We had the chance recently to talk with Peter Cornwell from the SXSW cultural festival, on his experiences directing Lionsgate's upcoming release "The Haunting in Connecticut". Here's what happened.
You want a film like this to feel real.
So being from Australia, was it always your goal to come to America to make movies? How did your career get started?
I've always wanted to make movies. When I finished school I went to a film school in Australia and then I got a job as a sound recordist at a TV station. Current affairs and the news and that kind of stuff. That's where I learned all about sound design, which is something a lot of people undervalue. In my spare time I started to make a short film. With most short films by the third week people start dropping out, so it's hard to make anything really substantial with no money. So the idea of doing it with animation, I could make this big action blockbuster, essentially by myself, sitting at my animation table in my bedroom. So that's what I did.
So you're about to screen the film at SXSW. Are you nervous?
Well we've already screened it several times to preview audiences. [We've] gotten great reactions. I think that was in its temporary form, so hopefully the tweaks have made it even better. I'm confident that people will like it.
So there has been changes based on test audiences?
A little. Mostly the last screening. A big part of it is the sound design, and getting a chance to get that right. So it's just extra little embellishments, super detailed kind of things. I guess on the first screening we got some feedback. When you're making a film you get so close to it that it's hard to see it in a really objective way, with fresh eyes. Even when you're watching it with one other person, even when they don't say anything, for some reason you just see the film in a different way. I think that's really the thing. What's the point in making the film unless it communicates?
So were you familiar with the story before taking the job?
Ya, when I heard about the project I saw the documentary and studied up on it.
Did you guys stick closely to that story line? Were there any liberties taken?
Well all the family stuff, where they relocate to the town and the basement of the house used to be a mortuary, that's all real. You want a film like this to feel real.
Did you have any contact with the actual family during development?
Yes. Sarah, who is the real life version of Virginia Madsen's character. She was sent some drafts of scripts and stuff and gave her approval. She's really happy with where the film's at, so that's good.
Were you contractually required to do that? Get her approval?
Well, I'm not sure actually. We wanted to get her feedback, wanted to make sure she's happy with it. So I don't think it was contractually required. One thing is, we didn't get the rights to everyone 's story. So we had to change some names for that reason.
Speaking of Madsen, were you surprised that the project was able to attract an actress of her caliber?
I knew it was a great story. There's some real meat to her character. It's got some great scenes. So I was hopeful (laughs), plus I knew she'd done other horror movies like "Candyman", and she'd just done "The Number 23" which is a supernatural thriller. I was hopeful that she'd do it. It's so great getting someone of her stature because she just brings so much weight and credibility to the film, and is such a great person to work with.
We've been discussing marketing a lot lately, and how it seems like films these days give away too much in the marketing. Do you think that's the case with "Haunting in Connecitcut"? What I've seen so far seems to give away a lot of the visuals.
Um... well we'll see when it comes out what people think. I didn't have a lot of input into the marketing of the film. It's a balance because you want to show what makes the film unique, because there's been a lot of haunted house films. This is a really different haunted house film. I feel there's so many good things in this film that I'm really happy with, that it's pretty hard to give too much away in the end.
Different from other ghost films? How so?
Well most Haunted House films, the reason for what's going on is like the house is "built on an Indian burial ground" or something like that. There's more to our mystery. It's more messed up, what happened. As the mystery starts to unfold there's more to it than normal.
There's something on the other side of that door, and you have no idea what it is.
Was it a good sign to you when Lions Gate moved the release date form June all the way up to March? Do you know why they did that?
It's all sort of the machinations of what's a good weekend to release the film. The only other film really is "Monsters vs Aliens", and they're figuring it's a different audience. Or, even people who may have been thinking about seeing both, you've got to be in a really different mood to go see either of those. You're not really going to be torn between the two. Also, there's no more horror films coming out for a couple more weekends. So I think when people see the film they're going to really like it, so I think there's a good chance we'll keep going for a number of weekends. We'll see what happens.
Are you a big fan of ghost films? Were there any that influenced your work on this one?
Obviously I love "The Shining". It's one of my favorite films. I was really impressed with the reinvention of the ghost film by the Japanese recently also. Those films just felt really fresh and different and reminded me how great that feeling of being scared of the unknown can be. It's a different feeling than being scared by the guy around the corner with a knife who might attack, for instance. There's something on the other side of that door, and you have no idea what it is. One of my favorite ghost films would be the original "Haunting". Just an amazing ghost film. What's really interesting is you never see anything. You hear the ghost but you never see it, and it somehow makes the fear of what you don't see really scary. You're creating it in your own mind.
So what's up next for you, more horror maybe?
We'll see what comes up. I just want to make good movies, so I'll see what comes up next. I wouldn't be against it. I'm looking right now at doing something with some more action in it. But ya, I could do another horror film, sure.