"Empty Rooms" Director Interview Adam Lamas
"Empty Rooms" Saturday, October 20, 6:30 pm
A single mother and her mute, autistic son are terrorized by supernatural entities in this haunting story of love, loss and the occult.
Your first feature was “Cry Havoc,” which won 2nd place in the Slamdance Grand Jury Prize in 1999. “Empty Rooms” is your follow up. How is this time different with your second feature “Empty Rooms”? Did the success of “Cry Havoc” play a factor in getting this one made?
“Cry Havoc” was a WWII film shot in upstate New York in the middle of a barren field, in January. All I remember about that experience was cold and terror. Each day was colder than the last and each moment was one where a cast or crew member might suddenly re-evaluate the situation and scream "The hell with this!", throw the slate to the ground and drive away never to be seen again. It's a crazy thing to ask people to do; especially for 7 days straight with no pay in 30 degree weather. But they did it and for that I will be forever grateful.
"Cry Havoc" ended up being an hour long movie with about 10 minutes of dialogue, most of which is in German; clearly I had no commerical ambitions when I made it. Much to my surprise, the critical response was overwhelmingly positive. This ultimately gave me the courage to make another film. I knew I wanted to make a movie celebrating the slow-burn tempo of 70's horror films such as "The Exorcist," "The Shining" (technically 80's, I know), "Don't Look Now," "Audrey Rose," "The Omen," etc; those were the ones that really got under my skin. The 70's cinematic zeitgeist seemed to be one committed to gritty realism and in my opinion, nowhere was that more effective than in the horror genre. Carl Dreyer, a Danish filmmaker from the early 20th century and one of my biggest influences, coined the phrase "Realized Mysticism" to describe the presence of the fantastic in his films:
"The outer world rests, to all appearances, in harmony: everything in the actual picture has the dense, existential texture, the intimate, familiar quality, of a domestic scene by Chardin. What takes place, however, within the domestic setting is fantastic, and, as the action develops, gradually becomes unaccountable to reason." - (Ole Storm, “Introduction”, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Four Screenplays, trans. Oliver Stallybrass, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1970, p. 15)
I knew that was where I was headed with my next project.Temperature-wise, "Empty Rooms" was a much easier film to make. Other than that, it was the same experience as "Cry Havoc".
The sound design and cinematography compliment each other so well that the combination of techniques squeezes every bit of juice out of the frame in “Empty Rooms.” This is quite a feat for a low-budget independent movie. What was your strategy and how did you make that happen?
First off, thank you SO MUCH for saying such nice things about the film! As far as the strategy was concerned.... I knew what I wanted: an intimate, quiet, dark tale that leaves a lot up to the imagination of the viewer. I found the most brilliant artists I could, told them what I was looking for, and depended upon them to be awesome. Meredith Yayanos wrote the score. To her I simply said the words “early 20th century, eastern-block classical” and let her go to town.
It was a piece of music she wrote with Dan Cantrell entitled "Mystery Train," that initially gave birth to the film. I had it on a loop as I was writing the screenplay. It's the piece of music you hear over the opening credits and throughout the film. Sometimes art begets art, as was the case here. It remains to this day one of my favorite pieces of music.
Economy shaped a lot of the visual aesthetic. I am a huge fan of natural light so whenever we could, we kept the lighting down to a minimum. My cinematographer and I shot simultaneously with 2 Panasonic dvx's throughout much of the film. This is great for actors because it keeps them on their toes. You can actually see them reacting off of one another in a scene, rather than constructing a performance in the editing room from two different takes. It also allows for an Altman-esque authenticity to flourish as actors can step on each other's lines and talk over one another, as people do in real life, thus realizing the mysticism. You also save a lot of time and money that way. The final element of the aesthetic came in the editing room when I color corrected it, pushing the blacks to blue to give it that 70's patina, which I find (for lack of a better word) haunting.
There are a lot of iconic homes in horror movies. I'm not talking about the generic haunted house movie, but the great iconic images like the houses in "Amityville Horror," "Psycho," "Halloween," or "Nightmare on Elm Street." The use of the house in “Empty Rooms” and the way it's shot makes me think that you purposefully set out to be a part of that iconic imagery. You get a sense that the house is going to suck you up into it and that you can never leave. It's very Hotel California. What are your thoughts about those iconic references and how they relate to your movie?
The photo of the house on the website ultimately served as the inspiration for the first shot of the film. I wanted the introduction of the house to look exactly like the first moment I saw it. I wanted it to look pleasant, like a realty ad. Such a lovely place. Such a lovely face. I also wanted to burn it into the viewer's memory as I would be referencing it later on in Jonah's psychic artwork.
