Marcus Nispel is a director who has managed to do something that many often feel is near-impossible: he actually made a good horror remake. Twice! As well as helming the well-received redos of both Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th, Nispel is also the man behind Pathfinder and the reboot of Conan. The Asylum, the German director’s latest movie, sees him handling his own idea and story from scratch, putting together a sinister, creepy, and often humourous movie that is sure to appeal to long-standing fans of the horror genre.
We were lucky enough to grab some time with Nispel to discuss The Asylum, the pressures of remakes, the difference in creating his own story, for him to educate us on the Manson family, and a whole host more.
STARBURST: The Asylum is your latest film, although in some markets people may know it as Backmask or Exeter…
Marcus Nispel: Yeah, there’s a sure-fire way to confuse just about anyone! It beats me. Originally we called it Backmask because of a major part in the movie. We had to shorten the first act a little bit – it was somewhat of a MacGuffin, and a lot of people didn’t even know what it meant anymore, which shocked me because it shows how I’m aging. Exeter is the place that we shot it, so we gave it that name, but apparently that’s meaningless in the UK and you guys get your own title.
Yep, we get The Asylum, which is a pretty straightforward title.
That gets me, because I like to be a little but puzzled when I read a title. I didn’t know what Apocalypse Now meant when I read the English title that they used in Germany when I grew up there. I didn’t know what an exorcist was when I read that for the first time. It’s strange. What beats me is aren’t there like a whole bunch of “asylum” movies out there already? And I have a Facebook friend who has an “asylum” TV show coming out in Europe and England around about the same time.
Now you put the screenplay for the film together with Kirsten Elms, but where did the initial idea for the story come from?
What triggered it was that Steven Schneider was introduced to me. He just came from Paranormal Activity and Insidious and those movies, and he said “Let’s do one together”. I said that it sounded good and that we could do it for very little money but have more creative control than we’d ever had before. He asked me to write one page about what I would wanna do and then he could tell me if he wanted to do this or not. I was thinking about it. You see, I never thought that another exorcism movie would be possible after The Exorcist. To me, that’s the perfect movie, the perfect horror movie. I thought that I would like to approach that but I would want it to happen to the actual guys that go and watch these movies. An exorcism movie is usually with an Ellen Burstyn, a movie star, a Gregory Peck-type. I said “What happens to the guys who see these movies, the bunch of slackers?” So when I presented it to Steven he liked it because he felt that a lot of the irreverence is missing in these new horror movies; they all take themselves very serious. That’s probably a good thing, but we wanted to do something different. I said, “Look, here’s something I want to tell you going in – it’s not going to be a remake and it’s not going to be a found footage movie!”
There was a stage where every horror film seemed to be a found footage at a certain point a few years ago…
Well I’m responsible for a whole bunch of remakes and he’s responsible for the found footage stuff. We had to do something different here now . I want to make sure I get to do something that the studios won’t let me do.
The thing that’s so impressive with yourself is how you handled your remakes. Critics and fans love to bash remakes, but you did the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th, both of which were remakes that were largely received in a positive way. Those films managed to find new audiences but largely keep on-side the existing fanbase. How did you manage to get that so right?
You’re being very kind. Look, I was young and I needed the money , I’m from Germany. When I grew up, a lot of movies that came out in America would appear in Europe sometimes a year later. They didn’t come out like those Marvel movies all over the globe and on the same weekend. They needed to be translated, at least for us. If a movie like Conan would come out, I would read the reviews from America, I would get the soundtrack, I would get the action figures… and it was still half a year until it was on German screens. So what did you do in the meantime? You acted it out in the sandbox. You acted it out in the treehouse. By the time the movie came out, if it was great or not, you were so charged, you were so amped up. You made the movie in your mind. Rarely it was what you envisioned. So the movies, even the ones I wasn’t allowed to see at the time, I would hear about through Mad Magazine way before I got to see them. So I don’t come from the fanboy who grew up with the genre or a particular movie corner. I came from the guy who had to imagine the movie before he even got to see the movie. This is not a carbon copy from somebody who saw the film for the first time without that mental fill-in I can see, but that’s not necessarily what I went out to do. And here’s another thing, what’s your three favourite horror movies?
