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Johannes Roberts is one of the brightest British genre filmmakers of recent years, having made waves in horror with the likes of F and Storage 24, and now he’s set to unleash his latest effort, The Other Side of the Door, on cinemas. Starring The Walking Dead’s Sarah Wayne Callies, the film tells the tale of a grieving mother who visits an ancient temple in the hope of making contact with her dead son. When strict orders are ignored, a whole world of tense terror is placed at the door of Callies’ Maria and her family. We caught up with Johannes to discuss The Other Side of the Door, the mastery of the age-old ghost story, his progression as a filmmaker, his upcoming shark movie, and a whole host more.

STARBURST: Where did the initial concept for The Other Side of the Door come from?

Johannes Roberts: I wanted to explore India and its backdrop. I was really hooked by J-horror movies ten years ago and how they had transformed the landscape of horror, and I just really wanted to find another place that hadn’t been explored. Then I came across this village. I’d immersed myself to research India and I came across this village called Bangra that was a real place in the south of India that’s totally abandoned; all the houses are empty, nobody knows what’s happened to the occupants, and it’s all been fenced off with signs around the village saying “You must not enter the village after sunset because ghosts of the dead roam the village”. I came across this and thought it was incredible, and that really sort of sparked everything off. That was the beginning point.

So India was the launchpad for the film before you had the initial concept, rather than having the idea and thinking about where to set it?

Yeah, exactly. India was important in this. I’d never been, but I just thought this was a really interesting place to set a horror movie.

From the extensive research involved in the film, did you ever come across an alternative angle or story that you could tell in the future, or was it just a case of focussing solely on what you needed for this picture?

Yeah, I think so. It’s fascinating, there’s so many different stories that can be told out there. Even within the movie, there’s whole strands…. you could make a whole movie about the Aghori. And they are a real cult, or religious sect is probably a better word. Legitimately, that stuff’s not made up for the movie, they are real. There’s plenty of different directions that the story could’ve taken you, though.

What was the response like for you in terms of trying to get the film financed? Obviously 20th Century Fox got involved in it, but it is such a unique film in terms of its setting.

It’s interesting. I’d been exploring India because the producers of a film I’d just done called Storage 24, they were Indian producers and we’d become very good friends, so that had sort of been the catalyst to using India as a backdrop. And then when we were trying to push the script out and hoping someone would get interested, I had a lot of American companies approach me and say “We’d like this story, can you set it in America?”. You can see it, set it small town America. So there was a lot of that. Then I was screening Storage 24 and Fox happened to be there, and they sat and watched the movie and enjoyed it then called my agent up and asked what I had, if I had anything new. My agent said he’s got this ghost story written set in India, and it just so happens that the two main people had just had a ghost story set in India, I think with Darren Aronofsky actually, fall apart on them. It was just one of those things that got set up but then collapsed. So they were actively looking for a ghost story in India, that was their passion. It was such weird synchronicity, but to begin with people didn’t necessarily go “Wow, we really want to finance a movie set in India”.


There’s almost films within a film in The Other Side of the Door, and to a certain extent the movie only really scratches the surface, but key to this film was the role of Maria. Sarah Wayne Callies landed the gig, but how difficult was it to find the perfect Maria?

It wasn’t too bad. I was a big fan of Sarah’s because of The Walking Dead. We were just sort of looking for that sort of perfect… we had to find someone who you would believe was a loving mother, but then she’s just a fucking mess, she’s falling apart, she’s fragile, she’s about to kill herself, and it needed someone who can balance those things. Sarah just really nailed that. So it actually wasn’t that tough. I mean, it was tough to do – I think it was a very tough movie for her to make. She had to go to a pretty dark place. I think the movie turned out to be a lot darker than either her or I had expected.

Now whilst it is a very unique film, there seems to be certain influences clearly visible in the story…

Oh yeah, it definitely wears its influences openly on its sleeve. I’m a huge Stephen King fan, and obviously Pet Sematary is there. If anyone’s very eagle-eyed, Oliver’s grandmother, who appears in a photo, is played by Mary Lambert who directed Pet Sematary. But you definitely have to be very eagle-eyed to spot that. So it obviously has that as an influence. And it draws very much on J-horror, The Grudge in particular was a movie that I really respected when I saw it and it really frightened me. I just love ghost stories, so films like The Woman in Black, not the Daniel Radcliffe version but the old TV version. Just growing up with ghost stories, that was a huge influence on the movie.

Do you feel that the cinematic classic ghost story is almost a bit of a lost art these days?

