The career of filmmaker Phil Joanou would make for a great film in its own right. He has directed some of U2’s most beloved music videos. He was Michael Apted’s choice to helm an American version of his acclaimed Up Series. He has worked with Sean Penn, Kim Basinger, Alec Baldwin, Gary Oldman and Richard Gere, among many others. And now, on February 2nd, horror buffs will get the chance to experience his new thriller for Blumhouse Productions, the company behind such hits as “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious.” Joanou’s “The Veil” stars Jessica Alba as a documentarian investigating the haunted grounds once occupied by a religious cult, led by the charismatic Jim Jacobs (Thomas Jane). Only one girl (played as an adult by Lily Rabe) managed to survive the cult’s mass suicide, and is now guiding Alba and her crew on a journey into the heart of darkness—or, perhaps, enlightenment?
Joanou spoke with Indie Outlook about his thoughts regarding the horror genre, his experience working with Blumhouse and the remarkable trickery achieved on After Effects.
As I was looking through your site, I realized that the first time I encountered your work was when I saw your music video for “When You Believe” (“The Prince of Egypt” was a favorite of mine as a kid). What draws you to the art of bringing music to visual life?
Like all of us, we drive down the street, the radio blasting away, and we all have images floating in our minds. It can be specific to your life or abstract, but the best music seems to evoke imagery in the human imagination. So going way back to my Super 8 days, I always used music as a starting point. In fact, one of my favorite student films was called “The Price You Pay.” It was inspired by the Bruce Springsteen song off of “The River” album. So I worked a story around that song and ended up using five more of his songs off the same album to tell the story.
In your first year of film school at USC, you couldn’t use sync sound, only music, so great rock n’ roll just seemed like a natural way to add cinematic and narrative depth. You can see “The Price You Pay” on my website. This was all before the advent of MTV, so I was always using music as a way to tell stories or to create stories. And I still do that. Even when I’m writing a screenplay, I’ll play music that is evocative of the mood or tone or action that I’m writing at the time. Music is perhaps the most emotional of all the arts. It can immediately bring up images and reactions—literally in seconds—without any of the kind of the set-up/pay-off you need in storytelling, and to be able to interpret and utilize that kind of emotional immediacy on film is incredibly powerful.
How did you become involved with U2 projects, and why has the band proven to be such a perfect match for your sensibilities?
I met U2 on a total fluke. I happened to be having lunch with a friend in the film business that knew their manager. He told me they were interviewing directors for a concert film of the “Joshua Tree” tour and he thought he might be able to get me in to meet the band. I had only directed two “Amazing Stories” for Spielberg and was in post-production on “Three O’Clock High,” but for some reason, they agreed to meet me. So the next day I jumped on a plane and caught them in Hartford, Connecticut, for the last show on the first leg of their North American tour.
Next thing I know, I’m sitting backstage with the four guys and their manager, Paul McGuinness. Just us. I’d never even been backstage at a rock n’ roll show, so just being there was a thrill, let alone having a shot at the film. We ended up hitting it off and they invited me to Dublin for a few days. I ended up staying there a week. They would take me around to their friend’s homes and drop me off and leave (they even ditched me at a wedding!). I’d be left having dinner with complete strangers, but of course, I understood that it was a kind of “test.” I realized later that when you’re on tour, it’s like being in a lifeboat with the same people day after day and you’d better all be in sync or it’s a disaster. And I was going to be joining a group of people who’d been together a long time, so they had to be sure. I guess I passed the test because at the end of that week, Bono offered me the job. Less than a month later, I found myself on tour with U2. It was crazy.
As to why our sensibilities match so well, it’s hard to say. I guess when I hear their music, the imagery (along with the mood and the tone) that I get from it matches where they’re coming from. Whenever I’d come to them with an idea, whether it was for the movie or a video like “One” or “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own,” they would immediately react as if the same concepts had been knocking around in their heads too. Also, I like raw, aggressive imagery and they do too. They’ve played around with more “slick” filmic execution for their work, but I think it always looks and feels right when they are in a stark, tough, straight-ahead environment. Gimmicks just aren’t a part of their music and I always felt that the imagery that goes with it should avoid that too. They’re raw and real, so I tried to bring that to the work I did with them.
And I’ll just add: working with those guys has been by far and away the most gratifying creative relationship I’ve had in my career. They truly are one-of-a-kind human beings.
The “Age 7” and “Age 14” programs were fascinating and a fitting companion to Michael Apted’s Up Series. What was the experience like of making them and do you foresee a follow-up with the subjects in the future?
Well, the “Age 7” and “Age 14” programs have been both very fulfilling and very frustrating. I had an incredible experience making both “Age 7” and “Age 14.” The kids were fascinating on so many levels and for me personally, getting to know each of them was very, very special. Michael Apted gave me an amazing gift by asking me to do the series. A lot of people don’t know that “Age 7” won the Peabody that year for Best Documentary and “Age 14” was really well received too (you can also see both episodes in full on my website). But then when it came time to do “Age 21,” I was making a movie (“Gridiron Gang”) and they decided they couldn’t wait the extra six months for me to finish and went ahead with another filmmaker. Apparently “Age 21” didn’t go well and it was never released. That dampened the enthusiasm over at Granada Television (a British company that owns the rights) and they decided not to do a follow-up at “Age 21.”
