There have been countless movies over the years that involve demonic possession, but director Jeff Chan's new film Grace: The Possession is the first to truly take fans inside the mind and body of a possessed individual. Now available on DVD and Digital HD, Grace: The Possession centers on college freshman Grace (Alexia Fast), who is dealing with temptations such as sex and alcohol for the first time in her life, due to her overly religious upbringing by her grandmother (Lin Shaye). Grace begins to discover that something truly evil lies within her, which is linked to the horrific death of her mother, while consulting with a young priest (Joel David Moore).
I recently had the chance to speak with Jeff over the phone to discuss the intricate process he used to shoot Grace: The Possession completely from Grace's perspective (Alexia Fast also served as a camera operator on the film) in this spine-tingling thriller. Here's what he had to say below.
First off, I saw the movie Grace a few years back and when I first heard of this, I wasn't sure if it was some kind of knock-off. Can you talk a bit about your title, and was Grace your first choice for a title?
Jeff Chan: Oh, yeah. We wrote the script with the character named Grace in it, and we didn't have a title. As we were writing the script, we thought how well the title kind of matched her journey. We hadn't watched the other Grace, and in no way were we trying to knock off anything. It didn't come to our attention until later on, and as we finished the movie, the other tag (The Possession), which is also a movie (Laughs), was added on. I guess that's how the studio wanted to market it, and that's how it evolved.
Can you talk about how long the writing process actually took you, and how long this idea had been in your heads for?
Jeff Chan: It's been about a year and a half or two years, probably. That seems like a long time, but that's kind of fast, in the movie business, I guess, because things take forever. We actually came up with the idea with a producer, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, who has produced movies like Insidious and Sinister. He was into my first-person work, and he said, 'You know what would be really interesting, if we saw a movie from the perspective of the person being possessed.' We just kept the conversation going, and I got together with my writing partner Chris Pare, and the other writer we worked with, Peter Huang, and we just started bouncing ideas back and forth. We came up with a few different ways to break the story, and we were watching movies all the time, revisiting classics like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby, and other non-genre movies like Stoker. We were just trying to figure out what type of movie would make the most sense for this. It was about two years ago, when we had the initial idea, six or seven months of day-in, day-out writing and discussion, to get our script ready.
I really enjoyed how it was shot from her perspective, and it was unique, but I imagine that presented a lot of technical challenges for you. I believe Alexia shot a lot of this herself.
Jeff Chan: Yeah, it was incredibly challenging. I had done some stuff, some short films, in first person, but they were maybe a minute and a half or two minutes long. When you scale it up to 90 minutes, it's a different animal. We basically had the help of a company called Radiant Images, who was designing the rig that was custom built. We had a great camera team who built this helmet. Basically, us being Canadians, it was a hockey helmet and built it into a camera rig. We had both Alexia and our camera operator Anna, they would basically operate in different situations. If something was a bit more technical, or where framing and composition was more important, Anna would come in. She had a great eye for composition and she worked with our cinematographer, Norm Li, to create these frames. In scenes where we really wanted Alexia to be organically making decisions as Grace, then we would put the helmet on Alexia. Any time you see Grace in a mirror, it's actually both of them. It's actually not a mirror, it's a hole in the wall, and we built sets where one side was camera side, and the other side was completely reversed. Our camera operators had to mime each other in the mirror, and later in post-production, we put a later in the mirror. That's how we did those mirror scenes. It was incredible, and nobody thinks about it, which is what we want. It takes a level of coordination from the production design and the lighting team and the actors miming each other perfectly. I'm sure if you go frame-by-frame, you'll see little things that are different. We left clues and little hints, sometimes. Basically, Anna and Alexia would spend hours syncing their actions up. It was incredibly, incredibly challenging, but those were things we had a lot of fun figuring it out and trying to work around.
That's amazing. I did wonder about that a little. It was seamless, but I would wonder, 'How the hell did they pull that off?' I was wondering if there was maybe some tiny camera that you had on her head, or something like that.
