One of the scariest films at Tribeca this year wasn't your typical horror movie.
According to Director Ed Gass-Donnelly, there are scary movies, and then there are "horror films with a capital H." His film, Lavender, which premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, is of the former variety. Even though it capitalizes on all the tropes—jumps, terrifying little-kid ghosts, and even its own variety of the hedge maze—Lavender is a bona fide psychological thriller.
The film ventures deep into the mind of Jane (Abbie Cornish), a young mother whose repressed memories of her family's brutal murder literally come back to haunt her. Taut with tension and striking visuals, Lavender is a thoroughly satisfying twister that manages to avoid the pitfalls that beleaguer other films with similar stories.
No Film School caught up with Gass-Donnelly and producer Dave Valleau to talk about avoiding cheap scares and how to stick to your guns while remaining adaptable.
"We wanted it to be a terrifying experience, but it was much more driven by theme and character."
NFS: Would you classify this as a horror film?
Ed Gass-Donnelly: This is just me being pedantic, but "capital H horror" is the kind of horror that I don't like—I associate it with gore. [In that kind of] horror, the primary purpose of it is just to scare you. Whereas this was a movie about something that happens to be scary.
It was always a character piece about this woman confronting her demons. We wanted it to be a terrifying experience, but it was much more driven by theme and character. That was the balancing act. It's a constant wrestling; we want to make sure we're delivering on the promise of genre, but we don't ever want to be pandering to genre.
NFS: How did you liberate yourself from "capital H" horror"?
Dave Valleau: At every stage, we asked, "Is this the easiest choice or is this an interesting choice?" We wanted to avoid cheap scare choices versus something that is more interesting and original and thought-provoking. Shooting a lot of it during the day was an interesting choice, and it actually became a budgetary bonus. We were like, "Wow! It's a lot easier to shoot things during the day!" And it's scary because you can see everything. We didn't want to make a gratuitous horror movie. It never was meant to be like that.
Gass-Donnelly: You did! He wanted lots of boobies and I said, "No, boobies!"
Gass-Donnelly: Calling it a psychological thriller fits my taste. The central question is, "Is this woman going insane, or is she imagining things? Is this her subconscious manifesting itself or are these supernatural elements happening?" The way it played on whether or not her memory is missing makes it, by definition, a psychological thriller.
"After Abbie threw up on set the first day, we bonded."
NFS: How did the story evolve?
Gass-Donnelly: The original script had the essence of the reveal of what had happened in the past, but it was tough trying to find a character arc that was motivated. The events happened, but they didn't mean anything yet.
The biggest thing about any movie like this is: why now? Why is she dealing with this in her life now versus ten years ago or ten years in the future? That was a hard question to answer. Then when we finally cracked it I felt like the movie made sense.
NFS: How did you work the supernatural and the fear-based elements (which often come together in the editing) into the on-set shooting process?
Valleau: We tried to do as much stuff in-camera as possible. That actually is Abbie in a car spinning. The only visual effect in the movie is the green screen behind the rotating car. That was one of the challenges we were trying to figure out: how to make a car crash really impactful on a limited budget. We spent a lot of time working with the practical and special effects team. We had meetings about that and we decided the best thing to do was literally make a car rotisserie where you put the pipe through it so it can spin on its own. We hung the car from a crane and then spun it down the hook.
NFS: Is the experience of directing actors in a tension-filled psychological thriller different than other things that you've done?
Gass-Donnelly: Definitely. I love tension more than release, and I love making the audience participate. There's that exciting energy because you're stringing people along, but the minute you start pandering, that moment's over. For me, it does come back to that classic Hitchcock quote: if two people are having lunch and a bomb goes off, you scare the audience for one second, but if you show the bomb and then watch these people just eat lunch, it's so much more tense and you're wanting to yell, "There's a bomb under the table!"
Abbie was so great about it. It's all about her trying to be present and scared. What was important for the character is that, even though she might initially have things happen to her, she starts actively choosing to solve this mystery and wants an answer, even if it might be scary. She's actively trying to confront her demons. I think it would be way less interesting if it was just a movie where bad shit happens to the protagonist.
