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INT: Iain Softley


Believe it or not, the city of New Orleans is home to things even more disturbing than the hordes of drunken frat guys that roam

Bourbon Street
at night. New Orleans has a rich history relating to magic and the occult that dates back to the early 18th century, when the city was founded by the French.

It is that precisely that history that director Iain Softley sought to mine for his latest project, the supernatural thriller THE SKELETON KEY. Softley, whose previous credits include K-PAX and THE WINGS OF THE DOVE, stopped by the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans to discuss his experience exploring the mysterious culture that thrives in the swamps and bayous surrounding the Big Easy. The Skeleton Key opens August 12th.

Iain Softley

What attracted you to this project?

I’ve always loved this genre. I actually tried to get a film off the ground about seven years ago, set in England . I took it around and the studios all said, “No one is ever going to go see supernatural movies ever again.” About a year later, a couple of films called The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project came along, and they tore up that particular script. The reason why was, I thought it was very interesting to deal with the way the normal world comes into contact with the unknown. With the occult, or things outside of what one would call rational, normal experience.

And so films like Don’t Look Now, Rosemary’s Baby, Kubrick’s The Shining, even in a way, 2001 is about the scientific world coming into contact with something that is outside… that, you know, has some kind of dimension. And I think the thing that distinguishes both films, because they are about where the real world meets incidents of beliefs that challenge rational, skeptical people…part of the architecture of those films is that you start with very naturalistic environments. And real people. That’s why we ground the character of Caroline in the hospital in the beginning. She’s a real person, and it’s about character. I think these kinds of films, like The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby, require great actors. And great actors are attracted to these films maybe more than, say, a horror genre film.

Do audiences expect twist endings nowadays? Did you feel you had to create that?

No. I mean, this was the original script. This was the first draft of the script. I was brought the script by Ehren Kruger and Daniel Bobker, his producer. We took it to just a small number of studios, and I’d just done K-Pax with Universal, so that was its natural home. That’s what it was. I don’t personally like revealing what the nature of the ending is, because I think if you’re not expecting a particular ending, the enjoyment for the audience is more. It’s not giving anything away to say that I was attracted to elements in the story that one would call very un-Hollywood.

The thing that’s interesting is the actors were totally struck by that. They were thinking, “We’re not going to be able to keep it this way, are we?” The preview audiences were absolutely stunned that they were watching a Hollywood movie like this, and were absolutely convinced that those elements in the story weren’t going to the changed. Even the online sites, Ain’t It Cool News and such, were like, “Hey, watch out. They’re going to mess with it,” you know. I was talking to Kate about it the other day and we sort of had to pinch ourselves – “We got away with it!” I think if there is a reason why I find that ending appealing is it’s not a something that people get a chance to see in a mainstream film with recognizable actors; I think that it’s more like an independent film.

What was it like working on location in New Orleans?

It was a significant thing to enable me to get my idea for the way I wanted to make the film. I always wanted to make it as a location film. Part of what appealed to me about this is that it’s location-specific. It’s about a real place that has a particular belief system that you don’t get anywhere else in the world. Obviously, the accepted wisdom is that it’s more economical to shoot in a studio. You don’t have to do the night work at night, you don’t have to haul great equipment with cranes and lighting gear an hour and a half across country. But I had this feeling that I wanted this film to feel very authentic and have an almost like a documentary feel to it… not to be gothic-y in any way. I spent a lot of time down here, and I wanted to reflect that. We couldn’t initially find a house down here that was suitable. It was Kate’s pregnancy that actually gave me the extra time to find the place. And when I found it, it was like, “I have to shoot in this house.” What really helped that decision economically was that tax benefit that the State [of Louisiana] was able to offer us.

How was the casting worked out?

What a great quartet of actors. A quadrangle. Gena (Rowlands) has that fantastic tradition of being in John Cassavetes’s body of work, and her wonderful way of approaching and wanting to make the work her own. I was totally surprised by the wicked sense of humor that she has, which kind of comes into the role. It adds a real great dimension. Peter… it’s great that they’re all different and sort of come from different traditions… Peter, I’ve always admired. I actually tried to cast him in K-Pax, and he wasn’t available. So I’d always been a massive admirer, and was just delighted when he agreed to do the role of Luke.

What made you choose Kate Hudson for the lead role?

When I met her, I was struck by how similar she was to the character of Caroline. In fact, she’s said herself that she thinks that this part was the closest to who she thinks she really is. Caroline is an empowered female leading role. She’s being forced by external events to shed off some of the frivolity of a 25-year-old. There’s a kind of sense of reality, you know, of her family, her father… a sense of the real world. I think particularly after Kate had the baby, she was able to bring even more of that maturity. But when I first met her, she was talking like a 35-year-old rather than a 25-year-old. She’s very direct, very confident about what she thinks, she very mature in the sense that she listens to other people. She engages with other people, is a strong character, and has a very serious side.

