Horror films have always sought to deprive us of any impression of a safe place, and with his horror debut, Greg Olliver set his sights on turning the restaurant - normally a place for sociable gatherings, romantic meals and the venue for a lifelong proposition - into a disquieting, nightmarish and blood-soaked stage for some haunting angst-ridden drama. So readers are advised DEVOURED may make any pending reservations a little less appetising…
STARBURST: In a body of work comprised of documentaries Devoured is your first horror film. Can you remember the moment you first discovered horror cinema?
Greg Olliver: I think it was Alien, which my parents had on LaserDisc. I can remember most of the film, but the one scene that always sticks out is of Dallas in the tube tracking the Alien, while everybody watches on the radar machine in the other room as the dot just gets closer and closer to him. It was just a blinking dot, but it was so scary, and I remember being horrified by that. So to go all the way back, that’s when I first realised filmmaking could scare the crap out of you with something so simple.
Was it an important moment when you realised that films just didn't exist, but were created to have such an effect?
Oh, it took me years to learn to appreciate what goes into making something like Alien, which seems so simple. When you don't understand a film it’s easy to tear them apart; to be disappointed by them or think you know better, and to not necessarily understand why you were scared, happy or sad. So it took me a long time to understand why those little moments are as good as they are, and it takes a long time to hone your skills as a filmmaker. Those types of films are made by masters who are very good at what they do, and I would never have appreciated that back then. I just thought it was a scary scene with an alien that my parents didn't want me to see. I remember them trying to keep me from seeing certain scenes – that, and a sex scene in Animal House that my dad fast forwarded through on LaserDisc.
How did you become attached to direct Devoured?
Ever since I was a little kid it has been my dream to make narrative films, and I thought I would be directing Hollywood movie stars. It is all I ever wanted to do, and I fell into documentary filmmaking by accident. Although I loved it, and I was lucky to discover good subjects to make films about, I have always been waiting to come back to narrative filmmaking. But from my point of view it is much harder to get a narrative film made, and finally there was the opportunity with my friend Mark who had been writing screenplays, and had access to some cash. He came up with the idea for Devoured, and we found the location and just went with it. So it was just waiting for everything to work for you instead of against you as it normally does.
Working within genre, how did it influence the way that you chose to tell the story?
It's funny, because if I had a choice in what type of film to make first, then I don't think it would necessarily have been a horror film. A filmmaker friend told me that it is harder to direct tension than anything else, and I didn't really believe him until we tried. It turns out it is tricky to figure out the right pacing, and I had to rely on the fact we were making a film about this woman who was the main crux of the film. So we had to make her interesting, compelling and someone you could emphasise with.
Then the secondary issue was to have fun with the genre. It seemed exciting to try and figure out how to scare the crap out of people through the filmmaking process. In doing so I would harken back to the films that were impactful on me personally, such as Alien, where those little simple things scared somebody - movies that were playing tricks on the characters. Things that are in your head are a lot of fun to play.
The Shining is one of those films that messes with your mind, and you don't know if it's in his head or whether it's real. So a lot of that became something fun for me to play with in Devoured, and it was great to have a restaurant that was naturally creepy, which you could walk around and try to figure out what we could use in there to create scares if you happened to be working in there at night. Now because I had never made a horror film there was a lot of work trying to figure out how to actually make one. But seeing it work in the theatre when we finally screened it for people – just to watch those little moments scare an entire theatre/audience was a thrill.
So you have to be conscious of how to bring out the dark personality of the space?
In Alien, the ship becomes a character onto itself, and in our film we wanted a location that would be a main character. Luckily, my friend owns that restaurant - Raoul's in Soho - and because of the character that it possesses it turned out to be the perfect location. If you go in there at night and have dinner with somebody it could be the most romantic dinner you ever had, but once the lights go out and everybody leaves, it becomes creepy. There are all these old paintings, and nothing has changed in forty years since they set it up. It's an old building and there is a feel about it, and so to be in there in the middle of the night alone would be particularly eerie. So it lent itself perfectly to a horror movie, and it was fun to have that as our backdrop.
