Blair Erickson on the secrets of Banshee Chapter

Interview first published (in shorter version) by Grolsch FilmWorks

Banshee Chapter has certainly shaken up the horror circuit with its potent cocktail of twentieth-century history and gonzo fiction, of hallucinatory excess and alien intrusions, of crazy character comedy and skin-crawling terror. We chatted with director/co-writer Blair Erickson about the secrets behind his low-budget 3D feature debut.

Grolsch FilmWorks: What idea kickstarted the screenplay for Banshee Chapter? and how did you work with your co-writer Daniel J. Healy?

Blair Erickson: The idea started with when I was just reading some books on DMT [dimethyltryptamine] research and the MKULTRA project. There were a quite a few discussions of the effects of the chemicals used and speculation by some if the compounds might be unlocking parts of your brain that communicate with alternate dimensions. It was a fascinating idea and one not easily shook.

I had actually never met Daniel Healy before or during the time we co-wrote the film. We were purely online friends. We just passed notes back and forth over instant messages and occasionally talked on the phone. It seemed to work fine, and I find working remotely with co-writers is sometimes even better because there’s less pressure to meet and work in person.

Dan is great because he was fascinated by the idea but helped me figure out which parts to explore further. He has that kind of brilliant mind that catches strange concepts few others can grasp. Having a smart co-writer is critically important whenever you’re working on a story as cryptic and dark as Banshee Chapter. You need someone to tell you where the logic gaps fall and how far you can push certain ideas.

GFW: And how hard was it resisting the temptation to have the actual word ‘banshee’ used anywhere in the dialogue?

BE: Easy. There’s just no way I would’ve ever let myself do that. It’s too silly. Like a character in a certain Tarantino flick suddenly saying to another character “I guess this is all some… pulp fiction.”  We never even filmed any character actually saying the words.  The entire idea sprung from reading several DMT research patients referring to the malevolent entity they encountered as the “banshee.” People should look into it for themselves. If there’s one major downside to this film’s popularity, it’s that it has screwed up the Google results for “DMT banshees.”

GFW: Many reviews refer to Banshee Chapter as ‘found footage’ horror – but the found footage will only get us so far in characterising the film’s multiple points of view, where subjective perspectives occasionally give way to conventionally objective shots. How did you conceptualise the presentation of your story?

BE: The way I looked at it, we were going to be blending truth and fiction so tightly you weren’t going to know which was which so the look of the story should reflect that. All of the story that takes place in the past we shot found footage style to make it authentic and match the real archival videos we were using. For the present, I wanted a rough cinema verite style documentary feeling that mixed well with found footage, but let go of the narrative restraint.

I think the intense immersion that a natural handheld style creates is undeniable. The psychology of it translates much more into “realism” than the usual cinema fare. It seems to scare a lot of people because it’s hard to tell yourself it’s only a movie when it feels that vivid and real. I believe you have to let the story dictate the shooting style and let popular taste be damned. I know it’s popular for some to crap on handheld horror styles, but in this case, we had a mandate to make the film as scary as possible and the way we shot it really drove that fear. If we had lit and shot this like another typical studio horror film, the story wouldn’t have that creepy edge that lets it crawl inside your mind.

The whole point is to unsettle the viewer and to provoke questions. I think the ambiguous mixture of shooting styles mixed with real footage does exactly that. It makes you consider what is real and it makes you want to know more. It makes your brain do a little bit of work. Any time a film does that to me, I consider it a success.

GFW: The writings of H.P. Lovecraft are clearly, indeed expressly, one of your key reference points. Did you have any difficulties adapting his ideas to a post-millennial context?

BE: For Dan and I the secret was not to try to write a direct adaptation. Our goal was “write something creepy in the flavor of the Lovecraft story, but do not try to be the same story.”  We don’t have a Crawford Tillinghast character, but we did plenty of research on real MKULTRA doctors to figure out exactly who the real life equivalent would be.

There are certain aspects of the story that are undeniably Lovecraftian, but they happen organically because the real MKULTRA story, and the real chemical DMT research hits on exactly the same type of subjects. Lovecraft was just ahead of his time. Alternate dimensions, pineal gland effects, sinister conspiracies. We just let the narrative decide where the stories would overlap and in the end it seemed to work out perfectly.

Many audience members don’t even realize they’re watching a modern re-imagining of Lovecraft’s old tale “From Beyond” until the Thomas Blackburn character spells it out in the third act of our story. So we surprise folks with it rather than have them come in with expectations and baggage about what they remember from that story (or the Stuart Gordon film).

GFW: Lovecraft’s ideas are pure invention, but you have interwoven into them some bizarre twentieth-century realities (MKULTRA, numbers stations and depatterning). Your heroine is a journalist who pretends to be a novelist. You have incorporated actual archival footage into your own frankly insane plot. You have allowed your characters to interrupt their cross-country flight from interdimensional, possession-focused aliens for an absurdly realistic pee break. And you have put dialogue on lies and truth in the mouth of a character who is clearly an imaginary composite of American countercultural figures from Sixties America. Why this tapestry of fact and fiction? Is twentieth century history the real horror here?

BE: Absolutely, 20th century history is the real horror story here.  This film at its core, if you really dig down into the engine driving it, is a haunted house story. Structurally that is what it is. Only in this case the “house” is our own American culture. And all those horrible entities lurking in the shadows are our own nation’s crimes that we’ve never truly reckoned with. The ghost that haunts us is our own past and the monstrous thing it’s given birth to. This frightening shadow entity embodied in things like the NSA, that quietly lurks in the corners of our government watching us.

