AJ Bowen Talks Rites of Spring

AJ Bowen Talks Rites of Spring, in select theaters this Friday, July 27th

If you've been disappointed by this summer's lack of horror, or are craving the type of true creature feature usually reserved for October, you're in luck! As IFC Midnight will be releasing Rites of Spring in select theaters this Friday, July 27th. Directed by Padraig Reynolds, this greasy little caper follows a group of kidnappers who unwittingly drag their hostage into the nest of a mysterious entity that needs to feed on a spring time sacrifice. We caught up with star AJ Bowen, a horror genre mainstay whose made a name for himself in such films as The Signal and The House of the Devil, to unwrap some of the secrets surrounding Rites of Spring.

Here is our conversation.

Did you always intend to fall primarily into the horror genre? Or is that just something that has happened throughout the course of your career as an actor?

AJ Bowen: It was a happy accident. These were the movies that made me want to make movies while I was growing up. And they are the ones that I watched more than any other. I guess the first movie that anybody saw, that I had done...The five people that saw it...Was kind of a genre picture. I ended up touring with that movie, which is called The Signal, for several months. I was meeting other filmmakers that were in that Arthouse, indie genre world. Having the good fortune to get to know them, and having a couple different people discover me from some of the various projects I worked on throughout the years, I guess we just sort of found each other. I kept doing them. As an actor, the ambition is to play interesting characters. And in the indie genre world, the budgets are low. That allows me, as an actor, not to have a financial value behind my name, to justify me being in these bigger parts for these types of movies. There is a lot to work with as an actor, in terms of character development, that I wouldn't get to do on a larger budget. Because I have no value to the studios. I enjoy doing this. I looked up, and it had been a few years, and I was like, "Wow, I've made a lot of genre pictures." So many, in fact, that some of the ones I didn't even think were genre pictures are. I was like, "No, that's not a genre picture. Chhh...That's a love story!" But then I'm like, "Ah, I guess they are all genre pictures when you look at them."

We watched The Signal just a couple of weeks ago. It was on cable. And it really stands the test of time. The people I watched it with hadn't seen it yet, and they loved it. That's a movie that just keeps on giving. People continue to discover it...

AJ Bowen: Yeah! That's the one for us that was great. I got to cut my teeth on having a finished movie that was pretty good, with that one. We made it for fifty grand in ten days. Those were all lifelong friends that worked on it. We got into Sundance with it, and without knowing anybody or having done anything...I was already out in Los Angeles, trying to do the acting thing, and I went back to shoot that movie. I went on travels with it. Then Magnolia picked it up. So, you know, when its your first one, you start to believe the hype. We sold for a few million dollars at Sundance. We were like, "It all worked out! We've got it made. We're going to be famous. We are definitely going to be rich!" Then, a year later, when it finally comes out and makes one hundred thousand dollars at the box office, and no one sees it...That is a very educational experience, and very healthy for putting your ego in check. With that one, I went back to Georgia to take my parents to go see it. It was going to leave theaters the next day. It had done so poorly that no theaters were keeping it beyond a week. I tried to take my parents to see it the day before, but they had already pulled it to add a second screening of Step Up 2 the Streets. Which was already playing in one of the theaters. We went up there, and I was like, "Can you put it on for my parents, so that they believe I'm in a movie?"

That's kind of harsh. You get replaced by Step Up 2...

AJ Bowen: (Laughs) No, it was great. My girlfriend actually starred in Step Up 3D. I was like, "You know we're enemies! You starred in a movie that a lot of people watched, and you probably got paid a lot more than what I get paid to make movies. So I hate you!" The problem is that she is great in that movie. So I was conflicted the whole time. I was like, "God, I want to hate you! But I can't, because you are charming and I have to begrudgingly admit that those Step Up movies are entertaining. And you dance good. Whatever." What was cool is that I finally got a call from my friends back East...Like I said, I am originally from Georgia...And they are all, "Hey, we're watching The Signal!" And I'm like, "Why would you do that? That came out five years ago." They are like, "No! Its because its on the TV." So I go and turn the TV on, and I see that The Signal is on a channel that most everyone has. And then it goes to commercial, and I saw a preview for The House of the Devil. I was like, "Oh, my god! This is the greatest thing!" So I forced my wife to sit down and watch The Signal for probably the 300th time. I was like, "Look at what they cut out! I said 'fuck', but they cut it out!" She's like, "I know. I've seen the movie, like, a thousand times." I said, "No, you don't understand. They are going to play a The House of the Devil trailer. This is crazy. I think I'm a movie star!" She's all, "Yeah, that's great." What you don't know is that, as an indie film actor, I bring in about negative twenty-five thousand dollars a year. So, again, it's a constant checks and balances system of ego checking. It's like, "Oh, yeah...Still, no one has seen THAT movie." But it's very cool to have it come out years later, and have people keep finding it. Maybe, one day, it will be considered a cult film if a lot more people watch it. If that's what that means. Anyway, it was cool to see it on TV.

