Whether it be because of creepy demonic girls (Case 39) or monsters in spaceships (Pandorum), moviegoers from all corners of the globe are cowering under their seats because of German-born director Christian Alvart. The first of the two, Case 39, stars Renee Zellweger and Bradley Cooper and follows a social worker who rescues a bright young girl (Jodelle Ferland) from her abusive parents, but later discovers there’s something evil lurking beneath her angelic facade. Case 39 hits Australia November 5th, while Pandorum, which has already had a release in the US, will screen Down Under next February.
On a particularly poor phone-line from Germany, I spoke with Alvart about the business of scaring people, why it’s taken 2 years for Case 39 to get a release date and the traumatic experience of having the entire studio burn down after an FX shot grew out of control.
CUT PRINT REVIEW: Case 39 is the forth horror film you’ve helmed, if you include Pandorum. So what keeps you coming back to the genre for more?
CHRISTIAN ALVART: Well if you actually take all my films, they all have horror elements in it, which mostly comes because I like suspense so much and being on the edge of your seat. But you know, my first two were mysteries [Curiosity & the Cat, Antibodies], this one is horror film but also a drama, and the next one’s a science fiction film [Pandorum]. So it’s really a genre you can cross with others, taking what your strengths are, and play around with all these different formats. Certainly, you can also pull some stunts you aren’t allowed in a romantic comedy.
Is it just me or is the horror industry obsessed with creepy little girls.
Yeah, I think that something must be in the air that they just picked up on. But you know, I finished this film a while ago, and I couldn’t know at the time other movies would explore similar themes.
So what do you think will be the genre staple in five or ten years from now?
Well it all comes in cycles. I mean, the scary kid movies started with The Bad Seed. Then you have Children of the Corn in the 80s. It always keeps coming back, it’s not like we invented it. We just reinvent it.
So maybe ghosts are scary in five years again, I dunno! Usually the horror genre is very susceptive to common fears that are in the air at the time in society. That’s why there are a lot of horror films right now that deal with parenting; are we doing the right thing? How well are we raising our kids? Have we made any mistakes?
I dunno, but I’m sure there’s something going on in society that gets the attention of writers and executives in Hollywood. So whatever it is in five years, I’m sure the horror movies will pick it up.
Do you think there is anything left that is still too taboo for a horror film to depict?
Yeah, I think there are a lot of things that film is not the right medium for expressing, or things that should be dealt using the conventions of another genre. I think there are some real fears that are so much more horrifying. You know, like going to the doctor and get the message that you have some deadly disease or something. I personally think films are not meant to be that scary.
In Case 39, the characters meet their doom by their worst fears coming true. If you were a character in the film, what would be your death scene ?
Well I actually shot a death scene for that film that is really scary to me. It’s not in the film, so I can talk about it. For some reason, I’m really afraid of the random stranger you meet like on a subway station or just walking down the street who, for no reason, attacks you. That kind of stuff, you know? I mean, all of us know that feeling where you walk alone with someone just ten steps behind you, and you think of all these things that he could be doing, but he’s just, you know, walking his dog or something. I think that’s a really scary thing that happens to everyone who lives in a big city.
Production on the film was completed back in 2007. Why has it taken so long for the film to see the light of day?
I really don’t know. I gave a couple of interviews every stage of the way and the reasons they gave were always different, like, every three months. Either there was a new schedule change, or some other reason. And when you look back at it now, two years later, you really don’t know why anymore. But there were little reasons, all the time, and until April this year, there were only small pushes. You know, there were never like a big landslide decision made about the distribution date.
And I have to say, at Paramount in the US, there has been a couple of changes in the regime, so there’s not the same people anymore running the show. So I can’t really talk to any of them about this because I don’t know anyone there.
In the two years since it was completed, did you go back into the editing room and tweak the film?
No I didn’t. In 2007, I finished the film and that was it. That’s the cut of the film you’ll see. And I’m very happy because the film just came out in Spain, Russia, Ukraine and in all these markets it’s been a great success so far. So I hope with Australia next, I’ll get more good news. [laughs]
I read that the set burnt down during filming, maybe that’s why Paramount have been holding out on you! How’s your insurance premium looking?
[laughs] Well, thank God, nobody blamed me for it! So thankfully, my insurance is just the way it was before the fire. I mean, it actually wasn’t my fault, even though as the director you’re pushing your crew to the limit. But it was really just an unfortunate chain of events. We had the fire crew there, all day — like the real Fire Department — so we’re always under their watch. They make the call as to what we’re allowed to do and what we’re not.
It happened during the very last take on the day, which for some reason, got completely out of control and burnt the whole set down, the studio around and the office building. The whole crew made it out barely with their lives. All our equipment — the dollies, the cranes, the cameras — everything was gone. We stood there as a crew with no equipment! [laughs] It was really scary, actually.
How long did it take to get back to work after that?
