The director takes us behind-the-scenes of this upcoming thriller starring Liam Neeson and Christina Ricci
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo earned praise for her short film Pâté when it premiered at the 2001 Sundance film festival. The director returns this Friday with her first feature film, the haunting thriller After.Life. Christina Ricci stars as Anna, a young schoolteacher experiencing a transition in her life. She's unhappy in her relationship with Paul (Justin Long), and while fleeing an embarrassing public argument, the woman dies in a horrific car accident. Anna awakens to find local funeral director Eliot Deacon Liam Neeson) looming over her frozen body as he prepares her flesh for the funeral. Confused, terrified and still feeling very much alive, Anna doesn't believe she's on the verge of crossing over to the afterlife. With an unrelenting edge of menace, Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo has created a stylish psychological thriller which provocatively questions the fine line between life and death. We recently caught up with Agnieszka to find out more about this haunting trip to the other side. Here's what she had to say:
Is there anything more unnerving than a mortician in Crocs?
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: (Laughs) I think that is pretty unnerving. It's an interesting question. There is something about Eliot. The way we worked with Liam, and how he portrayed the character. We wanted him to always have a sense of mystery. He is so gentle sometimes. He is caring, which makes him even scarier when he gets angry.
Did you get to spend much time with real morticians? Where did you pull your inspiration for Liam Neeson's Eliot Deacon from?
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: I love research. I am a research freak. Honestly. I spent a lot of time researching this. I went to every single morgue in New York City. I know them all. And New York has a lot of funeral homes. Research was very important to me. I will never forget my trip to the Los Angeles morgue. It was an experience. The place is very, very eerie. The whole morgue is not usually how you would have it. There is a huge room about the size of a basketball court. It is full of bunk beds. There are rows of them. They are all filled with bodies. The day I went there, they were overcrowded. I think they were at twice the capacity. It was literally Hell on earth. There were people in various stages of decomposition, and they were all wrapped in this semi-opaque plastic. There is a white rope around their neck. And their feet. It's definitely something you will never forget. Then you walk outside and it's LA. It's sunny. There is ocean. And there are palm trees. I joke that a trip to the morgue should be obligatory for people that live in LA. It makes you respect life. In terms of funeral directors, I was introduced to many of them. There was a period when I was working on this script, and I would talk to funeral directors all the time. They would email me. And they would send me pictures. I know everything there is to know about being a mortician. I love that. I remember spending one whole day with a particular funeral director. I shadowed him for the whole day. We started at 6:30 in the morning, when he got his first call to come pick up a body. Then we continued throughout the day. Preparing the body. Dressing the body. Embalming the body. Putting the make-up on. Placing the body in a casket. Posing the face. Finally, putting the casket in the chapel where the funeral was going to take place the next day. It was an amazing day to remember. I have learned a lot of things. Death and funeral homes are the last remaining taboo. Everyone is frightened and scared about what goes on behind closed doors. At the same time, we are all fascinated by it. It was very interesting. And very helpful to emerge myself in this world.
What came first? Your interest in the funeral home atmosphere? Or the film?
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: Look, I have been fascinated by death since I was ten years old. My father died when I was ten. It left this influence on me. I always wondered what happens to us when we die. I wonder if there is maybe a transitional period where consciousness remains. And you are able to reflect on your life. I always wondered what physically happens to the body. The stages of decomposition. How it happens, how long it takes. I was very interested in that as well. The movie is not only about death. It's primarily about life. And what it means to live life. Can you be physically alive, but emotionally or physically dead? That's the sort of question I want to pose to the viewer. I've always been fascinated by death. Research was something that allowed me to get comfortable with death. Especially in making this movie. I had to conquer my own fears by forcing myself to go to these funeral homes. It's a very eerie feeling. I remember going to one funeral home upstate, in New York's Spanish Harlem. It was a huge funeral home where they have eight chapels. I wanted to visit them, because it was so big. They allowed me to come very early in the morning, before all the funerals take place. They didn't even tell me anything. They just let me wander around alone. The first chapel door I opened, I walked into. The light was dim. I didn't even notice this. Because I was wandering. But there was this coffin set up with a lady lying in it. It was something I didn't expect. To be in the presence of her without realizing it. It's strange. For me, every story starts in reality. Then I give it this heightened reality feel. That's where the research was really crucial. It gave me all of the details. I spent them according to how I was able to use them.
