Hot off the success of The Dark Knight (which he’s co-wrote after solo scripting Batman Begins), David Goyer isn’t stopping to take a breath. He just finished writing and directing the supernatural chiller The Unborn. His fourth directorial effort stars Odette Yustman (Cloverfield) as a young woman haunted by the ghost of her twin brother, who died while they were still in the womb. The film also stars Cam Gigandet (Twilight), Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight), and Jane Alexander (who, out of a long, long list of credits, will be most recognized by FEARnet readers for her roles in The Ring and the upcoming Terminator: Salvation). At the recent Los Angeles press junket for The Unborn, we chatted with Goyer about how to make a horror film scary, torturing his lead actress, and why directing dogs with upside-down heads isn’t all its cracked up to be.
The Unborn’s producers told us you turned down directing offers for this movie multiple times. Why?
First of all, I was possibly going to direct another film instead. I had never done a horror film before, so I didn’t know if I was ready for one. But then we started talking about someone else directing it, and I didn’t really want anyone else doing it, I said “Screw it.”
What was the biggest surprise to you in directing a horror film?
I think directing a horror film is like directing a comedy. There is not really a formula for what is funny or what is scary – there are just these innate rhythms and you have to find them. It’s not particularly scary when you are on set because you have a hundred people around you and you know what is coming. It doesn’t get scary until you go into the edit. But you don’t find out what really works until you go to test it, and we tested this movie a lot – more than any other movie I have been involved in. It’s all there: either they scream at it or don’t. Hopefully you get more screams as you go along.
Can you talk about the genesis of this idea?
I was in Chicago, visiting The Dark Knight set, and I was at dinner with my wife. I said, “Hey, you know what would be scary? If someone did a movie about a girl who has an unborn twin, and she is being haunted by the twin.” She said, “That’s fucked up.” I said, “Yeah, and the unborn twin” – I don’t know why I said this – “his nickname should have been Jumby! Someone will say, ‘Jumby wants to be born now.’ Hey, I think I’ll go write that.” So I did.
Then I just started doing research on twins, which led me to the heterochromia – the blue eyes turning brown – and that led me also to Dr. Mengele’s “research” of twins and eye color [in Auschwitz], and that led me into the Jewish legend of the Dybuk and it all just fit together. I thought it would be an interesting way to put a new spin on the possession/exorcism story.
Is there an anti-abortion metaphor in there somewhere?
Nah. Pro-life for a demon baby?
Was there an earthquake on that set?
There was – that is absolutely true. We were filming the exorcism, it was bitterly cold, the dead of winter in Chicago. We were filming in the middle of the night, and there was an earthquake. You can Google it – it was a real, honest-to-goodness earthquake in Illinois. And it wasn’t a little one – it was a big one.
How did everyone react?
Well, it happened while we were filming, and we had these big wind machines and chandeliers and everything in there already. So everyone thought, at first, it’s just special effects. But then more stuff started falling and everybody realized what was happening. Then the next night, we had a tornado warning, and we had to evacuate the set.
How far have you come as a director?
A lot. I think most people, when they start, don’t really know what they’re doing. I learned a lot on Blade, but this was the first time I was able to cut the film in my head, and say, “I need that shot, don’t need that shot.” I storyboarded a lot of the film and the movie turned out very similar to what I had boarded. I remember the fourth script I wrote was Blade and that was the first time I thought that I was really on a roll as a writer, and The Unborn was the fourth thing I directed, and I felt like I am really getting the hang of that now.
Can you talk about the collaborative process with your cinematographer, and how you achieve the look of the film?
Chris Nolan encouraged me to shoot anamorphic, which is the same format he shoots all his movies in. It’s a format that I had never worked in before, even as a writer – with the exception of Batman Begins. I would not have shot anamorphic if it had been my first directing job because you need more technical expertise. I picked a DP [James Hawkinson] who had shot anamorphic before. We spent a lot of time at the locations talking over the look. I find that – for me – the movies that are scariest are the ones that are the most realistic, so we try not to have camera movements that draw attention to themselves. I’m really proud of the look. We made the whole feature for $20 million, but it looks like a lot more.
As a director, are you thinking about the sound design while shooting?
Some things, sure, you know you will need a “bang” or whatever. It’s not a secret that with scary movies, half of it is the sound. So you spend a lot of time with the sound, wrestling with it. Interestingly enough, when you are previewing the film, you only have temp sounds – you don’t have foley or things like that – so you have a lot more music in it. But as they start building the sound design, you find yourself starting to pull music cues out. A lot of scenes where Casey hears tapping in the mirror had music under them. I think they become scarier with just the silence. I really like the sequence at the beginning where she is babysitting, and she hears something from the baby monitor, and she looks toward the stairs… it’s very quiet, and you just hear the creaking of the stairs.
