Spookt Photo: courtesy of Frightfest
Two popular vloggers; one supposedly haunted house. That’s the set-up for Spookt, which screened recently at Frightfest, with the complication that one of those women is devoted to proving the existence of the paranormal and the other is an avowed sceptic with a history of debunking dodgy claims. They’re not exactly fans of one another’s work, yet as they investigate the building where a child once disappeared, they will both find themselves facing the unexpected, and will ultimately have to work together in order to solve the mystery and escape.
Starring Haley Leary as Claire, the believer, and Christen Sharice as Rachel, her rival, the film was directed by Tony Reames and produced by Vanessa Ionta Wright (amongst others). When I met up with Tony and Vanessa to discuss it, we began by talking about the phenomenon of supernatural-themed vlogging. it wasn’t that which primarily informed the film, however. Tony says that after receiving Torey Haas’ script, he asked his kids about what the paranormal meant to them.
“They showed me this Phasmaphobia game that they played a lot,” he says. “Then we watched some YouTube channels with people playing that game. They’re not really into the paranormal or paranormal investigators, they're just super into paranormal games. That's how we were researching the YouTube videos, and then Davi Crimmins who plays DeCayla in the movie asked me ‘Do you know about this thing where they do murder make-up?’
“I was like, ‘I've never heard of that,’ and so she pointed me to these wildly popular YouTube channels. All I saw was women but I guess it could be anybody, where they do a make-up tutorial, while they talk about a real life murder or real life haunting. It’s this crazy mash up of things and I went down a real wormhole on that.”
The film feels very much inspired by urban legends, I say, and Tony agrees.
“It's part of my childhood that all those the myths and urban legends and things like that, you know, we didn't have the internet, we didn't have all of these resources at our fingertips, so everything was passed down through ‘Hey, did you hear this about such and such?’ or ‘Have you ever seen this?’ You know, things like that. But when we set out to make the film that we wanted to make it contemporary, in a sense. I don't even know that kids go outside anymore.” He laughs. “Our kids very much would be on the YouTube looking for urban legends and myths.”
“I think you did a good job of kind of bridging that gap for a younger generation,” Venessa assures him. “Regardless of how we received those stories, everyone knows a story about where they grew up. Whether you heard it from a YouTube channel or a family member or a friend on the playground, I think that's something very relatable.”
Tony nods. “In my mind, that angle was always that of a spiritual believer, someone who is more open to that sort of thing, and someone who has a scientific mind. I don't know that we actually ever sat down and said, ‘Hey, wouldn't it be cool to pit those two things against each other,’ but it's very much about having differences and meeting in the middle and then finding out that you're both wrong on most of it, and you're right on some of it. And that's how we used to do urban legends, where there'd be pieces of it that were true and then most of it’s fantastical and embellished and passed down over 12 generations. It changes and morphs.”
I mention that I liked the conversation early on in the film in which the two vloggers are talking about doing good science. Each of them has quite a solid, grounded position on what she wants to do and why she wants to do it. It's rare to see that sort of analysis in a film, and it encourages us to respect them both no matter where we stand ourselves.
Tony says that most of the credit should go to Torey for that. “He's a big paranormal guy, we have a lot of talks about this. My paranormal experience pretty much starts with Ghostbusters. What I said to Torey was I wanted a strong two-hander with strong female leads, because we don't see enough of that. I'd like them to be not the same. I don’t want anything about them to be the same. But I wanted to have a way of looking at the situation differently, because most times when you're in a situation where something happens and you can't explain it, you don't understand it, generally you have two smarter people, and they're like trying to figure it out. Right. But then what happens when you can't reconcile that? Or you can't come to the I guess the the knowledgeable that, you know, answer to the whole situation. Is it spiritual or is it just some science?
“Torey knows all the paranormal stuff. He knew about EMF readers. He knew about the salt circles, he knew all of that stuff. And Vanessa knows a lot more about the paranormal than I do.”
“Yeah, because I'm super into it,” Vanessa says. “But about the film, I would like to point out that you did a phenomenal job of taking those two characters that are polar opposites coming from completely different backgrounds, and finding that common space for them to relate to one another. I think it makes it very interesting and it adds a lot of complexity to them. So it was not just two characters carrying on about something, it was interesting, and it was engaging. I liked that they had that arc to find that space with one another.”
“We cast Haley immediately,” he says, “and I've worked with Haley for a long time now. The funny thing about the story is when I said to Torey ‘I'm definitely going to have Haley for the character,’ he thought she was going to play Rachel, who is, I guess you would say, more outgoing, more determined, whereas Claire is more humanity driven. So Torey was like, ‘Wait, really?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, because Haley is the heart and soul, she connects the audience to the story.’ The Rachel character comes in and she's the outsider, right?
