Patrick Meaney, producer of She Makes Comics, and the director of Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously, Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods as well as many other documentaries has recently released his first-ever horror film House of Demons: a movie about four friends with a shared traumatic past and troubled lives that stay over at the wrong house for a friend’s weekend wedding. He joins us here today to talk with us about the film on Sequart with Amber Benson, who played Tara Maclay on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and portrays Maya, a woman seeking to save her commune in the 1960s from the charismatic and misguided leadership of Frazer, whose actor Dove Meir of NCIS: Los Angles and Dig as well as Diverted Eden also joins us along with Kaytlin Borgen of Text and Hawaii Five-O who plays Gwen: an aspiring writer in present day 2018 who stays at a rental house with her friends, bringing and getting more than she bargains for as they are, literally, forced to face their demons.
Matthew Kirshenblatt: Hello Patrick. In your other interviews, you have mentioned some of the cinematic media that has influenced the creation of House of Demons. How do you think that your cinematic sensibilities and work with narrative has been influenced by your work in the documentary genre?
Patrick Meaney: The biggest influence was getting to talk to so many amazing writers and artists about their process, and digging deep into what drives them to create the work they do. Hearing Grant Morrison talk about the way he was influenced by his own life experiences, and what was happening in the world around him when crafting really out there genre stories made me want to hone in on a mix of very strange concepts and more reality based character material.
Neil Gaiman is more someone who absorbs everything he sees around him and turns it into story, and I find myself doing the same thing. I love to read non-fiction books about weird subjects, since it gets your mind thinking about what’s possible in the world, and going off in new directions. The basic concept of Frazer’s cult in the film was inspired by reading about Charles Manson and the way that he was able to manipulate people into doing things he wanted.
I wouldn’t want to go and make a movie about Manson, since I think it’s such a loaded topic and I don’t want the sense that I was glorifying someone who was a terrible person. But, when you move it a little bit into the realm of fiction, you have the freedom to explore it without worrying about staying true to history.
I think you can see a heavy influence from Grant and Neil, and the whole Vertigo aesthetic that Karen Berger cultivated in comics, in the film, and talking to them about why they created those works got my mind thinking about what I could do.
On a more direct level, editing documentaries taught me so much about telling a story in film, in terms of pacing and structure. You learn a lot about flow and how the audience experiences a movie. When I edited the doc on Grant, I really crammed a lot of material in there, and watching it later, I could see how it could almost be overwhelming for an audience to have concept after concept thrown at them with no break. It’s not entirely unlike Grant’s comics, so I think it works, but as I went on making more projects, I tried to have some more interludes and let the mood build.
And I think I applied that to House of Demons, trying to balance having a lot of story and things to go through with letting the movie breathe.
MK: Can you tell us a little bit about House of Demons? Do you think the story fits into the horror genre, or is a multi-genre narrative?
PM: House of Demons is an ensemble horror film about four friends who’ve drifted apart after a tragic car accident that left their friend paralyzed. They all suffer from arrested development in different ways, and haven’t really dealt with the aftermath of the accident, or the other issues plaguing them in their lives. After a few years apart, they get back together for a friend’s wedding, and spend the night in a remote house in the country.
This house used to be home to a cult in the 1960s led by a former scientist who got ‘turned on’ and is now doing experiments that blur science and magic, in the hopes of manipulating space and time itself. Over the course of one long, dark night of the soul, the present and the past collide, subconscious darkness manifests, and everyone must face their fears or be destroyed by them.
So, the movie definitely has horror elements and scary parts, but I think it’s just as equally a surreal character drama. I think the fear of the movie is not so much external “Boo!” sort of stuff, it’s more existential fear about our own darkness.
MK: You’ve said in your interview with The Movie Sleuth that you read Grant Morrison’s Invisibles in high school. Would you say that it influenced the psychedelic nature of House of Demons, or as it was originally titled Trip House? And did you have other comics and literary influences on the metaphysics of this world as well? I know you have said that people who love Neil Gaiman and David Lynch might appreciate your film.
