By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Two decades after guiding Kevin Bacon through the standout supernatural thriller STIR OF ECHOES, writer/director David Koepp is back with the actor for YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT, debuting this Friday on premium VOD from Universal/Blumhouse. Koepp talks about this new collaboration and the particulars of the production–and his forthcoming BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN for Universal–in this exclusive interview.
Bacon plays Theo Conroy, a wealthy middle-aged man married to much younger actress Susanna (Amanda Seyfried). With tensions rising between them, they travel to Wales to salvage their relationship and spend some quality time with their little daughter Ella (Avery Essex). But instead, strange occurrences begin to suggest a dark presence in the remote, modern house where they’re staying, one that brings their hidden secrets to the surface and threatens to destroy Theo’s sanity. Based on the novel by Daniel Kehlmann, YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT is an engrossing and ultimately chilling study of two people whose personal issues feed and in turn are fed on by a house that becomes an ever-changing maze of doors and hallways.
So often in movies, older leading men are matched with much younger female co-stars, and it’s cool to see YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT engaging with that as a key story point.
Yeah, that was an important idea to me. We see that in tons of Hollywood movies, and it’s always kind of covered up or glossed over, and we’re not supposed to think about it. And I thought, what if that’s part of the story, and from the first moment we see this relationship, we say, “Oh, they’re wrong for each other. This is not right. She’s way too young for him.” They’re not talking about it, but we are. All the great horror movies I love have a fraught central relationship, and then they go to some weird place, either metaphorically or literally or both. I wanted to explore that, where they each have tensions, secrets and suspicions about each other.
As I was starting the script, I told Kevin, “I’m gonna have to make jokes about how old you are, and I’ve got to start on page one and keep doing it, because I don’t want people to think we’re trying to get away with something; I want them to know that’s what the story’s about.” And he said, “Go for it. I am old!”
Did you write this for Bacon, after you worked so well together on STIR OF ECHOES?
Yes. We’d been looking on and off for something to do over the last 20 years, because we’d stayed really good friends. So he said, “Why don’t we do a scary movie about marriage,” and I said, “I’m in!”
How did Daniel Kehlmann’s book become the project you wound up collaborating on?
Kevin found it. We traded a bunch of ideas: We had this marriage, and we knew we wanted to go somewhere remote. Then he read a review of this book, got a copy and said, “I think you should read this. There’s a lot of what we’ve been talking about.” My first response was, “No, I don’t want to read your stupid book, it’s my story!” [Laughs] Then I read it, and I was like, oh, there’s a lot of good ideas in here. So we talked to Daniel Kehlmann and optioned it, and I was actually quite grateful for it, because when you’re a writer/director, I’ve found you lose a sort of vital element of collaboration. So when you work from a book, you can benefit from someone else’s several months or several years of thinking.
The book’s basic premise is similar to THE SHINING–with a screenwriter taking his wife and child to a remote house to work on a new project–whereas the movie’s is different. Did you intentionally change those elements?
First thing that had to go: He can’t be a writer [laughs]! THE SHINING is such a landmark, and obviously it’s been an influence on a number of things I’ve written. Also, I’d already directed a [Stephen King-based] movie called SECRET WINDOW, about a writer in a cabin by himself who may be losing his grasp on reality, so I didn’t want to do that again. And I felt the last thing the world needed was a movie about a screenwriter!
Can you talk about the casting of Amanda Seyfried and especially Avery Essex, who’s remarkable in the movie?
I’m glad you think so, and both those ladies are great. Amanda was the first and only person we met, and we begged her to do it, and happily she said yes. She’s a terrific actress, and I think what appealed to her was getting to play a character with some slightly darker shades. Amanda is often asked to play the ingenue, because she’s a young, beautiful woman and that’s what Hollywood wants her to do. But she’s capable of so much more, and so much more complex things, and I believe she enjoyed the chance to play someone where we can’t decide if we like her or not, and may have secrets. We got really lucky.