“We needed someone that everyone could anchor to immediately, and I said ‘Haley, that's your job. You've got to make sure that everyone feels for your character.’ And so then we had a big audition process for the Rachel character. We saw a wide array of actresses for it, and we were unanimous for Christen, when we saw her in the room. Everyone was blown away by her performance. We had lunch and it was the first time Haley and Kristen really sat down together, and I said to Christen ‘You probably have the hardest job in this because on the page, you can read that character and Rachel can come off very much like a jerk, right? She can come off like a know it all. She can come off like she's dismissive. And I said, ‘Here's the trick. You can start off that way. That's fine. That character needs to arc to the finish, where things meet at the top and you can see both perspectives.’
“Vanessa was very kind to say that I deserve some credit. That credit all goes to Christen and Haley. We spent a lot of time on the conversation you were just speaking about. And then the second conversation is when they're on the porch, right before the third act. We spent a lot of time on that one, because that's when those two characters really need to merge into a singular game plan.”
It’s the relationship which drives the film, I agree, but I also want to ask about locations. There’s a wonderful laboratory in there which does a lot of heavy lifting, although we don’t see it for long.
“I'm glad you pointed that out,” says Tony. This is a little spoiler alert, but anytime you're inside the house, that was filmed here in Georgia, down south. That house is actually five different houses. The one you're talking about with the lab, which is in the crawlspace, that is in this place called the Mark Twain Manor. That's the only indoor piece we did in Pennsylvania, and that's in a town called Jamestown. right outside of Greenville.
“It's actually in the top of this manor, which is a urban legend that we knew about growing up. From floor to ceiling, I think it was about four feet tall. There were rafters there, so the whole day was spent bending over. That actually was haunted by a woman. And when we were filming there, in the rafter right above us, Harper [Wv Harris], the sound guy, took a picture. It was like a fingernail had scratched it in blood and it just said ‘Help.’ So that was actually a real haunted set that we filmed in. Literally all we did was moved a couple things around and brought in that gurney.
“My childhood friend Chris runs a funeral home and a morgue, so he was able to get us some some props. So yeah, I guess I know people who traffic in death and stuff, or at least help with the dead. But yeah, that was all actually a real set. The only thing we did for that was we rebuilt that laboratory down here in Georgia, in a garage, and then we filmed plates, and then we flew out to LA and we filmed Eric Roberts out in LA. So that scene is actually three different locations all across the country. That was pretty cool. But the rest of it was all places we found in and around Greenville. The exteriors were all Greenville.”
It took three years to put the whole film together, he says.
“Flora, the little girl that goes missing, that's my daughter Quinn. When we started she was that little girl but by the time we finished, when we were doing pickups, I actually had to have my son double as Flora in the movie because she was too big. So even the little girl ghost is played by, I think, four different people throughout the film.”
I ask about the sound design, which really elevates the film.
“That is our good friend Harper W Harris, and he is amazing,” Tony says. “He did onset sound and then he did sound design. And luckily, thanks to Vanessa, who also is the festival director at Renegade Film Festival, we had a secret screening of it. I'll never forget because it was in this nice theatre in the square here in Marietta. Harper came in and sat in the middle of the theatre just taking notes the whole time, listening to things, and when we got done, and I said, ‘Ooh, the music wasn't right, the sound wasn't right’ – not because of the theatre, because we were still working on it – Harper was like, ‘I got three pages of notes,’ and he said ‘We need 60% less sound. I was like, ‘Oh, interesting.’”
A lot of adjustments followed, he explains, resulting in a cinema sound mix which he really loves because in a key scene at the end a particular disturbing sound can be heard all over the room, with an unnerving effect on the audience – just the thing for Frightfest.
“I've got the goosebumps every time you mention it,” says Vanessa, referring to the festival. “I'm so excited. It is an event I always wanted to attend. I am absolutely honoured – and with such a great film and remarkable group of artists. It's going to be one to remember forever.”
“I think this might be, as they say, the peak,” says Tony. “Vanessa's still got a lot of mountains to climb, but I think I'm done. I think this might be it. We're going out on top. I mean, Frightfest is like...”
“It’s huge,” says Vanessa.
“It's funny because I was just listening to a podcast talking to someone about when you get that ultimate high, how you don't want to come crashing down off that high. You want to sort of live in that high. And we knew about it for maybe two months before we could say anything. We just sat here and every day we'd be like, ‘Oh my gosh, can you believe it?’”
“It was the hardest secret I've ever had to keep,” Venessa says, “And I'm terrible at keeping secrets. Don't ever tell me crazy big news. If you don't want anyone to know. I can't hold it in.”
“You kept it in,” Tony points out
“I did a dance,” she says. “I had to pretend to tell you and my husband over and over like it was the first time.”