The house is actually quite old. It was a farmhouse back when the San Fernando valley was all fields, so it had a sense of antiquity about it which added to its credibility... and indeed strange things occurred within. During one particularly tough day of shooting, I was feeling like I needed a sign from the universe that this insane effort was somehow going to be worth it. My cinematographer was climbing on a piece of furniture in order to get the bird's-eye-view of Jonah rocking in the closet, when he felt a strange piece of paper on a very high shelf. It had about 30 years worth of dust on it. He unfolded it and in his hand was a movie poster from the 70's for a triple feature of “Carrie” “Audrey Rose” and “Burnt Offerings”: all of them horror films from the 70's, all of them serving as some inspiration for “Empty Rooms” and all of them on a single poster that had been sitting on a shelf since the 70's.
Your story is particularly good at tying together the present lives of the new homeowner “intruders” and the past lives of the haunted. Is that connection one of the reasons that you wanted to tell this story or is that something evolved as part of the collaborative process?
It was definitely something that came along later in the writing process. It was not a part of the initial spark of the narrative. I definitely knew it had to be an implication and nothing more. To me the universe is never quite so convenient as to give you any sort of explanation as to what is behind any synchronicity. Nor is it one to confirm that synchronicity is indeed what is happening in that moment. The connection between Jonah and the house has no official confirmation, even in the minds of the characters. That's what life seems like to me: no shortage of theories. Facts on the other hand seem to be quite elusive.
I like how your story plays with cliches and takes them unexpected places. For example, the standard “crazy guy who warns people” character along with the well established idea of “people who see ghosts are insane” are turned on their ears by bringing redemption to the crazy guy character when he meets someone else who sees and believes. Is this a commentary on how we can go through our lives blind, never really knowing others and ultimately can lose important relationships because we tell ourselves lies?
The Homeless Man started off as a thoughtless cliché until I gave myself the mission to figure out why I should be allowed to keep him in there. Once it came to me, the whole movie started to make sense. Also the cliché of “Why doesn't she just get out of the house?” was solved, I think, by introducing and abusing the concept of “Neurological Relativity,” which is something I'm preoccupied with as an artist and as a thinker. I see it at the core of all drama and conflict. It seems to me, we all experience something we call “reality” yet all of our experiences are wildly different and the act of forming a consensus on what “is” and what “isn't” can often get quite ugly.
I meet people all the time who have had deep meaningful encounters with ghosts, or at the very least, some superficial sighting of a specter. Aside from a wildly abnormal EMF reading at a allegedly haunted hotel in Savannah, Georgia, I have never had a ghostly encounter. That is not enough for me to say all ghostly encounters are the bored machinations of somebody's imagination or the manifestation of mental illness... but for many other people, it seems to be MORE than enough. That to me is dogmatism, which is what you find at the core of the conflicts in “Empty Rooms”: a complete inability to comprehend that the world might be more mysterious than what you have been conditioned to believe. Also an inability to understand that our nervous system is not as good at perceiving reality as we think it is. We are born with eyes that are completely unable to see a large portion of the known spectrum. What if they are also completely unable to see a portion of residual energy left in a location by a traumatic incident? Is that concept so hard to swallow, given that we can't even see ultra-violet? What if only some of us can witness this? In the land of the color blind, the color seeing man is koo koo kachoo.
Another theme I enjoyed is the idea of what makes a family and the idea of broken relationships being are brought on by people's inability to see and believe the truths about themselves. Is family in the blood or the choices we make to love someone? The story compares selfishness and violence to sacrifice and love and how those patterns repeat themselves through the blood ties as well as in the spiritual world. Then the whole idea of miscommunication destroying lives and the irony that an autistic boy who can't communicate well is the only one who truly sees. That's good writing and it's a lot to chew on. Are these things you set out to communicate or did they evolve during the collaborative filmmaking process as well?
Again, thank you! Some of the themes you highlighted were welcome discoveries during the writing process, others were there at page one. Miscommunication was definitely there from the beginning, as much of the drama and fear was going to be generated from Jonah's inability to speak. The second I created the character of Amber, the new-age-hippy-sister of the protagonist, I knew she wasn't going to be able to the see the ghosts because I loved the irony of it and saw the immediate potential for conflict.
Lastly, we already mentioned the strong visual style of “Empty Rooms.” And we noticed that you worked with Jay Lee as your Cinematographer. He is the director of “The Slaughter” which won “Best Thrill!” at Thriller! Chiller! 2006, our first year. We love our alumni filmmakers, so we'd love to hear how you met and how that collaboration started?
I've known Jay for quite a while, having acted in a few of his films. His greatest asset as a filmmaker is his eye and his ability to do a lot with a little. He delivered and for that I am incredibly grateful.