Described on Horrornews.net as “The most innovative ghost story I’ve ever seen”, director Tom Provost’ “The Presence” is just that and more. It combines elements of drama, suspense, romance & a few “Bumps in the night” into a smartly told tale of a woman (Mira Sorvino) who retreats to an old cabin her grandmother owned to do some work. Unfortunately for her there is an apparition (Shane West) who is inhabiting the cabin when she arrives there. In addition, her boyfriend arrives unexpectedly to spend some time with her which leads to the apparition growing obsessive with her. I got to speak with Mr. Provost for a bit about his vision behind the making of the film & his plans for the future.
HN: I watched the movie last night. When I got word it was coming I thought I would be reviewing it as well but once I opened up the package I found a quote from Horrornews.net emblazoned across the top of the box proclaiming it “The most innovative ghost story I’ve ever seen” which told me two things, I wouldn’t be reviewing it & it sounds pretty cool. As a matter of fact I watched it twice..
TP: Oh really?
HN: After the first viewing I decided that it’s one of those “Love it or hate it” movies. I don’t think there’s going to be much of a middle ground regarding what people think about it. That’s one of the reasons I watched it again after it ended.
TP: You found that out already huh?
HN: One of the reasons I rewatched it immediately was that I realized that there was no dialogue for about the first 20 minutes of the film. There were some beautiful shots of the forest where the cabin was situated, Mira just going about her business, some nice fade in’s/out’s, Shane just standing stone still in the middle of the room watching her but no dialogue at all. I thought I missed something the first time I watched it and I had to make sure this was so. I thought this was a brilliant way to open the film because it created tension although basically nothing was going on. The tension was created from all of the silence, I was WAITING for something to happen but nothing did. The serenity created a lot of tension in me, was this what you were going for with the opening?
TP: Yes, that’s exactly what we were going for. Initially I didn’t sit down and say “Oh, I want to write a scene with no dialogue” but when you have a woman who thinks she’s alone in a cabin, she’s not talking. The ghost is there but he’s not talking either and after I had written about 15-20 pages I realized that there’s no dialogue and I got excited! I began to wonder “How far can we push this”? Frankly, if I had been more clever I would’ve told the whole movie without dialogue but I’m not that clever and it really would’ve pissed a lot of people off (Laughing)! So for me, as an audience member, tension often develops from very little happening, if it’s done properly. One of my favorite examples is “The Hurt Locker” where often nothing is going on but yet it’s still incredibly tense. Kathryn Bigelow is an amazing director! Roman Polanski is great at that as well. Now mind you, I’m not comparing myself to those two directors but I thought I could try to creep the audience out and build a lot of tension in the first act of the movie by letting very little happen. One of the things I tried to do while directing the film was to have very few closeups and have the camera behind wide so that the audience is having to look around and trying to find out things on their own. Some people won’t like that but for me that creates a lot of creepiness & tension because there are all these places where something could happen and when nothing is happening the audience is waiting for it. Hopefully, this develops tension. Admittedly, some people watch the movie and they’re very bored but like you said people will either love it or they’ll be put off by it. And we knew that would happen.
HN: You’re right. It reminded me of “Paranormal Activity” in the way that just as in your film, there are long scenes where nothing is happening. No sound, music or dialogue & the audience is sitting there in a darkened theater watching the screen…looking for something that may or may not be there. Something moving in the background. Sometimes it was there and sometimes it wasn’t but the tension during these scenes was thick & forboding.
TP: “Paranormal Activity” was a great movie!
HN: Yeah, I liked it a lot as well. Speaking of great directors, something else I noticed was the great cinematography in the film. It’s a gorgeous movie to look at for sure but there was one particular scene where Mira’s character is in bed with her boyfriend in a pitch black room (There is no electricity in the cabin) & he has to go to the bathroom and she lights a lantern to light the scene. This reminded me of scenes from Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon”. Was that film some sort of inspiration for these scenes? You pulled them off beautifully.
