Mickey Keating’s POD was one of the most divisive films at this year’s SXSW. There were critics and fans who considered it one of the strongest films in the midnighters. There were others who felt like it was a well executed retread into territory well documented in shows like the X-Files and in countless film. It’s not that that anyone thought it was it all poorly made; it just didn’t add anything new to the equation. What was missed in these discussions with the simple fact that POD may have been the only film at SXSW that was actually terrifying.
Set in the cold, snowy wasteland of Maine, Pod begins as a family intervention in which to siblings go to visit there arguably crazy veteran brother who lives in a cabin and believes he has come into contact with aliens. In fact he has one his basement right now. As the trio deal with past grudges in mistrust, one solution becomes obvious: go look at the alien. The film is simple and yet effective. Mickey Keating is surely one to watch, and his new film, DARLING, will premiere at Fantastic Fest. In the meantime. POD makes its European premiere at FrightFest amd has reached US screens nationwide, both Friday, August 28th. I sat down with writer/director Mickey Keating, actors Dean Cates and Brian Morvant, and composer Giona Ostinelli at SXSW and we talked at length about the film and the current state of horror. I think the conversation made me enjoy the film even more, but but also really appreciate a director who clearly knew his stuff. For those of you anxious for the premiere of DARLING here is a trip into the basement terror of POD to tide you over.
BEARS: Thank you for making a horror movie that was actually frightening. Seems like we’ve been subjected to a lot of tongue and cheek, ‘look at how funny we’re being while pretending to scare you while not scaring you.’
KEATING: Thank you, I really appreciate that, I’m glad to hear it.
BEARS: So, let’s start with that, talk about the aesthetic of scaring the fuck out of us.
KEATING: Well, I think that was the intention going on. When I even found out we could shoot in Maine and there could be this horrifying basement, you know, transition into the third act, I really wanted to be able to accomplish that. I think what traumatized me the most growing up was “Silent Hill” and so I really wanted to be able to try to capture that same vibe and make something that legitimately shakes people. I totally agree there is a lot of tongue and cheek in horror these days and I wanted to make something genuinely, sincerely serious and, you know, very frightening to everyone. So, I very much appreciate you saying that.
“KEATING: I think it just goes back to my love of the “Twilight Zone” and how so much of the original Twilight Zone is grounded in SciFi elements, but also, of course, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” I just think it’s so much fun and I think that there’s something so appealing about doing a SciFi movie that’s stripped back and not necessarily hardcore. I wanted to approach it in a very realistic way and it’s so appealing and joyous to do SciFi and be part of that cool club – so that’s why.
BEARS: So it’s called POD, to me a pod is something that’s growing, or thrown out of a ship or a vessel itself. But, in your film it seems like it’s referring to what I would call an alien. So, why use that word?
KEATING: It’s the nice kind of wink and nudge and you think that you’re gonna go and see some variation of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” because there’s been so many. It creates that expectation, but also it’s just the way that Brian [Morvant]’s character coins the term.
MORVANT: You, as a sane person would call it an alien. But it’s Martin, who sort of coins the term, based on this experience supposedly he had when he was in basic training when he saw this thing rip somebody apart. He’s clearly a huge horror fan, he’s clearly watching horror when they walk in. And in his mental illness, in his mind, somehow he’s made this conflated term. He’s like, “That thing is a Pod.” It’s funny that the term is fun with the genre, but it’s also coined by the person who’s pretty unhinged and mentally unstable.
CATES: Well, if you paid attention in the crazy room, there was a bunch of drawings of it. And I’m sure at some point there was a list that was like, “Alien…”
MORVANT: Yeah, yeah, we really put a lot of thought into that, though. We had the best photos on that wall. And we had so many, like inside jokes about those photos.
BEARS: And we only see that room for like a half second.
CATES: And it’s almost not relevant to the plot, but it adds that overwhelming conspiracy element that might not ever be touched upon. I just think that’s so wonderful.
KEATING: And it puts you more in Martin’s head too, which is nice. You hear all these theories, and then you see that he’s painted the walls with his madness.
