“A Haunted House Movie In Quotation Marks”: Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala on The Lodge
As two, aunt and nephew Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala hope to disperse the ego of the moviemaking machine. They split the single mindedness of the one-director show and harness twice the fighting power in their creative battles against the industry’s business end. Moving to a US production for their sophomore feature: The Lodge, the two saw the ugly head of commerce rear itself more than it ever dared in Austria, where they shot their debut Goodnight Mommy.
The Lodge begins with a bias for its young siblings Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) who have lost their mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone). The dissenting party is, of course, their soon-to-be stepmother Grace. A subject of one of their father’s books before he proposed to her, Grace is the sole survivor of an Evangelical cult that commited mass suicide — or, in their eyes, exodus to heaven. The kids know their father’s literature. We see them see the back of Grace’s hair swoop through their Dad’s garden and her silhouette through a diffused pane of glass before she’s finally unveiled to the viewer for us to confirm: Right, it’s just the disarming face of Riley Keough. Hoping to mend the tension between his kids and fiance, the father proposes they head up to their lodge to celebrate Christmas like the old days—minus their real mother.
And then the film juggles with our empathy. Sometimes we root for both the kids and Grace, sometimes neither. It pulls this off by shooting off their eyelines. The camera is below or above the eye level of both parties, or in profile; their eyes rarely meet near the lens, and so don’t meet our eyes to connect with us.
Franz and Fiala’s choices as directors are influenced by films of all sorts, not just arthouse and not just genre films. They’d go on movie benders over the weekend: “There was one evening where we watched Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, Faces by Cassavetes, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan,” Severin reminisces. They let all of those influences pool together and encourage strong input from their cast and crew. The sound of an Alka Seltzer tablet fizzing over a tense scene is amplified the way it was in Taxi Driver, or the way a butter knife grinding over toast was in Phantom Thread, or any number of tea kettles in any number of loud films. But on the other hand the horror never takes off like you might expect it to, or like a trailer might want you to believe. The duo aims for this controlled dissemination of interests. To them, the result is more sophisticated, is better, than the vision of one.
Filmmaker: You trick us into thinking the opening shots of the lodge are of its real interior. Eventually you reveal the spaces to be a dollhouse imitation. Then you trick us again by cutting to the real lodge, but you don’t reveal that we’ve jumped between them. What does this opening trickery mean for the relationship between the two spaces?
Severin Fiala: That’s what we try to do through the whole movie. The dollhouse motif, symbolizing [this question] of who is playing with the dolls in the dollhouse. We wanted to mix those layers of reality and the dollhouse throughout the whole movie so the audience is never too sure where they are, what they’re seeing, if it’s reality or if someone or something is playing games here.
Veronika Franz: And usually [Severin and I] like to play games. We also like to play with each other when we write the script. We go back and forth on who has the better idea or we try to surprise each other. And I think we also like to play games with the audience, and so the film starts with a game.
Fiala: Honestly I think you’re the first person who ever realized that there are real images mixed into the model at the beginning. You’re right, the gun and the painting are from the real lodge. We wanted to mix it to enforce the feeling that you can never be too sure what’s real or not.
Filmmaker: You’re shooting off the eyeline, shooting in profile, shooting below and above their eye level so that it’s almost impossible for the audience to empathize more or less with either side.
Fiala: I think it was one of the first decisions we made with our DP, that we very rarely wanted to be in the direct eyeline of the characters. For us the film is—I mean, it’s a haunted house movie in quotation marks. It’s a movie about somebody who is absent, like the mother of the kids, who is associated with the house. So it’s her house. For us it’s somehow connected to her and we wanted to emphasize that she is constantly watching from above, or maybe it’s this Virgin Mary painting, or someone underneath. We wanted the feeling that they were being constantly watched.
Franz: Plus, having the dollhouse feeling so that you’re not only not sure if somebody is watching, but also if there is someone playing with the dolls, or the human beings, having them on strings. Who’s playing them? Who’s playing who?
