“You have to have faith that you’re not alone in this world, and that if you want to see something someone else wants to see it too”
SPOILERS AND SUICIDE THEME
Adam Stovall has had an incredible year. After the world premiere of A Ghost Waits in February 2020 at FrightFest Glasgow his feature debut went on to have a stellar run on the festival circuit before being picked up by Arrow Video for distribution, even headlining their newly launched streaming service. Here we sit down with the first time director to unpick his extraordinary relationship-horror-comedy and the deeply personal themes therein.
When you were growing up you were around cinema quite a bit. I understand your dad used to work as a projectionist when he was younger.
Yeah, my dad worked his way through college as a projectionist. He got sent out on a couple of gigs ’cause every now and then they’d have to send somebody to a film shoot to be a camera assistant, and so he had gotten to do that a couple of times.
Movies were my babysitter for the most part when I was a kid; not to say there weren’t people that would babysit me, but very often they knew they could put three video tapes on the VCR and I would just watch them and take care of myself. And then when I got a little bit older we lived near a movie theatre and so I would just walk over and stay there all day. I watched the 1989 Batman more times than I can count; I watched Kindergarten Cop a ton of times. My dad was a big James Bond fan so he would give me a bunch of those to watch. Movies were definitely like “And now Adam can take care of himself”.
I heard Back to the Future is a favourite of yours, which is interesting because at its heart it’s a film about relationships set against a fantastical backdrop: so although not immediately obvious, it feels like it would make a good double bill with A Ghost Waits because of that connective tissue.
That’s a really good insight. It’s funny: when you’re directing, you’re making decisions a billion times a day. There was no shot list for A Ghost Waits, we were finding the shot on set, and what I always say is I have like a prism right here [gestures over his heart] and when something hits the prism I just know what colour I’m looking for: so I know what feels right or doesn’t feel right. And what I’m finding in all these interviews is they’re kind of like therapy, ’cause it’s like “ I didn’t realize I put that there, but it absolutely is there”. Like now that you’ve mentioned that about Back to the Future it’s like “Oh, that absolutely is responsible for part of what I find interesting”.
There’s a school of thought that filmmaking itself is therapy because it’s about creatives projecting and working through the stuff which interests them thematically.
Right. I mean, we worked on this movie for five years: it would really suck to have gone through all this and it was bad or I didn’t like it. But that’s also what keeps you fighting, that you think it’s worth it.
When I first cut the movie together the assembly was bad: it was about 1hr 50 minutes long; totally different first act; a different ending. We also had a lot of scenes that took place outside the house, and what we learned was anytime we left the house the spell of the movie was broken. But “The Years Go By” sequence in the garage always worked, and it was like “OK, we can get the rest of it to that point”. And that’s what gave us the encouragement to keep working.
People say “You never know if a movie’s going to be good or bad”. Well, if you listen to the movie, the movie will tell you what it needs: that’s why we shot in August 2016, had pickups in April 2017 and then the last set of pickups in February 2018: we knew we had something, but you have to be humble enough to say “And this is where it doesn’t work at all! And we bloody well better fix it or we are fucked!” So we just kept working, looking for solutions that didn’t cost any money. But it was really fun.
I’ve actually never talked about this, but when we first set out to make A Ghost Waits I thought it was just going to be me and MacLeod (Andrews; writer/actor) and whoever else we had: I didn’t even think we’d have a sound person. In the pickups it was me and MacLeod in the house and we would put our Zoom on a tripod and it was just us playing. That’s what I thought the entire movie would be but because I brought in Chenney Chen to help with production, who runs Plum Street Productions, she brought in Mike Potter who shot it and even though it was still only a crew of like 6 people it was still more of a real shoot than I expected it to be.
It’s interesting hearing about moments away from the house: having only seen the final version I had wrongly assumed it was written as a chamber piece, which is something that would fit with your background in theatre.
It’s funny: to me it was still a chamber piece even though we had these little bits outside the house. All that was also just friends: this entire movie exists because of friendship; friends were saying “You can shoot in my place”. We ended up paying the power bill of the house we shot in but that was it.
How was the process of collaboration with MacLeod: you guys share writing credits but I understand you did the first draft.
