Happy October everyone! Like many of you, we here at FSR love watching horror films all throughout the calendar year, but even so there’s something particularly satisfying about enjoying creepy cinema during thee month of October. To that end I’ll be focusing these next few Commentary posts on a handful of horror gems that I genuinely love.
Upcoming titles are genre classics, but to start us off I gave a listen to the commentary on one of 2015’s best horror films, Ted Geoghegan’s Fulci-infused slice of ghostly madness that is We Are Still Here. It’s a haunted house tale, of sorts, that feels both familiar and fresh while walking a fine line between goofy fun and pure terror. The writer/director recorded a commentary track with the film’s producer, Travis Stevens (Starry Eyes, Cheap Thrills), and together they explore the making of the film, offer advice to other indie filmmakers, and reveal which one of them should never be trusted to crash a car on cue.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the We Are Still Here commentary.
We Are Still Here (2015)
Commentators: Ted Geoghegan (writer/director), Travis Stevens (producer)
1. The film was shot just outside my hometown of Rochester, NY in the small communities of Palmyra and Shortsville during the “agonizingly cold and desolate” month of February. It captures the region’s winter well and serves as a reminder as to why I moved away when I was in my early twenties.
2. Barbara Crampton, who plays Anne, actually did research into people whose children have died. “It became quite heavy for her to constantly be thinking about the agony of losing a child,” says Geoghegan, “and there were days where it became so much for her that we’d actually have to pause and she’d have to take a few moments.”
Dark Sky Films
3. Stevens points out that they did some post-production work on the film in an effort to “create a sensation of something being off” in regard to the house. This includes shots held a little too long or a bit too short, as well as “on the exteriors of the house we did some subtle visual effects work sort of stretching windows and doors and stuff.” He says viewers might not notice it consciously, but their subconscious will take note.
4. Movies mentioned on this commentary as influences (in some way, shape, or form) include Don’t Look Now, The Beyond, Evil Dead II, The Changeling, The House By the Cemetery, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Harold and Maude, American Werewolf in London, The Shining, and The Fog.
5. Both men praise production designer Marcella Brennan for how beautifully her and her team transformed an old, fixer-upper farm house into a home that felt more put-together with new wall coverings, decorations, and stronger lived-in feel. It was dressed with materials and furniture found in shops around Rochester. “If you shot this in L.A. you’d probably rent a lot of those items and your budget would go up, but if you’re hitting the thrift stores in upstate New York you can actually find those items.” “Yeah,” adds Geoghegan, “and cover them with blood if you need to.”
6. The cellar in the film is the real cellar in this house, but that giant boiler is actually made of cardboard and spray paint. “It’s unbelievable how real it looks, to the point where we had press visit us on set and they actually thought that was the house’s functioning boiler while standing a few feet away from it.”
Dark Sky Films
7. One of the elements Geoghegan pulled from his fondness for 1980’s The Changeling is the idea of actual adults squaring off against the supernatural. “The movies that followed, and especially nowadays, the casts are made up of TV starlets and studs. I think there’s something really powerful about having older actors who carry with them some good gravitas and soul.”
8. They wanted Andrew Sensenig for the role of Paul after seeing him in 2013’s Upstream Color. They felt he conveyed such sadness in his eyes. “That’s my dad,” says Geoghegan. “He’s this tough guy holding it in with these big expressive eyes.”
9. Monte Markham came aboard through traditional casting means, but Geoghegan was surprised to discover just who he was. “As soon as I watched his [filmography] reel my jaw dropped as I realized all the things I’d seen him in over the years and how much I actually loved this guy without ever actually knowing who he was.” Markham’s past rolls include titles as diverse as Midway, Airport ’77, and the John Cusack-starring Hot Pursuit.
10. The alcohol bottle labeled B&J that’s glimpsed throughout the film “is a nod to J&B, a liqueur that sponsored nearly every European horror film from 1972 to 1982.” This film’s director of photography, Karim Hussain, had already gone through the process of creating and clearing the bottle for a previous film (Hobo With a Shotgun) and asked if Geoghegan wanted to use it here. “Oh sweet Jesus yes,” was the director’s reply.
11. The couple’s dead son is portrayed in photographs by the film’s art director, Sean Hughes. “We chose him because he had the shaggiest haircut of everyone working on the film.”
12. Stevens points out the shot through the bedroom floor vent as an idea discovered and crafted on set. Basically they noticed the vents offered a view all the way through to the floor below and decided to incorporate it into the film. My cousins lived in a house very similar in age and location to this one, and I recall time spent spying on the adults via vents exactly like this one.