MORVANT: Suddenly you start believing him a little more, because up to that moment you’re like, “He’s really out there.”
CATES: It was a physical manifestation of what was going on his mind. And you slept in that room while…
BEARS: As your character, Martin, what did you know, from Mickey, about what you said happened to you? Was it told to you that it was true? How do you play a crazy person?
MORVANT: Well what was funny was, Mickey and I got connected through a company called Illium, who co-produced the film in New York and we hit it off really quick and started geeking out about films like “Taxi Driver” and geeking out about “The Thing.” So, from the beginning I didn’t have a hard time relating to Martin. I really got him and empathized with him and cared about the things that made him paranoid and made him over the top. I think it was finding the finer details, like choosing objectively what’s probably true, what he probably experienced, and what probably isn’t true. Because he has a few things that he says happens, you know, we hear that he had a bad incident with a nurse at a previous psychiatric facility, and he thought one thing happened, but really another thing happened. And Irefined what was real to him and what might’ve been fake. But, I think he believes all of it. He saw these things and he believes there’s this big conspiracy.
KEATING: That was what I think we talked about early on. It’s approached with a sense of very genuine sincerity to it – he’s not telling lies, he’s not just rattling off ideas to his brother and sister to distract them or anything. If Martin believes it, then the audience will believe him, or half the audience will believe him. And that’s how we tried to tackle it.
MORVANT: Ass we got more into it, too, one of the things Mickey said that helped me was it was a character drama about these siblings. So, one of the things Martin says eventually is, “I finally did it” or he says “I finally cracked it, I finally figured it out.” I think so much about Martin is validation in the face of his alpha male brother and in the face of his sister who he was good friends with. And he’s saying, “Look, you know, you’re a psychiatrist, you’re a therapist, you’ve always said I’m fucking crazy. Well, guess what? I’ve got proof in the basement, and I’m not, and so, I’m sane.” So, he feels, this is like the highest point in his life. He feels absolutely validated. He’s terrified, but he feels absolutely validated. Which I think is pretty cool.
BEARS: Well, also to a certain extent, we don’t really believe him either, until we go down in the basement. There’s a certain possibility that he could just be insane and the movie will play out and he kills his brother and sister and we’re like, “Yay, look at how smart we are.” I’m so tired of those movies.
CATES: But that was the purpose of the Ed character. And when we were crafting the character we wanted to make him as fatherly and as like, “I know the truth and the facts,” as possible. We did that with his glasses and how he’s seeing the truth and the truth is manifested “You’re wrong,” and “Lyla’s a drunk.” And then, once he sees the Pod and the glasses come off (with the audience realizing at the same time) “Oh my god, there is something down there, and it is frightening as hell.”
MORVANT: He’s such a cynic throughout, too, it almost supports the audience’s disbelief. He has that line where he walks up to Martin and says, “Let me get this straight, you’re a Pod.”
CATES: Yeah, when he was getting his Master’s in Government Conspiracy.
MORVANT: Ed was working on becoming the worst therapist.
CATES: The most judgmental therapist.
BEARS: Tell me about the creature design. Because clearly that’s one of the most important elements of a movie like this.
KEATING: I wanted to do something that was down to earth. I wanted it to be almost this neutral thing, so you can’t really identify with what it is. Jeff and I discussed and went through a bunch of variations of, “how close to a human are we gonna make this?” Is there a possibility that, if people perceive the film as some variation of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” – is this a creature in transition? Is this something that is emulating human beings and crashed to the earth? Or is this some kind of un-evolved, mole thing that crawled out of the Earth.
It was important for me to have that element of humanity to this thing because so much of the creature films, especially as of late, they’re just, “How big and grandiose can we make the monster? And how elaborate?” Alot of times you find that it becomes so big and so elaborate that you can’t even tell what it is any more and it’s hard to identify it.
MORVANT: You just see it and you’re like, this a cool CG thing.
KEATING: What we did, what was really important to me was- the guy who plays it, is named Forrest McClain, and he’s very tall and very slender, and so I wanted that variation of, “Alright this isn’t human but it’s also impossibly hard to confuse with a human being.”
