Patrick Meaney is a name that most people interested in popular culture know from his string of award-winning comic-focused documentaries as part of Respect Films with Jordan Rennert. Their Image Revolution, Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods, Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously, and She Makes Comics have made a massive impact on the way that comics fans and wider pop culture enthusiasts view the medium and the careers of some of the biggest names in comics.
Meaney, who previously worked on the film Trip House, has recently released the feature-length horror film House of Demons in digital and DVD from Smith Global Media/Sony. Meaney wrote and directed the film, while Rennert returned as cinematographer. The pop culture connections don’t stop with Meaney and Rennert, since many of the cast members have geek and comic connections, too, like Amber Benson who writes comics, and Tiffany Smith of DC All-Access.
House of Demons is an overtly “supernatural thriller” that focuses in on a reunion between four friends who have become distant due to a shared trauma in their past. Spending the night in a “time-bending, haunted house”, they encounter demons, both literal and metaphorical, from the history of the house and from their own pasts.
Patrick Meaney joins us here today to talk about horror, working on House of Demons, and new directions in pop culture that might make film as “wild” a medium as comics.
Hannah Means-Shannon: After working on so many documentary films, was it a relief to work on something so different, or more a world with different kinds of challenges?
Patrick Meaney: It’s a totally different working process. Narrative film is much more expensive and requires a lot more planning and advance thought. When we were doing the project on Neil Gaiman for example, it was pretty much follow Neil around and see what happened, then take hours and hours of footage into the editing room and try to craft it into a narrative.
Whereas with a narrative film, you’re trying to set everything in advance and plan as much as possible so you can be efficient. The cost is much higher, so there’s not as much time to experiment or mess around. But, it’s a lot of fun since you get to work with actors and be more creative rather than just respond to what’s going on.
I love doing both, but it was exciting to be able to tell story I created rather than focus on someone else’s.
HMS: Why particularly did you settle on horror as a genre to work within? What do you value about the role or potential of horror to reach audiences?
PM: For me, the most exciting thing about making the film was the ability to take these internal conflicts that the characters were experiencing and visualize them on the screen in a visceral, tangible way. And, the beauty of the horror genre is that you take the things that are buried under the surface and dig them up, and force the characters to deal with them. The return of the repressed is at the heart of a lot of horror, and it’s what the characters in the film are dealing with.
I love character drama, and drawing on real issues that people are dealing with, and I think there’s a version of this story that’s a straight character drama, but that’s not as exciting to me as having people literally battling their demons rather than doing it metaphorically. It’s that collision of genre elements and real emotion that’s so exciting, and I think it makes the film more exciting to audiences.
This is the film that I really wanted to make, and I was fortunate that horror is also a genre that has so much support on the lower budget level, and a fanbase that is really passionate about it.
HMS: Once you had decided to work on a horror film, there were no doubt a myriad of possible directions you might have taken. What about the “house” tradition in horror appealed to you as a storyteller?
PM: I knew that we had limited resources, so I wanted to keep the action contained to one location to make it viable to produce. And once I started digging into it, I looked at a film like The Shining, where one location becomes a crossing point in space and time, and a kind of resonator for the characters’ emotions. That really appealed to me, and some of that mind-bending stuff inspired the movie for sure.
I also read about Neil Gaiman’s concept of a ‘soft place,’ where time and space and the subconscious blur, and I had that in mind when building out the story. There was something about this place that made it a spot where strange things could happen, and it was fun to play from there.
Ultimately, I wanted to focus on the characters dealing with their issues, and not get bogged down in a super complicated plot, so keeping the action contained made that easy to do. In some ways, I think the film is very much in the ‘house’ or ‘cabin’ tradition, but I think we subvert it a bit and do some unexpected things.
HMS: Following on from the horror and “house” choices, can you tell us a little bit more about why you chose to go the supernatural route as well? What does that bring to the table that makes it different from other type of stories?
PM: When interviewing Grant Morrison, he talked about the reason he wanted to tell stories about superheroes and huge cosmic events is that when we’re going through something emotional, it will feel like the end of the world to us. The stakes are much higher.
I also feel like the notion of ‘realism’ in cinema is an artificial construct since no one experiences the world from an objective point of view. We’re all in our own heads, and bouncing between the present day, and memories, and things we imagine. So, the notion that restricting a film to just showing what happens that is real, is off to me.
