The genre of horror is so vast that it can encompass many themes, ideas and tropes that could just as easily be consigned to other cinematic genres. By taking a simple, scary idea, it can expand into a terrifying tale that
I spoke to director Dan Bush about what it’s like working on a horror film; from working with stars like James Franco, to dealing with genre tropes and the potential problems that come with marketing a film.
My first question is about James Franco. What was it like working with him; what did he bring to this film? Both in front of the camera, and outside of shooting.
Well, it was fantastic to work with. He’s such a professional and such an experienced actor. We only had him for a little less than a week, but he was extremely gracious with his time; he worked is ass off.
There were a lot of crazy schedules with the actors and trying to make all of the different pieces of the movie work. A lot of the actors weren’t available on the same days as other actors, and often times you’ll see – you can’t see it in the movie but there’s stand ins and the actors aren’t even in the same scenes together.
So James flew in in the morning and jumped into makeup and started shooting right away. He came extremely well prepared and brought a sort of professionalism to the shoot that put everyone on their best behaviour and it was fantastic.
He’s also kind of a mad genius. I had taken several scenes that weren’t necessarily slated for that day of shooting and I extracted all of the business and direction out of the pages and just reduced it to looking much like a stage play; so I gave him tons and tons of scenes, and I was like, ‘okay, I want to do this entire chunk of stuff unbroken and I just want to shoot right through all of it like a play’.
And then I said “I know you’re not necessarily prepared to do that today, but can you take a look at this and see what you think”.
And he said “let me see it”, so I handed it to him and walked away to talk to to my DP [Director of Photography] about some stuff and I came back literally five minutes later, and asked what he thought, and he said “I’m ready”.
I said “you’re ready?! Do you have any questions?” and he was just like “I’m good – lets go”. And sure enough man, not only had he memorised verbatim every beat and every line, but he had made very specific choices about each beat with his emotional investments and with what his character was doing and it was stunning. I was like how- I don’t know- he’s kind of a machine.
Yeah, and then as soon as we called cut, he’d go back to reading his book! [Laughs]
So he was delightful, but other than the work we were doing, we didn’t go hang out or anything, but there were some good hugs at the end, when we wrapped.
He was a great guy, very generous with us all.
Moving on from James to his female co-stars. Female leads are something people rally for more of in cinema, but they’re quite commonplace in horror films and they have been for a while.
What do you think it is about the horror genre that generally necessitates a female protagonist?
It’s funny because there’s this idea that me and my friend David Bruckner (he just directed The Ritual which is coming out soon in the UK) talk about this a lot. We did The Signal together.
At one point he said “there’s no horror without sin”, and I said “what’re you talking about?”, and he said “in order to kill them off, you have to make your characters have sin – it’s like a religious thing”. And I said, “that’s not true!” [Laughs]
But there is something he was getting at, and its like that early idea of slasher cinema, where the first girl who goes is the one who is libidinous, y’know, the one who has sex. At least in American horror films, that’s the trigger for ‘you’re gonna die’.
But on a base level, chasing dudes around in scary basements somehow doesn’t seem to have as much of a vulnerability as it does if they’re women, and I think that that’s wrong, but it’s sort of a stigma that’s… that’s…
Yeah, just a culturally embedded stigma that women are more vulnerable. So when the monsters are coming at a more vulnerable character then it’s scarier or something like that. Even at the beginning of Jaws, it was a woman who was out there in the ocean swimming, and she was naked and was going to have sex too, so there you go! [Laughs]
The movie was originally written for men; it was all male roles. But then we changed the leads to sisters halfway through casting. I’d had an experience in an acting class where we gave the script to some acting students of mine, Jillian Fratkin and James Caldwell, who are now both out in LA, and I gave them some scenes in trust and they brought such an interesting dynamic, not only with the siblings and how got along, but there was also all this sexuality that suddenly came with the Maas character [played in the film by James Franco]; the men sort of seemed weaker than the females in the particular expression of the play we were doing.
So when we decided to cast females I was excited about that. I think there’s not a lot of strong roles for women that are available, so a lot of actresses responded very favourably to the script and were excited to potentially do it. And I was excited by those two [Manning and Eastwood], in particular; I really wanted there to be a contrast between them and I wanted Francesca’s character to be a military hard-ass control freak strategist and Taryn’s character Vee to be more like a wild chaotic harlequin that revelled in the chaos of it.
And then, of course, the arc of the movie is whether or not they can unite. And they’re flawed, y’know? They’re not perfect people. They rob a bank, for Chrissake! I mean they’re doing it for good reasons but at the same time, Taryn damn near kills a security guard at the beginning of the movie.
When it comes to modern horror, and your film has both of these elements, but what do you think is more effective for bringing in horror fans – jump scares or gore?
I don’t care about that stuff. It’s a challenge for me to do jump scares, because the mechanics of the jump scare – to make it work properly, to do something that’s unique – the mechanics of the camera angles on that are very specific.
You have to spring mount the tension for the audience. It’s got to be a distraction that’s off camera. In Alien, it was a cat for God sake! [Laughs]
There’s the false scare, there’s the jump scare, and all the mechanics. And I’m honestly a student of those things. And I can’t claim to be James Wan or someone like that who is sort of a master of that kind of stuff.
What I’m more interested in is the dread and the slow burn tension in movies like Alien. I wanted my bank to feel at times like the Overlook Hotel [from The Shining], and that it would be its own character and have this much greater evil that was embedded underneath all of it.
And we only had about three weeks to shoot the movie – sixteen days plus some pickups, so I didn’t really have the time to really develop that much dread, so it’s kind of a quicker movie. So I ended up embracing more of a thrill ride with this one, and probably out of necessity of what we were able to do in the amount of time we were able to do it, but as far as getting horror fans to come to movies – I don’t know, I think your movies just need to have unexpected stuff in them and they need to be fun.
It needs to be a fun fucking ride.
This sounds a little pretentious because I’m mentioning Shakespeare, but he had blood and guts and sex and violence in spades in those stories, but there’s also something in between the lines, and I always aspire to also have something meaningful.
There’s some themes of sacrifice in this movie, and themes of what a hostage is and stuff like that. The image of a hostage for me is where crime intersects with horror. I was just trying to make something that was visceral, full of spectacle and also something that when you walk away got you thinking.
That’s the goal. So you also got to leave them with something.
The final question leans slightly into SPOILER territory, so if you want to go into this film completely spoiler-free, stop reading now.
You said about bringing things that aren’t expected, and I know this isn’t really your purview, but this film’s marketed as The Town meets The Sixth Sense. Do you ever worry that that Sixth Sense part in particular may spoil a certain twist in the movie?
I have not been privy to the marketing of the movie. Even the trailer and the ‘crime does not pay’, at the end of the day I was a hired gun. It was my script and I directed it and edited it, but I had to do it to certain specifications.
But I don’t know, I’m not a marketing genius, so I don’t know how I would have marketed it differently. I think that people maybe need those simple things to attach to so they can get a very quick, immediate understanding of ‘this is this kind of movie’, it’s not A Room With A View or whatever. So I understand that. I hope it doesn’t spoil it.
The Vault is in cinemas and on iTunes & digital HD from 8th September.