Last October, a horror movie came and went. It wasn’t the first time a Hollywood studio dumped a horror movie in the middle of Halloween; given the ongoing pandemic, few films with a theatrical release could have moved the needle in 2020. But in the case of David Prior’s The Empty Man, this release was just the tip of the iceberg, the near-final act in a first-time filmmaker’s multi-year struggle to bring his vision to the screen.
In this conversation, Prior explains how he went from being David Fincher’s protégé to the director of 2020’s most ambitious — and most abandoned — horror film. We also explore how a perfect storm of production problems and studio politics nearly killed the film, and how a passionate audience has already started to turn The Empty Man into a future cult classic.
From DVDs to David Fincher
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. If The Empty Man survives its troubled production and halfhearted theatrical release to become a household name for genre fans, then perhaps this story will serve as a fitting beginning to Prior’s career as a feature filmmaker. For years, Prior worked as a production documentarian for filmmakers such as David Fincher and Peter Weir, but one of his big breaks came with Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, itself a studio disaster that took years to find a passionate audience.
In the years before Ravenous’s theatrical release, Prior had built relationships in 20th Century Fox’s home video department thanks to his contributions to the isolated score track on the Alien DVD release. So when Prior stumbled across Ravenous in theaters — despite a trailer that he describes as a “piss-poor representation of the movie” — he saw an opportunity to build on those connections and bring some much-deserved love to Bird’s film.
“I went to those people that I’d met at Fox,” Prior recalls, “and I said, ‘You know, you guys clearly don’t understand this movie, and I think there’s a real audience for it. I’ve never done a special-edition DVD before, but I’ve certainly watched a lot of Criterion LaserDiscs, and if you just give me a little bit of money, I’ll see what I can throw together.”
His gamble worked. According to Prior, the special-edition release of Ravenous sold three times its initial projections, forcing 20th Century Fox to rush extra copies of the film into production. With his credentials established, Prior was given his pick of future home video releases, and his decision resulted in one of the most influential relationships of Prior’s professional career. “I said, ‘I don’t know what Fight Club is, but I really want to meet David Fincher, so I’ll do that one. And that led to a relationship with Fincher that goes on to this day.”
Over the next decade, Prior became a powerhouse in behind-the-scenes documentaries, shooting features for such films as Master and Commander, Zodiac, and The Social Network. It proved to be a successful and stable career, just not the one that Prior had in mind when he went to Hollywood. “I remember at the time thinking, ‘This is gonna be something where if I’m not careful, ten, fifteen years of my life is going to go by doing this instead of what I’d rather be doing,’” the director says. So Prior took another gamble, this time using some of his own money to produce the short film that would eventually land him his role with The Empty Man.
AM1200 and the beginning of The Empty Man
Despite having a front-row seat to some of the most iconic film productions of our generation, Prior turned to another medium in 2008 as his inspiration for his first short film, AM1200. “At the time, it felt to me that horror movies had sort of lost the thread of what’s actually frightening in cinema,” Prior says. Instead, the director found himself drawing on inspiration from horror-survival video games like Silent Hill. Prior approached AM1200 as an exercise in atmosphere, one that was “more in tune with the kinds of horror movies that I loved growing up.”
Loosely based on an unnerving experience he’d had in his youth, AM1200 follows the doomed adventures of a white-collar criminal who finds himself drawn to an abandoned radio station. Fans of The Empty Man will find a lot to like in AM1200 — the director’s knack for crafting modern Lovecraftian horror stories is on full display — and the short served as a powerful calling card for Prior in Hollywood. It certainly didn’t hurt that none other than Fincher himself described AM1200 as proof that Prior was “one of the most promising directors [he’d] ever seen.”