There is a deliberate and methodical slow pace to the film, where the centre stage of the story is her angst – her struggles and desire to return home to her son. Could you share your thoughts on the decision to adopt this approach?
Our attention spans are so ridiculously short that modern horror fans need something to be happening constantly. So, this film is not for the common horror fan! I wanted to ease into the story and the character. You might not be able to relate to this woman who’s cleaning restaurants in New York and saving dollar after dollar, but you need to fall into her story by watching what she is doing. In order to get into her mind-set you have to go through this repetitiveness, and it might not necessarily be the most fun thing to watch. But it is the only way I felt you could empathise with her when bad stuff eventually happens. It's a risk to make a slow burn film, but it was one I felt was necessary for the story, and it also lends itself well to the type of story where scary things will eventually happen. If you wait long enough, then they will seem to have ten times the effect they would if you had scary moment after scary moment - where you just know they are coming. Also it is a lot more fun to mess with people by making them wait for the scares.
One of the ideas you exploit is whether it is the person or place that is haunted – does she bring the horror to the building or is she the one that is preyed upon.
Yeah, the goal was to be somewhere in the middle of what could be in your head versus what could be real. I feel that if you, I or anybody was hanging out alone in that basement then we could imagine some horrible things. When you hear a noise, your imagination is naturally more terrifying than the reality, and this happens to me all of the time, even in my apartment in Manhattan. If I hear a noise in the other room then I’m looking for weapons – I’m trying to figure out how to defend myself from whatever evil being is in the other room. Of course it just turns out to be something like my silverware falling over in the dishwasher. The imagination running wild is something that happens to most people, especially in the right location and at the right time. So we wanted to take advantage of that and keep in mind the fact that there might, in fact, be real things happening that are the cause of her experiences. By the end you figure out most of what happened, but we still wanted to leave it to the viewer’s imagination to a degree. For me it’s a little more fun when you have something to think about and, of course, when you have the time to do it in a slow moving film.
When it comes to watching horror, is imagination more important than a belief in the supernatural or the other worldly?
Imagination is one of the most fun things that we possess, and especially to just let it run wild. You can have a blast with it, and within any film with supernatural vibes the viewer as they are watching it are imagining what could be coming their way or what could happen. Playing with those is far more important than having them believe the fact there is a ghost in the room. I’m not a believer in ghosts or of the supernatural. I am, however, a big believer of the mind completely fucking with you at all times of the day. That’s why I think imagination is far more important, because it also opens the door for what you can put into a film. So in making a film like Devoured, imagination is more important.
Reflecting on the experience, how has Devoured shaped you as a filmmaker?
Devoured was a great learning experience, and we clearly didn’t make a flawless movie that doesn’t have clichés in it. But then most horror films are cliché, and there are plenty of people who say I saw that gag a mile away. It has got me excited, if only because the first screening we had I saw the entire theatre jump at something in the film, and that is sort of like a drug that makes you want to do it again. Ultimately, it made me want to make more films about interesting characters. For films to make you laugh, cry or to scare the shit out of you, there has to be a compelling character, and the same goes for my documentaries about rock stars, World War II commandos, or horror films about cleaning ladies! There has to be a compelling character that you care about, otherwise there is not much too sink your teeth into. So it convinced me this needs to remain the focus of a film for it to be worth making, and if you cannot get into the character, then who cares how scary it is?
Has Devoured deepened your affection and understanding of film and storytelling?
I love storytelling, whether it is making a film or sitting at a dinner party telling someone a funny story about something that happened. I feel that I pride myself on trying to be a good storyteller, and filmmaking is one of the most fun forms of storytelling, whether it is documentary, horror or action. It is such a blast to be able to tell a story whether it be using actors or real people. I absolutely love it, and the more I do it then the more I want to do it. I would just direct stuff all the time about unique characters, and I have a lot of fun trying to find this next character to make a film about. It is exciting to try and find a story worth telling, and each time I do it I fall more in love with it.
DEVOURED is available on DVD now.