TP: Thanks. We did exactly the same thing. We even pushed it farther than “Barry Lyndon”. They used only natural light in that movie as well but I watched the movie a couple of times before we did ours and they would have a lot of candles lit. There are scenes in our movie where there is only the lantern or a match to light the scene. Our DP, Collin Brink, wasn’t sure if it was going to work but we used this wonderful camera, The Sony F23, it was used on “Cloverfield” and it picked up a lot of the detail in the blacks. The blacks also turned out really pretty without a lot of “Fritzing” so I just thought “We’re an indie film. Let’s take a risk & just try it” and so the whole first Victrola scene we shot with just the lantern and it turned out so well that we ended up doing a few more. I couldn’t be more thrilled with the way it looks and in those scenes it is literally just that lantern that’s lighting the scene.
HN: It has to look amazing on a big screen..
TP: Of all the festivals we got in, we got in them by submitting a DVD. They loved the movie & we actually won “Best Picture” at one festival. The gentleman who ran that particular festival came up to me after the screening and said how it was a completely different movie on a big screen. He said “This movie sings on the big screen”. Our DP, Collin Brink, is going to be very famous I think. He did an amazing job on the film with very little money & a small crew.
HN: Well, the movie is gorgeous, it’s absolutely gorgeous. What kind of budget did you have to work with?
TP: $910,000 by the end of it. Well under a million dollars.
HN: Wow. You guys are geniuses! But I’m sure it was a lot of work…
TP: It was brutal! A lot of people think it cost a lot more. But we had a very short shooting schedule and I don’t think I want to do it again on that level but I’m glad we did it and even people who don’t like the movie will admit that it looks great.
HN: What is it about ghost stories that gets you going? You mentioned in the “Making Of” feature that you loved ghost stories.
TP: I always loved them since I was a child. I think ghost stories & scary movies do very well for a variety of reasons. They’re like riding a roller coaster. They’re a visceral experience where you can scream & let off a lot of steam, a lot of stress while watching them. You know we all die, and all of us have differing views on what happens afterwards. There are a lot of different religions with different views on whether there’s an afterlife or not. I think what happens after we die is a question that everybody thinks about. So maybe people find ghost stories interesting because we don’t know what happens after we die and they’re kind of a cool look at that. I guess I just love movies with a sense of discovery & wonder and a ghost story is really a great way to do that. “The Changeling”, “The Ring”, “The Others” which was such an amazing movie! The lighting in that movie was something we were kind of going for also. I guess for me it’s that whole “Afterlife’ question but they’re also just a lot of fun to watch.
HN: How was it working with Mira Sorvino & Shane West?
TP: Excellent! We had a very small cast, basically four main roles and a couple of smaller ones. I was an actor for many years, well I guess I still am because I still act occasionally but now I find myself behind the camera more. When I started writing this script I knew it was going to be a very low budget film but if I could write some really great parts…maybe we could attract a level of actor that you normally wouldn’t find in a film with so low a budget. So I had to write a really killer part for the woman and I knew the ghost would be a good part because it’s such an acting challenge when there’s virtually no dialogue. And luckily it paid off! Mira came on first, she loved the part and she was also fearless. A lot of actors don’t like to play dislikable characters and there are times in the movie where her character gets very ugly, you’ve seen the movie. Mira was really thrilled to get down and dirty & she had this really great part where she got to show a lot of colors. Shane was also very excited about the challenges his character brought to the table as well. I wouldn’t let him move or blink or even breathe in the first half of the movie, he had to do everything with just his eyes & his facial expressions. He had the hardest part and I think he did a great job with it.
HN: Yes, it is hard to essentially do nothing as stupid as that may sound. It had to be tough to just stand there and react to what’s going on around you with just your eyes & your ability to subtly change your facial expressions. I respected that a lot.
HN: On the outset of the film, I mean before you started shooting, I’m sure you had a vision of what you wanted the movie to be. Do you think you achieved that vision?
TP: Yeah, I think so. In the storyboard reel on the DVD you can see the movie really matches the storyboards and this is before we even had the cabin. I made those storyboards up two years ago. It’s hard because I’m the movie’s harshest critic and I see all the flaws and all the things I’d like to do over again. At the same time though I really love the movie. We set it up to be unique and different and yet still be a genre movie so it would be marketable. Thankfully enough people responded positively to it, like you said earlier people are either passionately in love with the movie or they don’t like it at all. Maybe rather than create a movie that elicits no reaction at all, it’s better to make one that gets a visceral action either way.