I’d likely have to say Halloween, Jaws and The Thing…
Okay, so that makes you pretty much my age or you’ve just got good taste. Most people will give you titles that they have seen from when they were exposed to horror for the first time, when they were probably 17 to 20. In 3 years, there’s going to be 6 or 7 titles that you’re going to like, then from there on it’s going to stop working for you. You actually wonder why people watch that stuff because it is the same scares over and over again. So for me it was going back to stuff that I liked back then and making it appropriate for me rather than creating a carbon copy.
It was really refreshing to see how well received your remakes were. Your Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one of the first of that wave of remakes, and everyone seemed to really enjoy it.
None of them were the sort of movie that I thought I had to do first. I come from an auteur filmmaker country where people like Herzog come from. I’m not supposed to make a remake from the horror genre. So for me it was a very frustrating time to get my first movie in America. I was a music video filmmaker and I’d just get certain type of scripts, like House Party and stuff like that. That was the reality of that. And then one day I had Texas Chainsaw Massacre sent to me. I actually got really mad at my agent because I didn’t want to make a remake, I wanted to do something authentic, something that comes out of me and tells people who I am. Then I bitched about it to my D.P., Daniel Pearl. He’s been my D.P. as long as I can think back, with the music videos and the commercials and stuff. He shot the original when he was fresh out of film school. I said, “Daniel, this is blasphemy. They’re remaking your movie and they’ll screw it up!” And he says, “Well you’ve got to direct it.” I asked him why and he said, “If you’re going to direct it, you’re gonna hire me and I’m gonna make the same movie twice. Once at the beginning of my career and once at the end of my career.” At the same point I was so frustrated that I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do. So I was like, “Fuck it! Let’s just do it, let’s go for it.” And then nearly 2 months later we were done. It was very, very fast. But in the process I got to like the genre, I got to like the actors and I got to like the process. And it’s a great genre because you don’t necessarily have to work with celebrities. I like the idea of working with people where you don’t know who’s going to die next. With Bruce Willis you know he’s gonna be alive at the end of the move, right? And very often working with celebrities makes it a very different experience.
With Michael Bay on the set of Texas Chainsaw Massacre
With The Asylum, this is the first time that you’ve really created your own story from scratch. The likes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, Pathfinder and Conan were all adapted from an existing property, so how different was it for you in that regard?
Well the relation of a director and the studio is kind of like the relationship between a farmer and his mule. When you do a remake it’s even more so the case. You become like a dog of many masters. Even though I tried to find a lot of freedom in that, at the end there’s a certain rulebook and certain expectations that you have to live up to. When you get known for that then you just get more of that. And I just wanted to break out of that. It was genre again, but it’s going to be my genre and I wanted to do something very, very different. One idea was of doing an amateur exorcism. In fact, I would remake just about any movie if I could cast just amateurs to be in it. It’s just, like, more fun. The other thing was I wanted to do something different in structure. It’s a weird thing now where when you make a movie, people wanna know what type of movie they’re gonna watch from the movie and the first 2 minutes. I wanna fuck with their heads a little bit, so we did something, and I don’t wanna give too much away here, I wanted to breach styles. I wanted to start like one of those House Party movies, then the second act is like a paranormal movie, and then the third act is a downright slasher movie. People don’t know what hits them, right? If I tell my wife it’s a slasher movie, she’s not going to go and see it. These are all things you can’t do when you make a remake of a movie called Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
And The Asylum certainly keeps you on your toes, flipping between horror subgenres and even having an element of The Thing at one point.
With this it’s a bit of a mystery, which usually these movies are not. The only mystery in these movies that I’ve done in the past is who’s gonna get it next and how. When we were writing it, when we wrote the outline, it seemed to me to be obvious that after page 25 the first head should roll. But when we did it, I was like “Why don’t we wait much longer?” I enjoy too much the amateurs trying to figure things out. The moment you stir them up and send them screaming, that’s over. Also we broke what a normal horror movie would do right now, in particular a slasher flick, by not having the blood splashing early. It was the kind of movie where we could do that. I expect there’s zero expectations for the film right now, and I prefer it like that. You do a movie like Conan, you do a movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the expectations go crazy before you even get started. When we did Friday the 13th, in the end I wanted to reveal Jason’s face, I wanted the mask to fall off and I wanted to show some guy really pitiful, almost like a child, like a humungous child. The producers go to Comic Con and some boy dressed up like Jason comes up to them, some fanboy, and he goes “Dude, whatever you do you don’t show Jason’s face ever.” They came back and they were so terrified, saying how we needed to take that out and reshoot. You know, it was like feeling like you were on a leash; anybody can give their opinion but you. And I get it. I’m very curious what they’re going to do with Star Wars. That’s holy to me. But then are any of the movies being made that holy?
