We Are Still Here, which opens tomorrow at Cinema Village and on VOD, is a horror film that begins in an atmospheric mode, and ends up somewhere very different. Shot in the heart of winter, in and around a small town in far upstate New York with the right vibe for the wood-paneled, cold-linoleum 1979 setting, the film follows a middle-aged couple, grieving the sudden death of their son, as they try to start over in a house that’s been empty for 30 years. (They invite up a couple of friends, played by Larry Fessenden and Lisa Marie, to investigate its mysterious energies, after a Scotch-guzzling neighbor, played by TV vet Monte Markham, tells them about the house’s local-legendary first inhabitants, the undertaker Dagmar and his family.) With classical compositions, creepy music and strange noises in an old house, the film initially seems to be developing a storyline about haunting as a metaphor for grief (a la Babadook). By the end, we’re in a much different place, in terms of plot, tone and style. Writer-director Ted Geoghegan explains that he wanted “to pay tribute to the methodical pacing of 70s Eurohorror cinema”—the film has been compared to Lucio Fulci in particular. “Unlike the genre fare of today, viewers of that era’s films were rarely certain where a movie would end up,” he says. Indeed, the restraint of the set-up gives way to the release of the climax, which is executed, if that’s the word, as lovingly as the house’s interiors have been decorated with hi-fi sets and bottles of J&B. Geoghegan, who lives on the Upper West Side, answered a few questions of mine over email (note that the fourth question and answer are arguably spoilers).
I suppose it’s easy to think of horror and other genre films as not being “personal” in the way of more naturalistic drama, but you’re an indie-film writer-director and this is your first movie so clearly there’s a major connection to the material. How is this a personal film for you? Is it more the opportunity to engage with horror tropes? Or was any of the material, in details or themes, especially close to your heart?
My heart actually lies rather deeply in exploitation cinema. I’ve written and produced a number of slasher films over the past decade, but decided that for my directorial debut, it would behoove me to work on something a bit more substantial. And while I do not have children of my own, the loss of a child seemed like a perfectly intense place to start this story. I can’t necessarily say that what my characters are going through is deeply personal to me, but telling a story about smart, middle aged people certainly was. Modern horror films shy away from mature casts, and it was very important to me from Day One, as a storyteller, to focus on smart, world-weary people who make wise decisions.
Maybe the same question as above: Why set the movie in 1979? Homage to a particular subgenre, or nod to, I’m guessing, the (very general) era in which you were born? What were the rewards and challenges of a period piece?
I pine for the cinema of my youth, and find the cinema of the late 70s/early 80s to be the world in which my tastes most strongly lie. Not only does it remind me of my childhood, but it reminds me of a simpler time. Of course, recreating that time on a budget can be immensely challenging, but my design and art team were nonstop miracle makers, plucking the farmhouse from my script and bringing it to Earth-toned life.
Talk me through the house in the film. At least on-screen, it’s a wonderful old clapboard gothic-revival farmhouse, slight run-down from the outside, isolated, and decorated in a slightly drafty-looking, stuffy but homey way. How was the process of finding the right house for the movie, and setting it up? Did you have to alter anything in the script once you figured out where it’d be shot—and, for that matter, what did you have to work around?
Believe it or not, but when we first arrived in Upstate New York, we reached out to a local pastor in the hopes that his congregation would be able to assist our production. The house belonged to one of his parishoners, who graciously allowed us to film there—and even assisted in the transformation of it back to 1979. Virtually every interior was built from the ground up, and the vintage furniture was all proudly sourced from local businesses. The only rule was that we had to leave the house in better shape than when we arrived, but that was easy, given that most of the rooms were unfinished storage spaces!
Surely a source of great pleasure, if also pressure, for any horror filmmaker, is the opportunity to visualize your own boogeyman. Talk me through the process of designing the Dagmars. Did their look as we see on screen strictly follow the logic of the story (Well, if they do this and died like that, they should look like X, Y and Z…), or were there any visual or thematic ideas you began with? What was the process of designing and rendering them like?
Well, early on in the film, we’re told a fictional account of what happened to the Dagmars, which should almost immediately have viewers going, “Well, if they were run out of town, how come they’re now murderous burnt husks?” When the truth is revealed, we get a better of what happened to this poor family, and why they’re so pissed off at anyone who dares to enter their home. Their design, which was heavily influenced by Captain Drake and his band of mariners in John Carpenter’s The Fog, was meant to be both disturbing and fanciful, right down to the fact that these burn victims all still have hair. I worked very closely with Florida-based Oddstopsy FX to come up with a design that felt both modern and classic, and something that was both imposing and sad.
Increasingly, first-time feature-film directors, especially the ones I interview, are working on small productions, collaborating mostly with friends and peers. But this film involves a location shoot, extras, and a couple of name actors—including Larry Fessenden, a director of a number of horror films going back decades. How was the collaboration with him?
Larry is a close friend of mine from NYC, and I’d writtten the role of Jacob expressly for him. He’s such a wealth of knowledge as not only an actor, but as a director, writer, and producer. The constant information he offered was truly invaluable, and—much like the input from my producer Travis Stevens and cinematographer Karim Hussain—truly shaped the film into what it is. I went into this project as I go into anything: without an ego, and receptive to working as a team. I’ve always believed that if you think you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room—because you’ve apparently got nothing else to learn. I was learning all the while, and still am today.