First time director Blair Erickson has managed to do what a lot of other far more established directors failed to do this year, he scared the bejeezus outta me with his debut feature BANSHEE CHAPTER! The kind of film that just really gets under your skin and freaks you out, BANSHEE CHAPTER is the story of a young woman looking to get to the bottom of the disappearance of her boyfriend after he experimented with a drug that the government used while conducting experiments on willing participants. A drug that may or may not be opening doors to other dimensions, a drug that ends up killing everyone who takes it. It’s a mad mélange of genres: Horror, suspense, thriller & conspiracy theories all get put into mix and the resulting film will knock you for a loop! Mr. Erickson sat with Horrornews to tell us about his start in the film business and the ideas behind BANSHEE CHAPTER.
Horrornews.Net: We discussed BANSHEE CHAPTER last night on the HORROR NEWS RADIO podcast and I have to tell you that I was really caught unawares by it, I thought it was excellent!
Blair Erickson: Thank you!
HNN: This is your first film, correct?
BE: Yes, it is.
HNN: What experience did you have in the film industry before you took on this project?
BE: I was a creative director at an ad agency here in Marin (San Francisco) and we would do trans media work, live action episodes for shows like the TERMINATOR series that aired on FOX and for a DREAMWORKS movie. What we did was shoot 5-10 minute short films that felt very real & connected the stories together, things that would fill out whatever cinematic worlds we were working in at the time and create a way for fans to engage with it. So I was doing this kind of work and it just hit me all of a sudden…why should I be doing all of this for other people’s stories? I bet I can write a story that did something like this, something that felt real. So I just sat down and started writing!
HNN: So what was it about this material that inspired you to write a script about it?
BE: I think that when I was reading about the MKUltra experiments (The basis for the BANSHEE CHAPTER script) it shocked me that our government had engaged in it & our society was aware of it…but nothing ever came from it. Nobody ever tried to pass a law to stop this from ever happening again and no one was ever arrested for participating in it, none of that happened. At this time I was researching the NSA (National Security Agency) and after reading about some of their less savory projects I realized that it all sort of connected to this one moment when we found out that our government was doing something terrible to it’s citizens and we did nothing about it and it’s still out there in our culture…lurking.
I wanted to create a threat in my story that represents a metaphorical version of that. What would’ve happened if this stuff the government was doing was never called into account and was still out there haunting us in a weird way? The MKUltra project was the perfect vehicle for that. What they were doing was what we fear about the NSA. The idea that these horrible acts were being perpetrated on American citizens by our government and there being no recourse against it, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. That ended up being the genesis of the film.
HNN: Would you consider yourself a conspiracy theorist?
BE: Not really. In my case I believe what there’s evidence to believe and as far as the MKUltra case is concerned there’s plenty of evidence that it happened. There were congressional hearings and lots of other material to work off of so there wasn’t much of an issue around it except for we really don’t know who a lot of the victims who died during the experiments were as their identities were pretty much hushed up. We don’t know what the end results of all the experiments were either so I didn’t have a lot of that information but I do know it happened, I do know it’s real. As to the NSA, I guess you could’ve called me a conspiracy theorist before the Edward Snowden thing because I was telling people “You know they’ve built this device and it’s spying on all of us!” [Laughing]. I think a couple of years ago when we were making the movie everybody was calling it a conspiracy theory but after the Snowden thing everybody realized that it was all true and in typical American fashion everyone shrugged their shoulders and said “What are you gonna do”? I think this is gonna end up much the same way that MKUltra did with everyone saying “Ehh..the government does bad things, what are you gonna do?” [Laughing]
HNN: You said you started work on the film a couple of years ago. How long did it take to get it finished?
BE: It took about a year and a half from script to fully funded. Actually it wasn’t that hard to get it funded because the budget was so small and people really seemed to enjoy the script, they found it really scary. Some people didn’t get it at all but the people that do get it really respond to it and we were able to find enough people that really responded to it to finance it pretty quickly. And Zachary Quinto’s team over at BEFORE THE DOOR (Quinto’s production company) got it so we brought them in as well. It was probably easier than many because the budget was so miniscule and the script was so weird that it caught people’s attention.
HNN: It’s interesting that you mentioned that some people got it and some didn’t because that’s how it played out during last night’s podcast. Two of us really liked it a lot, one of us kinda liked it but with reservations and one of us didn’t like it much at all. Is this the response you expected?
BE: I think that’s totally normal. Honestly if you asked me to come up with a single horror title that everyone liked I wouldn’t be able to give you an answer. For example some people think THE SHINING was really scary and some people find it terribly boring…
HNN: I’m one of those people!
BE: Which…the ones who find it boring?
HNN: Yup! I will never understand what it is about that film that people find scary. I never will.