We were actually lucky enough to speak to Derek Mears a few months back and he’s just the nicest guy and a huge, huge Jason Voorhees fan, which is always great to see from someone working in the genre.
Isn’t it crazy? He’s the softest, sweetest guy. And he does cage fighting! He’s just such a really cool guy. And here’s the same thing – we were doing the trailer, and Jason to me always seemed like a UPS guy or a FedEx guy, sort of a lumbering guy in an overall, so I go “This guy kept himself alive living in the wild. Surely he can walk at a certain speed?” That was always a big decision when zombies were allowed to run. And this guy can run! We put it in the trailer and immediately got an outpouring: “Jason can’t run!” Fuck yeah, now he does!
Friday the 13th
Flipping back to The Asylum, there’s a great chemistry between the core group of characters and plenty of humour, such as the group trying to find an exorcism guideline online.
My wife is the voiceover .
The humour in The Asylum does catch you a little off guard initially, but it works well with the tone.
I’m really glad you say so because every day I would take about the balance between funny and serious. Yes they’re amateurs, but they can get seriously hurt. I’m glad you liked the cast. This is the one thing I really take pride in. I’m sort of a questionable filmmaker and I sort of feel myself through the medium and have fun with it, but the one thing I do take great pride in is to get nice ensembles together. Whenever we started this people would ask what movie should we watch, and I’d always say nothing but in the end I’d make them watch Breaking Away. It’s kind of odd to be making a horror movie and telling them to watch Breaking Away, but I think it’s just a fantastic movie and I care about every one of those characters. There’s no bad guy here or there’s no good looking blonde guy who’s an asshole and the villain, but on this one I wanted to like them all.
There’s clearly a strong chemistry between the core group of actors in The Asylum. Is that something that came naturally for them or is it something that you purposely worked on with them?
It was absolutely natural. They started like that, they all became best friends. You should see them on Facebook, pulling each other’s legs! It’s a real joy for me. Sometimes you go and do a movie and people get very jaded on both sides of the camera. That’s why I like these kind of movies because everybody’s excited to make them, everybody’s sort of a fan of the genre, and those kids just wanna have fun. The hardest thing was to cut the first act down.
What elements of those cuts can you tell us about?
It just simply enough was down to people not having an idea of what backmasking was. It was just the MacGuffin so it was easy to take out. We took 10 minutes of backmasking out. In a way I didn’t necessarily disagree with it because I knew that I couldn’t just have them party forever – I needed to create the sense of a threat.
Just as important as the cast is the actual location. The very spooky building that the film was based in, that’s a real place?
You know what’s funny? They said that there was a team who wanted to do the movie with me who were based in Rhode Island. If you say Rhode Island to me then I think of white picket fences, beautiful churches and a Dennis the Menace sort of world. I don’t associate it with horror movies at all. So I went on the Internet, like something out of the movie, and I just Googled “scary locations in Rhode Island”. Up comes Exeter immediately, and not only is it scary but it’s supposedly the most haunted place in America. The moment we decided to shoot there, these paranormal TV shows called me up to see how I’d got in there as they’d been trying for years to get in there. It was like their wet dream. On a funny side-line, when we wrote it we had no idea where we would go. First of all, do we shoot it in a regular house? No, they need to be confined somehow. Maybe there’s a mental asylum, maybe there’s a background story, maybe after the mental asylum they closed it down and reopened it as a branch of rehab of some sort. We arrived there and nobody had been in that building for 50 years. It was cemented closed. We were the first ones to break through it. When we went in it was like a time capsule; the ceilings collapsed and were on the floor, there was soil in there with stuff growing on it. The neighbouring building, part of it was still open. I said, “What’s that thing there?” They said, “Oh, it burnt down and then they reopened it as a rehab.” That was the scariest, the weirdest thing that happened in Exeter. I’ve got nothing supernatural to report but that blew me away. It was exactly like real life following fiction.
Considering where you were shooting, how did the cast and the crew find it on site?
