STEPHEN COGNETTI INTERVIEW
Now available to UK audiences through Amazon Prime, Hell House LLC proves that there's still mileage in the found-footage genre yet. We spoke to Director Stephen Cognetti about his impressive feature debut and how the potential sequel is coming along...
Firstly, congratulations of Hell House LLC. We just posted our review and found a lot to like about the movie. Where did the inspiration for the story come from?
Thank you. Appreciate you guys checking it out. Here’s the full story… In 2011 my cousin and soon to be Executive Producer of the film said to me “What if something went wrong in a Halloween haunted house?” I loved the idea. Most people who I talked to about the idea about thought the direction should go slasher. I’m not a fan of slasher films. When it comes to horror, my favorite stories are those that center around paranormal events instead of blood and guts. So I wrote a draft and it was just okay, but needed a lot of work and a much better angle. One day I took a drive out of Manhattan. I went north up the Palisades along the Hudson River into Rockland County, beautiful country. Near Rockland Lake I came across an amazingly creepy abandoned house. I then got the idea that our haunt creators should take over an abandoned space they don’t know much about. Our main character, Alex, is a huge horror fan so naturally he’s a fan of Richard Matheson and as homage to Matheson he named his company Hell House… After that came the task of creating a believable three-act structure and staying away from cliché scares. The photo of the abandoned house I found I have pinned on my twitter if anybody wants to see it.
Is it true that the script wasn’t originally written as a found-footage horror?
Yes, I wrote it as a traditional narrative that had a lot more back story in it. Then I decided I’ve already been throwing into this film all of my favorite things, subtlety scares, abandoned buildings so I then thought why not reconstruct the narrative to reflect some of my favorite television, that being 60 Minutes, Dateline NBC investigative/mystery shows? What if a doc crew was investigating an unexplained event that happened years before at haunted house? That seemed a lot more interesting of a narrative to me. So I rewrote everything to reflect this. My wife and I both love found footage films, Lake Mungo being one of them and they were very successful in this formula so I gave it try.
What were some of the advantages and disadvantages (from a film-making perspective) of having to adapt to that format?
The only advantage is time. We have one setup per scene so we can so take after take and still be ahead of schedule at the end of the day. But the disadvantage is the same thing. One setup means a lack of coverage of all of our scenes. So feelings, emotions and actions of any given scene, has to be captured and portrayed from one viewpoint.
Over the last fifteen years or so, the found-footage sub-genre has become pretty saturated. How do you think Hell House LLC offers something slightly different to what’s already out there?
It’s saturated because it can be made for very cheap, of course. But even more expensive horror, slashers, action films, quirky comedies are oversaturated. Not just found footage. How many horror movies have you seen in the last fifteen years that rely solely on “how much blood can we show? How shocking can we get with gore?” Found footage gets a bad rap because there are a lot of clunkers, sure, but it’s a very fun way to portray horror because it’s more real than a CGI creature. But to your question… We’re hoping to terrify you through subtlety. We’re not going to raise the music at the right time to make you jump or have something jump out from a closet and it ends up being the family cat, Toonces. Every shot and frame is specific to making you feel creeped out and uncomfortable. It’s shot as a documentary which we hope adds to the realism and the realism intensifies the scares in my opinion more so than a CGI ghost saying boo. But we understand that found footage isn’t for every horror fan and I respect that opinion too.
Found-footage has a bit of a bad reputation amongst certain quarters of the horror fanbase (we don’t include ourselves in that!). Why do you think that is and why do you disagree with that view point?
Everybody has their own opinion on horror. But I’m sick of cliché jump scares and gore as an instrument to shock. If you want to watch Saw 37, go for it. Millions of people love that stuff, and I too loved the original. But in found footage I think you get a lot of low-budget filmmakers who can’t afford the fancy FX so their forced to do everything in camera and with that you get some genuine scenes of horror.
Following on from that, what are some of your favourite FF movies?
Lake Mungo, the Last Exorcist, Apartment 143, REC.
You have said before that the original scripted version underwent some changes during production and that the last act in particular would have been a little different if it had been shot as originally intended. This is obviously relatively normal practice but nevertheless, how frustrating was this and how did you work around it?
It wasn’t a big deal in terms of the overall product. We changed up some scares slightly on-set, we changed the way Sara’s death scene happens, we couldn’t shoot everything I had originally intended for the end basement scene. We were always adapting to the circumstances of each day. The most essential part of low-budget filmmaking is having a great crew and cast that can adapt to needed changes on-the-fly.
Picking the right location was always going to be paramount to proceedings.
What was it about the Waldorf that made it seem like the obvious choice?
Since the script called for a location that needed three distinct looks throughout the film. One - a very abandoned looking building. Two – a live haunted attraction. Three – a haunted attraction abandoned five years post tragedy. The Waldorf was the prefect location to pull off all three as well as the owner, Angie Moyer, a huge horror fan and haunt creator herself, was a great partner in pulling off the needed looks.
You have said before that your favorite type of scares in horror are ‘the little things caught in the background that the protagonists are not immediately aware of’’.
What horror films - and scenes in particular - have got under your skin before?
The Exorcist is hands down my favorite horror film. It’s not a great example of “things seen in the background”, but it is subtlety terrifying. The original Halloweens, Michael Myers just seen in the background of a scene. More recently The Strangers has a great shot that is so simple but so terrifying when Liv Tyler is on the phone and we just see a masked person walking out of focus in the background. Gave me the chills.
Is it true that you made Hell House LLC whilst working another job? How on earth did you manage that?
First, working for a great company and boss that let me take some time off to shoot the movie. Then in post I would get up at 5am every morning, edit for a couple of hours then jump on a subway and head to work. The subway rides were great for me because I had thirty minutes just sit and think through cuts I had just made or were upcoming and some of my best ideas of edits came to me while on the subway to or from work.
The recently released DVD is now available to own and includes a great selection of special features. It also includes the extended version of the original release – what can audiences expect from the longer cut?
More of the original script in full. Scenes we either cut entirely for time purposes or because I just didn’t like them in the ninety-minute version we released, or scenes that weren’t cut but were just shortened for time related reasons. We also added some light FX in the basement that help me show a little bit of what I was going for in that final scene but we just didn’t have the money for.
It feels as if there were a few unanswered questions and unexplored story threads in Hell House LLC. That could have been a frustration for audiences but it actually creates a nice sense of mystery and intrigue. Are we right in thinking it always the intention to do a sequel?
Not always intending a sequel but always hoping for the opportunity, yes. But even if there were no sequel I prefer horror that leaves a little mystery instead of wrapping up all the answers in a nice bow for us. Blair Witch was great in that respect. They trail blazed but also managed to scare us with the unknown which isn’t done too often.
And how far is that down the road to becoming a reality?
We shoot in November. I’m so excited about this script and the cast to bring it to life. I know sequels get a bad rap, but I think we have a great story and lot of great scares. I’m excited to shoot and begin to explore the mystery of the Abaddon Hotel and the tragedy at Hell House.
Finally, is there anything else that you are working on right now that you can tell us about?
I have a script I’ve written, non-found footage, called The Church. It’s a horror movie that I think hasn’t been seen before. The story and the scares I’ve been working on for years and I hope to one day soon get to make this film, but this is a tough field and you never know if you’ll get the opportunity to make your next project.
HELL HOUSE LLC
On October 8th, 2009 a haunted house attraction opened its doors to the public in upstate New York. The entire crew was found dead, except for one. Five years later a documentary crew found her...and the video footage from inside the house.