I don’t know about a lost art, but it’s very hard to do. I would like to say I succeeded, but I have to say that. It is very hard to do. I’ve been doing this job for 15 years now, I’ve been working for a while, but I got into the industry to tell a movie like this movie. This is exactly the film that I always wanted to make because it’s the film I’ve always wanted to go and watch. It’s taken that long to find an angle. Ghost stories are just so hard to do. What makes, for instance The Woman in Black, so successful, be it as the stage play or the old TV movie, is that it’s just a really clever, well-written story that’s just more than… most times people believe what makes a good ghost story is someone drowns and then they come back and they want revenge. Maybe 50 or 60 years ago you could get away with something like that, but you’ve got to be a bit more sophisticated now. You’ve got to find a way to present a ghost in a way that is fresh for an audience, that they’re not just going to roll their eyes at. And that’s what was great about the whole J-horror thing. Suddenly, how terrifying ghosts were! They came out of your bloody TV! That was terrifying. The first time I saw that, where the woman came out of the TV, I practically ran behind the sofa. And they were very physical, and that’s what I tried to do with this. These things can do harm, they’re not just these semi-transparent things. But ghost stories are hard to do, just because it’s easy to do the scares – the creaking doors, the ball dropping down steps, and all that kind of stuff – but you need the story behind it otherwise there’s nothing there.

After Fox got involved with the project, Alexandre Aja was brought into the fold as a producer. We’re big fans of him here at STARBURST, but how hands on did he get with The Other Side of the Door?

He’s French, he has to meddle in everything – bloody Frenchman [laughs]. But he’s great, I love him. He came on board pretty early in the production. We’d sort of been developing this script for a while, and Alex really helped bring that movie back to where it started from really. He’d read the very early draft and loved it, he really got the Pet Sematary vibe, and then he really fought to get it back there. He was a really good ally and supporter of my vision, and then he’s also an incredibly meddlesome guy – he would drive me absolutely up the wall, constantly just asking why I was doing things. We’ve become super good friends and I think we will do many more films together. We both come from horror in a slightly different way. His movies are brutal. The Hills Have Eyes, High Tension, those are strong movies.

Switchblade Romance/Haute Tension/High Tension is still one of our favourite movies of the past 20 years.

You know, the good thing of working with him is I got to use his whole team. So Maxime Alexandre [cinematographer] shot Switchblade and all of Alex’s stuff, and Baxter edited those movies as well. I was very lucky to have access to these people.


You mentioned earlier how you’ve been involved in the industry for 15 years now, going back to stuff like F, which is a big favourite of ours, and When Evil Calls. Having now got to the stage of working with a big studio like 20th Century Fox, how do you feel the whole filmmaking process has changed for you over the years?

I love F, but I think only about 4 people, you included, ever saw it. I thought it was a super cool movie. We made F for £100,000. That, at the time, was my fifth movie and the most expensive movie I’d made. Things have changed dramatically for me, it’s like a whole different process in many ways now. With The Other Side of the Door, suddenly I have, instead of a crew of students, I have 300 people. Suddenly it’s half-way round the world with technocranes and what have you and you’re building locations. Everything is just bigger. At its heart it’s the same though, you know? Having come up through making tiny movies – not that The Other Side of the Door had a huge budget compared to most movies – it really enabled me to totally deal with the chaos that India brought with it. You just learn to roll with the punches. I mean, you learn with every movie still.

Up next, you’ve got 47 Meters Down. As huge fans of shark movies, this certainly has our attention. So what can you tell us about it, when’s it going to arrive, and what can we expect?

It’s being handled by Dimension Films over in America, and it’s Mandy Moore and Claire Holt and Matthew Modine, who’s just the sweetest guy in the world. It’s two sisters who go and see these great white sharks off the coast of Mexico in a shark cage trip, then the cage breaks and goes down to the bottom of the ocean. They have an hour in their tanks and have to get up to the surface through shark-infested waters, and you can’t go straight up because you have the bends. I think it’s the world’s first movie to be shot almost entirely under water. It looks unlike anything you’ve ever seen, it’s incredible.

So is it shot near-enough in real-time then?

Pretty much, yeah. It’s an incredibly intense movie. We’ve just tested it out in America, the first cut, and you could hear a pin drop because it’s just so full-on. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. We’re in post-production at the moment, so we’ll probably finish the movie in maybe a month or 2 months from now. I don’t know, but I hope that it comes out pretty soon after that. Nobody ever asks me about these things, I don’t get a say in that.

Going back to The Other Side of the Door, the film itself only scratches the surface of certain ideas and plot points. Do you think that there’s any chance of you revisiting some of those concepts, whether it’s for a different project or a sequel?

Yeah, I would do it. Not necessarily something that jumps out as a very obvious Part 2. But you know how these things are in terms of commercial desire for a Part 2. It doesn’t matter what the story is, these things are led by what people want.

Are there any other particular avenues of horror that you’d like to explore, and what else is next for you after 47 Meters Down?

I can kind of combine the two questions in a sense in terms of I’m just developing a Victorian ghost story. That could well be what I do next, or it’s certainly going to be something that I’ll do shortly after. It’s very unique. I just love ghost stories, so that’s one of the things I’d very much like to continue exploring. I really enjoy trying to work out fresh ways to make people scared. And I’m just discussing a Stephen King adaptation. That’s something that I’m very, very keen to see if I can make that go ahead. I just try and do things that got me into doing this in the first place. I’m just being a big kid.

We know you can’t say much, but can you tell us whether it’s a Stephen King property that’s already been adapted or is it a fresh one?

It’s a fresh one, but at the moment I can’t really say anything more.

The Other Side of the Door is in UK cinemas from March 4th.


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