I think that supernatural elements are a way to better represent the internal mindscape of people, and I love the idea of representing a character’s internal life in a very real way that you can see and that they can confront. It’s a way to take things that are hopefully relatable to the viewer and bring them to life in a high stakes, exciting way. So, the goal in building the ‘cosmology’ of the film was to figure out how to do this in a way that made sense and was internally consistent.
HMS: The film deals a lot with psychology (well, maybe all horror does), and even with expansion of consciousness as a concept. When focusing in on the psychology of trauma and the mental states of the four main characters, what did you hope the film would accomplish?
PM: Part of it for me is that I see a lot of people in the world who are lost in traumas of the past, and are so caught up in what happened that they can’t move forward. So, I wanted to show some people facing those demons and being forced to deal with what they’ve repressed and is holding them back. It’s a trial by fire, and I hope that people can relate to that.
It’s not necessarily a message film, but I hope that people think about how they deal with their own ‘demons.’
HMS: Can you tell us a little bit about how the casting came about and what particular qualities you feel the actors bring to their characters?
PM: The film features a large number of people from the geek world, and it was fun to see all the connections being made between people who already knew each other and had worked together, or who subsequently went on to work together. Casting was done with a mix of people I already knew and had met through doing all the comic book docs or other projects, and casting sessions.
Amber Benson was someone I always had in mind for the role of Maya. I had met her on the Grant Morrison doc, and felt that she exuded this very warm, caring energy that was perfect for the character of a hippie Earth mother type.
Tiffany Smith I had met when I interviewed her for She Makes Comics, and also worked with her on a short film. She’s very popular in the geek world as a very enthusiastic host, and I thought it would be interesting to take that enthusiasm and apply it to something more dangerous. So, she wound up playing the right hand of cult leader Frazer. She’s kind of a Manson girl-type character, and is Frazer’s ‘biggest fan,’ but in this case, that fandom means being willing to kill and do bad things for him.
Jeff Torres plays Matthew, a guy who’s struggling to get his life together, and is still caught up on a fractured relationship from a few years back. I had worked with Jeff on a short film, wound up bringing him in for an audition, and was blown away by his mix of extreme intensity and very chill relaxedness, which was perfect for the character. This was a character who had coasted through school, then kind of hit a wall and grew increasingly angry about it over the years.
Dove Meir plays charismatic cult leader Frazer. He came in for a casting and just instantly you could tell he had the magnetism necessary for the character. It was the same with Kaytlin Borgen as Gwen, who was able to channel the cold, sarcastic exterior, and wounded inner heart of Gwen. Or Whitney Moore, who was the very positive and kind Katrina, with a hint of darkness underneath.
HMS: The overlap with comics and geek culture is big when it comes to this film. What do you think of the increasing broadening of geekdom to include so many areas of pop culture? In previous decades, perhaps horror film geeks would have stayed in that niche, but in the world of comics, of course, many people who read superhero comics also read horror comics. Is pop culture on the way to becoming just “culture”?
PM: I know we’ve both been going to cons for years, and I think one of the things that you realize over time is that there’s a community of people that grows, that’s not necessarily connected just by the pop culture they love, but by the sense of community and shared interest. There’s so many ‘geek’ personalities in the film, but we wouldn’t sit around on set just talking about horror movies or Grant Morrison comics, or things like that. It’s almost like you have a shared language and base of knowledge, and can better understand each other, without making it explicitly about ‘geek stuff.’
I do think it’s hard to call superheroes or geeky things a subculture now when the movies and TV shows are absolutely saturated and at the heartbeat of culture. I remember fifteen years ago reading the Warren Ellis Forum and people talking about how to get comics out there and earn respect and appeal to the mainstream, and I think that’s happened. People could never have imagined what would be, and I think a lot of long-time fans have a mix of being happy this stuff is out there, and feeling a little bit less connected to it since it’s not underground, it’s everyone’s.
In the case of this film, I think it’s bringing a lot of those 90s Vertigo out-there storytelling influences to more traditional horror film structure, to hopefully make something new. I still think that the best comics are more mind-bending and out-there than anything we see on film. Shows like Legion get close, but Jack Kirby’s Fourth World books are still blowing my mind more than anything on the screen, and they’re fifty years old.
Ultimately, I think people are more into genre storytelling now and stuff that would have been super geeky, be it Marvel movies or Game of Thrones, is now as mainstream as could be. So, it’s up to new creators to push further and bring something even more wild to the screen.
Thanks to Patrick Meaney for taking part in this interview and giving us our horror fix for the day!