The director of the new horror film talks about the new DVD, working with Kyle Gallner and future Haunting projects
When Peter Cornwell made his first short film, Ward 13, there was buzz all over Hollywood and that kind of buzz naturally leads to bigger and better projects. The critically-acclaimed short lead to his feature directorial debut with this year's horror film The Haunting in Connecticut, which was just released on DVD and Blu-ray on July 14. I had the chance to speak with the director over the phone about his first feature film, and here's what he had to say.
So you received some attention for your short film, Ward 13, so I was kind of curious how you came aboard this project and if you had heard of this story or had seen the TV documentary before you came aboard?
Peter Cornwell: Well, yeah, Ward 13 got me attention and people were sending me a lot of scripts and I had already met the guys at Gold Circle. I was discussing a different project with them and then they sent me this script and I just really connected to it. It was just a really good script. I had been looking at these haunted house films so I had been watching a lot of haunted house films. There aren't that many, so it doesn't take that long to watch all of them. So I just knew right away that this is what I wanted to do. It was really original and, even with haunted house films, there are certain limitations to the story. There are certain conventions like you're in the house, which actually makes you come up with other stuff and it makes it like a personal thing, like you're stuck in this confined environment.
So this is your feature directorial debut and besides the budget and the big-name actors, what was the biggest adjustment for you and your filmmaking process in making this studio film?
Peter Cornwell: Well, my short film was animated and, on a good day, I'd do like four seconds (Laughs). So we did more than four seconds a day. And working with actors, you don't have to decide, 'Oh, do they need to blink in another four frames or should I wait another ten frames to have them blink?' They blink all by themselves (Laughs).
So you brought on Carmen Reed, whose true story inspired the documentary and the film, as a consultant. Can you talk about her involvement on the set and what kinds of things did she bring to the table in the making of the film?
Peter Cornwell: Well, when I came on board, the screenwriters had already been working on the script for a couple of years, so they talked to her a lot. Basically, I just went with the script that we had because it was just so good. If you watch the DVD, there's a whole documentary with her in it and some other material, but, ultimately, I had to make a movie, not a documentary and we made it as realistic as we could and, at the same time, we had to make it a film that people would really want to see, as much as possible.
This film really seemed to be a stepping stone for Kyle Gallner. He has A Nightmare on Elm Street coming up and I really loved him in the last season of The Shield. What was it just discovering him for the role of Matt Campbell and how did you enjoy working with him?
Peter Cornwell: He was just fantastic from start to finish. His audition, he came and we just knew he was the guy. It was funny because, coming from a background in animation, I really made it my business to learn everything I could about acting and when you really know acting, you can just see when people are really good and it kind of surprises me how some people in the business don't know how to spot the best people, necessarily, because it was just as plain as day. He just did a fantastic job and he was totally committed and he was a great guy to work with. I think he's going to be huge. He can actually do comedy too. He's really funny in the movie, so I hope he doesn't get typecast.
I read that Virginia Madsen had been looking to get back into horror for a few years, but really hadn't found anything that interested her until this script. Could you talk about working with Virginia a little bit as well and what she brings to the table?
Peter Cornwell: She brings authority. When you see her movies, you just believe it. She's got this incredible warmth that you really believe that she's the mother of this family and you really believe that she cares about the kids. I think it gives you this kind of bond that means there's something worth fighting for. In some films like this, they have these dysfunctional families and you wonder if they weren't in this crisis, how happy they'd really be. You get the sense here that if the kid didn't have cancer and they didn't live in a haunted house, that they'd be really happy. It means there's something worth fighting for, which I think is really important in a film like this. You have to have the dark side to lead the light side as a contrast and she really brings that. Plus she's just great to work with and she's really good on set. She'd organize parties and stuff on the weekends and kind of help everyone.
I've been a big fan of Elias Koteas for many years and it seems that every role he takes is vastly different. We haven't really seen him like this in this film as well, so what was it like working with such a veteran like Elias?
Peter Cornwell: Oh, he's just awesome. He just brings this really soulful, again, authority. When he films his stuff, you really believe it. He was just a great guy. When I had my first meeting with him, just in talking with him he just feels like he's really connecting with you. He's just a great guy and I'm not surprised he's in about a million things. If his first film would've been Taxi Driver instead of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, he would've been De Niro. He's just fantastic.
The DVD is coming out with a lot of extras like the documentary that you mentioned. I was curious if you've had a chance to go through the DVD and if you had a particular favorite special feature on here?
Peter Cornwell: I have and I'm on one of the commentary tracks. The feature about the memorial, I think is really interesting. They kind of touch on that beforehand, but it was really interesting about the tradition of, back then, when someone died, they would take a photograph after they're dead. Now that would be really distasteful, but back then, it wasn't such a thing to talk about.
It was announced last month that Gold Circle is kind of turning this into a trilogy with The Haunting in New York and The Haunting in Georgia. Is there any chance that you'd come back to direct any of these films, or is there anything that you know about these new sequels?
Peter Cornwell: Originally, when the documentary came out, it was so popular they made a TV series called A Haunting and there were like 50 episodes or something, all over the place. So yeah, I think it makes sense to do more of them, but I just feel like I really don't want to do another horror film next. It depends on what comes along, if it's a good script and a good story. One of the good things about The Haunting in Connecticut is that some movies are about scary stuff and they have these people. This film is really about this family, except I think it's a smart, intelligent film that's about this family you care about, and this scary stuff happens to them. I think what's great about it is the history and the backstory, as it unfolds, it's really intelligent and you've never seen a haunted house like this one.
It was said you were attached to a film called The Occupants, so is there anything you can say about that, or Post-Apocalyptic Pizza or anything else that you're working on right now?
Peter Cornwell: Oh, Post-Apocalyptic Pizza was this short that had a whole lot of horror directors like James Wan, James Gunn and a bunch of people, they did these little comedy shorts, and I did one about this guy who is trying to deliver a pizza after the apocalypse. All of the mutants are trying to get the pizza, because it's hard to get after the apocalypse, so he has to fight his way through. That was just a fun little thing. The Occupants is actually a film that I was going to do before The Haunting in Connecticut, but sort of fell through. I've got a number of things I have in mind for that and it's looking good. The Haunting in Connecticut has been really good for me because it's opened up a lot of doors.
So, finally, the DVD is coming out, so for those who didn't see The Haunting in Connecticut in theaters, what would you like to say to them to get them to pick this up on DVD next week?
Peter Cornwell: Well, it's amazing to me the number of people who say they like The Haunting in Connecticut that don't normally like horror films. I think one of the reasons is it's a complete story, you're not just waiting for the scare. I've heard people that enjoyed The Ring, and didn't find it scary, because it has this whole story to it. I think The Haunting in Connecticut, when I watched it with an audience, they were leaping out of their seats. It was very gratifying because you watch horror films that have the jump-scare and people don't really jump, but people really were in The Haunting in Connecticut. To me, when a film makes you jump, that's how you know you're really on the edge of your seat and I think part of it is the sound design so the people can really turn it up and enjoy the sound design. I think it's a film about more than just a series of scares. It has really great performances and a lot of the people I know that have seen it twice, actually preferred it the second time, so how often can you say that about a horror film?
That's very true. Well, that's about all I have for you, Peter. Thanks so much for your time and the best of luck with your new projects.
Peter Cornwell: Awesome. Thanks a lot, Brian. I really appreciate it.
You can take in all the thrills and jump-scares of Peter Cornwell's directorial debut, The Haunting in Connecticut, which you can find on the DVD and Blu-ray shelves now.