How do you persuade an actor of John Hurt’s stature to take on an essentially non-speaking role?

This is the question I like answering most: John Hurt’s agent pursued me for the role. It seemed to me self-evident, on three or four levels really. One, if you’re an actor of John’s caliber, the challenge of playing the multi-dimensional aspect of Ben, of being able to be skillful enough to communicate that with just your eyes. The eyes, of course, are the most expressive tool in an actor’s repertoire when it comes to film. I can’t remember reading a review of an actor’s in any film, ever, saying what an amazing voice they have. I’ve read reviews where they’ve said the voice is over the top.

The voice really is a significant tool for a theater actor, which John is. In terms of his film career, it’s really his eyes. I think he’s elevated the role and obviously he saw the potential for that. I completely concur in terms of John Hurt’s stature, but he’s maybe a little bit unrecognized in Hollywood. The Elephant Man was, I guess, an independent film, but he hasn’t really been embraced in the way that say Anthony Hopkins has, or fellow British actors. Alan Rickman, for example, has a sort of theater background. I think John is excited about film and he thought this was a great opportunity for him and he took it with both hands and knocked it out of the park.

The movie has a lot of Hoodoo and Voodoo — did anything weird happen on set?

Yeah, the crew said that whenever we did those scenes the cameras kept breaking. This is what we believed. My DVD crew…this friend of mine is a very unexcitable, rather dour Englishman, and he said, “Something very strange happened in that house while I was filming yesterday.” He was in there on his own in the actual house by the bayou, and he was walking up towards the attic to get some shots for the DVD, and he said, “I heard somebody following me, and I turned around but there was actually nobody there.” He carried on, and he heard footsteps again, but when he turned around they’d stop. I’m glad that was him, and not me. (laughs)

Does being British give you a different perspective on the issue?

Maybe. My knee-jerk reaction is to say that maybe because it was slightly more documentary and kind of lower-key in terms of glamour, but there are many American directors who have that sort of eye. I think there is something about being an outsider, particularly in this film… Kate herself goes into a scenario that she finds unfamiliar. You maybe pick up on things that you quickly kind of see as distinctive that maybe somebody who’s more familiar with that world doesn’t. I had a connection on another level, which is the music. When I first flew in, it was a strange feeling of going somewhere that I’d always felt I had a familiarity with on some level. I’ve been listening to music that was either from New Orleans or influenced by here, all my life. The references in the songs are to the city, the bayou, and you know, having a competition with somebody using magic. I mean, how many songs do you know that mention New Orleans in the title?

How familiar were you with Hoodoo before taking this movie on?

Not at all, but in retrospect I went back and listened to all those songs and realized there were all these references. I kind of thought, at first, that Hoodoo and Voodoo were sort of similar and that one was another word for the other, or sort of an alternative. Then I was aware in common parlance of Hoodoo-ing. It just means you’re kind of working spells. I was reading To Kill A Mockingbird with my daughter the other week, and the character Boo Radley refers to them finding these effigies and coins in the trunk of a tree. That’s all authentic Hoodoo ritual. And one of the kids turns to him and says, “I don’t believe in any of that Hoodoo.” So it’s the kind of stuff I’d heard, but never actually specifically worked out what it was.

What are you own beliefs when it comes to the supernatural?

I think I’m somebody who isn’t aware of the degree to which I do believe. I would always say that I’m a rationalist and a skeptic, but one of the reasons I realized I’m so interested in this music is that it’s kind of the appeal of the occult, in a broad sense, of what’s hidden, what’s kind of… and sort of the spirituality. The idea of some kind of magical, shamanistic thing. I mean, you know, that’s how music has always worked.

What are your plans for DVD?

The DVD is going to have a significant deleted scene, when Caroline and Jill go to a spiritualist church in New Orleans…and they get drawn in. It’s a spiritualist church that has a kind of dimension to it that’s very local to New Orleans; which is the Black Hawk Cult. The Native American spirit of a black hawk is incorporated into an essentially Christian ceremony. And that’s a great scene, actually. It was kind of transient in the movie, but as a standalone scene it’s fabulous. There’s a lot of DVD extras in the form of documentary. I got a documentary crew together with a cameraman that I worked with before, and a friend of mine who came down from London. They actually lived with us here in New Orleans. There’s a bunch of stuff on Hoodoo, there’s a documentary where we actually film the Conjure of Sacrifice being recorded down here, which is fabulous. We see the candles being lit by Hoodoo practitioners who were actually doing that song, and spells are being chanted, and it’s very cool.

Will there be an unrated cut?

There isn’t really anything unrated here, because it’s not a horror movie as such — there are no entrails on the wall. [laughs] What’s scary is what you don’t see, and it’s about your imagination. It’s about the occult in the real sense – in other words, the hidden.

Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at [email protected].

Source: JoBlo.com



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