Once AM1200 made the rounds, the meetings started. Because the short marketed him as a specific type of genre filmmaker, Prior soon learned it would take him a long time to find the right project to call his own. “I spent many years developing projects that came close to happening and never did, or fell apart at the last minute, or turning down every second-rate vampire, or exorcism, or ghost franchise movie that was coming down the pike.” Eventually, though, the team at Boom! Studios sent him a copy of the Empty Man series by Eisner Award-nominated writer Cullen Bunn, and Prior was intrigued.
“Anybody who’s read the comics will — and has — noted that the movie is a somewhat less-than-faithful adaptation,” Prior says with a laugh. He’s not wrong. In its original form, Bunn’s series presents our society mid-collapse, where the nightmarish psychic energy of the title character has turned Earth into a Clive Barker-esque hellscape. Open to a random page of the series, and you are likely to see mass acts of violence or a half-man, half-monster holding a shotgun. Prior went a different route. “I liked the title,” he says, “and a lot of [Bunn’s] concerns — the broader, deeper concerns — were things that I had already been writing about.”
So Prior presented a version of The Empty Man to the studio that was built on the ideas that Bunn had created but incorporated concepts from one of his own unproduced screenplays. “I said, ‘Look, if you want a really faithful, straight-up narrative adaptation of this comic book, then I’m not your guy,’” Prior says. “‘But if you’re willing to let me bounce it off some stuff that I’ve already been working on and take a slightly different approach and kind of still cast it in the same world, then that’s something I’d be very interested in.’” One green light later, and Prior was in preproduction on his first feature film.
The script was his first victory. The star was his second. From the beginning, Prior knew that he wanted James Badge Dale to play the film’s ex-cop main character. Dale is something of a household name to genre fans — his work in films like The Standoff at Sparrow Creek and Hold the Dark has made him one of Hollywood’s more underrated leading men — but Prior traces his appreciation back to 2010, when the actor starred on Rubicon, AMC’s short-lived television series about a dangerous secret society. “A lot of the show hinges on just how interesting he was to watch doing nothing,” Prior says. “I was waving the James Badge Dale flag from the very beginning.” With the backing of his casting director, Prior was able to convince the reluctant studio to cast Dale in the role.
But Dale wasn’t the only piece of the puzzle Prior had in mind. Throughout the writing process, Prior had also been listening to Lustmord, an experimental Welsh musician whose music would also be featured in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Lustmord’s sound sits somewhere between music and electronic ambiance, and securing his collaboration on the film was an integral part of establishing the tone that Prior wanted for his movie. “I don’t even remember how [I discovered him],” Prior admits with a laugh. “It might’ve been some kind of biological algorithmic synchronicity or something.” In a nice parallel to his work on Ravenous, which combined composer Michael Nyman with Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn, Prior also hired Christopher Young, combining a composer and a popular artist to craft the film’s unique sonic soundscape.
The (un)making of The Empty Man
And then things started to go wrong. When The Empty Man was originally released, many critics assumed that the film’s delays were tied to Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox. For The Empty Man, though, the troubles actually began in the final week of production. Most of the film had been shot in South Africa, but the final week of production was set for Chicago, which would double for St. Louis. With bad weather on the horizon, Prior remembered having several conversations with the studio about whether to pause production until the spring or to adjust to the threat of winter weather. When Chicago received two feet of snow overnight, the decision was made for them. Prior hit pause on the production and everyone went home.
It was during this time that feature-film production executive vice president Mark Roybal — whom Prior describes as “essential” to getting the film made — parted ways with 20th Century Fox, leaving The Empty Man in something of production limbo. “We came back, we started cutting, and I did a bunch of pre-vis and animatics and storyboards and stuff to fill in the gaps of what we didn’t have,” Prior explains. “Finally, they brought in a new executive and we were able to go finish shooting in the fall.”
