ALISTAIR LEGRAND INTERVIEW
Interview conducted by Hamzah Sarwar
I recently sat down with director of Frightfest hit The Diabolical, Alistair Legrand, to discuss his mind-warping science fiction horror film. Legrand pushes the confines of the genre and is able to inject new blood to the archaic haunted house sub-genre.
Hamzah Sarwar: What inspired The Diabolical, how did the project come about?
Alistair Legrand: The project came about because I’m a huge fan of haunted house films and I’m always looking of new ways to tell horror stories and science fiction. I just wanted to find a reason for paranormal activity in homes that hasn’t been done before like when pencils move across tables, cold draughts in a house, levitating objects; I just thought it’d be really interesting to try to explain that as if it’s coming from the future.
HS: You mentioned those haunted house films, any in particular that were top of mind when making the film?
AL: Oh for sure, our roots are firmly inside Tobe Hooper, Spielberg’s Poltergeist and this movie called The Entity with Barbara Hershey that’s just amazing especially the visual style of it. Everything from The Changeling and other classic haunted house films.
HS: There’s a multitude of genres in The Diabolical; from the horror to science fiction elements, how important was it for you to weave these into a singular narrative?
AL: I get bored really easily especially when I’m writing, I want to blend everything together into one and flip the switch to try to figure out how to blend genres as interestingly as possible without detracting from either of them. It has to be a smooth transition but I do think sci-fi and horror work really well and complement each other.
HS: How did you find the script writing process? I know you worked with a close friend of yours to bring it to screen?
AL: Yeah that’s right; I’ve been friends with my writing partner since we were kids. We have a great dialogue and just love writing these kinds of stories. The process: I met this company called ‘Preferred’ and they had asked if I had any ideas so I told them that I had this time travel-ghost idea. They jumped on it and we had to write it pretty quickly to get going into production. After a few months of writing, we had it done and went right into it. It was really fast but a lot of fun to write. It was a challenge to come up with the twists and turns whilst working so quickly.
HS: It’s a very character focused drama with a close knit family, how would you describe your characters and the rollercoaster of emotion that they go through?
AL: Oh that’s definitely right, one of the most important parts of our writing was to create characters that you truly care about so when a knife was pointed at them or their peril; you actually wanted them to get out of the situation rather than be like, "fuck off and die!" (laughs) that’s really important to us, the story is really personal. I grew up in a family where my Mom took care of everything like a matriarch, it was just me and my sister and we lived in this really old creepy house so a lot of it got based on that. I’m not sure how people write when they’re not related to the material in some way, it’s better to pull from that well, so to speak.
HS: So did you specifically reference personal events from this old, creepy house in the film?
AL: Yeah! (laughs) I mean it was a house that was built in the early 19th century and had a huge history. Things would just turn on and off, lights would flicker and there was a barn across from my bedroom. Me and my sister would see the light go and off repeatedly. It was a very creepy way to grow up but you sort of got used to it I guess.
HS: So it’s these moments that come through in the haunting episodes in the film?
AL: Definitely, especially in picking the location which was such a huge part. In Los Angeles, there aren’t many homes that are older and have that character so it was really important to find a house that a had a lot of warmth, those creaky floors, dust and that really felt lived in. It was key to making this work.
HS: How did you go about the casting process with Ali Larter and the kids? Did you earmark the actors fairly early or did it take a more rigorous approach?
AL: While we were writing, we definitely thought of Ali for sure. I’ve always been a huge fan of hers from A House on a Haunted Hill and Final Destination. She’s awesome, she’s so strong and even if a movie is not so great, she always shines. She’s really talented so we wrote it with her in mind. So when I eventually had lunch with her, it was incredible. She was really responsive to the material and wanted to make sure that the script made sense to her in some way. I just wrote her a bible for the movie to explain everything, you’d normally do that for television but it really helped her understand the story and where her character was coming from and she really responded to it. She’s a new mother as well, she really took to it and we were really lucky to have her.
And the kids! Well, it was an exhaustive process and search. It was more of an issue than I was expecting. I saw hundreds of kids; it was just about finding a kid that felt natural, especially for Jacob. Matt Rose’s audition was really good, he was very natural. He stuttered, he was shy and there was just something very naturalistic about him. Especially in LA and I guess here, when you’re auditioning they’re like "Hi! My name’s Charlie!" and are just sound so perfect. It feels overly rehearsed and like a kid from village of the damned. Max was very real, he reminded me of a really young Ethan Hawke. Chloe, the week before we went on holiday, I was at the end of my rope trying to find the perfect five year old girl who was really good and cute but at the same time a great actress. We wanted Drew Barrymore from E.T. I got Chloe’s audition tape, she lived in Texas. She was incredible and made us feel emotions through a video tape and she’s just a five year old! They were both great on set, it was a really fun experience but one I had to learn a lot from.
