As we sat down to talk to British horror director Johannes Roberts about his biggest and best project to date, there was a lovely sense of achievement and pride in the room. When we last interviewed him a few years ago he was hopeful that his hoodie horror F would get a cinematic release and now, as we sat down in a swanky London hotel, his hard work has led him to The Other Side Of The Door and his first big studio movie, for 20th Century Fox which is currently in the UK top ten after its opening weekend.
The Other Side Of The Door is a ghost story about loss and the devotion to family, which has an unusual and welcome amount of heart for a horror movie, spending enough time with the tragically damaged relationships to really invest audiences in the characters. That said there’s still plenty of terror in the film and enough scares to make even a jaded horror fan like myself levitate a few inches out of my seat. The Other Side Of The Door is also bolstered by a strong cast, headed up by the former Mrs Grimes, Sarah Wayne Callies and Jeremy Sisto – an actor who’s always kept one foot in the genre, from the rather fantastic May, to Wrong Turn and the superb Suicide Kings (which is more thriller than horror, but always deserves a mention, especially as it still appears to be unreleased on DVD in this country after nearly twenty years).
We sat down with Mr Roberts to discuss all things horror, though sadly there was no mention of Sean Pertwee this time around. Den of Geek also holds no responsibility for his choice of favourite Statham film…
Knowing your previous films, what was your inspiration to start this as your next project?
It was kind of a mixture of things, the whole concept of the door had been kicking around in my head for a long time and the idea of ‘what’s on the other side of the door’, it’s sort of a classic ghost thing, like Bluebeard’s cupboard ‘don’t whatever you do, open it!’ or like gremlins and the whole ‘don’t feed them after midnight.’
And then I came across this village, which is a real place in the south of India which is totally abandoned, no one knows what happened to the inhabitants and it’s fenced off and there’s signs around the village saying ‘do not enter this village after sunset, because the ghosts of the dead walk through the village’ and I was like ‘that’s a fucking great idea’ and then it sort of connected with the door idea and I thought ‘oh that’s brilliant. And then… I’ve always just loved Pet Sematary! [laughs] and that’s what it comes down to! So a mixture of the three things really.
And were you in India on holiday when you found the village, or were you specifically looking for inspiration and locations?
When Ernest (Riera) and I wrote this, I’d never been to India, but the Storage 24 producers had been Indian and so we’d become good friends and that had got my mind whirring there, in that I just love J-horror and what J-horror did to the whole horror genre, you know, when we discovered this whole background of horror movies that nobody had seen and it completely changed the whole battlefield for the horror for a while and I really just kept thinking ‘I wonder what else is out there’ and I thought India could be a really interesting place to set a movie, because you’ve got all the different spiritual beliefs and stuff like that.
And presumably you then put an American couple in that environment, because that then helps with their isolation?
Yeah, totally, totally. You know what one of my favourite – one of the movies that scared me the most actually, was the American version of The Grudge. It absolutely terrified me when I watched it and I hadn’t been terrified by a movie in such a long time and I remember sitting down watching it being like ‘Christ this is really scary!’ and part of what was really scary about it, was how isolated Sarah Michelle Gellar and the sort of the western cast were in a very dull Japan, it wasn’t like crazy, weird Japan it was just normal city Japan and I really wanted to sort of take that aspect as the alienating side of things is very distressing I think in horror, so yeah that was definitely a part of it.
Was the temple an actual location?
No we built it. Indian temples are funny, they tend to be – I looked at loads and they’re very ornate and anyhow finding one to film in was tricky, we looked around at hundreds of different places and got some really good ideas, but in the end I just wanted something quite simple and stark and in fact it drew influence from Indian temples, but also Cambodian style, I can’t remember what the temple is called… Angkor Wat – it’s a very famous one, I think they use it in Tomb Raider or something! But it was all about the door, I wanted it to be less about the temple and more about the door.
And it took me a moment to realise that the door she’s opening is just the one that leads outside, as she’s locked inside and nothing’s actually looks like it’s changed, which was a nice touch…
Yeah people also expect it to be a door into something. It’s funny it’s one of the battles we had in the script – I don’t know what was about that, I didn’t want a door into a different world. I love the idea that it was just the village she had passed through and that when the sun goes down, it goes slightly strange out there.
Compared to the films you’ve done before, I think this is your biggest project, how was the challenge of not only the film in terms of the scale, but in terms of the fact you had India as a location?
Yeah, it was you know, the crew was like 250/300 people, which was a lot and we didn’t have a huge amount of money, but compared to F it was a lot. So that was cool, obviously then you have to answer to the studio and there’s more people involved in decision making, so you have to navigate that. But actually once we were out there, we kind of got on with doing what we were doing and I think having done – the reason the movie works so well, is having done movies like F and Forest Of The Damned and whatever bad B-movie that you pick out of my back catalogue, because it was chaos, it was madness.
