Arriving online recently as the exclusive premiere to kick off new streaming service Arrow (which is packed with tonnes of horror and cult gems!), Adam Stovall’s A Ghost Waits has been surprising audiences since its debut at FrightFest last year. Drawing from a multitude of genres, Stovall’s first feature sees a handyman fall in love with the ghost of a house he’s renovating. It cleverly mixes the paranormal atmosphere of a haunted house film with a mature coming-of-age/romance narrative, and even throws a sizeable bout of humour to top it all off. Twelve Cabins caught up with Stovall in the aftermath of A Ghost Waits’ wide release to talk key filmmaking lessons, how embracing the practical can inform the thematical, and what he’s working on next.
Now that A Ghost Waits has finished its festival cycle and found itself on Arrow player, how have you found audience’s reactions to a film which blends so many genres?
People seem to really dig the mix of genres! One thing that excites me about storytelling in the 21st century is that the audience is already so familiar with the language of whichever medium you’re working in, it kind of frees you up to take some leaps you wouldn’t have been able to take 20 years ago. I think we’ve become a much more existential people, which makes one’s suspension of disbelief far more flexible. We see things almost every day that beggars belief, so when it comes time to follow a story our idea of what feels right despite making little sense on its face is pretty elastic. Of course, this might just be me projecting onto everyone else my own tenuous grasp on reality…
Where did the idea for a film that mixes genres (comedy and drama and romance, and horror!) come from?
The idea for the film came primarily from a video game and a web comic. I had gone back to Northern Kentucky, where I’m from, after spending a year trying to make another movie with MacLeod. We got close to making that one, so when it fell apart I took it really hard. I had no idea what I was going to do next, so I went home to lick my wounds and figure out the next step. While I was there, my friends Brian and Jenn Price invited me over to play a video game called P.T., which is a first-person haunted house puzzle game. I’m not much of a gamer, so I reacted counter-intuitively to the gameplay. For instance, there’s a creepy bathroom with flickering lights and suddenly the sound of a baby crying comes from an empty sink – to which I responded, “Nope.” Brian and Jenn were cracking up at my reactions, which got me thinking that I’d never seen a haunted house movie with a character like me in it. Also around this time, I’d found this web comic called Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal wherein a man asks a woman what she thinks is the most American movie, and she says, “Ghostbusters! Because there’s undeniable proof of an afterlife but the whole thing is about growing a small business and navigating government bureaucracy.” I thought, “That’s hilarious, but also yeah that’s true a ghost does mean there’s an afterlife. I have so many questions!” So those two things kind of formed the spine of the piece.
But then, to your other point, the idea of playing with so many different genres really just comes from MacLeod and me being restlessly curious people. We both like to tinker and deconstruct things. Plus, I think life is like that, it’s horrific and romantic and funny and boring and everything else all the time. One of the things I find really exciting about 21st Century storytelling is that we pretty much all understand the construct of it. No one’s jumping out of their seat because of footage of a train coming towards the camera these days, y’know? So I think we can dive deeper and run farther with things because the audience already has that suspension of disbelief hard-wired in. You just have to represent truth as we know it, I think. I’m not saying there’s a ton of verisimilitude in A Ghost Waits, but I think there’s a lot of recognisable life there for folks to hang their hat on.
How did you and Macleod find Jack, what conversations were you having when fleshing out the character in preproduction?
Jack is very much a synthesis of MacLeod and me. MacLeod has said that he was in a place where he wanted to give a performance that was transparent and close to who he actually is, and I wanted to say something very specific to my experience of depression and anxiety. I also wrote the script very fast, so there kinda wasn’t time to overthink things. (I mean, I still did, because overthinking is just how I roll.) We just subsumed ourselves in the world of the story and let that guide our decision-making, and because it was so close to who we both are, those decisions just needed to feel right in the moment.
I read that the black and white cinematography was a practical decision based on the different footage you used over multiple shooting sessions, but what, for you, do you think it adds to the film either thematically or narratively?
