By: Rick Hipson
Suffice to say, Craig Sheffer has enjoyed a storied career of playing make believe to some of the most profound roles within the cinematic sandbox of our generation. From outstanding performances in That Was Then… This is Now, A River Runs Through It, Nightbreed, and Battledogs to various television shows like One Tree Hill and Teen Wolf, Sheffer has proven time and again why he’s sought after by any director looking to make the most from the lead characters of their written pages. When writer/director Gregory Lamberson (Slime City, Dry Bones, Jonny Gruesome) developed a script based on the novella co-written by Stephen King and Cemetery Dance founder Richard Chizmar and his son, Billy, Sheffer was the only obvious choice for the leading role in his newest feature, Widow’s Point.
Widow’s Point tells the story of paranormal author, Thomas Livingston, who’s thinly veiled belief in such things is about as substantial as his own struggling career. Desperate to rescue his career and hang his hat on the gullibility of his fleeting fans, Thomas locks himself in a notoriously haunted lighthouse, armed only with a microphone, camera and enough food and water to last the night while his publicist (KateLynn E. Newberry) records whatever spectacle is bound to take place. What happens once the door is locked behind the author is a slow descent into madness as Sheffer showcases what is perhaps the performance of his lifetime in a film elevated well above what it’s modest budget would lead even the stingiest critic to expect.
Sitting down with Sheffer in between projects, I picked at the starring actor’s brain to find out more about what makes his characters hit all the right nerves and how he helped breath life into the tormented spirits of Widow’s Point.
To kick things off, would you mind walking us all through how you came to meet Greg, and your initial reaction to the script and being offered the leading role in his haunted lighthouse movie?
Well, I met Greg Lamberson on the set of Battledogs, which was a Syfy network film back in 2012, I think it was. He was the first AD on it. We just started talking about writing and he told me he writes horror books and he’s directed films. He told me some of the outlines of the books and about one called Carnage Road, which is basically Sons of Anarchy meets The Walking Dead so I said yeah, let me read that one. I read it on set and realized he’s a really, really good writer. I loved the narration of it, the way it was written, and just the whole style, so I optioned that. We changed some stuff but wrote a script of it. We tried to pitch it at the time, but it was three years into The Walking Dead and everybody was pitching zombie scripts in Hollywood, so it wasn’t the greatest time to be pitching them. Recently we turned it into a series and, once things open up (from the COVID-19 pandemic), we’re planning on pitching it in July, but who knows what’s going to happen now.
So, we kinda bonded over writing and became friends. When I optioned Carnage Road, I flew out and spent a week with his family and got to know them and we put that thing together and stayed in touch as friends over the years. He told me about two years ago he had an opportunity to direct a film of a book that was written by one of Stephen King’s co-writers, Richard Chizmar, and his son (Billy). He thought I might find the plot interesting, so he sent me the book and the script and I loved it. I certainly loved the idea. My favourite horror film – I have a couple – but my most watched and favorite is The Shining, much to Stephen King’s dismay; I know he doesn’t like it.
Of course, as an actor, you love completely falling apart and that kind of role where you just go from a normal guy to out of your mind. It’s a challenge, but a thrilling challenge, and I thought I had a pretty good take on how this guy (Tom Livingston) would break down and what would happen. I liked the idea of being stuck inside this lighthouse that was being haunted by demons, so I said yeah, let’s do it together. He put the film together and I went to Buffalo and we shot it in about fifteen days. We worked very well together and created this path to madness which, we weren’t shooting in order, so it was a complicated path to madness. It was really fun, we had a great time. My daughter played the ghost in it. Willow Anwar is he name. She basically played the widow in Widow’s Point (laughs).
Coincidentally, you’ve had a few roles in films which have been adapted from pre-existing books such as Nightbreed, A River Runs Through It and, of course, Widow’s Point. Actually, I only recently learned A River Runs Through It had been adapted from a true story by Norman McClean, which I thought was pretty great.
Yeah, That Was Then, This is Now by S.E. Hinton was my first film. The Outsiders is another S.E. Hinton book. I was on Broadway when I got That Was Then, This is Now filmed. Yeah, a lot of them were from book adaptations; interesting.
Do you find when you have a book, that core material available to you changes your approach at all, or the dynamics of the characters you play? I’ve often heard from authors who’ve had their books made into films that they’re different because the book is the book and the movie is the movie.
Is that the same for you as well?
I enjoy reading it and seeing what the core material is, but normally I take all my cues from the script because there’s always stuff changed or left out or different. The script is what you have to work with and what you base your character dynamics off of.
I understand, as you mentioned, one of the things which intrigued you about the script for Widow’s Point was Greg Lamberson’s writing. Of course, he has a real knack for clearly depicting characters being put into the worst possible situation and really digging into who they are and bringing that out in his stories. Other than that, was there anything else in particular about this haunted lighthouse story that intrigued you and made you think, Thomas Livingston, this is my guy, I have to play this part?
