Making it’s Canadian Premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival, AVA’S POSSESSIONS is one of the most original ‘horror’ films of the year. I put horror in quotes because Jordan Galland’s film is so much more than that. The film starts where most other films end. Ava has been possessed by a demon, but she’s okay now. Mostly. She doesn’t remember a lot of what she did and all her friends and family are wierded out by her, but she’s feeling much better- although there is the ridiculous amount of damage to public property she did while possessed. But our modern court system has a solution for that. She just needs to attend a ‘demonic possession support group’ or demon rehab as it turns out, and prove she is no longer a menace to society or a conduit for evil.
Galland’s marvelous set up allows the film to touch on territory most genre movies fear: the emotional baggage and isolation that surviving such a frightening moment creates. How should the character feel about all the horrible things she did, but had no control over? How do you put your life back together? And isn’t having a demon to blame just sort of fantastically convenient? The film is anchored by an incredible performance by Louisa Krause, who handles the fear and laughter with equal skill. As her character Ava tries to figure out just how this happened to her, Krause is allowed to be way more active than most horror film protagonists. This is not a character running away from evil and hoping to survive. This is a hero tracking down that evil and facing it again, exposing it and defeating it. It actually turns the film around and gives it a forward momentum that few horror films have. You’re not sitting there shouting at the character ‘just leave the house,’ you are cheering for them to reopen that door and fight on. And strangely, the impulse for this onward advance started at the end. ‘How did I get here’ is far more interesting than just being in it.
I had a chance to speak with writer/director Jordan Galland and lead actress Louisa Krause about the delicate balance and fearless twist of this ‘horror’ detective film.
BEARS: What I like about Ava’s Possessions is that it starts where most horror movies end. Can you talk about the inspiration for that and building a film around something backwards?
There’s so many movies period, there’s so many horror films and so many possession movies. So while I was in post-production on my last movie working on a treatment, I tackled a possession from different angles and finally I arrived at the idea of post-possession – what the recovery process would be like. When the idea occurred to me then a lot of other things just fell into place, like the recovery group, and then the amnesia, mystery angle.
BEARS: Yeah it’s kinda got a film noir vibe to it.
Galland: I love hearing that, because I love detective stories. I like the idea that it was almost a new take on a detective story and not a new take on a possession film. I was like, “What if the detective is somebody who’s recovering from demonic possession?”
BEARS: Who’s actually trying to hunt down themselves?
Galland: Right, right. That’s perfect. No one’s ever summarized it like that so perfectly.
BEARS: It’s a really mixed tone and a lot of times with films that doesn’t work at all, but in this movie it really did. It’s funny, scary, mysterious. Can you talk about crafting that balance – what was your guiding light for that – how did you know you were on the right track? Or did you just get really lucky?
Galland: I think I got lucky. I mean, I certainly got lucky with the actors and the crew. I knew I wanted that caliber of talent, but you’re just lucky if you get them and then you’re lucky that they end up working as hard as they do on an 18-day schedule on a low budget, a lot of night shoots, grueling circumstances, and demanding roles. But as far as a guiding light you just try to only focus on the movies that I absolutely love. Which are a lot of movies. And like I mentioned some of them, I wanted to take those types of movies and then also add a kind of cool, youth culture type of feel to it. Stylish, a little bit rock and roll. That’s why I wrote Ava as someone who’s in the music industry. And Sean Lennon, who did the score.
BEARS: Yeah, the score is fantastic.
Galland: We worked on two other movies together. We used to be in a band together, that’s how I know him. Yeah, that’s why we’re working together on this. Well, actually, I had a band and he played with me in it and it was called Dopo Yume, and he was filling in. He’s a multi-instrumentalist. He would play drums sometimes, he would play bass. Also he has a solo career, he puts out solo records and I wrote some songs with him for those and played on a couple of them. So, we had a vocabulary like that. We’ve worked together.
But, this movie’s different than the other two films because rather than trying to make a film score we actually made more like an indie-rock, with more synths, more guitars. The last movie was a super-hero movie and that was like a bigger, orchestral thing, which was more like a film score. This was like, ‘let’s not do a demonic possession score and like have screechy violins. Let’s see if we can tell the story with, I don’t know, a little cooler instrumentation, give it a fresh beat.’
BEARS: Yeah, it lifted it.
Galland: You know, the demon carries a drum. So, there’s that inherent musical angle.
Krause: So cool. The oldies pop like, and then the chords in the- I just love the chords, when I’m sitting in the car with — Don’t put that in!
