LATEST | FEATURES | INTERVIEWS | NEWS | FRIGHTFEST | REVIEWS Interview with Adam Stovall, director of A Ghost Waits
By James Whittington, Sunday 30th August 2020
One of the big hits of Glasgow FrightFest was Adam Stovall's A Ghost Waits. This acclaimed movie is back and has been through an edit so we chatted to Adam about this paranormal piece of work.
HC: Where did the idea for A Ghost Waits come from?
AS: The two main inspirations were a video game and a web comic. "P.T." was a first-person haunted house puzzle game designed by Guillermo Del Toro and Hideo Kojima. My friends Brian and Jenn wanted me to play it because it had scared the bejesus out of them, and when I did I had them cracking up laughing. When Jenn started filming me with her phone, I thought there might be a movie in someone like me having to deal with a haunted house. The web comic is called "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal" and the comic in question starts with a man asking a woman what she thinks is the most American film. She answers, "Ghostbusters," because in it there's undeniable proof of an afterlife but the whole thing is about growing a small business and navigating bureaucracy. I thought, "That's hilarious, and also I want to see that film." So I wrote it!
HC: Did it take long to write and had you a cast in mind?
AS: I had the idea in late 2015 and started writing the script in January 2016. We started shooting at the end of July 2016, so I guess it took me about 7 months to write the initial script. Then I edited together the assembly cut and suddenly became very worried that I'd made a bad film. The ending always worked, though, so it became all about getting to the ending faster. Gradually scenes started to take shape and suddenly we could see that everything after the reveal of Muriel worked. We hadn't made a terrible movie, just one that needed a stronger first act. Since we didn't have a budget for reshoots, it was just MacLeod and me flying back to Cincinnati in April 2017. We went over what the movie was clearly in need of and figured out ways to address that which wouldn't betray the film as it was. We would eventually reconvene for another set of reshoots in February 2018, so overall it took about three years to "write" the movie.
HC: This is your first time as a director, were you nervous your first day on set?
AS: In prepping for this, I listened to a LOT of commentaries and interviews with directors, and something I heard often was to start the first day with something easy so that you can quickly accomplish it and hopefully that will set the pace. Not only did I schedule some of the easier stuff for the first day, but it was also a very relaxed atmosphere because we were shooting in my apartment with makeup tests going on in the kitchen and cast arriving throughout the day. This allowed a feeling of "we're just having fun playing make believe" which I think helped me. Of course, none of that footage is in the movie, so I'm not sure I'd do it again. To be clear, though, I was a nervous wreck in general. It started when we got the money and the movie became a thing that was definitely happening, and it continued on through... hmm, let's see, today is August 3rd...
HC: Why did you shoot in black and white?
AS: Technically, we shot in colour. In pre-production I had mentioned the possibility of making it B&W, and my UPM told me "Absolutely not." So we shot in colour and the first few cuts were in colour. We had to go back twice for reshoots, but we didn't have the budget to bring everyone back, so it was just MacLeod and me running around that house with me shooting the footage. So we have two different people shooting, using two different cameras, over a period of three years. When I sat down to edit the new footage into the film, I could never get the image to match up. Eventually, MacLeod asked if I had thought about making it B&W. I threw a B&W LUT on the footage and suddenly worked so much better! So while I do love the B&W aesthetic, it was also a very practical decision that just happened to also serve the film tonally and thematically.
HC: Was there much improvisation going on?
AS: Not as much as you might think. Both MacLeod and Natalie have a background in theatre, so both are disciples of the script. I wrote the script, but I'm not precious about my writing. You can't make something transcendent without allowing it to be bigger than yourself. Collaboration is a two-way street, so I want everyone on the set to feel comfortable throwing out ideas and seeing if they work. One of the biggest laughs in the movie - the toilet scene - began scripted, and then MacLeod said he had an idea and to just let the camera run. If you've seen the movie, you know what came next. I actually ruined the first take by laughing, and we had to do it again. But as I said before, the opening third of the movie was heavily rewritten and so much of it was MacLeod and me coming up with stuff as we went. So I guess it's fair to say that the first 33 minutes are comprehensively improvised...
HC: Without giving too much away, which shot was the most difficult to get right?
AS: I'm going to cheat a little and tell you about two shots. One is the scene towards the end between Jack, Muriel, and Rosie, which leads up to Rosie's tantrum. Executing that scene was very difficult because it needed to be composed of one-shots and two-shots, and they had to cut together in a fairly precise manner. Keeping the energy and hitting those beats over and over again, it was a very draining night. The other is the one effects shot in the movie. A large part of why we did the second set of reshoots is that the early versions of the first two dreams just did not work in the context of what the film became. We banged our heads against the wall a bunch, and eventually figured out what they needed to be. Once we had the idea for the second dream, we did a quick camera test to make sure we could even do it, as well as to figure out what we needed on set to pull it off. The reshoots were all done with natural light, which presents a huge problem when you're trying to execute a photographic effect, as variations in light are VERY APPARENT when put next to each other onscreen. We had been shooting in that house for years and had no idea that unfinished attic was there until the guy who owns the house realized it might be perfect for the shot. We got in there and set up our lights, and then taped over any spots where sunlight was shining into the room. And then it started storming, and in an unfinished attic with no insulation, anything happening outside is very loud. The storm was forecast to last all night, ending around sunrise. MacLeod had to be on a flight back to LA around 11am, so we woke up at 6am and drove up to the house to film the scene at 7am. We got it in time for him to make his flight, and I returned the next day to clean up and reset the house. And now I have a new standard for any scene I write: Would I wake up at 6am to film this?
