Of Ghosts and Made-For-TV ’70s Horror Films: Ted Geoghegan on We Are Still Here
Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here is a love letter. Two parents, grieving over their lost son, move to a new house in Massachusetts. The house, of course, is haunted. It’s like Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery – intentionally so. It hearkens back to an older time, and it doesn’t really feel like a modern horror movie. Among the glut, it stands out, and the universally high marks it’s received from critics show that Geoghegan was onto something. After working as a writer and producer for years, this marks his feature debut as a director. It’s certainly a promising start to what will hopefully be a long genre career.
However, that uniqueness is a double-edged sword. Though the vast majority of critics have loved it (“gotten it,” as far as Geoghegan is concerned), response from the public has been more tepid. On iTunes, the film hit #1 in the horror section and was in the Top 10 for more than a month, but community reviews place it at three stars, with a number of users expressing shock at the critical acclaim. As with so many things, it’s a victim of expectations. Here is a film that plays up off-kilter melodrama with off-putting, often humorous performances in a bizarro Massachusetts. But many expected traditional horror, and railed against the film for doing what it set out to do — go in with the right frame of mind, and you’ll find a whole lot to like.
With its October 6th home media release coming up, I sat down with the writer/director to discuss We Are Still Here and the experience of being a first time director.
Filmmaker: Other than Lucio Fulci, who were some of your biggest inspirations for We Are Still Here?
Geoghegan: I feel like the biggest influences on the film are things that are not what one would typically call “theatrical.” A big influence on the film was made-for-TV movies of the late ’70s, like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark or Dark Night of the Scarecrow, the films that were smaller and more intimate. I liked those a lot and grew up with them, so they were a huge influence on the tone and pacing. H.P. Lovecraft was a huge influence, just in terms of the strange societies he created in his stories. There’s a touch of Stephen King in there with the strange town that’s holding back a lot of dark secrets.
Visually and stylistically, there are a lot of nods to other films. The Dagmar family is based very heavily on Captain Drake and the pirate ghosts in John Carpenter’s The Fog. When they go to the diner, it’s a bit of a throwback to An American Werewolf in London. The stairs during the finale are obviously from Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street. There’s these little odds and ends, but overall tonally the intention was to make something that felt very Fulci and very made-for-TV ’70s.
Filmmaker: It’s set in New England, but you’re not from New England. Why there as opposed to, say, the Midwest?
Geoghegan: The New England setting is very heavily influenced by Lovecraft. Virtually all of his stories take place in this fictional New England that he created, based around a number of towns that don’t exist. Although it’s never expressed directly in the film, We Are Still Here actually takes place in one of those towns called Aylesbury. I like setting something creepy in New England for the same reason he did. It’s so peaceful and serene and gorgeous that it’s almost unreal to imagine the idea of something horrible happening there. It’s the idea that if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere!
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult part of the shoot, physically?
Geoghegan: The weather. I was there for over a month, and it only got above freezing twice. The house, which was built in 1859, was only heated by these two very small wood burning stoves that you can see in the film. Part of the reason they’re always running in the film was because we had to keep them running just to keep the house bearable. Every day, we had offices inside the house, and everyone would be bundled up inside because there was no heat anywhere. That was pretty rough on a lot people. A lot of our cast is California- and Texas-based, and they weren’t used to those kinds of temperatures, especially for such lengths. The crew was all about it, since they’re all from Rochester, New York. I think it was cake for them to deal with lots of snow and agonizingly low temperatures.
Filmmaker: What were some interesting things that happened on set?
Geoghegan: We arrived in upstate New York and had yet to cast one of the most important roles in the film: the role of the house. So we spent some trying trying to find a house that would be absolutely perfect, and we stumbled across this home. As soon as we saw it, we knew it was the old Dagmar house. The owners then proceeded to tell us that it had been built in 1859, which is exactly the same year as the house in the script was built, and we felt like that was an unbelievably interesting coincidence. It also had an almost identical layout to the layout I had created in my head in the script.
But as we were filming, we started to notice just how creepy the house was. I’m a pretty stout agnostic and do not believe in ghosts, but [producer] Travis Stevens and I were shooting down in the cellar one day and we walked off to the far end to discuss a scene in private, and as we were talking we both quite clearly heard footsteps in the rocks right next to us. I’m perfectly willing to admit that it was probably dripping water or something, but at that moment I just smiled at Travis, turned around, and walked right out of the room and didn’t stop until I was at the other side of the cellar where all of the crew was standing. I looked back and Travis was standing in the dark staring at me wide-eyed, and he puts his hands up in the air and he goes, “You abandoning me, bro? You abandoning me with a ghost?” So that was pretty cool.
