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“We Spent a Lot of Time Choosing Lenses”: Keith Thomas on The Vigil and His Forthcoming Firestarter Adaptation

Dave Davis in The Vigil

Unfolding over the course of one evening in the Hasidic community of Boro Park, Brooklyn, Keith Thomas’s debut feature, The Vigil, gets more unsettling the darker the night gets. Dave Davis plays Yakov, a young man experiencing difficulty living a newly secular life. As securing a job has proved difficult, he agrees to a friend’s impromptu request to serve as a shomer, watching over the cold body of a local man, Rubin Litvak, before the deceased is laid to rest. Anticipating an easy few hours of surfing the web on his smartphone, Yakov settles in for his watchman duties. Unfortunately for him, things are about to go bump in the night.

A worthy addition to the “religious horror” subgenre, The Vigil is now playing in select theaters and on VOD platforms courtesy of IFC Midnight. I spoke with Thomas last Friday, the morning of the film’s release about his winding path to filmmaking, his medical background, shooting in Boro Park and how pre-production has been unfolding on his next feature, Firestarter.

Filmmaker: While you’ve told stories in a multitude of formats throughout your career, The Vigil is your feature film debut (prior to that, you made one short film, Arkane). What made you want to take the leap into narrative filmmaking?

Thomas: It’s funny thinking back on it now. When The Vigil premiered in 2019 in Toronto, I was teaching screenwriting here in Colorado [where I live] and students would ask how I came to make my first film, i.e. did I go the film school route? What led me to make my short, Arkane? My journey to making The Vigil isn’t something anyone should try to emulate. It was a twenty-year exploration, in terms of trying to figure out what the hell I was doing with my life. I had the filmmaking bug relatively early, but it didn’t seem possible to pursue it as a career (and I wasn’t alone in thinking that). I studied film in college, but primarily film studies and criticism, not production. I studied a lot of German and Italian films and loved discovering new (particularly non-American) movies that not many people had seen and immersing myself in obscurities.

Around this time I began making a career for myself in clinical research for a few hospitals, and it was also around this time that I began writing fiction. I couldn’t suppress my love for storytelling and it came out first via short stories, before I moved onto writing books and then eventually screenwriting. I had written a book that had been noticed and recognized by certain people, and they recommended that I try my hand at screenwriting. That was a multiyear-long ordeal of learning the craft. Screenwriting is obviously very different from writing a novel or writing prose, and after eight years of screenwriting and having had whatever limited success I had selling scripts and working with producers and studios, I got to the point where I felt I had acquired enough skills to finally direct. 

Arkane was that project, a labor of love and very much my own thing. My wife was willing to let me use our shared savings to make the film, so I gathered a local film crew here in Denver and wrote, produced and directed it. I even painted the sets. I was involved in every facet of production, although for what end, I’m not really sure. I think I made Arkane as a calling card to establish myself, to prove to myself that I could actually do it. Thankfully, I was pleased enough with the results that I sent the film around Hollywood and enough people were willing to take a look at it and got the ball rolling on what I wanted to make next. That project became The Vigil.

Filmmaker: And as you were writing The Vigil, you thought back to your college studies, right? Hadn’t you written a dissertation on monsters in Jewish literature and theology?  

Thomas: I had, yeah. Growing up, I had been fascinated by monsters and horror fiction and all the standard spooky, scary stuff. It’s weird to realize that that interest has naturally found its way into everything I’ve pursued since. As an undergrad, I chose to write my thesis on the subject of “body horror.”

Filmmaker: A lot of David Cronenberg films?

Thomas: Yeah, then in grad school I studied theology and wrote my thesis on “monsters within the Torah.” My perspective always tended to shift toward horror subject matter and I had fun researching the Nephilim and Leviathan and Lilith, all of the various monsters that kept popping up throughout my research. That interest continued when I attended medical school and wrote a paper on the physics of Kaiju for one of my classes. For example, if Kaiju were fighting within a city and one of them fell down, I wrote about how we could measure the exact force involved in their hitting a building and crashing.

