NAMELESS THINGS FROM ABYSMAL SPACE
NAMELESS THINGS FROM ABYSMAL SPACE: Sean Branney’s THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS
The HP Lovecraft Historical Society – the folks behind Portland’s annual HP Lovecraft Film Festival (now also in San Pedro CA), the mind-blowing 2005 short film The Call of Cthulhu and your one-stop shop for every mythos-related prop, toy or collectible you could ever dream of (including Myth-Os breakfast cereal!) – have turned in their first feature-length film, and one that fans are hailing as the most superlative Lovecraft adaptation to date: The Whisperer in Darkness.
Directed by Sean Branney and produced by Andrew Leman, Whisperer is – like the ambitious Cthulhu short that preceded it – set in the 1930s, filmed in crisp black and white with an astounding attention to period detail. Based on HP Lovecraft’s 1931 short story of the same name, Cthulhu’s Matt Foyer again stars – this time as Albert Wilmarth, a folklorist at Miskatonic University whose strange correspondence with a Vermont farmer claiming to have contact with the Old Ones leads him on a bizarre and unfortunate adventure.
You produced the call of Cthulhu a few years back – what did you learn from that film that you applied to your directorial feature debut?
Well, The Call of Cthulhu taught us that making movies is hard. And that having a schedule and a budget is a good idea. But it also taught us that you can make a Lovecraft film in a manner that’s in keeping with his literary style and it can still find an audience. The scope of The Call of Cthulhu was so huge that it made us less afraid to take on a project like Whisperer.
Why is Lovecraft considered so notoriously ‘unfilmable’ and what are some rules you abide by in order to do it right?
Lovecraft is notoriously “unfilmable”. The challenge is to strike a balance between being faithful to the qualities of the source material that make it so enjoyable and to entertain the audience. If Whisperer were perfectly faithful to Lovecraft, we’d have a movie where most of the action would be two guys reading their mail. So, we pump up the drama, action and suspense in an effort to make the film more entertaining. We try to stay in touch with the qualities in the stories that we like, and which we think other fans like too.
Do you think they work best in a period format?
I think Lovecraft’s writing is very connected to the 1920s and 30s, the era when he wrote his most significant works. It was an age when the world was still full of mystery and there were still blank areas on world maps. To me, his world is more literate, more deliberative and more personal than that of later 20th century writers. I don’t think his stories HAVE to be set in HPL’s era, but I think they do play well in a pre-internet, pre-cell phone world.
In Dean Hayes’ office at the beginning is the Mayan mask on the wall the mask from the 1961 Canadian film The Mask?
I’ve never seen the Canadian film The Mask, so I’m pretty sure we weren’t influenced by it. We just wanted a nice artifact from the Charles Tower collection and I thought a Mayan death mask would be nice.
Matt Foyer as Wilmarth is especially great – Tell me how you first came to work with him.
I first met Matt Foyer at the California Institute of the Arts many years ago. Matt was a couple of years ahead of me – he was getting his BFA as I was pursuing my MFA there. I didn’t actually work with him until a few years later. My wife and I founded a theatre company in Los Angeles and we hired Matt to perform in a production of A Man for All Seasons in 1996. Matt’s a fantastic actor and it’s been my privilege to bring him back for many additional projects, both on stage and on screen. He’s a heck of a nice guy too.
He adds a lot of humanity into the film, especially through his relationship with the little girl, who I do not remember being it the original story. What were your hopes in creating this character?
One of the qualities that makes Lovecraft stories difficult to film is that he was never particularly interested in characters. That approached worked for Lovecraft, but it doesn’t tend to be satisfying in terms of our expectations from movies. So, we wanted to flesh out Wilmarth and give him some context with the hope that he wouldn’t feel like a Lovecraftian archetype, but instead he’d feel like a real flesh and blood professor who got caught up in circumstances beyond his control. We added the character of the farm girl to provide him with an ally. Virtually everyone he meets in the film is not really on his side. By giving him an ally who could really use his help, it ratcheted up the dramatic tension for our hero.
Why is academia so romanticized in Lovecraft’s world, and why do fans respond to that?
I think Lovecraft’s fiction attracts bright readers – a lot of it is pretty difficult literature. So, I think the type of readers who are inclined to enjoy it are also the same types who can envision librarians, folklorists and other academic types as being mankind’s best hope in confronting the dark forces of the universe. Sure, some strongman with a gun isn’t going to succeed, right?
The role of technology is also interesting in this story; the static interference surrounding the disembodied heads is like a broken analog video signal –when obviously this is taking place half a century before video. But having this form of media that would be futuristic then, but is antiquated now, is an interesting contrast.
This story demands futuristic alien technologies, but in the film we tried to envision them the way a 1930s art director might. So, the film’s alien technologies are very mechanical rather than electronic. They’re big and powerful. Of course they look antiquated to modern viewers, but if you imagine yourself as a 1931 filmgoer, they’re far-out technologies of the future.
Tell me about the creature design process.
Designing the creatures was an interesting process. Lovecraft describes them pretty specifically, yet many artists have come up with widely varying interpretations of them. We discussed them quite a bit, then our Art Director Andrew Leman sculpted maquettes for them which we intended to then use to make stop-motion animation puppets. Our line producer (whose job it is to keep after us for schedule and budget) begged us to meet with a digital animation studio in Hollywood and see if they could recreate the look of stop motion using CGI technology. It turned out that Dilated Pixels could and did, so they provided us with the creature animations which were then used with our live action plates of our actors.
Last question: What is it about Lovecraft that has made you and the other members of the HPLHS devote their lives to his work?
I think Lovecraft remains interesting to us because he created a world bigger than us. Scientists are still finding weird new things in space (moons orbiting Pluto this week) or strange microbes under Antarctica. Lovecraft’s world view really puts humanity in its place and lets us stare out into the cold dark universe which is literally beyond our comprehension in size. It’s a fantastic playground to feed our creativity and to hopefully bring some entertainment to others who might enjoy a peek out into that darkness.
THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS has its Canadian Premiere on July 26 at 6:45pm in the Hall Theatre. Full details on the film page HERE.