Quantcast ICONS Interview with Susan Montford - Director of WHILE SHE WAS OUT with Producer Don Murphy

Susan Montford!

This month we got the chance to chat with writer/director/producer Susan Montford about her directorial debut WHILE SHE WAS OUT (Opening December 12th, 2008), which stars Kim Basinger and Lukas Haas. Producer Don Murphy also joined in for our chat where we got to discuss the making of WHILE SHE WAS OUT, as well as the duo's working relationship with Guillermo Del Toro, their upcoming project We3 & the FACES OF DEATH remake and dispelled a long on-going internet rumor of Susan's. Read on for the full interview! - By Robg. - 12/08

So, WHILE SHE WAS OUT is actually based on a short story by Edward Bryant. How’d you find the short story?

Susan: I was just reading loads of stuff, because I was looking for a film to direct and for any kind of budget. I was looking for a project that I could make guerilla style for $500,000 or something for like $12 million, or anything in between. I was looking for something that didn’t have loads of expensive subplotting and complicated stuff in it. I read a bunch of stuff and just came across this short story. Because I’ve got a really big book collection, I don’t always get to read stuff, but I do collect it, and then sometimes I get to read it later. I pulled this story off the shelf and finally read it and thought “This is it.” So we got the rights for it and I adapted it into a screenplay.

Was it the type of thing you read and could already see the film version in your head?
Susan: Yeah, it just seemed so clear cut. It’s such a clear cut little story with all the elements present. It seemed to me it was ready to be a film. I made the film for many reasons, I think it’s a great story. But I also think it’s a very empowering story for anyone. We’ve all got it in us to fight back.

Because it was a short story that you were expanding to a full-length feature, what did you add to the story? What were you able to expand upon?

Susan: I created obviously some new scenarios, for example the whole sequences in the housing development were definitely not in the story. I expanded on Della’s character, sent her to the mall in the beginning. I elongated the sequence in the beginning and expanded on the boys’ characters. I feel that it’s very, very true to the short story. I just made it contemporary and gave it natural expansion to fit the scenarios and locations.
I loved Della grabbing the toolbox and bringing it with her. She essentially fends for herself using the tools in that box for the majority of the picture.

Susan: The toolbox is in the short story. And the multi-ethnic crew, that’s in the story as well. I tried to stay true to it. Also, when I was expanding - if you think about a forest, it’s going to get pretty boring if it’s just trees, so I thought “Well, I can have a river, I could have some cliffs for when she’s going outside.” I tried to break it up a little for different locations that you would find naturally within the forest.

You ended up shooting this in Vancouver. Were you conscious of your location as you were writing this?

Susan: Well, to be honest when I first wrote it, I wrote it with the view that I could make it anywhere, even in the UK. I was raised in Scotland and I was actually thinking about a lot of the forests there, which have a lot of undergrowth. When we got the money together, the contingency was that we filmed in Vancouver. And it is completely perfect. The thing that surprised me was that all the trees were so tall! So there’s very little undergrowth, because all the branches start really high up. So although it was in my head that we’d be climbing through undergrowth and there’d be loads of roots and that kind of thing, there ended up being a very spacious sense in the forest. It’s an amazing location, and it was perfect, because there was lot of new developments and some uncharted territories in there. It kind of has all the elements.

You had a short time table to shoot this. It was 29 days in Vancouver, mostly nights. Was the production challenging or did this go smooth? How’d the crew fare?

Susan: Well, the crew were all complaining that it was the hardest shoot that they’d ever been on in their entire lives! (Laughs) I don’t know any better because this was my first time, you know what I mean? So I didn’t have anything to judge it against. I just thought I have to get in and deal with this. They had a hard time because of the darkness. If you were raised in California and you’re used to a certain amount of sunlight, and then you go to a place where you’re filming all nights, and when you’re off it’s already dark, so you’re not seeing any daylight for 29 days. 29 nights rather, that was a little bit harsh on some of the crew! But they did great! I was raised in Scotland so I didn’t see a lot of sunlight for most of my life. So I dealt with it quite well. (Laughs)
Don: The most fascinating thing for me as a producer about the area you’re asking is… it pretty much rained all the time. (Laughs) My impression of Vancouver is that it just rains all the time. So, it was really difficult because we didn’t have the budget to create “rain” continuity. But what’s interesting though is what the camera sees and doesn’t see. When people watch the movie – sometimes it’s raining, it’s not raining. It’s kind of going on, going off. The rain became its own character, especially in the final scenes.

