By MICHAEL GINGOLD
From his segments of the multistory features THE SIGNAL, V/H/S and SOUTHBOUND through to his Netflix movie THE RITUAL, David Bruckner has impressed as a filmmaker with a keen grasp of character-based horror. That strength has never been more on display than in THE NIGHT HOUSE, which opens today from Searchlight Pictures, and Bruckner took some time to discuss the movie with RUE MORGUE.
Scripted by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (SUPER DARK TIMES), THE NIGHT HOUSE is a true showcase for star Rebecca Hall, giving one of the year’s great genre performances as Beth, who’s trying to pick up the emotional pieces in the wake of her husband’s death. Alone in their remote lake house, she starts having frightening visions and finding clues that something unnatural is lingering around the place, and her attempts to uncover the nature of the haunting presence lead her to discover a partially built house across the lake that’s an inversion of her own. As the explanations to the mystery surrounding Beth and her late husband become clearer, Hall’s multilayered turn combines with expert visual craftsmanship to deliver an experience that’s as much about following Beth through her emotional extremes as it about the often potent scares.
THE NIGHT HOUSE possesses one of the best qualities a horror film can have, in that the central drama is so compelling that it would work even without the scary stuff. Was that one of the appeals of Collins and Piotrowski’s script when you first read it?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. There was a merger between character and horror in this that I hadn’t really seen before. I was excited about doing something that’s quite singular in that way, that follows one person’s journey and is in and out of their perspective and their head, but also keeps them at a remove at certain times. Beth is a fascinating character; she’s reeling from this unexpected, very recent loss, she’s a little bit all over the place, but she’s also confident, confrontational, she’s very frank, she’s dark at times, she’s funny, and quite vulnerable.
Her acerbic, confrontational sense of humor is definitely one element that makes Beth stand out.
Rebecca really understood the tone there, and Ben and Luke knew that the movie needed a release valve, because we were taking on some pretty heavy ideas. There’s some stuff in the film that is quite powerful and quite scary, so it’s good to laugh a little bit. It’s interesting: You kind of laugh with Beth a little bit sometimes until you’re not laughing anymore.
Did you do any significant work on the script, and did Hall contribute a lot once she was cast?
Oh, yeah. We developed it with Phantom Four Films, and Keith Levine, David Goyer and myself worked with Ben and Luke for somewhere between nine months and a year, to make certain things work through a few passes. A lot of that was about mythology and engineering mystery, those kinds of narrative mechanics, but all in support of their original vision. There are scenes in the final draft, many of them, that are verbatim from the very first draft I read. And naturally, someone like Rebecca comes on and has thoughts and ideas, and that influences the script. We had conversations that uncovered new places, and I took those conversations to the writers, and we collaborated some more, and all that ultimately contributed to where the film ended up.
How did Hall come to the role? Was she your first choice for it?
She was. We sent the script to her as an act of faith in the movie gods, just hoping that she would take to it. And lucky for us, she read it and got it instantly. She saw the potential in it, and she had a strong sense of Beth’s character and how she could anchor the film in that regard. She was up for the challenge, and the idea of doing something that was, to some degree, a one-woman show. Not that the supporting cast isn’t there in a powerful way, but we’re following Beth so closely, and a lot of the film is her in the house, interacting with nothing. Rebecca was down to push herself to that place, and see how far she could go.
Were you familiar with her role in the 2011 British ghost story THE AWAKENING, which similarly involves a woman dealing with loss within a supernatural scenario?
I was. I had seen both THE AWAKENING and THE GIFT and was a fan of both movies, so I had seen her work in the genre space. But she’s also known for her many non-genre roles, and as a genre filmmaker, you always like to take people who are well-known for drama, and well-established in that space, and convince them to step into the genre world and unsettle the audience in that regard. I had seen a lot of Rebecca’s work, and her reputation preceded her; movies like CHRISTINE and THE TOWN stood out in particular for me, THE PRESTIGE, VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA… From a lot of her work, we knew she could do wonderful things with the part of Beth.
When it came to the house, did you find an existing one that fit your needs, or did you have to build one from the ground up?
It was both, actually. We did use a real location, and we didn’t have a lot of time to find it. It was an independently financed film, and a lot of these projects come together very quickly. We knew we wanted to shoot at one of the Finger Lakes, so we found ourselves in upstate New York just searching, knocking on doors, frantically trying to find a place that would make sense for the film. And it was kind of a lucky left turn: Producer Keith Levine and I stumbled upon this place and saw this beautiful vista of Lake Skaneateles. The Finger Lakes are very long, and you can’t see the north and south ends of these bodies of water, so it has this River Styx kind of vibe. And seeing that house sitting there perched above the water like that, we thought, oh my God, this is what movies are made of.
One thing I noticed about the house is that there’s a lot of windows and glass on the first floor, which leaves Beth very exposed. Was that an existing facet of the house, or something you added?
That was already in the house, and that was something we were looking for. We wanted you to feel the lake inside the house, and feel the trees, as though nature is around you at all times and finding its way in. That sort of atmosphere can be a struggle, because when you build on stage, a lot of times you end up with interiors that feel very removed from the exteriors, so it’s always great when you can have that kind of integration. It has a psychological effect on the audience.
We did eventually go to stage. The house that we found didn’t support all of our needs; we had to add to it, we had to make it bigger. It was also key, from the beginning of the film, to vary the spaces throughout the house and change them in front of the audience in certain ways. In a sense, the first couple of acts of the movie kind of train you in the way things work, so that the film can then begin to manipulate your geographical expectations.
How was the mirror house created?
Some of that was also on location, some of it was in a studio. Some of it was digital, some of it was inverted versions of the original house we constructed. We had a phrase on set: “mirror logic,” because we were mirroring so many ideas, both conceptually and literally. And when you start talking about several characters in a room, and you’re doing the eyeline math–which, for fellow filmmakers out there, they know how much of a struggle it can be sometimes to simply orient the audience’s eyelines so they understand where everybody is. It’s like, you throw the potential for mirror logic into the middle of that, it can become quite complicated quite quickly. So it was a bit of a brain-teaser for us on set sometimes, to get that stuff right.
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