The name of H.P. Lovecraft looms large in horror literature, but the road to adapting the early-twentieth-century author’s weld of gothic horror and science fiction to the screen is littered with crummy movies.
Ironic, then, that a ragtag troupe of independent California filmmakers have succeeded in capturing Lovecraft’s distinctive brand of all-encompassing cosmic terror–where so many others have failed–on a dime, and shot on video, no less.
Director/co-writer Sean Branney, co-writer/actor Andrew Leman, and cinematographer/editor Dave Robertson all hit SIFF in support of their first full-length feature, The Whisperer in Darkness.
The grandly old-school horror flick follows the ill-fated adventures of Miskatonic University professor Albert Wilmarth (Matt Foyer) as he journeys to the remote Vermont farmlands to investigate rumors of strange beings roaming the countryside. Wilmarth soon discovers that those strange beings, a mythological race of aliens known as the Mi-Go, may be much more than fabrications of folklore.
Branney and company have stayed true to the vision of their revered source material on two fronts. One, they’ve crafted an impressive period piece, evocative of something that could’ve readily been playing in theaters in the early 1930s (when Lovecraft was still alive); and two, they’ve tapped into the mounting dread and creepy ambiance endemic in the author’s best work with their interpretation of Whisperer. It’s a deliciously atmospheric movie, and a rich contrast to the more graphic horror features that have populated SIFF 2011’s Midnight Adrenaline series.
Talking to these three horror-nerd amigos proves to be a kick. This is their second time working on a filmed Lovecraft adaptation together (the first, the excellent silent version of The Call of Cthulhu, can be seen on Hulu), and they’ve got the easy camaraderie of brothers-in-arms.
They’re great characters, too: Branney serving as the ostensible leading man in our conversation with his rich baritone; Leman, with his owlish features and wide eyes, the endearingly-dotty mad scientist; and the soft-spoken Robertson, the stoutly-built nuts-and-bolts guy you want on your side in an onscreen brawl.
Plus, they know their stuff: When I bring up the location of one of Whisperer‘s cave exteriors (California’s historic Bronson Caves, the original Batcave and a popular site for horror and sci-fi film sets over the decades), they light up like Christmas trees. We reach, Whisperer in Darkness creators: We reach.
Why did you choose to adapt Lovecraft’s Whisperer in Darkness as your first full-blown feature?
Sean Branney: When we made our last film, The Call of Cthulhu, it was a bigger success than any of us ever really anticipated, and that was a terrific surprise. Not long after we released it around the world, we realized we wanted to make another film, and…after making a silent film, we were eager to make a film with sync sound. We made a very long short–or a very short feature, depending on how you want to make that determination–[and] we wanted to do something with sound; a feature film. So with those…as sort of the driving decisions in terms of the form, we started thinking through other Lovecraft stories; and very early on in the process, settled on The Whisperer in Darkness.
Andrew Leman: It’s long been one of our favorite stories. The Mi-Go are…very fascinating villain[s]. Sound is an integral part of that story–the sound of the wax cylinder, the sound that they [the Mi-Go] make–so it seemed like a natural fit. And it’s also a story that has not been previously made into a movie, so we felt we had a clear shot at bringing our own ideas to it without being encumbered by previous adaptations.
Call of Cthulhu and Whisperer in Darkness were both shot on video…one thing that really impressed me about both movies is that they don’t look shot on video. You’ve done a very good job of making them look of-the-time. How was that accomplished, technically?
Dave Robertson: It’s less complicated than you think. It really starts in the camera itself. It’s a lighting process, really. Modern movies don’t really light that way, anymore: [We used] very direct-source lighting. And that’s the way both movies were lit, really…. It’s very much the way I like to light, anyway, so it really suited me.
Call of Cthulhu was a bit different from Whisperer. Call of Cthulhu did have some filter processing that made it look like a distressed film. Whisperer didn’t, as much. Whisperer was more native, in-camera. We didn’t do much to change the image imposed, other than turn it black-and-white. It was actually shot in color.
AL: We also shot Call of Cthulhu on standard definition, and we shot Whisperer in high-definition video. We sort of invented the Mythoscope process. We originally invented it as kind of a funny name; and then it actually turned into a very serious technique for taking standard definition video, which Call of Cthulhu was shot in, and trying to make it seem as much like old film as we could. Mythoscope is sort of the whole package of how we shoot video in color and try to make it look like an old black-and-white film.
There’s a very careful crafting of atmosphere in both of these movies. What are some of the other challenges involved in mounting a period piece on peanuts? And what about elements or things you’ve had to resist in terms of plot or structure, to maintain that period atmosphere?