The owners had told us that during some renovations, they broke down several walls, and inside one was a gigantic pile of femurs. We immediately asked if they were human femurs, and they said they most likely were not and that during that time, as people were building this house they were just filling the walls with anything to make them thicker. Even so, it was a very interesting thought process that we were working inside a house with walls that were lined with bones.
Filmmaker: Is this your first time directing? Or is it just your first feature?
Geoghegan: This is my first time directing a feature. I did a no-budget experimental short film over ten years ago that I had just made for some friends while living in rural Montana that was kind of a goofy, Scooby-Doo inspired music video. I can’t necessarily say it taught me anything about anything I did on this film, though. In terms of legitimately directing, this is a first. But I do have one weird little title under my belt.
Filmmaker: You’re building your style as a filmmaker over the course of the movie. When you watch it, do you see things shot on the 20th day as feeling more assured than the things shot on the first day?
Geoghegan: Absolutely. The first few days, it’s like getting your sea legs. It takes some time to figure out how you’re working in this environment and with these people. We very quickly found our groove, but there are a few scenes I really wish I had had the confidence [of] the 20th day to take some risks. Other people don’t notice it, but because I can see so much of myself in the film, I see spots where I wish I’d made a bolder decision.
Filmmaker: How exactly do you see yourself in the movie?
Geoghegan: I often refer to myself as a depressed optimist. I think this film is that. I suffer from depression, but I’m constantly trying to see the positive in things. It’s not so much that the characters deal with those issues as the film deals with those issues. It’s a rather depressing film but one that is filled with optimism. These characters have had terrible things happen to them, but they won’t give up.
Filmmaker: What do you think were some of the benefits and detriments of being a first time director?
Geoghegan: I think the benefit that comes with being a first time director is that you come into a project like this with very little ego. You go in really eager to prove yourself and to deliver something that hopefully will make a mark for you and what you want to do. But you don’t carry with you the baggage of having already created something that was either embraced or thrown back at you by the critics or public. I still find it very awkward to do interviews, because I often ask, “Who am I? I’m just some guy who made a movie.” I have yet to develop the ego that apparently comes along with filmmaking, and I’m not looking forward to ever having it.
I think the detriments are exactly what you’d expect. Perhaps some of that ego that so many filmmakers have is earned in a trial by fire. You go through a lot on your first film and probably on your second, third, fourth, and fifth films just learning the ropes. I have spent the last 15 years on film sets as a producer, as a writer, and to stand on the film set and steer the ship is rather intimidating. The first time you do it is certainly scary. Again, the analogy of finding your sea legs I don’t think could be any truer than on your first film. You have to stand up in front of everyone and convince them that it’s worth it to follow you to the ends of the earth for your project.
Filmmaker: What was something you thought you were prepared for that you weren’t?
Geoghegan: I was quite surprised at how bad I am at creating storyboards. I know exactly what I want a scene to look like and I can rough out some storyboards, but I am just not an artist with pen and ink. I had to do a lot of explaining when showing storyboards of stick figures and shabby lines. But my cinematographer and I spoke the same language and he was very quick to understand what I was going for. Thank god my team was able to decipher the hieroglyphics.
Filmmaker: What was something that was easier than you expected?
Geoghegan: My entire cast was very easy to work with, and I was very excited to work with them, because I’d grown up with every single one of them in entertainment. I was blown away by how easy it was to work with Monte Markham, who plays Dave, the town elder. At 80 years old, he’s been acting not only longer than I’ve been alive but almost longer than my father has been alive. It was really incredible to work with someone who brought with him such expertise and gravitas. He would just walk in the room and I felt at ease. It was a wonderful revelation to experience someone who really knew their way around a set and had been a part of the films that this film is emulating, some forty years later.
Filmmaker: Not all of your writing has been horror. Do you think as a director you’ll stick with genre, or will you branch out?
Geoghegan: I feel like almost everything I’ve done is genre stuff. I’ve taken some slight forays into action films, but I still lump that with fantastic filmmaking. I am not a fan of reality. I get way too much reality in my day-to-day life. When I watch films and when I make them I want to be transported somewhere. I love fantastic cinema. I can’t see myself working outside of it. I do think that genre film is a very fluid description, and every facet of it I’m interested in. Horror, sci-fi, fantasy to animation, martial arts: I find all of that absolutely wonderful and invigorating, and that’s the kind of thing that helps me and people all around the world cope with their day-to-day lives. It allows them to escape into something that is special and fantastic. I want to not only keep visiting those places, but I want to keep creating those places.