The director talks to Jeremy Berkowitz ahead of the April 18 world premiere of his psychological thriller in Tribeca.
Lavender centres on Jane, played by Abbie Cornish, as she tries to regain her memory and uncover the truth behind her family’s death. Diego Klattenhoff, Dermot Mulroney, and Justin Long also star.
Gass-Donnelly reveals more about crawling centipedes, how to horrify any audience, and the influence of Stanley Kubrick. AMBI financed the film. XYZ Films represents US rights and AMBI Distribution handles international sales.
What different horror movies or thrillers influenced you for this movie?
I have such a mixed response to the word “horror”. Definitely The Others was a big influence. I’m not a horror fan really, per se. But there are great movies that happen to be scary, but I’m not a fan. The biggest reason I don’t like that genre is I really don’t believe it. There’s bad reactions. But what I liked about The Others was just that it was such a rich world of performances. I was so drawn into the world. They made me believe it through the acting. And that was what inspired me to do this. I’m interesting in telling stories and it’s about how I can make them authentic and with airtight logic from beginning to end. Especially a movie like this where you have to make sure that all those pieces and beats are a part of it.
The other one that influenced the movie was The Shining. There were points where I would say, “I think we’re accidentally ripping off The Shining.” Not ripping it off, but the shot where there was the girl in the hall – it’s that classic sort of Kubrick centre frame. I think it’s just where our tastes tend to go. We try to find things that we find to be creepy and unsettling. They tend to have a lot of restraint.
I thought Justin Long really fit the role. I know he did Tusk, but typically we’re used to seeing him play more comedic characters.
I was trying to cast him in a way that makes him a little weird, and then lets us trust him. So, for me I like the idea that that he’s recognisable, so when you see him at the beginning of the movie you know he’s going to come back. And that was important. Within the genre you’re always looking to be ahead of the movie. As soon as you know there’s a mystery you try to solve it. That’s one of those thing I love – and why I like films – you get to act as a participant. So, I just liked that there was something a little bit off about him and we could play him a little bit odd in that job.
He played a psychiatrist. You might think it’s a little strange casting, but then you play him completely straight with no indication of anything creepy involved. For me it’s just a dance. Other people could have been great, but using them would have been way too obvious. So, the audience is trying constantly to solve the movie. I loved him in Galaxy Quest and Dodgeball. That’s what I think of him in because he’s funny. He’s really funny to hang out with. The thing with comedians – people who are really funny, I think that they can be too earnest. But he was able to give a strange, seemingly simple performance. I’m really proud of it. It feels different than what we’ve seen in before.
DId the child actors ever get scared on set and did you have to pause or slow down?
No. When they were under the bed together one of them was going to have an actual centipede crawling up her arm and I was just sort of like, do we need to do this CG? And I asked if she was okay to have it crawl on her body. And she so hardcore wanted to do it. We had to have child psychologists on set because the kids are young, and their parents were there. But all of them were really gung ho. Our youngest one, Sarah, who plays Susie, had questions, so we had to be careful and cautious. But the people who you think you have to look out for the most are the strongest ones.
As a director do you feel you have a technique that invokes the most fear?
For me it’s about creating the fear of what’s off-camera. Creating a threat off-camera and holding the camera for longer – that for me is the classic Hitchcock way. If there’s a bomb going off, make sure the audience doesn’t know when or where it will go off. It creates a dread without pandering to the need to deliver. You want to respect the audience and respect the movie, but not feel you will lose the audience if you don’t throw in a random scare. It’s about milking and not revealing and holding back. That’s what I find to be the most scary. Blood, gore, guts, and monsters can startle you, but they don’t linger psychologically.