Darren Lynn Bousman has built a stellar career within the dark world of horror film musicals (Repo: The Genetic Opera! (2008) and The Devil’s Carnival (2012)). He also directed the remake Mother’s Day (2010); the short film The Night Billy Raised Hell, as a part of the Halloween anthology Tales of Halloween (2015); and several instalments in the successful Saw franchise: Saw II (2005), Saw III (2006) and Saw IV (2007). Delving into the sub-genre of haunted house films, his latest project Abattoir (2016) took several years to be brought to life. Taking the concept of the haunted house film from a different angle, Bousman did not focus primarily on ghosts, violence or gore, but the obsession, duty, mystery and journey of one man who would build his own haunted house from a collection of “kill rooms” over several decades.
Playing such film festivals as the NYC Horror Film Festival, the Los Angeles Film Festival, the Fantasia International Film Festival, and Berlin’s Fantasy Filmfest, Abattoir has awed viewers and created a world where supernatural horror meets the classic noir style of 1950s Hollywood. Diabolique had the chance to chat with Bousman about his latest directorial effort.
Diabolique: How did this project develop and what drew you to it?
Darren Lynn Bousman: It’s crazy! The idea came about years and years ago. It was an idea I want to do, a hybrid horror story. In reality, this is not a horror film, it’s a tiered kind of genre bending film – part noir, part detective story, part thriller, with a touch of horror in it. I think it was working with Christopher Monfette and trying to find that balance of something that I wanted; giving the viewer film noir and yet still maintaining that intensity and weirdness of the story. It’s not written like a normal film and I think that is my favorite part about it. A lot of people have a hard time swallowing the noir aspect of the film but, to me, that makes this film one of the more daring things I have done.
Diabolique: What it was like working the writer of Abattoir, Christopher Monfette?
Bousman: It was great. Chris is a seasoned writer and this is his first full project, but the guy has done a lot of stuff before Abattoir that I have been a huge fan of. He wrote a spec script called Down State based on one of Clive Barker’s short stories from Books of Blood (1984-1985). I actually read that script years and years ago before I ever worked with him. It was one of those things that the moment I read that I said I had to work with this guy. He also wrote a couple of specs for me, before Abattoir. I love his style, I love his dialogue! He had a weird take on the way people talk that I loved and responded to. Also, we were friends and that helps the process a lot. It wasn’t like this is the first time I’ve spoken with him and asked if he could write this for me. It was a very easy project to kind of get into with him and hatch it out.
Diabolique: As is evident in the Saw franchise, obsession and murder work so well together as themes in the horror genre, as well as noir. Can you talk about working and directing material where these two themes are fuel for such interesting narratives?
Bousman: Well, when I think you are dealing with anything that’s a taboo subject, such as death, murder, or killing – these type of things are all subjects to bring up to an audience – I think you are going to create a dread-filled environment because it’s things that we are not use to seeing or feeling everyday.
That’s why most horror films or crime films start with some sort of murder or death. I think it became hard after making all the Saw franchises to figure out new and creative ways to kill people. There are only so many ways I can kill a person and make it interesting. So, I had to look into it a different way, into kind of a macabre story. Also, the older I have gotten as well, the violence takes a second seat to everything else. So when I made the Saw films the violence was the gimmick. Now that is no longer the case, the violence is secondary to another gimmick. In the case of Abattoir, the violence I think was third. The first being the noir aspect, and the second being the look and aesthetic. I hate to say I am growing up a little bit but maybe I’m not as turned on by the violence as when I was twenty-six.
Diabolique: That’s interesting you say that because, on the radio show that I do, I brought that up with variety of directors including Joe Lynch. We discussed how, as he became a father and grew up, priorities changed overall on projects. It’s a fascinating thing; can you talk about redefining the order of priorities for Abattoir, and your thinking, with Christopher Monfette, about redefining the visual ghost story?
