By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Now in select theaters and on VOD, THE CHANGED addresses up-to-the-minute themes of isolation and mistrust, but director Michael Mongillo first came up with its core idea long before the pandemic. Mongillo, who scripted with Matt Giannini and previously helmed the well-reviewed psychochiller DIANE, addresses the development, casting and more with RUE MORGUE below.
In THE CHANGED, DIANE leads Jason Alan Smith and Carlee Avers play a married couple who begin noticing that their suburban neighbors are acting oddly and worse. They are soon joined in their home by teenage neighbor Kim (SINISTER’s Clare Foley), dealing with a populace outside that is under the sway of some unearthly force, one that attempts to bring the trio under its control–by cajoling or force. Doug Tompos, Olivia Freer and fright favorite Tony Todd also star in THE CHANGED, which flips some intriguing switches on a tried-and-true sci-fi/horror premise (see our review here).
The movie was conceived before the pandemic, but was it shot before or during the lockdown?
It was conceived about 10 years ago, in fact, but we did revise the script in order to shoot during the pandemic. The idea originally came from my love of Philip Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, which I consider a continuation of Don Siegel’s version. I’m a big fan of Abel Ferrara’s BODY SNATCHERS as well, so what I really wanted to do was change that strange little subgenre of sci-fi/thriller/horror into something new, in many of the ways that Alex Garland reimagines genre pieces.
The original script for this was really the first 10 pages of another script I wrote about 10 years ago. You know, the films in this kind of pod people/paranoia genre always seem to start where you have the first act, and oh, these crazy things are happening, then in the second act, things are getting worse and is this really happening? Third act, we know it’s happening, and the proverbial poop hits the fan. So, knowing that people are already familiar with that story and that buildup, what I did in the original screenplay was, we dropped in at the beginning of act three, and then it becomes another film. This version started with Tony Todd’s character already tied to a chair, and people already breaking into the house, and then people flee into the woods, and it becomes more of a John Milius/RED DAWN kind of thriller, where people are seeking the free zone.
When we decided to adapt those first 10 pages into a chamber piece, it was before COVID actually occurred, so we ended up making adjustments to take it away from that realm. Words like “pandemic” and “virus” and different things that were in the original property, we took out, because we couldn’t avoid having those parallels to COVID, but we didn’t want people to think we wrote it specifically to be a parallel to contemporary times. Obviously, though, the period during which the movie was made filters into the end result, whether we like it or not.
Were you concerned that THE CHANGED would be one of many new genre movies reflecting the state of the world in the pandemic era, intentionally or otherwise?
Yeah, sure, we were worried about that. But we had a good story to tell and we wanted to tell it, and we at least had the luxury of knowing that we didn’t write it specifically for this period, or to speak to people in a manner that was a sociopolitical allegory or drawing direct comparisons. So we’ll leave it to people to draw those conclusions themselves, and it is all there, for sure, but what I think is so successful about the film, and inspiring about the films that influenced it–the BODY SNATCHERS films in particular–is they remain relevant because of what they still say today. People watch those movies over and over again, because they’re always going to apply in some way, whether it’s the Communist threat, the Red Scare in Don Siegel’s version, the paranoid, post-Watergate kinds of feelings in Kaufman’s, or the militaristic themes in Ferrara’s in the ’90s. All those films still work and resonate, because they are still topical.
Having worked with Jason Alan Smith and Carlee Avers before, did you write their parts specifically for them?
Definitely. I’ve been working with Jason for so long that even when I wrote that original script years ago, I did it with Jason in mind to play Mac. When we rewrote it, knowing that Jane’s character was going to be a bigger character than in that original screenplay, we wrote it with Carlee in mind, of course. I absolutely love both of them in this film.
Did you write Bill with Tony Todd in mind, or just the idea that you’d get a genre name for that role?
It was a character role that we just went out to cast, but when I was asked who I wanted in that part, who was my first choice, I said, “Gosh, if we could get Tony Todd, that would be terrific.” And fortunately, that’s who we ended up with, and he was a delight to work with, an absolute gentleman, an absolute professional. Shows up, knows his lines, contributes, but beyond that, just a sweet, sweet man who really, really cares, and doesn’t phone it in. He was an amazing collaborator.
Were you familiar with Clare Foley from SINISTER, GOTHAM, etc. when you cast her?
Absolutely. We hadn’t really thought about who we were going to cast, and it was through a suggestion from a filmmaker friend who knew someone who knew her, and then it turned out that Eloise Asmuth, one of the producers on this, had a friend at Paradigm, which is where Clare’s represented. It ended up being a process where a couple of phone calls and introductions were made, and she loved the material and wanted to be involved with the project. So with our two big names in the movie, Clare and Tony, we didn’t have to look elsewhere. We got very lucky with both of them.
How was the production affected by the lockdown? Were you able to get everything you wanted or needed?
We had to change a couple of things. We had an opening sequence that was a bit different that we ended up condensing into what we called “the triptych,” where we met Clare’s character Kim at school, and then we met Jason’s character Mac at the office and then Carlee’s character Jane at the hospital. For that little vignette, we actually built sets and shot in our main house location, but we had originally secured all those various places. Like with Jane, she ended up attacked in the hospital’s parking garage, and Kim’s whole little scenario took place in a different type of way at a swim practice after school, so we actually had a pool secured. But ultimately, with necessity being the mother of invention, we decided to condense that down in a way that was probably better for the story; it just moves along a little bit faster, I think.
One of the interesting things about THE CHANGED, especially within its subgenre, is that there’s attention paid to the attractive or seductive side of the takeover. Can you talk about that element of the story?
That has always been one of the things I’ve been fascinated with, with those films. I don’t think they get into it in Phil Kaufman’s version all that much, in the same way that we do, but I always thought about it. It’s like, what if you still retain your personality, so you’re essentially the same person, you have the same memories, and you’re absorbed into what is not even a hive mind, you’re still an individual, but…everything’s cool. The world is at peace. It sounds very appealing to me, and again, that’s the core concept of those stories: Is conforming to a society, or the needs of that society, going to mean sacrificing yourself and sacrificing your individuality? That idea was so appealing, and making it seductive and attractive to the people in the story is what really generated most of the conflict.
It’s also a very subtle film, in that the alien presence is never really visualized. Did you even consider making it more explicit at any point?
It was always meant to be suggested, even going back to the original script, with the kiss. The parallels we drew to that were based on my Catholic upbringing and Jesus being betrayed with a kiss. And also, at the time it was written originally, years ago, we were thinking about the AIDS epidemic and that awful time in our history, and it’s just coincidental that we stumbled into a new time when a virus and a kiss could make one sick.
What do you have coming up?
We’d certainly like to be able to make a sequel to THE CHANGED, which would be a wonderful process, and we’d be able to use all the same people, and get to see our friends again. But I really want to go back to a previous script I wrote, a serial-killer story called THE MEANEST MAN IN THE WORLD. It’s a film I’ve been trying to make for about 10 years, and I just haven’t had the opportunity, but if I can get that one off the ground and never make another film again, I think I would die happy [laughs]. It’s my favorite script, and everybody who reads it loves it, and it’s one of those stories I’d really like to tell. It’s got a lot going on, a lot of genre as backdrop. Jason and I have also been kicking around a sequel to DIANE, which we are going to title STEVE [laughs]. We’ve been kicking that around, and if we need to do another microbudget project, that would be the one.