Do you have a concept for the sound design at the start of the film, or is it something that evolves?
Usually it evolves in the process of post-production. With a movie like this, I told my sound designers – who I had worked with before – that we really had the latitude to be non-literal. So the visual style is fairly literal or naturalistic, but the sound design wasn’t literal at all. We hit various things that don’t make any sound. Like when Casey was watching the old film, any time the lens would flare, we would add this slightly grating high-pitched sound. It’s fun to bring sounds to things like that, because it affects people in an unconscious way.
Can you talk about casting Jane Alexander?
Well, I knew I wanted a really great actress to play Sofi. She had to be able to do a Hungarian accent, so she had to be damned good. I think Jane Alexander is one of the best actresses around, and she was thrilled to do it. We shot her scenes first. She was a trooper. It was fifteen degrees at that location, no heat, and she is running around in just a nightgown. I called her up the day before to ask her how she would feel about doing that scene barefoot – she was fine with it. She’s in her 60s and running around barefoot! It was cold – the crew was all wearing long underwear and whatnot.
How much better prepared do you feel to direct your next film?
A lot more. This was a film I prepared well for and we didn’t encounter any big surprises. It went fairly smoothly. I’m excited to dive into the next one.
Can you talk about casting Odette Yustman and Cam Gigandet?
We saw a lot of young actors. We weren’t specifically looking for “new” actors. We saw over 100 actresses for Casey [Odette’s role]. Odette was far and away the best one we saw. She is a really great actress, she’s a fresh face. I think she has a really exotic beauty. The camera loves her and audiences find her sympathetic. It was a pretty unanimous decision when she auditioned – everyone wanted her. All the actresses we saw, we made them scream. My point was not that you had to be a great screamer, but I needed to know the actors would go there. If you are not willing scream in front of three producers, you won’t be willing to scream in front of 200 crew members.
In terms of Cam, I thought he had a young Steve McQueen quality. I don’t think he had done Twilight yet when we cast him. He was sick of playing bad guys, so he was happy to do it. Gary Oldman I knew, of course, from the Batman films – that got my foot in the door. Fortunately he is a fan of horror films.
You didn’t warn Odette that she would have speculums and the like in her eyes?
No, I would spring that on her at the last minute. That particular day, we were in an ophthalmologist’s lab – he was our tech advisor that day – and I said, “Is there anything really uncomfortable we can do to her?” And that is when he showed me the eye speculum. Right before we rolled, I told Odette, “We’re just going to do this little thing, it’s fine, don’t worry” and we started to roll. I told her we would only do one take, and that I would put it in my eye, too. Then we ended up doing eight takes… and I didn’t do it. Her reaction was totally authentic. She was intensely uncomfortable. And she was uncomfortable with the potato bugs.
Weren’t the potato bugs CGI?
There were some CGI bugs, but there were about 500 real ones. They were all over her. We finished filming one scene and were resetting for another, so we stopped down for about 15 minutes. Suddenly she started screaming because one of them was in her bra. She was screaming and tearing at her clothes.
You and Jonathan Nolan have a real chance at a screenwriting Oscar nomination for The Dark Knight. Have you wrapped your head around that at all?
No. I don’t think any of us could have imagined the reception that The Dark Knight has received. We thought it would do well, but it did far and beyond what anyone expected. I’m enormously proud of my small contribution to the film.
What was the hardest scene for you to shoot in The Unborn?
The scene with the dog and the upside-down head. We shot that scene three times. The first time, the dog wouldn’t do what it was told. Gary would say [in British accent], “David, how long are we going to be here?” Finally I said screw it, take the dog out, we’ll shoot it later. We came back to Los Angeles and shot another dog, and that didn’t work – the dog didn’t do what it was supposed to – so we shot it a third time, and that one worked. But I think it works. [The dog that finally made it work] is the actual dog from the Target commercials.
What kind of goodies can we expect to see on the DVD?
There are a couple deleted scenes, but it’s not like Jacob’s Ladder where there are whole, amazing deleted scenes that didn’t make it into the movie. There is going to be an extended version that is a couple minutes longer, and four or five deleted scenes that are interesting. Shockingly, we did not have to scale back very much. We intended it to be PG-13. There is one shot where a woman’s back breaks – that was shortened. And there is scene where the boy in the dream reaches into the girl’s stomach – we had to trim a bit of that, eight frames or so. But it was nothing major – no entire scenes. My editor had also cut The Grudge and Emily Rose, so we relied on him a lot to tell us what we could get away with. I think we are riding the bleeding edge of PG-13, but I think it worked.
How did the name “Jumby” come to you?
I just made it up. Freakishly, I found out later that “jumby” is actually Guyanese for “ghost” or “spirit.”