Again, it’s just the acting challenge. I mean, the older you get the less you find real acting challenges. Often, you play just the standard type of guy. Playing a guy like that who gradually loses his tether on reality – it’s a long way to go from a kind of normal guy who’s thinking he’s making this hoax film to a guy who’s basically lost his mind… It’s really fun. And Greg gave me a lot of room to create a lot of ad-lib stuff. I tried to make it physical and bring an energy to the performance that I think I try to bring to most roles, the physical energy as well as the emotional. That’s all a lot of fun, and a lot of pain when you get home.
You mentioned having room to ad-lib in your role, but did you find you were encouraged to collaborate above and beyond what Greg’s own vision was and what he may have already had laid out in the script and storyboard?
Well, we talked a lot about the character, the through line, the madness, what I saw it as and what he saw it as. He let me create. The physical energy I brought, he liked it, but he wasn’t expecting it. We both brought stuff to the table that was maybe different than what the other one thought. We both enjoyed the collaboration.
You mentioned how your daughter Willow played the widow’s ghost in the Widow’s Point, and Greg’s daughter Kaelin also played a great role and several other cast and crew members had their kids helping in the film. It may not be a family movie, but it seems it was rather a family affair in making this movie.
It was a family affair! (laughs). Kaelin would come in – I have a travel van so I just use that as my set thing, I have my satellite dish and generator and all that stuff in it. So, Kaelin would come in and watch T.V. with me and my daughter in between scenes and we’d all go eat together and it was really fun. We’d have dinners together. It was very much a family group. Of course, it was a smaller crew, and they’re all Buffalo people that Greg knows, the crew and most of the cast. It was a very fun, intimate film.
And how would you describe the experience of having your daughter collaborate on the film with you and getting to play in the same cinematic sandbox as you?
It was really great. It was fun being there, but it was very interesting because she didn’t want my input (laughs). She didn’t like the way I was trying to work through her scenes so I just let her do her own thing and pretty much stayed out of her way while she was doing her stuff. But she did great. She had fun. That was her first role as an adult. She hasn’t made that kind of career choice, it was something for us to spend time together on and something she could do and have fun with. It was low budget, so we shared a hotel room, which was really fun. We had a great time, an amazing time, actually; bonding as adults.
There are some scenes where you appear to get in touch with your inner Jack Torrence. Can you walk me through how you prepared for these moments and what on earth (or Hell) you channeled to pull it off so seamlessly?
Well, you kinda said the word: channeled. I actually describe my acting as grandiose prétendant. I mean, that’s really what I do. I’m not a method actor. I get to the part where I just sit into the situation and it literally takes me about five or ten seconds to sit into that mind space and breathe it in and I just go. I can step out of it quickly or go right back into it. It’s just channeling, I would say. I call it pretending because its me getting to know the script so well that its already built into my psyche. I already know, generally, the levels its going to. I don’t have to plan out the levels.
Now, what was a big help with Greg was making sure we said, okay, this is where – because we didn’t shoot in sequence – this is the minutia of where we were before, and this is how we’re going to slowly build, because you don’t want to be at one tenner of madness the whole time. You want to build this slowly and specifically. I felt Greg was really good at keeping me aware of where we were the scene before, where we’re going after this and just keeping an open line of communication.
Thinking about that one scene where you’re essentially losing your mind in the stairwell, that’s on day two, I believe of the shoot? Welcome to the set, now go – lose your mind!
Exactly! (laughs) Yeah, I was like, wow! I’ve got a lot of work to get through. When he took me on set we were actually on a set-set for the interior of the lighthouse. I was like, oh wow, this is our first four days, you know? It’s interesting.
Since the lighthouse in Dunkirk where the film was shot is allegedly haunted I feel obligated to ask if you happened to experience anything strange and unexplained yourself or, at the very least, take inspiration from the reported encounters of others?
Actually, I think I lived in a haunted house for twenty years. Everybody else (in the house) saw a ghost. My brother’s friends spent a week up there when I was away and my brother’s friends said, “I will never spend another night there again.” A lot of really strange stuff happened in that house. The really crazy part is I bought it from Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery, who had lived there, then she died. Well, she had lived there permanently at one time, but she lived right beside Malibu Lake. It was her house and then she died and I bought it from her family so I could have two houses together on the lake.
I don’t know, but supposedly there was a woman in a white dress that people would see. It was crazy. I can’t tell you how many times the pans would just start going against each other. A very strange fire happened when my ex, Gabrielle, was staying at my house when she was going through some tough times. She was sleeping in the bedroom and the bathroom caught on fire that was attached to that bedroom. She said, “Nope, that’s it, I’m moving out,” and it was only the second day. She and her husband were staying there while I was working on One Tree Hill. So, there’s lots of strange things going on in that house.
