First-time director Michael Staininger has taken on a project close to the hearts of many lovers of horror, with a modern-day adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Ligeia’, which treats of the bizarre obsession with a beautiful – but dead – woman who is determined to return to life, even at the cost of those who love her most.
The project recently concluded principal photography in the Ukraine, and features Wes Bentley and Michael Madsen. We recently caught up with Michael Staininger to ask how the post-production was going and to chat a little about the difficulties of transliterating the esoteric and chilling writings of Poe to film…
Anyone who takes on Ligeia automatically has goodwill from lovers of the Corman ‘Poe cycle’ – is your Ligeia a very different product?
The original of The Tomb Of Ligeia…I didn’t even watch it before we started shooting. I saw it afterwards, but not before, because it is not a remake; it’s an adaptation of the short story, and it’s a contemporary adaptation. If I would be making a remake, then of course we’d be watching the original. When I watched it afterwards, I was very pleased – it has classic charm to it, and I actually liked it a lot. But I’m glad I didn’t watch it before.
The biggest difference between the first adaptation by Roger Corman and the short story is that in this movie, we actually get to know Ligeia, to spend time with her – she’s actually alive in the beginning. She’s only actually dead in the third act of the movie, and then back to haunt Jonathan. The big set-up is that in the early acts she gets her claws into Jonathan and pulls him away from his life.
It is true enough and close enough to the short story that it will satisfy Poe fans…the core fan-base. I’m, sure of that.What drew you into filming the story?
Well this is my first feature, so I knew that I had to go in with something original and wanting to make a mark. I’m originally from Europe, from Vienna in Austria, and anything with intellectual appeal immediately interested me. To tackle Poe as a first feature is really great, and of course that added a lot to it, but it was a mixture of both.
The script that I read when I first read it, it was far from perfect, but we worked a lot on it and I knew the potential was there. There was so much exciting stuff in that script that I immediately said that that’s the one I want to do.
I’d been in L.A. for two years, and the projects we looked at in the beginning were all very generic; horror remakes…some are good, granted, but this one is unique, and I’m happy that I did it.
Is the theme of Ligeia a perennial one, or is there a particularly contemporary slant that issues from the material in your version? The idea of extending life remains a topical subject – is that comparison touched on?
Yes, absolutely. The idea of everlasting life and immortality is the centre-piece, and it’s what drives [Ligeia’s] character. We get to know her as a little girl in the opening, but only briefly. However that sets up the premise, because she’s confronted with death for the first time as a little girl, and she decides that death is her one true enemy, because she sees her mother pass in front of her eyes. She’s inherited the same illness that her mother has, and that sets her will – to overcome death, to cheat it, to become immortal.
So yes, the will to survive is the centrepiece of the story and the very essential core to her character.
Is it a challenge to translate the atmosphere and prose of Poe into a filmic narrative?
It’s a big challenge. It’s good that you asked this question, because it’s actually a very important one. It’s never easy to adapt a short story, because it always leaves room for interpretation. Poe’s short stories are even more difficult, because they leave so much room for interpretation, and they don’t give you specific guidelines. So the most important thing is to capture the Poe spirit before you create: the bizarre, the eerie, the morbid but also – on the other hand – very beautiful horror that he creates in his writing.
That was a big challenge. The movie will be scary –it’s a supernatural thriller – but also it has a lot of complexity and a very classic approach to the image system. So we threw a little purple into the palette, y’know, and the images themselves feel very classic.
That’s important, because you need to immediately suck the viewer into Poe’s world, a completely different sort of timeless world. My intent was to create a timeless atmosphere around everything. That’s also why we chose the locations. One of the main locations of the film is actually a palace by the Black Sea, in the Ukraine. It’s amazing, with very gothic architecture…on one hand very ominous and dangerous and on the other hand very playful. And that location as a character fits well into that Poe spirit.
Why the St. Louis location for the stateside shooting?
The main reason is that the producer Jeff Most has worked in St. Louis before, and he’s produced two smaller movies there, and he’d worked with the crew and was very fond of their work-flow and their approach. He liked the [director of photography] who was working there, whom he introduced me to very early on when I came into the mix.
From a creative standpoint, I never wanted to feature St. Louis in the movie like I never wanted audiences to know…I wanted to create a very East Coast feel for the American part of the movie.
But then also the nice thing is that St. Louis is very versatile – you can create a New York or East Coast vibe, because Jonathan Merrick [central character in Ligeia] is a visiting professor at a very acclaimed university, so we needed to create that very Ivy League feel.
That’s on the one side. On the other side, we shot a lot of things that needed to be Russia, because we shot most of the drama there. So we found a lot of locations that give that Russian feel…parks and so on, and we shot in the middle of Winter, so that all was very beneficial. So it was the versatility of St. Louis as a location that made that choice.
Wil the pressure on horror-movie makers to provide lots of gory shocks have an influence on Ligeia?
No, absolutely not. I want it to stay away from that because it’s classic gothic horror in the spirit of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Ligeia invents a method in the movie to steal the souls from other people’s bodies…it’s very Frankenstein-esque.
There’s no real place, no real sense to put a lot of gore in this movie. It would ruin the spirit, ruin the essence of what the movie’s about, and it would distract the audience more than engage them. So we’re going back to the classic supernatural thriller approach, which I think is good now because it hasn’t been done for a while, and I think people are interested to see that again. You can always go gorier and gorier and with more effects, but it’s not going to get you anywhere in terms of story. We have great character actors in this, so the drama aspect is also really important.
Obviously you need to have both sides and be commercial, but the idea is to create an interesting drama, so I hope we achieve that.How did Wes Bentley come to be involved?