Bousman: First, I want to address the first thing you said about Joe Lynch and being a father. I think being a dad has completely changed my entire outlook on everything. This is not an exaggeration but I’m going to tell you something and you are going to laugh, however I am serious. My morning starts at 5 am where I watch Minions (2015) every single morning with my child. By nighttime I am watching Despicable Me 2 (2013) and then The Secret Life of Pets (2016). My life now is seriously relegated to watching children’s television. I love watching his face and watching how excited he gets, how his eyes light up; I want to make things he can enjoy. As I’ve gotten older, it has shifted the things that I work with but with that said I think I will always make horror and do that type of thing. But I would love at some point to do something that he can actually see, that he can actually watch.
Regarding the ghost part of it, it’s one of those things: how do you make a unique statement when there are a million ghost stories? That was a hard thing for us. I didn’t want to be clichéd. I didn’t want to be tired and telling the same story that’s been told a million times before. So how did you find a new way into the ghost or haunted stories? The idea was, which I thought was interesting, don’t make it about the ghosts themselves. Don’t make it about the haunted house itself; make it about the creation of it. The whole idea came from let’s just make it about the creation of the house and make the ghosts secondary.
That’s going to rub some people the wrong way, I’ve seen it a couple reviews already. I think when people going to this movie and see Darren Bousman and the title Abattoir, they’re expecting something different. Abattoir means slaughterhouse, and they see it and they say, “Oh, slaughterhouse!” Then they see the trailer and there is a thing with ghosts in there. That’s not what the movie really is. I think maybe in the end there are two minutes of ghosts in it, maybe. Even when they’re on screen, you can blink and you could miss them. We can have the budget to do justice to do a ghost film. So, instead of trying to focus on the ghosts, I want to focus on everything else around the ghosts. Which again goes back to the idea that in this I think the star is the set design and the lighting over the ghosts. The ghost are kind of secondary. So it was a unique take if you’re making ghost movie or a haunted house movie.
Diabolique: I love the aspect of the score and soundscape that includes voices, screens, strings, horns, and the way the house adjusts, to name a few of the different elements. Can you talk about the score and soundscape for Abattoir and what your thinking was with the sound design in post-production?
Bousman: That was a huge thing for me! I’ve done three musicals now. Score is everything to me, so is sound design; it makes or breaks a film. An interesting story, I think I only told this once now. We threw away the first score; we had an entire score done by Mark Sayfritz, who is the composer of this thing. It was thrown away and we again started from square one. This guy was just a madman! He was like, “Let me try something else”, and he knocked it out of the park!
The first score was amazing too but it did not have the mood we were going for. The thing I love about what we did is that he set it in that film noir thing. It’s got these horns that are blaring and more. What’s awesome about Mark is that he is sound designer as well. So, on top of him having his music, which is ominous, you’ve got this demonic voice going until the very end. I thought it was awesome! He’s also using sound design as well to tell the story. Which I love. It really adds a character in the movie. That’s the whole thing; that it’s a character in the film. I think it’s important. Music probably is more important to me than any one single aspect usually as it helps to define an audience and the mood; I don’t want to say it dictates the way they feel in a movie but it kind of does. This is where we’re nervous. This is where we’re happy. This is where there is some threat.
Diabolique: You talk about your previous works in musical horror with Repo and the The Devil’s Carnival. Why cast Dayton Callie as Jebediah Crone? Why also cast Lin Shaye in such a pivotal role as Allie? I understand that they bring star power as well as experience from their body of work, but why cast them in these roles?
Bousman: Well I like working with people that I am a fan of. I think I’ve been extremely lucky my career and do movies that I would like to make. So I get to work with people that I want to work with. Not a lot of people can say that and that’s the biggest thing I’m excited about as a filmmaker. I was a huge fan of Dayton Callie. I was a huge fan of Deadwood (2004-2006)! It was one of my favorite television shows. I love westerns and he was a badass in Deadwood so that was the first thing I wanted to do, work with Dayton.
Before there was The Devil’s Carnival, I pitched Dayton Abattoir as this character was conceived for him. When Abattoir was written, originally it was just an idea for the character of Jebediah Crone – that idea was about Dayton Callie. So I met Dayton Callie and I said, listen my name is Darren and I’m a huge fan of yours. I have this character called Jebediah Crone and here is who he is. Dayton and I started working together after that. In the meantime, while I was trying to get Abattoir financed we made The Devil’s Carnival films. So Dayton was always there.
