When John Stimpson and Geoffrey Taylor wrote “Ghost Light” for Stimpson to direct, inspired by the long held superstition amongst theater folk that to stage “Macbeth” meant running the risk of bringing about the Curse of the Scottish Play, the two weren’t necessarily considering what they might unleash along the way with tale of a traveling theater troupe, led by an unflappable director (Roger Bart), that lets loose the supernatural in the Berkshires.
“What’s funny is the goal of Roger’s character [a harried theater director] was to keep everything on the rails and get the show done, and that’s what my job was like too, and we had a really aggressive, short shoot schedule,” recalls Stimpson of how life might’ve imitated art on his latest film, shot in a mere 20 days. “With a big, big cast and a lot of actors on stage every day and just managing all of it that goes into that to get people together to be creative and collaborative and come up with something fun is pretty intense.”
Though the Curse is said to lead to accident-laden productions, so throughly spooking actors and stagehands that they don’t say the name of its lead character inside the theater, “Ghost Light” operates like a well-oiled machine, a rip roaring ensemble comedy in which a seasoned cast that includes Cary Elwes, Shannon Sossamon, Carol Kane, Scott Adsit and Tom Riley find themselves in a story of betrayal on stage and off as the stymied mounting of “Macbeth” where creative differences quickly turn into personal strife, particularly once strange occurrences begin to happen at the farm where the show will be put on. The Shakespearean characters the actors are playing don’t hold a candle to their already big personalities and when spirits are thrown into the mix, both of the alcohol and the apparition variety, things get hairy — and hilarious — quickly.
After scaring up crowds at its Los Angeles Film Festival premiere, “Ghost Light” has hit the road with screenings at the Austin Film Festival and the Savannah Film Festival and Stimpson and the film’s star Bart spoke about both slipping into the role of director on the wild production, filming in Massachusetts in the fall and why this was a collaboration nearly three decades in the making.
John Stimpson: It’s a thing that I’ve been kicking around for a long, long time, having grown up in the theater. I was always really intrigued by crazy superstitions that the theatrical community all take so seriously and the Curse of the Scottish Play is the most famous and one of the more intriguing – “the most dangerous” as Roger’s character says, so Geoff [Taylor] and I came up with this story and the tricky thing [became] “Well, what is it? What embodies the curse? If there’s some truth to it, what actually happens that makes bad things happen to people who don’t take it seriously?” But that was fun to dream up.
Roger, how’d you get mixed up in this crazy thing?
Roger Bart: We had met actually in 1981, working at a place called The Seafood Shanty [where] we were singing cocktail waiters. He was 19 and I was 18, and I think he said, “I’m going to put that man in a movie one day!” And he did. He reached out to me a couple years ago and it was just such a delight to hear from him after so many years. It was great in between takes to talk about our lives, compare notes and get to work on something together.
For most comedies of this nature, you expect the director character to be the most egomaniacal, but since you had that personal relationship with John, did you want to soften things up?
Roger Bart: That’s very funny. No, there was so much egomanicism going on with the rest of the characters in this and my job was very clear in the writing, to get the show on and do what I could to keep them sane enough to show up and with enough sleep to put the play on. You didn’t get to see me go crazy, but there’s always a little vanity involved and ego involved when getting your show on and as the audience grows increasingly appreciative, I get more and more excited about this particular production.
When you’re playing the reasonable one, is it a challenge to set the tone in some ways when you see how big some of the other actors were getting?
Roger Bart: I thought it was the opposite dynamic, so I’m excited to hear you say that. [laughs] But I love these kind of roles because it’s a precarious and interesting when a director and a writer create a world where it should be both suspenseful and at times horrifying and comedic. Often the characters will have a certain responsibility assigned to them and with the director Henry that I play, I was more comedically inclined because my part was so reactive to the insanity around me.
However, when you’re putting together a movie like this, it’s important to make sure that the air stays in the tension balloon and sometimes comedy can diffuse that and you have to generate it up again, particularly when it comes to anything suspenseful or horrific. So I just try to provide an opportunity for these guys to cut my stuff in [the edit room in] a way that doesn’t ever compromise the larger goal, which is to create a fun, horrifying comedy, but also provide them with the outlet when they do need a comedic release.
