Sitges Film Fest 2020 Interview: Chris Alender, Brigitte Kali Canales and Marcos Gabriel on Putting a New Spin on Exorcism in “The Old Ways”

“This isn’t where I was meant to die,” says Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales), one of the only things she knows when she finds herself in an underground lair in “The Old Ways,” shackled and having what she later learns is goat milk being poured on top of her as a woman in face paint comes out to offer prayers. It’s easy to recognize as an exorcism when the practice has been deployed in so many other films, but never as the preemptive measure that it is in Christopher Alender’s freaky thriller when the Mexican-American journalist heads to Veracruz where her mother was once believed to be possessed by a demon, dying right in front of her. Now when her relatives suspect that Cristina might also be cursed and she’s suddenly within their grasp, investigating local caves, the most uncomfortable of family reunions commences with Cristina only clued into where she might be when she catches a glimpse of her cousin Miranda (Andrea Cortés).

Long before the snakes are let loose in the den Cristina is sequestered in, there are plenty of other things that sneak up on you in Alender and screenwriter Marco Gabriel’s sophisticated frightfest, drawing on the inherent tension in its lead’s desire to leave behind a culture she only has bad memories of while coming to see the value in reconnecting with her roots. The threat of being tortured moves from the body to the mind as Cristina looks to escape not only the small room she’s in physically, but where she is in her life, never quite feeling whole after her mother’s death. It’s a claustrophobic chiller that feels far bigger than its limited setting, a specialty it seems of Soapbox Films, the full-service production house that Alender runs that has yielded “Body at Brighton Rock” and “The Wind” in recent years, relying on strong central performances and fresh perspectives on genre to deliver films that unsettle in the best ways. With “The Old Ways” making its debut at the Sitges Film Festival, Alender, Gabriel and Canales reconvened virtually to talk about all the potential scares behind the scenes involved in a shoot with slithery creatures hanging about and no way to physically interact after filming wrapped to pull off post-production, all to deliver something with a real jolt.

How did this come about?

Marcos Gabriel: I had been looking for a story that Chris and I could put together and shoot as much as we could ourselves and as I was thinking on it, I started really reflecting on some stories that I’d heard from my culture. I was born in Puerto Rico with stories of brujas and these practices and traditions and rituals that don’t really exist [anymore]. They still exist in pockets, but what if they never really went away? What if they were still there if we just looked in the wrong places? So I wrote the first draft very quickly, and I fed pages to Chris [asking], “Hey, do you think this is something you’d want to do? Does this feel like a world we’d want to build?” Over the course of time, we really kept building it and doing research, and it became more and more real, so it was a thrilling process to bring this about.

Chris Alender: Some of my favorite horror movies are exorcist movies and to find a new way in to that is really exciting. Being like an armchair archeologist is fun when we get to explore a subsect of a culture — and world creation in particular is one of my favorite parts of filmmaking, so to develop a lore and an environment from the ground up with really strong references to the real world is the type of thing always really grabs me, and then the character journey that Cristina goes on is something I thought that could really sink our teeth into.

It’s obviously a juicy role, but also a demanding one. Brigitte, what got you interested in it?

Brigitte Kali Canales: Even though there were very torturous moments, I guess I enjoyed them a little bit. [laughs] I looked forward to it. We were chatting about this earlier and Chris mentioned how I was like, “The ropes aren’t tight enough. Tie them tighter” and I was so in the moment, I wasn’t even thinking about it, but I knew that it needed to feel real and the more real, the more people would be able to connect with it. But ultimately, Cristina becomes a warrior of the light and I love that aspect about it — she fights evil and she ends up finding herself and even though it came from evil, it ends up becoming a gift. I also loved that the story was so relevant, being a journalist in this fast paced life, being so focused on work and [having] limited time for friends, if any, just consumed by day-to-day life and losing touch with your roots, and with your family and what it means to have that sense of love.

Was that idea of cultural disconnection there from the start?

Marcos Gabriel: 100% Family is family and that was one of the things that I know — and Bridgette has similar experiences — is that when you go back and you visit a cousin from the place you grew up or the place you were born, you might not know anything about each other because you haven’t seen each other in 20 years, but there is a real connection, like we share the same blood and we belong here, so showing that strain in the beginning and how hurtful it was for Bridgette’s character to have to leave all those things and ashamedly come back was really fun to explore. We put Christina and Brigitte through a hell of a lot to get there that’s terrifying and horrible, but also really thrilling. Ultimately it’s about what happens when you rediscover this place where you belong and where people do care and love you and the healing that comes from that.

What it was like to develop that central set so it could speak to touchstones of the culture and help facilitate this performance?

