“If something could be done to offend Heaven, it was done here,” a nun confides in Julie Talben (Jessica Lowndes) as they pass through a church in “Abattoir,” with the reporter’s real estate beat suddenly becoming a whole lot more interesting. On the trail of a man named Jebediah Crone (Dayton Callie) who’s been buying up properties where the distinguishing feature has been the stench of tragedy, Julie has finally found a juicy story she can’t take to her boss, though the closer she gets to it, the closer it gets to her, bringing her back to the quaint community of New English where she grew up and Crone is putting together his empire.
Though one doesn’t want to suggest that director Darren Lynn Bousman shares more than a devilish twinkle in his eye with a harbinger of evil such as Crone, the making of “Abattoir” comes from the same impulse of creating the ultimate haunted house. Few would be more ideally suited to the task than Bousman, who parlayed his experience on the most successful entries into the “Saw” franchise (Chapters II-IV) into some truly adventurous endeavors such as the musicals “Repo! The Genetic Opera” and “The Devil’s Carnival,” and has longed nursed a desire to reinvigorate one of the horror genre’s most time-honored staples as well as a proper home for his unique skillset and most terrifying ideas.
In “Abattoir,” Bousman doesn’t limit himself to building just one haunted house as Crone hoards homes with murder scenes left and right. But as an artist who has continually experimented with ways to bring audiences into what he’s doing, whether it’s with the roadshow tours of “Repo!” and “Carnival” where the one-night-only events broke down the fourth wall or his runs of immersive theater such the recent “Tension Experience: Ascension” in Los Angeles, where there were 24 rooms of terror for participants to get the bejeezus scared out of them, “Abattoir” consistently instills intrigue by blending different eras and environments into a constant swirl around Julie. She may be disoriented in an investigation that has no obvious path, but by slipping into her subconscious from time to time to see how places from the past and present merge together as she pieces things together, “Abattoir” is both a smooth ride yet uncomfortable in all the right ways, with Bousman’s anachronistic touches and clever casting of such distinctive character actors as Lin Shaye and John McConnell lending comfort before pulling the rug out from under you with how they behave.
After a production that was nearly as nightmarish for the filmmakers as the experience they fashion for audiences, “Abattoir” finally will be released this week after a debut earlier this year at the Los Angeles Film Festival and shortly before, Bousman spoke about his consideration of all mediums now when he gets a good story idea — “Abattoir” was born as a graphic novel — as well as filming in New Orleans in real locations, and crafting a modern-day noir/horror mashup.
What was it like working this out in graphic novel form first? Was the movie there in your head before?
Actually, no. Originally, I pitched it to Radical Studios and said I have this universe — and it was much bigger than the movie. It was this overreaching story about opening the gateway to hell and originally, I wanted Jebediah Crone to overthrow the devil. Barry Levine, the producer [who founded Radical], looks at me and says, “That’s way too much to tell in one medium. We’ve got to break this up and tell this over various mediums.” So we started with the graphic novel to tell a backstory and then from there, we decided to tell it as a movie. Now we’re working on another film already called “The Dwelling,” which is a prequel to this, and a TV show, so we just started telling little pieces of it. But the idea is much bigger than one thing, so the hope is that in five years, there’s more “Abattoir” stuff out there than just this.
Because you’ve worked in so many different mediums lately, has it made you think differently about what a film can be?
Yeah, it absolutely has. I just finished a year doing this thing called “Tension,” which is an immersive theater event that completely altered my perception of moviemaking and directing because it was a real environment — a huge 50,000-square foot warehouse — where you interact with everything and every character. You put the audience in the center of everything and they dictate the story, and for me, filmmaking/directing/narrative storytelling is about connecting with an audience member. It’s hard now because there’s so much content. There’s so many movies you can watch on Netflix or DirecTV or VOD. How do you stand out from the pack?
In my mind, you engage the audience on a cerebral/visceral and emotional level, and I think that movies a lot of times are passive. You sit there and watch them and then you do ten other things — you check your cell phone, you go make yourself a sandwich, you make a phone call, you take your dogs out for a walk and then you finish the movie. I want to make it where you can’t do anything but what you’re doing in that moment. And that’s what “Tension” was for me. You had to be there. You had to be present, so from this point moving forward as a filmmaker, I want my films to be more interactive and more demanding of an audience. You have to pay attention. You have to be present. Because that’s the only way you’re really going to make a connection with people.
What I would love to do [for future projects] is a filmed component and a live component. And “Abattoir” lends itself completely to a live component. Imagine if you had three hours [inside] the abattoir and there was a story going on and you had to figure it out, like a murder mystery and you could actually interact with Jebediah Crone and you could interact with Jules Talben. What if you were able to sit next to the villain of the movie you just watched and had a conversation with them or hold the hand of the girl you want to save? That’s what “Tension” was. You got to save the girl, you got to go head to head with the villain. As a person, you touched them, you felt them, you smelled their breath. You felt their whiskers touch you. There is a connection there that is unparalleled to anything and that’s what I want to do in my work now.
You seem to be able to do that to a degree already in “Abattoir” in the way that environments in the film are so fluid and immersive. It’s reminiscent of the animated “Alice in Wonderland” where there don’t seem to be physical or psychological boundaries between places. Was that difficult to pull off?
