German-born director Marcus Nispel is best known for his extremely profitable remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th. He has also directed the 2011 reboot of Conan the Barbarian, Pathfinder, and the 2004 Frankenstein TV movie produced by Martin Scorscece. With Exeter he is finally able to present his first feature film that is not an adaptation or a remake. He talks with us about putting this passion project together, the freedom that comes with an original movie and how his directing style and focus have changed over time.
Wicked Horror: How did you get involved with Exeter?
Marcus Nispel: Steve Schneider called me up and said, “Oh, you want to do one of those million dollar movies?” You finally get to do whatever you want to do. With every other movie I’m on a quest for redemption. So I said of course and he said, “Just tell me what you want to do and we’ll go ahead.” And I was always interested… for me, my favorite horror movie is The Exorcist. And it used to be, the final word was, “Don’t do anything with exorcism.” But so many people have now. And some of them are actually pretty good. I wanted to find a different way of looking at it. Because in most of those movies you have very particular families in cases of possession. Movie stars, senators, and I wanted it to happen to the kind of people who actually go and watch these movies. How would they handle a situation like that? But I didn’t want to make a spoof movie. The hardest parts are the balance, waking up and saying “What am I going to do today?” Because I didn’t want to make it a big laugh. It’s important that it stays grounded in reality.
One of my favorite movies is Breaking Away. Even on Texas Chainsaw I told the actors to watch Breaking Away. On every film, I say “As preparation for this movie, watch Breaking Away.” I don’t have them watch horror films because I want them to be relatable characters that I care about.
Wicked Horror: After working in so many huge franchises, is it freeing to finally have a project that is your own?
Marcus Nispel: Freeing is the word I would use, absolutely. Working on a remake or a big franchise, you’re a dog of many masters. And I readily accept that. It’s almost like making those movies is more like making a commercial than the experience I had with Exeter. It’s the first movie where I got to help with writing it, seeing it through from beginning to end, help put the financing together. Very different than the experience on Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Here, it’s truly an independent experience.
Marcus Nispel: Well, there’s the money issue always, right? But I said, “Look, I’m not going to punish my audience for a tight budget.” So it proved useful to have done commercials and music videos and other films and things before where I didn’t have to pull a lot of weight. And I thank them, and God bless them, we got the movie made. And you’ve seen it so I think you can see that in style it doesn’t lack anything when paired up with a much bigger studio feature. I really wanted to do something that, production wise and in the acting, is on par.
Wicked Horror: You mentioned The Exorcist and Breaking Away. Were there other films or stories you took as inspiration?
Marcus Nispel: You know, usually I’m the kind of guy that just because of the nature of the film who sits down, rolls a lot of swipe swipe and storyboard an idea. Almost like on a demented level. On this one? Nothing like that. I really wanted to follow the actors and I really wanted to be with the actors. Almost no storyboarding. It was interesting, they came to me and said “You know, for tax reasons, you really should consider going to Rhode Island.” And I thought Rhode Island was like this quiet little place with white picket fences and looked sort of like Dennis the Menace. But they said to check it out. I googled “Scary locations in Rhode Island” and Exeter popped up. And it said it was like the most haunted location in America. And I said, “That sounds great, let’s go, then!” They had to take cinder blocks down to let us into the building. Nobody had set foot in there in fifty years. Everything you see in the movie is the way we found it. There’s a circle of homemade wheelchairs you see in one of the rooms. That’s how we found it.
It’s the first production I’ve ever done where I never went to a prop house. Everything that’s in the movie, we found there. “Strap the kid to that bed,” “Put that lamp across the hallway.” That was interesting. It was essentially like when you’re a chef, and you go and look in the fridge. Most people see a bunch of leftovers, but you say, “I’ve got to cook a really good meal out of that.” That’s what that was like. We had a bunch of random elements and said “How do we get a good meal out of this?” instead of having all the money in the world to use for whatever. “Take that blue car and paint it green.” We didn’t have any of that, so everything was just found treasures.
Wicked Horror: One of the things I really like about this movie is that almost every scene goes in the opposite direction of the way you think it’s going to go. How conscious were you of subverting the audience expectations?
Marcus Nispel: I think it’s sort of a horror movie thing that you want to allow for one idea and then change course. Just for the surprise factor. Here’s, maybe, what your getting at is that the movie is actually like three little movies in one. It starts off with a party like Project X, then the second act is a paranormal movie, and in the third act, people get hurt. And when you go in and advertise this kind of movie they want to see that heads are going to start rolling after the first ten minutes. And I didn’t want that. I wanted to lull people in with the fact that they’re going to see one kind of movie and then surprise them with another one. Now, to a marketer it’s a complete nightmare. They say “Well, what is it now? Am I supposed to laugh? Am I supposed to be scared? Can you please make it one or the other?” And I tried to protect that concept for over a year because of that. I’m pretty sure they told Sam Raimi the same stuff when he did Evil Dead. I liked the mix of that. But I’m also the guy that liked to pair Vikings and Indians together. I embrace it, more than embracing a franchise I embrace the genre.
Wicked Horror: Overall, how has your background as a painter helped you to visually tell a story on film?
Marcus Nispel: As a painter? How did you know that? Well, I started off as an illustrator. And I worked as a storyboard artist, I would storyboard everything. On Conan I was attracted for no other reason but Frank Frazetta. But I think over time my focus shifted. I think if there’s one thing I’m really proud of, it’s that I think I bring great ensembles together. This cast, when I found them they were rather unknown, but now they’ve all left their marks already. But they were largely unknown. When you put them together and see them bounce off each other. That was the real joy was not so much to impose myself as a filmmaker but to blend into the background and let the acting tell the story. That had a lot to do with the structure, where I said “I enjoy the writing so much and I enjoy the cast so much, don’t kill them off right away.” The moment they start going, the fun ends. I wanted to do the unspoken thing, where way into the second act they realize how dire things really are. That’s something that a slasher film would never do, out of obligation.
Wicked Horror: Speaking of slasher films, the new Friday the 13th seems to be finally coming together. Were you ever approached to come back for that?
Marcus Nispel: You know, I love the liberty of pillaging so many movies that were done before, and making an amalgamation out of it, but I think I’m done with it. I’m also done with the idea of doing remakes. I enjoy them because I love making big movies for the sixteen year old in me. See, in Germany, where I’m from and where I grew up, we didn’t get to see things until a year after they came out in America. Let’s say Star Wars comes out and I had the action figures and the X-Wing fighters before we ever saw it. So by the time it comes out, you’re amped up beyond belief. You either see the movie you’re hoping to see or are bedazzled by how much better it is than this fantasy. Or, sometimes they were very disappointing and the fantasies were better than the movie. You know how many movies I saw first in Mad magazine before I was allowed to watch them in the theater? In a way, those are the movies I made for myself. So my approach was to make this sixteen year old fantasy but also the anticipation of what I thought as a kid. And with Friday the 13th, I was a boy scout. And my boy scout team was my first film team. Those were the stories you would tell around the campfire. The guy with the hockey mask was incidental. Whenever people tell me what their favorite horror movies are, I can pretty much tell how old they are. I think it’s what you see in the window of sixteen years of age to maybe eighteen or nineteen that will always stick with you. After that, everything is going to strike you as a remake.