Interview: Courtney Solomon - An American Haunting
17th Apr 06
An American Haunting stars Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland. Based on the allegedly true story of the Bell Witch haunting of the early 19th Century in Tennessee it tells the story of an American family plagued by a brutal and vengeful spirit. The film opens this week and EMB caught up with director Courtney Solomon to talk ghosts, exorcists and crappy remakes…
EMB: Courtney, I have to admit that I had never heard of the story of the Bell Witch before seeing your movie. How did you first get to hear about it?
Courtney Solomon: I actually found out about it on amazon.com, oddly enough! I really wanted to do something in the horror genre and I was looking for inspiration. The Brent Monahan book (The Bell Witch: An American Haunting) had just come out and had got great reviews. The story looked interesting so I bought it straight away. I knew nothing about the story either. I read the book cover to cover in about two hours and just thought it was an amazing tale, especially the fact that it was based on something that had actually happened.
Within a week I hopped on a plane and went to the town of Adams to check it all out and sure enough there were the graves - John’s, Betsy’s, Lucy’s, all of them buried there, a plaque right in the middle of the town as you drive in and a museum telling you the whole story. Now the whole vibe of the place was pure Hills Have Eyes / Deliverance and for a nice little Jewish boy from the city it was all kinda scary! But I hung around, as I wanted to take in as much of that atmosphere as possible.
EMB: I imagine the locals had quite a few stories to tell. Any weird things happen while you were there?
CS: The legend had been around for about 200 years and everyone we spoke to in the town was convinced that it was real. We visited the original cabins that the Bell family lived in dating from around 1818 that were still there - pretty much as they must have been back then. So it’s the middle of summer when we went out there to check it out, 90 degrees and everyone is in t-shirts and shorts. We’re in this cabin and there’s this room that no-one’s going in. So we say ‘what’s in that room over there?’ and this guy says ’you really don’t wanna go in there’! So of course like every dumb horror movie character we were like ‘OK we really have to go in there!’
So we walk in and the minute we do bam! Literally you could see your breath in front of you. We are in an 1818 cabin in the middle of summer and all of a sudden it’s freezing. Plus it wasn’t like a basement room. It was right beside the room we were just standing in. It was like the minute we crossed this line and entered the room it was like you crossed over into a different place. And we were like ‘why is that?’ and the guy was like ‘we don’t know its just always been like that’. So it was strange, bizarre little moments like that and just speaking to the people there that made me feel there was definitely something real about it all.
EMB: How did you go from taking this trip and reading the book to getting the film into production?
CS: Well after the trip I was obsessed. I got hold of all the other books on the topic, and there’s like about twenty or so that have been written. When I had read them all it was weird how consistent they were in their telling of the story. Some of them had different conclusions to the tale, different perspectives, and I felt that Monahan’s vision was the most credible and believable - the one that I believed in the most. I’ve always been interested in ghosts and poltergeists and the unexplained - sort of as a hobby and personal fascination. The idea that a poltergeist or an entity comes from a certain type of trauma - and is a manifestation of that trauma – and exists until the trauma or conflict is resolved chimed with my beliefs. Plus it fascinated me. I mean we have all heard stories that claim to be based on true events, but with this it really seemed like something had happened and I wanted to explore that. And if you’re gonna devote all your time to writing, directing and funding a movie you’ve got to have a passionate belief in the subject. I optioned the rights to the Monahan book as soon as I got back from Adams.
EMB: Were you pissed off at all that Emily Rose came out only a few months before your movie and kind of beat you to the punch? They are similar movies, at least superficially?
CS: Would I have preferred that we were first? Definitely! I mean we went into pre-production first and we had thought of doing this way before Emily Rose so in that respect I guess so. But the films are pretty different. Our story is not at all like Emily Rose. The aspect of the possession of a young girl is the only similarity, and I guess the girls look similar, only ours is definitely prettier (laughs). We weren’t trying to be derivative of any other movie or genre so although I understand that people will make comparisons I hope they don’t lump our movies together.
EMB: Possession movies are so cemented in our subconscious now because of all the films that have gone before that it must be hard to create moments that don’t just immediately recall what we’ve seen in other films. I mean it’s almost impossible to watch a film about the possession of a young girl and not think about Regan in The Exorcist.
CS: Naturally people will make comparisons but the truth of it is that I wanted to stay as close as possible to the real story of the Bell family and what happened to Betsy. That the things that happen to Betsy were consistent through all the different books meant that naturally I wanted them in the movie even though what happened is kind of reminiscent to what happens to Regan.
Betsy is a young girl in a white nightgown being attacked by an invisible entity so of course it’s similar to Regan! But if you look at what’s actually happening to her - she’s dragged across the floor and thrown up the air, she’s physically attacked by the demon or spirit, rather than the demon possessing her to attack others. Betsy’s head doesn’t spin around. On the surface it’s similar but it’s an entirely different take on the idea of possession. If some of the scenes are similar that’s the nature of possession I guess!
EMB: Did you get any pressure to make it schlockier?
CS: To make it gorier - totally. I got pressured to do it in a more gruesome way, but I never wanted that. I actually put less in the movie because I was aware of just throwing things in as an obvious crowd pleaser. I mean there are a lot of great intense, bloody horror films out there right now. I think its good to give audiences a chance to see something that is more creepy and less gory, as an alternative. If you are a blood and gore horror fan AAHM is probably not going to be your cup of tea. It’s a supernatural thriller rather than a horror film.
EMB: Were there any films in the genre you looked at in terms of mood or texture while prepping AAH?
CS: I checked out The Haunting for some inspiration.
EMB: The original presumably – not the bloody awful remake…
CS: Ha ha (mocks English accent) ‘the bloody awful remake’. Yeah I guess the US way of saying that would be the ‘piece of shit remake’ right? God that’s such an awful movie. But the original and the look of the original is great, a definite inspiration.
EMB: I saw some of Jack Clayton’s movie The Innocents in there too. In terms of visual style.
CS: Oh yeah, completely, I did look at that quite a bit, much more so than The Haunting and also Hitchcock’s Rebecca – using the shadows in the house for dramatic purposes. The Others as well, which is heavily influenced by Clayton’s film. And I looked at The Exorcist to not fall into the traps.
EMB: Finally how did you get Spacek and Sutherland on board? Did you have them in mind from the start?
CS: Well I definitely wanted them but I didn’t actually think I’d actually get them! They were on my wish list because they were in my mind from the beginning. Don was my absolute choice for John he’s perfect. When Don said yes, his agent told us that they represented Sissy too and that was how it all happened. So we got’ Don’t Look Now Donald’ and ‘Creepy Carrie’ (laughs).
I was delighted because Sissy makes very few films these days and only really works when she absolutely wants to. When we went to her she hadn’t done any horror since Carrie (she subsequently did a little cameo in Ring 2) and the type of films she’d been doing were prestige films like In the Bedroom so I wasn’t sure she would want to do it. I mean if you or I were collecting the royalties on Carrie for the last twenty-five years we probably wouldn’t work if we didn’t have to, right?