SB: How to make a period picture on a low budget is really, first and foremost, the producer’s challenge. Andrew and I did the screenplay together, and in writing it, we told the story we wanted to tell. Then we had to take off our screenwriter hats and put on our producers’ hats and go, “Arrrg! How are we going to do this?”
DR: I’m glad you did that [laughs]…
SB: Well, David perhaps screamed louder than the rest of us. And one of the things was: We had to find period vehicles, so we needed a plane, we needed a train, we needed a car, we needed a 1930s New England university…and it became about trying to invest the time into figuring out the solution. Where are we going to find the types of locations that we need so we can pull this off, and do it within the budget that we have? And when you have limited means, it forces you to be creative. It forces you to find solutions where, if we had a five-million-dollar budget, we could just go [claps hands] “Buy one! Rent one!” And when you can’t do that, it forces you to go, “Okay, let’s think through a way that we can achieve what it is we’re going for.”
DR: That’s really true, and I think the way we’ve done it is pretty counterintuitive, actually. Most people [who] are doing low-budget movies would write what they know they can do. These guys consistently write what we know we can’t do. But what’s interesting about that is that we don’t ever approach it like we can’t do it. We say, “What is the solution? How are we gonna get it done?”
AL: I would say, Sean and I have a background as role-playing gamers, and from the time we were in high school, we were writing grandiose scenarios far beyond our abilities as high-school or college students to fabricate. And yet, somehow we managed to figure out ways to fabricate them. So when we approach a screenplay, it’s kind of with the same spirit: I know what I want to do, I’ll figure out how I’m gonna do it later. I also would say that H.P. Lovecraft himself deserves some of the credit because he has fans in the film community. Dave Snyder, who did the special make-up effects for the movie, is such a Lovecraft fan. He really wanted to work on this movie because he loves the material. So we have been lucky to find team members who want to work on this stuff, because they love Lovecraft. It’s not anything to do with us, it’s because Lovecraft himself is a beloved character. And people want to work with Lovecraft [material].
DR: That’s a huge point, because there are so many people who love Lovecraft, and the fan base is so devoted. We’ve gotten so many talented people who’ve helped us on the film that we could’ve never have afforded if we paid them in full–or in some cases, at all [laughs]!
A lot of much more established filmmakers have been royally tripped up when adapting Lovecraft to the screen. There’s a profound lure to making Lovecraft films, but not a lot of people really get it right…what, if anything, have you learned from the missteps of your forebears?
SB: When we look at the source material, [H.P. Lovecraft is] a writer steeped in atmosphere and tone. I think that’s one of the things I personally enjoy about reading his stories. It’s this pervasive sense of creepiness and unease that it brings to you. And just like Poe’s writing, the style is evocative of a certain world…. For me, there are other adaptations that may deal with a Lovecraftian concept, or sometimes only a Lovecraftian title [laughs] where, really, they chuck the Lovecraft out the window; or chuck out a lot of parts of it, and just deal with with plot elements or something like that. Because the atmosphere and tone is part of what I enjoy about the writing, that’s something I actively want to work to keep alive in our adaptations. So it feels like a Lovecraft movie. Yeah, it may be a little verbose; it may be a little wordy. But that’s who he is, and that’s part of what’s seductive about his writing. We try to walk a fine line to not bore the audience, to not make it slow. Both movies very slowly build at kind of a deliberate pace, but then they get going faster and faster. Then suddenly you find yourself in an action movie, but it still feels Lovecraftian.
DR: I think Sean covered it. I cut the movie as well, and it moves at a very deliberate pace: It’s [about] not being afraid to have some scenes that run seven or eight minutes of dialogue. That’s pretty unconventional for modern movies. But in older films, it’s not. They’re…I don’t want to say theatrical, but…they’re a little stagier, the older films. And we really blocked these that way; to have the actors moving the camera, rather than the other way around. In modern films, the camera motivates all the action.
So what’s it been like taking the movie around the world?
SB: That’s been one of the neat things about [doing] this. We don’t have any movie stars: Lovecraft really is our movie star. It’s his name, not Brad Pitt’s, that opens a lot of doors for us. Lovecraft is a very international writer. Andrew and I run the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, and we do a lot of our business overseas; people geting Lovecraft T-shirts and Call of Cthulhu mugs and things like that. We’re shipping all over the world. We had our world premiere in Athens, Greece. It was a packed cinema full of Greek Lovecraft fans! They knew the stories; read them all. They were really excited to see this work. In Amsterdam, it was the same thing. The material has a following, and fortunately the success of Call of Cthulhu has also helped paved the way for us. People go, “Oh, you’re the Call of Cthulhu guys; can’t wait to see what you’re going to do with another Lovecraft story.” It’s been really a lot of fun to share a new picture with audiences and get as enthusiastic a reception as we had here in Seattle at the midnight screening last night.