PM: The Invisibles, and Grant’s work in general, definitely influenced the psychedelic nature of the film. I don’t really like drugs themselves, but I’ve always loved out there, trippy stuff. As a kid, I remember seeing the video for The Beatles “I am the Walrus,” and loving it, and the song. It was just so crazy, and when I found Grant’s work, it hit that same blend of really out there, but still accessible and fun.
Beyond Grant, Stephen King is a big influence, particularly The Dark Tower, which has a lot of time jumping and mind bending stuff. I was actually reading It for the first time right when we were getting ready to film, and it was interesting to read a book with a lot of parallels to this story that dealt with a lot of the same themes and feelings.
And there’s also The Shining, though more in the Kubrick incarnation than King’s book. The Shining had a very loose approach to time, where the 1920s and the present seemed to co-exist, all in this strange space that seemed to channeling something dark. That concept was very cool, and I felt like there was something to explore there.
MK: This is an excellent line in the film, an epigraph that you place at the beginning, and the end that reads: “Time doesn’t heal our wounds. It numbs them. Outside time, those wounds still bleed, and all our demons wait for us.” Did you write this yourself and is the Gwen Garson named at the end, who wrote House of Demons, the Gwen played by Kaytlin Borgen? If so, she would be the only character with a surname in the film.
PM: I wrote that in our world, but in the world of the film, it’s written by Gwen, who indeed has the only last name of the film. I always struggle naming characters, so having to come up with two names for all of them would have been too much! I think Gwen Garson is a very Stan Lee kind of name, but it felt right, so it stuck.
MK: You told The Movie Sleuth that the Matthew (played by Jeff Torres) and Katrina (played by Whitney Moore) arc had antecedents in a web series you created a while ago. Aside from being curious about the name of that series and what it was about, how did it influence House of Demons? And how did Gwen change from a support character in another script of yours and become a main character in your film? Was she always going to be a writer?
PM: The web series is called The Third Age, and you can watch it all here if you’re curious. It doesn’t all hold up, but I’m still proud of it!
Basically, after I graduated from college, my friend Jordan Rennert and I wanted to produce something, and web series were hot at the time, so we jumped in, and wound up making this crazy four hour long saga. It was made with basically no budget other than buying sandwiches for the cast on each shoot, but it was an incredible learning experience. By shooting so much, I learned a lot about how to cover a scene, how to work with actors, and how to make the most of limited resources. On the one hand, shooting four hours of content in that way was insane, but it was still cheaper than going to grad school!
The show is similar to House of Demons, in that it’s about ordinary people interacting with supernatural forces, and has a blend of weird horror stuff with character drama. One of the main threads in the series was about two characters like Matthew and Katrina who had dated in the past and become estranged, and wound up forced back together and dealing with all these issues. Because of the way we shot the show over a long period of time, the characters developed in an organic way and when I brought some of those ideas into House of Demons, they felt lived in.
As for the character of Gwen, I wrote a script that was sort of a riff on the zombie genre called The Viral Man, and one of the ‘survivors’ in the film was Gwen, who used sarcasm to hide her own vulnerability. When I write a script, I like to write up each character’s backstory and explore where they came from as a way of understanding them better. I try to view the story from every character’s perspective, so their actions all make sense, and lead somewhere.
And in exploring why Gwen would be this way, I came up with the idea that her mother was a student who let with her professor. It was a big scandal in the small college town where they live, and now she’s stuck dealing with that. It made her feel down about herself from the start, since everyone saw her mom as a home wrecker, and her father is this big time academic figure who she’s always trying to impress.
So, the idea was always that she was a writer, and that she was writing a book about a family at different points in time, connecting the ‘sins of the father’ to the next generation. I really liked these ideas, and wound up writing a short about the character, that has some scenes that turn up almost verbatim in House of Demons.
And, as I developed the overall idea of House of Demons, and this ensemble group of friends, I realized that this would be a perfect character to explore in this context. In general, my creative process is to write a lot of different scripts and ideas, and sometimes even ones that go nowhere wind up having pieces get harvested out and become something else.