HS: SFX play a vital role and the sci-fi elements in the narrative, how did you find the process and it must have been a challenge with the limited budget?
AL: It was definitely a challenge with the budget. These days, if you have asked enough favours you can get by! We had a great company called Spontaneous who came on board to do our special effects. They were very gracious and did a lot for us for a very small amount. It was an interesting experience, I love practical effects more than anyone but it’s really great to have a real monster on set for the actors to respond to. But we also had this sci-fi element that no-one had seen before so we had to use CG. It was a learning process to meld the two in an interesting way, I mean I think we pulled it off but it was learning curve. I definitely know what to do in the future now. I found it really helpful to have everything storyboarded.
HS: For your monster/ghost character, how much thought went into his creation and appearance before you arrived at the final design?
AL: All the ghosts are based on how they come through in the money. The futuristic set up means that they come through very hurt as they’ve been experimented on. It was very influenced by the baboon scene from The Fly when it goes from pod to pod as is just ripped in half. So we wanted to do something like that but was still very human in a way so it looked like they were in pain. So when you re-watch the movie, they generally never try to attack the family except for the main guy. They’re more reaching for help; they’re coming out of this experiment and coming out as a scrambled egg essentially. It was our make-up effects guys, a really talented man named Jason Collins and he did these drawings with me. We had conversations months in advance on how they would eventually look like and the bruising patterns on the faces etc.
One of my favourite parts was trying to find the ghost who could actually fit into a dryer! The day before we were supposed to get the person inside to get moulded for the suit, we lost our actor so we had to find someone who was less than 5 foot tall and my production designer is from Thailand and her sister, who’s also a contortionist, could squeeze into a tiny ball. So we moulded the suit for her, covered her in blood and it was fantastic! It’s my favourite part of the shooting; it makes it feel like Halloween and actually filming blood pouring off of people. It’s just awesome. And making sure our little girl, Chloe, was not scared the whole time. You would always have her come to set and meet the ghosts who’d take off their masks and meet her. So it’s just make believe and no harm done.
HS: An element that struck me was this idea of when you go outside the confines of the house something bad will happen to you because of the sunlight. You’ve got these vampire connotations and the infection, how did this thought materialise?
AL: It was actually a very important element. When you watch these kinds of movies, the audience just thinks, "oh just get out the house and go to a damn hotel!" The challenge for us was to think, "how can we keep them inside this house in a believable way that doesn’t make the audience feel stupid?" I tried to come up with these ideas of returning from the future. The background is that there’s a virus that they give to prisoners in the future that keeps inside boundaries that means they can’t escape because they’re really sick. Only problem with that it’s really tough to explain in this film because it’s all happening in a different time frame. I love your interpretation of the vampire theme but at the same time if they think about it, they should hopefully realise how it’s all possible. It was a challenge, but I think we pulled it off.
HS: Yeah I agree, I think you did. How have you found the whole festival experience? You took the film to SXSW and now Frightfest, how’s it all been?
AL: Honestly coming to Frightfest has been a breath of fresh air. It’s been great. I mean I loved South by Southwest but here it’s amazing. They just treat you so well and the fans are a great litmus test for your movie to see if the film can resonate with horror audiences. Horror audiences are really warm and kind but can also be very blunt. They’re going to tell how you they really feel and if it feels false. They’ve been great and the response to The Diabolical has been great so far. I would love to make a film every year so that I came back to Frightfest!
HS: Have you been watching many of the films at the festival, any favourites so far?
AL: Yes, I mean Deathgasm is just incredible.
HS: Ah yes, huge response to this one on social media! Not seen it yet.
AL: Do you like Dead Alive, Bad Taste and Edgar Wright films? It’s all of that but done in a way that has a real horror feel to it. Some Kind of Hate is good, last night we saw A Christmas Horror Story which was a good anthology. I’m sad I missed the screening of Hellraiser last night as it’s one of my all-time favourite horror films.
HS: What are your future plans? Do you plan to stay in genre?
AL: I hope I’ll be making horror movies for the next 70 years! (laughs) next one is about the science behind face transplants. I’ve been reading a lot about it, a really fascinating world of why people need to get them and the psychosis of the victims. It’s a thriller that leans towards horror. It’s like a Cronenberg style film. I think you’ll hear about it in the next few months, it’s called Clinical.
HS: Great, really look forward to it. Thanks a lot for your time!
AL: Thank you!
The Diabolical is available on UK DVD and VOD now.
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