Self-described as one of the “young bucks” in the industry, over the course of a relatively short career, director Brad Peyton has already taken us on a journey to the big budget world of a mysterious and fantastical island with Dwayne Johnson only to then head to San Francisco with Johnson as it is decimated by earthquakes and tsunamis. He’s also taken us behind the lines of the international canine and feline spy community. But now, Peyton goes where few have gone before – into the subconscious mind – as he blends the supernatural, demonic possession, science and horror with INCARNATE.
Starring Aaron Eckhart, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Carice van Houten, David Mazouz and Emjay Anthony, INCARNATE is the story of a scientist (Eckhart) with the ability to enter the subconscious minds of the possessed who must now save a young boy from the grips of a demon with powers never seen before, while facing the horrors of his past. Produced by Jason Blum, INCARNATE may represent a budgetary downsizing for Peyton, but he more than proves his directorial mettle thanks to a keen eye for style, substance and genuine scares.
I spoke with Brad Peyton in this exclusive interview talking about INCARNATE and his journey into the genre, “casting up the crew” and the cinematic challenges presented, including facing off with the MPAA ratings board.
Brad, I am a huge fan of horror and supernatural. It takes a lot to scare me but the “Blue Door” clip that just came out? Even I jumped in my chair watching it.
I don’t know how much this lands with people, but I have told people, and I am not a hyperbole type of guy, I was like, this will be the scariest PG-13 movie you will ever see. I swear to God. First of all, the vetting process with the ratings board. We went back so many times with them. I was very much, “I want this to be the scariest it can be, but I also want to get it to as many people as I can get it to. The material itself – for females there’s a great supernatural story about a mom who’s lost her son to this possession; there’s science fiction elements, there’s horror elements. This isn’t a straight ahead movie so I want to get this out to as many people as possible. But it is so f**king scary that that process was so grueling because they were, “This is just too scary. This moment here and here.” I worked so hard to both reduce the gore and to get it into a place where it could be PG-13 and safe for children to see. But at the same time it was really interesting because the more I took out, the more actual violence I took out, the tenser the movie got. In one way I was taking out a little bit of blood and guts but you get it back in spades in just pure tension. You know. If you’re a fan of horror, it’s all the building tension and you want that release so bad because it’s just killing you about how scary it gets. I’m really proud of the movie for that, for sure.
And as you’re telling me this I’m sitting here silently applauding because you’ve got Jonathan Chibnall and Todd E. Miller as your editors, Dana Gonzalez as your cinematographer. You stole Ric Waugh’s crew!
That’s funny! Well, I steal from the best. I just take from the best. Isn’t that the best advice you ever get? Steal from the best. I’m like, “I’ll take Dwayne Johnson, I’ll take this guy. . .” Listen. Young bucks like me got to take from these older guys who know what they’re doing. It’s the only way you can get good. I’ve got to learn from the guys who come ahead of me.
I’m looking at your color palette for INCARNATE and what Dana [Gonzalez] put together, as well as the editing, and I’m looking at your use of color and light and saturation. What were your discussions like and your considerations as you and Dana worked out the visual look of INCARNATE?
Honestly? Let’s face it. This is a lower budget film. It’s the lowest budget film I’ve ever made. And a lot of times when you see low budget films they don’t have much of a look. They just look a little bit right down the middle. There isn’t much style to it. My biggest conversation with Dana and the production designer and everybody was that I like making bigger, more accessible movies that still surprise you in whatever genre they’re in. If I’m making a family film, I’m gonna give you the best ride you can be on. If I’m gonna make a disaster movie, I’m gonna startle you and give you new stuff you’ve never seen in that. So one of the big things for me was not just trying to give you a new concept in this more science and technology based exorcist movie, but I want to give you style. I want for it to actually look expensive, to look good. I think my biggest reference was “Flatliners” which is a movie that probably cost about eight times as much as what our movie cost, but was the perfect touchstone for me. You could say “Flatliners” is a horror film, but it’s got amazing acting, it’s very accessible, it’s got a fantastic look. It’s just a very good movie. I grew up in the late 80’s and early 90’s so that was one of those movies that just stuck with me. That and “Jacob’s Ladder” are the two that jump to mind. I think I asked Dana to look at those movies because of the amount of atmosphere and smoke we put in the sets and the locations and the type of lenses. I’m always trying to do the best I can and to exceed expectations. With a smaller budget movie, it’s very very challenging but I was (a) I want the acting in the movie to be fantastic and (b) I want it to have a “look”. I want it to be styled. That was a lot of the conversation with the crew. How can we really get the most style out of this?
You mentioned the acting and when it comes to an actor who really immerses himself in a role, Aaron Eckhart is at the top of the charts.