You’ve produced films before this Susan, but this was something you really wanted to direct. You were looking to make that segue way from producer to director, correct?

Susan: I actually moved to Los Angeles to direct a movie called “FAMILY JAM” and it fell apart. And I was actually pretty heart broken. It was going to be about the “Manson Girls” and we had all the money and everything. I was scouting locations when 9/11 hit. And everything just fell apart. It was German money and the German stock market collapsed, and I couldn’t get it together again. So, I kept for years trying to get that one together. I have to say, I was quite relentless with it. And while I was doing that, I kept discovering projects that were good for producing. And it just so happened that I was able to set up stuff to produce because I kept discovering great projects! I was always writing stuff. I thought, “How do I write something that I can direct?” I figured I have to come up with something that I could do for next to nothing. Once I got to that place, it came together fairly well.

Kim Basinger plays your lead Della, and she’s still breathtakingly beautiful to this day. How’d Kim become a part of this project? Was she someone you had in mind? Or was she just a pleasant surprise during casting?

Susan: I had a very short list of actors that I liked for her part. I hadn’t really thought about her initially, but then I went to meet with CAA and they mentioned her, and she just seemed so perfect that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of her myself. And then they called me up and said, “Do you want to meet up with Kim?” And I said, “Absolutely, I’d love to meet with her. I’d be highly delighted to do so.” So I met up with her and she was already in character, she was already Della when we sat down. She’s that professional, that when she sat down with me she was dressed as the part, she was the part. She totally blew me away.
I couldn’t see anyone else but her after that. I wrote the script so that I could make it anywhere. The dialogue was neutral, there was no American slang or anything. But when she came on I changed it to be more American, because obviously we were going to make it an American movie with her as the lead.

Kim of course has to fend for herself against these gang members, so things tend to get a bit physical. Was the physical stuff a challenge for Kim in this film?

Susan: Well, surprisingly not very much. She’s extremely fit and quite tough! I was completely taken aback by how strong she was.

Don: The interesting thing about shooting the movie, Rob was that it was 29 days, in the rain, in Vancouver. Oddly enough, that didn’t freakin’ Kim out although… it freaked out most of the crew. (Laughs)

The other surprise is Lukas Haas in this movie as Chuckie, the gang leader. Because it’s not what we’re used to seeing him play! So how’d he end up being your main bad guy?

Susan: It’s funny, because I’ve always loved Lukas as an actor. I’ve always thought he’s a very under appreciated actor. He’s incredible in this film called BRICK, which he’d done a couple of years before. I was reading all these young, hot actors and nobody was doing it for me. Nobody had the right mix of intelligence and badness and sexiness that I was looking for. I tried to get a hold of Lukas but I wasn’t able to find him, our casting person wasn’t able to contact him, so we’d kind of given up on him.
And then Guillermo (Del Toro) was on the phone with me and I told him “I’m just not finding my Chuckie”. And he said, “How ‘bout Lukas? I’d just seen BRICK and he was great in it.” I know! I went off after that and was just determined to find him, and I actually found him a couple of days after that. He read the script and loved it. It was like Prince Charming came into my life! He was just the right person for it. I had him watch a bunch of Alan Clarke movies like SCUM and MADE IN BRITAIN. (Laughs) And also A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. We had a lot of fun. He’s incredible. You’re used to seeing him in certain things, but I think if Lukas put his mind to it, he can do just about anything.

You mentioned Guillermo Del Toro before. He’s an executive producer on this and he helped you a great deal on this movie. How’d you initially hook up with Del Toro?

Susan: Well, I met Guillermo when I first moved to Los Angeles and we all became friends. We are going to do AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS together, the Lovecraft story.

Oh yeah, I can’t wait for that!

Susan: Yeah, after THE HOBBIT.

Tell him to hurry up on those HOBBIT movies so he can get onto Lovecraft!

