Interview Pyewacket

Interview: 'Pyewacket' Writer/Director Adam MacDonald on His Fascination with Horror and the Dark Forces that Intrigue Us

December 7, 2017Ferdosa Abdi

In Pyewacket, writer/director Adam MacDonald explores the dark energy that compels some people to turn against their family and embrace an entity that means us harm. Leah (Nicole Muñoz) is an angry teen who becomes a believer in black magic. What she thinks is a harmless means of expressing her rage, however, actually invokes a dark spirit. The film is an example of how negativity can consume us and ruin us, and that we probably shouldn't mess with the unknown.

MacDonald's second feature, Pyewacket premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. I had a chance to sit down with MacDonald to discuss his inspirations for the movie and his fascination with horror. The following is a moderately edited version of that conversation.

You wrote and directed your first feature, Backcountry, which was a realistic horror thriller, and a survival thriller as well. What made you interested in taking on supernatural horror for your second feature?

MacDonald: Secretly, I'm trying to do a trilogy of women surviving extreme circumstances. One is Backcountry — which was the nature — and the second one is supernatural, and the third is domestic. But we will get to that later.

I've always been so intrigued with the occult and black magic and stuff, especially in film. I've seen a lot of movies about it, but I said I wanted to make one — like in Backcountry — if it's done so authentically and so realistic. How would that look? How would that feel? How would that manifest in the film? So that's what I wanted to do. To make it as real possible, so that someone would watch it and go "Mm, I don’t want to touch that stuff, because this felt real."

Do you think the low-budget quality enables you to do that? Or would you be able to accomplish the same on a higher budget?

MacDonald: I'd accomplish the same thing on a higher budget, for sure. That's funny. A lot of people don't understand that filming style feels guerrilla and feels loose with a lot of handhelds. Every shot is orchestrated; every shot is planned out. You have to light the whole thing. You have to make it make sense. One of my favorite directors is Derek Cianfrance, who did Blue Valentine and A Place Beyond the Pines. So watch that movie and see how the camera moves there; it looks like you're a voyeur, but that's exactly the plan.

It's not cheap to do that, when it's done well. Otherwise, you're a being shadowed all the time; there are 50 crew members around the whole time. You have to meticulously plan these things to make it look effortless. Like with Backcountry, it was the same thing. That style does lend itself well to get a lot of coverage, because you can get a lot of coverage as you move with the camera. But it also lends itself to an authenticity, I find.

Some horror films lately, I feel, look like a shampoo commercial. They're just too crisp and clean and perfect, as opposed to wild and intense. I like those, so that's what I went for in Backcountry and this one; same director of photography [Christian Bielz] as well. He's brilliant, I love him.

So, yeah, that's a great question. Even if it was a $10 million budget it would be very similar.

What is it about this particular genre that intrigues you so much that you want to focus a trilogy on it?

MacDonald: And even more... I love the feeling it evokes in me. I got introduced to horror when I was very young. I saw Evil Dead and it kind of changed my life. It scared the crap out of me, but I enjoyed the feeling. It was very bizarre. I want to give that to people. Or even Jaws or Jurassic Park. The bear attack in Backcountry is very much influenced by Jurassic Park.

I was trying to do something like when that T-Rex came out, and there is no music, it's just sound design. And you're like, "Holy! OH MY GOD!" Instead of making people laugh, that's what I want to do. Fear is universal; it's something that can touch everybody. It evokes questions, and it doesn't matter where you are or who you are or how old you are, we all have the ability to have the same kind of fears. It oddly brings us together, in a weird way.

A joke may not go off the right way or the same way in different parts of the world, but fear — enjoying a good horror movie — we can all do that together.

I can definitely see this film having worldwide appeal, because everyone and every culture has that understanding of a witch and dark magic. And in my religion, we have the jinns, which are like the demons...

MacDonald: Yeah! Right! I did research on Pyewacket and the jinns came up. [They're] these dark forces, like genies.

The jinns inspired the genies, like the idea of a genie that grants you wishes and whatnot. They stray you away from the path and then the big bad comes out — "Ha ha! Gotcha!"

MacDonald: Yeah, that's in Pyewacket. She manipulated Leah. She doesn't just arrive and kill her mom; she manipulates the whole situation.

