In conversation with FRIGHTFEST, director Keith Thomas discussed his Orthodox Jewish themed directorial feature debut THE VIGIL, speaking about the process of idea to final cut, and ALIEN as an example of the effectiveness of the horror film to engage the audience.


In THE VIGIL, Yakov (Dave Davis), a former Hassid who has lost his faith reluctantly agrees to be the shomer, and watch over the dead body of a recently deceased member of the local community and Holocaust survivor. Settling down to fulfil his duties in the dilapidated house, Yakov soon realises that something is not quite right.


FRIGHTFEST: Interviewing filmmaker Sean Brosnan for MY FATHER DIE, he explained: "I know a lot of friends who pick their themes first or they'll pick a story and then say: 'What do I want to explore?' I find for me that is very limiting because I just like to explore a world and its characters; to see what theme comes out of that and to let the story dictate it." Are you attentive to specific themes from the outset or is it a journey of discovery, wherein you find the film in the final cut?


KEITH THOMAS: It’s all of those things. I came up with the germ of the idea of this setting, with this tradition of a man watching the body and I thought, ‘How has that never been done as a horror film? That’s such a perfect set up.’ Once I had that general idea, it was a question of how do I make it personal? How do I talk about a theme I’m interested in? How do I channel that into a character?


I started exploring and in the writing of the script this all came out, and it became a larger message of the film. When I write a script it’s impossible for me not to see it in my head. I see the entire film and so my screenplays typically have a lot of direction in them: the sound design and the camera movements. So that’s one version of the film and of course, when you go into production and you start shooting the film, it has to radically change in a lot of ways because you can never film what you saw in your head. You can’t find or build that, so you have to compromise on certain things, and there are those things that will be better. It becomes a different film and then in post-production a third film.


When I go to the theatre to see it, I have all three playing in my head. It’s hard for me to be the judge because I have my own interpretations of it. But when I saw THE VIGIL, I found that in post-production we were very true to that first vision.


We don’t have any cut scenes, everything we shot is in the film and there’s not a single second that isn’t, which was scary [laughs], but at the same time it’s liberating in that no one was sitting around making a choice. You have this or you have that, and that’s all you’ve got. You’ve got multiple takes of different shots, but there’s no bad B-story that got cut out, there’s no improvising that happened.


There’s a phrase, “A poem is never finished, it is only abandoned.” It’s the same with a film – you can never truly finish what you wanted. You eventually just have to say, “Okay, this is it, it’s done. I need to put it out there. Let’s see what people think.” Once you’ve done that, then hopefully you’re happy with it.


FRIGHTFEST: I remember Leigh Whannell saying to me when we were discussing INSIDIOUS 3 that a filmmaker has to trust their instincts. How instinctive was the process of making THE VIGIL?


KEITH THOMAS: A lot of it was. When I sat down to make THE VIGIL, the idea was that it was going to be a horror film first and foremost, and I was going to explore all the different types of scares that have the most effect on me. So I went from the most subtle scare to the most on your nose, in your face scares, which I think is part and parcel of any horror film.


I know jump scares have gotten a bad rep, certainly recently with a shift in how horror films are seen and with a lot more art house horror, that people have said jump scares are for the teenagers. I happen to think jump scares can be very effective and are a useful tool in the toolbox for crafting larger overarching scares. And so for me all the scares in THE VIGIL came from a very personal space.


…When we were filming some scares on set I was feeling them, and it’s funny because audiences sometimes have no reaction to those. They don’t do anything, whereas when we were filming other scares on set I thought, ‘This is terrible, this will not scare anybody’, and in our premiere people screamed and jumped. So it’s funny how subjective scares are and so I tried to have as many different types in the film to cover all of those bases.


I think Leigh’s right in that it’s instinctual, it‘s a gut thing and that’s the fun of writing it. You have to sit there and scare yourself shitless and hope it has an effect. If it scares you, then hopefully you’ll be able to create that same environment and atmosphere on set, and in the film.


FRIGHTFEST: On set the film is in its rawest form, and so we could describe the filmmaking process as one of anticipation.


KEITH THOMAS: I think that’s very true and it comes down in a lot of ways, or at least I’ve found to be the consistency of vision. With a film like ours there was no way to shoot it chronologically, and the film builds intention. So it was all about maintaining that tone and knowing every day when I walked onto set that I had to be back in that space that we were last in, and I had to get everyone else in there too, and obviously with the actors that’s a huge deal. But the funny thing is you have to be the puppet master and aware that you’re the puppet master, and at the same time put yourself in the shoes of the actor or the person on set.


It’s amazing that the camera eye captures what looks like this reality, when in fact when you’re on set it’s nothing close to that. Every time I watch THE VIGIL, I see the rooms we’re in and I can just picture all the crew members hiding behind each wall, or under the couch, or wherever they were. It’s funny how there’s that huge disconnect, so yeah, every time you look through the viewfinder or you’re looking at the monitor, you’re always thinking ten or fifteen steps ahead, ‘Okay, we’re going to colour grade this this way. We’re going to have the sound design here.’ I have to see it that way otherwise you can get lost and lose that vision, which is integral to holding the whole thing together.


FRIGHTFEST: Speaking with Carol Morley for THE FALLING, she explained: "You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it." If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?


KEITH THOMAS: I definitely think so. There’s a deconstructionist or death of the author thing that happens, in that I have all my intentions when I created it, I have the message that I wanted it to send, but the minute it’s done and it’s out there, none of that matters. It stands or it falls on its own, and a lot of times maybe some of the themes I had or ideas will not transfer, or maybe they’ll transfer to certain audiences, but not others.


The thing has to be able to move on its own and I have to accept that as well -  the other part of being the creator is that it is what it is, and people are going to interpret it how they’re going to interpret it. If the reactions are good, then you of course feel good about it and you think, ‘Okay, they’ve got what I was going for.’


The other thing is, and especially with horror films, which ALIEN is an excellent example of, is that Ridley has the audience do a lot of the work in terms of what the alien is. It’s not until the very end that you even get a sense of what it looks like and all that build up is crucial. Why the film has cemented itself so heavily in culture and memory is because of the ambiguity around everything. The people on the Nostromo are trying to figure it out just as much as the audience is.


Horror is a great vehicle for avoiding a lot of exposition that wouldn’t have the audience working, because even though people like these popcorn movies where they ‘turn their brains off’, at the end of the day I think people prefer movies where they feel like they were actually involved and were working. It wasn’t taxing them, but it was enjoyable - we climbed this mountain together and we figured it out. Maybe you didn’t like it, but you were there, and the experience was something.


Paul Risker.


THE VIGIL is released by Vertigo Releasing and is currently playing in UK theatres.


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