Director Phil Joanou discusses his cult film The Veil
Depending on where you’re living, in late January or early February THE VEIL was released onto various platforms – Netflix, VOD and iTunes. The film, from Blumehouse Productions, stars Thomas Jane as Jim Jacobs, the religious head of the cultish Heaven’s Veil, a group that commits mass suicide for one unknown reason. Years later, the only survivor (Lily Rabe) is approached by a documentary crew led by Maggie (Jessica Alba) to return to Heaven’s Veil and uncover the truth of what happened that day.
Watching it at home alone, lights turned off, THE VEIL absolutely scared the shit out of me, first from a jump scare, and then from the overwhelming feeling of dread that permeates the film as the story moves forward. The movie also features solid performances from its lead actors, especially Thomas Jane, who is equal parts holy man and rock star.
Enamoured by THE VEIL, I reached out to its director Phil Joanou (with much appreciated help from writer Jim Hemphill) to see if we could chat about his movie via email. It was certainly exciting when Joanou agreed – you see, along with countless commercials and films, including classics like Three O’Clock High and State of Grace, Joanou directed U2: Rattle and Hum, which I dragged my father to see when I was just 11 years old (turning dad into a U2 fan in the process). I think it’s probably not coincidence that Joanou’s work has affected me as both a kid and now, as an adult.
On that note, enjoy my exclusive interview with Phil Joanou (mild spoilers ahead).
Andy Burns: Phil, congrats on a great film. I found THE VEIL to be a really wonderful, well-crafted horror movie with some seriously scary jump scares. It’s a departure from your previous work. Can you tell Rue Morgue the process by which you came to direct THE VEIL?
Phil Joanou: Like most directors, I’ve been fascinated by the horror genre since I fell in love with movies. In fact, one of my first super-8 movies was a horror film called “Albino Hill” (I’ll leave the reader to imagine what that was about!). I was really inspired and influenced by John Carpenter’s Halloween which was right around the time when I first discovered the power of what a director could do on film. I used all of Carpenter’s tricks and even the “Halloween” score on “Albino Hill” and I promise you that’s what made it work (if it worked at all!).
Later on I was heavily influenced by Hitchcock, De Palma, Wise, Polanski and of course, Kubrick as I studied all of their forays into the genre. So when Blumhouse came to me with the script for “The Veil” I was immediately attracted to the material, as I felt it was more of a “throwback” to those seminal directors’ styles and the stories they told. Each of them used the “slow burn” style of storytelling… allowing the story to build and build and build as you discovered the characters and what the movie was really about (and in some cases, you are never really sure what it was about!) THE VEIL uses those same techniques (which is unusual in horror today) and I was intrigued by the opportunity to emulate that kind of filmmaking that had originally inspired me. I think some modern viewers will find it “slow” or even “boring” as it doesn’t include super aggressive violence and gore to create scares (there is a little blood, but not much) and the real moments of terror, are more psychological. And I liked that about this project.
Andy Burns: It’s my understanding that THE VEIL began as a found footage film, but that a decision was made before shooting to go in a different direction – can you give us insight into that change, and why it was made?
Phil Joanou: From the very first meeting with Jason Blum and Ben Garant (the screenwriter) we all agreed that the “found footage” style of storytelling had really run its course. So Ben agreed he’d rewrite the script from a more traditional “third-person” point of view. Now, that really is a tall order, because the tricks you can use (through omission) in a found footage movie just won’t work in a traditional narrative structure. This film was originally told from 16mm footage of Jim Jacobs (the cult leader) back in the 80’s and then on Canon 5D’s in the present-tense story with Jessica Alba and Lily Rabe. It was much easier to trickle out the story and the mystery by only showing what those cameras captured (or didn’t capture). But now we couldn’t use those techniques, so Ben really dug down and re-thought the entire movie. I know for me it would have been so much easier to make the film with the time and money we had if we’d stuck to the found footage style of storytelling. With that style, you don’t do any traditional “coverage” as everything is basically a roving camera that captures the events in “real time,” just like theater. So covering the large ensemble cast and the scale of the picture would have been much faster and easier. But then, we all felt we’d seen that before… so we took on a much bigger challenge, without adding time or money, of course! Which then made this movie the hardest film I’d ever had to execute… by far.