BE: Exactly! Now take another film like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY for example. There are those who think that that film is terrifying and others who laughed through the whole thing, horror is such a subjective subject, like comedy. It’s all about finding the people who have certain primal fears deep inside of them. In our case we tap into a lot of those weird primal fears about paranoia, the government, the thing waiting for you in the dark under the stairs & weird radio signals in the middle of the night. These are things that creep out a lot of people but they don’t creep out everybody so we knew that we were making this film for a certain type of audience. I think we’ve been pleasantly surprised about how well its worked so far in terms of audience reaction. It’s not your typical horror film, there’s no slasher, no ghosts or anything like that. It’s not your typical horror movie but it does seem to work enough so that people seem willing to be going along with the story regardless because enough of it is real and they can feel that. They can feel that there’s something unpleasant going on and it draws them in.
HNN: I love that you’re calling it a horror film and you’re proud of that! I’m pretty sure that there are people out there that don’t think it’s a horror film at all…
BE: Yeah! A lot of people are calling it an X-FILES kind of film.
HNN: It does have an X-FILES vibe but I still think it’s a straight up horror film. I think that’s cool because a lot of directors would have made this kind of film and call it a thriller rather than a horror film because they’re scared that an association with horror films might damage their reputations. I appreciate you proudly proclaiming it a horror film because that’s exactly what it is!
BE: The horror fans, the horror community are the people who are gonna say if this movie is any good. You can make the best thriller film ever made and people might not see it but horror fans are a great community of people and if you’ve made a great horror film they’re not only gonna see it but they’re gonna tell their friends to see it as well. Those are the people that you have to please first if you’re making a horror film, they’re the pacemakers of what is scary. So it was important to reach out them and show them something new, something out of the box because you can do something that’s out of the box in the horror genre and find that fans are more open minded to it. They’re more willing to try something new, to take risks and go with something that isn’t necessarily a generic cookie cutter type of horror story. Horror is one of the few mediums in which you see topical stories come out first.
Think back to the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD film for instance, that was one of the first movies that touched on civil rights because they could wrap a horror story around that topic. Other genres were afraid to touch it but George Romero put it front and center. His DAWN OF THE DEAD had no problems using zombies walking through a mall as a metaphor for the rampant overgrowth of capitalism. As much as people have attacked torture p*rn you have to wonder if it’s really a coincidence that it got really popular once the public found out that the American government was torturing people? There’s a complete willingness in the horror genre to comment on the darkest issues of society that other genres won’t touch. I think that’s because horror fans are smart and they’re open minded in a way that fans of other, safer genres aren’t.
HNN: Did you have open auditions for the main characters or did you have an idea of who you wanted to hire beforehand?
BE: We made a list of possible actors who might be right for the Thomas Blackburn character and Ted Levine was at the top of the list! I mean who else is that outrageous and could believably bring that level of energy to a character? I think a lot of actors would’ve taken that character and made him into a cartoon but Ted understood that there had to be some menace underneath to make him work. He brought that creepiness to Blackburn and I don’t think another actor could have pulled it off as well as he did so we were really lucky that he was our first choice & he said yes to the role!
Casting the role of Anne Roland was a long drawn out process though. We went through lots of different reels and had tons of auditions as well. We had to find someone who could bring that level of seriousness to the role take after take. There are a lot of people who don’t take horror seriously and would’ve delivered a far less believable performance to the role. But Katia Winter is a very serious actress and she brought that seriousness to the role and in doing so she added to the dread, the suspense of the movie.
Michael McMillian played the role of James and he came to the film straight from his role on TRUE BLOOD (He played Steve Newlin). We both went to Carnegie Mellon & I had worked with him on a lot of student films earlier in my career. So we just sort of reached out to him and asked if he would like to play a guy who vanishes in a horrifying story? [Laughing] And that’s all she wrote! He was all over it and was actually well versed to the MKUltra project as well, he was really into the material. There was a scene in which we needed him to improvise a scene in which his character spoke about what he does and what the government had found out about and he just did it straight off the top of his head without a script! We just put a camera down and started interviewing him and he was able to rattle off as series of details about the experiments and what their effect were perfectly. He was just great!
HNN: Did the rest of the cast have to bone up on this kind of material to give them a better feel for what the script had in store for them or did they just go with what you had written for their roles?
BE: I gave all of them, apart from Michael, a lot of reference material to go through. We talked about all sorts of things, the MKUltra project, does dimethyltryptamine connect people to alternate dimensions? We looked at some research that suggests that the human body actually has dimethytryptamine in it already and is only released when you’re born and when you die, which is a subject that we touch on a bit in the film when you see scientists extracting a substance from a corpse’s brain so there’s actual medical theories that state this. We also had them looking at journalism, the government & the NSA, they needed to have a working knowledge of this kind of material so that when they were improvising they would sound like they knew what they were talking about. That was a big help when you’re shooting on a really fast schedule like we were.
HNN: So what’s next up for you?
BE: I’m working on a new film that’s a lot like this one, a horror film that doesn’t necessarily look like a horror film from the outside looking in. It’s very unusual and it’s very hard to describe right now because I wanna keep it under wraps but it will pleasantly surprise people. It’s gonna be a lot more character driven than BANSHEE CHAPTER but hopefully just as scary!
BANSHEE CHAPTER will be available on iTunes & VOD on Thursday, December 12th and in theaters on January 10th.