|GRACE (Report by Adam Barnick)
From the Sundance Film Festival program guide:
Eight months pregnant, and preoccupied with both a natural childbirth and a pure-body lifestyle, Madeline Matheson, played with merciless compassion by Jordan Ladd, deflects her demanding mother-in-law's insistent pressure for standard hospital treatment, instead opting for the peaceful companionship of a trusted midwife. Though reluctantly compliant, her husband remains supportive of her choices until a sudden tragic accident leaves her unborn baby lifeless inside of her. Madeline remains determined to carry the stillborn baby to term, where she miraculously wills the delivered corpse into life. But it is not too long before the increasingly isolated mother realizes that something is not right with baby Grace, and she must make horrible sacrifices to keep her living.
In his feature debut, writer/director Paul Solet assuredly approaches the medium, displaying a cocksure confidence in his construction of this modern horror fable. He relies upon a precise and slow-building technical elegance, supplemented by fearless performances and the ever-elusive gift of a genuinely frightening story, to violate the sanctity of a mother’s love and create true horror. Seething with a kind of sophisticated terror uncommon for its genre, Grace effortlessly uncoils an atmosphere of immense discomfort and subtle intensity, while quietly creeping into the spine and slicing into our most primal fears.
I got the call in November and had to sit on it for two weeks; Grace, Paul Solet’s feature-length debut based on his short film, would be world-premiering at Sundance this January. In the Park City at Midnight section of the festival, which played host to such pioneering horror films as The Blair Witch Project. Having been on ‘Team Grace’ since the beginning, I knew I’d be kicking myself if I didn’t see it on the big screen at its world premiere at THE festival in North America. Didn’t we all just work on this movie a few months ago?
I booked my ticket shortly thereafter.
While the Park City at Midnight crowd in general is hoping to see something insane, and is ready for anything, they really responded well to it. Laughter at the dark humor; uncomfortable laughter at the ‘squirmier’ scenes.. And a lot of jumps and screams throughout. And most of them really ‘got it.’
A look at experiencing Grace:
There is little point in me ‘reviewing’ a film that I have been involved with, to a degree, almost as long as its director; I had read drafts of the short film scripts, worked on the short film that helped them get feature-financing; did coverage on drafts of the feature-script; worked on the feature film in Canada last year, cut a trailer for the film that’s played at horror conventions; and just completed the Special Features/documentaries for the eventual DVD after its run in theaters. If there’s anyone who is ‘too close’ to the material, who’d be largely biased and who might not be able to simply enjoy it as a movie, it’s me. So if you feel you can’t trust what I say, that’s fine; but my thoughts on the film overall:
I was able to sit and enjoy 95% of it as an audience member. You really can’t compare it to many other horror films. There were hints that reminded me of dramas I’d seen in the past but other horror movies didn’t come to mind. There is one plot element that brings vague memories of Deathdream, but I know Paul hadn’t even seen that film until after completing the feature script. But this is no film that simply piles on fanboy references to remind you the director likes what we like. Every shot and scene is simply yet effectively doing one thing; telling a strong story. Paul’s one of the most story-conscious filmmakers I’ve ever met. If it’s not helping tell the story, it’s not in the frame.
The feature is even more emotionally accessible than the short film without being plain or in any way mainstream. This is still a balls-out uncompromising horror flick. If you just want to be creeped out by a movie, it’s here. But there’s more to chew on; it cleverly covers territory that everyone at any age can relate to in some way.
I had seen a near-silent rough cut in Summer ’08 but nothing beyond that until now. It’s such a different beast with a full mix and soundtrack. Austin’s unique, haunting score won’t leave your head after you hear it. The sound mix (by Brett Hinton) is fucking astonishing, and responsible for two or three INTENSE scares, but not simply by turning the volume up. (You’ll see. Bring someone you can grab to the movie.) But it’s still a film that knows that silence is often the best sound effect. This is not a film to watch on your phone. It needs to be experienced with other friends and strangers in a theater. It’s claustrophobic, weirdly nightmarish, and touching all at the same time. You really don’t get this level of character detail or depth in most of the horror films out there at all. In or out of the genre, this is one of the few films to really address the uncharted territory that is motherhood, the parent-child bond and the power of a mother’s will- and how that mostly is a beautiful thing; but what happens when it’s pushed past what the universe allows?
