Despite putting together an impressive resume of horror comedies ever since making the transition from musicmaker in the band Domino to filmmaker, Jordan Galland didn’t look to like-minded films when he began working on his latest film, “Ava’s Possessions.” He looked to a galaxy far, far away.
“I really grew up watching ‘Star Wars,'” says Galland. “I believe in ‘dark side’ and the ‘light’ and somehow you have to go to the dark side to restore balance. You can’t just fight it or ignore it. You really have to try to understand it.”
That epiphany led to a particularly enlightened reworking of a genre staple in “Ava’s Possessions,” a novel and macabre comedy about the young woman of the title (Louisa Krause) who, having survived an exorcism, is forced into Possessions Anonymous, a support group for those once inseminated with the demon seed. While Ava works out her literal demons in a group setting with exercises that exorcise through screaming and drawing, she becomes increasingly aware of the other issues she had pre-possession, coming to terms with the hard-drinking, philandering and generally hellraising A & R exec for a record company she once was through talking things out with her friends and family.
Although Galland dispenses with the head-spinning in order to have more fun with what comes after, he does have an actress in Krause who is liable to turn heads as Ava, demonstrating the remarkable range she showed in prior SXSW debuts “King Kelly,” in which she played an obnoxious, fame-hungry camgirl, and “Tznuit,” where she donned a headdress as a pensive orthodox Jew, all rolled into one brilliant performance. She’s joined by a number of familiar faces including Carol Kane, Jemima Kirke, Dan Fogler, Lou Taylor Pucci and William Sadler to help with Ava’s recovery, the strength of their personalities only matched by Galland’s distinctive style that quite literally draws on new angles, as well as vivid colors and an appropriately bewitching score from Sean Lennon, for something original. Shortly after the film debuted at SXSW this week, Galland and Krause spoke about finding the devil in the details while making “Ava’s Possessions,” unexpected influences and giving Ava her due despite the film’s comic tone.
How did this come about?
Jordan Galland: I love possession movies and I just wanted to make one. I spent some time trying to figure out a fresh approach to it because I didn’t want to work on a movie unless it was going to stand out, so it took a while. Everything fell into place plot-wise for me after I had that little breakthrough that this was going to be post-possession. And one of the producers Carlos Velasques, who’d worked with me on my first two films, had been raving about Louisa [Krause] even before we were working on this, so I watched all of her films, especially “King Kelly,” because that was getting a lot of buzz at the time, and I was blown away. I realized I wasn’t going to find anybody better. Before we met in person and before she even knew about the movie, we were at an after party for a Ben Stiller film, and I saw her across the room. So now I had watched a bunch of her films, but we hadn’t given her the script yet and she didn’t know who I was. So I was like, “Huh, I’m just going to introduce myself and I won’t mention the movie.” And it was funny because later she was like, “Oh! That was my audition and I didn’t even know it!”
Then it started to feel real. I found the location for the film – a building in Bushwick that would essentially open their doors to us for very cheap with some floors that were totally gutted, which was key to getting it off the ground. We could actually build some sets, which was pretty amazing to have that kind of control over the environment, and have a production headquarters vibe on one of the floors, and another with just costumes. It felt like a mini studio and that really excited the people that were investing. They were like, “Let’s go ahead, let’s pull the trigger on it.”
You also do some amazing things with the place in terms of vivid lighting and detailed production design. Was that something the actors could actually react off of?
Jordan Galland: Yeah, the movies that we were talking about were youth culture movies that have a lot of color and personality and cool music – “Trainspotting” was one [specifically], and I remember watching a Danny Boyle documentary [where he was] talking about just the colors and how do you tell a story that’s realistic and grounded, but that’s colorful in a way. If you go for a realistic, grounded, gritty sort of thing, it’s usually ends up grey and desaturated, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted it to be very visually stimulating and stylized.
As far as the props go, I learned on my last film [“Alter Egos”], which was a low-budget superhero movie, you can really only start paying and hire people about a month before production, maybe six weeks if you’re lucky with a couple of the department heads. But something like “The Spirit Possession Anonymous Handbook” is going to take [months] – by the time I hire someone and we start designing it, then you order to print it, you’re like, “Oh! We need it to film,” so I did that far in advance. The production designer is an old friend and he worked with me on my first one, so I was already in touch with him before [production], but there were certain things I didn’t want to leave up to the art department because I knew they would be overwhelmed – building the set for [Ava’s] bedroom, for instance. I tried to have foresight into what they would want to put most of their effort and budget into and I tried to handle some of the other things like that.