Which brings me to the character of Leah. Most horror films always stem from a bad decision — one bad decision that you think is going to turn out okay, but obviously doesn't end up well. What is it about witchcraft that is so compelling — especially to young people — and draws people in?

MacDonald: I think it draws people in because we all have a fear of the unknown, and if we can do it together — you wouldn't go walking the woods alone, but you would go "Let's go see what happens together." So there is more than just this mundane reality for a lot of people, I guess. Especially for people who are very religious; if there is God and then there's this, there's got to be the other side — this darkness. So it is intriguing. I'd imagine someone who's very religious would see Pyewacket and go, "Oh yeah, of course! Don't screw with that stuff. Don't invoke those evil spirits, because they exist."

Whether I believe or not is beside the point. In the movie, it's just negative energy. It's just bad energy. It infects your life. It can ruin your life. I also think it's like a campfire story, when we sit around campfires and tell each other scary stories, and it's like, "I have a Ouija board, let's do something creepy and let's do something that scares us. Let’s do it together." Like riding a roller coaster is scary, but we do it together. Plus, as kids, we want to do something naughty, like pulling out a Ouija board and getting into these dark forces. Maybe it's real, maybe not. You can scare yourself.

With Backcountry, we know that the threat is a bear, and we see it. What is the difference in filming when you have an entity you can't quite see? Is it challenging, or does that provide more to work with?

MacDonald: I think it provides more to work with, because you can manipulate the audience. When they see it, it's up to you. Or not. You hope they enjoy it. I am not a big fan of movies where you see the monster too much. I like it when it's ambiguous and you're not sure where it is or what's around the corner. "When is it going to come out? What is it going to look like?" It's that anticipation that I think builds that dread. We know something is going to happen, but when or what?

Hitchcock has a theory on that.

MacDonald: Absolutely, the bomb under the table! If we know the bomb is under the table, and they don't know, it builds that tension. Like when is it going to go off? Or what's behind the door? That ambiguity of it — is it good? Is it bad? When is it going to manifest or how is it going to manifest? That's the best part.

For fans of horror, or those who are just getting into horror, what are some films you would recommend they check out, and are there any particular films you would say have influenced your work?

MacDonald: The films that influence my work for sure are Evil Dead, The Shining, Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects and non-horror Derek Cianfrance. A Place Beyond the Pines is a huge influence on my work. And, oddly enough, as I was watching Pyewacket, I think Sofia Coppola with Lost in Translation snuck in a little bit. I love that film so much, like the ethereal music. Certain shots and everything kind of influenced me a little bit.

In horror, The Ring is one of my favorite movies. If someone is getting into horror I would say go big. First, you have to see Evil Dead; you have to see the FIRST Evil Dead. Then you have to see the remake of The Ring — the Gore Verbinski version. Then, after that, The Shining — Kubrick's movie — and then you the French Wave of horror, Martyrs and High Tension, to see what they did that really ignited the horror genre.

Then I would sneak in my favorite film of all time, a Korean thriller called The Chaser. At the end of everything, watch The Chaser, and then you will have a good range of good horror movies.

You weren't always a director; you started acting first. What lead you into that transition?

MacDonald: Wanting to be a director, wanting to be in the movies. I wanted to make the movies. I don't even put myself in my own movies, because I want to concentrate on the directing and the writing aspect of it. I was acting, then I moved here. George Romero was living here and he was doing some zombie movies, and I love his movies. I tried to get into his movies. But no, so I just made my own.

I did some short films. It took 10 years to get Backcountry off the ground. I had one failed script [that] didn't go anywhere. I didn't give up. I said I'd do another one. I had the idea of Backcountry. So I took a long time to transition. I was working as an actor, doing well for myself, but always doing my short films using the funds I'd get from acting. I won a grant from my first one; it was a zombie short film. It took 10-12 years to finally get Backcountry off the ground, which then opened up a lot of doors.

Yeah, you've now been at TIFF twice.

MacDonald: Not only did I have my first, but [I also had my] second world premiere here.

And maybe one day your third.

MacDonald: [Laughs] You don't want to get too greedy.

Pyewacket opens in select cities December 8th.

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