The wonder of motherhood will always be alien territory for men, indeed there’s several scenes in this film that made men cringe in the theater that women didn’t bat an eyelash at. Grace brims with an awe and respect for women and this uncanny power. But this isn’t a genre film just for one sex or the other. I can’t wait for the rest of the world to get to experience it.
If you want a different opinion, check out any of the coverage of Grace from Sundance online, or just check it out in a theater. For all those complaining about edgeless, superficial horror, the bad scripts and acting we usually settle for, or too many sequels and remakes etc., here’s your antidote. I’m so happy to have been a part of this movie; and even happier that I was able to turn that off and just watch and experience it in the dark with strangers; and jump out of my chair right when they did.
WARNING: PLOT/BEAT SPOILERS WITHIN!!!!
Onstage were writer/director Paul Solet, producer Adam Green, stars Jordan Ladd (Madeline Matheson), Gabrielle Rose (Vivian, Madeline’s mother in law), Stephen Park (Michael, Vivian’s son) and Malcolm Stewart (Dr. Sohn, Vivian’s doctor); director of photography Zoran Popovic; and composer Austin Wintory.
Post-screening Q+A Night 1, Grace World Premiere January 16
Audience member: So I like, just wanna know, was it like a corpse baby or vampire or both?
Paul Solet: Was the baby a vampire- this is not the first time that we’ve been asked that. And my answer to you is this- the baby was indeed vampiric but- here’s Jordan!
(Jordan Ladd takes the stage with everyone else to a huge round of applause)
Paul Solet: The baby does drink blood so technically I guess you could call it a vampire but this isn’t really a vampire movie exactly.
Audience member: ‘Cause it also seemed like it was rotting.
Paul Solet: Rotting… it’s not a zombie movie either, exactly. (Smiles, crowd laughs)
Audience member: Do you read a lot of Anne Rice novels?
Paul Solet: I have never read any Anne Rice novels. (laughter) Nothing against Anne Rice though, I hear she’s fabulously talented.
Audience member: How long did it take you to write the screenplay?
Paul Solet: The first draft I turned out pretty quickly. Wrote it in three weeks and I rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it, for about 2 ½ years or so. The first draft was more of a creature feature, and it became clear that making the baby a regular vulnerable baby that happened to need blood to survive just made the film much more emotionally accessible.
Audience member: (talking about the stillbirth scene) The baby in the birthing pool, the dead baby; was it really a live baby? (audience laughs) Or was it a fake baby?
Paul Solet: Well, actually, yes, in Canada, there are much less restrictions on-
(audience laughs, applauds)
Paul Solet: I’m glad you asked that, that’s actually a wonderful complement to our effects people. But yes, it was a real dead baby, yes. (Audience laughs)
Audience member: I think it was an amazing script, I was so blown away by the concept and all; to you guys, the cast and crew; it’s such a novel idea, what did you think when you came on board?
Jordan Ladd: It scared the shit out of me, and so I didn’t want to do it- but the fact that I didn’t want to do it, MADE me want to do it. And I was just really impressed with Paul’s sensitivity; it really felt like a woman wrote the script. Well done Paul. (audience laughs)
Gabrielle Rose: It felt like a completely different take on the horror genre to me when I first read it; I went in for the audition and we really cooked in the audition. I just wanted to do it from the moment I met him. Great script.
Malcolm Stewart: The first call I got was from my agent’s assistant. He said “Two people have already turned this down because of the subject matter.” (Audience laughs) I read it, and thought I’ll just do my best, see what happens..and here we are.
Stephen Park: The script I read is very close to what you saw. As soon as I finished reading it, I wanted to be in it because it just reached out and grabbed me so quick. Didn’t let me go right until the very end. That’s why I wanted to do it. Thought it was such a great story.
