GORE IN THE STORE
IN CONVERSATION WITH JULIAN RICHARDS
In director Julian Richards’s REBORN, an electrical storm resurrects a stillborn baby girl who is then abducted by a morgue attendant. Sixteen years later and Tess (Kayleigh Gilbert), now empowered with the gift to manipulate electricity escapes her captor and sets out to find her birth mother, actress Lena O’Neill (Barbara Crampton). While she tracks down her mother, a detective (Michael Paré) follows the path of destruction that she has left in her wake.
In conversation with FRIGHTFEST, Richards reflected on how REBORN became an exercise in nostalgia and meta-horror, his organic approach to filmmaking and the anxious search for an ending.
FRIGHTFEST: REBORN works within the boundaries of genre to offer a familiar story, and no matter how often we have seen this type a story play out, there is an inherent pleasure that we take from the everyday.
Julian Richards: I always remember a great interview with Jon Voight when he was asked the question, “What makes Robert De Niro such a good actor?” And his answer in a word was, “Refinement.” I think that sums it up. It’s not necessarily what you do, it's what you don't do, and there is a pressure to try to do too much. Acting is the same and actors often try to do too much, but usually, it's about what you don't do, and that’s a part of the art of storytelling and filmmaking.
They say there are only about seven stories and you’re always looking to put a new spin on something. The ingredients of REBORN were very familiar, and my concern was that even though it had that great heart to it with the mother and daughter, the rest of it had been done before. So what could I do to the script to make it contemporary? What I decided on was nostalgia. Instead of trying to run away from the familiarity of things, I decided to embrace them and make it a vital element of the film.
I decided to celebrate this particular type of genre. I decided to nod to what we have seen in the past, then at the same time put a spin on it too, to not only make it an exercise in nostalgia but to make it a meta-paranormal horror in the sense of its ending, which is something I added to the script. And that’s where you can say that it’s an opportunity to push the envelope to do something a little different with what could have been a tired idea.
FF: An interesting dynamic plays out in the film where Lena shifts focus away from Tess’s tragedy, only for the end of the film to then emphasise the daughter’s, that gives the ending an emotional punch.
JR: When the script first came to me, the way it was written, it was undecided who the protagonist of the story was. It could have been the daughter, or it could have been the mother, and I don’t think the mother made an appearance until twenty-five minutes into the story. I thought, ‘Well here’s a narrative problem because it looks like the daughter is the protagonist, but it should be the mother.’ The change I made was to shift the emphasis towards the mother, pushing the daughter into the shadows to keep her mysterious.
The danger with that is she becomes an archetype, and so you did need the scenes where she’s doing a read through with her mother, as well as those other scenes that humanise her. Then when it comes to the outcome, you feel empathy for that character in the same way that you do for Frankenstein’s monster and King Kong. This was all part of what I was trying to do - a nod to the films that influenced me as a kid. This is ultimately a classic story and somewhat of a creature feature, albeit told in a contemporary environment.
FF: The relationship with the past, either finding closure or being unable to, in turn becoming a victim is a central theme of the film. While a simple story that is not psychologically driven, REBORN does function on a psychological level, even presented as a form of therapy for filmmaker and audience to contemplate.
JR: It was great that the script had that underlying material in it, and my job was to identify those elements and refine. To focus on them more than it initially did. As soon as I decided that it was Barbara Crampton’s character that was the protagonist and not the daughter, then it became nostalgic, it became meta, but it also became therapy. It was her character that had the critical problem, and she had an objective to achieve, which was to get this career-changing role on a Peter Bogdanovich film. But she had all of this baggage to deal with, and she needed to go through a process to address and to overcome that to get on with her life. Once I’d chosen her as the protagonist and that this was going to be her story, then that became very much a part of the narrative.
It’s subtext, and it’s there as well as to a degree in the feeling of the film, and that’s what I feel is important about writing and scripts. It’s not what it’s about, it’s what it’s really about, and I need to have some underlying subtext that is pretty substantial for a simple story to work.
FF: Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: "You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before." Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process,
JR: Often I say that I don’t entirely know what the film is about until I start reading the reviews around several months after it has been made when it’s circulating and you’re getting feedback. It’s a process that continues to evolve, and I like to be organic with my filmmaking. For example with REBORN, the script had a different ending to the one that’s in the film, not the twist at the end, but how a mother and daughter come together, and what the outcome of that conflict is.
I wasn’t able to address that particular problem in the script until we started shooting, and I hoped that I would find my answer while I was in production. I try to shoot in order as much as I can so that by the time we get to the end of the shoot, that’s when we’re shooting the end scene.
The process of working with the actors and crew on a day to day basis gives me information about the direction that everything is going in, that I wouldn’t have had locked in my bedroom trying to write the script. But it’s risky, and you’re under a lot of pressure because you’re getting closer and closer to that last day of shooting, and you’re thinking, ‘I still don’t have my ending. I have this one that’s in the script, but I don’t have the ending that’s going to work.’ I often find you’re looking for something to bring in from the outside, and it's usually already there in the material.
I came up with that ending probably two days before we shot it, and it was an interesting one in that it’s slightly out of tone for the genre. It certainly places it more in the crime, police narrative rather than the all-out RE-ANIMATOR type of horror movie. I remember having a conversation with Brian Yuzna (we shot in his house) who said, “No, it’s the wrong ending for this type of genre.” But for me, it's the only ending. It organically came out of the situation that we'd all found ourselves. Even though it might be a bit of an anti-climax, it was right for the characters and the emotional through-line of the story. I think I made the right decision and also it was efficient - it was something that wouldn’t take hours to film when we were running out of time and money. So there’s that side to the economics of the process, of trying to come up with solutions to a lack of time and a lack of money.
REBORN is now available On Digital and DVD from Lightbulb Film Distribution.