Anna seems to be in a major life transition before she dies. How do you feel her life leading up to her death is reflected in her struggle to get a grip on this new afterlife she is experiencing? Death is almost a metaphor for Anna over coming her own disappointments in herself and stepping away from the things that she is unhappy with, to become someone new.
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: That is a very interesting way of summarizing the movie. I never looked at it that way. Its true, she obviously didn't have a fulfilling life. If you haven't lived a very full life, it is very hard to die. Instantly, you have all of these regrets. You have all of these dreams that you didn't accomplish. You have all of these failed things that you gave up on. That is a very hard way to go. I think that's what she is dealing with. Without giving it away, Anna hasn't lived life. With her being in the prep room, she finds life through death. If that makes sense. She finds herself. She is most alive in these three days spent in the prep room. There is an element that asks, "Why do we have to lose something to start finally appreciating it. Once her life is taken away from her, she finally wants to live it.
Justin Long plays a very similar character in Drag Me to Hell. Were either of you ever concerned about treading a little too close to that film in terms of Justin's lame duck boyfriend persona?
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo:Drag Me to Hell hadn't come out by the time we started shooting. We were shooting in November or December of 2008. I believe he'd shot that film already, and they were in post-production. I didn't get to see Drag Me to Hell until this year, when I was in Holland with my niece. I have seen it. But I didn't know much about the film while casting Justin. Justin stood on his own. Once we had Christina Ricci and Liam Neeson, you can imagine that we had a lot of other dramatic actors who were really intrigued and interested in the part. But I felt something very fresh in Justin. I wanted to cast someone that was known more for comedic roles. I wanted to give him this opportunity. For me, I wasn't aware of Drag Me to Hell and his role in it. I do believe, looking back, that here, yes he is a boyfriend. But he takes a different journey in After.Life. Here, you are not really sure if this guy is losing his mind. You don't know if he is the only person that is right. That Anna may actually be alive. Or if he is going crazy. He might be breaking down. Because of the guilt he feels. He didn't only let Anna storm out of that restaurant, but there is a bigger guilt. Maybe about their relationship. They were never able to make it. Without giving too much away, they do find each other. They reunite.
Its interesting to note the parallel between these two characters that Justin has played. He seems to be the perfect guy in this type of movie, where the girl is the protagonist. He knows how to take the back seat to a stronger female presence. That seems to be his niche.
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: Because there is also Drag Me to Hell, it's easy to draw that comparison. But if you look at After.Life on its own, Paul is a very important character for me. He is the third in this triangle. There wouldn't be a movie without Paul. At the core of this is a tragic love story. I have seen women really respond to this. It's a modern day Romeo and Juliet, where there is a couple that clearly loves each other. Yet they are going through a rough patch. They are unable to communicate. Because there is this barrier between them. At the beginning of the movie, he is not able to get through to her. Then, ironically, he is the only one that hears her when the whole world has basically buried her. I think Justin has a lot of potential. I think he will go far. There is a lot of spontaneity in him. He hold his own. Working with Liam, which is not an easy task.
Did you write this film with your husband?
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: I co-wrote it with Paul, my husband, and my friend Jakub Korolczuk. There were three of us.
And Justin's character is named Paul. Did you guys bring anything you'd previously shared in your relationship into this script? Or did you base it on a certain set of friends that you watched struggle from afar?
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: No. My husband and I have a totally different relationship than Anna and Paul. There is a coincidence of Justin's character being called Paul, and Anna's name starting with an A. That is something that is just there. It was more about my friends. I have a lot of female friends that are in relationships, and they are not able to see how much they have. They are almost taking their relationship for granted. My father died when he was thirty-three. He was very young. But he lived a full life. He lived as though he was eighty in those thirty-three years. I am the same way. If you love someone, tell them now. Couples tend to get distracting by ego and the daily minutia of life. If you love someone, and it's that person, don't wait. You don't know what is going to happen tomorrow. That was really that. I wanted to tell that story. This isn't the Hollywood version of this couple. If it were the Hollywood version, they would be extremely happy. And very successful. And on the brink of something huge. I wanted to show that there is a connection between them. But, the reality of it is that they are struggling to make it work. For Anna's character, it takes her death to realize how much she loved Paul. And how she made the mistakes she's made. For Paul, he is easy going. He says he wants to be happy, but he has never had to fight for his happiness. Until this moment. For both of them, there is this change brought upon them by what happens.