I thought it had reached cult status. Though, I saw it when it was in theaters. Maybe I look at it a little differently. Anyway, onto The Rites of Spring. In terms of playing your character, you do something quite different from the norm. Your guy is very calm in moments where the clichéd thing to do is be excitable. It was an interesting take on this sort of genre archetype. How did you reach this on-screen attitude in building your performance?

AJ Bowen: (Laughs) For me? I was literally coming off another movie where I had played a serial killer when I decided to do Rites of Spring. This was specifically a serial killer that likes to harm women. So, when I read the script for Rites of Spring, I was like, "I don't have to choke any women out? That sounds right up my alley!" Here, I don't have to hurt anyone intentionally. I'm not really a bad guy. I just have to be introspective. I'm down. The way the character building worked for me...Because of the structure of the film being ostensibly two parts...You have two films running parallel to each other, and then they collide to create this third movie...And we shot it in chronological order, which isn't always the case in film...So I was able to work in this other environment. When the tone changes in the movie, the tone changed only for the camera crew and the art department. I was aware that they would be, aesthetically...That this stuff was going to change. It was important to me that these characters not necessarily change. The script was fast paced and lean. It afforded the opportunity...There wasn't a lot of time once the creature feature starts in...There wasn't a lot of time for my character to be introspective, "How should I be feeling about all this? What do I think about all of this? Let me take it all in..." Instead, I was forced to start running immediately. Or at least trying to get out of the situation. That afforded me the luxury of not having to think about what an actual human being would do if presented with this. I was like, "Ah, that conversation would only occur once this was over, and they would start to think about it. And they would go into therapy." Right here, this guy is thinking, "I don't want that mummy looking dude with shit on his face to kill me, so I better be careful."

Is this film being set up as an on-going horror series?

AJ Bowen: It wasn't a case of trying to come up with a backstory after the fact. Director Padraig Reynolds always had three movies planned. That was the story structure. When we were shooting Rites of Spring, he ostensibly knew, if given the chance to make a second and third film, what they would be. And where he wants this story to go. I am aware, that if people respond to the film, that there are another two films that Padraig has written. That he will direct. But that will be up to whether or not IFC gets people watching the first one. If someone is interested in footing the bill. I can say where I think this story is going to go, because I know for a fact where the story goes, and what happens to any of the characters that may, or may not, have survived the first film. I know where it goes for them, after that. What I can say is that Padraig is a friend of mine, now. He has been a friend of mine for a couple of years. So, if the scheduling can align itself, we are looking to work together again. Because I really like Padraig. I like how enthusiastic he is about cinema. He isn't jaded, like a lot of the other indie kids are. He is very excited to be making movies. I love being around people like that. Plus, he let me play a guy who didn't choke women out. I owe him.

Are you getting a reputation as the guy that chokes women out?

AJ Bowen: I was starting to get concerned about it. I told people that I wasn't the bad guy in The Signal. It was hard for me to sell them on that. I was like, "I wasn't the bad guy. The Signal was the bad guy. I was the biggest victim!" Then I did The House of the Devil next. I was like, "I can't spin this. That guy just shot a girl in the face. He is shameless. He likes what he is doing." I wasn't going to do A Way to Die because of that. Then, the opportunity to work with some good friends, who were also actors in that movie, is what made me do it. We changed the tone of that so dramatically, by trying to humanize this guy, who, on paper was awful. By the time I got done with that, I was like, "Okay, now I really can't choke anymore women out!" I'd also prefer not to have a beard or mustache for a little while. Because if you don't...Its funny and ridiculously unimportant...But if you even put a picture up on Twitter or any of the other social networking sites, and you don't have a beard? You are going to hear about it. And some people are going to be really pissed. I'm like, "Sorry! Some people don't have mustaches!" I would say that I've been more typecast as the genre guy with the beard than genre guy that chokes women out.

