Screamfest 2013: Jordan Barker on Torment
This year Screamfest premiered the new Katharine Isabelle horror movie Torment. We got to speak with Isabelle last week about her role as a stepmother in a family attacked by home invaders in animal masks. After the Screamfest premiere we also got to speak with director Jordan Barker. He could elaborate more on the film’s use of darkness and how the psychological themes evolved. Keep a lookout for Torment and if you’re interested in what you’re in for, check out our interview with Barker below.
CraveOnline: Did you ever have a stepmom?
Jordan Barker: I’ve had a few actually on my dad’s side. He’s married a couple times but yes, I have.
So did that appeal to you about Torment?
Yeah, I could relate for sure. I think themes of divorce and family, whether it’s your birth family or a family that you’re putting together, I think to see it through the child’s eyes of trying to replace the mother figure, I can definitely relate to that. What I liked about this script is that it told that story from every possible angle. You saw every character trying to figure out how they’re going to gel this family together.
How did you find the script?
We were looking for something contained. Our production company, Gearshift Films, launched about three years ago. We took submissions, we had agents send us stuff. Obviously having worked in this genre, this one particularly appealed to me but we did develop it over several years to get it to where it is now. It was in great shape actually when we got it, but it was just a little bit more straight ahead old school horror. I wanted to put a little bit more of the family element in there to really define the motives of the family. We’ll call them “the family” I guess. I wanted to put a little bit more of the motivation in there so that’s what we ended up doing.
Was the psychological torture of the father and son not in the original script?
That was not, no, not at all. There was no real reason per se. It was cool. Do we always need to know why somebody is doing something? In screenwriting they’re always harping on motivations, but I thought it needed a bit more. I thought as an audience we wanted to know more about every character. Obviously I don’t think anyone’s going to say, “Oh, I totally sided with the other family. They were totally right.” But at least to understand why they’re doing it.
Did you see a lot of home invasion scripts given your desire to do a contained story?
Yes, I did. There are a lot of them floating out there and I was concerned at first. By the time you get a script, you decide to do it, you develop it, you raise the money and you do it, so many things can happen in that time period. Other movies can come out that are similar. We ran into hearing things about this movie or that movie, is this movie the same, animal masks, I’m sure you know which movie I’m talking about.
I was actually about to ask, did you develop your animal masks before You’re Next was even on the radar?
We had the movie before You’re Next was on the radar. Even though You’re Next was two years before it came out, I hadn’t seen it and I avoided seeing it. Whenever I was pitching our movie, they’re like, “Oh, did you see You’re Next?” I’m like, “Well, no, I haven’t.” But then once I did see some stuff from You’re Next, we were careful to just make sure we weren’t too similar visually because I knew the script wasn’t going to be the same. Just in terms of the visual aesthetic, I still haven’t seen the movie because I didn’t want to temper what I was doing but I would have liked to have marketed our movie in a similar way. It was really great marketing.
Torment makes such great use of the dark. What were the lighting challenges?
Well, we had budget challenges first and foremost. As I said to my DP, Boris [Mojsovski], who did such a great job, I sometimes think less is more. In a movie like this, sometimes what you can’t see is scary. Nowadays the technology, the cameras that are out there, they work so well in low light, some things are overlit. We did a lot of things with basically one or two lights, a little bounce, that kind of thing. The big challenges are always going to be outside at night so that was the thing.
We didn’t have a lot of money and we said okay, especially after we redeveloped the script, we’d added all this stuff and so then we said, “How are we going to do this scene in the forest with the flare?” Well, it seems simple. It’s just a flare, but that’s not enough light so we had to actually have this giant rig that when she fired, it fired. Or just lighting the scene where the car explodes, getting enough light out there to light into the distance, we had these big lights up on the hill but we managed to be creative about what kind of lights we rented for the budget.
In the house there are some scenes where you can’t see anything. That was just the camera?