One of the really cool things about making films, especially at this budget level, is that practical and creative decisions are often one and the same. I love the B&W aesthetic, so it had been on my mind since pre-production. Once we put the B&W LUT (a color-correction algorithm) on the image, it just felt right. I think it’s because B&W highlights the construct of the film. I wouldn’t say it’s an affectation, but it serves the unreality of the form. We have one character who lived in Victorian-era England, and one who lives in contemporary America. Somehow, B&W accommodates both of those circumstances, because it rejects, to some degree, a basic sense of reality. It heightens the storytelling. Of course the storytelling is already heightened since we’re telling a ghost story, so our approach was to maintain a grounded sense in the performances and all of that, so that the audience would recognise the experiences of the characters but keep that disconnect. It’s like a musical, we don’t walk around singing our feelings, but the fact that the character is singing their feelings represents how epic those things feel to us in our lives.
Could you talk about the creative decisions behind deciding what your spectral agents would look like?
Again, this is a place where practical and creative are linked. I wanted a simple look, both because we didn’t have a big makeup budget and because I prefer simplicity over complication. I think people confuse simple with easy. It’s tempting to make things complicated because then it’s a little easier to feel like you’re doing something impressive, but I think it’s harder to connect with a bunch of bells and whistles going off around you. And connection is the name of the game, so simplicity was our north star on the film.
How long was your entire production period in total and what challenges did you face from shooting over multiple years?
I had the idea in the fall of 2015, and writing really kicked into gear in January 2016 once it became clear that we were going to have some money to make it. Principal photography was 12 days in August 2016 (during a heat wave, in a house with no air-conditioning), and then I cut together the assembly, which showed us what worked and what didn’t. MacLeod and I reconvened in Cincinnati to shoot some additional material to address notes in April 2017, though we had no budget left so we weren’t able to bring anyone else back. At the time we thought those would be our only pickups, but ended up going back to Cincinnati again in February 2018 for another 3-4 days. Michael Potter shot principal, but I shot the pickups. By that point I’d been staring at his footage for months and had a decent idea of how to shoot so that it would look consistent with what was already there. The biggest hurdle was that Mike had a small lighting rig, but we were using natural light. This was a large reason for making the film B&W, as the fluctuations in light made it almost impossible to make the images completely match in colour.
The obvious concern of shooting over so many years is that MacLeod could have looked different in the pickups, but thankfully he found a barber who could match the haircut in the stills he showed her. Really, the biggest challenge in shooting over a number of years is the instinct to use all these new things you’re learning or new ideas you’re having. You have to keep making the same movie you started off making, which sometimes means finding a way back to the emotional place you were in when you first wrote it.
What lessons learned on A Ghost Waits will you be taking into your next feature?
The single biggest lesson I’ll taking forward is preparation, preparation, preparation. We did almost zero prep on A Ghost Waits. There was no shot-list. There was no script read. We found most of it on the day. And to be honest, a lot of that is just that I didn’t know how to prep. I was told to make a shot-list, but I didn’t know how to. I mean, you can just google “shot list” and find examples, but I didn’t have the knowledge required to know what shots I wanted. I would be asked about tone and not have an answer because I didn’t know how to articulate it. By working on the film in so many disciplines, I was able to learn what they all did, which I think will enable me to speak the various languages of my future collaborators better and more specifically than I could have before.
What are you working on now?
I have a few things I’m writing at the moment. One is a sci-fi story, sort of a time travel road movie, with some disaster film sprinkled in as well. Another is based on a true crime story that happened in my hometown. And then there’s a coming of age movie that’s kind of about the idea that there’s so many people who have kids and clearly shouldn’t, math kinda dictates that there must be people who don’t have kids but would be really good parents; basically what happens when responsibility is thrust upon someone who is good at it but does NOT want to be.
Beyond that is just a lot of bits and bobs that don’t yet have enough meat on their bones to be worth discussing. And maybe one day we’ll get to make our existential horror script that we spent 2014 trying to make!
Our interview with Adam Stovall on A Ghost Waits was programmed by the Twelve Cabins team. If you’d like to see your film on our pages, submit here.