I was actually at the junket for The Signal. You brought this up at one of the roundtables. Not shaving your beard. This is a problem that has plagued you pretty much your whole career...

AJ Bowen: To be fair, I don't think it's a plague to say I have the misfortune of making movies for a living. There are bigger problems than having a beard.

Its like Zach Galifianakis. He shaves off his beard and it's a big deal. Why do people care?

AJ Bowen: Right? Why does it matter? Just watch the movie. That was a problem I ran into. I did four movies where I gained, like, fifty pounds. I had curly hair, and I had all of this facial hair. I had put on all this weight for these movies, and I did four or five of them back-to-back. Then I cut the weight and I got fit again. I cut my beard and I took away the mustache, and people were like, "What are you doing?" Some of the reviews, they were like, "He's like a really sad sack Zach Galifianakis." It's funny that you bring that guy up. I was shooing a movie where some kids came up and wanted an autograph. I was like, "There is no way these kids want my autograph." I found out I wasn't wrong. They wanted Zach Galifianakis' autograph. I am six two. Come on! (Laughs) I am sick of all these beard pressures. I am tired of being objectified for my facial hair.

What's weird to me is that you don't look anything like the man.

AJ Bowen: Well...(Laughs) I am white, and I can grow a beard. So I guess we all look the same. To everybody.

Its like when Weird Al and Tom Selleck shaved off their mustaches. It's the same kind of thing. It's weird.

AJ Bowen: It's silly. It's all fake. I just don't plug into it. It's not like a ton of people watch my movies, anyway. So, it's always the same five or six people who get upset about stuff like that.

One last question about the Rites of Spring before I run out of time. And I realize this might be a better question for your director. But this movie is shot like a found footage movie. And it's not set up as such. Is there a reason behind the aesthetic of that? Or a reason why its shot all in shaky-cam. Are we always looking through the eyes of someone else?

AJ Bowen: I used to have a hard line on found footage. I was straight-up, "I'm not going to do one." Because they would make me angry, "Ah, come on! You mean to tell me that this is not edited? That someone just picked this up off the ground somewhere?" My feelings on it have changed dramatically over the past year as its become less like a set of rules for a particular type of filmmaking, and more of an aesthetic choice that helps tell the story so that its less reductive, and it helps expand the universe. I've warmed to those types of movies considerable. Though, I know that found footage conversation never once happened on this. I am sure that Padraig wanted the camera to feel like a character in the movie a little bit. We were running around so much, these shots would just have to be handheld for a lot of these things. It lent itself to that. I guess it's more of a visceral camera style. There are a few moments where I am running with the girl as fast as I can. And the cameraman is right behind me, and he has to run as fast as he can to keep up with me. Yeah. You'd have to talk to Padraig. But I never heard the idea of found footage come up. We did talk about the camera being omniscient. That it was supposed to be there. That's what that was. We were in tight, actual locations. So there also wasn't a lot of room to set up steady-cam rigs.

We've seen so many found footage movies at this point, that the look and feel can be in place without a backstory to explain why it looks like a found footage movie. It's a shooting style that audiences are now used to. We don't need to know why or how, or who is behind the lens. Its just there.

AJ Bowen: Yeah. Right. Its moved away from having to be 'found footage". It no longer has to be something someone picked up off the ground without editing. This has a number of cutaways, and two different camera sources. People might still consider it found footage. As an aesthetic, it has become common place. A lot of cable television is shot on a single camera. Our eyes are more trained to that. It takes the camera off the crane, away from observing the action, to becoming a character in the story along with everyone else. People are getting used to that. And our eyes are trained to view that as an acceptable storytelling device.

Director Padraig Reynolds will be in New York City this Friday for a Q&A session happening after the midnight screening taking place at the IFC Center, located at 323 6th Avenue, New York, NY 10014. If you can, drop in and say, "Hi."