I like to plan it out in advance. However, when you’re on the set for the day, blocking the scene and seeing what the actors are going to do, I would say 50 percent of what I storyboarded was altered because you have a better idea.

The cinematography by Richard Kendrick also struck me as quite meticulous, with a strict adherence to a certain color scheme. How did the two of you collaborate on the look of the film?

I’m very particular about what the film looks like, framing the sequences. Once I’m done with the storyboards, then it’s a completely collaborative process. Richard doesn’t overly depend on lighting; he likes to use natural lighting. So, there is a good mixture of that. He used green tints for the lights inside the house, so all the shadows were cast with a green tint. He did a remarkable job under a lot of time pressure. When you watch the film, I don’t think you’d have any indication it was a film made in haste, which I’m quite pleased about. He planned it all well in advance, so when it came time to shoot, he was very quick about it. There were particular lenses he would recognize to do the shadows, which we would favor generally inside the house, and to make sure light passes through something. He also used material over the windows to add to the antique feel.

The music for the picture seemed almost constant, which contributed a good deal to the foreboding atmosphere. Who did the score and how did that enhance the film’s ominous tone?

The score was composed by the writer of the film, David Turpin. David’s a musician. He’s actually a left-of-center minor pop star. He’s a very talented musician and he wanted to do it. He has an amazing ear. I’m really delighted with the end result. It has the personality of the film. I feel it brought and ominous sense of dread. It’s quite an organic soundtrack.

Along the lines of atmosphere, I gather you were more interested in a prevailing sense of deliberate dread than a film built on shock-cuts and jump scenes?

Yeah. When you’re directing a film, you aspire to the personality of a director you like, a particular type of director because of their sensibilities, and while I do enjoy moments of shocks and scares I’m personally much more drawn to something that relies on a growing sense of dread. I was very taken by The Witch [2015, dir. Robert Eggers], which didn’t use any shocks, just entirely a sense of dread. And David’s script didn’t really have jump scares in it, just minor jumps. It wasn’t that type of horror, or ghost story. I found it something more elegant than that. Personally, I didn’t want to cheapen that by putting in jump scares for the sake of jump scares. They didn’t really play a role in the film.

The haunted house movie is a favorite and familiar horror trope. With The Lodgers, what did you hope to bring to that standard that you or audiences haven’t seen?

I think it’s a more modern take because of the sexual underpinnings of the curse, the very strange sexuality. And I think that and the character of Rachael, played by Charlotte, is very modern for this type of classical story.

Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Cineaste, CineActionSenses of CinemaMUBI’s NotebookBright Lights Film JournalThe Moving Image, and Moving Pictures Magazine.

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