Louisa Krause: That was so great though to open up that Spirit Possessions Anonymous Handbook, and just be able to read the guidelines. [Jordan] had written all of it. It was great for me. As an actor, I’m thinking, this really has got to be grounded in reality otherwise, what is the point? [Jordan also] wrote the Wikipedia page too that I was reading about the Naphula Demon design.
Jordan Galland: That was really fun. It was fun designing the demon [because] you’ve seen it so many times [with] prosthetics, and I wanted a bit of that because it deserves that, but also I wanted it to be special and something we haven’t seen before. So I had this moment where I was like, “I kind of want the demon to have something in his hands,” so I created a demon drum [because that] seemed like something that could be scary, jolting, and give the demon some real personality and something to do. That also tied in with the strong musical theme in the movie because Ava works in the music industry. The character obviously needed a job that she was going to try to get back after being possessed and I didn’t want it to be a boring office job or something too weird, so she’s an A & R rep. Since I used to have a band, I based that off of my experience. Then once she was in the music industry, I thought, “Oh, there could be a song about her that somebody writes,” so that became the music.
Like any support group, the Possessions Anonymous group has trust exercises. How did you figure out what those would be?
Jordan Galland: Actually, that was probably where I did the most research. There was a line in the film where [the leader of the group] says, “It’s kind of like ‘AA’ for people like you,” but it was not necessarily a 12-step type thing. I actually based it off of more psychosomatic experimental therapies that were really popular in the ’60s where they do those exercises and it’s not like everyone in the support group found a demon and got addicted to it. The demon happens to them for varied and mysterious reasons. So some of the [exercises] I wrote based on what I thought would look cool visually in a montage. The mirrors were one of those, like staring into the mirror making faces because the metaphor of facing yourself and your inner demon made sense. But the sand-play therapy with the dolls was a real thing, which was funny too, and drawing, which I think is more classic – [expressing] your dreams and the demons that come to you and getting out your aggression by beating up pillows actually isn’t too strange, and by [making them] group activities, it’s like together, we’re going to solve it. What I didn’t want to do would have been like trust falls where people would fall backwards because it would’ve been too obvious.
Louisa, was this fun for you? You play it completely straight, but this is a lot lighter than the films you’ve been in lately.
Louisa Krause: It was great. I really felt cool as that character. [Jordan] had me watch “My Own Private Idaho” for style and tone and I really loved the way that River Phoenix drifts through the movie in this cool haze. He’s dealing with his own narcolepsy, and it takes him over at times, but he still drifts right on through, so I like that Ava has this chill vibe with the whole thing and keeps everything close to her chest when it comes to showing much.
Jordan Galland: She’s protective of her weakness, but she knows that everybody knows. She wants to be like, “I got this, don’t worry about me,” but obviously, that’s not true. That was something we talked about a lot because it was like how much do you play up the comedy since [seriously], you were possessed. Do you play it small or big? Louisa was just doing what felt real.
Louisa Krause: Yeah, then it’s also the whole detective aspect of it I loved. I used to watch “Ghost Writer,” this TV show when I was a kid, and I had the pen and the binder and everything. [With this, I thought], oh my God, if I was in my teens or actually a little bit younger, watching this movie I would have totally made one of those spirit necklaces that I wear [in the film]. But I really loved playing a pretty straight-edged, cool chick who had this wild streak of demon possession time. That was a blast.
There’s the scene on the roof where you back crawl like nobody’s business.
Jordan Galland: That was awesome! When we were filming that, there was a storm [coming] and there’s no way to reschedule stuff when you’re on an 18-day shoot. Everybody who was on production had their iPhone out and they were like, “There’s a storm that’s 10 feet from us!” You could see it and you can actually see a little rain in those shots. If it started pouring, we were fucked. So that was a really tense moment and we had our steadicam guy there that day. Louisa and Annabelle were so good in that scene and just gave it. We could only do a couple takes, but [everyone was like,] “let’s go for it, guys.”
What was the premiere like?
Jordan Galland: Well, Louisa saw it for the first time last night…
Louisa Krause: Yeah, it’s always shocking to see myself on the big screen, so I’m excited to see it a second time because I feel like I’ll really be able to really process it better. But I was so happy with the very end. I don’t want to give anything away, but the take that was chosen is the one that shows Ava with the most strength and that was important for me to have because we’re all dealing with demons and it’s more inspiring to feel like we can be strong even while we are. We go through these things that help us figure out what it is we need and what we want. It’s all so universal, but it’s also fun.