Shooting a Movie in 25 Days for Blumhouse: Phil Joanou on The Veil
One of the best American suspense films of the last ten years sneaks onto VOD, iTunes, and Netflix streaming this week as director Phil Joanou’s The Veil arrives courtesy of Universal and Blumhouse. A movie in the subgenre that James Mangold once referred to as “the cinema of unease,” it’s a slow burn horror flick that skillfully utilizes the Blumhouse production model (which yielded The Purge, Sinister, and The Visit) to tell a slightly more ambitious – though no less unsettling – tale. Working from a subtle, complex, and ruthlessly original script by Robert Ben Garant, Joanou tells the story of Jim Jacobs (Thomas Jane, in an Oscar-caliber performance), a cult leader part Jim Jones, part evangelical preacher, part Jim Morrison. Decades after the charismatic Jacobs leads his followers in a mysterious mass suicide, the lone survivor Sarah (Lily Rabe) revisits the scene of the tragedy with a documentary crew led by Maggie (Jessica Alba), a filmmaker determined to find out what really happened. Moving back and forth in time between Jim’s day and the present, Garant’s script slowly, steadily increases the pressure on the characters and the audience, providing a clinic in how and when to reveal information. As the characters realize that there may be supernatural forces gathering against them, Joanou uses precise, expressive editing rhythms and a liberal use of wide-angle lenses and deep focus to ratchet up the tension. Taking his cues from Kubrick and Polanski, Joanou has fashioned a horror film that requires more of the audience than typical genre fare but also provides greater rewards; unlike more instantly disposable horror, The Veil gets under your skin and stays there. It invites comparison with some of the great horror movies of all time – and then earns it. I spoke with Joanou about his 25-day shoot, the changing realities of distribution, and creating his own visual effects on the eve of the film’s release.
Filmmaker: How did you first get hooked up with Blumhouse?
Joanou: It’s kind of funny how it works these days, because what got me into the room wasn’t any of my other features. It was this short I did with Thomas Jane, a kind of Punisher fan film called Dirty Laundry. Somehow the people at Blumhouse had seen it, and they knew we did it for no money, essentially just a few thousand dollars to pay for pizzas and the crew. They were like, “Wait a second, he made this for nothing?” That’s why I always tell people, make a short film, because you never know who’ll see it. On the Internet, anyone can click on it. Anyone can forward it. Anyone can hyperlink it. To get people to pop a DVD into a machine you’ve got to put a gun to their head, but they’ll click on a link and watch a short. Anyway, that got me the meeting, and they gave me the script for The Veil – it was called Heaven’s Veil at that time – because it was just literally what was up next for them.
At that point it was a found footage movie, but in the initial meeting all of us agreed that the found footage thing had run its course. That meant a pretty extensive rewrite, because a lot of the tricks and jumps you can make in a found footage movie don’t work in a straight narrative. If you want to withhold a piece of information in a found footage movie, well, the guy took his finger off the trigger on the camera – but if it’s not found footage the audience is going to wonder why you’re not showing them things. It feels like a cheat. So Ben Garant spent three months restructuring the movie and writing new scenes, and when he and I turned it in the Blumhouse guys gave it one read and said “Great, let’s cast it.”
Filmmaker: Which is interesting because it isn’t exactly the kind of thing that was in Blumhouse’s comfort zone at that point.
Joanou: No, it’s not a fast ball down the middle as far as they’re concerned. But back when they green lit the movie, January 2014, they were interested in trying to work outside of their comfort zone. It was the same time Jem and the Holograms was green lit. So they were going way beyond obvious hardcore horror. In fact, you’ll notice that the logo at the front of the film says Blumhouse “Tilt,” which is an alternate label they created for their films that don’t sit exactly with the Sinisters and the Purges and all that. For instance, Joe Carnahan’s Stretch was Blumhouse Tilt. I think that was the first one.
Filmmaker: I liked that movie a lot. Is that where the idea for Jessica Alba came from?
Joanou: Yeah, they were talking to her about doing a bigger role after Stretch, which was essentially a cameo. Jason suggested her, but the script was still found footage at that point so I had to meet with her and pitch her the new version of the movie. She was excited about it and committed in the room right there. Then I went to Thomas Jane and said, “Are you interested in this guy?” He read it and committed the next day. By that point we had the rewrite, in which the Jim Jacobs cult leader role was more of a religious fundamentalist, and Thomas said to me, “Look, I really like the story. I really like this character. I want to do it but I want to adjust this guy and make him more of a spiritual guru who has his own views on everlasting life, spirituality, heaven and hell, and it’s not Bible-based but goes back to something even earlier.” Thomas did all of this research into archaic forms of spiritualism and ancient religions of the Egyptians and I don’t even know what, and then he rewrote most of Jim’s dialogue. He gave it to me, and I edited it and got it in shape to fit back into the narrative to make sure all our story points were still there.
