The Pact is the feature film debut from Writer/Director Nicholas McCarthy. It is an independent horror film that displays classic story telling techniques rather than relying on special effects or looking like another found footage film.
Cinedelphia sat down with Nicholas and discussed how his original short became a feature length film, differences between theatrical and video on demand releases, and the filmmakers that inspired him…
Nicholas McCarthy: Well The Pact started as a short film I made – not inspired by other ghost story movies, but by the way people tell ghost stories. The short is essentially five minutes of a young woman telling this ghost story and the other five minutes where the ghost story comes true. It was much more of a character study but used a horror atmosphere.
C: Were there any horror films you took inspiration from?
NM: For the short film there were two primary filmmakers who were my influence, one was a producer named Val Lewton who made a whole series of these beautiful poetic horror movies in the 1940’s that were all about implying rather than showing. The way I directed the movie though was really influenced by Dario Argento, and what I love about his movies is this ominous third person character that the camera becomes. In addition, Argento taught me that you can elevate a very average scene just by the way you shoot it. So those two filmmakers were big influences on the short, and I carried that with me into the feature.
C: What steps did you take to differentiate your horror film from other recent horror films?
NM: I love all kinds of movies, and in a way sometimes the best horror films are the ones that aren’t influenced by other horror movies. There have been some amazing horror movies made in the last 10 years or so, but I was reaching back further and I think that’s just a matter of taste with me. Because of the success of the Paranormal Activity movies I knew there would be a comparison and people would think I’m doing this for marketing reason, but the truth is that the feature came from a short and the short came from how we tell ghost stories to one another. I’ve felt if you love movies you have to love horror movies because horror movies are the most cinematic and experimental of all the genres. I don’t have anything bad to say about the Paranormal Activity movies but I wouldn’t classify them as movies. I would classify them as a slumber party videos that teenage girls put on to scare one another. When I watch a movie I want to have a story told to me and that’s really what I focus on when making my own.
C: I agree.
NM: If I was a teenage girl I would love the paranormal activity movies, but I’m a grown man.
C: Did shooting independently allow you to have more freedom with your film?
NM: Absolutely, three days after I premiered the short the producers said they wanted to make a feature out of it. I wrote the script in 6 weeks and just a few months later I was shooting it. That’s the kind of schedule people like Roger Corman would have for his films and I don’t knock that. I think that’s often an advantage for a movie because you don’t have time to over think it. There was this certain amount of freedom because I never really thought about what would happen after I finished it. I kind of view this (theatrical & VOD release) as a bizarre incredible bonus. It’s great.
C: Were there any compromises you had to make when you were filming?
NM: When you’re directing you can look at it as having to compromise constantly or look at it as the nature of filmmaking. You have a story to tell and you have a set of tools, and when you’re working on low budget you just have to look at your tools and figure out how you’re going to express what you want to express. So I don’t see it as compromise because it’s all about ingenuity and how crafty you can be when you’re working with nobody. We’ve all seen movies that were made for $150 million that were terrible.
C: I’ve seen plenty of those.
NM: I guess if there was any area that you could say I had to compromise in, it was during shooting there was a slightly different ending shot that proved to be a bit expensive, but when we got into Sundance I took the advantage of my producers teeming with anticipation and asked for more money to go back and get that shot. And at the end of the day it turned into the most controversial and confusing thing in the whole movie among people who talk about the movie online, so who knows if it was the right choice to go back.
C: The film is very visually striking. Does that look come from the collaboration between you and your cinematographer?
NM: Well I know everybody’s process is different. The way I work with Bridger (Cinematographer) is that we’ve known each other for a long time, and before we made The Pact feature we made The Pact short and another short before that. We have this understanding of each other’s taste and so my role as a director is to visually present him scenarios of how to move the story forward and he would contribute creative and technical ideas. Filmmaking is a massive collaborative effort and the best directors aren’t the ones who have the best crew, but the ones with crew members that vibe with them.
C: Casper Van Dien was an inspired choice. Where did the idea to cast him come from?
NM: Casper was the last person to be cast and we actually cast him in the middle of shooting. Because we made this movie so fast we were casting as we were shooting and we’d never gotten the role of the detective so the only auditions that I wasn’t present at were the ones for that character. So one day at the end of shooting I asked one of the producers how casting went and he said “Good” paused and said “Casper Van Dien came to read.” I couldn’t believe it because Starship Troopers for my generation is one of the most important movies and thought it would be an opportunity for him to do something a little different.
C: Once the film wrapped did you expect the reception your film has received?
NM: I never thought about the future because I was trying to craft something that would be interesting. A lot of people remark on the slow burn and I think for some people it’s the most amazing thing about the movie, and for other people they can’t stand that – and in a way that’s a badge of honor for me. We never crafted it for a market place and fact that it was a hit in the UK somewhat boggles my mind and makes me feel grateful and excited for my next work.
C: After experiencing both a theatrical release in the UK and a video on demand release in the US what are your thoughts on VOD?
NM: It’s not up to me how people consume things. Some people feel like that’s the only way they want to see film and I completely respect that but I’ll say the experience of seeing any movie is radically different than seeing it in a theater. It’s an amazing experience and I think that because the distributor saw it with an audience in a theater in the dark we ended up with this theatrical release in England. I think any filmmaker will say the way to see film is in a theater, but I know the reality is that people, myself included, watch movies on video.
C: Do you have any idea of what you’re going to do next?
NM: I’m shooting another super creepy horror movie in the fall that is in a way channeling the same experience as The Pact. It partially came from wanting to be an independent filmmaker for a little more time and to have more control but it also came from seeing The Pact in the theater with an audience and wanting to do that one more time. I’m looking to grind people’s nerves to a fine dust with this one.
C: Do you intend to continue with independent films or do you see yourself eventually working in Hollywood?
NM: One of my favorite horror directors is David Cronenberg. His career has been so interesting because he made independent films with a great deal of control for 10-15 years until he went and made a studio film (The Fly) which was number one in the country, and then made another independent distribution called Dead Ringers.
C: One of my favorite films of his.
NM: I think many people regard that as his masterpiece. I saw that at the premier and met Cronenberg for two seconds and it was an important moment for me to see this guy go from being someone who made the studio a lot of money with a commercial horror film and the next thing he did was that. So I think it’s possible to do both things as long as you stay true to why you’re in it.
C: Any advice to future filmmakers who look up to you as someone who wrote and directed an independent feature that has made its way to theaters?
NM: The most important lesson I learned when I look at the success I’ve had is that I made short film after short film and none of them were pieces of marketing for me. I wasn’t making something for a directors reel and I wasn’t trying to impress someone by making a film that sounds or looks good. It was all about telling a story and The Pact short did not come from the desire to make a trailer for a movie. I was hired to do the feature because I exhibited a strength of story telling. So my feeling is that if someone wants to be a director/writer then you should be a director/writer and not think about the market. Let the marketing people deal with that. Just concentrate on what the best directing and writing is and everything else can come from there. And stay off Facebook because it’s a terrible distraction.
The Pact screens this Saturday, July 7, as part of the Awesome Fest‘s summer Race Street Pier=based screening series.