The writing process on this one was so weird. Before this I generally had three years to write something ’cause nobody cared about it, so I could work forever and it didn’t matter. With this I had the idea in November 2015; talked about it for a month; went to Austin for Christmas and talked to my sister’s ex-husband and figured out the ending. The original ending was the idea that ghosts are here because of unfinished business, so Jack helps Muriel finish her business and then she leaves, because everyone leaves Jack. And a friend was like “You can’t do that – people will be upset!” So I was talking with Matt – Matt Taylor, who has co-story credit – and had the idea of “What if there was an All About Eve dynamic with a younger ghost?” So that brought in Rosie. And adding that third person clarified for me what the ending should be: I’m sitting there having drinks with my friend and suddenly I just saw the ending in my head; I just saw the garage, I heard the song and I was like “Oh shit! I know how this movie ends now.”
But I was writing by the seat of my pants. We were originally set to shoot in April but that wasn’t going to work so we lost some money we’d spent renting an Air BNB to shoot in. We eventually shot it in August, but I was constantly just – like at one point there was a talking dog in this movie, like “Whatever works! Just throw it all!”
So MacLeod flew in about a week ahead of shooting and we would sit in my dad’s kitchen and go over the script. MacLeod’s day job is he’s an audiobook narrator: he lives in story and gives the best notes. We would go through the script and any time something caught he was like “OK, what’s that mean?”
So we would be talking in the car about what we were about to shoot, and towards the end of the pickups we were in the car and I was like “Hey man, do you want a co-screenplay credit? ‘Cause you’ve done a lot!” And he was initially unsure: MacLeod doesn’t consider himself a writer, even though I think he’s a fantastic one. He tends to fold it into producing, and he’s a great producer, but a lot of it is because he has these great instincts: he starts with that just immense talent for story and character.
You’ve spoken before about how you were influenced by a web comic which riffed on Ghostbusters and how that film has a dualism: it’s supernatural, but it’s also about American bureaucracy and getting a business off the ground. With A Ghost Waits it felt that you flipped that, where the afterlife is this bureaucratic system – just a supernatural one – with Muriel returning to ‘headquarters’ to give an assessment on how the haunting is going.
I was raised in the church, but I’m not a religious person now and my feelings toward the afterlife are mostly I just don’t think there is one: but what I find interesting is people’s conception of an afterlife. People are so bad at seeing beyond what’s in front of them: it’s like if you see a red barn and you’re like “All barns are red”. So people’s idea of an afterlife is basically like their life… but later. And that I find really interesting.
I have this idea – and I don’t really know what to do with it yet, but I’ve been told that something needs to be done with it – that if we get to populate our own heaven subjectively then there are going to be people that want you in their heaven but you don’t want to go, and would someone else’s heaven be your hell? And carrying that a little bit further, if you still have a place to live and there’s still a functioning society, that kind of means we still have work, ’cause, that’s how we function. Especially in America, “What do you do?” is usually like the second question asked: we define ourselves by our jobs.
The music is really important in A Ghost Waits. I understand you were particularly influenced by Tom Waits, to the point that the film is named after him?
Yes, I adore Tom Waits: he’s one of my creative North Stars. Like I said I normally have forever to write, and I name characters and title a piece late in the process: I write a lot of scenes like “A” says this and “B” says that, and then later on once I know their character I name them. But in this case I couldn’t do that because we had to start casting and the movie needed a title, so I just went home and opened my Tom Waits discography and named every character after a Tom Waits song. I remember messaging a friend and saying “Hey is Ghost Waits or A Ghost Waits a better title?” I’m amazed it’s still the title of the movie and that never changed, but it didn’t.
We had two composers on the film: Margaret Darling and Mitch Bain. Margaret is Cincinnati based: she’s kinda retired from music now, but she was in a band called The Seedy Seeds who also have a song in the movie. And she’s just been a really good friend for years, so when she knew I wanted to make something and this became a reality she said “Can I help at all?” and I said “It’s funny you should say that – I need a score”. And that was a very interesting process, because she had never written a score for film and I had never worked with a composer. So she’d ask “What do you need?” and I’d be like “Well, this scene is happy and sad and lonely and can you just kind of convey all of human existence in a piece of music?” That’s not helpful!
So Margaret’s score is what screened at Glasgow, and that’s where I met Mitch Bain. He asked me to come on the Strong Language and Violent Scenes podcast, and that was just a blast and a half: you can hear it on the episode, we were just cracking up the entire time. We became friends and he sent me some music that he’d been working on, and I was like “Oh shit, this is really good”, so I sent it to MacLeod, not even really thinking about it for A Ghost Waits, and he was like “This is really good: it’s a shame he can’t score the movie” and I was like “Well, it’s not done. We could ask him”. So the next day I got on WhatsApp and he jumped at the chance and it worked out really well. Margaret’s score was really good, and we got to keep the really strong parts of her score as well as have this wonderful work that Mitch did.