Susan: I know, right? Come on, come on! (Laughs) So, we were just good friends, and he read the script and really responded to it. He just very naturally got involved. This was before PAN’S LABYRINTH had come out. It was just natural to have him involved. He was really, really helpful, because when he was shooting HELLBOY 2, he was watching all our dailies, which is amazing to me. It just blows my mind. I can barely watch my own dailies sometimes! He was shooting his film, yet watching our dailies. He helped me with a lot of ideas, like I said for Lukas. He was very helpful, giving me tips on how to be with the actors, and then he helped to get the distribution afterwards. He was amazing! He’s such a passionate filmmaker that I feel no matter what project he’s involved with, he’s always going to give as much attention to each project as he can, because he’s that passionate about it.

Let’s talk about some of the “gore” gags in the film, because although this is more of a “thriller” then say a “horror” movie, you’ve got some interesting, horrific death sequences in this movie! The head-shot gag with the security guard is one of the best I’ve seen in a recent movie! Just how the shot happens and then the steam rising from his head. I had heard that was actually a happy accident, correct?

Susan: Yeah, it was 100 percent a happy accident! (Laughs) Because the actor who played the guard, his name is Ari Solomon. He’d never been shot before in a movie, so when the squib went off he thought he had been shot for real so he went down. And also, it was so cold that the smoke effect was completely a result… a chemical reaction against the cold! (Laughs) We were just really happy to have captured it. It was really great.

Don: The squib wasn’t supposed to smoke, but because of how cold it was, it did and it really was spectacular. We used the first take, because we couldn’t believe it happened!
What about some of the other death sequences? I don’t want to spoil it for our readers, but pretty much when anyone from Chuckie’s gang bites it, it’s in an unpleasant fashion. Did you have fun setting up those scenes? Who did the FX?

Susan: Ed Irastorza was my effect supervisor and he was incredible. He’s worked on a lot of movies. In fact, he’s actually worked on a lot of movies with Guillermo. We had to really fight (to be honest) to get the FX right with the company that did them. They did a good job, but they had to be bullied into it. So we had to call some of Ed’s friends to complete some of the shots. But we were determined to get them to a certain level and we got them in the end.
What we intended to do was create this finished effect with make-up. For example, with the Tomas character, we built that all up with make-up and prosthetics and the prop, and then we augmented that with a visual effect afterwards, but we tended to work back from the finished effect using the visual effect to build up to that. So the amount of blood that comes would lead up to that final thing. And we also had to block that and block these scenes very effectively. We used an awful lot of rubber tools in the process. Because Kim kept breaking them. The effect are fairly gruesome because I know that they’ve turned out as a delight for anyone that loves horror movies, but for me I thought they were pretty realistic!
(Laughs) I was thinking it was probably going to be really hard for her to kill these guys. I thought it would take a lot of force and brutality to actually kill them. Some of the FX were incredibly hard to do because for some of them it’s hard to find visual references. We kind of had to wing it a little bit and say OK, it might look like that. It was a lot of work in visual effects where we felt to get them right some of them. There’s one in particular I’m talking about. The broken neck, that was actually the hardest one. A broken neck is usually off to the side at an angle. It was tough to come up with that look to show how horrendous it really was.
What’s next for you?

Susan: Yeah, we’re very hopeful that We3 will be next. Based on the comic book by Grant Morrison. Grant is one of my friends from Scotland and he’s an incredible genius. He’s done some of the best comic books written. And he’d come up with the concept for We3 a while back. We were working on some other projects with him and he came up with this amazing concept. We were like well, maybe it’d be great to turn it into something, maybe we could set it up and sell it. And it ended up being one of his pieces that he’s ever done. In my opinion, We3. It was set up at New Line, but then when New Line went to it’s new place, they let a lot of their projects go so that was one of them. We ended up with a great director, John Stevenson who did KUNG-FU PANDA. So, we have this amazing, amazing script, this incredible project and John Stevenson as the director. We’re in the process of putting that together with the hope of making that next. We also have got FACES OF DEATH with JT Petty.

We’ve interviewed JT Petty here on ICONS. We’re a fan of his work here!

Susan: Yeah, he’s incredibly bright. He always has the most interesting takes on everything. He’s just so clever.

Obviously, he’s not doing a “shot for shot” remake of FACES OF DEATH! (Laughs)

Susan: (Laughs) No, it’s a whole new thing!