Lily Rabe came onto the film next. I knew her when she was seven years old, because she’s the daughter of the brilliant playwright David Rabe and the wonderful actress Jill Clayburgh, and David rewrote State of Grace back in 1989. I was up at David’s home working on the script while his seven-year old girl ran around, and then cut to 2014 and she and I are working together on The Veil. Talk about coming full circle!
Filmmaker: It’s a really strong ensemble cast. It reminded me a lot of Robert Wise’s The Haunting in that sense. Were you influenced by that film, or any other horror movies?
Joanou: My editor and I talked about The Haunting the entire time we were making the film. I looked at The Others, which is a movie I really like, and I watched about 30 different modern horror films – all the Blumhouse movies and a bunch of the others.
I also looked at Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining to study how they use that slow burn, building and building and then exploding at the end. Ours is a very minor film compared to those masterpieces, but at the end of the day you find yourself going to the great filmmakers that have worked in the genre because they’re the ones that teach you the most. You learn from those films how to build tension within the scene and within the shot – Kubrick is great at that. In a way though, The Haunting is more relevant to our movie because it has more characters, like ours – we often have eight people in a scene, and then there are scenes with Jim and 50 followers. It gets hard to create that stillness you need for great horror. The fewer characters you have, the easier it is – for instance, I really liked that movie Mama, which is at its most effective when it’s just Jessica Chastain in the house alone with two kids.
It’s all about trying to isolate people and build tension, which I tried to do by shooting the movie with one camera on wide lenses – 20mm, 25mm, and 32mm. Mostly 25. That’s how Kubrick shot The Shining, how Wise did The Haunting, and of course Rosemary’s Baby is all wide lenses, which are not as popular anymore. What’s more popular now are long lenses, multiple cameras, lots of cuts, lots of coverage. You create tension in the editing room, cut, cut, cut. But I come from the school of creating tension within the shot by using those wide lenses, because if I do a close-up of someone there’s a lot behind them you can see. It’s not out of focus — you see the room, you see the doorway, you see the window, and you’re always wondering, “Who’s coming through the door? Who’s behind them? What’s going on?” You can feel the space surrounding the actors and the depth of the room – particularly in this genre you can build layers and tension within the frame. I’ve always preferred that lensing anyway, if you look at State of Grace or Three O’Clock High or Final Analysis.
Filmmaker: It can be a much slower process though, because you have to light the whole room. And you can’t get more than one piece of coverage at once because you’ll see the other cameras.
Joanou: Absolutely, but luckily I had my commercial crew who I work with all the time. My AD and I have been together for 20 years, the production designer and I have worked together for 7, the line producer and DP have been with me for years, and on and on. So we hit the ground running, because I had a crew who knew me and knew my pace. The first day of production had 43 setups in 10 hours, all of which are planned ahead of time. I shot list every single shot of the movie in advance, with every day broken down into the shots in the most efficient shooting order – not the story order. So while Lily was in makeup on that first day, I was shooting inserts. I’m waiting an hour for her to be ready, but I’ve got five or six shots that I don’t need her for. Then she walks in and I jump out to the wide and we’re ready to go. In the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve learned that it’s not just about knowing what you want and staging it, it’s also this Rubik’s Cube of what to shoot in what order. In the house, I would shoot all one way, then turn around and shoot everything in the other direction, then do inserts when I don’t have actors. All mapped out. If you have four scenes to do and you have eight people in all four scenes, if you do one close-up in each scene of all eight characters – they all talk, they all say something – you’re at 32 shots. Now do four masters, one master per scene. Now you’re at 36 shots. Now just do one insert of the projector or whatever it is they’re holding or whatever bit of detail you need to get, normal for a scene. Usually two or three per scene but say one, okay? You’re at 37 shots and all you’ve shot is a master, eight close-ups, and an insert. That is not going to be very entertaining filmmaking. We ended up averaging 46 shots a day, and I will say that in terms of the pace of the production it was the hardest shoot I’ve ever had by far. Even Entropy, which was only $3 million, had a 32-day shoot. This was 25. That seven days is a big difference. And there’s no overtime on Blumhouse movies. They let you make your movie and you have a lot of creative freedom, but the budget’s the budget and the schedule is the schedule. You do not get to go over that 25 days.
Filmmaker: Was there anything crucial that you didn’t get?