Audience member: What was the procedure for making sure the medical facts/dialogue were accurate?
Paul Solet: Rewriting. (Audience laughs) Rewriting and taking notes from people that are actual experts. Trying not to be so arrogant that I think I am a doctor or a midwife. And just being humble enough to listen to people, I guess. We actually had midwives on set; Jordan took a lot of care to make sure everything was really authentic. We spent a lot of time working with midwives, learning how to move, how to groan, how a pregnant woman would touch her belly, all that stuff.
Audience member: How long did it take to shoot the film?
Paul Solet: We shot the film in 17 nine-and-a-half hour days. (applause)
Audience member: Whose child did you traumatize for life? (laughter)
Paul Solet: You know what, that child did great! (Laughter) That child was so easy to work with.
Adam Green: There were times we were worried we’d go to far and the mother would be like “It’s fine, keep going, she loves it!” (laughter)
Paul Solet: It’s a good question. Working with babies definitely raises some ethical questions and issues. We made the decision from the start to let the baby dictate the drama, and not manipulate the child into doing anything. We really didn’t have to. I swear to God. (Laughs)
Audience member: This is actually a question for your Mom. I was wondering what she thought of it. (the film is dedicated to Paul’s mother)
Paul Solet: That’s a good question! I actually haven’t heard the answer to that yet. Mom, do you want to come up?
(Audience applauds; Paul’s mother takes the stage.)
Paul Solet (to audience): I should just tell you that if it wasn’t for the unflinching support of my parents, who’ve always backed me on all this sick creative shit…they really get this stuff, and have always been supportive to me.
Paul’s Mother: I’m humbled. And I’ve thought for a long time that I have a great deal to learn from my son, and tonight confirms that.
(audience applauds as Paul and his mother embrace)
Paul Solet, to audience: Who dares to follow that? (laughter)
Audience member: For all the cast/crew members; what’s your favorite scare in the movie? And what are your influences?
Paul Solet: My favorite scare? Man I just LOVED watching you guys watch that head hit with the hammer. Just nasty! Mean-spirited. (laughter) My influences? Zoran and I talked a lot about Michael Haneke and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, guys like that. Not exactly your mainstream guys for the most part. Guys like Guillermo Del Toro; films like The Devil’s Backbone are absolutely gorgeous; stuff like that.
Adam Green: My favorite scare is definitely the airbag. You think they’re gonna get into a car accident, and they fucking…don’t. (laughter) The sound mix on that was absolutely perfect. (applause)
Zoran Popovic: I have to say I enjoy them all.
Austin Wintory: For me actually, it’s not really a ‘scare’ moment. When Vivian first comes into the house (in the third act) and all the chess pieces are in place, and it gets really quiet and anxious.
Jordan Ladd: For me it was the bite. And Gabrielle smells really lovely up close and personal. (laughter) As for who was my influence, Paul and I had been talking about Repulsion and Catherine Deneuve, and Sharon Tate actually. I always saw her as a picture of fertility- and so tragic that she didn’t get to carry her child to term. Emotionally and physically I kind of wanted to structure the character on what I imagined Sharon Tate would have been like as a mother.
Gabrielle Rose: Tonight’s my first time seeing it. I think the final image of the film. Because I had no idea how that was going to look. That was really… (shudders, deep breath)
Malcolm Stewart: My favorite scare, I wasn’t sure what it was but I jumped out of the seat! (to Jordan) When you’re breastfeeding Grace and something snaps.
(The cast explains to him it was the baby throwing up) Oh! It happens so fast.
Paul Solet: (muffled, asked about Malcolm’s favorite shot)
Malcolm Stewart: Favorite shot? (lights up) You know the answer to that! They put the camera on this blanket under me and as Jordan is pulling me into the bathroom the camera is staying on this blanket, with me and everything as I’m pulled.. that was my favorite shot. Just really cool. In terms of influences? There are none for this script.
Moderator: One last question guys!
Audience member: Canadian contingent here! Big props for shooting in Canada.