Well we worked the next day! The very next morning. It was a different set, obviously, as that was the last shot in that set. So I was lucky in that regard. I even put the shot in the movie, so it was not a complete waste. But we lucked out in the sense that the next day we were shooting on the water front. So for the water scenes, you need different equipment, which was already on the next shooting site. So that gave my production team a whole extra day to rent equipment from all over the world. So the following day, we went back to work with all the equipment.
But we had a two hour delay, in the morning, just to talk to everyone. I mean, a lot of people were still in shock. They were running while the building was crashing around them. So we had a group meeting for two hours to get everybody’s thoughts before we went back to work.
It’s been a good 15 years since we’ve seen Renee Zellweger in a Horror flick, whose idea was it to bring her back to genre?
I’m not sure who in her circle of friends suggested it, but the idea definitely came from Renee. She was attached to the script before they were looking for a director. It was basically like a reversal of a casting process; it wasn’t the actor that was cast, it was the director. I was invited by Paramount to talk about the project and give them my ideas, and eventually they picked three directors that they liked for this and set us to have a meeting with Renee. So eventually she picked the one she wanted as director. And because I had a great meeting, it was me! So I had a great starting point with her.
It’s very reassuring for a director when you do your first work with a big star — which can be scary and can go wrong as they have so much power — to have someone like Renee who actually picked you.
And she was completely trusting. I mean, she really does all that stuff in the film, which is very physical and very demanding. I mean, she’s running half naked through the rain in Vancouver during fall! It’s really demanding to do that kind of thing over and over again. All the underwater work, all that stuff she’s done herself.
Young Jodelle Ferland also does a great job at playing creepy-child Lillith, but it’s not the first time she’s been in a horror film, appearing in the likes of Silent Hill and Seed. Did she spring to mind because of her previous works?
No, we did a really huge casting for the role. I mean, the one time she really played a scary child was in Silent Hill, but it’s a very different role from that because here she’s possessed. Maybe it’s not very different to the film fan, but when you look at it from the perspective of a director, who has something very specific they want, it wasn’t in the movie [Silent Hill] that I wanted. So we did a big a really big casting with over 1200 girls. We got that down to ten, and then we had two finalists that got a whole day of shooting with the crew and Renee as if we were really shooting the film. Jodelle won the part, fair and square. Even if she had never done a movie, she’d have won this part. What’s good about her having worked so much is that she really was a total professional. I really didn’t have to direct her any different than Renee, you know? I was talking to her like a mature actress.
When it comes to the creepy-child, long dark hair is really the look isn’t it. I mean, I can’t remember the last time a creepy-girl in a film had golden locks. Was it a requirement for Lillith to have dark hair?
No, no. Actually, when we did the casting for the role, the runner-up – who we also test screened for a day with the crew and Renee – she had blonde hair. But we ended up casting Jodelle, and I didn’t want to change her hair. I wanted to go with her natural look. But we picked her for her acting and not because she had black hair!
While I know Jodelle has done a lot of work in the horror genre, does it ever get disconcerting bringing an 11 year old kid like Jodelle into the horror environment?
It does, and you have to be very careful to shoot around them in a way that they’re not ever being disturbed. The good thing about Jodelle, is that she is comfortable in the role. “I like scary movies!” she said to me, so you know, it’s her genre that she likes to watch. So she has a little bit of a predisposition to not be disturbed.
She also had a lot of fun. There was this one scene – and it’s probably the most disturbing scene in the movie – where she is put in an oven. Really, it was disturbing for everyone but her on the set. I mean, we’re literally stuffing this kid in an oven, and she’s just having a great time! But the rest of us were all like ‘Oh my God, what are we doing!” [laughs]
While Case 39 is being released here in Australia, your other film Pandorum has recently opened in the US. What do us Aussies have to look forward to?
Well it’s a completely different film to Case 39. I took horror into space again, which has been a while. It’s kind of a throwback to the 70s and 80s films in a sense that there’s a situation where they’re out for survival, on a spaceship. We took it serious; it’s not tongue in cheek or anything. And it’s really, really scary. I mean, much like how I was scared when I watched the films of my youth, which are obviously Alien and Predator and so on. But yeah, it stars Denis Quid and the incredibly brilliant Ben Foster.
According to screenwriter, Travis Milloy you were writing a near identical screenplay for Pandorum when it first landed on your desk. Is that true?
Yeah, it is! Especially the beginning and the end were very much the same, so when they sent me Travis’ script I was really shocked! [laughs] The problem is that if they send you a script like that, you can basically throw away your own similar script, because if you want to make it into a film 10 years later they’ll say ‘you’re just remaking this film!’ So in that moment, the whole point was gone. But I had this crazy idea to go to them and pitch turning the two scripts into one, even though they had already been developed. So essentially I was saying spend more time and money to create a third script that combines the two ideas. I was really, really lucky because they loved it, and went for it! Even Travis loved what I was bringing to his script and we went and wrote it together.
Case 39 opens in Australia on November 5th, 2009.