HC: Who composed the songs, and will soundtrack get a release?
AS: Thank you for asking about the music! I love a good soundtrack, and I knew when I finally made a movie that the soundtrack would be a key part of it. The only song that was very specific in my mind was "Years Go By" which plays over the ending sequence. Otherwise, they were mostly just bands that I knew and wanted to include in this. I spent my 20s going to a LOT of live music, so I know a lot of musicians. I messaged them and asked if they were interested in being a part of it, knowing that we had almost zero money for music. Most of our song budget came out of my pocket to be honest, but I was fine doing that because again music just looms so large for me as a part of the cinematic experience. I have no idea if we'll do a soundtrack release, but I'm happy to include any links below. "Years Go By" is by The Bengsons. It's part of their theatre/concert hybrid show "Hundred Days" which you should definitely check out. I've seen it a few times now and it always devastates me. They workshopped the show at the Know Theatre in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is where I first saw it. Some time later I was out with my then-girlfriend and we were talking about something completely different when suddenly I saw the ending of the film very clearly in my head. I interrupted her to describe it to her, she agreed that it sounded great, and I borrowed a pen and paper from our bartender to write it down. "Yellow Cotton Dress" is by Wussy, a Cincinnati-based band that I've known since their inception. In fact, way back in the day I was part of a comedy troupe that always had a musical guest open the show, and we booked Wussy for one of their first shows. If you have a physical copy of their first album, "Funeral Dress", the "Adam" listed in the liner notes is me. So that was a pretty easy get, I just messaged Mark Messerly and asked if I could use the song, and he said yes as long as Chuck and Lisa agreed, and fortunately they did! "Punk Kid" is by Honeyhoney, who I absolutely adore. It is also their only song that is not owned by a label, so I knew it was the only song of theirs we could afford. "Stubborn Love" is by James Smith, who is also part of a wonderful band called The Spring Standards. He and MacLeod have been friends for a long time, so once we realized our initial idea for the opening soundscape wasn't working, he reached out to James and asked if we could use this song. "Alberta" is by The Seedy Seeds, another Cincinnati-based band with whom I'm very close. Margaret Darling, who did some of the score of the film, was in The Seedy Seeds, and it was so exciting to write the song Muriel sings at the end of the film with her. Speaking of the score, I met the second composer, Mitch Bain, when the film had its premiere at FrightFest Glasgow. We became friends, and he sent me some music he was working on, and MacLeod and I thought, "Ooh, you know what this would be perfect for?" So we asked Mitch if he wanted to write some score for the film, and he said yes. Seriously, that this movie exists and works at all largely comes down to willpower and friendship.
HC: It has a romantic/comedic/tragic heart, sort of Beetlejuice meets Ghost via The 6th Sense vibes, would you agree?
AS: Oh, I would say that I have a romantic/comedic/tragic heart, so I absolutely agree! It's funny to me that I don't think I actively took from any of those movies in the writing or production of A Ghost Waits, but Ghost and Beetlejuice both had massive impacts on me as a young boy beginning his journey as a cinephile. Ghost came out in 1990 and I am still afraid of those shadow demons! And Beetlejuice is one of those movies that's just always playing in my head. The dinner party scene is an all-time favourite.
HC: You have a number of roles on this movie, which one was the most fun and which one was the one you hated?
AS: I adore directing. It's easily the most work, but it's also the most fulfilling. When I'm directing, be it a film or an audio book or a comedy sketch, I feel useful, and I feel like I finally know my place in the world. I wouldn't say I hated any of my jobs on this film, but editing was definitely the most challenging - simply because I was learning to edit as I edited. I watched a lot of tutorials and essays about theory, but there's definitely no substitute for actually doing it. I guess I should mention that I served as editor on this because we couldn't afford to hire someone to do it, but I had the confidence to try because I felt like I understood the story and how to find and preserve the rhythm of a piece. I'm so glad that I edited this, as it was a great education and I feel like I can now talk with editors with a much fuller grasp of how to articulate what I want as well as being able to hear what they're saying. Which is great, because I would like very much to never edit my own film again. (He says, knowing the universe is listening and already laughing at him.)
HC: Do you believe in ghosts or life after death etc?
AS: Well, more than anything I believe that we don't know everything, so anything is possible. But no, I don't believe there's an afterlife. I think it's very interesting, when you look at the origins of monsters, ghosts are the only one that came about because of desire rather than fear of something we didn't understand. The desire to be continue to be in proximity to someone we'd lost is primal, and the idea that we long so greatly to be with that spirit that we'd open ourselves up to nefarious or evil beings endlessly fascinates me. Of course, this movie isn't really about that - maybe I'll have to explore that in a future film. But yeah, the idea of an afterlife fascinates me. What is the structure of it? If there is a Heaven, then how thoroughly do you get to decide the context of your perfect place? Does our spirit become splintered when someone else wants us in their perfect place, but we don't want them in ours? And what kind of energy and matter is the afterlife composed of? Even a projection requires something to project and something against which to be projected. These things aren't covered in the holy texts, which is just a huge oversight.
HC: So, what are you working on at the moment?
AS: I'm working on a sci-fi thriller right now, kind of a time travel road movie. That's been a blast to write. I have a couple other scripts people are interested in making, but obviously COVID-19 has dragged everything to halt this year. So, I just spend my days thinking about time travel, and I have a couple ideas to dive into once that one's done.
HC: Adam Stovall, thank you very much.
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