Five Questions for The Vigil Director Keith Thomas About His TIFF-Premiering Film’s Religious Horror
As a weighty, academic-like subgenre of the horror film, “religious horror” presents endless opportunities to explore both the occult and the minutiae of organized worship. Prepackaged with historical baggage and preconceived expectations, religious horror films play on our belief of the supernatural, however naively broad it may be; like any religion, most horror film films require some suspension of disbelief. While William Friedkin’s The Exorcist continues to stand as the most explicit cinematic example of clergy-meets-devil, other classics such as Rosemary’s Baby present a more subtle depiction of messianic workship: in an unexpected shock, the title character gives birth to Christ’s evil counterpart.
Numerous examples of the subgenre have used the Christian faith as their modus operandi, but in Keith Thomas’s debut feature, The Vigil, it is the Hasidic community of Boro Park, Brooklyn that serves as inspiration. Essentially a one-hander of a young man hired to spend the night overseeing the corpse of a member of the Hasidic faith (a practice defined most simply as a shomer or shomrim in Hebrew), The Vigil seeks to put on a spin on the tired cliches (“the power of Christ compels you!”) associated with terrifying films of a religious nature. Having previously worked in medical research, Thomas’s love of storytelling (he’s also a novelist) has prompted him to complete The Vigil, his feature film debut.
The Vigil has its world premiere tonight in the Midnight Madness section of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
Filmmaker: How did a background in medical research lead to a desire to tell stories, first as a novelist and now, with The Vigil, as a filmmaker?
Thomas: The desire was actually always there. I published a lot of miscellaneous things (short stories, film reviews, poems) beginning in high school and then through college and graduate school. But working with patients, hearing their stories, explaining study protocols, etc. really got the imagination firing. I’ve been inspired by a lot of those stories, a lot of those encounters. In fact, I ran a study in assisted living facilities and the character of Mrs. Litvak in The Vigil is informed by my experiences working with people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Filmmaker: What kind of research did you conduct into the Orthodox community of Boro Park, Brooklyn?
Thomas: I knew going in that I’d have to really brush up on my religious studies. So before even decamping to Brooklyn, I met with an orthodox rabbi at my shul (synagogue) and we had long talks about demonology, ultra-religious communities, and how to weave together the religious aspects of what is essentially a “traditional” horror story. Teaming up with my producers at BoulderLight, Raphael and JD, really elevated that aspect of the story, as they have family and connections in the frum (ultra-religious) world. When we arrived in New York City, we (myself, producers, lead actor, production designer, and director of photography) spent a lot of time talking to current and former members of the various Orthodox communities in Brooklyn. For me, authenticity is tantamount and I was very fortunate in that everyone on the team shared that vision. Every detail of our primary set (the house) was as authentic to Hasidic life in Boro Park as possible. We also had a great team of translators and advisors who ensured we got every tiny detail right. The opening scene in the film takes place at a Footsteps meeting (an organization that helps folks who’ve left Hasidic life adjust to the secular world) and nearly every actor in the room was actually part of Footsteps.
Filmmaker: Did you seek other horror films that involve organized religion as a reference?
Thomas: Not really, actually. While I’m a huge fan of The Exorcist (and particularly of the underrated Legion (a.k.a. Exorcist III)), I have always struggled somewhat with “religious” horror films because most of the time they come from such a clearly Christian perspective. While it’s an outlook I don’t know that well, it doesn’t stop me from enjoying the themes and set-ups in them. Whenever you’re dealing with the supernatural, you’re dealing with questions of life and death, which are truly the two pillars of all religions. How each faith addresses the question of a post-life existence informs almost all of horror and I’m particularly drawn to stories that explore that in new or at least unexpected ways.
Filmmaker: What did this experience teach you about directing actors, specifically one so reliant on a sole lead performance?
Thomas: I knew going in that Dave, my lead, and I would have to have a close relationship, that we both needed to trust each other in terms of digging into some very dark, stressful emotional spaces. Casting was crucial, of course. The minute I saw Dave Davis in a film called Bomb City from 2017, I knew he was the man to play my lead and that he could deliver the intensity I needed. I think I came away from the production with a much richer understanding of the rapport a filmmaker and his actors need to maintain — for me it was establishing a safe place for them to be comfortable going into difficult emotional terrain and for them, it was being open and willing to talk about and modulate performance to sync everything up visually and tonally.
Filmmaker: What was the biggest difficulty you faced in having to tell a story with a camera? And in what ways was that an altogether different experience than writing a novel?
Thomas: With a novel, you get this limitless canvas upon which to craft your story and characters. It can be quite liberating and at the same time difficult to maintain pacing and resonance. With film, you’re working with a much more rigid structure…and it is the better for that. I’m a very visual learner and creator; for both books and films, I do some heavy outlining and create a lookbook. There are dozens upon dozens of folders of images and drawings (I do my own storyboarding) for all of my projects. In some ways, moving from writing novels into filmmaking was a somewhat organic process. I see these stories so vividly in my head and live with them for years, decades even; the only question is how they will emerge as either a book or a film.