My second paper was also very specific. It concerned David Lynch’s film adaptation of Dune and the heart plugs the servants of Vladimir Harkonnen have attached to them. If you really did install a heart plug in somebody and then pulled the plug out, what would be the velocity of the blood released and how quickly would it drain the body? How quickly would they die? That’s what I wrote my paper on. I guess this has always been the lens I look at life through. My graduate studies and researching of monsters in the Torah were very much the seed being planted for The Vigil.

Filmmaker: Were you also interested in the Yiddish film industry of the 1920s and 1930s? I ask mainly because Yiddish cinema was extremely popular in New York City (where The Vigil is set) and, in some instances, also explored biblical, demonic spirits (although usually of the dybbuk variety). Many of those films are now lost, but Kino Lorber released a boxset last year that’s worth checking out.

Thomas: I honestly didn’t have much familiarity with them, other than seeing bits and pieces here and there, mostly of the folktale genre. Much of it felt similar to the opening ten-minute prologue of the Coen brothers’ movie, A Serious Man, where a dybbuk visits a couple living in a shtetl. It’s very Eastern European and rooted in the Old World tradition of sharing folklore. I’ve always found those stories quite interesting, especially ones like The Dybbuk [1937] and, to go even further back, The Golem [1915]. 

When I began writing The Vigil however, my first attempts were less influenced by Yiddish culture and more by ancient theology, ancient prayers and ancient beliefs (and the demons that arise from those). But when we shifted the central setting of The Vigil to a Hasidic community in Boro Park, Brooklyn, the film became more indebted to the use of Yiddish language and customs. The film’s understanding of demonology and conceptions of the supernatural shifted toward what I think the earlier Yiddish films you mentioned were getting at, more within the realm of folklore.

Filmmaker: You originally set the film somewhere other than Boro Park? What led to the change in location?

Thomas: After I made my eight-minute short and saw how a movie came together, I intended to make The Vigil in much the same local way. I would be involved in all aspects of production and was prepared to “Coen brothers it,” finding a bunch of dentists or local professionals willing to provide additional funding. I was not preparing to make The Vigil for very much money, so I planned to use a house here in Colorado to shoot in. It was essentially the same story you see in the finished film: a man who had left the Orthodox community being called back to be a shomer for one evening, but the house that he was going to would be in the mountains here in Colorado. We had access to a particular house, so that was the plan. However, thanks to my manager, the script got into the hands of these two producers at Boulderlight Pictures in Los Angeles, and they said, “We like this script but want to make it a bigger movie. If you’re going to make a Jewish horror film, it should be the Jewish horror film. And if you’re going to make the Jewish horror film (set in the U.S.), it has to be set within the actual community in Brooklyn.” So, with Boulderlight Pictures essentially footing the bill, I said, “OK, let’s expand it and make it bigger.” Looking back, I think it was the right call. It opened the movie up in a number  of ways I hadn’t originally thought of. An earlier draft of the script had the story set almost entirely within the house and was very much a one-man show. Once we agreed to set the story in Brooklyn, it brought Brooklyn and its community into the story and I think made the film more interesting. 

Filmmaker: You open the story with Yakov attending a Footsteps meeting. That feels pretty specific. Once you chose to shoot in Boro Park, did the location influence your bringing in those additional real life organizations?

Thomas: My first draft [set in Colorado] had a reference to a Footsteps-like organization. The first draft opened with a drive to the house where Yakov would be overseeing the body. On that drive, Yakov and the rabbi are having a conversation and there’s a mention of a group helping Yakov leave the Hasidic community behind. It’s not Footsteps, but it’s like Footsteps. But once we changed the setting to New York, I rewrote the script and read up on (and talked to people about) Footsteps specifically. When we went into pre-production, it became clearer to me that the authenticity of that opening sequence would be incredibly important, so I talked to people actively involved in Footsteps day-to-day. Each of the folks sitting around that table in the opening scene (with the exception of our lead actor, Dave Davis) have all had some involvement with Footsteps in their personal lives. There are a number of small moments in the film that focus on what it’s like to enter into the secular world for the first time, and those stories came from real life experience. When Yakov talks about writing a resume on a spare piece of paper, for example, that’s based on a true story. Dave wasn’t making that story up. 