It was about in the middle of our casting process. Our casting director knew [Bentley’s] manager…Wes Bentley is very fond of Poe; he’s a Poe fan, so he took the risk of working with a first-time director [laughs], and I think he was very happy with how everything went. It was great to work with him. Obviously it’s great to be able to get talent like Wes on board.
Gradually, the more we developed the story, the darker Jonathan’s character became, and obviously Wes is somebody who’s got it all in his eyes. He’s got that intensity and that darkness that he can bring onto the screen, and obviously that made him the first choice. When we knew that he was on board, we went even darker and darker [laughs].
What interested Michael Madsen in the project?
What interested Michael in the end is that…you know, he’s always the bad guy, so in this movie he actually plays a father. It’s a very sweet role, and it’s very different from everything he’s done so far. I think that while he was working he discovered a different side of him. Recently, you know, he won best actor at the Boston film festival…I spoke to him and he said that now he’s in one corner, he wants to discover different things, a character-actor side of him – which is absolutely believable. After the time I’ve spent with him on set, I think he can pull it off. He comes across as a very sweet and likeable guy. It’s a small role, but it’s a very good role.
The references to ‘goths’ in the synopsis that you sent might cause one to doubt that Ligeia is set in the present-day…?
It is set in the present-day. We tried to give the whole thing a more contemporary or modern approach, although ‘goths’ doesn’t necessarily mean that. The costume designer we hired…Ligeia has an enormous amount of wardrobe changes throughout the movie, and it’s almost like she layered it herself. Again it’s this timeless horror around her…but we tried to stay very contemporary, and also the music is not goth music, and it’s not the classic ‘goth’ cliché.
How are you handling the music for the film?
Music is certainly very important in a Poe project. Last week we closed the contract with the film’s composer, whose name is Patrick Cassidy; he’s the biggest living Irish classical composer. He did some of the music for Ridley Scott’s Hannibal and for King Arthur. He works a lot with Lisa Gerard. He’s giving us a big score, and he and I get along really well. We actually have a European-heavy team around us; my editor is from Sweden. That’s a good thing. My producer recently complained when he was with us that he’s the only American here [laughs]…and this is an American movie.
Do you think you need a European sensibility to approach Poe, even though he was an American?
Absolutely. The problem is that there’s a rulebook in the United States when it comes to horror movies…they want a certain approach preoccupied with what you need to do in order to sell and what not, and there’s very little risk-taking. That’s why the movies become so generic and uninteresting, and actually why a lot of them are being shelved. I was recently at Blockbuster and there’s one of these gory torture movies next to the other, and they’re not going anywhere.
Also I believe that this Ligeia will have a lot of foreign appeal. So it is necessary to have that European sensibility. Just a few days ago a web page turned up in Italy with people picking up on this movie, which is really nice at so early a stage, without us having done any promotion whatsoever. Also the cast has an international appeal. It communicates that the movie has depth.
What we didn’t want to do was a teeny horror flick, like the recent adaptations of Poe that were, in my opinion, horrific, and I really think Poe would be turning around in his grave, and I hope he’s not doing that for this one [laughs].
Is this the right time for a new Poe cycle?
Everything is possible. I have to say that The Fall Of The House Of Usher is something that interests me a lot. The Roger Corman adaptation of that one is something that I enjoyed, but the problem is that just two years ago there was a really bad adaptation of it. It might have a bitter after-taste, so maybe it’s dangerous to tackle that yet.
Although I can’t say any names or titles yet, there’s a project right now that I’m aiming at that is classic suspense, in the spirit of Hitchcock but modern, and I would love to do something like that. To show people that they can be nailed to their seat without all that gore – you know what I mean?
Absolutely. So you’re not a fan of the new gore of the last three or four years?
When it’s motivated, yes. I know the people who did Saw very well, and the concept of the first movie was pretty original, I have to admit. Just recently I saw The Ruins, where the gore is motivated, and it’s actually human drama that drives the story. That’s fine – people do want to see that because fear is something that you want to experience [laughs]. You only want to experience it in a safe environment, but that’s the adrenaline that people are looking for. So yes, if it’s motivated, I’m fine with it, but if it’s just to be gory, absolutely not, and that’s the problem right now.
I think with classic suspense…you know, like they managed to do with Disturbia…?
People love to see films like that, and they’d like to go back to things like that, so that’s what I actually wish to do.
Are you aware of Sylvester Stallone’s start-up biopic about Poe, with Viggo Mortenson?
I heard about it, yes. Actually my executive producer just did Rambo with Stallone, the latest one, and he told me about it.
If there is a resurgent interest in Poe, what’s the reason? Are people looking for something more romantic and less gritty from horror now?
Maybe. Or maybe, finally, the American audience is going back to some more intellectual stuff [laughs], which would actually be great. But it’s good that Stallone is doing that. I have to say, I like Stallone, I like him a lot, so we’ll see what he can pull off. But he’s been wanting to do that for a long time. That’s been in the works for a long time. He appears to be a big Poe fan, so I’m curious to see what he does.
What stage is Ligeia at now? How soon can we expect to be seeing it?
We have about another four and a half weeks before the first cut will be presented internally, and the visual effects are trickling in right now. Then we have another two weeks before we lock picture, at which stage we go to the sound editorial, the sound mix. I think we have our first unofficial showing at the beginning of August, in the Ark Light in Hollywood. My producer’s intention, I believe, is to premiere the film at the American Film Market in Los Angeles. That’s the timeline, but at this point it can always change.
It’s looking very good. I’ve been to the edit with my producers, and they all seem very happy, so I think we’re sticking to that timetable.
Our thanks to Michael for taking the time out of post-production to have a chat with us.