Chris Alender: Originally, we saw this movie is like a very low budget movie – just do it on our own, and we’ll just write it for one room, and it’ll be great. But as we got people involved, it just started getting bigger and bigger. Then we met this one production designer named Bryce [Perrin], who had an idea of how we could build the whole thing as one big set and it was a real junkyard kind of approach where he was scavenging, [like] “I found this on the side of the road on the way in today,” and [we’d think] “That’s great. Let’s use it as a wall.” We built it so that we only had a couple of real walls and everything else was fabric and set dressing. But he was able to build this space that was an extension of the bruja’s hermit kind of lifestyle and everything had a [reason to be there], like “This candle is here because of this” and everybody just started geeking out on it. The whole set design team and all the set decks and the props guy, everybody just really dove in and came up with their own stories for everything. It was a real collaborative process.

Marcos Gabriel: Yeah, it would even change the script. As we saw the set start to be built, it was like, “Oh no, this wall is made out of bamboo so we could see through it. Okay, well, let’s rewrite. What are the cinematic possibilities of that?” The way that the set and the story developed along together was really amazing.

Could you schedule this in a way where Brigitte might have the sense memory of doing some of the outdoor scenes before going inside?

Chris Alender: We tried, but unfortunately, we were going to be shooting the exterior stuff in a place [where] we found out we weren’t allowed to, because of some of the union rules with our actors, so we had to come up with a whole new plan for shooting outside that ended up being the very end of the shoot. We had to hope and pray that our sets that we had designed would match anything we found, so we ended up shooting as close as we could to being in order for for Brigitte’s sake, and because other reasons like we only have so many versions of her wardrobe and she’s in one wardrobe for at least two thirds of the movie and it progressively gets more destroyed by blood and snakes and who knows what else. [laughs] So there were a lot of logistics in the scheduling just to save money really. Otherwise, we would’ve had 40 different outfit changes for her and wounds and scars. But we did our best to give her the opportunity to go linearly through her arc as much as she could with all the other outside variables.

Brigitte, was there something that unlocked the character for you?

Brigitte Kali Canales: Yeah, the day of the snakes was the moment I was like, “This is happening because it was a very challenging morning. I remember I was freezing and it was out of everyone’s control. It was literally just the way it was that party. And just right after that scene, I just felt so exhausted, and I thought, “This is it. This is how Cristina feels. She’s exhausted. These people she sees as the bad guys and she feels like they’re putting her through the gutter,” and that was the moment I really felt like I had clicked in.

That reaction to the snakes looks so real.

Chris Alender: Yeah, it was totally real. I was always trying to make it as easy as I can on her, then she’s always fighting me to make it harder on herself. [laughs] The guy with all these awesome snakes came and I don’t know that much about snakes, so I was meeting the snakes and trying to find out if they’re dangerous or not. And they were really cute in real life, and I’m like, “Oh, they’re nice. And they don’t eat humans.” And Brigitte said, “I don’t want to see it until we’re in the scene and it attacks me.” And there’s a shot of her [where] the camera’s down low and it touches her hand for the first time, and she says something like, “Oh, my” or something like that and that’s 100 percent her natural reaction to the first time it showed up.

Chris, I understand that this finished up a week before the pandemic hit, but you’ve created this amazing studio with Soapbox where you can pull off a lot of parts of the filmmaking process. What was it like getting to the finish line?

Chris Alender: We have our own little soundstage and [this film] filled every square inch of it pretty much, which was amazing because we didn’t have to pay rent every day for it sitting there. We built the whole thing and the cinematographer Adam Lee, and my first AD Kelsey, we shot the whole movie on our iPads pretty much on the real set, videoboarded it, blocked the whole thing out and that was hugely beneficial because it was a limited budget and schedule, so we could point to exactly what we’re going to do [to show the cast and crew]. Sometimes it all changed, but at least we had like a rock solid plan every day that we went in and then we get there and the actors were like, “Well, I can be over there,” then you have to just have to light your boards on fire and start over. [laughs]

But eventually [the actors] started listening, and when we were getting ready for post-production, my editor Matt and I had already planned on potentially working from home on certain nights because we both had small children, so we had already set up our computers to have redundant copies of all the video footage so that we could work late nights every now and then. But as soon as we wrapped the movie, everything gets shut down [because of the pandemic], so I’ve been sitting in this room [I’m doing this interview from] for the last five months working on this movie. And it was very strange because it was all just Skype calls every single day. Marcus and I would be on sometimes, just working on revising the edit together or working on visual effects or rewriting new scenes because when we first cut the movie was like two and a half hours long, so we had to do some pretty bold deleting and combining of scenes. The weirdest part was three or four weeks ago when we went into mix the film, it was the first time Marcus, our editor and I had ever been in the same room to watch the movie together and it was locked. It’d be nice to be able to go to some film festivals and see how audiences react, but that doesn’t look like that’s going to happen in person anytime soon. We’ll have to just hope that the people in Spain love the movie.

“The Old Ways” does not yet have U.S. distribution.