The test screening that followed was anything but successful. While the crew had found itself with several unexpected months to start on its working cut, Prior was told he had to assemble a version of the print for test screenings almost immediately. “It was some ridiculous overlong thing,” Prior admits. “We just hadn’t had a chance to really fully digest it yet.” Despite having an audience that seemed to laugh and jump in all the right places, the final scores were poor, leaving the movie on shaky ground with the studio. “It was kind of the exact same thing that happened on 12 Monkeys,” Prior chuckles. “Except for the final outcome, of course. We didn’t end up making $160 million.”
And as if that wasn’t enough, The Empty Man was operating on a unique clock, one that forced the film to be finalized before Prior was completely satisfied with his edit. “We distilled it down to pretty much what it is now,” he says, noting that he had intended to do another editorial pass to remove “another six minutes or so” from the final cut. That was when the studio called in a panic. “They’d suddenly realized they were about to lose the tax rebates from South Africa because there was a time lock on it and they have to deliver the final cut of the movie within a certain time frame.” Just like that, The Empty Man had its cut, six extra minutes and all.
Then came the Disney acquisition. Prior is no stranger to film history. Throughout our conversation, he cites several films that fell out of favor with their studio because of changes to the executive team or a reshuffled production slate. So when the Disney news became public in early 2019, Prior and his team knew they were facing an uphill climb. “We knew that that didn’t portend well for any kind of timeliness,” he says, “because even if they did intend to release it or support it, they weren’t gonna be doing it for another nine months while they figured out all of the corporate takeover stuff.”
After all these delays, The Empty Man limped into theaters in October 2020, more than four full years since it had first been announced. With audiences still avoiding theaters because of the pandemic, the film grossed a mere $2.9 million with domestic audiences — $4.1 million worldwide — and generated mostly negative reviews from those critics who did bother to watch it. Even in the narrow genre of studio-backed comic book horror films, this seemed to be an ignominious end for Prior’s film.
The Empty Man as a cult classic
For plenty of movies, this is where the story would end. But just as Prior’s career began by offering home video audiences a fresh take on what’s now a cult classic, the audience for The Empty Man has begun the slow process of finding itself. With elements of Lovecraftian mythos, Japanese horror, and good old-fashioned ’70s paranoia, The Empty Man simply does too many things too well to avoid the attention of like-minded horror fans. And Prior has enjoyed the unique experience of watching his film gain traction through the pleasantly surprised reviews of users on Letterboxd.
As happens with most cult movies, The Empty Man’s audience has started to view the film’s alleged weaknesses as its strengths. The twenty-two-minute cold open — unconventional to say the least — is the perfect self-selection process for curious horror fans. The film’s one-hundred-and-thirty-seven-minute runtime has also become a major differentiator, something that helps it stand out amid an ocean of ninety-minute horror titles. This extra time is essential to the cosmic mythology Prior builds on the screen, and those with the patience for a more ambitious breed of horror film will find a lot to like in those extra minutes. Prior even remembers getting a call from an executive at a different studio who watched The Empty Man because he was intrigued by its length.
Of course, if The Empty Man is to develop the kind of word of mouth that will sustain it as a cult classic, it will still need time to unwind some of those initial impressions. “There’s a kind of promise that the marketing of a film makes to an audience,” he notes. “It’s not only supposed to attract the right audience; it’s also supposed to repel the wrong audience. And in this case, it did the opposite.” For those horror fans looking more for monsters and jump scares, The Empty Man was a frustrating experience, and the damage that word of mouth did to prospective audience members will need to be reversed before new horror fans are willing to roll the dice.
But while some directors may approach cult-classic status as something of a mixed blessing, Prior seems genuinely grateful that an audience has found his film. “When somebody discovers something that’s been in the dirt and kicked around, and they go, ‘Hey, I like this,’ they kind of take an ownership of it,” he concludes. “It inspires a certain degree of passion that something that’s more of a success out of the gate doesn’t necessarily [get].” And whatever the future holds for The Empty Man and its audience, at least Prior knows that he made something worthwhile. “I’ve been very gratified and relieved to see that I wasn’t completely insane, that there is an audience for the movie.”