I love it when I see Aronofsky and Clint Mansell or Soderbergh and Martinez or PTA and Jonny Greenwood: I love these partnerships. And I was like “Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to have a really strong composing partner”.
And it’s funny, but for a movie that had no prep and a director who figured out what he was doing as he went – usually a little bit later – it worked out so often. That’s part of the magic of it: I’m not entirely sure how this happens, but I’m really glad that it keeps happening.
One of the other key filmmaking choices which influences the tone is that the film’s in black and white. I understand this was a post-production decision because of some issues with getting the colours to match between two cameras?
I specifically remember when Chenney Chen and I were location scouting we were driving up to a couple of houses that were potential locations and I was like “Hey, I’ve been thinking about making this movie in black and white” and she said “No. Absolutely not. That’s not happening”. So we shot it in colour; we expected to put it out in colour; but then we did the first set of pickups and it was me shooting instead of Mike Potter. Now when Mike shot during principal photography he used his Blackmagic Ursa Mini along with my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema and had a small but effective lighting rig, whereas when I was shooting with just my Pocket Cinema we used natural light with maybe a few little work lights to fill in spots.
There’s a dream scene with two Jacks. It’s a very simple photographic effect: we shot it where he’s on one side and I’m on the other, we do the scene, and then he goes and changes clothes and I just move around and we do the scene again and then cut it. But because of that, any fluctuation in light reads, so we had to tape over any spots in the roof and anything where light could get in. So because of this there was a lot of little visual differences: maybe people wouldn’t have noticed but I edited the movie and took a run at colour correcting – we ended up hiring a colourist, but I took a run at it – and I was trying to match Jack up and I couldn’t get it to work. And then finally MacLeod was like “Have you thought about making it in black and white?”
And so while it was a logistical decision, it made it much more visually coherent, it covered a lot of sins and it also felt right: it felt so tonally and thematically accurate. And we never looked back. There are some shots that I genuinely miss: Mike did such a beautiful job with some shots but overall the movie became stronger by being in black and white.
We had a really nice screening in Glasgow and then especially after FrightFest London Digital all these companies reached out, but then they were just like “Oh, it’s in black and white? Pass. Nobody watches black and white – it’s commercial poison”.
That’s an odd choice: we had Roma doing great business at the Oscars the other year and we’ve got Mank this year.
That’s the thing. You had Nebraska too: pretty much at least every other year there’s a high profile black and white film. It tickles me a little bit when our tiny movie gets discussed next to Mank and Roma, but even if it is a superficial aesthetic it’s still kind of a qualifier.
That’s the problem, man: so much of modern cinema – especially modern independent cinema and especially in America – is about people trying to make other movies that they’ve seen that they really liked. So if an independent film decides to go black and white it’s usually for an ironic reason, or simply because that’s what the Coen brothers did with The Man Who Wasn’t There or whatever: it never feels important. And one thing I really like about black and white is that even though we have suspension of disbelief, you can’t forget that you’re watching a movie. We’re exploring a lot of cinematic ideas but it’s all very rooted in character, because that’s what we could afford: the best special effects in existence is the human face. It just tickles me to always call bullshit and be like “No you’re watching a movie”, especially: it’s a ghost story!
Like when it comes to the ending: I never thought it would be controversial. Firstly I’m just not a controversial person, I’m not a provocateur. But to me the ending’s not sad. We’ve had some people that are worried that it’s romanticizing suicide, and I understand where they’re coming from. My experience of depression is suicidal ideation: I talk about it more than most people because it’s part of my life. The typical experience when you talk about suicide is that people are like “We don’t really talk about that” and that doesn’t help anyone: that eases a momentary discomfort on their part, but for those of us who struggle it just reinforces how alone we are. Because people talk about their struggles: except for this one.
The film has this really clean through line: there’s no fat on it, it’s very lean.
I think the default state of art is to not exist: you have to destroy a rock to make a sculpture. So in making a movie there’s the obligation to your cast and crew: I feel it needs to be worth their time, but more broadly one day an audience is going to see it and they really take it on and are co-authors from then on out.
The last two-thirds of the movie were set, and were good, but we just didn’t earn it. So we started mining what we had, to thread the ending through, that instead of having this huge lake that’s only 5 feet deep you get this smaller surface area that you dive in and it just keeps going. And that’s a much more rewarding storytelling experience, I think.
So much that depth is rooted in the chemistry between MacLeod and Natalie (Walker). I understand they only met on set, which is remarkable because they’re so natural together: it feels like such a genuine relationship.
