With a beard and a devilish grin, Nick Simon doesn’t look a whole lot like Sidney Prescott, but count him among those who have had the bejeezus scared out of him by Wes Craven. However, unlike the “Scream” heroine, it was good news on the other end of the line when Simon discovered that the Master of Horror had been assigned to be his mentor as part of a year-long Writers Guild program. Discovering Craven was hardly the man one would think of as being behind such chilling imagery – instead, an erudite, sensitive old soul – was one thing, but after having dinner together once every couple of months, Simon was again caught off-guard when after mentioning the screenplay he was working on with co-writers Robert Morast and Osgood Perkins, Craven asked to see it.
“He read it, and [said], it’s current, it’s marketable, it’s scary, it’s funny – it’s got all the elements. How can I help you get this made?” says Simon, whose “Girl in the Photographs,” which Craven executive produced, caused quite a stir when it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival this week.
The premiere was a bittersweet moment for Simon, given Craven’s sudden death of brain cancer on August 30th. But if Simon’s second feature “Girl in the Photographs” is any indication, the slasher film genre that Craven popularized and perfected is in good hands. A terrifically nasty bit of business from start to finish, the film centers on an egocentric fashion photographer named Peter Hemmings (Kal Penn) who descends on a small town in South Dakota after learning of a string of murders of young women not unlike the ones in his own pictures, thinking it might be a good place to take some provocative portraits of his own minus the bloodlust. Yet while that may sound like the setup for a hunt for the masked serial killers, Simon lets you in on that secret barely after the opening credits, and as Peter’s viewfinder and the killers’ begin to focus on the same girl (Claudia Lee), “Girl in the Photographs” not only provides twists and turn wonderfully unencumbered by genre tropes, but poses an interesting question – which of the predators, whether armed with a machete or a camera, is actually worse?
Marking a welcome return to the genre for “Halloween” cinematographer Dean Cundey, “Girl in the Photographs” is a fun mashup of classic and contemporary horror ideas that always keeps you just off-balance, and a day after the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Simon took the time to set us straight about the film’s inspiration, Craven’s influence and the desire to be unpredictable.
How did this come about?
It started out as a project that Oz [Perkins] and I started working on six years ago, right after our first film. Basically, we wanted to do a throwback horror film, like the movies that we grew up loving and we wanted to do something in the serial killer realm. At the time, the ghost and demon [trends] were just starting out, so we wanted to do something a little different. The original idea was from seeing an American Apparel-type ad and [thinking] on the other side of that camera, the model was terrified [then it becomes] objectification in advertising versus the stalker who builds a relationship with the Starbucks barista. We took off from there.
Although you were a little sheepish the other night to acknowledge a Terry Richardson connection to Kal Penn’s photographer, were there specific fashion photographers you based him on?
The Terry Richardson influence was definitely a big part of it, just in the look of the character, not necessarily the personality. Aesthetically, he has tattoos and wears flannel. I’ve met a lot of those guys. They’re really nice and they’re very proud of their work, so it was important to actually have some of them read the script. Patrick Bolek read the script, and loved it. He’s one of my favorite photographers working and he actually shot all of all the model photos you see on the wall.
How did Dean Cundey come into the mix as the cinematographer? This is a long awaited return to horror after revolutioning the genre with “Halloween.”
He shot all the movies I grew up loving and I always wanted to have this feel like an ’80s movie in a sense where you got to know the characters. That’s always been my big beef with horror films today. In general, you don’t know who these people are in genre films and you don’t care – they’re just bodies. Our film is structured so you get to know all these people, and they’re real people with real problems, so when bad things start to happen, we actually feel something for them. Dean got that.
Dean loved the script and he knew Wes [Craven]. I threw his name out as the top guy I wanted to work with, not thinking in a million years we’d get him. But he read the script and interviewed me, basically – twice. The first time I met him, I handed him a brick of storyboards, shot-lists, mood books, and color palettes and said, “This is what I’d like to do.” He liked it and said, “Yeah. Let’s do it.”
