By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Opening today in select theaters and debuting on VOD from IFC Midnight, DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL is a twisty, sometimes eerie thriller, highlighted by David Cronenberg’s first significant feature-film acting role in a couple of decades. RUE MORGUE got the chance to chat with director Albert Shin about this somewhat autobiographical mood piece.
Scripted by Shin and James Schultz, DISAPPEARANCE AT CLIFTON HILL opens with 7-year-old Abby (Mikayla Radan) witnessing what she believes is the kidnapping of a boy with a bandaged eye. Years later, Abby (now played by Tuppence Middleton) returns to her family’s motel in the Niagara Falls area and tries to unravel the mystery of what she saw, stymied by the fact that her family, including her sister Laure (Hannah Gross), never believed her—and that she herself has a tenuous grip on the truth. Cronenberg plays Walter Bell, a local historian, diver and conspiracy theorist who hosts a podcast from a flying-saucer-themed diner, and offers assistance to Abby.
You’ve said that DISAPPEARANCE is based on something that happened to you in real life…
Yeah, my parents are Korean immigrants, and when they came to Canada, they settled in Niagara Falls and bought a motel that was kind of in the shadows of Clifton Hill, very much like in the film. My dad’s an avid fisherman and we would always fish along the Niagara River, and when I was about 5 or 6 years old, I wandered off to a secluded, forested area and saw what looked like a kidnapping, at least to my young brain. It disturbed me and I repressed it; then, several years later, I started retelling the story, and as more time passed, every time I would tell it, it would mutate and grow bigger and grander and stranger, to the point where I couldn’t discern between what was real and what wasn’t, and what was made up and what was make-believe. That strange event, which I somewhat recreate in the film, was the genesis of it.
Did you ever find out or realize what it was that you actually saw?
No. I tried to, for sure, especially when we were getting into writing the script. This was pre-Internet, so like Abby in the film, I went to the library and pored through the microfilm, looking for stories of a kidnapping or some other grisly event that may have happened in the place where I saw it. But I could never find anything, so who knows?
In the movie, Abby also spends a lot of time going through microfilm as opposed to looking on-line, which gives it kind of a timeless quality. Was that an intentional effect?
Yeah, definitely. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Niagara Falls, but it feels like it’s sort of in time and out of time at the same time [laughs], and I wanted to create that vibe. The film plays on noir-mystery tropes from a bygone era, and I wanted to stay true to that. So it takes place during modern times, and there are cell phones, but I wanted to make Abby someone who would hopefully, realistically not use those kinds of things, or put her in a situation where she doesn’t have those tools to work with, so she goes a little more analog.
Abby is an unreliable narrator from the start, and she gets more unreliable as the movie goes on. Can you talk about creating and developing her character?
That stemmed from what I was talking about earlier: the fine line between memory and truth, and how it’s quite malleable, and finding a way to modernize the noir-mystery genre. I was exploring the relativity of truth, trying to create a protagonist who would be a reflection of that idea. On top of that, Niagara Falls is a place that sells illusion and has a sort of facade to it, especially the Clifton Hill area, so I thought that was an interesting metaphoric setting that reflected her character as well.
You have some great locations in the movie, especially the Flying Saucer Restaurant. Is that a real place?
Yeah, that’s real. Because I have some history in Niagara Falls, when I write scripts, I try to be very specific. Instead of it being “INTERIOR: DINER,” I specified what that diner was, and tried to convey how it reflected the tone, atmosphere and subtext of the film. We were lucky enough to shoot in the Flying Saucer Restaurant, and have some fun with that.
Did knowing that diner existed play into writing Cronenberg’s character?
Definitely, of course! It all played hand in hand. Even Walter’s grand entrance into the film was something that happened to me. I was out in that area, reflecting and trying to be inspired by the place, and a scuba diver came out of the water very much like Walter does in the film. All kinds of things like that happened during the writing process, and we tried to take it all in and create a mythology of Niagara Falls that was part fact but also part folklore.
How about the house-of-horrors attraction Abby winds up in at one point?
We built that, actually. We had some trouble getting permission to access any of the dozen haunted houses on the Clifton Hill strip, so we had to use some movie magic and build some sets for that, which was fun to do.
What led you to cast Cronenberg as Walter?
Obviously, a lot of people ask me about David, because he doesn’t act very often and he’s been out of the spotlight for a few years. It was a very hard part to cast, because Walter needed to be an older person, but I also wanted someone who would bring an inherent persona to the part and be on the wavelength of having fun with the role. We had a hard time finding someone; it was very close to production and we still didn’t have anybody cast. So Cronenberg was a kitchen-sink idea of saying, “Let’s just give it a shot.” I wasn’t holding my breath, because I was like, well, it’s David Cronenberg; he’s probably busy, he doesn’t know who I am, and why would he want to do this? He probably has way better things to do. But we sent him the script, he responded to it right away, and then I went and met with him. Literally a couple of days after that, we were throwing him into the middle of the Niagara River with a scuba-gear costume on! It was probably all within a week, from the time of somebody saying, “What about David Cronenberg?” to him being on set; it was super-duper fast. So in some ways, he was the easiest person to cast.
How did he take to putting on all the scuba gear and going off into the water?
[Laughs] The thing about David is, he’s game for anything. Everybody always asks me, “David Cronenberg—were you nervous working with him, were you worried he was going to be judging your directing?” But he’s very gracious, and he was very big on telling me he was just an actor on this. I wrote him a lot of long monologues and he was just trying to memorize his lines, and he was gracious and self-effacing and great with everybody. It was a joy to watch him kind of work the room everywhere he went; he was just so smart and so charming. But it was interesting to put him in that scuba gear, because he’s not a spring chicken anymore, and that stuff was heavy [laughs]. We kind of put him through the wringer as soon as he showed up on set.