Nobody in the whole crew had ever filmed out in India, we had like one or two people, we didn’t really know what we were getting into, a huge crew, insanely hot weather, and it Mumbai was chaos, it’s great, but its chaos. And having done all these zero budget movies, enabled me to just… in India if you try and force something you’re finished, you just have to go with the flow and then try and make that flow kind of go in your direction, or at least then change your goals and go ‘actually my goal is going to fit wherever I’m going to’ and that’s what happens, so you just have to go with it. And that really suited me to be honest, so it made me look like I actually knew what I was doing, when in fact it was just it was literally every day you just had to wake up and go ‘right let’s see where this goes!’
One of my favourite parts of the film is the core relationship between the couple, in that it’s quite tender and tragic, and I think it’s really good that there’s enough time spent on that. There’s no immediate rush to get to the shocks, so by the time things start to happen, particularly the door incident, you understand where she’s coming from and it’s a completely relatable. Was the tenderness in the relationship developed when you got the actors on set, or was it all in the script?
Yeah, I mean Sarah couldn’t act her way out a paper bag so I had to force her! [laughs] No, I mean she brought a huge amount to it. It was weird we really – from the very first moment Ernest and I started writing this, we wanted to start the movie in quite an unusual way. I mean you now have this – and it was an addition later on in the script – you have this weird opening, where they’re walking on the beach and then it turns into a nightmare, but normally in a movie like this you start with a family moving to India and they move into a new house and then you know how it goes, but we didn’t want that.
We wanted to start with quite a crazy person in a really distressed state and to jump in there and to see someone who’s just falling apart and was trying to hold it together and it was just a fascinating character to me. So the story starts proper with our lead character punching her husband in the bed and you’re just like ‘what the fuck is going on here!?’ that was initially the very start of it and then we put this beach thing at the beginning and really liked that. But it was really tough to try and get that emotional feeling, to get that emotional engagement, because you’re under such pressure constantly to scare and to just to take your time. I have to say I really owe Alex Aja a lot there, in that actually, underneath it all, he’s quite a softie at heart and really fought for the emotional side of it and really helped not start the movie in a conventional way and instead really get to know these characters in a sort of odd way.
We cut quite a bit, it’ll be interesting, I fought with Alex a lot on it, because he wanted more of the family and I actually ended up cutting quite a bit of them together, because I just didn’t feel it worked. The first twenty minutes was the biggest fight we had in the whole movie, with everybody, with Fox, with producers, whatever, even with the audience because audiences are programmed to go ‘okay now they go in the new house and then something creepy happens in the house’ and they expect that and when you don’t give that to them, they’re like ‘wait, hang on!’
And you broke the golden rule as well, of never working with animals and children, you just threw them both in there!
That was not easy, in terms of just putting the kids through what they had to go through, like that car crash was… that was tough. I mean I was standing on the edge of the tank watching the scene, it was really hard to direct, because they’re in the car and the car is sinking with water, and I wasn’t getting what I needed to get. One of the kid keeps looking at the camera lens and their in very uncomfortable positions, and I just thought ‘fuck this!’ just jumped into the tank fully clothed, went into the tank, up into the car saying ‘Hi guys, hi!’ and everyone’s thinking ‘what’s going on?’ and I say ‘Right I’m going to direct from here!’ so we start camera rolling and they call action.
I mean that was tough and in fact both kids were unpolished, learnt on their feet and I didn’t want anyone who done anything before and they really, I have to say, they did amazing performances and even the dog, Winston…
The dog was great!
There was a scene that has been cut – I mean it was just the most incredible scene where she decapitated the dog! It didn’t test well, the effect didn’t look great and we could have probably augmented it with CG to make it look better, but it just pushed the audience too far.
So what’s your next project?
I’ve just finished a movie with Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Matthew Modine called 47 Meters Down, or it’ll probably be called something different in America because they don’t have meters and that’s Dimension, so that’s cool working with Bob Weinstein in American and E1 here.
That’s entirely filmed under water, about two girls who go on a trip to see the great whites off the coast of Mexico and they’re in a shark cage and the cage breaks and it goes to the bottom of the ocean and they’ve got an hour in their tanks to get back up to the boat, through shark infested waters and they can’t go straight up, because they’re too far down and they’ll get the bends. So the they’ve got full face masks and so it’s an entire movie acted under water, so it was a really, really crazy shoot but I think that’s out later this year. It’s an incredible movie, so fingers crossed.
And finally – what is your favourite Jason Statham movie? I’ve never asked you!
Of course there’s only one answer… Ghosts Of Mars! [laughs]
Johannes Roberts, thank you very much!
The Other Side Of The Door is in UK now.
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