The color red is very important to the visual palate of the film. What do you feel the color represents in relation to Anna's journey.
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: I am a very visual filmmaker. All colors, the use of colors, and how color evokes feelings and emotions is crucial to me. Every color in the movie has been chosen. From violet, which has its own meaning, to obviously red. Red, very simply, is life. It is the color of blood. But it is also love. Which is an important issue that Anna is dealing with. There is a visual motif where she has a nosebleed, then she dyes her hair, which foreshadows what happens in the funeral home, where Eliot dyes her hair back by request of the mother. The dying of the hair symbolizes this change. Its like you said, it's a transition. She thinks that if she dyes her hair, she will become happy. She will find a better life. She is not looking inside. She is looking outside. Because she doesn't understand herself until she meets Eliot. We don't want to forget that red slip, which, again, symbolizes Anna's character. She is really beautiful in her dreams. That's why she wears red. But she wears the red under grey and black. Versus wearing it as a color itself. It is hidden,. That red slip becomes the last thing that connects her to the world of the living. When she finally realizes that she is dead, Eliot cuts away that red slip. She then becomes a full-fledged corpse. That was the last earthly possession that she had. That was her remaining link. When it is taken away from her, she retreats into fading away. Being dead.
The film uses some quite jarring sound effects where they aren't usually used. What were you hoping to convey with a flashbulb that sounds like a shotgun blast? How does that read into Liam's own on-screen persona in After.Life?
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: Liam is taking these Polaroids throughout the movie. He has this habit of taking pictures of the people he has transitioned through death. He has this wall full of Polaroids. You are never sure of his motives. It depends on your interpretation of the movie. Do you think Anna is alive or do you think she is dead?
I personally think she is dead. I would like to think she is dead. But the audience has to watch the film for themselves to find that out. I don't want to spoil it for them.
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: I am not going to give it away. There are definite clues as to whether she is dead or alive. My intention from the beginning was to have this space for the audience to interpret it themselves. It would have been easy to give a paint by numbers ending. The whole theme of life and death, and the question I posed at the beginning, "What does it really mean to be alive?" That is not a clear-cut question. That is why I wanted to leave that space for the audience. There are clues. On the second and third viewing, people find more and more things in it. Which is exciting. That is interesting, because the reactions that I have had to the movie are the ones I wanted to get. Some people will believe she is dead. That Eliot does have this gift of transitioning the dead. Others will believe that she is alive, and that Eliot is a psycho who wants to burry her alive. I have watched people have this argument right in front of me. They swear by each of their interpretations. That is a great reaction. Obviously, being able to provoke that discussion, and to watch that discussion go deeper is what I wanted. I see the questions going deeper. They start to ask if they are living their life. If they are making the most of their life. I've had people come up to me after seeing it, and the say it changed their life. They tell me they want to live. They want to live better. It's very gratifying.
It's interesting to hear you say that. You are sort of giving the film away. But not really. When people come up to you at the end of the film, do you have a definite answer for their interpretation of the film?
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: Yes. I do. I have a definite answer. And there is a definite answer in the movie. There are six clues. We are going to do a special feature on the DVD just about that. These clues are absolutely there. And I can list them one after the other. It is very subtle. It fascinates me that people will ignore these clues. Even though they are so prominent. Because they want to believe one thing. Whatever they want to believe tells me a lot about their own relation to death. And their own beliefs about death. Whether they are more at peace with it. Or if they are more terrified by it.
Where do you fall? Are you someone that is okay with death and dying? Or are you a little bit worried, or scared, even after the research you've done?
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: Look. I think its such a primal fear. Its something you can never get rid of. I am more terrified about the deaths of people I love. Rather than my own death. Doing this film gave me a lot more perspective. Being able to approach death so close, it made me become comfortable with it. If I wasn't comfortable with it, I wouldn't be able to make this film. Everyone was relying on me. I needed to lead them into this world that they were frightened of. If the director was frightened by it, then I wouldn't be able to direct this movie. I had to exorcise my demons.
Are you still so fascinated by death that you will continue to express that in your art? Are you and your husband working on another screenplay that has similar elements? Or are you going to go off and do something completely different?