John Stimpson: There’s one great scene to that point that Roger’s making where [one of the characters] speaking through many glasses of gin comes clean with the fact that they have unleashed the curse, and when [they] tell Roger, [they’ve] got so much going on and it was so easy for Roger to look at this actor and just be…[laughs] a little over the top, frankly, in the reaction to how nuts [they] were, and it was great. It was hilarious.
John Stimpson: Yeah, exactly. Batshit crazy! And Roger was wonderful, but I really thought it was more important to play the sympathy and understanding and the calm persona that he was able to give in a couple of [other] takes because ultimately, it’s more important [for his character] to make the show go on. He had to get [them] back into the theater at all costs or [the show] was going to go off the rails, so that was more true to the story, to the characters, and to the moment to play it in a sympathetic way, but not without a couple nice little -[alternate] takes.
And this is what good actors bring – wonderful ideas to what you’ve written and just elevate things to more than you ever expected. One was Scott Adsit, who plays the stage manager. At one point, Roger’s character asks him, “You’ve got to play the second witch [in “Macbeth”] because Nigel was going to do it, but his makeup change is screwing him up.” We just thought of [that line of dialogue] as a mechanism to move things along, but Scott was like, “Well, if I’m going to be doing this, I think that’s going to be fun – I want to play the Second witch.” He’s [playing] a frustrated actor and he may even like the idea of crossdressing, so the fact he built that little thing into [an entire bit for the] character, all of a sudden, it was a funny moment that just added so much to it, so those are the kinds of things that come up when you’re working together.
John, who did you want as far as characters, when you’re creating this theater troupe?
John Stimpson: It’s funny because now that it’s done, I can’t imagine now anybody else but the actors that we have, but for instance when we were thinking about the role of Madeleine, the grand dame of our troupe, the only person that came to mind was Carol Kane. She was just so perfect and it’s such a dream come true that she wanted to do it and [we immediately wanted] Cary Elwes as the kind of buffoonish underwriter of this troupe, being a former soap star and not necessarily the best actor, but the one with the deep pockets who could pay the bills and make this thing happen. He just seemed to have the right foppish feel, and he just did a wonderful, wonderful job.
Casting movies is a very complicated and long process, but the nice thing is that Jeff and I independently produced this. We didn’t have a studio telling us you’ve got to do this to sell it. We could really just independently make these decisions and put the people we wanted in the roles and gratefully, wonderful actors responded up and down the whole cast and we had a lot of local Boston actors to fill out some of the supporting roles.
Did you have this location in mind from the start?
John Stimpson: No, we started scouting in the Berkshires where the story takes place and we found an amazing location, the Lennox Club, which was just spectacular, but it just turned out to be economically too difficult to bring everybody out there, and almost everything I’ve done, I’ve shot in my home state of Massachusetts because I love the community, I love the people and I work hard to keep the tax credit in place. So we shot in these barns in Concord and in Groton. At one point, since we were partnered with New England Studios, a fabulous studio complex, we were hoping to build a set for the stage, but they were doing the series “Castle Rock,” so suddenly the stage wasn’t available to us, but it turned out to be a blessing because Chad Detweller, our production designer, [told us], “I’ll never be able to build you a set on a stage that has this much character and authenticity, so much as it was smelly and cold and drafty and dusty, being in a barn really made it feel real.
Roger Bart: Yeah, it did. Nothing a good night’s sleep and a Concord apple can’t cure. [laughs] And Concord, Massachusetts is just an extraordinarily beautiful place and we shot this between October and November – I don’t use the word blessed all that often, but the landscape and the barn in which we shot played such a great role in creating the atmosphere of the movie, we were very blessed with gorgeous shots. And we had a couple big storms up there too. You’ll see, if you haven’t.
What’s it like getting to the finish line and getting to the premiere?
John Stimpson: It feels great. I’m so proud of this movie and it feels like we’ve given birth to this baby and now we’re pushing it out of the nest. Hopefully, the movie will speak for itself now and and if we can get this movie out into the world in a broad way, I’ll be just so thrilled.
Roger Bart: Not on “Broadway” – not yet. [laughs]
John Stimpson: Wouldn’t that be fun, though?
Roger Bart: It would be fun. That’d be a good idea.