Don: Regarding FACES OF DEATH, we would be making it right now, except the company that was making it just got sold. However, we’re told that it’s the highest priority of the new company that bought them. So we’ll see what happens. But we’re doing a modern day version of FACES OF DEATH, which is inspired by the old video tapes. We got the rights to the old video tapes, and the basic premise is pretty cool. Which is, back then, you had to get this video tape from Dr. Gross and it was kind of under the table; the sort of thing nobody would talk about. These horrifying, fucked up and crazy videos. Nowadays, you can find people beheaded on Rotten.com. So how do you take this underground to the next level? And the writer/director, this very talented kid named JT Petty – he’s written a screenplay with the idea being that Dr. Gross is the leader. Nobody knows what he looks like, but he’s the leader, the head of a group. If you want to get hardcore video? The way you get hardcore video is by trading hardcore video with the “Faces Of Death” group. The idea is to try to turn Dr. Gross ultimately into the new Freddy or the new Jason. Doctor’s are inherently scary to begin with anyways! So… It was slated to go almost immediately with Rogue, but if you’ve read the papers, Universal was trying to sell Rogue. And so, we’re told we’re in good shape with the new company to make it soon.
Both of you were involved in SHOOT ‘EM UP, which is one of the best times I’ve had at the movies in the last few years. I also love Michael Davis’s other movie MONSTER MAN. I think SHOOT ‘EM UP will be a cult classic in a few years for sure. What stands out about that experience?

Susan: Well, it was completely a joy to work with Michael. And Michael was did a brilliant job. The whole thing just went really well, and we had a whole lot of fun doing it. Again, we shot that in Toronto.
It was very magical when we put that together, because we got Clive Owen right away, and then Paul Giamatti and Monica Bellucci followed. It was fairly simple casting. If you’ve seen Michael’s wonderful animatics of all the action.

: SHOCK ‘EM UP was fun! It’s interesting you mention that film because I was on the phone a little while ago with Toby Emmerich, the chairman of New Line. And all their movies that have come out this year have been really, really successful. Surprisingly so weather it was JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH or FOUR CHRISTMASES or SEX & THE CITY. The big difference is they’ve been using the Warner Brother’s marketing department now, and the Warner Brother’s marketing department is outstanding! And I think part of what – SHOOT ‘EM UP has since found a great audience on DVD, but I think the marketing was kind of weak, and so it didn’t do as well as I would’ve hoped. But… it was a fun movie to make.
Susan, are you still involved with JOHN CARTER ON MARS?

Don: This is some weird internet rumor. She never was.

Susan: It showed up on IMDB and I have written to IMDB and told them that that’s not true, but they just won’t take it down! (Laughs)

Don: What happened was Susan and I tried to get the rights to JOHN CARTER, and it was something we pursued and we tried after Paramount lost it, but they ended up going with Pixar. But for a movie that needs to have intense sword battles and half naked women, Pixar seems like a really bizarre choice! She’s listed on there, but she was never involved.

For both of you, what are some of your favorite horror films and thrillers?

Don: The stuff I grew up on horror-wise was ROSEMARY’S BABY, or television stuff like THE LEGEND OF LIZZY BORDEN or DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW.

Susan: I love I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, ROSEMARY’S BABY, THEM, EYES WITHOUT A FACE… there’s just so many of them. When you see them, especially when you watch a lot of these films when you’re young – horror films have the ability to really stay in your head. And as a kid, we were always watching the old Hammer films, so I’ve always been a fan.

I’m a little surprised to hear you name I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE as one of your favorites! (Laughs) I enjoy it, but I wouldn’t exactly call it one of my favorites! (Laughs)

Susan: (Laughs) I love that! I love a lot of films that are a lot classier but I love that one as well. (Laughs)

I know someone’s trying to remake I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. I think you should do it!

Susan: I can’t believe they would do that! (Laughs)

Don’t get me wrong, I like the film and it’s a classic, but it’s not something I’d throw on with my friends on a Friday night to have a good time!

Susan: (Laughs) Well, I might put it on on a Saturday night. (Laughs)

Thanks for talking with ICONS Susan. Don.


Special thanks to moderator Melinda Giordano and Ed Peters!

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