I know a lot of folks seem to be kind of like conduits in that stranger encounters seem to follow them wherever they go. Did you find you had any similar experiences in the lighthouse in Dunkirk?
I didn’t, but Kaelin and Willow did. The kids did. I didn’t particularly have any. I don’t know, I think I’m part of the dead, kind of, because even in my house everybody was scared, and I was just there alone and totally comfortable. I filled it with all these two-to-four hundred-year-old religious antiques and religious paintings from Europe and all around the world. It looked like a hundred-year-old cottage and then it looked like a hundred-year-old church. Maybe I built it that way for the spirits, I really don’t know.
On more of a somber note, while it’s been a hell of a year for the majority of humans with the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down most of the world and halting a ton of film projects, I understand it was a particularly tough year for you, personally, with the passing of your brother, and I hadn’t known your mother had passed recently as well to which, of course, I offer my deepest condolences. If I may ask you, considering another film you’re staring in is currently in pre-production, how were you able to push forward and tap into the creative well that allows you to bring to life such amazing, vivid characters despite what’s going on in the real world?
Yeah, man. Obviously the last five years, losing my family, it’s certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever went through, but you have to – I won’t say move on, because you have to grieve. I keep in contact with my dead folks and talk to them and love them from here and grieve when I do. And nothing makes me feel better than when I’m being creative. When I’m in a creative state, whether it be writing, acting, shooting photographs, whatever medium I’m working in, I’m sort of free of all that stuff for a little bit of time. Of course, as time goes on, I won’t say the grieving subsides, but it lessons greatly. You have to move on and deal with the living world until its your time.
I really appreciate you saying that. I can kind of relate in some ways as well. I guess the waves of grief tends to come a little bit less frequently as you go on. Regarding keeping the creativity going, you’ve gotten to enjoy a wide range of acting roles from major motion pictures to much smaller budgets, and even the occasional short film project. How would you compare the experience and work that goes into starring in a big budget blockbuster film to that of a smaller budget like Widow’s Point?
You know, I like them all. Obviously, when you work on a big “A” film there’s more time, there’s more money, there’s more crew members and more help all around. That’s nice to have, but I don’t need that. For A River Runs Through It we practiced for a month beforehand, rehearsed for a month beforehand then shot it for three-and-a-half months. I worked just as hard on the movie that we shot for four weeks, twenty days, whatever it was, for Greg. I do the same thing; it’s just a different animal. My job remains the same no matter how much time I have to learn my lines and create. With A River Runs Through It we maybe worked on one scene a day as opposed to maybe eight pages a day on Greg’s, right? So, a little different amount of preparation in terms of how many scenes you have to know, how many lines you have to know and the work you’re doing while you’re working. You’re already preparing for the next scene while you’re performing the one you’re in. Whereas (on big budget films) those scenes I prepare for, I go home that night – I probably know most of the lines anyways – but then I prepare for the next day that night which you don’t have the luxury of doing on smaller films. I like that down and dirty feeling. It’s really energizing.
No doubt, it’s how you started out in the beginning and now it let’s you get back to your roots in a way.
Yeah, then I do a movie like The Program which I got to do a month of football, and I was a football player in real life. I got to do a month of going to camp like I did when I was a football player. We did a month of that and rehearsed in between and that was amazing. We shot for three, four months on that one. I like all the little challenges.
Was there anything in particular that surprised you when you got to watch the film in it’s entirety for the first time with everything intact and in sequential order compared to what you expected during filming?
Well, I didn’t expect nearly as much humour as what’s there. I thought there was a lot of funny stuff in there especially with some of the Buffalo actors who did their thing. I saw it as an all around darker movie so that was a little different than I expected. Other than that, I thought the cinematographer did a really good job in the tower. I noticed a lot of that. I thought that came out really well. Other than the humour, there wasn’t anything that really surprised me.
During some of those scenes that you weren’t necessarily a part of, were you still on set to maybe get a sense of what everybody else was doing?
I was around for a lot of scenes. Pretty much in between I was either preparing my stuff or resting my body because I had just been throwing myself against the walls. And certainly my daughter’s scenes I would try to watch from far away where I wasn’t inhibiting her.
Besides the physical torture that you put yourself through, what do you feel folks will be most impressed with after they’ve walked away from their viewing of Widow’s Point?
First, I hope they like it and the whole thing is a nice little ride for them. Nice fun, but a little torturous and scary. It’s a good ride as far as the whole movie goes. I hope they find my performance interesting. I just hope people enjoy the ride like I do when I watch any movie I love.
Watch out for the ghosts of Widow’s Point on DVD this September, and check out the official trailer HERE: