Below is my interview with director and co-writer Paul Shoulberg, whose newest film So Cold the River was set and filmed on location in West Baden, Indiana. We talk about the differences from the source material and the film, the difficulties of working in a new genre, and the uniqueness of shooting in a historical location. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ben Sears: Did you have any history with West Baden or French Lick before deciding to make the film?
Paul Shoulberg: No, I went to grad school at IU and moved to New York afterwards. We moved back to Bloomington in 2011 and I’ve been living here since then and I had heard about the hotels but didn’t really know much about them. I was kind of lucky because I had learned about those hotels first from reading Michael’s (Koryta) book. After I was brought on, we went down there and everything changed once I finally got into that space. It can be an advantage to approach something like this as an outsider, having that space being very new to me. It does sort of hit you in a weird way when you first walk in, and I was glad I was able to tackle it with that sort of energy.
BS: You definitely sense that when Erica (Bethany Joy Lenz) first arrives there. I came into this with a different history, in that my family would always go down to French Lick for fall break almost every year when I was younger. At the time, the West Baden hotel was closed, but we would always see it driving down there and I’ve always been curious about the space. It’s a strange area.
PS: Very. It’s like it doesn’t make sense. What is this doing in a small town in Indiana? It’s like nothing else.
BS: You really incorporate what it feels like to be there because there is some weird folklore and history that just feels like it could be too much in a movie. But as someone that was already familiar with it, it checks out.
PS: The folklore, yes, but the actual history is pretty crazy too. There’s something about historical places that have that sort of mystique to them that gives you this extra vibe of something that you won’t get somewhere else. Certain churches have that feeling too. It’s like there have been a lot of lives that have passed through this place and there’s something there that’s hard to describe. Michael’s book did a really good job of doing that where it kind of brought this place to the world, in a way. You can’t really explain it until you’ve stepped in. You can look at photos online but until you’ve stepped in that dome, you don’t really understand what you’re dealing with.
BS: Were there very many changes from the book to the movie?
PS: Yes and no. As far as the plot, there were a lot of changes. There’s a lot going on [in the book] and to have filmed the book as a one-to-one, we would have needed at least a season of television and a budget that would match accordingly, and that was never going to happen (laughs). We changed a lot to make it make sense for a movie. I’m of the belief that movies need to be their own thing and not just recreate the book. A movie has to be its own thing or it won’t work. If you’re trying to chase a different medium that isn’t meant to do the same things, and lives off of language and description, but with filming there are time and budgetary and physical restraints that are completely different from what you do as a fiction writer. We had to change a lot in that sense. I was able to work very closely with Michael on this, and that’s not always the case in an adaptation. Michael was heavily involved, so I was able to check in at every step and find out ‘what’s important to you showing up in this movie?’ and his writing tells me what’s important to him. What I do think came across from the novel was how majestic the space was, how the vibe of the hotel, which is the ultimate inspiration for the novel, came through. The biggest goal, in a cinematic way, was to bring to the world the power and the mystery of this place. And I think the spirit of the novel in that sense came through really well.
BS: This is your first horror film as a director. From a filmmaking perspective, was there anything challenging about working in that genre?
PS: Oh yea, the things that excite me about horror are the things that make it very challenging. The visual possibilities in a horror film, so much depends on what you put in a frame – what you show and what you don’t show. Whereas in a comedy scene, it’s all about the timing and the flow. It’s the same thing in horror, but the visual timing is so critical. The slight camera move will reveal what’s in frame, or shooting properly to cut to a reveal or not cut to a reveal, if that’s more tense. The visual precision required in horror I think was a very new challenge to me. It wasn’t just cutting to the rhythm of the dialogue, it was like, if this doesn’t work on this exact cut, this scare does not exist. It won’t make any sense. The visual planning, not just because we were tackling this huge location but just to make horror move in a proper way, was a huge challenge that I was really excited to take on but it was a lot of work.
BS: You use a lot of long takes with some really fluid camera movements. Are you generally someone that likes to incorporate long takes, or did you feel that that was necessary in this material?