Jeff Chan: It was actually a specially built camera from Radiant Images, and the operators, the person who would be wearing the helmet, would then wear these goggles that would have an image from the camera looped to their eye, so they could actually operate. When you're wearing these goggles in real life, it's actually your field of view in real life, and there are trip hazards and everything. When you have Grace walking through an empty house, in kind of a lonely, empty scene, there's actually a train of four or five people behind her, one person spotting, one person pulling focus, one person holding a light. We had to put together these incredibly complex puzzles, with people hiding behind furniture. Usually, you do this for one or two shots in a movie. We're doing this for every set-up. That's a testament to how good the crew is, and how great the actors were, in accommodating how technical and different this shoot was.
I imagine these shots of Grace in the car with her grandmother were even more complex, since you're in a confined space.
Jeff Chan: Absolutely. I was so lucky to get the chance to work with Lin Shaye. She's truly a legend and someone who I've learned so much from in collaborating with her. In those scenes, Lin is actually driving as well. We closed off the roads and made sure it was safe and we had our stunt coordinator go through it with her, but she said she wanted to do it. She thought it would be better if she drove. We had Alexia operating the camera, Lin driving, there's no real room to hide anything. You can't cheat a car rig. Even in the car, we had to be careful how we lit it. Every little thing was definitely a challenge, but our intention was to make you feel like you were a character in a movie. Obviously, we're not the first POV movie, but we wanted to put our audience inside the head of a character and experience a movie as a character, so we wanted it to feel very cinematic.
How much did you look into the history of possessions, especially when you get towards the end? Was there anyone on set that you talked to about authenticity?
Jeff Chan: We actually met with an exorcist, which was really interesting, and those passages, we worked with him to transcribe, and what they were saying was actually what he would say. That was a fascinating experience. We actually looked at real exorcisms and exorcisms in movies, and we tracked the journey that people go through. In the first act of the film, it's really about a girl who leaves the nest. We actually talked to people who suffer from schizophrenia as well, and a lot of the stuff where she sees things and hears things, those are real-life symptoms. As the movie progresses along, you realize this is not just mental health. This is something a little more sinister. That's how we decided to approach this.
Was there a level of training you had to go through with Alexia as far as operating the camera?
Jeff Chan: It's interesting. When we first started shooting this, we didn't think Alexia would be up for it. We thought it was just a crazy idea, so the plan was to have Alexia run the scene with the actors, where everyone feels good and everything is working, and then we'll substitute Alexia for the camera. Alexia was so generous and so amazing in getting all of the actors where they were and getting the performances out of the camera. We realized that she was more technical than we thought. By Day 3, she was doing shots, and by the end of the movie, her and Anna were this great team, who would just sub on and off, depending on what we really needed. That really goes to show how great of an actor Alexia is. She truly is remarkable.
Is there anything that you're working on right now that you can talk about?
Jeff Chan: I'm working on this film with QED, and it's set in a world where everyone at the age of 19 has turned into a zombie. There's something happening where, if you turn 19 or if you are over the age of 19, you turn into a zombie. It's a world inherited by kids, so it's sort of like Lord of the Flies, but in a genre setting that's much more accessible. That's one project, and another one I'm doing with Lionsgate, which is a firefighter film set in Detroit, in the vein of End of Watch. I'm incredibly excited about that one as well, and hopefully we'll be in Detroit very soon, to spend some time with those guys and get into that world. I'm very grateful to be working on both of those things.
This film actually lends itself to a sequel following Joel David Moore's character. Would you be interested in developing that as well?
Jeff Chan: Absolutely. I was so lucky to work with Joel David Moore, and he operated in some of those scenes as well. He was just fantastic as an actor, and it was great for me because Joel is a director as well, and being a first-time director, we would chat about things and he would tell me about his experiences. Joel is a true collaborator and a true ally, and I would love nothing more than to see him finish what his role is.
Great. That's my time. Thank you so much. It was a pleasure talking to you, and I hope this does well.
Jeff Chan: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time, and I look forward to chatting with you in the future.