Andy Burns: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that THE VEIL is your first horror film (though you did work in the world of the fantastic with Amazing Stories). Why was now the right time to create your own horror film? Was it something you’d been considering for a while?
Phil Joanou: It’d always been something I was interested in, (as I mentioned before), dating back to my early teens as a super-8 filmmaker, but the right project just never came along. I’m kind of sorry that I waited so long as now the horror world is saturated with releases practically every weekend to the degree that I think there is genre-fatigue and it is truly difficult to get the audience’s attention, particularly with a film that is as off-center as THE VEIL. In fact, I don’t really even see THE VEIL as traditional “horror.” I’d call it more of a supernatural/mystery/suspense movie. It really doesn’t go for those big-time “horror” cues the way so many movies do today. There are a few jump scares, but it’s not wall-to-wall. I’m proud of the fact that we made a film in the genre that is different from what you tend to expect today. Hopefully that’ll entertain a different kind of audience… but to be honest, I have no idea how it’ll play!Particularly on computers and iPads, let alone a home TV… I have to admit, I designed it to be seen on a big screen where I do think it plays best.
Andy Burns: For me, THE VEIL touches upon themes I find interesting – specifically the notion of belief. There’s belief in the individual (the belief the people of Heaven’s Veil have in Jim). There’s the belief in the hereafter and the resurrection of the soul. And then there’s the belief in the supernatural. I’m curious how the story of THE VEIL spoke to your own beliefs, whether spiritually or philosophically. How did the story make you look at your own world view?
Phil Joanou: That’s such a great question… Well, first off I believe that ANYTHING is possible in an infinite universe. Anything. Our view of existence is only limited by our own imagination. I do believe that there is more to life, more to our world, our universe than the human mind can comprehend. And without getting into the issues of traditional religion, I am extremely fascinated by spirituality. I think about it every day. After all, this world is so insane on every level, it’s awfully tough not to!
As for THE VEIL specifically, what I found interesting is Jim Jacobs (spoiler!) ends up NOT being a fake. Normally these films are about a charlatan. But Jim is seeking out a different path in the spiritual world… and he finds it! But then, many things happen to change that path and that’s what the story explores. Thomas Jane did a ton of research for the character and he ended up rewriting all of his dialogue to better suit Jim’s very unique point of view. It was so amazing what Thomas brought to the character and the film as a whole because of what he discovered in the mysticism dating all the way back to the ancients. The movie would not be what it is without what he brought to it.
Andy Burns: Let’s talk about the cast – first of all, Thomas Jane, who you worked with previously on the outstanding Punisher short film, Dirty Laundry. How did Thomas come on board?
Phil Joanou: Thomas and I were supposed to do a movie together that was written by the great David Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven, Twelve Monkeys), but then the financing fell through. He then asked me to make the “Punisher” short film together and we had such a good experience on that, once I had THE VEIL Thomas was the only one I could see playing Jim Jacobs. I knew he would absolutely nail the character and if nothing else, the movie is worth the price of admission just to see what Thomas did with this guy. It’s a trip, that I promise. He’s an immensely underrated actor and a huge talent.
Jessica Alba had a relationship with Blumhouse from her work on Stretch — so Jason Blum approached her. When I met with Jessica I explained that it wasn’t going to be a “found footage” film (which was her only real concern) and she was in. Lily Rabe was someone I knew when she was seven years old! Her dad, the playwright David Rabe wrote State of Grace years ago for me and little Lily was running around their house in upstate New York. Now here we were all these years later working together… From the very first moment we re-united the two of us just clicked. I was lucky to get both of these actresses in the film and I think they both deliver.
Andy Burns: Thomas had free reign to revise his dialogue in the film, and I think he did a tremendous job. Is giving an actor that freedom, even one you know, a risk? How much vetting went on?
Phil Joanou: Thomas and I had developed a lot of trust and a short hand from working together before this movie. So to tell you the truth, I just let him run with it. He sent me some of his revised dialogue early on and it was just so good, so juicy (and so insane!) I knew right away he was doing something special. He came onto the shoot about ten days after we started, so I didn’t actually get all his rewrites until we were deep into production and there was a lot more new material to shoot than in the original script, and everyone kind of freaked out because the script grew by almost twenty pages! But I liked it so much I just decided to shoot it all. We cut it back in the edit (for instance that opening “sermon” was originally twice as long as it is in the film… and it was amazing!), but the movie just couldn’t hold it. I’m so glad I shot it all because there are sections I thought wouldn’t make it in the cut, but we did end up keeping. You just never know for sure what’s going to work with something that is that out there… I just went with his instincts and I’m glad I did.
Andy Burns: I thought there was a combination of David Koresh, Jim Morrison and Elvis in Thomas’ performance – did you discuss who he could draw from? Were there any specific influences?
Phil Joanou: Wow. Well, you saw exactly what we wanted you too! Thomas studied a lot of Jim Jones’ recordings (which are truly haunting) as well as Koresh and infused his energy and his dialogue with those influences. But then the performance was definitely much more sexy-rock-god than either Jones or Koresh could ever pull off. But there’s a flavor of all of them in Jim Jacobs. It’s funny, I just watched the movie sitting next to Thomas who hadn’t seen it in a very long time… and he was chuckling throughout the film as we watched Jim and then he turned to me and said, “That’s a fun character… I liked being him…” And you can see that in the performance. He ate it up.
Andy Burns: How did Lily Rabe get on board? I feel like she’s frightening in anything she does.
Phil Joanou: Lily has tremendous depth as an actress. A lot of people probably don’t know this, but she’s an extremely accomplished theater actress back in New York. She’s starred in Shakespeare in the Park the past two years in a row. Been on Broadway with Pacino. Just amazing. To get her was a real coup. She tracked the character of Sarah so carefully (all the way down to her smoking pattern… see if you can spot it!). We’re never really supposed to understand what Sarah is thinking or feeling and that contributes to a lot of the suspense in the film. It’s purely performance driven. It was so crucial to the story that this haunting and mysterious quality drive the movie forward and Lily was just perfect to do just that. I think one of the reasons she’s so compelling is her face is just mesmerizing. You can’t take your eyes off of her. And there’s emotional depth and intelligence behind those eyes… and that makes all the difference in the world.
Andy Burns: What was the experience like doing a 25 day shoot? I would guess there’s a significant amount of pressure to get things right pretty quickly?
Phil Joanou: It was crazy. I know a lot of films are made faster. So I can’t really complain. But the genre really requires a specific kind of execution. You can’t just shoot a two shot and two overs. You need to constantly be thinking about what the camera or the cut is going to do to the audience. How it withholds or reveals. How it builds tension or releases it. So you can’t just fire away and “capture” the movie — you really need to design it. I shot-list my films way before I shoot so I know what I’m after, but to be honest, going as fast as we did (on our first day we did 43 shots with one camera and we averaged 46 shots a day) I wasn’t able to get everything I had hoped to, which was a first for me. So I had to adjust how I was shooting the film on the fly, still keeping to my vision, but editing it as I went along down to what seemed essential, which was kind of unnerving as normally I get the shots I’m after. By the end of the shoot, I was pretty sure I’d failed because I’d had to leave so many of my ideas behind. But then once we got the first cut in shape, I started to see there was a way to make it all work and I got very excited about it. I will admit, it was much, much more of a Hail Mary than I’d ever attempted before.
Andy Burns: There’s an unending feeling of dread throughout THE VEIL…and then there are some serious jump scares as well. Was it difficult finding the balance between the vibe and what’s in the audience’s’ face?
Phil Joanou: Again, a great question because there is a lot of pressure to constantly deliver “jump scares.” I was looking at some of the comments on the movie now that it’s out and even some of the Netflix viewers complain “This sucks! There aren’t enough jump scares!” and I’m thinking, Wow… I didn’t realize that even the audience is kind of counting on these jump-scares to constantly pop up throughout the entire movie. And THE VEIL just isn’t that kind of film. As you say, there are a few, and hopefully they work but it’s not one of those movies where ghouls are constantly popping out of cupboards or a red-faced demon is attacking parents and small children in a basement.
What I was so amazed by was how the audience has come to expect these “scares” and actually track and understand the mechanics behind them. Which to me is kind of weird in that… well, how many jump scares are there in Rosemary’s Baby? I know that’s a classic, but still… it didn’t need jump scares to be great… and it still holds up, big time.
After we first showed the film there was A LOT of discussion about adding jump scares (I guess everyone keeps count!) and we did create a couple more here and there. But I explained that they weren’t in the script, so they weren’t on film. We could have added more jumps with additional photography, but there just wasn’t money for that and to tell you the truth I didn’t really push for it either — for the very reasons you point out: the whole idea behind the movie was to build and build the pressure and the tension and the dread. And if you constantly have “jump scares” you do the opposite, you actually release tension. So to have them every few minutes (as is popular) would not have worked in the story’s favor. But I know a lot of people in the audience who would have been happier! At the end of the day, you have to be true to the story you’re telling and that’s what we tried to do.
Andy Burns: In Canada, THE VEIL has been available on iTunes since late January, while in the US it was on Netflix. The VOD release is this week. So clearly, it’s not a uniform delivery. Can you give us a little insight into the how’s and why’s of how THE VEIL’s been released?
Phil Joanou: Well… Yes, it’s been odd. I actually thought it was coming out everywhere at the same time this Tuesday (Feb 2nd). But then it popped up on iTunes. And I was told iTunes had a window to sell it before VOD. And then… the same day… a friend calls me and says it’s on Netflix and I tell him… No way… not yet…. not for a couple of weeks… But then I check Netflix and sure enough, there it is! It ended up that iTunes somehow triggered some sort of Netflix deal and everyone was surprised. Honestly, I’m not sure what happened. But it did slip out in a sort of… haphazard way.
Andy Burns: As the director of a work that’s release clearly bucks the conventional Hollywood methodology, does it bother you at all that THE VEIL isn’t getting the big 2500 screen type of release, or does a paradigm shift appeal to you?
Phil Joanou: I think what’s really going on is that we are in a massive transition in the film industry (and of course, I’m not the first to say that!). And studios and producers and distributors are struggling with how to handle films that don’t warrant a full-blown 3,000 theater release. When I heard the economics of releasing THE VEIL nationwide ($30 million in marketing) I knew we’d never get that. The film is just not a fastball down the middle for the horror audience. It’s different and it’s kind of odd and its pacing is unusual (which I like about it!), but I knew it wasn’t Insidious or Sinister (I can just hear horror film fans screaming at me, “You’re damn right it’s not!”). And there really isn’t yet a template for these entities to follow with films that fall somewhere in the middle. It’ll all get worked out (I think there’s a real opportunity being missed not promoting VOD titles with the same kind of energy — not necessarily money — as theatrical releases because the internet is designed to go after our audience), but for the time being it’s all over the map. And in the end, THE VEIL kind of got buffeted around by those winds of change.
And yes, I’m very excited about what internet delivery (which is really what we’re talking about with “VOD”) can mean for filmmaking. First off, any film that is not a $100 million dollar “event” movie should be released day-and-date. It’s just ridiculous. I think a movie like Steve Jobs would have been seen by so many more people if it had been day-and-date. I’m not saying ignore the theatrical. But why not use all that marketing hype and all those NYTimes thought pieces and all that personal promotion and GET THE MOVIE OUT THERE TO EVERYONE! It makes no sense. Instead, they fight their way uphill and never find the true scale of their potential audience. I’d have gladly paid a premium to see it opening night at home. And hey, if that’s blasphemy, so be it. And I know the theater owners vehemently disagree with me… but I’m not so sure those kinds of films would make less money in theaters with day-and-date. One day we’ll find out. But the “middle-class” movies out there need all the help and support they can get and internet distribution is clearly a fantastic way to reach a worldwide audience simultaneously. It’ll happen. And when it does we’ll see so many more interesting movies because there won’t be the pressure to recoup the budget AND the huge marketing costs. At least that’s my dream.
Andy Burns: Finally, considering the fact that you scared the hell out of me with THE VEIL, I’d love to know what scares you?
Phil Joanou: I’ll tell you what scares me: my six-year-old, four-year-old and two-year-old waking me up at 5am from a dead sleep, staring me in the face in my pitch-black bedroom, ready to… PLAY!
As far as movies go, I guess it goes without saying I like those kinds of films that create that aforementioned atmosphere of dread. Where I feel like… all I’m watching is someone slowly walking down a corridor, but still, it feels like… anything could happen.
I like that a lot.
This interview originally appeared at Rue-Morgue.com on February 6th, 2016.