Osgood Perkins' psychological horror, starring Emma Roberts and Kiernan Shipka, is a gripping exercise in dread.
Following The Witch andThe Babadook, Osgood Perkins is the latest director to revitalize the art house horror canon. His chilly, atmospheric directorial debut, The Blackcoat's Daughter, features elegant cinematography, nuanced performances, and decelerated pacing more common to art house than horror. But the film is undeniably scary. It pulses with escalating dread, fueled by darkness—both literally and figuratively, as Perkins shrouds his narrative in ambiguity (everyone's in danger, but of what?), and his cinematographer, Julie Kirkwood, casts shadows over faces and hallways haunted by unseen forces.
The Blackcoat's Daughter stars Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men) as Kat, a preppy student at a Catholic boarding school. When her parents don't show up to collect her for winter break, she must spend the off-season on the frigid premises, looked after reluctantly by an older student (Lucy Boynton) and two nuns. All the while, another student (Emma Roberts), who's seemingly just escaped from the psych ward, is hitchhiking her way toward the school for unknown reasons. When the narratives collide, they spare no one.
Perkins excels in creating the build-up to jump scares, but only uses them sparingly, and to terrifying effect. There's plenty of blood and gore, but only after you've submitted entirely to the film's deeply disquieting ambiance.
The son of the late Anthony Perkins and Berry Berenson (who died on American Airlines Flight 11), Perkins wrote the script from a deep well of grief. No Film School sat down with the director to discuss the resurgence of atmospheric horror, why no one wanted to make his movie, how to get good performances from actors in horror, and why the screenplay can be an art form in and of itself.
"I got invited to a lot of nice offices where they would sit behind their desk and say, 'This is amazing, but we could never make a movie like this.'"
No Film School: I watched your film last night and it scared me in a way that I haven't been scared for a long time.
Osgood Perkins: I hope that's at least partially true!
NFS: Absolutely. So much hung in the balance of atmosphere, cinematography, and sound design, because the specifics of the story are secondary in this film. Where did the idea come from?
Perkins: Well, it's sort of old-fashioned even now to say, because I wrote this in 2011. At at the time—it's completely outdated now—there was feeling that horror movies had sort of lost their luster, lost their center. At the time, it was considered a bit of a cheap move to consider horror movies. Now, of course, the absolute opposite is true. The horror genre has regained its grandeur. It's become important and valid again.
Perkins: At the time, I just wanted to write something that was in the flavor of movies that I loved growing up—older horror pictures like Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now, or Polanski's movies, or Diabolique. These classical, quiet, beautiful, forlorn movies that possess the sadness and humanity that really great horror stuff always seems to. That vibe resonated with my life and what I was thinking about and had gone through.
NFS: You've called your film "humanistic horror." I would also venture to call it "art house horror." What would you say constitutes that genre in today's landscape?
Perkins: When you're foregrounding a human experience that happens to have the elements of a horror movie. I mean, I don't want to talk about Get Out because everybody's talking about Get Out, but it's the prime example of a movie that's a horror only in form. It really wants to be—and succeeds in being—something really transcendent.
Art house horror has more to do with being a horror movie that isn't an ugly movie. A horror movie can be a thing of beauty. Grief and loss can be approached with some beauty, and the mystery of what it means to be here and to live and to die—all that can be a beautiful thing. It doesn't have to be an aggressively grotesque or repellent thing. The fact that filmmakers have sort of readapted the glamor—for lack of a better word—of the horror genre, whether it be movies or literature, is a step in the right direction. There's so much to be gotten from horror movies. The old monsters....Dracula's a real sexy guy. Carrie's a real sad, sweet little person. In all of these movies is the potential for elegance and beauty.
"My screenplays tend to be more like songs or poems than typical blueprints."
NFS: Can you talk a little bit about how some of those cinematic elements come together in your film to create this elegant and compelling atmosphere?
Perkins: For me, they're all married from the beginning. I don't know how to write things where I'm not writing the sound, the color, the shape, the movement, the rhythm, the music. I don't know how to not consider all those things at the same time. The great beauty of cinema is that we get the best of all of the art forms—painting and dance and music and photography. Everything is at our disposal, so right from the very beginning, I'm writing all of that into the text.