BEARS: So, how was it made?
KEATING: It’s a latex suit, and I feel so bad because it’s got all these fangs and it’s really elaborate. Jeff sculpted the entire head and made all these intricate designs, and we really don’t see much of it.
MORVANT: Puppet heads.
KEATING: He made puppet heads and latex suit, covered in KY jelly the entire time. So the poor actor was naked underneath and just soaking wet with oil.
MORVANT: Yeah, not to mention, I had to fight it. Like, touch it. It was gross.
CATES: More like slide all over it, am I right?
BEARS: Mud wrestling.
MORVANT: Yeah, it was gross.
KEATING: Yeah, we just wanted something slimy and weird and disgusting and very neutral, you know?
BEARS: What’s great though is the detail is there, and so you get that depth. I always feel like the more you see things the less frightening they are. Clearly the worst moments of “Signs” is when you see the alien and you’re not scared anymore.
CATES: Just to stroke Jeff a little bit, I took a photo that Mickey made me destroy, of the Pod just chilling in the kitchen and it looks terrifying, and real.
KEATING: I truly believe that as soon as you open the closet and you see exactly what the monster is, then there’s no room – Our imaginations are scarier than anything that we can create or that anything I can show you on screen.
BEARS: How about the look of the film, the cinematography and the style. iIt has a very old school, classic feel to it.
KEATING: My cinematographer who I’ve worked with on, going on four films now, we had a lot of discussions about when you’re inside the house, and you know, it’s gross and disgusting and uncomfortable, we wanted to go hand held. But, we never wanted – so much of horror, and especially indie horror now, is just shaky, thrashy camera. And that’s not interesting to me, and I think that it’ll actually detract from the way the film is. But, outside, when, you know, we are not contained and not locked into this place it’s very composed and stark and very, you know, stable. We took a lot of time to make it very dark and dingy and create that separation. And of course we shot it in scope, so.
BEARS: The last thing I have to ask you about is the title sequence. I really loved yours, but it was about 3 seconds. It feels like subliminal messages- like you’re telling me to kill my mom or something. And I didn’t catch it –
CATES: Seriously kill your mother.
BEARS: Tell me about where that inspiration came from and what you were trying to do with that.
KEATING: I want it to be like a brainwash video to some extent. Hopefully, making people so uncomfortable that it’s almost like they don’t know what they saw and it came and it went so quickly. Giona [Ostinelli] took it to the Nth degree by just overwhelming it with the score.
BEARS: Oh, I fucking loved the score. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that’s what you did on the film. It’s phenomenal, especially when he’s walking around on the snow…
CATES: It was freaking loud and frightening, it was great. And then the sequence, death sequence, it was crazy.
KEATING: Yeah, we really wanted to play with all these different kind of styles, you know?
CATES: and sounds.
KEATING: There’s more traditional strings, there’s some Twilight Zone-esque stuff, but, I mean, like, well, I guess Giona just really kind of took all these base ideas and just really made them legitimate and big and awesome.
OSTINELLI: And also, we wanted to do something new. Because, you like Martin’s character and he’s crazy. Music-wise, we couldn’t do something that was traditionally what you can expect. That’s why we had all these weird sounds (like)The Pod sounds that you hear from the beginning.
BEARS: It’s almost one of those things that told us from the beginning that it wasn’t a horror movie, but a horror SciFi. Also the snow. Snow makes it feel foreign and weird and that made it more SciFi instead of just a “Cabin in the Woods.”
KEATING: Right, we definitely in the color grade we played with, we made it blue, more blue, so it’s almost otherworldly to some extent. And cold, and you don’t want to go make a snow man out there. It’s just uncomfortable and bizarre, and as much as I- I think that it’s important to make the audience uncomfortable, and it’s important to make them, you know, not necessarily- of course you want to draw them in, but also you want to draw them into your world that they’ve never been to before, and really feel like, “Oh shit, like…
POD opens nationwide theatrically tomorrow, Friday, August 28, 2015. Mickey Keating’s DARLING will make its world premiere at fantastic fest the last week of September.