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: I think I am ready to open up another chapter. Certain directors tell the same story, just in different forms. They will make the same movie their entire career. I think there is something to that. Obviously, the story changes, and the characters are different. But there are certain themes that stay consistent throughout any body of work. If you look at a certain individual, you can see those themes. For me, I have exorcised those demons. I am ready to work on something completely different.
What would be completely different for you? Do you know in what direction you may move from here?
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: I was offered a couple of projects after this premiered at AFI back in November. I have been offered a couple of different projects that are in different states of production and preproduction. Basically, I am committed to After.Life until after this opening weekend. Then I will make a decision about what is next for me. I do have some offers that I am really excited about. And some stories that I am really excited to tell. The next one, I want to be on set very quickly. We shot this movie in twenty-five days. It was so short. And so ambitious. And intense and tough. We had two hundred scenes. So we had to shoot eight scenes a day. I loved the experience. And I want to be back on set very quickly. My next project is most likely going to be someone else's script. I will just direct it.
Do you have an idea what this project may be? Are you heading towards some big project in Hollywood that you aren't allowed to talk about? Or is this next film going to be a little more intimate?
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: There are various things. I'm not supposed to talk about them. But there are various different things happening. Again, I want to juggle things. For me, it's the story that I really care about. The rest comes with it. But this next project is going to be something bigger. That much I can say.
How do you and your husband work? Do you both sit and collaborate on the script, and then you go off and direct it on your own? Or does he have a presence on set? Do you guys act like the Coen Brothers?
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: I am definitely alone on set. I went into filmmaking because I love film collaboration. When I made Pâté, my first short film, it premiered at Sundance. It opened many doors for me. It was very personal to the point where I did everything myself. I had lots of time. I didn't have much money. I was very resourceful. I was still in school. It was my first year, actually. The reason I went into film was because I wanted that collaboration. I didn't have that on Pâté. That's how the whole idea of collaborating on this script was born. I enjoyed it tremendously. I want to do it more. I see myself writing with different partners throughout my entire career.
This is your first feature, and you have such a great cast here. How are you going to continue to utilize that in the future? Are you going to work with any of these people again? Do you have certain actors that you are looking forward to working with?
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: This is the second film I have made, but it is my first feature. I made the one short, and the one feature. So when I was making After.Life, I was basically a first time director. I was very lucky to have this phenomenal actress who had trust in me. She shared my vision and wanted to help me tell this story. I always get asked if I was ever intimidated working with Liam or Christina. I wasn't. Because I knew my story very well. I had a vision for it. I think actors are the type of people who very quickly know if you know what you are doing. You have to earn their trust and respect. These guys were not only amazing actors, but very generous people. All three of them. They were very committed to the story. I was very lucky to have them. For me, it all starts with the character. I see a character first. Then I see an actor. In both Liam and Christina's case, they were ideal. They were my dream. That was a very gratifying thing to have happen. But it's not easy. It took me three years to write the screenplay. I was very patient with casting. I could have made the film earlier. But I was stubborn. Liam gets so many offers from big directors and big studios. But he responded to this script. He loved my short film. We met. We had a creative connection. I think it was a combination of things. Definitely the role and the script. Actors always look for interesting roles. If there is an interesting role, but not an interesting director, they will still be open to it. Obviously, they have to trust you. They have to feel comfortable. Then they are open to it.
We've never seen Christina Ricci as a school teacher before. And it almost goes against type for her. What did you see in Christina that convinced you she could play this type of character?
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: I love challenges. I think Christina is very mature in the film. I love that. I wanted to see her have a mature female role. Where she is more of a woman. I feel that in her. Obviously, I was looking for someone that had this ethereal beauty in her. Is she flesh and blood? Is she a ghost? There was this eeriness to her as a character. And to her as a person. Obviously, she is an amazing actress. There were a lot of factors. I had met with many actresses. There was something about Christina. She understood this woman. She wanted to show herself. I knew she would bring a lot to it.
And you really captured something in her eyes with this film. There is a beauty in them I haven't really seen before. There is a really great sense of lightening. It is really beautiful how you shot her.
Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo: Thank you. Please write that. She will be so happy. She will love you for that.
After.Life opens this Friday, April 9th, 2010.