Lin Shaye was the second person I cast. She was cast a year and a half to two years ago. She was one of those people that I was a huge fan of and I said to her very early on, “I have this role for you and I would love you to take a read of it”. She read it and attached herself immediately. It’s one of the amazing things as a filmmaker that I grew up watching Lin Shaye – from A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) to There’s Something About Mary (1998) – and to be able to work with her now is just amazing, a surreal experience.
Diabolique: It is beautiful, cautionary, macabre and has all of the poetic intricacies of Louisiana in each line; can you talk about directing the dialogue of Abattoir?
Bousman: So, again, the dialogue was the star of the movie to me. People might jump up against it because normally, it’s not every day speak. I loved that about it and I think when I started this thing off, I wanted all the characters to have a unique tone to the way they speak. So Chris and I did a lot of watching of films from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950,s that span of thirty years. I wanted the characters to have that sound; if Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were to go off and make a movie, how would they sound right now? We wanted it to be a modern film. Remember, this takes place in 2015. I wanted them to talk like some bygone era and that’s what we have here. It was hard to direct it in some respects because you’re dealing with people that don’t talk the way they talk in that.
I hate to say the word Shakespearian but they are speaking in a cadence. You have to factor that this is not like other movies where you read a script on Monday and shoot it on a Tuesday. You have to be able to say it enough times to yourself so you can say the words with a cadence and get the contractions down so it sounds believable in that world. I think that was a real challenge. You do takes and they sound like garbage so we do it again, again, and again to make it sound correct and do a movie like this.
Diabolique: How much did the location of New Orleans impact and influence the shoot and add to the story of Abattoir?
Bousman: It wasn’t set in New Orleans originally, it was set in Maine. We started playing around, doing location scouting and we went to New Orleans. I fell in love with New Orleans. I fell in love with the culture and people. At that moment, I completely redesigned what Abattoir was supposed to be to fit into that New Orleans setting, including Allie’s house as well as the church in which Crone did his thing. There was a lot of rethinking in it but I will tell you what was kind of crazy: when we were first there – understand this was a long and arduous process, as Abattoir started in 2012 and it was not actually shot until 2014 – we had some issues on the production side of it. The first time I was there on preproduction, it was in the middle of summer in New Orleans. If you’ve ever been there in the middle of summer in New Orleans, you know hot is an understatement!
Diabolique: It is hell!
Bousman: It is literally hell. When we got shut down, we had to come back in the winter; it was freezing and we did a majority of the shooting. So, I kind of hit two extremes in the production. You know this movie was made with no money and no time. I think that the outside influences played a big deal in that. We were dealing with a lot of older actors and you are out there in the middle of the night in the freezing, cold weather. It was challenging to say the least.
Diabolique: With the challenge of having really no budget for Abattoir, can you talk about the set design and production pertaining to removing the “kill rooms”, as well as what murders were selected to be a part of Crone’s collection inside the ultimate haunted house during the third act?
Bousman: I think this is one of the things that challenges me as a filmmaker. I have these huge, huge, huge ideas in my head. These big ideas of what I want films to be. When you get there and you start playing around with them, you realize you have a fraction of that cost. You are going to have to pick your battles. In the original script, there was something like forty rooms that we talked about and mentioned. Forty is a lot! In the very end, we ended up with ten or eleven. So we had to cut them down and then you find out very quickly that it’s not even kind of doable. I would have an idea and it wasn’t even doable. It was a give-and-take with the production designer about what we can actually afford to do.
The other thing is we didn’t shoot on a soundstage; practical locations ended up being the sets. So, some of it had to do with the architecture of the actual buildings saying, “yeah we have this great idea but it doesn’t fit the confines of the set that we have to do.” I think time dictated a lot. The set itself dictated a lot and our lack of budget dictated a lot.
Diabolique: Thank you for your time, Darren. Abattoir, which I witnessed on the big screen at the NYC Horror Film Festival, was incredible overall!
Bousmann: I thank you so much for taking the time. Again, this is a movie that exists and lives or dies by word-of-mouth. We need to get as much positive energy out there to support it.
Watch the trailer for Abattoir at: https://youtu.be/SbQdnRhditM. The film is available to rent or buy on iTunes, Amazon.com and YouTube.