Super-original picture. Really, really great. What I liked aside from the ‘big’ scares you mentioned were the small, creepy scares. Like the (doctor’s) exam for some reason, I found really, really creepy. What influenced the cool little subplots you have in the film, like jealous husbands etc.?
Paul Solet: They all stick to a theme, which is ‘we all want something that we can’t have, we all want someone that we can’t have.’ And I think that’s something we all can identify with, unfortunately. Each subplot, if I’ve done my job as a writer, that’s hopefully what makes it relevant. And what keeps you in the game.
Thank you so much for coming out for this! (applause)
At that point one of the staff came in and mentioned ‘must have been a good show since you had two audience members faint.’ I can confirm this- two guys did pass out during the picture, I know one of them spoke to Paul afterwards, he came back when he recovered. I’m not going to say why he passed out; I can’t say this is the type of movie that’s going to make audiences faint left and right; while it’s definitely uncomfortable and hits some taboo (at least for men) areas… it never descends into torture-porn depravity.
Night two’s screening was in nearby Kimball Junction, at a regular movie theater’s multiplex. A much larger venue with a much larger screen, and more of a “regular Sundance” crowd of festival attendees instead of the rowdier, up-for-anything midnight crowd. And still, another excellent response. Genuine laughter; nervous, uncomfortable laughter, serious discomfort in scenes, and several flat-out jumps/screams during key moments that had really affected the previous audience as well. This time, knowing where the major scares were, I got to get a glimpse of Paul turning to watch the audience watch those scenes and react just the way he’d hoped.
Producer Adam Green led this Q+A, which was largely the same cast/crew roster as the previous night. Green began telling how Grace came into his life, and how he heard about it playing at the Fangoria Convention (its premiere was at the LA Fango Con in 2006, as a featured event in the schedule) and how he caved in and went to watch it after friends said they were psyched to see it and he got a glimpse of Paul walking around wearing a Baby Bjorn with a dead child prop strapped into it.
|Q+A- NIGHT TWO, January 17
Adam Green- (picking up mid sentence when my recorder began operating again) at another convention later on that year, I see (Paul) walking around again with the dead baby. My Director of Photography (Will Barratt) goes “Did you see that kid walking around with the dead baby!?” and I said ‘go see his short film, you’re gonna like it!!”
And he came out and said “that was really something!” And then yet again a few months later at another convention, some of the guys who run a website called Icons of Fright asked if I’d seen Grace; I said yes and they begged me to read the feature length script. Now at that time I was in talks with Anchor Bay Entertainment who was putting out Hatchet, to make this overall deal- which we sort of did, but I ended up bringing them this and said “You guys want to make good, original horror movies?’
For everyone in here, hopefully who is a horror fan, you know how hard it is these days. If it’s not a remake or one with a Japanese girl with hair in her face crawling across the floor, or PG-13, they won’t make it. We brought this to Anchor Bay and I championed Paul, and it got made. This is not a signal for you to start sending me your stuff, (audience laughter) but it was literally years of perseverance of Paul making a short film that got into..was it 28 film festivals?
He had a script, he had a good idea and he had a short film that actually proved he could do it. So for everybody else out there who is an aspiring filmmaker, it really is an inspiration to see something like this. And that’s how it gets done. Nothing was handed to him, it’s not like Dad gave him millions of dollars, he earned it. (audience applause)
Adam Green: (to Austin Wintory) I’m actually gonna ask about the music. Which I think is fucking awesome, if I do say so myself as the film’s producer (laughs) I just want to know what the creative process was between (you and Paul), because I was never there for any of that.
Austin Wintory: I was lucky, usually on a film the composer comes in and you have a few weeks or a month at the end to hammer out an hour of music, having never seen the film or heard of it.
In my case, when I first moved to LA a few years ago, Paul was the first person that I met- he was my neighbor. He had just made the short or was just about to make the short, this predates walking around film festivals with a dead baby on his chest. He would give me drafts of the script, just as part of our friendship, I don’t even think he knew I was a composer at the time. ( Austin looks over, Paul is nodding yes, he knew) Oh, OK. (audience laughs) I guess the walls were thin enough that you could tell from day one.