Yes. You just hit the nail on the head. He just completely puts himself inside of the characters. I remember being in soft prep, two months out, and I was getting photos of him in disguise, in a wheelchair in Venice, in a crowded street. He was unrecognizable. He came to set in the wheelchair and it was as if he had been in a wheelchair for years. He could pop wheelies on that thing. He was very very predisposed as to how to operate the thing. And then on an emotional level, there’s some heavy material which Aaron bore the brunt of. He brought that to work because he wanted to be authentic and to be real. There were a couple moments where the crew cheered after I called “cut” because he just gave it everything he had. It’s to be applauded. He set the right tone. The entire cast did that. Catalina Sandino Moreno has been nominated for an Academy Award, Carise [van Houten] is on “Game of Thrones”, David [Mazouz] is a natural. This kid from “Gotham” is just phenomenal. It was so important that we get someone like Aaron to really hold this together and to be the star of a movie like this. But then surround him with other talented actors so it just felt really believable, the world felt really believable. Again, going back to “Flatliners”, the acting is phenomenal. You never question if that’s the real motivation or not. Aaron was the leader. Aaron was the lynchpin to make it all work. He truly truly delivered.
Having just come off seeing “Bleed for This” and interviewing Aaron for that film, another completely chameleonic performance both physically and emotionally, this is yet another testament to his ability.
I love his look in this movie. I told him, “I’m going to make you look like a dirty Kurt Cobain with that hair.” He came in and had [his hair] really really long like an 80’s rocker and I was like, “I think it’s more like Kurt Cobain greasy. Style out of not style kind of look.” It’s just such a unique look. And Aaron loved these big thick-rimmed glasses. He just changes himself, just fully commits to being someone different and puts the work in. He’s exactly that in this as well.
What is it that led you to wanting to do a horror film?
Part of it was my relationship with Jason Blum. Jason’s a really really great guy. I can’t say enough good things about him. He just truly is a good human being. He’s got really good taste and he really believes in filmmakers. He trusts the filmmakers, he supports the filmmakers. We’ve been talking for so long trying to find the right thing. Eventually, he sent me the script and I thought Ronnie Christensen had done a really good job. What grabbed me about the script was (a) the concept, to me it was unlike any other exorcism movie I’d ever seen. This whole idea of a guy that was completely not faith-based. He just didn’t believe in God. It was the opposite of Catholocist. It was totally more of a technical, scientific-based guy who believed that he could actually cure people of possession based on going into the subconscious mind by putting himself into the same exact sleep pattern of that person. That idea, this kind of “Inception meets The Exorcist” idea was so rich, the world was so rich; and Aaron’s character, this idea of this outsider, disenfranchised person who was on this mission to avenge the death of his family at the hands of a demon, all of that combined I just couldn’t say no. A really really rich world, a really great lead character, a really supportive producer and a really strong script, I was just “Okay, this is the quest I have to go on. This is something that I have to try.” I’ve always loved, I want to say, psychological horror. I’ve always loved Polanski. I’ve always loved Dario Argento. I’ve always loved those types of filmmakers when I was young. I’d never thought about doing a horror film so when this came up, I wanted to go flex those muscles. I want to go try something new. It was a perfect storm of all the elements and I just had to say yes.
Brad, what was the learning curve like for you? Coming off of these bigger budget films and then downgrading? Was there anything from a directorial standpoint that was a learning curve for you?
Yes. I’ll give you the true answer first which is, any time you’re trying to do something that you’re passionate about, there’s always a learning curve. If there’s not a learning curve then you should probably retire because that’s just making art. That’s creating. That’s what it is. Every single time out, no matter how much experience you have, there are going to be things you’ve never done and you have to embrace those things. That’s the good nerves. The good nerves are, I’ve never sunk San Francisco. I’ve never cracked a guy’s arm off and thrown him out a window as he’s possessed by a demon. Every time you go out, there’s new things. For sure. 100%. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. If you’re honestly passionately about what you’re doing and you’re truly creating, there will always be new challenges. Now on the more specific level, the biggest thing about this movie was the fact that there’s so little time. The movie is so small, you had to move so quickly. When I direct a big movie I don’t move slowly either. I move as fast as I can. But this level, the demand, the script was actually so big. The movie is surprisingly large. If you look at the amount of effects, practical effects, locations, all of that stuff, it’s crazy how much we got in, I think it was 20 days. That was the biggest learning curve because I was like, I don’t want to cut anything, I think the script’s fantastic, I know we only have 20 days and I know the budget’s not getting any bigger [laughing], so I’m just gonna run at this as hard as I can and really focus on the acting and focus on shooting it in a simple way, but getting some visual flair. The biggest true challenge of this specific film was just time. Everyone was shocked, “I get three takes and move on. Three takes, move on. Two takes, move on. One take, movie on.” There was just no time. You had to, you had to do that. That was probably the biggest challenge on this one.
Which is another reason why you go and steal the best from everyone else to have them work on your film!
That’s right! They’ve gotta be able to dial it in fast. [laughing] 100%. That’s part of it. You’ve got to cast-up your crew as well just to get the right types of talent in those positions.
INCARNATE opens in theatres December 2, 2016.