By MICHAEL GINGOLD
After a much-praised arrival on the fright scene with 2015’s WE ARE STILL HERE, writer/director Ted Geoghegan reached back to the War of 1812 for his follow-up, 2017’s MOHAWK. Now he has found the horror in another contentious historical era, the days just following WWII, with BROOKLYN 45, debuting on Shudder tomorrow, June 9.
In the film, a group of old friends and military cohorts played by Anne Ramsay, Ron E. Rains, Jeremy Holm (THE RANGER), filmmaker/actor Larry Fessenden and MOHAWK’s Ezra Buzzington reunite at the war’s end at the apartment of Fessenden’s Clive Hockstatter. “Hock” enlists the others to join him in a seance to contact his deceased wife, but the ritual not only releases an unquiet spirit, it leads to unpleasant secrets coming out–as does the arrival of German neighbor Hildy (Kristina Klebe, who discusses the movie here), whom some of them believe is on the side of the Nazis. BROOKLYN 45 evokes a very specific time and place and their concerns, while also evoking up-to-the-minute tensions along with its supernatural chills.
What is it about setting genre stories during past eras of history that appeals to you?
I am not a fan of the present, and any excuse I can take to get out of the present, I absolutely will. I find a lot of modern cinema not necessarily to my taste, and I find there is something very invigorating about making period pieces, because it challenges me to think outside the box, and within the realm of how people created films during those eras, and allows me to play with the tropes of those eras. We certainly did that with the melodrama in WE ARE STILL HERE, and a bit of the stage direction that feels very old Broadway in BROOKLYN 45.
After exploring the plight of Native Americans in MOHAWK, you now explore another contentious period of American history in BROOKLYN 45. Did one naturally lead into the other?
I’ve always had an interest in the concept of the sins of the fathers, and both the fathers and the people who are faced with the repercussions of those sins. WE ARE STILL HERE is a film about people dealing with horrible things that happened long before they were around, and both MOHAWK and BROOKLYN 45 are about our fathers or our grandfathers, and the terrible choices they made, and how we can correlate that to what’s going on these days. MOHAWK was very passionate and very political, whereas BROOKLYN 45, while passionate, tries not to be very political. I myself am very political, and I certainly have an agenda, but one of the most important things to me with BROOKLYN 45 was to tell a story that treats these characters simply as existing, rather than painting them as good or bad. Unlike MOHAWK, where we have good guys doing bad things and bad guys doing good things, BROOKLYN 45 does not paint any of it people as good or bad.
There is certainly a relevance in Kristina Klebe’s character of Hildegard, who is judged based on her nationality and accent, which ties in with what we’ve been going through over the last several years. Was that part of the inspiration, to look at a current problem through a period lens?
The issues we are facing today definitely feature quite heavily in BROOKLYN 45–everything from xenophobia and fear of our neighbors to homophobia to blind patriotism, all topics that confuse and scare me. I wanted to make sure we addressed them in a way that didn’t feel preachy, but also felt present. There’s that saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” and both MOHAWK and BROOKLYN 45 are most certainly telling their audiences, we’ve done this before and it didn’t work out then; why are we doing it again now?
Can you talk about your father’s influence on this project?
When I was on the festival circuit with WE ARE STILL HERE, one of the most common things I heard from audiences was, “I really loved that seance scene.” And I would respond jokingly, “Well, if you love it so much, my next movie is just going to be one big seance.” And that joke was the seed of the plot for BROOKLYN 45. Once I decided to tackle it, and figure out how I would write one big real-time seance, I knew I wanted it to be a period piece, and I started digging through U.S. history to find a time when I thought it might be interesting to set it. Obviously, the spiritualism boom of the late 1800s through the 1920s was of interest, but I felt like it was kind of putting a hat on a hat; it was setting something during a time when it was popular.
Then I stumbled upon the very earliest part of post-war America, and realized it hadn’t been featured very much in any form of art. During the months following the end of WWII, before everyone moved to the suburbs and bought a car and had 2.5 children, there was this period of great sadness and mourning, and suicides were at an all-time high. People just could not acclimate to being back after the war, and I thought that was when I should set this; at a time when people had so many metaphorical ghosts, let’s talk about literal ghosts.
I came up with an extended treatment, figuring out all the beats of the story, and wrote the first act, but I couldn’t figure out how to get it past that point. So on a whim, I sent that first act to my father, who was a quadriplegic Air Force veteran who was paralyzed in the early 1970s, and he went over the script and told me what I’d gotten wrong, both militarily and historically. I made all those edits, and somehow the little pieces of information he gave me brought these characters to life. It was magical that suddenly they all had personalities and histories that they didn’t before. I was able to write the next two acts of the film so fast; I knew exactly what they were supposed to be, where they were supposed to go. I sent the script back to my dad, he read it again and said, “Oh, I didn’t realize this and this were going to happen, so now we need to change that.” I think we sent the script back and forth six or seven times, and he called me in January of 2019 and said, “You know, I think it’s done,” and I said, “Yeah, I do too.” And he said, “I can’t wait to see it,” and I said, “I can’t wait for you to watch it either.” We hung up, and then he died shortly after that, and it was the last time I ever talked to him. So suddenly, this was the most personal thing I’d ever written.