Fiala: You’re never eye level in a dollhouse. Usually you’re looking, as you’re taller than it, from above, or as a child from underneath. But you’re rarely eye level with the dolls in the dollhouse.
Filmmaker: So the film is not being explicit about who it is that’s watching?
Franz: The Virgin Mary [painting], for us, is something that their mother left in the house. [Same with] the Jesus on the cross, etc.
Fiala: Everything for us, the whole house really, is the mom’s. She is staring at these people through all of her things.
Franz: It’s kind of a Rebecca motif in a strange way.
Fiala: I love Rebecca.
Filmmaker: Why is the father’s house tied to the lodge visually with its dark brown exterior?
Franz: Actually we wanted to begin the film more colorful. The father’s house has bright colors [inside.]
Fiala: It has this weird green.
Franz: Weird green floors and white walls.
Fiala: We wanted to drain that color throughout the film. Once the lodge loses electricity we wanted it to end nearly monochromatic. We didn’t want to do it in post production, we wanted to really have this transition with production design and costumes. So when we first get to the lodge there are colorful blankets lying around, and later those are gone.
Franz: We wanted to, I don’t know if you can say it in English but—we wanted to “freeze” the colors in a way, so that it’s this frozen black and white in-between world. It’s dark inside, light outside.
Fiala: A purgatory.
Franz: Yes, a frozen purgatory. Usually you imagine it as a hot place [laughs] but we wanted it black and white, frozen. I think it feels like that on the inside. Also, maybe hell doesn’t feel hot, maybe it’s scarier that it’s very cold and isolated. [laughs]
Filmmaker: So those visual arcs are integrated at the writing stage? And how did [co-screenwriter] Sergio Casci fit into your writing process?
Franz: When it came to those visual decisions, we collaborated with our DP Thimios Bakatakis more than Sergio Casci. Normally those silent things, the atmospheric scenes, draining the movie of its color, etc., are not things we come up with in the screenwriting. That’s where the director and the DP step in. In fact, we had to sacrifice some of Sergio’s witty dialogue in order to achieve that. We shared the script with Thimios, talked it though, gathered visual ideas and inspiration. And then we added them into the script. So, talking with our DoP really affected the script and the story line.
Fiala: The absence of things happening to create dread. [laughs]
Franz: We also think silence is more effective than loud music that tells you how you should feel for the scene. So the lack of all this kind of helps leave you to yourself. You have nothing to hold on to.
Fiala: You have to bring yourself to the movie, and I think for some people that feels boring because they don’t want to do that, and so it ends up feeling all empty for them in a way. But if you’re accepting this invitation to fill those blank spaces and this time you get with yourself and try to feel it as the person you are, then I think our films can be really scary. If you move too quickly, you cut from one jump scare to the next, then there’s never time to feel anything. We wanted to give the audience time to ask themselves how they think they should feel and feel uncertain about what’s next. I think that takes time.
Franz: We never want to preach to you. I mean, you saw it twice now. Hopefully people can discover more and notice things they missed the first time.
Filmmaker: The film presents two realities: In one, suicide closes the gates to heaven, in the other it opens them. In the end, I think there’s something unnerving about how easily one of those versions is succumbed to.
Fiala: I think the whole film is about trauma and how you try to live with it and overcome it, in a way. The film turns into a horror film because these people don’t properly talk about their scars and what hurt them in the past. If they had talked about them more openly, it might have been a romantic comedy.
Franz: What we wanted to show I think is that hell, heaven, and purgatory are maybe on earth. They’re inside of us. It’s nothing you go to.
Fiala: It’s an actual place.
Franz: And it’s something you create. You live in that. It’s a worse punishment maybe. If you did something wrong, you have to live with it. This is hell, and you have to try to make peace with yourself.
Filmmaker: I’m elated to see Alicia Silverstone in anything. Do you have favorite films of hers, and how did you come to cast her?
Franz: We saw her in the Yorgos Lanthimos movie [The Killing Of A Sacred Deer,] the last one, and we share the same cinematographer.