NFS: What sorts of conversations did you have with Abbie to flesh out her character's past?
Gass-Donnelly: After Abbie threw up on set the first day, we bonded. We were in the middle of a scene—it was somebody else's close-up—and she was just like, "Sorry, guys, I've gotta go." She had this weird viral bug and puked. There was an intimacy that was created after that. I think that was a great way to start.
We wanted the character to feel very real. We're both big fans of "less is more." One of our biggest things became less, less, less. Throw away the lines. It is fundamentally about building trust. That was the biggest thing that Abbie gave me. She trusted me that we would just try things. She would throw things out and there was not a fear of making a mistake and it's okay. I could sort of be like "Oh, that was a terrible choice. I'm wrong, let's go back in another direction." That's where you certainly get the most exciting work because there's a mutual sense of trust and respect.
NFS: The film was incredibly well shot. There's a lot of attention to detail and great artistry that you don't see in "capital H horror" most of the time.
Gass-Donnelly: This is the third movie I've done with Brendan Steacy, our cinematographer, so we're beyond really good friends. We have a lot of the same tastes and aesthetics. It's funny; I don't think we actually talked too much about the look of the movie until the week before we were shooting, mostly because he and I are just simpatico and there's such a shorthand between us.
Gass-Donnelly: The first movie we did we were poring over books and images to find a common ground. This one was mostly just discussing how to embrace the color palette that was there. Red was a color that I never wanted to see in the movie unless it was specifically related to one of her missing memories.
Valleau: It was interesting watching them adapt. When we had to shoot in the spring instead of the fall, we realized the corn stalks would be shorter. Originally we envisioned Abbie walking into the cornfield and not being able to see things, but it actually became a much more interesting image.
"You need to fight for what you know you need in the movie, but you can't be locked into a tunnel vision."
NFS: Were there any other interesting adaptations you had to make?
Gass-Donnelly: Well, the hay bale maze.
Valleau: Yeah, that was originally a corn maze. The corn wasn't tall enough.
Gass-Donnelly: There were a lot of ridiculous ideas about what the maze could be made out of. That was something that was born out of necessity. "What are we going to come up with?" None of the things we originally planned existed or were available to us, like a hedge maze. But, of course, we were like, "Oh, then we're ripping off The Shining."
Valleau: When I priced out the hay bale maze, I was like, "Oh, that's actually affordable." And you can move it around to suit your needs so it was a lot more flexible and practical in terms of shooting than something that's fixed.
Gass-Donnelly: That's a much smaller maze than it feels in the movie. We'd do a shot and then we'd move a bunch of bales to create a new wall. We'd try to play with the illusion and do a bunch of front reverses.
NFS: So the hay bale maze becomes a metaphor for being nimble in indie filmmaking.
Gass-Donnelly: Yes! On one hand, you have to stick to your guns, but you also have to be adaptable. You need to fight for what you know you need in the movie, but you can't be locked into a tunnel vision of "I need this and this and this and it has to be this." It's about saying, "I need to accomplish this," and you figure out the ultimate path to victory.
Valleau: You do have to pick your battles because certain things you can compromise on and live with, whereas other things, as a director, you need to fight for.
Gass-Donnelly: Like the crash. That would have been an easy thing to cut out of the movie, but it was a very important to the story and just for, frankly, the trailer. Just to give it something like, "Watch the movie!"
Valleau: It's pretty much guaranteed it will be in the actual trailer for the movie. We did do it at the end of the schedule, so if we did need to scale it back for budgetary reasons, we could do that. But we did have to commit to the car rig and other things in advance.
NFS: Beyond the car crash, what was a major producing challenge?
Valleau: Overall, there were no major problems that we were dealing with. Ed is a really well-respected filmmaker and some of the financiers that I work with really like this elevated genre space and this budget range. It allowed us to put it together relatively quickly in the grand scheme of things. Once we had the cast in place, this was, in my experience, one of the relatively more straightforward movies.