Avery is just remarkable. Our casting director Terri Taylor found her, and she had only done a couple of commercials and maybe one or two episodic things. She was just great, and so natural. She’d be bouncing off the walls and the furniture like a normal 6- or 7-year-old, and then I’d say “Action,” and she just locked in. She has this ability to utterly be that person, and hold an unbreaking gaze, and her concentration’s remarkable. Then you say “Cut,” and she’s a spazzy kid again; it’s really something.
How did you deal with putting her in scary situations while you were shooting the movie?
That was a little creepy. I have four kids and my youngest is a little girl, so I felt bad about it. A lot of the scariest stuff she had to do–the scenes in the basement, the woman who’s probably dead–was at the end of the schedule, and it kind of broke my heart, because she was used to having such a good time when she came to work with us, and now things were not as much fun. So I talked to her about it a lot and tried to make sure she wasn’t too freaked out, that she knew we were still nice people and we were just pretending. That was when the dad in me was unhappy with the film director in me, and those two parts of me were at war with each other.
One impressive thing about YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT is how well it works as a drama for the first 40 minutes or so before the scary stuff really kicks in. How did you approach balancing those elements?
Well, the movie starts with a scene that hopefully is startling and somewhat unsettling, because we wanted to say, “Look, there’s going to be scary stuff and things will be unpleasant, but now you’ve got to be patient.” I think audiences are pretty cool with that if the drama’s good enough, if they can tell this is all headed somewhere and the story you’re telling is essential pipe you’re laying for later. If you can create enough sense of dread and foreboding in the early section, you’re going to be fine.
Part of the horror side I enjoyed most was the impossible architecture in the house. How and where did you create that?
That was the whole reason to do it: to create this house that doesn’t make sense after a while, that just unfolds and unfolds and reveals and reveals. I wanted the last half of the movie to feel like you’ve woken up in the middle of the night in a strange hotel room and can’t find the bathroom door–that terrible feeling of dislocation. Our production designer Sophie Becher found the house in rural Wales, which was where I wanted to shoot, and we added a second floor in post that’s not there in reality. We shot some of the interiors there, and then we built a soundstage to match the house but that also didn’t match the house, because it’s too big, it’s got extra hallways, some of it doesn’t match up. It became like a spreadsheet; we had so many hallways and doors, which sometimes didn’t open to the same place twice, or took you back where you were. We had eight different hallways, all with their own names in the script, and I believe 12 doors that were really more like 28 because they kept opening to different places. It was a real jigsaw puzzle putting that together, and that was part of the fun.
I remember reading about the film getting started about two years ago. Has it undergone any significant changes between then and now?
We shot 26 days in the fall of 2018, and then we cut it and looked at it, and decided we wanted to add some more scenes. We came up with about four days of extra stuff we wanted to shoot, and that was cool–except Kevin was then shooting CITY ON A HILL for Showtime, in which he has this enormous mustache. So we talked about, can we remove it digitally? And no, if you’ve seen any of those Henry Cavill reshoots [on JUSTICE LEAGUE] where they tried to remove his facial hair, it looks terrible, and we couldn’t afford it anyway. So we ended up waiting six months for Kevin to be able to shave so that we could do the reshoots. Then we finished up the movie and were discussing its release when COVID-19 came along, and then this alternate way of releasing movies revealed itself, and here we are. So we went on hiatus for about half a year that we wouldn’t have were it not for Kevin’s facial hair.
You’re back as writer on the BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN reboot after previously scripting the Dark Universe version. Where does that currently stand?
Yes, I wrote a new approach. After the Dark Universe sort of famously went up in flames, I had another idea for BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN that was more akin to the INVISIBLE MAN model, which is present-day, doesn’t cost a couple of hundred million dollars and is a fresh and kind of twisted idea. I asked Universal, “Can I take another shot at this, because I have a concept that would fit more in line with what you guys want to do, and should be doing.” They said, “Sure, go ahead,” and I tried it and they seemed to like it. I gave it to them about a month ago, and I believe they’re talking to directors now.
Was it a challenge to tell a BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN story without a FRANKENSTEIN movie to lay the groundwork?
Yes, but I think I have a very cool way of approaching that. You’ll have to see the movie to find out what that is.
Will this film have the same humor to it that James Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN did?
Not the same kind, because who can match that? You can’t be somebody else, but it does definitely have some macabre humor.