By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Director Josh Lobo is coming out of the gate strong with his first feature film I TRAPPED THE DEVIL. Starring genre veteran AJ Bowen, the story of a family reuniting for the holidays. Family reunions might be terrifying enough by themselves, but soon after arriving back home we discover that the devil himself might be trapped in the basement, and he is begging to get out. The film it tense but not pretentious, even though it wrestles with major issues of sanity and the nature of evil. We talked to Lobo about directing his first film, assembling a small cast, and film as a therapeutic process.
What is is about Christmas that pairs so well with horror?
I love Christmas horror films in general. It’s almost like yin and yang. It’s the opposite of what you expect, or what you are thinking of when you think about the holiday, but I think they do go hand in hand. When I first started writing this I was looking for an organic way to get Matt and Karen (AJ Bowen and Susan Burke) to the house to meet Steve (Scott Poythress). If they just showed up it would feel a little convenient. But for Christmas it heightens all the tension, because it is such a family-oriented time of year. It was a good backdrop for the themes I was looking to explore.
Christmas is definitely a way to bring family together, even if they don’t like each other.
It plays into the confrontational a bit, as opposed to just visiting the brother. We are here because of the holidays, because we have to be here.
With such a small cast, each actor is pivotal. How did you get the right players in place?
You are right. The whole movie’s back and bone is character interaction, and the dynamic is a nuanced take on these people. If I didn’t have good actors I wouldn’t have anything. I’ve been a fan of AJ for a long time, and [producer] Scott Weinberg had brought him up. I thought AJ always brought a cool, and almost irreverent quality to a lot of his characters. I harken this movie to a dark version of NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION. Just a little bit. AJ brought this dimension of unintentional laughs to YOU’RE NEXT. He charismatic. We cast him, and then Susan and Scott, and they ended up being the exact players I needed.All three of them really carry their roles in the best way possible.
Casting isn’t always so collaborative. With this being your first feature, did you make it a point to have the set be collaborative as well?
I don’t believe in, “This is my show and I’m running it.” Every single person coming to the set, from the sound guy to the actors, they are all artists, and they want some artistic input. I feel you get the best from people when they are allowed to bring whatever they want to the table. I’m not hiring people to do exactly what I want them to do, I’m hiring people who are going to take what I’ve written and interpret it their way. If AJ knows whom he works best with, and knows who he would have the most chemistry with, I was always going to take that into consideration. At the end of the day, the audience doesn’t know what the characters look like in my head. If an actor might not be who I envisioned in this role, nobody knows that. I’m going to take whoever is going to be best in the role.
Were there any collaborations on the script after you started shooting, or was that locked in on set?
The script was constantly changing. It was an ebb and flow of trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t work. We shot the movie in nine days. We were trying to find the simplest way to achieve what we were going for. Without a lot of camera set ups and without a lot of technicalities. We had to get in and get out. Make decisions on the fly.
You shot I TRAPPED THE DEVIL in nine days? That’s insane.
Yeah, it was a nightmare. [laughs]
“On the page, it was a lot darker.”
For a horror film, at least a nightmare is thematically appropriate.
The thing is, I would not have done it any other way. While it was terrible for me, the production designer, the DP, producers, and the actors, we had to decide. We couldn’t say, “Oh, we’ll get to this tomorrow.” No, right now we need to make a decision.
The tone throughout the film is so intentional. Where in the process of writing, or directing, or in post production, did the tone get created?
It’s an ever-evolving process. I listened to music while I was writing my script. If I get really in to a song, I’ll start at the beginning so that it all feels tonally consistent to the music I’m listening to. If I find another piece that fits it more, I’ll go back and edit the script with that tone in mind. The problem is, when you get to set, what is on the page is not necessarily what comes out. There are performances and blocking and other things. The movie tells you pretty early on–especially if you have good collaborators–what it wants to be. I know some directors will stiff arm it back into being whatever they want it to be, but I didn’t do that. On the page it was a lot darker. Here, there are a lot of quirky moments. Not laugh out loud comedy, but I think it is funny and it is intentionally funny. There is this underlying, dysfunctional brother stuff. If you laugh at those awkward interactions, that’s intentional. You just have to roll with it. And the edit will tell you what it wants to be too. And then you find the right score. As long as you are being honest to what your tastes are, I think the movie will feel cohesive. I had to be honest with my taste.
What music did you write I TRAPPED THE DEVIL to?
On the page, it was a lot darker. I was really inspired by Matt Reeves’s LET ME IN. I love that film, and I think it has a very interesting tone. I think my film has a more M. Night [Shyamalan] tone, and I’m also a huge fan of Mario Bava, and a lot of my colors came from PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES.
The color is quite striking.
I love weird 1960s films that are technicolor. Like PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. It’s campy. I love that color scheme. I wanted to use that in this, while making it feel organic. The basement doubles as a photo development area. The entryway has Christmas lights against the outside. There are all these different color contrasts.
I TRAPPED THE DEVIL brings up big questions about the nature if evil. Do you grapple with those sorts of big questions?
The theme I was struggling with was communication. I was in a relationship and I was having a hard time communicating. The tragedy of the film is that you have three people who love each other and want the best for each other, but none of them can outright say or believe each other. I like stories that are about grief. I hate to say I’m a brooding artist, but when I write I put myself of the mindset of my characters and I go to grief a lot. That, and miscommunications. I have a hard time saying exactly what I feel. It always ends up going poorly.
Did the process of making this film feel like therapy?
100%. Moreso writing it, as that is a different beast. When you write a film or you edit a film, you are in a different state of mind. I think writing is the most powerful, that’s when you are getting the themes out. Directing is more the technical application; pulling those themes and performances out of what is already written. When I’m writing I get heavily involved in it. I have a hard time in my everyday life, because I am a little standoffish while I’m finishing a script. When I am done with it, I can come up for air. I don’t know if I’m a good enough writer, at the moment, to use writing as a therapeutic measure, but it did feel good once I got it all out on paper. It was cool to see what I was feeling right then.
That speaks a bit to the collaboration we spoke about earlier. After the film was written, you weren’t precious about it and you wanted to see other people interact with it,
That’s the cool part about making movies, Everyone around you should be better at their job than you are at yours. When I came into this I was just flailing, trying to keep all the pieces together. I leaned on everyone from my art director to my sound designer to my cinematographer, and my composer to bring this thing to life. Once the film is shot, it is still “my film,” but its not. It is the amalgamation of all of these people’s work. And I want what is best for it. I’m not going to be precious over a scene that needs to be cut. I went in to this thing with a razor, and we cut 20 minutes from it. There was an entire subplot following these cops that we cut, because I wanted to tell the story that needed to be told, in the best possible way.
It’s refreshing to hear a director who is not too concerned about his ego getting bruised while making the film.
At the end of the day, the art speaks for itself, and the art is forever. I can get over my ego enough to try to make this thing the best it can be. Once it is out there, you can’t bring it back; you can’t change it.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a Franz Kafkaesque horror adventure movie. It’s a parable for grief, and it takes the themes from I TRAPPED THE DEVIL and puts them into a more accessible entertaining package. It’s little more genre friendly; it’s got a monster in it. It still is about characters and where they are going, but it’s got a bit more of the stuff that genre fans love.