Yeah, that’s what we wanted. We wanted to be able to have that darkness. There are a couple of things I can think of. When she’s looking down into the doorway when what we call our Pig Lady is downstairs, coming back upstairs, she can’t see anything. There are a few times where it’s very, very dark. For me it’s always about contrast so if there’s a little sliver of light somewhere, you get a shape, your mind starts to fill in what could be there.
Was casting Katie Isabelle as more of a final girl somewhat controversial, or something she embraced? Most of the horror roles she’s played are quite different.
I don’t think so. She definitely embraced everything about the movie. To answer your question first and foremost, was it controversial? There’s real life Katie and then there’s the Katie we’ve seen in movies. Katie is a lot harder in real life. She plays a much softer thing here in the beginning and kind of turns. That’s what we wanted to do, take that arc from a bit of a wallflower but she’s kind of playing that role within the movie, to be the stepmom, to be the mom but really she has that about her. I’m just so happy to have cast her. She’s the hardest working woman in show business. She literally is doing that every single day for a month all day long. It’s not one take. It’s take after take after take, in the water, in the cold. She’s just right there and wanting to do it.
Cory says “I’ll be right back” in the movie. Was that intentional?
You know, we like to tip our hat sometimes. I don’t know if that particular one was intentional. I can’t remember. Let’s go with that’s just a happy accident.
Your first film was a drama but then you did three horror movies. Was horror something that always appealed to you?
Yes, right from the beginning, the first movies I watched were strangely horror films. Maybe it was because I wasn’t allowed to watch them. I remember seeing my parents watching Jaws downstairs and I would hide through the railings upstairs and watch it. I had a friend whose older brother worked in a video store so I saw the ad for Poltergeist and I asked him to get me the tape. I couldn’t have been more than seven, and when my mother was upstairs I put it on for my birthday party and got in quite a bit of trouble for that.
The drama was, I’m a twin and my first film was about twin brothers growing up in a small town. It was really an opportunity. I got an opportunity to make a feature film. Somebody hired me to make a feature film. I think the movie’s great but I’m really into more visual storytelling. That’s what I love about genre films, especially horror films and thrillers. They’re very moody so for me it’s all about the script tells you a mood and that dictates a lot of the visuals, and you still get a great opportunity to work with actors, as with any film.
Do The Marsh and Duress have similar tones to Torment?
I like to do new things, so I think there’s a style there. I think people would recognize, especially with my last film Duress and this film, maybe more of the visual storytelling. They’re very different movies but I think there are certain markers within the storytelling, the revealing of information that I think people might recognize, but they’re different subgenres within the genre. For me it’s all about a story, so if somebody came to me, I’m sure they wouldn’t let me fund my next romantic comedy, but if I loved the story I’m sure I’d be interested in doing it. I want to try it.
Working with actors, you’ve landed people like Martin Donovan and Forest Whitaker. Has it ever been daunting directing them?
Part of me would just like to say, “Oh yeah, it’s no big deal” but as a young up and coming director, you’re supposed to be guiding these people. Sometimes you go, “This person doesn’t need my guidance. What am I going to say to Forest Whitaker that he can’t do?” But the job becomes a bit different when you’re working with actors like that. It’s really just trying to get them into your vision. So you’re trying to take their talent and what they want to do and just guide it through. You’re shooting all out of order so you’re just really there to support them and get them to try and push themselves to do new and exciting things.
Do they want you to be more proactive in directing them?
Absolutely, yes. Forest Whitaker especially was one of the most giving, wonderful actors I’ve ever worked with in terms of wanting, and Martin Donovan as well, in fact needing. They would come to me and say, “What can I do here? Am I doing this right?” It’s kind of shocking. Sometimes you’re going wow, that’s really interesting that they want that direction and need it. It’s part of the process and everybody has a job. They can’t direct themselves when they’re not in the moment so you act as another set of eyes for them in terms of what they’re doing.