HN: It’s the kind of movie that people will debate over for sure.
TP: I think it’s virtually impossible to make a movie and have it turn out exactly the way you thought it would because things happen on the set. As a director it’s a thrill where you’ve got one idea of how a scene is going to turn out & it turns out completely different because of the way an actor delivers a line or something like that and the scene is better for it. So things always turn out a little differently than you think they will. Frankly the script plays a lot scarier when you read it than it does in the movie and as we were filming the movie the location was so beautiful it just lent itself to more of a kind of creepy dark fairy tale. And once we began editing the movie and started test screening it, women really responded well to it. They loved it and kept comparing it to “Rebecca” and “Jane Eyre”. So we started tailoring the music in the editing to that. In the editing room you can force the movie to be one way or you can let the movie it wants to be come out, and that’s what we tried to do. I’m really pleased with it, I’m thrilled with the way it came out. It’s not as scary as I thought but a lot of people really liked that. They found it to be creepy & darkly romantic and that’s what we were going for in the editing room.
HN: Speaking about the story & the cast, there seems to be a lot of ambiguity as to what may or may not be going on during the film. Sorvino’s role is listed as only “The Woman”, West is “The Ghost”, etc…You seemingly left a lot of room for the audience to decide for themselves what’s happening & what it is they’re watching. Especially at the end & what we see during the last scene. Was this intentional?
TP: Very much so! I love ambiguity. I love it when not everything in a movie is explained. I know a lot of people don’t like that and I’ve seen a lot of big budget Hollywood movies where everything is explained by the end and that can be very satisfying but I like ambiguity and I knew from the beginning that it would piss some people off so I left a lot of things unexplained. I have in my mind, as the writer, the reasons why certain things happen the way they do in the movie. The birds hitting the outhouse for example, I know why that happens but I wanted to leave it open so that when the movie is over it’s up to the audience to debate why these things happened. A lot of people are frustrated by that but a lot of people love that as well. People come away from the movie with really different interpretations of what just happened. Some of them have my interpretation of what’s happening which is this is literally what’s happening. They’re demons, they’re angels, some people think that she crazy & none of it is real and she’s just working through her demons on her own inside her head. I heard two or three other interpretations and I love that! That’s exactly what I wanted it to be. So it was a very specific choice not to explain everything.
HN: Towards the end where Shane gets pulled away from Mira by..well, I don’t want to give it all away but that particular scene really reminded me of the end of “Ghost”. Was that film one that inspired you when writing the script or did it just end up looking/feeling like that on it’s own?
TP: It ended up LOOKING like that. I love “Ghost” and I remember laughing at it a lot…I haven’t seen it in quite a while. Somebody else referred to that though so maybe I remembered it. I hadn’t intended for there to be that many special effects in the end of the film then our special effects guy added all of that light & we thought it looked pretty cool. So we ended up using what he created.
HN: It really felt like “Ghost”! All it needed was “Unchained Melody” playing in the background..But it worked. As a matter of fact I was pleased that it didn’t end with that scene. I thought that was going to be it and I was pleasantly surprised by what happens afterwards.
TP: You were? Oh good! How did you like (Spoiler Alert)! The figure in the boat?
HN: I thought that was the scariest part of the movie!
HN: Especially when you see him whispering in the driver’s ear. What is he saying to him? Where are they going to end up as the boat motors away? Jeez..I just got a chill thinking about it actually! And it’s that kind of scene and that’s the kind of scene that people will argue over as they leave the theater. They’ll be arguing as to what they just saw. That really works well and it was beautifully shot as well.
TP: Good! Glad you liked it.
HN: You were an actor before you started directing. Are you going to give up acting for directing now or do you see yourself acting every so often if the part is right?
