We caught up with the director recently to ask how his ghost story came about and some of the ways he managed to effectively stage the shocks and scares for his intended audience.
HeyUGuys: Your IMDb lists The Pact as a short film last year. Was it always your intention to test your idea that way before moving to a feature?
Nicolas McCarthy: The Pact began life as a short film but it wasn’t made as some kind of trailer for a feature. The short is similar to the opening of the feature film, but different in tone – it’s a sort of poetic character study and the horror in it is all implied. How the short differed from the previous films I had done was that it used a horror atmosphere to tell its story, and that got me the attention of some people who wanted to make a horror film.
I’ve been a lifelong fan of the genre so when I got the opportunity to make a feature version I went and wrote an all-new movie. I didn’t want to repeat the ideas of the short, I wanted to explore a totally different side of my interests and do a full throttle horror movie.
How did you find the transition to feature-length director?
I had spent years trying to get feature films made, and directed many shorts in that time, so technically shooting my first movie wasn’t such a shock. It was something I had been practicing for years to do, so even with all the hard work we were doing on our small budget, it was a joy.
What also prepared me for the task of shooting a feature was writing. I started to seriously write feature length screenplays a few years ago, and that discipline of working out a story that justifies 90 minutes of screen time taught me a lot about what needs to be achieved each day when shooting, and thinking about how each scene serves your larger purpose.
Many elements of the film’s story feel quite grounded in reality. Did you draw your inspiration from any real-life paranormal tales?
I did research for the short film on the things some people believe in about how ghosts operate. In the short it’s quite explicit what the ghost can do. For the feature, I continued along those same lines but elaborated with my own inventions to serve the story.
We only cut one scene out of feature film and it was the one that explained the “rules” of the ghost. The reason I did that was because I felt that the more the rules were explained the less interesting the film would be. Everyone who has written articles on the film use words like “ghost” “paranormal” “spirit” “entity” “haunting,” but none of those words are ever spoken in the movie. An audience’s assumption is a powerful thing.
You’ve been able to wring out a considerable amount of tension and scares in a really claustrophobic, but fairly mundane, setting. What were some of the challenges you found filming in such a location?
A mistake people some make when preparing horror films is that they choose to make their movie in some kind of fantastical place. It can be much more effective if it’s in the world that most of us know and the kind we don’t get to see much of in movies.
When we made the short film, it was actually shot inside the house of a woman who had recently passed away. It was extremely cramped and we had to be careful of all of her things, but it leant the film an incredible atmosphere. For the feature we wanted to recreate the same feeling of that house from the short, but have enough room to pull off some of the camera moves we wanted. We found a house that was totally empty and soon to be torn down and went in and created new walls, a hidden room, put up lots of horrendous vintage wallpaper and furnished the place from top to bottom. When you stepped on the set, it really felt like you were in the house of an old woman.
It’s interesting how the film doesn’t rely on gore to ramp up the shocks. Can you talk about the idea of making a more traditional horror?
When I grew up I would read come critics talk about how high class directors like Hitchcock relied on suggestion versus actually showing violence. But then I looked at Hitchcock’s later films, and they have some of the most disturbing, graphically violent moments in movies from that time because he was finally able to show these things without fear of censorship. That taught me that graphic violence should be there when your story demands it. The film has graphic violence in small doses, which makes you really feel the full power of it. One of my favourite moments in the movie is the goriest scene. The audience always freaks at screenings because they haven’t seen anything like it in the movie up until that point!
Do you have another film in development at the moment, and if so, will you be revisiting the same genre?
I had too much fun hearing audiences scream during The Pact so I’ll be doing it all over again soon. I’m preparing another horror movie, which I think is going to be insanely scary. In the meanwhile I hope people enjoy The Pact in the spirit it was made – as a fun, scary ride.
The Pact is released in cinemas this Friday.