By KEVIN HOOVER
Rare is the horror film that garners as much acclaim with the mainstream as it does with genre devotees, but that’s the exact good fortune bestowed upon WHAT JOSIAH SAW. The southern gothic routes anthologically in tow with the Graham family, decades removed from tragedy and embroiled in sinful secrets. When siblings Thomas, Eli, and Mary (Scott Haze, Nick Stahl, and Kelli Garner, respectively) reconvene at the family farm with patriarch Josiah (Robert Patrick) to discuss business matters, the narrative rushes full speed ahead to a conclusion that lingers in the cortex long after the visuals have seared the corneas.
Working from a screenplay by Robert Alan Dilts is director Vincent Grashaw. This being his third feature, it’s also his first foray into horror, and based on the reception he’s receiving, hopefully won’t be his last. After premiering at the Fantasia International Film Festival last year and running up countless awards since, WHAT JOSIAH SAW now calls Shudder home. In celebration of its release on the streaming giant, Grashaw stepped out with Rue Morgue to discuss his film.
It’s hard to surprise horror fans anymore, yet you guys pull it off in more ways than one. Talk about how your script came together with Robert Alan Dilts and how you managed to avoid showing your hand before the film’s big reveal.
This is my first real attempt at doing a movie that dabbles in the realm of horror, so I was conscious not to spoil things by laying out the movie properly and with restraint. What sucked me into this was the script and its unique structure. It’s not that it hasn’t been done before with the chapter segments, but when I read it, it pulled me into this weird world that almost felt timeless. When that first chapter concludes, I didn’t know where it was going but I was questioning whether I wanted to keep reading. I couldn’t stop, so I kept telling Robert Dilts to keep writing because he was sending me pages as he was writing them; at the time it wasn’t a finished script. Initially, I didn’t know if it was horror, but I felt like it was going that way. It had such an atmospheric tone and was very unsettling, and the way it was grounded in human nature appealed to me. I wanted to tackle this genre at some point, and so by the time I finished that script I knew this was going to be a film I wanted to get made. I felt very strongly about some of the controversial elements, and several times when taking it out to people there were thoughts of changing it, making it more linear, or removing some pretty critical sequences or scenes. But I knew if people were questioning those things, this wasn’t the right movie for them. Robert and I talked a lot about that, in fighting for those key moments because, like you said, it is really hard to shock or scare people because so many things have been done before. I felt these were elements that would grab people and, whether they like it or not, they’d leave with a reaction.
You took the slow-burn approach, which is a dangerous proposition for a two-hour-long film. Were you confident from the beginning that this was the most effective way to tell your story?
I think so because I just basically followed and honored the script. The first cut was two hours and 38 minutes, so I cut about 42 minutes out because I felt that if I could get it to under two hours, I’d be happy. I knew that when I finished the cut and locked it that this was as tight as I could get it without starting to lose elements of character or depth. I didn’t look at it as though it was a slow burn; I followed the foundation. My attention was on how I would bridge these chapters because it does take you through different worlds and journeys, but I believed that the score would help bring the horror tone and the cinematography would keep the audience engaged enough without knowing where you were going to end up. You always knew you were going back to that farmhouse, but I don’t think it would have had the same effect if you intercut the chapters, because that first chapter ends in a way that’s so uncomfortable.
Whereas both horror and mainstream outlets are heaping praise upon WHAT JOSIAH SAW, one point of contention among some is that the Eli-focused second act, while interesting in its own right, feels like a stark deviation in tonality as compared to the rest of the film. Discuss the creative direction there.
After you leave that first chapter, (the second chapter) was sort of a reprieve. It’s like a release in that it has some humor, a little more adventure, and it’s not as heavy in terms of material. I thought it would rein the audience back in so they could enjoy seeing where this unpredictable world was taking them. That whole segment is a 24-hour window and, for me, seeing where Eli currently is, it was more of a commentary on what this guy feels like his life is. He’s cursed – like he feels he’s doomed. There’s self-awareness there, and I like this idea of painting where this guy is from when he wakes up in the morning to the next morning; what his day is like, and what it probably felt like for the last 23 years for him. That whole chapter has a lot of themes on what this movie is about; things like curses and trauma and how those get passed on. There’s an encounter he has with a medium telling him his fate and it all ties in, in a subtle way, with some of the stuff that was laid out with his mother in the first chapter. It was important for me that Eli redeem himself and move on from that moment. Nick Stahl brings a lot of those soft and caring qualities in his acting. He has that personality where the audience would at least go along for the ride and root for him knowing his past as Eli, although he’s a hard character to have any sympathy for. Initially, in the script, Eli was a little more of a confident small-town Adonis, then as we started thinking about it, I knew this guy was going to bring some of these qualities that are important for you to go along on the ride and not hate him. I can see where some audience members may think it’s too much of a departure but if you invest in this movie and really pay attention, there are a lot of subtle meanings. There’s a lot of stuff sprinkled in where you may think one phrase means something but it’s referring to something else.
Thomas plays like an amalgamation of Norman Bates and Bill Paxton’s “Dad” from Frailty. Did either of these influence your work here, or were there other films that played a hand?
I’m definitely a fan of those movies and I’m sure Dilts is as well. I don’t remember us discussing Frailty but I can see some of the similarities. The thing I’m fascinated about and what I was responding to in the script is how our movie tackles the theme of religion. I’m fascinated by that in general, and how religion can be used at times to manipulate vulnerable people. With what this character Thomas is going through, having lived a long period of his life affected by the loss of his mother and what it can do to somebody emotionally, I liked the way religion was used. It’s like, do you believe this is a fundamentalist, biblical way of atonement that feels intense but also tackles the angry God angle, or is this something with malevolent intentions and is using somebody to get them to do your deeds?
Josiah Graham isn’t the type of character that’s easily forgotten, and while Robert Patrick is accustomed to playing the “big bad” in most of his films, his role here is a different beast altogether. Did he take some convincing to get on board?
He’s played the villain a lot throughout his career but he gravitated to the Josiah character. He wanted to honor every word of the script, even the way the slang was written. I agree that he can steal the show at times in this movie, and even though he doesn’t get a lot of screen time, he’s always in it. There’s this foreboding, underlying specter of Josiah that runs through the other chapters that you can just feel. He was reluctant at first because there are some unsettling scenes that weren’t fun to shoot. Several of the actors that we had talked to prior understood what the movie was going for and they would say things like, “Look, I can go there – I just don’t want to. But I wouldn’t recommend you change the script just because this one isn’t for me.” Robert understood that, and I think he wanted to know he was in good hands with the filmmaker and that this wasn’t going to be something that made those scenes over the top. This was a movie that, if executed differently, could have been a disaster if we didn’t respect the nature of the writing.
WHAT JOSIAH SAW is currently streaming on Shudder. Read Michael Gingold’s review for Rue Morgue here.