TP: I’ll probably act every so often, I love acting. I graduated from film school but I always wanted to be an actor so I came to L.A. and for 10 years that’s all I did…act. Well, act & wait tables anyway! I always worked but never made a full living at it and I always knew I was better at writing/directing anyway. I was a good actor not a great one so when I turned thirty I just decided I was sick of waiting tables so I fell into editing & writing and that eventually led to directing. Out of everything I’ve done I just felt very at home on the set and I had a really good time doing it so directing, at least for now is what I really want to do. I have a couple of projects lined up now that we’re trying to get off the ground. I don’t really like writing my own stuff though. I’ve done it twice, so I’ll have something to direct but I’m really good at writing adaptations and script doctoring. Those are the things I’d like to do, at least for the next 5- 10 years.
HN: What film school did you graduate from?
TP: The University Of Texas, in Austin. Great school…great city.
HN: Well they did really well with you! You’re going to be one of their star alumni for sure if this movie is any indication. Are the films you said you have in the works in the genre or are they something else?
TP: One is in the genre, it’s more of a psychological thriller. The other one, which is my dream project, is more of a straight drama. If you go to my website, Khartoumfilms.com, you’ll find some more information about it there. It’s called “Mr. Clark” and it’s a very dark twist on “It’s A Wonderful life”. I can only film it in the Winter though so I probably won’t get to it until next year because it’s getting too close to Winter this year to start preparing for it. So we’re shooting for Winter 2012-13 to do it.
HN: I have to mention the score really quickly. It came off to me as very bombastic when it probably shouldn’t have been and more sedate when it should have been bombastic. But it still worked wonderfully in the end. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
TP: It was a conscious decision on the composers part. He (Conrad Pope) is an amazing composer and I really trusted him with a lot of it. I was very emphatic that we needed a big, bombastic opening title because the movie is so slow for so long I wanted something really driving at the beginning so that we could alert the audience that it’s going to be slow for awhile but I promise it’s going to pick up. Conrad is an orchestrator mainly, He’s worked a lot with John Williams. He’s done every John Williams movie. It was his idea to write music that’s not necessarily scary, not the kind of music you would think fit a horror movie but he tried to write around the emotion of the scene and what the characters were feeling. And to also integrate some dreamy, romantic music into the music as times so that when you put it into the movie creates some palpable tension & fear. The score was just released and one very important critic has already called it the “Score Of The Year”. I think he’s going to get a lot of attention over it.
HN: It’s a shame that the film isn’t getting a theatrical release…or has it?
TP: We did not. It’s a really low budget movie & I’m obsessed with getting our investors their money back. To go straight to DVD and Video On Demand you can get your money back much faster. A theatrical release can cost anywhere from $10-20 million dollars. We used to joke just before we began shooting the movie that Lionsgate was going to pick us up. It was a dream of ours so when they actually did go ahead & pick us up…we did backflips! It’s really hard for any company to put $10-20 million dollars of prints/advertising into a movie that cost $900,000 dollars. While it would’ve been nice to get a theatrical release, financially it just wasn’t viable. But actually, if films do very well on DVD & on demand they get theatrical releases later so we just decided to make the right financial decision. People seem to really love the movie so let them watch it in the comfort of their homes and we’ll see how it does on DVD/VOD. A lot of people who worked on the movie seem to think it’s going to become a cult movie, which is great! If that happens, that’s wonderful!
HN: It has “Cult” written all over it, It really does. And I don’t mean that as an insult.
TP: No, Thank you! That’s great to hear.
HN: It’s very different. It’s nothing that I expected, that’s for sure.
TP: One of the things I’ve heard from both fans & critics of the film is that it’s one of the most original things I’ve ever seen & when I hear that I just think “OK, I’ve done my job”. Because that’s what we were trying to do.
HN: Well, The reviewer wrote it up for horrornews.net got it right. It is extremely innovative and that’s very impressive considering how simple it all looks. I can honestly say that I’ve pretty much seen it all & I’ve never seen a film like this one.
TP: I appreciate it.
You can see more from Tom Provost at his website: Khartoumflms.com. All of you need to see this film as soon as you can. You will either love it or hate it but you won’t forget it, I’m fairly sure of that. I, for one am very anxious to see what Mr. Provost has up his sleeve for his next film.
Interview: Tom Provost Director (The Presence 2011)