So the series is essentially on hold, if not dead. I feel like by breaking up the continuity of the filmmaking team, they really hurt the series. Michael Apted was the sole director that saw his film through each iteration and that makes a huge difference because a level of trust is built up over the years between the filmmaker and the kids as they become adults. But for the American version, they didn’t do that and I know that frustrated and disappointed a lot of the kids. But it is what it is. I don’t have control over how they handle the series and right now it looks as if it’s not coming back. It’s such a shame because the kids (well, they’re no longer kids!) were amazing and it would have been so great to see how their lives progressed. I think a huge opportunity has been missed by not continuing the series the way we started it.
What appeals to you about horror film, and how do you feel about its current state in America?
The horror genre is a great area to work in because it’s one of the few times where a filmmaker can go full-throttle-no-holds-barred. The genre allows for every trick in the filmmaking book, and that can be a lot of fun for both the director and the audience. And when you look at it, virtually every great modern-era director has taken a shot at the horror film. Kubrick with “The Shining,” Spielberg with “Poltergeist,” Scorsese with “Shutter Island,” Coppola with “Dementia 13,” De Palma (too many to mention), Polanski with “Rosemary’s Baby,” Friedken with “The Exorcist” and of course the king… Hitchcock, the list just goes on and on.
Now, I am not suggesting I am in the category of these masters, just that there is a grand tradition of taking your shot at the genre no matter what kind of films you typically make. Unfortunately, there have been so many of these films lately, the horror genre has really has become diluted. The audience has become so aware of the tricks, twists and turns that are so often used, it’s tough to make something that’s special, something that stands out.
What I liked about “The Veil” is I felt it had a unique story structure, i.e. telling two different stories simultaneously (Jim Jacobs and his cult back in the 80’s and Jessica Alba and Lily Rabe’s story in present tense) until they dove-tail together in the third act. Also, the film is a slow-burn narrative. You have to hang with the characters and get to know them and their various backstories in order to get the pay-off later on in the film. All of that is fairly unusual in today’s version of the genre. Most films are pretty much “family-trapped-in-house-being-tormented-by-an-evil-spirit” affairs. And those can be effective (like “The Conjuring”), but now there have been so many of those, it’s just become…well, generic.
I have no idea how “The Veil” will fare with a modern audience. I know it wasn’t enough of a horror fast-ball-down-the-middle to get a theatrical release. It was deemed too “off-center” for the mass “horror” audience. And I get that. I wouldn’t argue that it’s what people have come to expect from the genre. It’s not. But I’m also proud that it’s different. And if people give it a chance, I think there’s a lot of fun to be had with this story and these characters. I guess time will tell, and years from now I’ll know if the film resonated or not, which seems to happen with a lot of my films!
Religious fanaticism is an especially timely topic to tackle in any medium. What inspired you to explore it through the horror genre?
To be honest, Ben Garant, the screenwriter, came up with the religious fanaticism angle. But it definitely is what attracted me to the piece. Rather than it just being about a ghoul tormenting a family, we got to explore the world of a cult and how a leader convinces people to risk their lives in the name of his “vision.” Then in the present tense, we see the wreckage that this fanaticism leaves in its wake; how two characters’ lives in particular (Jessica Alba and Lily Rabe) are never the same because of it. Again, not to hit this too hard, but I think that’s what makes “The Veil” kind of unique in the horror wold today.
What sort of research was involved in portraying Jim Jacobs and the dynamics of his cult?
As you would imagine, we looked at Guyana and Jim Jones a lot. And David Koresh. But Thomas Jane was really the one that brought his very unique vision to Jim Jacobs. Originally Jim was a Christian fundamentalist. But Thomas wanted him to be different. So he did a TON of research into all kinds of religions dating back to the Egyptians and came up with his own version of this guy. He’s much more of a “spiritual guru” with his own special brand of “religion.” He believes that the current version of spirituality is way too limiting, so he tries to go beyond what we know and expect from that world, with some very interesting results. I have to say, I think Thomas probably rewrote 80 percent of his dialogue and then we collaborated to make sure his story tracked. The result is some really crazy stuff, and it’s my favorite part of the movie.
What was the experience like of working with Blumhouse Productions, and are there particular films they have released that you’ve enjoyed? (I’m a sucker for the first “Paranormal Activity” myself.)
Blumhouse is such an unbelievable set-up. They have the ability to green-light their own movies (under a certain budget level) so you don’t have to go through the ups and downs of “will I get to make this movie or not.” When they say they are going to make a film, they make it. They don’t mess around. And that is unheard of today. Also, when you shoot the movie, they really leave you alone. You have your budget and schedule (4 million and 25 days in my case) and if you stick to that, you have total freedom. Again, unheard of. So it really is an amazing opportunity that they give you.
