Director Paul Solet behind the camera
Paul Solet's debut feature Grace is a disturbing body horror film about a mother (Jordan Ladd) who thinks her child has died in the womb. On carrying it to term, however, the baby is miraculously born alive... but that is just the beginning of her problems. We caught up with Paul Solet out at the Sundance to talk about the film, which will screen this month at Glasgow Film Festival.
Tony Sullivan: What drew you to the baby theme?
Paul Solet: When I was about 19, my mom told me I had a twin that didn’t make it and once she learned that her entire being became focused on keeping the remaining baby alive. Which set up a fascination with the idea of how powerful a mother’s love is, actually manifests itself physically…There’s medical science that says if labour isn’t induced you’ll carry the baby to term and, you know, as a genre fan I’m always looking to be disturbed – please just disturb me.
TS: You’ve tapped the type of body horror of early David Cronenberg…
PS: Thank you so much, that’s a huge compliment, he’s a hero of mine, Cronenberg, Roman Polanski…
Strictly, as a fan of horror films, I'm just so sick of seeing films that are purely visceral. Part of me can appreciate that stuff, when I was a kid I'd read Fangoria magazine, but I don't have any desire to make movies like that. I want to make movies that are as seductive intellectually as they are viscerally.
Again and again we’ve been hit in the gut and, eventually, you get a tough gut and you don’t get scared anymore, because there’s no character – it’s all spectacle, all manipulative, all gimmick, lazy storytelling. I’m sick of it. So with Grace it was extremely important to make a film that took no shortcuts to make a film that hit you on multiple levels.
What I’m aiming for is to kick your soul around the room and there’s no easy way to do that, that’s why we see all these paint-by-numbers horror movies… do I have the blood? Check. Do I have the nipple? Check… totally putting the cart before the horse – they don’t give a shit about the characters, the background or the story is not something that involves you. It’s like porn, moving from one money shot to the next. The potential of the genre is so huge.
TS: Do you find it is quite a hard market place for horror films?
PS: I don't know, this is my first feature film! I did shorts before. I try not to be concerned with the market. We have distribution, which is one less thing to worry about, through STARZ/Anchor Bay in the US, and they've been great, they're genre people.
TS: As a Fangoria geek, did you get to choose special effects people?
PS: We shot in Canada, so I used Canadian people; for our baby, the titular character of the film, a company called Creative Character that do every baby that you haven't noticed, they're excellent, really good, they do ER and all that stuff, really uncanny.
TS: Did you use practical effects?
PS: Practical effects, minimum digital, I use a real baby as much as possible, I really went to great lengths to cast the baby, to cast parents - obviously you've got to have great parents working with you.
TS: Did you have twins for the role?
PS: No, we had a hero baby and we had two babies that were on call, but our hero baby was so well behaved, the easiest actor I've ever worked with.
So many people said to me, after they read the script, “your first film and you're gonna have a baby, you've got a cat, you've got a car crash - are you prepared to do this?”
And I'm, like, “well yes!”
We did it and we shot it in 17 days in Saskatchewan, we had a lot of hurdles, but we had a great team. I had a photographer that was so adaptable, a lot of photographers want to tweak the lights, but if you're trying to shoot 192 scenes in 17 days and make beautiful film you need someone who is an artist and is adaptable who understands story.
Every department had to learn to tell a story through their craft and the guys who get it are the guys who get the job.
TS: Jordan Ladd gives her all in the film, how did you come to choose her?
PS: Jordan came via Eli (Roth) I grew up on Cabin Fever, so I always had a crush on Jordan Ladd, she’s impossible not to love and that’s exactly the quality we needed for this protagonist because as soon as you write her off as a freak… a kook… a weirdo - you lose and we needed someone who has absolute empathetic qualities you can’t write off.
PS: No, I got the best people, they’re real people. I had an awesome casting team, Kelly Wagner did US and Carmen Kotyk did our Canadian stuff, we went to Vancouver and I was really impressed – I didn’t know what to expect, I’d never worked up there and I saw an amazing group of actors. It’s such a privilege to work with actors like that.
TS: How much prep time did you have? Did you have much time to work with the actors beforehand?
PS: No, we had about six hours of rehearsal time. We cast right. It comes back to preparation, I break every single thing down, if I don’t do that I haven’t done my job. Because we couldn’t rehearse, what I did was present each actor with a fully furled biography, making sure that doesn’t get in the way of the actor’s process because that can become baggage to an actor, but everyone here wanted to know as much as possible, so I gave them their backstory, their world; every character wants something they cannot have.
TS: Do you find your youthfulness is a help or a hindrance, do you get grief from the crew saying who is this kid…?
PS: I’ve never had that from a crew. I got the crew together and said, 'Guys, I want you to take ownership of this project, this doesn’t have to be work, let’s remember we’re in this because we love fucking movies.'
TS: When you're moving up from smaller projects do you find it easy to delegate tasks, would you really like to operate the camera yourself?
PS: Being able to cultivate the humility to recognise your lack of expertise in a specific department is essential. The way I try to work that with a crew and a cast is just to deflate my ego. I know that there are different managerial approaches, I'm sure there are people who have made movies by being very nasty - it's not in my blood.
TS: So not like William Friedkin, firing guns to get a reaction from your cast?
PS: No, it's uneccesary. If you've done your job as a writer or director and you've prepared properly, you can give your actors what they need. I break down biographies, I storyboard shotlists for the film multiple times. So much of the time that goes by on a movie set is people being indecisive, but if you know what you want you can do it.
TS: Is this a script you've been sitting with a long while?
PS: About three and a half years, I wrote it originally and it was much more of a creature feature, but it really matured a lot. I really believe in re-writing. You hear people say, “I wrote it in two weeks” and if it's crap then that makes sense and if it's any good - then they're lying… the Coen brothers maybe can do it…
I rewrote and rewrote the script and it grew up, it matured, became much more a script about a mother's choices than about a killer baby movie, just a regular baby with vulnerabilities and the goal is to keep it sympathetic.
What the world needs is story. I don't want to be forced into a situation with a shitty story.
TS: Do you think you'll do more horror?
PS: Yes, but this one is more of a genre bending film. You can take an idea like we had for Grace, the uncanny relationship, the uncanny power of the bond between a mother and a child - you see that on Lifetime and you change the channel, but you change the genre and there are no rules, you can rip the ceiling off of it and do whatever you want with it. To me that’s the shame about the glamourisation of the genre, the stigma of all these torture films and it's really sad. But then you have guys like Guillermo del Toro still making movies that are beautiful, those are gorgeous movies where I believe the story still works.
PS: I think he learned that lesson for all of us.