I think “Alice in Wonderland” was exactly what I was going for. I wanted a kind of hyperrealistic adult fairy tale [where] it’s very bigger than life. One of my favorite filmmakers is Julie Taymor, who did a movie called “Titus,” [which is] Shakespeare, and they talk in that complete vernacular, but then they would use cell phones and they’d have arcade games. Baz Luhrmann does a lot of that as well and I love it, where you take a style, in this case, film noir, but you make it modern. So this is set in the modern day, and they have iPhones and flat-screen TVs, but they also have typewriters and wear suspenders and fedoras and they talk in that 1940s hard-boiled detective [style]. They drive around in 1940s cars, yet [when] they drive down the street, they pass LCD billboards. I wanted the characters to have that edge and the visual style emulated that — the way they dressed, the way that they interacted, the way they type things on typewriters as opposed to computers. It all helped transport you into this fantastical story.
What was it like location scouting for this?
Shooting in New Orleans was an insane experience for me. A lot of the places we shot in were these abandoned places from Katrina and it is a unique place because you have all these buildings that are decrepit and derelict and they’re huge and beautiful, but they don’t have the financial resources to fix them up, so you have huge mansions and everything in between. This movie was made on a shoestring budget with very little time and we built some stuff in the woods, but [mostly] everything is a real location. There’s no sets there. It was all done practically.
We basically shot in four different environments and we just converted everything in those four environments. Where Jebediah Crone gives his sermon, that was one of our main locations and I think we use 20 different rooms in that location. But the water came in [during] Katrina and dried it all out, so the wood became rotted, and you’d be walking up the staircase — and you have a flashlight because the electricity didn’t work — and it was something out of “Mimic.” You’d shine your flashlight and thousands of cockroaches would skitter just like that, so shooting there, there were some very horrific things. We shot at a planation that terrified me — [that was] where [Lin Shaye’s character] Allie’s house was. It was a unique place and I had a great production designer, Jen Spence, who did “Insidious” and “Paranormal Activity,” and a great cinematographer, Michael Fimognari, who made the look of the setting top-notch.
Green seems to be a color you were attracted to – how did the color palette for this come about?
I love colorful things. If you watch “Repo” or “Devil’s Carnival,” they’re very colorful and bright, so I wanted everything to be bright and vibrant, and again, it gives everything that fairy tale-esque [quality] to it. It’s funny you say that because not only is green from the “Saw” films, but a lot of the actual sets themselves were green, so we used it and just boosted all the saturation up to highlight that. I love specifically when the movie goes from like a ‘40s feel to a ‘70s feel by the time they get into New English, and then by the time they get to the abattoir, it takes a whole different feel. The color is actually one of my favorite parts of the film.
I had read that the production was shut down a fair number of times…
Obviously, that’s horrible, but were you able to take advantage of the down times at all?
Yeah, it’s frustrating. I don’t think people realize it takes years to get a project made as a filmmaker. Years. In this case, it took us about three-and-a-half years to make the movie. We started the movie and it was shut down the first time due to financial reasons. In that time, we also lost our first AD, who died of a heart attack, not during the shooting, but at home, and that caused major disruption to everything. So we started again and this time our financier had a heart attack, so we were shut down a second time. What’s hard about that is you start to lose faith. You get so excited and it’s like a child. You spend all this time and you’re ready to show it to the world and then something happens, so it was about a year-and-a-half of false starts. Going there, building sets, casting, getting costumes, getting shut down.
But the second time it was shut down, there was like a crossroads and [the producers] Jesse Berger and Brent Johnson and I said, “Fuck it. We’re seeing this through to the end.” There was a shift in our passion at that point. It became more important for us to make the movie, almost like we had to prove it to ourselves that this movie was going to get made and we were going to overcome these tragedies. All of us rolled up our sleeves and said, “Come hell or high water, we’re making this movie.” So it did actually help in the way that there was so much writing on it at that point that we had to get this movie made and every time this got shut down, I think it pushed me further to make it weirder and weirder because I wanted to make a statement.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
This was not an easy movie to make. It was freezing outside. Most of the places we shot in did not have any kind of heat because we were used defunct, derelict buildings. I don’t think there was one single easy day on this. We were met with a lot of challenges and I’ll give you an example. At [Julie’s sister] Amanda’s house – it was a much bigger part of the movie and the morning of shooting, the woman we had a deal with found out what the story was and she said no, so we had a morning to find a new location and to quickly go in there and do it. Every day, it was constantly being on our feet. Shooting the abattoir was extremely difficult because you had stunts, you had blood gags and we all shot in real locations [with] real narrow passages, so trying to get the camera choreography and to hide all the pyrotechnics and the rigs as well as being able to make something that was fluid and dynamic was also hard. This was probably the toughest shoot I ever had to do.
What’s it been like bringing it out into the world?
It’s hard. It goes back to that idea about being a kid. You spend all this time trying to raise and make a kid this perfect version of you, meaning this abattoir is this version of me and you have to push it out there and let the world see it. In the case of this, it’s been a long time coming. I finished the movie at the beginning of ’15 and it’s been sitting there for a year-and-a-half, so now to be able to see it come out, it is a scary, weird [feeling]. I never feel finished with a movie. I watch it and I’m like, “Why did I do this? Why did I do that?” But that being said, it’s something I’m insanely proud of. I think that it’s a new side of me that I’ve never shown before, and that’s always exciting.
“Abattoir” opens on December 9th in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinelounge and is available on iTunes.