A weekend trip to a remote cabin in Oregon descends into a nightmarish experience for the Pollack family in DEAD NIGHT when father and husband James (AJ Bowen) ventures into the dark forest looking for firewood, where he encounters an enigmatic woman (Barbara Crampton) passed out in the snow. Bringing her back to the cabin for help, the family has no way of knowing that her wicked presence will be the catalyst for a series of horrifying events that will change their lives forever.
In conversation with FrightFest, Barbara Crampton discussed a sadness in the divisive response to the film, the uncertainty and meaning of intent in the film making process, and a belief in the value of open-mindedness to the cinematic experience.
FrightFest: The audience will inevitably make of a film what they will, but from what you thought of the film and anticipated the audience would take away, were those expectations met?
Barbara Crampton: Initially when I read the script, I fell in love with it. It was one of my favourite scripts that I've been offered in the past five years or so. I thought it was unique and interesting with the double narrative, intriguing and multi-layered, and it was so completely clear even though it was complex.
I have to be honest about it, some people when they watch the movie are not as happy with the reality TV true crime portion of the film as I thought they would be. I thought it was a clever and interesting way of telling the story, and so grounded in the hearsay and conjecture that we have in the media right now, on so many platforms: Television, news, Twitter, Facebook, everything. It was just so on target and all the while making it I was thinking: This is a really cool movie. But the audiences that have seen it since, a lot of people love the movie, but a lot of people are also a little bit confused by it because of the double narrative, and are not sure how the picture works as a whole, and what it is trying to say. So I feel something got lost in the message. Is it a little too complex for some people? Is it a movie you have to watch a couple of times before you really get it? I don't know, but I think it was an ambitious film on the part of the filmmakers, and I truly love this movie and it's probably my favourite part that I’ve played in the past number of years. As a whole some people had issues with it and that makes me a little sad to be honest with you.
FF: The true crime portion taps into that concept of what is truth nowadays, especially in an age of fake news.
BC: I thought Brea Grant did an amazing job of showcasing that woman, her pain and what she went through, what happened to her and then relating what the truth of it was, and coming to grips with her part in it. I just thought she did a great job and I applaud her performance in telling this story of the movie, because it's really her story.
FF: Speaking with Joe Dante, he remarked: “…when push comes to shove, what there is to look at in the film is the actors. Those are the people who have to take the blows; they are the ones on screen that are making it happen for the audience. If you cast it correctly you don't even have to do a lot of directing, and that’s not to denigrate any of the other aspects of making a movie, which are all incredibly important. But the one element through the years that has made movies as popular as they are is the actors.” It shows his humility, but as he states, other aspects are important and as you have remarked, the filmmakers of DEAD NIGHT were ambitious in their vision for the film.
BC: Let me say something about that because growing up as a young actor, I studied theatre, and one of the first things I was taught was that you have to serve the playwright. That has never left me and so when I get a script I think: How can I serve the writer of this piece? How can I tell the story they want to tell? But at the same time with what you are saying, I have a certain relationship that’s created in the moment with the other actors on screen, and that is it's own living and breathing thing. And it is ultimately what the audience is going to see and feel. Whatever is on the page is on the page, and I clearly get a message from that. But then we have to act in the moment and we have to respond off of each other, and so it makes not a completely different thing, but it definitely alters somewhat the message that writer wrote, how the director directed the film, or how the editor finally puts it together. So we are all creating these minute by minute messages for the audience, conveying our feeling, the story and the character. And how it all gets put together and finally on screen is a collaboration of everyone. But what Joe Dante was saying is true. He had to let that go after he wrote or directed something, and yeah, at some point you have to give it over to your actors and then the editor.
FF: Is there an element of being blind to some degree as an actor, wherein you cannot be fully aware of all the aspects of the technical process that is merging with your performance? Especially when you consider that entering the edit, the film is in its raw form and is then polished through the editorial choices and the addition of music.