The film needed to be grounded in reality, down to the moment where Yakov is at the house and Googling “how to talk to women” on his smartphone. It was something I was told someone who had left the community had actually done, as these are the things they really don’t know how to do once they leave. A lot of folks also mentioned they had never ordered off of a menu before. Their recollections were extremely rich and I couldn’t make that stuff up. I’m sure some viewers may see those moments and think it’s unrealistic, but when you find out about these personal experiences, it’s so real that it begins to feel unreal. But it’s not, and once we arrived in New York to prep, we immersed ourselves in it.

Filmmaker: Your casting also feels in conversation with the Jewish cinema that came before it, in that some of your actors are not only Jewish but known for prominently playing Jewish characters on screen. My earliest memory of Lynn Cohen would have been her playing Golda Meir in Steven Spielberg’s Munich, and in your referencing A Serious Man earlier, I’m reminded that a supporting actor from that film, Fred Melamed, makes a voice cameo in The Vigil (and can next be seen in Shiva Baby). And Menashe Lustig, who plays Reb Shulem, is, of course, known for starring as a version of himself in the 2017 A24 drama, Menashe. Did the casting seem this meta to you or was this all a coincidence?

Thomas: Well, it was important to me that these folks felt a part of, and understood, the world the film came from. The casting was, in a number of ways, a rolling of the casting dice. One of the producers on the film, Adam Margules, was also an executive producer on Menashe, so he knew Menashe personally and, after reading the script, recommended we ask him to play Reb Shulem. I think it was exciting for Menashe to be back in “this world” and, this time, on a horror film. I don’t think he’s ever seen a horror film in his entire life, but filming one was very fun for him. He’s a very natural actor, an organic talent. 

Adam had also previously worked with Lynn Cohen and set up a meeting for us when I arrived in New York. She read the script and identified something personal in it for her. She had a wealth of personal history under her belt, of course, and if she wasn’t necessarily a horror film aficionado, the story said something to her She delighted in both the personal nature of the story and how it connected to her own family history and how they ended up here in the United States. She really loved that stuff and loved playing a creepy old lady and scaring Dave, her scene partner, on set. The accent that she used for her character (which I believe was Ukranian) was based on her grandmother’s accent. She incorporated it in the film as a personal homage to her, and many of her character’s physical mannerisms were very much about placing herself in her grandmother’s shoes. 

Fred Melamed was great to work with. He’s the voice of the psychiatrist, Dr. Kohlberg, on the phone in the finished film, even if on set I was the one playing the psychiatrist for Dave to have someone to interact off of. But from the beginning, we really wanted Fred Melamed to play that voice on the phone. We thought it would be fun if we could get Sy Ableman from A Serious Man to play the psychiatrist, you know? We reached out, and he responded to the material and was down to join. We had a great time recording his part in Los Angeles. He really knocked it out of the park.

Filmmaker: While much of the film is in English, the characters occasionally speak in Yiddish and Hebrew. The Yiddish is subtitled for English-speaking viewers, but the Hebrew is not. I wanted to ask you about what I believe was an intentional choice there.

Thomas: It was. It was important that the Yiddish be translated for the viewer, as much of the story’s expositional dialogue is spoken in Yiddish, especially as Yakov and Reb Shulem are walking to the house at the beginning of the film. Their chat lays the foundation for the mystery the film will spend the rest of its duration uncovering. The Yiddish conversations also make up many of the emotional moments in the film, like when Yakov is speaking to what he thinks is the ghost of his brother. That stuff seemed very important to have in Yiddish, and to also translate it via English subtitles.  