PS: I love long takes and always have. You’ll see long takes in various places in the other two films that I’ve directed. It’s always something I’ve loved and I find that in horror films, specifically, it’s my favorite thing when directors make that decision. If you do it properly, when you don’t cut, you don’t give a break in the tension to the viewer. It forces the viewer to lean in and figure out where the scare is gonna come from. You don’t know exactly where to look in the frame, you’re lighting it and framing it to move their eyes to a place. Sometimes it’s a misdirect, but you’re left stuck in the tension of the shot, if you do it properly. It’s very hard to coordinate that stuff, but I love it. When horror doesn’t spoon-feed me every moment and makes me have to sit on the edge of my seat and lean in a little bit, that’s when you can play with tension, and a long take is always a great tool, when used properly.
BS: Do you see yourself doing more horror films or will you continue to bounce around and work in different genres?
PS: I would love to do more horror; I’d love to find a way to take what I learned doing horror and then kind of pull from some of my earlier stuff, like comedy or drama and mash them up. I’m very interested in taking genre and applying it to pure character studies and things like that.
BS: Going back to the book and some of the changes that were made, were you ever tempted to really play into the supernatural elements and really make it go off the rails, or did you always want to make it more of a grounded horror film?
PS: The book does an excellent job, I think, of delving into the supernatural aspect of it. I did pitch a more grounded version for a couple reasons. First, budgetarily. I wanted to stay in the pocket of our budget and do things well and not have to rely on CGI versus practical supernatural stuff. We never would’ve had the time or the budget to pull off some of the stuff that was in the book. It’s very big in what it goes for, and I love it. But I wanted it to be more contained, both stylistically but also practically. I wanted to be able to execute all of our ideas. So many times in a horror film, if you’re relying on the razzle-dazzle element of it, you don’t really know if it’s gonna work or not until you throw that stuff at it, so I wanted to make sure what we were doing was working in the frame. So anything we brought to it, supernaturally, was icing on the cake, but not the cake itself. I personally am drawn more to the implied stuff than the actual stuff. Like when you show a monster, to me that’s less interesting than when you feel one around. I wanted to rely on tension and a feeling, as opposed to throwing a lot of crazy visuals at you.
BS: Coming from someone that is a bit of a horror skeptic, I always appreciate more grounded material. With horror, there’s a suspension of disbelief that I have a hard time getting past, and that suspension of disbelief is diminished with more grounded types of horror.
PS: One of the things, when I pitched this, was that I didn’t want to tell a story where the characters don’t make any sense with what they’re doing. So many times with horror films, a character will break off from the group to go down in the basement with a match to light their way, or something. It’s like, what are you doing? Nobody does that! You want to put your characters in harm’s way, and I wanted to make sure there was a human motivation with what was happening to these characters. I wanted everything to be character-driven, and since the novel does that, it’s not like that was a hard sell. I like horror where I don’t have to say “well, this is a horror film, so that’s why this character that I’ve spent an hour with is suddenly really dumb”. The whole thing was properly motivating people that were involved to continuously dive deeper when a normal person would run away. That was a big goal to make sure the decisions that they made make sense so you’re not trying to spend time trying to make that leap as an audience member.
BS: No, I didn’t yell at the screen at all at the characters throughout the film.
PS: *Laughs* Yes, exactly. In so many horror films, it’s like, why don’t they just leave?
BS: There’s a lot of themes in horror films about inherited violence or psychosis, but So Cold The River incorporates this in a fresh way.
PS: One of the things that was really important with this film, and one of the big changes from the book, is that the lead character is a male, and we switch genders in the film. There were a few reasons for that, but one was that there are so many horror films where a deranged male is tormenting various females, and they’re running away, and even if the women are leads, they’re victims until the third act. I wasn’t really interested in having this male descent into darkness and watching women run away or having to fight for their life the whole time. I didn’t want to jump into that trope of horror, and we’ve had a lot of women directors of horror over the last 10 years that have emerged, and that’s solving that problem to some extent, but I didn’t want to contribute to that trope at all. I’m not interested in that. This was always a horror film about ambition, which I wanted to pursue, Michael was really on board with that approach. I also don’t like using mental illness as a plot point to explain everything away. I was more interested in exploring something like ambition, about something which we all possess, but once you tip it a little too far on the scale. Like if ambition goes 1% past where the balance is supposed to be between our humanity and our ambition and what can happen. I was driven by doing that and not by just saying “this person’s crazy”, which you see all the time in these movies. But I do think that horror is one of the few genres of film that has continued to thrive over the last 10 years, so many genres have just fallen off to TV or just disappeared and horror just keeps evolving really nicely.
So Cold The River will release in theaters on March 25 and on VOD on March 29.