MK: I can actually see Gwen’s laconic, self-deprecating character in a zombie film. It would have been interesting to see an aspiring writer dealing with an undead apocalypse. When I read up on House of Demons, after watching the film of course, I remember that scene where Gwen walks in on her father and her mother in his office. Was the professor that Gwen’s mother had an affair with as a student her own father? Certainly, one major theme in the film — for almost each character arc — that I have pieced together is from Gwen’s own novel in process about family that keep on “fucking up” one generation after the next.
PM: Her mother and father did stay together, and he is the professor in question. Over the course of the movie, we build them up as really bad, but a lot of that is in Gwen’s head. On the one hand, yes, she has a tough situation to grow up in, on the other, she’s let these negative feelings spiral up and out of control and take over her life. So, the movie is largely about her reckoning with that.
And the book she’s writing is definitely tied into that theme. She wants to blame her bad feeling on her circumstances, but she needs to realize she holds a responsibility too. What Frazer tells her is largely correct, regarding her own power, but he’s doing it for nefarious purposes.
MK: Kaytlin, how much of Gwen’s past and reality, as much as anyone, do you think is affected by her own self-doubts and biases towards her family? How much do you think was the audience’s perspective influenced by Gwen’s feelings, and/or her objective reality?
Kaytlin Borgen: I think, at least in the beginning of House of Demons, Gwen’s past heavily influences her self doubts and biases towards her family. It’s what makes her have such a bitter attitude, she is comparing herself to how she should be, what she would have been and not taking accountability for her actions. I’m not sure I can answer how much the audiences perspective was influenced by Gwen’s feelings/ objective reality but if the audience related to her feelings than it would probably be a lot.
MK: Speaking of altered reality and perception Patrick, when you made the antagonist character of Frazer, as portrayed by Dove Meir, along with his late 1960s cult, did you just research Charles Manson and his group? Or did you look into other influences, such as occult groups in the 1920s as well?
PM: Manson was the biggest influence. Jeff Guinn’s biography of Manson was an amazing book and did such a good job painting a picture of what made him so powerful, and also evoking the times in which he lived. I had just moved to LA, so it was really interesting to read about recent history that took place all around where I was living.
The thing that fascinated me the most was the idea that Manson didn’t have to kill anyone, he was able to convince people to do it for him. He was able to prey on peoples’ vulnerabilities in a way that was ultimately destructive, but also made people feel loved and cared for in a way they hadn’t before. I liked that dichotomy.
In the film, Frazer never lies to Gwen or his followers, and ultimately he kind of helps Gwen, but she’s able to resist before going too deep, as Tiffany Smith’s character Samantha did.
MK: Dove, having been Frazer, how did you find playing him, the head of this commune that experiments with space and time, life and death? It strikes me as interesting that he is experienced in dealing with this psychic mind space: being able to actually talk in the language of wounds, and trauma as represented by daemons to get someone to face them. Do you think he seduced Gwen much in the same way he did the other young women, and even men in his group: such as giving them names like “Siren?”
Dove Meir: I think what makes me so dangerous is how my story and mission relates so closely to a human story that is ubiquitous. We’ve all lost loved ones, be it a friend, family or even a pet and have felt guilt and regret. What would we have done if we believed we found a way to bring them back? The most fascinating antagonists for me are the ones where we can see ourselves within them and understand why they are who they are. Throwing in space and time and experiments just takes a childlike imagination to play and we certainly played.
I definitely used the same tactics to seduce Gwen as I did everyone else in my collective. You’d be amazed what you can accomplish by simply listening. People rarely do.
MK: Why was Spencer (played by Morgan Peter Brown) kidnapped? Was it an accident due to the shifting timelines, or was there a reason he was taken in particular?
PM: Without getting too much into spoilers or things best left to the audience’s interpretation, my idea with the ‘time travel’ in the film was not so much that the people from the 1960s moved the present, but that the two times stacked on top of each other, and both were present at once. So, when Samantha goes back into the house and finds this guy, she assumes that he’s an FBI agent or cop, thanks to his rather square look compared to their group. She’s very paranoid at this point, and Frazer has her believing it’s a real us vs. them situation.