The moments in the film where Hebrew is used was a different story, however. There are two things to that choice, one being that the prayers spoken in Hebrew are just that: prayers. They’re not necessarily related to the action of the scene. They’re just prayers and I didn’t want people to be distracted reading subtitles during those sequences. You don’t want viewers’ eyes darting up and down between the actor in the center of the frame and the subtitles at the bottom. I also didn’t think it was very important to translate those prayers. When you watch an exorcism being conducted in a movie and a priest is shouting in Latin, do you really need subtitles? You get that they’re reciting a prayer, that this is some form of a religious custom being performed as a means of protection, of healing or strengthening someone. By not subtitling the prayers, we were maintaining its purity. 

That purity is also why I didn’t have a character explain what a tefillin is and why he’s putting it on to wear. I just felt that viewers would understand his reasoning, at least to some degree. They’ll see the tefillin and say, “I don’t know what that is, but it’s clearly a religious thing that’s being used as a form of spiritual armor.” Leaving the Hebrew prayers untranslated came very much from the same assumption, that viewers would understand what was happening, even if they couldn’t translate it.

Filmmaker: Since the film takes place over the course of one evening and primarily within a single location, what kind of limitations did you have to work with (and perhaps find a way to improve upon) for the betterment of the production? It feels like there’s a lot of in-camera work and ambient light being used, whether that’s from street lamps, subway cars, the glow of a smartphone, etc. 

Thomas: While the film is obviously dealing with supernatural shenanigans in the house, I wanted to emphasize a heavy psychological component that enables the supernatural to appear. It was important, then, that the film be as naturalistic and grounded as possible. The practical lighting was crucial to my cinematographer, Zach Kuperstein, and I, and we wanted most of it to come off of lamps. We were attempting very particular color schemes in different rooms, but when we were filming exteriors on the street, it often came down to changing certain bulbs in nearby street lamps to give everything a specific glow. I wanted the light to be reminiscent of a candle flame while also reminiscent of what comes to mind when I think of Brooklyn, and that is the orange haze from street lamps. In some ways, I wanted to collect the feel of the outside world at nighttime and bring that into the interior of the home, even if the house is its own bubble and in its own world. 

I also wanted the house to feel like a part of Brooklyn. I mean, it was located in Brooklyn, but beyond the geographical, I wanted a cohesiveness, shared between the interior and the exteriors, [so] we could toggle between. There’s occasionally a weird break in the action where there’s suddenly a different lighting scheme inside the house or on the street lamps above Dave, so we were able to switch out some of the lights on that particular street to have everything match. We made the street lights harsher so that they’d really bring out sharp-edged shadows.

Filmmaker: And when you were shooting the interior of the house, the space was pretty tight, right? I read that Zach chose specific Kowa lenses that have a large amount of distortion on the edges to widen out the look of the space.

Thomas: We spent a lot of time choosing lenses for the shoot. The film is almost entirely reliant on practical effects (with a few CG touchups in post), so much of the heavy work conveying atmosphere was going to come from the lenses and having everything be in-camera. While the whole film is anamorphic, the opening shots of the support group and Yakov’s walk to the house were shot using modern anamorphic lenses. From the moment we get inside the house, we switch to Kowa lenses that heavily distort the edges of the frame, especially when panning over the space (it bends everything in the frame). We wanted the atmosphere baked right into the image, essentially. 

When it came to shooting the more hallucinatory images, Zach was a real whiz. I want to point out all of the shots where the mazzik appears, for example. Zach lives in Brooklyn and would ride his bike to set everyday, and one day he noticed an old, glass baking dish laying atop trash in the street. He picked it up, rode to set and said, “Keith, check this out. If we shoot through this glass, through the bottom of the dish, it will provide a unique distortion to the image.” The glass had aged through the years as it was used for serving casseroles or who knows what, and Zach rigged it to hang in front of the camera. As we were filming a shot, we’d bend the glass and essentially create this instant distortion. You can’t add that in post. It’s an extra layer, quite literally, atop the image. 