BC: Well that's an interesting observation. I think that you are certainly blind to some other things that are happening around you, or on set because you can't quite control or grasp everything. You can't have a birds-eye view looking at the situation, you only have the moment that you have in your body and working with whoever you are working with. And I am often surprised by how I think a moment is coming off when I am working on a scene because when I then see it later after it's all put together, I get a different feeling from that moment. So it's probably like the way people feel about different situations when they talk to one another. I might have a conversation with you Paul about something, and then I have my own feeling about how that conversation went, and what I think about it. You leave and you have your feeling about what you think we talked about, and it might be different. Sometimes you have those feelings with your mate, like with my husband. We know each other quite well and we’ll talk about certain things, but then later on I'll say: “Remember when you said... And you meant this?” And he'll say: “No, that's not what I meant at all, I meant this.” So film kind of works that way, in that it will put the moments together and could potentially give you a different message than you think about in the moment you are doing it. I know that Hitchcock has talked about this before and I'm paraphrasing here, but he said something like: “I make the movie in the edit room, that's where the movie is made. I didn’t make the movie on set, I make the movie when I put it together.”
FF: Hitchcock’s interesting because he often spoke of the emphasis placed on the script. One could suspect that Hitchcock enjoyed playing games with us even when it came to discussing the process, but then perhaps many great filmmakers are contradictory in the information they present to us.
BC: Yeah maybe, and that’s the thing too. So to talk about the aspect that with certain films it's a performance that really stands out. With certain films the visual aspect of it, the cinematography is telling the story, and with other films it's the combination of how the characters come together in certain scenes, and the relationship you see. So it’s an art form and the strength of whatever piece of the storytelling is from one movie to the next, depending on tone, it might be stronger in one area than another. It’s hard to think of certain examples, but even the recent PUPPET MASTER movie I did, it is visually very gory and over the top, and that took over the story of the Thomas Lennon character and his relationship with his new girlfriend, and what happened to his brother. When I read the script, the foundation of that story was very much rooted in the relationship he had with the other players on screen, but after watching how the movie came together, the special effects, the over the top gore and the puppets, it became more of a force of the movie. So that's what you are left with when we finally see it on screen – it’s a much more visual, gory and set piece special effects movie than it is a relationship film. It’s funny how film can do that, how the different voices telling the story can come through the characters, the relationships or the visual aspect of it.
FF: Thinking back to your question about whether some people need to watch DEAD NIGHT a second time, as an audience sometimes we go in with expectations and struggle to accept the film that is being given to us. Hence, is there a need to be flexible and understand when it is our expectations or misunderstanding that has compromised the experience, rather than the film having failed us?
BC: Well if an audience needs to be flexible, I as an actor need to be flexible also. I read a script and I think a film is going to come out a certain way, but they never come out the way I think they are going to come out [laughs]. They are always different and everyone has their own personal experience with it.
What comes to mind when you ask me this question is that there's a lot of people now that are very rigorous in their hate and love of film. If you look up the word to critique a movie, it is not to be critical, it’s about understanding, and I think a lot of people because we have social media, instead of just sitting with it and letting it be a piece of art the way that it is, they'll say: “I hate that movie, that was horrible.” Or: “I love that movie, it was the best movie I’ve ever seen.” To make a movie is one of the hardest things you can do. There are so many collaborators working on a film that often times it doesn’t turn out the way you initially think it is going to, but there’s value in pretty much every film I have ever seen. But I think people are a little heavy handed in their love and their critique of movies these days, and if people were a little bit more open minded in viewing a film, and looking at it from the standpoint of what it was trying to say or do, and looking for the positive aspects of it as much as possible is more beneficial than trashing it. I see a lot of people trashing more heavily than they ever have before. Maybe I am wrong about that, and maybe it’s just on the social media platforms, but unfortunately, even I myself may get turned off a movie if someone has said they hated it. There are so many choices for things that maybe I don’t want to watch that. Then I go back later and I'll watch a movie that someone hated, and I'll find I actually liked that movie, and it was pretty good. I’m not sure if I answered your question, but just that thought of giving a little breath to, space and openness to a film.
DEAD NIGHT is available now on DVD courtesy of Studio Canal.