MK: Dove, what do you think Frazer would have thought of Spencer? Before Spencer’s own revelations thanks to Maya’s guidance, and after? There is differently some interlap between them.
DM: There’s absolutely a commonality. I believe Spencer and I are of the same ilk. If he were my shoes and had experienced what I did he would have most likely come to the same conclusion. Of course he had his own journey of discovery as we all do. It’s a revolution of the mind when some one who is pragmatic and logical like a medical professional opens up to concepts beyond what we can see and feel. He can thank me for that. ;)
MK: Amber, based on your work in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of which I admit I followed a lot in my adolescence and early adulthood as an obvious fan, did you feel like Maya was a different character or a variation of the archetype of Tara Maclay?
Amber Benson: I feel like Maya and Tara shared a lot of positive qualities. They both fall into the earth mother archetype, for sure, and they both had the power of love and forgiveness inside of them. I get tapped a lot to play this particular kind of character and it heartens me to know that I have the world fooled – little do they know how frightening I am in real life (*insert villainous laugh here.)
MK: Was Maya the one originally responsible for helping Frazer become “enlightened?” Is that why she calls Spencer Frazer during her own drug-induced moments towards the end of the film, and part of the reason why she helps him attain that enlightenment?
AB: I will defer to our writer/director on this one – but, to my knowledge, Maya was a part of the process that led to his enlightenment- and, therefore, she accepts part of the responsibility for what happened – and that connection between Frazer/Spencer is all tied up in her feelings of responsibility and her attempts to stop the chaos that is happening in all of the film’s various timelines.
PM: That covers most of it. I’ll just add that in the backstory of the characters, alluded to in the flashback sequence, Maya and Frazer worked together on government experiments with LSD and other drugs, think MK Ultra, in the 1950s. After these drug experiences, they both began to see greater possibilities for what they could do, by combining the possibilities of spirituality and science into something new. That’s what leads them down the path of forming their group and the subsequent experiments.
MK: In your opinion, does Maya still care about Frazer despite everything he’s done? Is her power of love, her belief in the original process of what Frazer intended to do — the spirit of releasing one’s pain if not the letter of going back and time and physically preventing it — that strong?
AB: I think Maya saw the good in him and knew, though he had been corrupted, that goodness was still there inside of him. Maya was about trying to do the right thing and knowing that it is part of the human condition to strive for goodness and fail – and her true power comes in her ability to forgive those failures, regardless of how terrible they may be.
MK: What do you think happens to Maya and Frazer after the confrontation with the Daemon? Do they go back to their own time, or somewhere else entirely: given that vision of yourself as an angel?
AB: Of course I had to post the angelic photo of myself on Instagram. It was pretty badass! But as far as the end of the movie goes…I like to think that Maya ended up somewhere lovely where nothing bad could touch her.
MK: When you look at the metaphysics of House of Demons, it is easy to see that Frazer and his group see space-time as something that can be exploited through personal trauma: through creating wounds that they can interact with, and go through. The Daemon, played by Paradox Pollack, and as he is called in the credits seems to be an archetype or manifestation of the psychic space the commune is playing with: or of one particular member specifically. How did you come up with the Daemon, and are there other daemons in this film? For that matter, is it all drug-induced: even for the four friends in 2018? Did Frazer and his group put something in the wine supposedly belonging to their friend’s uncle years ago when they owned the cottage?
PM: The Daemon is clearly connected to Frazer, but he’s also very connected to Katrina. The basic idea of the movie is that everyone must confront the darkness within themselves, so the Daemon functions as a kind of judge, he forces people to face their fears, face their darkness, and some people wind up stronger, while others are destroyed by it. So, he’s almost like a ‘judge’ in that respect. I think he’s created by what Frazer did, but also has ties to the space itself. There’s several allusions in the film to the notion that there’s something special about this particular place, and it’s this combination of factors that allows the supernatural elements to come through.
The Daemon character was mostly in the script, but Paradox Pollack did an amazing job bringing him to life and really honing in on this morally ambiguous nature. He never saw the character as a villain, but more as a force of nature, and in the editing, we tried to make him very present throughout the entire film before he ultimately manifests physically.