Filmmaker: I imagine Christian-based horror films are more readily accepted by a mainstream audience (that would explain why we seem to receive so many of them) over other religion-oriented horror films. What has been your experience sharing The Vigil with the public? Did having a Jewish horror film open up new opportunities for festival play and a wider range of journalistic coverage? Or did it feel more pigeonholed? 

Thomas: I’ve been pretty happy with the overall response. While making the film, I had absolutely no idea what would happen after we finished filming. I was just trying to make what I thought was a good film, getting what I envisioned in my head up on screen. I had no idea what the reviews would turn out like. I was just glad I got to make the thing and get it out there. 

The festival circuit was great and it’s been great to see the response from two different camps. There’s the “horror film fan” camp, which has been very receptive to how we presented the film as a story with a traditional demon/possession trope, albeit one told through a lens people hadn’t seen before. That response excited me, as I always considered The Vigil to be a horror film first and foremost. Then there is the “Jewish film fan” camp that was interested in the film for its specific religious ties (I suppose there’s also a third camp, that being the general arthouse audience). The Jewish side has been very receptive to the film and it’s played numerous Jewish film festivals. The comments I appreciate the most come from people who say, “I don’t like horror films, but I liked this one,” telling me that they identified something in the film that was true to their world and it felt true to them. Then there is the arthouse crowd that has given extended life to recent horror films like The Babadook and Relic and Hereditary, where you get viewers who can find an appreciation in the filmmaking craft itself. I’ve been very pleased with the response from all three of those groups. I didn’t go into the project thinking we’d get much attention at all, so it’s been good to follow the reception.

Filmmaker: I know everyone has been asking about your next project, a feature-film adaption of the Stephen King novel, Firestarter, for Blumhouse and Universal. While you begin shooting soon, I wanted to ask how it’s been getting to work on material written by someone else. Not only is the source material a famous novel, but it was also previously adapted into a film released in 1984. Has years of working on projects that you originated and personally authored prepared you for embarking on this?

Thomas: To a certain extent, I think it has. At the same time, weirdly enough (and I don’t know why), Firestarter has always been very familiar to me. It was one of the first Stephen King books I ever read. I really identified with the story and realize that I now have even more connections to it. I’m a father and know what it’s like to parent a young daughter. I’ve never been on the run or had to live underground to avoid being chased by government agents, of course, but I can identify with the pain involved in something like that. Back in my clinical research days, I conducted drug studies where I would provide pharmaceuticals to study what effects they had on people and measure those over time. That’s very much the core engine of what happens in Firestarter, in terms of the Lot 6 experiment and the abilities these people who came out of the experiment developed. It feels like a world that I know.

Having read the book and seen the 1984 film, this new project feels like I’m stepping into something different. The screenwriter, Scott Teems (Halloween Kills), and I were on the same page for what a Firestarter movie made in 2021 should look and feel like. I’ll sometimes get scripts submitted to me through my agents, and having been a writer myself first, it’s hard to take the “writer hat” off and refrain from jumping in and messing with someone’s script. But when I read Scott Teems’s draft, I thought, “While there’s something I’ll want to bring to it via my filmmaking, all the pieces are already there.” The existing Firestarter film and novel have been around for a long time and we’ve seen a number of superhero movies pull ideas out of Firestarter and use them for their own comics and subsequent film adaptations. But what Teems wrote feels like a fresh take on the material. My hope is that it will feel like Firestarter felt when the book was first released in 1980. 

Working with Blumhouse and Universal has been a great experience too. They’re obviously very big studios, so things will be amped up more than they were on The Vigil, and obviously the budget will be higher, but they’ve been very freeing overall. I feel supported in making the film I want to make.

Filmmaker: Hopefully there’s a role for Fred Melamed somewhere in the script. Perhaps as another offscreen phone-caller…

Thomas: [laughs] That could be my signature! A Fred Melamed call in every movie. 

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