Stewart Thorndike on Finding a Place for “Bad Things”

“It doesn’t seem that haunted,” Fran (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) says, stepping in from the cold into the Country Suites Hotel where the temperature seems to be even lower in “Bad Things.” Remarkably, this isn’t due to the fact that there have been five deaths on the property over the past 30 years, which makes it unsurprising that Ruthie (Gayle Rankin), the granddaughter of the original owner, doesn’t quite know what to make of her inheritance – its value on the open market as questionable as the tortured relationship she had with her mother who she leapfrogged to gain ownership. However, during what’s supposed to be a weekend of uncomplicated R & R with her partner Cal (Hari Nef) and their friend Maddie (Rad Pereira), Fran drags in more than the snow on her boots as a former flame of Ruthie’s who threatens to burn the whole place down when all the other women want is to have a little fun.

Although these ladies may have come to the wrong place for that when Fran is more than happy to dredge up the past and Ruthie has to contend with not only the memories of their relationship but the echo of so many others trying to get in her ear about a way forward, including the online lectures of a real estate mogul (Molly Ringwald) who has ideas about property values, writer/director Stewart Thorndike packs in plenty of it with this sly variation on “The Shining,” complete with a pair of jogging twins to roam around the perimeter of the hotel to add an extra bit of spookiness. Yet the real horror show happens within when the women left to their own devices find ways to tear each other down, with Fran knowing exactly which buttons to push to sabotage Ruthie’s relationship with Cal, even if she has no true interest in rekindling things, and a sense of madness sets amongst them all when weighing how to protect themselves while deciding how far they should go in protecting one another from each other.

Thorndike, who previously explored female relationships and generational trauma in telling of an expectant mother (Gaby Hoffman) for whom the thought of giving birth comes with unwanted reflections of her own upbringing in her debut “Lyle,” once again finds an unusual way in to bring far-reaching spectrums of time, personal experiences and emotions into the same frame under the cloak of a punchy horror film. After the film’s premiere earlier this summer at Tribeca, “Bad Things” is set to scare up audiences this weekend on Shudder and AMC+ and Thorndike spoke about how she went about finding her central setting, working with all the space that was provided to create an otherworldly experience, and how best to deploy the power of Molly Ringwald.

From what I understand, this was originally set at a farmhouse, so how did a hotel come to mind as a setting?

It’s funny. I knew I wanted them to be isolated and the hotel was this exciting thing that I found as I was just going around knocking on doors, looking for the right location. I walked into this hotel and it was like a spell walking into this new world, and I knew the movie had to take place there. I’m very open to location. It’s always a big inspiration and I allow it to influence me and change where I’m going, so the hotel and getting the actors there, everything is always open to change as you’re directing. [For instance] finding that circle room where Molly Ringwald appears, I was like, “Oh, okay, she has this sphere, this weird other dimension that she appears in,” so the hotel kind of spoke to me.

When it’s empty as it is, you have the space for this kind of levitational camerawork. What was it like figuring out how to use it as a location or engage with the characters with the camera?

Well, Grant Greenberg, who I collaborate with a lot, and I really figured out with the team what’s the math of this, [like] when does it enter the altered world? And when is it more in the natural world or whatever the normal world is. The camera was a big part of telegraphing that, and the camera had its own agenda, kind of like its secrets. I always felt like it was lurking and drifting, trying to tell us some clues. I have a dance background and I love to see space get used and to see people moving around. It was really a choreography of all those elements because everything works together.

Once you get the actors involved, is there anything about the way that they engage with one another that you may not have expected?

The actors totally took it and made it their own. You have an idea of what something’s going to be, but the one thing that I learned is to just let go of your ideas. You have a feeling that you want, and you’re holding onto that, but then you let the mayhem be part of it. There’s this momentum and force that happens when you’re all together. I’m thinking of the character of Maddie, [played by] Rad Pereira. When they were walking down the hall, really listening to the hotel, it was like the whole crew started breathing with them, and it just helped put us all in a trance if we were all doing it. And there was something about the way that Rad acted in those scenes that made it really heartbreaking and scary. We all felt it like a pin could drop. That doesn’t always happen on a set when you’re all just holding up gels and hoping the door doesn’t fall down, and watching the time.

It was a real testament to Rad that we even felt freaked out and sad in those moments. Then there’s another scene I’m thinking of Annabelle [Dexter-Jones], who’s just a luring and magical force-of-nature talent. It was [the scene] in the stairwell and it’s supposed to be this tense scene where [She and Gayle Rankin’s character are] mad at each other and I pictured in my head that it would be very aggressive. But then you roll cameras and they start flirting and laughing. So they really just do take it into these other places and it really complicates everything in this beautiful way that you can’t control sometimes. Part of it’s control. Part of it’s let the chaos reign.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about Rad giving the sense that something is always lurking because I thought the score accentuated that feeling quite nicely. What was it like to work with the composer Jason Faulkner and the sound designer Eli Cohn on this?

The sound design and the score, it was just such epic talent there and really a collaboration. Every part of the filmmaking process was really just about story and [for instance] we hear those model joggers throughout the hotel in different places, and I really didn’t want [the film] to have like zingers or jump scare sounds like you would usually have in horror film. So Eli was really collaborative and built this whole soundscape and really was always freaking me out with the stuff that he would add. Then Jason adds this melodious, beautiful quality to the score that always took me by surprise. Sometimes you’d take the part of a song that was meant to be the romantic part — I think of the score as coming from the mom, like cheesy music — romantic, jazzy stuff that’s not that hip— that your mom would like, but it’s beautiful, and also makes it creepy that the mom is present in those romantic moments. Then [in scenes] that were scary, you’d move around happy stuff to where it was scary.

It’s rare that you can actually get somebody to play a part that can linger over a whole film with a brief amount of screen time, but what was it like getting Molly Ringwald onboard?

Molly Ringwald was just a dream, and making this small, artistic horror, indie, personal, strange, perverted movie, and getting this icon, it just lends so much to the movie. She is such an artist and collaborator. And I knew I needed something big for the mom because the argument of the movie isn’t “Oh, it’s hard to get over a toxic mother.” It’s that motherhood is everything. It’s spiritual, it’s godly, so I needed that larger-than-life thing, and when I’m trying to think about how big of a strange, complicated relationship the mother can be, it sometimes takes on this weird romantic, inappropriate romantic sphere, so I needed someone that could be strong and sexy and big. Molly just can do it all.

What’s it been like starting to get this out into the world? I know it had a great debut at Tribeca.

Tribeca was a dream come true. We were in this beautiful theater that’s always been one of my favorites and there were so many people. That was kind of crazy because you have these strange, artsy horror ideas, and then somehow you get everybody together and somehow you make it, and then all of a sudden you’re watching it in a theater and you just can’t believe it’s happening.

“Bad Things” will start streaming on Shudder and AMC+ on August 18th.

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