13. The ghostly Dagmar family is named after an actress from Lucio Fulci’s The House By the Cemetery named Dagmar Lassander. It was such an influence here that “all of the characters in this film are named after a character, actor, or crew member from House By the Cemetery. One exception being Joe the electrician who is obviously a nod to Fulci’s The Beyond.”
14. Joe is played by a detective from the Rochester Police Department named Marvin Patterson. They were explaining the basement scene’s implied creepiness to him, and he replied “I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to walk into a dark, scary house, gun drawn, looking for something that’s going to kill me.” Geoghegan’s response was simply “Oh good, just use that.”
15. They wanted to use that hole in the basement wall for some POV shots and slid Hussain in to set up some shots. When asked how it was in there the DP replied that it was filled with the bones of rats and mice.
16. The basement’s heat issue is a contrarian nod to the cliched idea of ghostly appearances triggering chills and coldness. “Just kind of subverting one of the traditional tropes of the haunted house movie,” says Geoghegan.
17. The songs in the film are by a Phoenix-based band called Wooden Indian.
18. The dialogue scenes set in cars required Geoghegan to hide curled up in the backseat offering notes as they tried to get the shots.
19. After Daniella (Kelsea Dakota) is killed while driving it’s actually Stevens behind the wheel for the exterior shot. “That car was supposed to go all the way down the embankment and into the trees,” he says, “but the stunt driver happened to be the producer on the film and wussed out at the last minute.” Stevens also appears onscreen as one of the three locals running away from the house at the end. He’s the one that stumbles in the snow.
20. Geoghegan hates what cell phones have done to horror movies. “I feel like they ruin almost every fun thing you can do with a horror movie.”
21. The only song on the soundtrack not by Wooden Indian is the one playing in the bar after hours. That track is by Geoghegan’s father-in-law’s old band, Kleen Kut.
22. Early drafts of the script saw Dave McCabe’s (Markham) character revealed to be a monster himself, an old god capable of mind control, transformation, and other supernatural feats. This is something I must read.
23. Geoghegan highlights the seance scene between Paul (Sensenig) and Jacob (Larry Fessenden) and rightfully praises the performances, but he doesn’t mention a factor that I think adds immensely to the scene’s power and effect ‐ it’s set during the day.
Dark Sky Films
24. Fessenden was thrilled that Geoghegan wanted him to play a character with all of his front teeth.
25. The end credits feature faux news clippings detailing the history of the house and surrounding community. They were created to add more context, and while they briefly considered including them during the opening it was decided they’d rather not spoon-feed the audience.
26. The shot of the sitting room at the end of the clippings-focused credits was made without Geoghegan’s knowledge, and when it was shown to him he stood up in shock at the single piano key movement/sound. “Little did I know they decided to fishing wire-up one of the keys just to fuck with me. Thank you whoever was responsible for that.” Stevens cops to it without apology.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
- Geoghegan: “I can’t believe the people who own this house actually regularly go into that basement for things they need.”
- Stevens: “I’d just like to point out the Sgt. Fury comic that she’s about to put back in the box is from my personal collection.”
- Stevens: “At a certain moment we both just looked at each other because we felt something, and I know that sounds ridiculous and sounds like we’re selling wolf tickets, but I just want you to know that my good friend Ted Geoghegan stepped out of the room and left me in there by myself. Which is total bullshit.”
- Geoghegan: “The homeowners told us that ‘when we were remodeling we broke open a wall and it was full of femurs.’”
- Stevens: “Don’t write scenes of characters in cars talking because it is a pain in the ass to shoot.”
- Geoghegan: “Mark my words, I will never make a film set after 1993.”
- Geoghegan: “We all earned our one-way ticket to hell by tearing out a pastor’s chest.”
- Stevens: “It was so much fun to just explode blood all over the house.”
This is a fun, informative track that sees both men offering numerous anecdotes and insights into the production. As is often the case with the best commentaries, the two show great affection not only for the finished feature but also for the hundreds of people whose talents both onscreen and off worked together to create the movie. Stevens, ever the indie producer, repeatedly shares advice that other filmmakers would be wise to listen to regarding talent, cost-savings, and a clear enthusiasm for the material. He also used the phrase “selling wolf tickets” ‐ something I’ve literally never heard before but which I plan to use in my next alleyway confrontation. So that makes this an entertaining, informative, and now educational commentary track.