It’s really effective how you contrast the slightly hazy look that Cundey pioneered in horror films with these flash frames that are so crisp and digital – they cut through the frame like a knife. How did that style come about?
We knew the film was going to be based in reality for the most part with the characters, [both with] the comedy and even the brutality. But we knew there would be a heightened, exaggerated feel that was necessary too, That was always the intent with the editing. We were hoping that actors were actually going to be able to take the stills [that flash on the screen], and they actually did. Most of the [flash frames] in the movie are from them shooting those scenes.
Given it’s a horror film, I rarely get to ask about the villains because that reveal is usually saved for the end, but here…
Right away, at the end of the first act. That was something we discussed, too. We didn’t want to try to do a whodunit. Wes made that movie – it’s called “Scream” and he did it really well. There’s no point of trying to do that again. So we thought we could take what you’re familiar with and hopefully, turn it slightly on the side and see if we could do something interesting with it. Tom and Jerry were interesting characters to do that with, seeing who they are, where they live – you know what they want and you know that they’re monsters.
How did you decide on the masks they wear?
At one point, they were wearing makeup, and then we back and forth, and we went with masks. In the script, they were always described as “old lady” and “movie star,” with the masks they’re wearing. I remember having a conversation with Wes about it, and he’s one of the most intelligent guys I’ve ever met. He broke it down. The thing about masks is that they go back to the dawn of man. People would wear masks to separate themselves from the acts that they were doing. It’s almost a primitive thing used in ritualistic ways.
Once we started talking about the history of masks, and what they meant in this type of world, we immediately knew we’d have to go with the masks. Then it was just a matter of coming up with masks that were interesting – that people are hopefully scared of, yet at the same time beautiful – which was really difficult.
Why an old lady and a starlet?
That was just the idea of their relationship. There’s a little “Of Mice and Men” thing going on with Tom and Jerry, and the other answer would be the happy face/sad face drama of masks – the yin and the yang, when in fact [in this case], the masks are the same person, just one is a lot older.
Was there any other advice that Wes offered that really helped you figure things out?
Honestly, his notes while we were editing were really great. He understands what horror audiences want, what they’re looking for, how to reveal information and when that information is revealed. He would give us very specific notes on like, “Get to this a little bit faster. I think you can cut that scene out. You can move this here.” Little things like that were invaluable. He’s the master of horror. Working with him on this movie all the way through, he had so much advice. He was instrumental in the making of this movie and this movie wouldn’t have happened without him.
Even though the film was shot in Canada, it’s set in South Dakota. Any particular reason?
I grew up in South Dakota, so it was always in the script that we were going set it in the Black Hills. South Dakota’s just a place that I love and I haven’t seen any horror films ever take place there, or any other movies except like “Dances with the Wolves.” It would’ve been great to shoot it in South Dakota, but Victoria, where we ended up shooting, was like a heightened beautiful version of it. It’s a bigger city than most of the cities in South Dakota, but there are areas of it that still feel very much like a small town. It’s just majestic when you get out there, and if you’re making a movie, you should try to be as cinematic as possible.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
The schedule was crazy. We had 21-and-a-half days and we were knocking out so many pages a day. It was insane. The day when we actually had the big reveal, all of the actors were all in the one spot and I remember trying to keep [one character] away from everybody else up until the end, so it would be a real reaction to what it was. It was a fun day, but exhausting because of placing everybody [in the right spot] and figuring out exactly where everyone would be.
Since you had a film under your belt already, was this a different experience?
100% different, yeah. I’d like to think that after the lessons I learned from the first film we didn’t repeat the things that didn’t quite work out. I still love my first film a lot, but this was different working with guys like Dean Cundey and Wes Craven. Eric Fraser, my production designer was the art director on “Stephen King’s It”, and he’s done so many other things. I worked with people who knew infinitely more about what they do than I do. You should always try to work with the best people you can. Every day on set was like a masterclass in cinema.
“The Girl in the Photographs” will open on April 1.