And I also want to mention the amazing makeup work that Michael Dinetz did for the character. It was very subtle, but creepy.
And, no, he’s not the only Daemon in the film, but the others take on different shapes. Chloe Dykstra as Gwen’s mom is the most prominent example, and we deliberately had her move in a way that evoked Paradox’s performance. But there’s a couple of other examples as well.
I don’t see it as entirely drug induced, I think it’s more a function of the rituals that Frazer did connecting to the pain of the characters in the present. But the wine was from Frazer’s era and may have helped ease the situation into reality.
MK: That is very interesting. One observation I made as I was taking notes on the film was the idea of the Daemon himself, or itself. From my own readings, daemons in Greco-Roman mythology, also called daimons or genii, are spirits that inspire, guide, or link a person to the other world: or perhaps their own subconscious. Whereas in modern times people credit themselves with the development of ideas, in ancient Greco-Roman culture inspiration came from the passing and embrace of these spiritual entities. It is also fascinating to note that the word “daimon” itself is a root word for “angel” and “devil.”
I definitely saw other daemons, or different facets of the one from different character perspectives. For Matthew and Katrina, their daemons are their past selves: Matthew seeing himself and Katrina with the latter giving birth, Katrina dealing with the memory of the truth behind why she didn’t really have Matthew’s baby through the advice of her mother (again going back to the plot or theme of Gwen’s writing), Gwen’s vision of her ever-youthful mother played by Chloe Dykstra as something of a Lilith-like red-headed figure always threatening to consume her dark-haired daughter’s space and existence, and Spencer seeing the broken form of Dave and then his own impeding, nihilistic death.
As for the particular place or setting of the House being special, I started to think that Frazer and Maya chose that spot because of the sacredness of that land, which feeds into 1960s and 70s New Age philosophy as well as older supernatural traditions, especially with regards to leylines and qi.
PM: That was one of the things that Paradox brought to the part as well, the notion of being a dameon, rather than a demon, and I think it’s very apt to the function of the characters in the script.
And I love those interpretations. One of the main structural elements of the movie was to make the internal external, and manifest the ill feeling that all these characters have in a way that we can see and they are forced to interact with. And we really played it up on set even more, particularly with Chloe and developing her character and presentation. Most of the things she says weren’t in the script, but we developed them on set, and experimented a lot with the right tone she could use to try and get under Gwen’s skin.
And we definitely talked about leylines, and the notion that this place was a hub for spiritual energy. I always love reading about 60s places like Esalen, and would certainly be curious to dive more into that kind of world, with a larger budget to work with one day. It was a really fascinating time, and everything changed so fast. Hair styles, music, all that stuff totally revolutionized in three or four years, in a way that I don’t think can be matched at any other point in history. And showing those glimpses of who Maya and Frazer were before gives you a sense of that change.
MK: If you had kept the 1920s element of the early script, as you discussed with The Movie Sleuth, and Richard Vasseur of First Comics News, how would it have interacted with the 1969 and contemporary timelines?
PM: The original idea was more like four separate storylines that happen in the same house, but they wouldn’t link up in the way it does now. It would have been basically several ghost/time travel stories that happen to each character. But, I wound up really liking the 1960s elements, and wanting to tie the script together more directly, rather than have the ensemble pieces be separate.
Part of that idea was that a group in the 1920s was doing a seance, but we would see that seance from the perspective of those being summoned (i.e. the present day characters). And to some degree that’s how the movie ended up, just with Frazer’s ritual instead of a seance.
MK: So it would have been almost like an anthology of different scenes instead? I definitely get an Invisibles and Sandman feel from that evocation of the 1920s: especially with regards to the seance.
PM: I think it would have been a little too close to the Invisibles Hand of Glory part or the opening of Sandman, and I felt more of a connection to the recent history of the Manson cult. Plus, it’s easier to recreate the 60s on a budget than the 20s, and you don’t want it to feel like a Great Gatsby themed costume party.