They loved it. I like to put them in a real situation that I prefer to a stage. So I really liked that we were in a real place. On the acting, Schneider called me up while we were getting ready to shoot the movie and said “Wouldn’t it be great to shoot the movie in real time, then everything happens over 2 hours or a day?” Then I wanted to take it even further and do it without a cut. I’d just seen La Casa Muda, the Uruguayan movie where it was just one take. I loved that. So the first draft was without a cut. If you look at the movie now, it’s six kids in a circle spinning a bottle, six kids in a circle doing levitation, six kids in a circle doing an exorcism. It’s always six kids in a circle, so I tried to lay it out in such a way so that we could play this with them in one room and the camera always keeps on moving. Then later on I was like, “You know what? It was a good exercise in austerity but I really do need to make cuts and it would be scarier then.” But it was good to have gone through the discipline of writing it that lean that you could technically do it this way. Because of that, because of being written this way, it meant that you could shoot it in sequence.
And were there any films you drew inspiration from when you were putting this movie together?
Well in a way almost all of them. In a way it’s not an honest remake but it’s taking the piss out of everything that was ever remade. It’s great because we’ve all seen them. It’s very easy to talk to the writer, to talk to the cast, because they always would know exactly what to do. Actually, the little kid , he wasn’t fluent in those movies. So when the exorcism happens, I told him to try some process kind of similar to The Exorcist. Then I’d always get this look… I was thinking and I realised that he was heavily into heavy metal and rock ‘n’ roll and he plays guitar. He’d really much rather be a musician, I guess. So I said to him “Mosh pit!” And that just worked, he knew exactly what to do. He surprised us. Those were the magic words.
Going forward, are you looking to stay in the horror genre or are you maybe looking to branch out a little bit?
I’m looking to branch out. As I keep telling people, this is just a mad foray into comedy . I don’t know if it’s going to be comedy. I don’t think I’d be trusted with that. But I like the way that we went about it; write the script, don’t take anybody’s minor advice, do you thing and hope to find somebody who’s into it, then make it for a price and get off the leash a little bit.
Is there anything you’re working on at the moment that you can tell us about?
I’m doing something. I guess I can talk about it. Living here in Los Angeles and coming in as a foreigner, you come in with a healthy disrespect of all the celebrity worship and just how the town ticks. You look at it with awe. I revisited Charlie Manson. I looked at the story of Manson and the family. When I read up on it, I got very, very much into it through a good friend who turned me on to it. I realised that the story about Manson and his family has very little to do with the reality. We think of him as some sort of an outsider and a cult that was holed away somewhere. The reality is that the guy was a complete industry insider. He was obsessed with fame and stardom. He loved The Beatles, we all know that, but few people know that he developed a screenplay for Steve McQueen, that he hung out with The Beach Boys and recorded the B-side album with them, that he would go to parties where Warren Beatty would be and be very fluent with those people, Dennis Hopper was a guy he would hang out with at parties. And I didn’t know any of this. This is actually really like Boogie Nights of the Hollywood system. What bent him out of shape at the end was the fact that Terry Melcher, who was Doris Day’s son and the producer of The Monkees, did not hire him to become one of The Monkees. So he goes, “Let’s kill the guy.” Melcher was married to Candice Bergen at the time and they’d moved out of Cielo Drive. When Manson came with a machete to kill them, the door got opened by Sharon Tate. She was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Having read Peter Biskind’s books on that time period, in particular Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Star, that’s the first time I’ve actually heard about that…
He told you in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, there’s a thing where they wind up at a party with the Easy Rider producers and they just popped up there. They were involved in the whole party circuit because they brought the drugs and the girls. On a funny note, we live in a small little beach house here. It’s a tiny place but it’s a big part of the Peter Biskind books, as Julia Phillips… it was her house. So the whole beach gang hung out here. I wanted John Milius originally to write Pathfinder. He showed up here and showed me bullet holes in the ceiling and said “That was my Luger in ’73!”
And what can people expect from your Manson tale?
People might look at it and say that I’m going back to my old tricks of slashers and psycho killers, but the movie’s actually over before all of that happens. It’s just about what builds up to it. Again, I looked at Boogie Nights. Really, if you read into it they’re all amateurs, they’re not born to do that, they just figure stuff out as they go along. It’s just a very different way of looking at it.
The Asylum is released on DVD on Monday, May 4th.