Perkins: The screenplays I write tend to be more like songs or poems than typical blueprint screenplays where you're just saying, "This is what we see, this is how many extras we need on this day, and this is what it's going to sound like when she says this." I tend to write a lot of stuff that can't even be filmed. They're there to impress upon not so much the reader, but the future artists who are going to help me to do this, because I'm hardly alone in making these movies. If anything, everybody around me has done everything far more times than I have. This was my first fucking movie, and everybody around me was well-versed in their art.
In my screenplays, I try to just get everybody on the same page as fast as possible. You just try to find people who have the same kind of taste as you. You're marshaling so many people, so many departments, so many art forms to ultimately come together to be one thing, so finding people who have your taste makes filmmaking all the smoother.
NFS: I used to read screenplays while working in development for a production company, and I was always compelled by the screenplay as an art form, or as a tool, as you described, to harness your team. I think that's a lost form in Hollywood today, and I'm glad you're bringing it back.
Perkins: Well, thanks. I literally would not know how to do it any other way. But it's tricky because you realize that the artists are not the first to read it. The first to read it are the agents and the financiers who, god love them, don't give a shit about whether it's pretty or not.
"It was my first time. I'd never directed anything before. I didn't have a commercial or a music video or a short to show anybody."
NFS: Yeah, and on that note, I heard you tried to get The Blackcoat's Daughter made for five years. People say genre films are some of the easiest to finance, but I've found that that's not necessarily true. What was the process of trying to get this made?
Perkins: Well, I wrote it and I felt really confident about it when it was finished, and so did my representation at the time. They showed it around to a lot of people. I feel like everybody in town read it. I got invited to a lot of nice offices where they would sit behind their desk and say, "This is amazing, but we could never make a movie like this." To this day, I still don't really understand what the fuck they meant by that, but I guess it had something to do with not being direct enough. I don't know. It doesn't matter to me.
Perkins: It wasn't until Bryan Bertino, who directed The Strangers, and his partner, Adrian Biddle, found it and read it that it kind of caught on. Then my other producer, Rob Paris, came on board, and he was coming at it from a place of, "Let's finance this with foreign presales." Of course, when you start to get into foreign presales, that means you need to get actors attached who have perceived value both domestically and overseas. I gave the script to Emma Roberts, who obviously has a lot of people who want to watch her. She responded in what felt like 24 hours and called me and said, "I'm obsessed and I can't sleep and I have to do this." Then she suggested Kiernan Shipka.
Once we had that—for lack of a better word—collateral.... it's such a dispassionate way of talking about [actors], but that's the way the people who hold the money talk about it, right? How much is this movie worth? Well, they can't assess that from an arty screenplay. They have to assess it from the value of the faces.
So once we had the ladies and our budget, it's just hard to raise a little bit of money. It seems like it's easier to raise a whole bunch of money than it is just to raise just a little bit of money. It was my first time. I'd never directed anything before. I didn't have a commercial or a music video or a short to show anybody, so there was a lot of faith and trust in me had to be baked in from the very beginning. I was lucky to find people who thought I could do it and staked a lot of their time and energy and reputation on me.
"I put a picture in the actor's head and then asked them to see it while they were doing a take."
NFS: Do you have any tips for working with actors in the horror genre?
Perkins: So much of what an actor brings to any movie is told with their eyes. That's elemental when it comes to film acting. Rather than try to instruct the actors, like, "Say it like this," or "move like this," for me, it was about putting a picture in [the actor's] head and then asking them to see it while they were doing a take.
Perkins: I did this especially when it came to Kiernan [Shipka] in the role of Kat, who's having this very private experience—first, of loss and grief that then transforms into something a lot darker and gripping. I said to her, "This is what you, and you only, are seeing. This is what the world looks like to you now. Picture this." She could make whatever picture in her mind that she wanted, and then I would see it in a take. That's how I got good eyeball performances out of my ladies.
NFS: It looked really cold shooting this movie. What was the experience of production like, this being your first film?