But I got to read the script, he and I were excited to work on it. For years we would talk about the kind of sound we would want. Paul would say the score should be quiet and subtle, not a ‘slasher’ kind of obvious horror score. In contrast to having a few weeks, I had years to think about it. When the deal was finally struck and it was all full steam ahead, I wrote 20 minutes of score based on the script to bring to the set in Canada, to play for the actors and what-not. The schedule kind of prohibited us from exploring that as much as we wanted to but it paid off because I got to think about the film and not in some abstract way. I actually wrote a bunch of music, that educated us on things to do, things not to do, and kind of led us down this path- and then I spent another three months after that working on the score. It was a dream! It was unbelievable.
Adam Green: (to Paul) Now this is night two, this is the second time you’ve gotten to see it with an audience. (to audience) I don’t know how many of you heard the story but last night during the movie two people went out and fainted. This is serious- we can’t really get over it- but yeah somebody went out and fainted in the lobby, and on the sidewalk last night at the Egyptian- which was great. (audience laughs) (back to Paul) How does it actually feel honestly to be here now and watch it with a crowd- what’s going through your head?
Paul Solet: I’ve been waiting to see you guys watch this. That’s where it lives as a filmmaker. I don’t know if any of you caught me sneaking looks at you guys. But there are definitely beats in there where every director is gonna be watching you guys- that’s what it’s about. There’s no more magical experience than this thing you’ve lived and breathed for years, to be here at the greatest film festival in the world..it’s a hugely humbling experience, it’s just amazing. It’s just like- the gratitude from our whole team is...It’s tough for me to introduce the film! I can’t even articulate what this kind of gratitude is… (hunts for words) know what I mean?
Adam Green: Now for the actors, usually they’re only there when they shoot their scenes, they’re not even watching everything else happen. Gabrielle, seeing it last night, what was going through your mind watching it?
Gabrielle Rose: I was terrified the night before, I have to admit. When we sat down for the screening, it was midnight, which is about a half hour past my bedtime (audience laughs). I really enjoyed it! I thought it was fantastic, and really gory and bloody. By the way, it was two MEN that passed out; no women passed out. (audience applauds)
Adam Green: My favorite scene in the whole movie is the examination scene at the house. Malcolm, for a guy who’s done everything from abstract comedy to what I think is one of the scariest characters I’ve ever seen, can you talk a little bit about shooting that scene where you went to the house and did that exam?
Malcolm Stewart: I knew what I was getting into; I’d really like to be able to say I knew exactly what I wanted to do in that exam scene; but I don’t usually know what I’m gonna do until I do it; it’s just the way I work. I was pleased! (audience laughter) I saw it last night for the first time and went… “Who is this guy? He’s a weirdo!” (audience laughs) I didn’t try to really BE a weird person; I just figured anybody in this situation with those intentions would be weird anyway.
Adam Green: And for you Stephen, you actually play a character that has so many layers to it- you’re a loving husband but you can tell through your performance that you realize there’s that disconnect (with your wife); can you talk about the process about how you saw that character come to life, I thought you played that brilliantly.
Stephen Park: Thank you very much. For me, the first thing I thought about when I read Michael was the trials he and Madeline had gone through prior to the movie- trying to have a baby, going through fertility drugs, how hard it is. That was where I kind of got in- the love he had for his wife, and the desire to have a baby with her; and then his strong relationship with his mother…He just seemed to be like how a lot of men find themselves when they have strong women in their lives, trying to satisfy both sides. And the big trial for him was he had to make a decision, and he does to stay with his wife, he’s got to “move out.” Which is why I think it’s so hard on his mother Vivian, even prior to his death there’s that sense of “he’s made his choice”, which makes it doubly difficult for her.
Adam Green: Let’s open it up to you guys, any questions?
Audience member: (muffled, but asked if there was any secret about Madeline, or reason inside her physically that resulted in Grace’s condition and Madeline’s subsequent behavior.)