Joanou: Oh yeah. I was one day behind and they said, “You’re done.” There were two essential scenes that I didn’t get, scenes that explained a lot of things you needed to know as an audience member. I begged them for another day, but the money is the money and I edited the movie together without the scenes. I had to put cards in explaining what happened – you needed it because the whole ending of the movie makes no sense without these scenes. It wasn’t like a chase you can have or not have. In fact, we shot this whole sequence of Jessica Alba running across the lake at night with lightning and thunder and Jim’s people chasing her. It’s not in the movie because it’s just shoe leather at the end of the day. We did not need it. It’s a shame we wasted a night on that, I should have been shooting this other scene, but you never know, right? Anyway, the movie absolutely did not work without these scenes, so we took a teeny weeny amount out of our post budget and shot them three months after we wrapped. That’s how I ended up doing my own effects, because there was no money left for them. I bought After Effects, which I had never used, and went on Youtube to watch tutorials. I literally Googled “How to create a ghost in After Effects,” and up come these incredible videos. It’s a little embarrassing, because usually you’re learning from some twelve-year old kid out of London who takes you through the process, step by step. I just imitated what they said using my material – they’re using iPhone footage, but I’m doing it with anamorphic footage of Thomas Jane and Jessica Alba.
Filmmaker: How much work was involved?
Joanou: There’s no real computer generated imagery in the movie – it’s all compositing, tracking, green screen, some ghosts, things like that. I ended up doing 200 effects shots, most of which you’ll never know are in there – there are very few “noticeable” effects. I ended up doing that all for the temp, but the problem was that none of it could be used in the final because the resolution that you edit with is very different than the resolution you deliver. It’s literally twice the resolution. You go up to 2K to deliver. That meant I had to redo every single effect again for the final, and none of the settings that you have in the temp cross over, because the pixels are different. Even if you raise the pixel count to match the final, it still doesn’t lay on top correctly, and it takes more time to fudge it back into place – and it still doesn’t really match – than to just start over.
I got a little bit of help. They hired a couple of young Jedi apprentices who took on some of the easier shots while I did the more visual stuff. Take that opening scene where she opens the shoebox and a moth comes out. The close-ups of the moth are real, but all the moths flying around, I made those. Those aren’t real moths. I went on Google Images and got a picture of a moth. I cut out the moth. I animated the moth by hand. Then I comped the moth, then by hand tracked the moth through the air coming out of the box. All those moths are fake – they’re just 2D cut out moths that I put in there. There’s another moment where they find a skull in the room and a flashlight goes up at the skull and bugs crawl out of the skull. I found stills of beetles on Google. I tracked the beetles through the skull and I moved their little legs and antenna and those were all hand animated out of the skull in 2D. I just did stuff like that throughout the whole movie, and it took forever. Weeks and weeks and weeks. You know the shot of Jim where he does his speech and there’s blood on everybody? I added all that blood. That was about 230 layers, that two-minute Steadicam shot. I could have just poured blood on all of the actors and extras on the day, but I had to go shoot scenes with them right after and I literally did not have the time for them to change their wardrobe. I figured, they have to hop up and keep going, so we’ll do the blood in post. That was a mistake. I ended up having to add that blood because the two professional houses I went to and begged favors out of said, “this is a month’s worth of work,” so I ended up doing it myself.
Filmmaker: I think the movie really benefits though, because the effects are tailored to the story and kind of handmade. They don’t feel like they came out of some effects house’s template.
Joanou: I totally agree. In fact, I am so thrilled we ran out of money. I mean that, because now I’ve got this new skill. When I’m on a commercial I know what’s easy and what’s hard, what we can composite and track and what we can’t…it’s great.
Filmmaker: Tell me a little about the editing and testing process. Did the film change significantly from your original conception?
Joanou: Yes. In the original script, Lily Rabe is haunted by ghosts in the opening scene. The moths harass her and doors open and close behind her and lights go out and she goes to her bathroom and gets those pills she takes in the scene. She closes the mirror and her face starts to warp in the mirror and the mirror shatters at her. It cuts her face. She falls back in the tub and gets up and puts water on her cut face. Comes up and she is fine. These ghosts are tormenting her into saying yes to Jessica Alba. She doesn’t want to call her. You see in the scene she picks up the phone to call her, but the way it was originally written she was motivated to make that call because the ghosts torment her into it, forcing her to go the veil. She doesn’t want to go because she knows something bad will happen. From there on it was clear that she knew she was leading them into a bad situation.
The audience response to her was very negative. They were like, “Why am I rooting for this woman when she is leading everyone else into danger?” That made people just check out on her story and we never got them back. We realized we needed to omit what we had and make her just a mystery. A reluctant, hesitant participant. She is scared but she is in no way complicit in what’s about to happen. Because whenever an audience watches your film, they’re looking for clues. At the beginning of the movie, the audience is looking for your direction as to who they’re supposed to root for. Who’s the antagonist? Who’s the protagonist? What story thread are we watching? Once you lock them into their expectations for the rest of the story, that’s it. I remember when I did Final Analysis. People weren’t really that interested in the Richard Gere character. We shot one scene in post and added it to the beginning of the movie. It changed everyone’s impression of him for the entire rest of the film. Made him vulnerable. Made him lonely. One scene with Paul Guilfoyle in a bar, and everyone looked at him differently. It’s the same thing here because we omitted all that stuff where she did not know about the ghosts. She wasn’t forced into it. She wasn’t an accomplice of Jim’s. Then she changes later in the film after the séance. That really was the big shift.