Fiala: So our DP Thimios Bakatakis encouraged us to ask her because he said she’s great and very cool. We of course liked her from her other films. We didn’t actually audition her I think. She’s like too famous to be auditioning for such a small part, so we gave it to her and told her what it was. She was surprised by it, she said she hadn’t been offered anything like it. She wanted to do it instantly.
Of course we love her in many movies, and I think it will be all of the obvious ones plus Batman & Robin, which is so batshit crazy and totally underrated. The only thing that’s not amazing is the action sequences. Those are not great at all unfortunately. Schumacher’s not so good at that, but the rest of the movie is amazing. You could throw out all of the action scenes. It’s such a weird movie.
Filmmaker: I heard the cult priest whose voice is heard throughout the film is played by Riley Keough’s father. Scary voices are usually so played up, but there’s something unnerving to me about how kind of lame or subdued his is here.
Franz: To me too! [laughs] We found him through Riley because we couldn’t find anyone. Playing a priest is kind of hard, and it’s a small part. We were supposed to hire a Canadian actor, actually, but couldn’t find one. We always work with improvisation, and it’s really difficult to improvise a priest without it becoming a cliche. So we were getting pretty close to shooting and Riley facetimed her father and we both knew: “He’s our cult priest!” [laughs] And he’s not an actor at all, he’s a musician, and we were lucky that he used to scuba dive in Hawaii, because he had to do those underwater scenes.
Fiala: And he had a cult background. We didn’t know any of this, we just felt he was the guy. I think because he was a musician his voice was really soothing, and also scary in a gentle way which is perfect for the film — then he turned out to be a diver, and from a cult background, so he ended up being ideal in more than one way.
Franz: We improvised with him later. We did it in different faces, in a way, to get him to say something and he was really good at that.
Fiala: We originally had him come into the studio and read some lines. There were not many lines at all and he was not very good. But when we let him make the lines longer and his own he was great, there were some super scary lines that were very poetic in a way. When we let him bring himself to the part it really worked.
Franz: We also had a priest at the funeral and he’s an exorcist! A true exorcist. He’s Canadian, and we found him by accident. Someone told us about him and we knew we had to meet him. We actually took Riley there.
Fiala: He has an office in a garage in the middle of the woods.
Franz: He was very —
Franz: Very impressive.
Filmmaker: You lost time with the actors by having to spend more on logistics?
Fiala: Unions, logistics, or, more generally speaking, the big machine the US movie industry utilizes to produce films that takes a lot of time away from the creative process. Not just from us working with the actors, but also from working on production design, costumes, the overall look of the film—from everything! That‘s not a great thing. However, it also has a good side to it: If you urgently need something done in a US production, there is always the man or womanpower to do it quickly.
Filmmaker: You’ve both said the advantage of writing/directing as a pair is that it deflates the “ego” and “authority” inherent to the production apparatus of a one person show. How did working on a larger American production effect that advantage?
Franz: We believe it always helps with the cast and crew. Being two signals an openness for collaboration and encourages our collaborators to share ideas and bring their own thoughts and feelings into the project. With producers it‘s a bit of the opposite thing. We feel that being two made us stronger and it made it easier to fight for what we believed was good for the movie: If one of us lost his/her energy, the other one could take over and continue fighting.
Filmmaker: Which creative battles did you win and how? Which creative battles did you lose, and why? Does the film suffer for it? Or is it just different for it?
Franz: In general, we were able to realize many of our artistic goals, all of which were things that we had done on our previous film Goodnight Mommy, and all of which we believe made that film an interesting and successful one. Shooting on location, shooting in sequence, improvising with the actors, and shooting on 35mm were some of them. How did we win the battle? We don‘t know, honestly. Maybe it’s all about being persistent. We just kept asking for the things that had been promised to us, we kept fighting for what we believed was right. At one point the Canadian line producer half-jokingly told us: “Not even a big studio could break the two of you. I’m sure of it.”