Paul Solet: I actually think there’s decidedly no secret about her. She’s just a Mom. And she’s just responding to an exceptional situation as a Mom would. That’s sort of how we hope to keep you in the game here. The whole core of this is taking this fundamentally intriguing idea of the bond between a mother and child, that you can’t help but have an intense personal reaction to; and pulling it into the genre, where you can do whatever you want.
Audience member: (muffled at first but follows up on previous statement about Madeline adjusting to the increasingly sinister afflictions Grace experiences) Yeah, but it happened over time, one small step at a time. Her first baby died, and she just wants this one to survive; I’m a mom, I get this. I could see myself in that. It could happen- you love your child and pretty soon you’re like “What the fuck is going on?” (audience laughs)
Paul Solet: Thank you so much. That is really a tremendous compliment. We’re lost if we don’t have that authenticity. So that means a lot. Thank you.
Audience member: Was the baby hard to work with?
Paul Solet: No, actually this baby was SO easy to work with.
Adam Green: We just slapped it around when we needed it to- (makes backhand motion, audience laughs)
Paul Solet: (stares at Green) Amazing.
No, the baby was amazing. The baby was a beautiful baby. When you’re casting babies, you’re sort of casting parents as well. We really lucked out. And her parents were just lovely people! Well adjusted parents who realized that it’s not the end of the world if the baby cries just a little bit- and the baby herself was just a joy.
Audience member: I came to see this but I didn’t realize this was gonna be a horror flick!
Adam Green: It’s a comedy!
Audience member: I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. I didn’t know if the baby was supposed to be dead or alive. Very intense until the very last moment. I don’t know if you meant it to be that way, leaving that question in people’s minds.
Paul Solet: Yeah, that ambiguity is- I think the type of films that we want to make are the type of films where we recognize how savvy audiences are today. The whole idea behind Grace was to try to make a film that works not just viscerally-you’re seeing a lot of horror movies now that are just gut-punches again and again, and I love those- but our goal with Grace to try to raise the bar a little bit and do something that works for the head, that works for the heart, works for the guts and that even works for the soul.
Audience member: Was there any significance to the cat?
Paul Solet: Absolutely. Yes. Thematically you look at a cat, a cat has nine lives; and the cat is protecting the baby. There’s certainly some misdirects in the plot about what the cat’s motives are. But in the end, the cat is a protector. Just like all the other moms in the film.
Audience member: (slightly muffled but she expressed how riveting she found the breast-pump prop that Malcolm Stewart’s character uses. It comes off as a combo of an antique breast pump from 100 years ago and a fetishistic device). That’s just amazing whoever decided to use that particular prop!
Adam Green: There’s a story about that, I’m so glad you brought that up!
Paul Solet: We really tried to be conscious of every single detail. The prop master was shocked, he had never worked with anyone who wanted that level of detail. Usually they come into your office, they show you a ring.. “Okay, bye.” We really went through this in detail. He built it. The main pump is a genuine antique breast pump, but he fashioned the rest of it himself.
Adam Green: He made this whole box for it. He came in when he did the prop show-and-tell; he’s showing us the props but there’s one thing covered in a purple blanket. And we’re like “what’s this?” and he’s like “Don’t touch that! You’ve gotta wait..” and we get to it and he unveils it and Paul’s face just lights up.
He had made this hand-carved box with this purple satin inside. When it came time to actually shoot the scene, it was way too cumbersome to pull the stuff out and we couldn’t use it. And this guy had spent his whole life working on this box. (audience laughs) And so we figured out another place to put it in the film just so he would get his box onscreen. There’s a scene where Dr. Sohn is just holding it, sitting in his office- which was great for you to do, because he got his work on the screen.
Austin Wintory: As Paul’s neighbor it’s worth pointing out that that breast pump in all of its creepy glory is on display in his home now.
Adam Green: And we’re gonna end there! Thank you guys so much for coming out for Grace!
From Left to Right: ICONS Adam Barnick, Zoran Popovic, Heather Wixson, Paul Solet, Adam Green.
Grace will be released later this year through Anchor Bay Entertainment.
Sundance 2009 photos by Heather Wixson.