Filmmaker: The last time we talked you weren’t sure if The Veil would go theatrical or straight to VOD. It ended up bypassing a theatrical release and comes out on all the VOD platforms on January 9. What went into that decision?
Joanou: The math is pretty simple. The movie was made for four million dollars. To go into three thousand theaters it costs them between 25 and 30 million just to let the audience know you even exist. Now your movie has gone from a four million-dollar investment, which they know they can get back on VOD, to a 30 million-dollar investment. At four million they’re already ahead – on paper, they’re in profit, because they have output deals that guarantee them a couple of million, and they know the numbers they’ll get worldwide with VOD, DVD, TV, HBO, and everything else. They know those numbers for a movie with Jessica and Tom and the Blumhouse label. So from a business point of view, the choice is between knowing you’re in profit now or gambling 30 million on theatrical, where you have to gross double that because only half the money comes back to the distributor. So now your movie has to gross 60 million dollars and that’s just domestic. You have to put more money in to get money out of international. For the world you have to put in at least another 20 million, so now you’re at 50 and need to gross 100 million to break even, which very few of these movies do. So when Blumhouse and Universal saw that our movie wasn’t a fastball down the middle and wasn’t going to be easy to market, we were done in terms of theatrical. And when they told me that, I wasn’t upset – I agreed. There was once an age where you could massage this kind of movie into the audience’s consciousness, but the saturation of the horror genre has just made that impossible. I think there’s some fatigue in the genre, so that even when a great filmmaker like Guillermo del Toro makes Crimson Peak, it doesn’t find the theatrical audience that it deserves.
Filmmaker: That week Blumhouse had where Jem and the Holograms and Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension underperformed couldn’t have helped.
Joanou: The week after Jem got yanked from theaters, we were told that The Veil and two other Blumhouse movies – Curve with Julianne Hough and another one whose name escapes me – were going straight to VOD. All three of us were told that the appetite for risk had shrunk considerably and the company needed to recalibrate. But look, all of these movies were made with the full knowledge that this could be the case. When I committed to The Veil in 2013, they had only made a handful of movies – Insidious, Sinister…The Purge was on its way but hadn’t been released yet. It was explained to me that they had a really good track record but there was a 50/50 chance that the movie could bypass theatrical. Given their slate, I thought, 50/50 means two out of four movies, right? I was thinking I had a pretty good shot of being one of those two. By the time I showed Jason and his company the movie, they had 18 movies in production or post. And now there’s another 20 on the board since I locked The Veil last year. So the odds now are very different, because the situation over there changed wildly from the time I committed to the movie to the time I finished it.
The press never really writes about the true economics of these low-budget films with wide releases; they’ll say, this movie grossed 25 million and it only cost four, so it’s a big hit. There’s this assumption that because it only cost four it didn’t cost anything to market, but a commercial on network TV is the same amount for a low-budget movie as it is for Star Wars. They’re paying the same rate. You know from your own experience with The Trouble with the Truth that it is impossible to penetrate without commercials and banner ads and billboards, and that all costs tens of millions of dollars. In a way, I’m relieved that the movie is not going to get thrown out there, gross four million dollars, be labeled a failure and get thrown into the basket of horror movies that didn’t perform. When I made State of Grace, it was labeled a failure because it opened low, and it took a decade for people to see it any other way. Hopefully with this one the profile being so low will work to our advantage – people will click on it thinking it’s some piece of crap and be excited when the movie exceeds their expectations. With theatrical you get labeled before you even have a chance – look at Cameron Crowe and Aloha, which had a lot of fun stuff in it. He was so unfairly beat up for that movie, and some of the criticisms made you wonder if people even paid attention to what was right there in the script.
Filmmaker: Time will be kind to that movie, I think.
Joanou: Exactly. And that’s all that matters, is people finding your movie over time – and you figuring out five years, seven years later how you really feel about it and how it fits in with your life and your career. I did not go to film school and dream that I would be on three thousand screens. I did not go to film school and dream about my 75-million-dollar marketing campaign. I went to school dreaming that I’d get to tell stories on film and direct good actors. The number of screens, what you gross…it’s all just about pride and ego. It has nothing to do with the quality of the story you’re telling. In fact, sometimes it’s the inverse.