I now knew that I only had one opportunity to ever make a movie with my dad, and this was it, so I was obsessively determined not to screw it up. That likely explains why that was in early 2019, and here we are halfway through 2023, and the film is finally coming out. I spent a long time finding the right crew, the right producers, the right cast to bring this movie to life, because I was not about to half-ass it.
You’d worked with Larry Fessenden and Ezra Buzzington before; did you write those roles with them in mind?
I had written Clive Hockstatter for Larry. He is a mentor and one of my oldest friends in New York City, and having worked with him on WE ARE STILL HERE and having such a good time with him, I thought, let me write him an even bigger role in BROOKLYN 45, something he can really dive into. I had not actually written the role of Paul DiFranco for Ezra, but when the topic came up of possibly having Ezra play him, I was taken aback by the idea in such a wonderful way. I couldn’t believe we hadn’t talked about it earlier, and it was very exciting to dive into that with him, and get his take on this character, this gruff major who starts out as a teddy bear and ultimately becomes a grizzly bear.
How was experience of shooting almost entirely on one set, keeping things visually interesting and also working with the cast in such close quarters?
If I could make movies like this for the rest of my life, I would. It was such a joy; I had what I hope is not a once-in-a-lifetime cast and crew. Everyone was there to make this vision come to life, and they were so passionate about it. Shooting on the soundstage, or rather the warehouse where we built the interior of Hock’s parlor, was so much fun, because on a film shoot, you’re used to moving around all the time. The moment you get used to one location, you’re done with it and off to somewhere else. To live in this space for weeks was such a joy, for me, the crew and the actors. In so many ways, it was directed like a stage play, and having the cast get so comfortable with that location really shines through in the finished film. We feel as though that parlor is a room you would want to hang out in, and it took shooting in there for quite some time for us to feel that way.
Were you at all concerned that the title might put people in mind of BROOKLYN NINE-NINE?
Absolutely! I 100 percent wondered how many people were going to make a connection between my movie and that sitcom. But ultimately, I’m a big fan of genre films with titles that do not necessarily sound like genre films. I like titles that are as ambiguous as my films, and BROOKYN 45 conjures up different thoughts and ideas to different people. They obviously think of the borough in New York and of the year, but they also think of guns, they think of alcohol, they think of records–all these weird things that are inspired by the ambiguity of the title. For anyone who goes into it thinking it’s a BROOKLYN NINE-NINE prequel, I don’t know, maybe it is; maybe some very dark things happened in Brooklyn 70-some years before the wacky police sitcom occurred!
You also have some Jim Wynorski references in there…
I’m very bad at naming characters in my films, and what I typically do is pick a movie, sometimes at random, and mine character names or actors’ names from that. In the case of WE ARE STILL HERE, everyone in that is named after either a character or an actor from Lucio Fulci’s THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY. In creating the characters for BROOKLYN 45, I thought, what’s the absolute antithesis of this film within the horror realm? Well, how about SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE II? So I borrowed the names of characters and people who worked on that movie to populate the world of BROOKLYN 45, and it’s something not a lot of folks will necessarily catch, but for those who do, I hope it’s a little moment of levity within a very intense film.
Was there ever any thought about actually shooting in Brooklyn?
I would love to have shot in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, New York City is not very kind to independent film these days. It is a slog trying to get productions underway there, and when the Illinois Film Office said we could shoot this film outside of Chicago and the tax incentive would be astronomical, we did the math and realized there was no way we could possibly pass up the offer. The crew we got in Illinois was second to none, and I would go back and film a New York-set movie in Chicago again in a heartbeat if I was lucky enough to work with the same people.
BROOKLYN 45 balances horror and dramatic elements, so were you thinking at all about how the hardcore genre crowd would respond to it?
I’m always worried about things like that, because show business is a business, and I want people to like the movie and to stay in this business. There was talk at times about adding more scares or more gore, and I held fast against that, because I wanted to make the film I created with my father, and no notes were going to take me away from that. I definitely think that horror fans are going to find a lot to love in this, even though it is a very dramatic movie. While a lot of it is exposition, it’s very stressful, very tense exposition, and I’ve been grateful hearing from people who have seen the film that every conversation in it kept them on the edge of their seat, and they were rewarded with these bursts of ghosts and gore that satisfied what they wanted out of a movie like this.
Some of the most powerful scenes in the movie, like the one between Ramsay and Klebe’s characters, are horrific in a more personal way. Is that the ultimate thesis of the film–that the greatest horror is not the ghosts, but what these people do to each other?
Definitely. These characters are worried about dredging up an actual ghost when in fact they dredge up the horrors inside of them. We all have ghosts, and the hope is that this movie speaks to this idea. Every one of these characters carries with them secrets and darkness, or, over the course of the film, find that darkness within them. I hope that the takeaway for people who watch BROOKLYN 45 is that these ghosts haunt us all, and we’re constantly at odds with the things we’ve done in our lives. Really, the big question it ultimately asks, given the fact that these characters are so ambiguous in their goodness or badness, is this: Is a good person defined by a lifetime of good deeds, or are they defined solely by one good thing? And in turn, is a bad person defined by a lifetime of bad deeds, or can they be defined by one single bad deed?