Perkins: It was about as challenging as I think one can be. Again, it was my first time, so I don't have anything to compare it to. But we filmed it Canada in a really small town and it was the coldest February on record in 40 years. It turns out Celsius and Fahrenheit cross each other at, I think, minus 35, and we got [to that temperature] regularly. We got there for overnight shoots. It's one thing in that weather to go to your car, but it's different to stand around and make a movie.
"I was deliberate in hiring a woman cinematographer, which isn't usually the case with horror movies, and not usually the case with movies in general, unfortunately."
The conditions were close to impossible and it made it so that we had one chance at a lot of things. We could shoot something once and if we didn't get, well, then, too bad. Especially stuff with blood—you can't wet people when it's minus 35 outside. God bless Emma Roberts. She had a lot of blood on her in minus 30-degree weather and I didn't hear her complain ever. I was really fortunate, she was great.
NFS: Yeah, I remember there's also a scene where she's sitting outside with a small leather jacket on.
Perkins: Yeah, she did that happily.
NFS: The music, composed by your brother, Elvis Perkins, is haunting. It's one of the backbones of the film. Did you work together closely?
Perkins: He had never written a score before. He's a pretty established singer-songwriter who has a few incredible, rich, textured albums—and his knowledge, his comprehension, and his sensitivity for music is vast—but he had never written a score. That is to say, he had never had to conform anything to time or anyone else's mood. Singer-songwriters tend to pride themselves on being their own mood; their timing is kind of part of what makes them cook. All of the sudden, he's being asked to address a picture with music.
I said to my producers, "There's no way I can prove to you that he can do this, but I know not only can he do it, but he's going to kill it." They trusted that. Elvis was very miserable doing most of it because it was all so new and so demanding. It's like bending over in a completely different angle to write music for a movie.
His taste is so much like my taste; I didn't need to collaborate with him beyond saying, "This is what I'm doing. Come visit the set for a few days and see what it feels like. Here's some pictures, here's some footage. I need music here and here and here." He's just so intelligent and sophisticated and funny and well-versed in instrumentation. It just worked. He sent us stuff and we slipped it in.
NFS: What about working with your cinematographer, Julie Kirkwood? A lot of the scenes are very underlit. It creates a very unnerving effect, as if anything could be lurking in the darkness.
Perkins: Fom the very beginning, Julie and I just liked all the same things. I was deliberate in hiring a woman cinematographer, which isn't usually the case with horror movies, and not usually the case with movies in general, unfortunately. In this case, I knew I wanted a subtler, more sophisticated touch. Not to generalize masculine and feminine in any way, but I knew that I didn't want to be behind the camera with some guy. The movie felt quieter and more sophisticated.
"I forbade [my cinematographer] from taking the camera off of the tripod or dolly—there's no handheld in the movie."
I met with Julie and she had never done anything like this before. She didn't really like horror movies much, but we liked all the same things. We liked the backs of heads and we liked a lot of head room in the frame. We agreed on the rules for all the characters. I forbade her from taking the camera off of the tripod or dolly—there's no handheld in the movie. I really wanted to keep it observational and poised. We're watching this thing happen and there's no way to interfere with it, no way to stop it.
The light in Canada was perfect for this. One of the jokes with our gaffer was that he would just come in and turn the lights off in a room, and we would just use the available light from the windows for a lot of it.
NFS: Do you have any advice for a filmmaker who has a script that doesn't have a clear precedent, like you felt was the case for The Blackcoat's Daughter? A filmmaker who has a vision, but hasn't made a film before?
Perkins: You've got to find good partners. I mean, it's really as simple as that. You can only do so much. If making movies is a box of tools, then the writer-director is only one tool. Granted, we're vital, especially if the director or the filmmaker derives his or her own material. But at the end of the day, the director needs partnership. If your job is to write something, to create a world and then to direct that world into fruition, then someone else's job is to make that happen. There are brilliant producers who wake up and eat, sleep, drink, and exercise producing all day. I wouldn't have been able to do any of the things that I've done without my producers. My advice to anybody starting out is find the best partners you can. There's no such thing as a film by yourself.