MK: Do you think the ending to the film, without giving too much away, is typical of one you would find in the horror genre and after all the momentum built up through the fever dream created in the House?
PM: That was one of the things that’s been interesting to me in peoples’ reaction to the film. I guess I’m an optimist at heart, since most of my scripts end on a positive note after going through the darkness. I never saw it as the kind of film where everyone gets picked off as the movies goes on and one person survives. I didn’t write it as a horror film in that regard, it was more character driven, and I felt like these characters needed to make it through the dark, for the most part.
So, I didn’t intend to subvert the genre, but I think the ending does do that in some ways.
MK: Kaytlin do you think Gwen would have written an entirely different novel than the one she inevitably does at the end of the film if she hadn’t encountered Frazer or the House? And what do you think her novel, presumably House of Demons, ended up being about? Was it the same theme about families fucking each other up over generations, or did this change when she got that phone call?
KB: Those experiences changed Gwen’s point of view so, ultimately it had to change the novel. The theme stayed the same but the ending changed because her protagonist had a shift, now she wasn’t going to let the fucked up circumstances break her.
MK: Dove, what do you think of Frazer’s decision at the end of the film? Do you think it was in character for him, after all the things he had done, to face the Daemon: the representation of his own failure to save his brother Bobby, the ideal of going back in time to save him and prevent his death turned perverse by his own lust for power?
DM: I do believe it was the right decision to make. When we are faced with the demons we’ve created we can run from them or we can stand up and fight. My demon opened my eyes to what Maya was trying to get me to see all along. I always believed I was the hero and by saving Bobby I could learn to save everyone who believed in me. Everything I did I believed was rooted in altruism.
MK: I can believe that Dove. At the end, when the truth stands there right in front of you, it can remind you of where you came from, where you went and, inevitably, where you need to be. Kaytlin, do you think Gwen will be able to incorporate her “Siren’ aspects into her current life in a healthy manner, and do you think that is what encouraged her to finally complete her book?
KB: Definitely, I think she already has. “Siren” was there all along and now that Gwen owns it, and isn’t being mind controlled, she has come in to her empowerment and confidence.
MK: Patrick, do you ever intend to return to the metaphysical world of House of Demons in another film?
PM: I think the stories of the present day characters are pretty much over, but I would love to do more with the cult group. I wrote a lot of material about Frazer’s backstory, how he and Maya moved from working on government MK Ultra experiments in the 50s to building this utopian group that gradually went dark.
So, maybe a Godfather II sort of movie that jumps between Maya’s story after she returns to her own time and has to rebuild the group, intercut with flashbacks illustrating her and Frazer’s journey?
And even if I’m not back in this particular world, the other scripts I’m working on are definitely in the same spirit.
MK: I had a feeling that Frazer and Maya had known each other for a while: that she had seen him, and even helped him grow into the person that he is before … the rest of it. In some ways, for him and Spencer, she seemed to embody the other side of the Daemon: the guide, and the angel — literally.
PM: That was definitely the thinking with her character. She is the one person who doesn’t have as many issues to deal with, and can guide the other characters on their journey. So, it made sense for her to manifest as an angel to Frazer and briefly Gwen, and also to serve as Spencer’s guide to the other side.
I also liked the idea of using the character that Spencer encounters at the end of his trip as a representation of the angelic side. It was deliberate to have characters that represented the worst and best of each character’s nature and juxtapose them against each other.
MK: Where can House of Demons be watched and/or purchased?
PM: It’s available on DVD, digital formats and cable video on demand. There’s a list here (http://houseofdemonsmovie.com/watch-the-film/).
You can also keep up with the movie on Twitter and Instagram at houseofdemonsx
DM: Thank you, Matthew, for the questions. What drove me to do what I did exists in all of us just as Frazer is a real part of Dove that exists within. Discussing what that is and exploring it can benefit us all.
MK: And thank you, Dove. And everyone. I just have one more question. Kaytlin, just how do you think Gwen would deal with the zombie apocalypse she was originally intended for in Patrick’s The Viral Man?
KB: She would have confronted the situation head on and kept fighting for those she loved and the good of humanity, no matter what.