The weirdness of the story is just a dark mirror reflecting our own fucked up culture back at us. We pretend it’s not there and we want to imagine our society is a certain way: democratic, not harmful to others, the good guys. But the truth is nothing close to that. It’s much darker, much more murky. The world we want to imagine doesn’t have a government that kills its own citizens in creepy experiments. But that’s the true story whether we admit it or not. We like to believe we live under a democratic government where the citizens can demand the government stop killing people. But the real world we live in is one where the ones in power of us can simply ignore or pretend it’s not happening and there’s little we can do to stop them.

I think culturally we’re reaching a tipping point. The Internet is an incredibly powerful technology, like the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the 1400’s. It has the capability to rapidly disseminate information through channels that weren’t officially approved before. And this new stream of information is showing us some things about our society that we haven’t been able to grapple with yet. Our government and our culture is not what we think. It has some very very dark corners in it and we’ve been pretending they’re not there for decades.  But the truth has a disturbing way of coming back to haunt us.

GFW: Banshee Chapter is decidedly batshit – but also genuinely frightening. How did you go about finding this balance?

BE: It was tough to find that perfect balance between crazy and terrifying. There was even more batshit crazy stuff that we had to cut from the film. But perhaps if there’s ever a sequel one day? Google “MKULTRA” and “Jonestown” and then listen to the last 10 minutes of the Jonestown Massacre audio tapes. Terrifyingly creepy stuff. There was originally some scenes in the story exploring that Jonestown-MKULTRA link, but it turned out to be a bridge too far for the story.

I think the craziness of the concept on our story is also grounded enough in reality to make it genuinely frightening. And it’s not treated as a joke, even though this is some extremely fringe subject matter. Chemical induced alternate dimensions and government conspiracies are the stuff of what many would say paranoid minds. But there’s also some tangible substance to hang a narrative on there.  What is so deep down unsettling about all of it is that you can feel in your gut that this is not entirely fiction. That number station voice feels too real… because it is. We used a real broadcast of a numbers station. That sinister chemist being interviewed is a real scientist used by the government in MKULTRA to concoct deadly mind altering drugs. The theories about pineal glands connecting to dimethyltryptamine seem like science fiction conjecture. But there’s some real medical links there. Consider this… We shot our film in the fall of 2011. In 2013 scientists proved that DMT was found in the pineal gland of some animals.

Were we just that lucky? I don’t think so. We included ominous hints about things like DMT and the NSA in our story because there was already enough hard evidence to let us explore that realm. People would be shocked if they started digging into the available evidence and data and discovered how much of this “fringe” material is actually quite disturbing and credible. So we play in the realm of dark insanity, but not outside the realm of what is already out there and speculated on.

GFW: And what is the secret of a really effective scare?

BE: I believe the secret of a really effective scare is true immersion, and then filling the audience with the exact same confusion and anxiety as the protagonists. It’s one thing to just “surprise” people by having something come out of nowhere. But that’s not the same thing as a scare. A scare is carefully crafted, you build the anticipation. You build tension and suspense slowly. You wait patiently. It’s all about mounting dread and waiting till the absolutely worst moment to reveal something terrifying that nobody wants to see at the moment. And when it’s happening in the context of a story that already makes you feel deeply unsettled, the scare moment provokes something more. You might ask yourself why this bizarre story seems so vivid and scary. And the heart of that question is where the real madness and interest of our story is.

GFW: Why 3D? And how do you make a 3D film on such a low budget?

BE: I think glasses-free 3D is a technological inevitability and I never want the film converted. It’s much more immersive in 3D and I wanted that stereoscopic information to future proof it. It shouldn’t be too far away. 3D is expensive but it’s no longer cost prohibitive. The technology is getting cheaper all the time.

But it does require a lot more careful setting up of shots and it was incredibly hard to make it appear “handheld” in the film. Luckily our cinematographer, Jeremy Obertone, was a former cage fighter and the only person on the crew able to lift the 100 pound rig.

Very soon I hope to be able to share the stereoscopic version with the world. I think when properly shown, it only adds to the experience. In the meantime people still have to deal with the polarized glasses.

GFW: What’s next?

BE: Putting together my next film, In Memory. The story is very powerful and unusual. People keep asking me what genre it is, but that’s part of the story’s secret.

I can only really reveal the premise at this point. The story begins in the fall of 1996. Jessica King, this passionate, creative college student, and her introspective friend, Daniel are becoming more than close friends. But right as their lifelong friendship began blossoming into something deeper, Jess is brutally murdered by her own mentally ill stepmother.  So Daniel’s life is shattered. He’s never really able to move forward. Even in his late thirties he’s still having dreams about her still being alive. He lives with this agony that he’s forgetting her and her memory is all that’s left of her.

Then almost two decades past, late one snowbound winter night, when he’s in his late thirties, Jess shows up again at his house. She looks exactly the same as she did the night she died. So they’re both forced to confront the hard emotional truth of their tragedy, and their unfinished lives together, and ultimately how their journey together ends: as a love story or a horror story. I can’t wait to share this story. It’s very unique.

Banshee Chapter is now available from Amazon  and iTunes

Interview by Anton Bitel