Now, the trick is that they are making something like 20 movies a year. So you really have to stand out when your film is done. For reasons I mentioned above, we didn’t make the “theatrical cut,” but I am not bothered by that at all. I knew it was a long shot. The story is just too odd and the downside of adding 30 million in marketing costs to a 4 million dollar investment is really huge. They are basically guaranteed to make a profit in VOD, so going out theatrically on an original story like ours (sequels are obviously a very different matter) is a big risk and not many films can carry that risk. But in the end, I got to make my movie and they gave me final cut (even though they didn’t have to) and I don’t have any complaints or excuses. It was a great experience.
I was delighted to see Reid Scott among the cast, who I’ve loved on HBO’s “Veep,” where his character has a rather sinister yet amusingly thick-headed quality (much like his character here). How did he become involved in the project?
Reid Scot is flat-out awesome…period. He is a great actor, not just a comedian, and I think once someone gives him a shot to carry his own film, he will blow people away. I could not believe that he came in for the film and it was just great timing (he was on hiatus from “Veep”) that we got him. He brought a ton to the character and improvised most of his memorable moments. I feel really lucky with the entire supporting cast—Aleksa Palladino from “Boardwalk Empire” and “Halt and Catch Fire,” Shannon Woodward from HBO’s “Westworld” and “The Riches,” Meegan Warner from “Spies,” along with Lenny [Jacobson], David [Sullivan], Jack [De Sena]…all of them are great actors. I think that’s also one of the things that separates this film: the characters aren’t just your stock players waiting for their turn to die. The cast we got for the movie elevated their roles in every way, so the end result is a compelling group of people that really propel the story on a character level rather than being in service of the plot.
The designs of the resurrected corpses are quite startling and deliver a palpable jolt. What was the challenge of bringing them to life?
I was very lucky to have done a lot of work with Legacy Effects (they did the Terminators, Jurassic Parks, Iron Mans, Avengers and more!). They are the best in the business and way too expensive for this film, but we have a great relationship and they agreed to come aboard and help me out. They designed all the corpses and ghosts. They made it very easy on me. They are so good, all I had to do was give them some reference images of what I was after and they did the rest. It was a ton of fun to bring it all to life on the set—puppeteers are incredible to watch and direct. I’d done it before with them so there was a shorthand, but still, I’ll never cease to be amazed by the talent and skill involved. It’s like being a little kid again—just watching the magic happen with sticks and strings. Just amazing.
You told Jim Hemphill that over 200 of the film’s effects shots were completed by yourself in After Effects. How has software like that transformed the creative process of post-production?
What happened was there really weren’t any digital effects planned for the movie other than a few fairly simple composites. Our budget was extremely limited in this area, so I decided to do some temp effects while we were editing. I downloaded After Effects and although I’d never used it, I went on YouTube and sure enough, there were a gazillion tutorials. I would just type in “ghost effect” and up would come some kid in London describing how to do it step-by-step! It was fantastic. So the more I learned, the more I saw how I could add details or layers to shots, and the more I did that, the more ideas I had until it grew to over 200 shots! Now there is no computer generated CG in the film. That would be way over my head and not right for the movie anyway. But there are a lot of 2D effects that hopefully you won’t even notice. It’s not an “effects” movie. It’s very old-school that way. The work that I did is meant to be hidden. At least I hope it is!
What’s so great about technology today is that I would never have been able to afford what I ended up doing for the film. I did them all at home and delivered the finals in 2K. I’ve seen it all on the big screen and you would never know. So now that I have this film under my belt, I’ll definitely be using After Effects and other software to improve my work. It’s a great time for DIY filmmaking. It’s proven every week that with a Canon 5D—or an iPhone, for that matter—and some software, you can make a movie. It’s fantastic.
What have been some of the obstacles facing this film, and how should people look for it in the coming months?
I think the biggest obstacle in making “The Veil” is the same obstacle that every movie faces: time and money. And it’s funny, it doesn’t matter what your schedule is, ask any filmmaker and he or she will say, “I wish I had more time and money!” It’s just the way it always is. In this case, we had an unusual situation in that virtually all of the Blumhouse movies are set in one location (usually a house). And a practical location that physically exits, at that.
But in our film, we had to build the veil cult compound as well as the “Old House” that they discover; both interior and exterior on a Chumash Indian reservation. And building sets was a first for their films. The budgets just don’t hold up if you build, so that meant there was zero financial leeway during the shoot. Also, we had a huge cast by Blumhouse standards. Again, they usually deal with only a handful of characters and most often a single protagonist (Ethan Hawke etc.) and their family. But in my case, I had an ensemble cast of eight at all times in the present day story and a cast of over 50 in the cult backstory. So the time it takes to cover all those characters and their actions and reactions was a real challenge. We averaged over 46 shots a day within 10 total shooting hours (with one camera) and that was kinda crazy. It was tough, but very gratifying to have pulled it off. I grew a lot making this movie. Hopefully you grow and learn on each film, but this one really stretched me both in shooting the film and in post-production.
The film is out now on iTunes and Netflix and a bunch of other outlets starting February 2nd. I hope people check it out. We had a great time making it!
For more info on Phil, visit his official site. Seriously, you should. It’s fascinating.