The one thing that I learned in making this movie is that I have a pretty good eye for things. It goes back to that prism: I like harmony, and I have a pretty good feeling for what will work harmoniously. So it’s not to take away from their chemistry because it’s great and I have no idea how we did managed it, but I also don’t think I would have brought in somebody that wouldn’t feel right for what we established.
I’m really proud of this movie. If we had screened in Glasgow and not gotten the response we did, if we had screened Screamfest and not won awards, I would still be really proud of what we did, but it’s really great when other people love it. It’s immensely validating: but winning awards is not the point. It’s great and it gets you distribution, but if none of it had happened I’d still be proud of what my friend and I did.
And that extends to Natalie, who just showed up and although she didn’t have any background with us, she just fit in: she became one of the group. If there was an outsider on the film it was Natalie but it never showed. I’m just immensely proud of what happened.
You should be proud. The film had an incredible reaction at FrightFest Glasgow in February 2020, and it was one of the few films that came over to the London FrightFest. Off the back of that you got your distribution with Arrow: how do you feel about the way the film has been received?
I remember seeing your tweet, that not only does it live up to the hype but it’s one of the best relationship movies of the last ten years, which was just like “Nope: don’t know what to do with that”. I don’t handle compliments well, if you can’t tell.
I find the best thing to do is even if you don’t believe it, just say “Thank you” and put it to one side and then let it gradually sink in by osmosis.
Neither MacLeod or I are really horror guys, so there was this concern of “What are horror fans going to think?” I remember talking to Simon Barrett one time and the reason they made You’re Next was because A Horrible Way To Die kept playing horror festivals and he said “It kinda sucks to travel around the world and just watch people be disappointed in your movie ’cause they thought they’re sitting down for a serial killer thriller and they get this depressing portrait of addiction”. We definitely had that concern. So to have people like you really key into the relationship and not view it as a detriment, it’s been so positive and so very validating and beautiful to see people really care about these characters.
Glasgow was the first festival we played, and it was also the first time I’ve ever travelled internationally. I was 41, I fly over to Glasgow, it’s the first time I’ve been flown: it was a lot to process, like “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening”. And I get to Glasgow, drop my bags, pick up my tickets, see a couple of movies, and I’m just exhausted. But there was a Filmmaker Happy Hour and I thought “OK, I’m gonna go to this and see how I feel”. So I’m at this Happy Hour and I see Aaron Moorhead walk in – him and Justin Benson had Synchronic opening FrightFest. And I walk over and I’m like “Hey Aaron, I don’t want to bother you…” and Aaron smiles and is like “Yeah Adam, we know who you are” and I was like “I don’t know how to deal with that”.
Frightfest was such an amazing family, and Arrow is proving to be the same, where once you’re in the family they’re so supportive and welcoming. And the Glasgow experience, that first night I’m sitting in the hotel lobby bar with these filmmakers that I really revere – like Ryan Spindell (The Mortuary Collection) and Joe Begos (Bliss) – really cool people that I’m meeting for the first time, and all four directors of FrightFest – Paul, Ian, Alan and Greg – are like “Your movie’s amazing! We never agree on these movies but we all four love yours!” At first I was like “They probably say that to everybody” but then I was watching them tell other filmmakers “Adam made our favourite movie!” and it’s like “Whoa… that’s like…ok…”.
And those guys watch a lot of genre films.
Oh my God, Alan tweeted like “Quite my favourite genre film of the last few years” and it was like “Alan Jones thinks this?” And then Kim Newman’s review posted “One of the strongest first features in recent years”.
So the movie shows and it’s a sold out room, which is crazy: 400 strangers watching this movie, and I was like “I’m going to sit off to the side so that I can leave if I need too, because I might just have a panic attack”. And it started up and people were laughing at the right places and eventually crying and it just worked. I’ll never really be able to fully articulate how it felt to have it connect and then have people come up afterwards and say thank you for it.
One person said that his wife had almost committed suicide a year before they met and had not done it because she had a dog and the dog needed to be taken care of. She had talked to him about this, and he said he was really excited to be able to watch the movie with her because he felt like he had an understanding now, like “I think this is going to help us have a conversation we’ve been wanting to have, but been unable to have”. And that’s the kind of thing where you’re just like “Shit, if messing up a rock gets you that, I’m so glad I messed up that rock”.
That’s why JJ Abrams is thanked in the “special thanks”: he gave me a piece of advice when I asked him about Lost; he said “You have to have faith that you’re not alone in this world, and that if you want to see something someone else wants to see it too”.