Galland: That’s a spoiler.
BEARS: So, when you’re taking on the role of demonic, possessed character, how do you approach something like that? And then on top of that you’re doing an indie comic version of that, too.
BEARS: What about the physical mannerisms?
Krause: I did watch angry animals videos. Because Naphula [the Demon who possessed her]is part reptile, feline, goat, bird, and pig, I think, or maybe I put the pig in there myself. It was really fun to watch the movie last night and be like oh yeah, I am like a cat in that moment, or a snake in this moment, or angry goat-like in another
BEARS: So, did you do research into actual demonic possession in terms of what it would be like and how to express it?
Galland: Well, we had that conversation with that psychic, but that was —
Krause: We happened upon her, we didn’t plan it.
Galland: We were looking for wardrobe and were going shopping and went to this one showroom, Showroom 7, and the woman who runs it said, ‘There’s a psychic here who talks to spirits and helped a friend of a friend with a possession and it’s real, it’s all real, if you’re making this movie you gotta go talk to her.’
So that actually felt like a serendipitous moment where we were sitting with this psychic and she felt like one of the characters. She felt like the character that Carol Kane was about to play. So I was kinda like, oh, this is a way of grounding it, talking to this woman and treating it as if it’s real. She said that Louisa was a great actress in like, the 20s, in like a previous life – she said she was amazing in the 1920s.’
Krause: And apparently I had been possessed before in some kind of exorcism movie like way, way, way one of the early films, silent films or something.
Galland: You know, I think about it too, like when Quentin Tarantino was asked “How do you do the research for your gangsters?” and he said “I just, I watch a lot of movies, I don’t go and hang out with gangsters.”
BEARS: Right, right.
BEARS: Yeah, I love the support group. I feel like that concept could be like a sitcom. So… do you believe in demonic possession?
Galland: Well I do, in a way. I don’t believe in the way it’s presented in terms of the Catholic Church, per se. I mean, I grew up going to church raised Catholic so I take it seriously, but I don’t think it’s as carved out or drawn the way that they do it, the way they draw it.
On set, it was funny. It started as a joke. Something would fall in the corner. Or somebody would like, open a soda and it would spray everywhere and they’re like, ‘It’s the demon!’ And then, slowly, I show up on set and there wouldn’t be jokes like that anymore… I’d notice the crew like passing like, bundles of sage and like mumbling to themselves in Latin and like placing a stone somewhere. And I thought ‘What is going on?’
We had just filmed in the witch shop, where Carol Kane plays the proprietor of a black magic shop. This was an actual, real place that I was just walking by, it was near the main location. I went in and was like, ‘Can we film here? We’re a few blocks away, we need a set like this.’ And they said, ‘Okay.’ The Art Department did an amazing job, like dressing it, making it more exciting, but it turns out that as we were loading in and out of this place, the owner was talking to the line producer and some of the crew. He started asking about the movie, they started telling him, and he said, ‘Hold on a second – demons, you gotta be careful.’ He just spooked the entire crew. I’m like, ‘Thanks, Buddy!’ It ended up (behind the scenes by the way,) he went and did an exorcism in the building we were filming.
Krause: OH! I heard that, I heard about that!
BEARS: That he’s getting some attention.
Galland: Yeah. And the other thing that’s interesting about it, just is that it’s always a glass half empty half full kind of thing, if anything went wrong, people would be like, ‘This set is cursed.’ But I was also thinking about the luck angle. I thought ‘Hold on guys, I feel like I’m lucky. I feel like there are angels or demons helping us make the movie.’ So in regard to are they real? I feel like on some level it is very real.
Krause: Yes, I agree.
Galland: I had a friend that’s making a movie about breaking up with his girlfriend, and then he’s breaking up with his girlfriend as it happens. And suddenly the movie can actually influence the set. And that happened on “The Exorcism,” too. William Freidkin tells these stories about how the set was cursed. I feel that the movies often seep into the world of the set.
BEARS: Why do you think the aesthetic of horror movies in the 70’s is so different? I feel like you were trying to get back to that a little bit. I feel like so few films are trying to capture that. And yet, we all sit here and talk about how those were the best horror films ever.
Galland: It’s becauseit’s the classic story that “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” tells. “The Exorcist” or “The Omen” were movies where they wanted to achieve the reality of this? And how do we shape this? And now, even in the Indie world, people are just striving for Hollywood. I love directors like Ti West that are doing different shit and stylishly, and putting a lot of care and thought into their movies. But often I find when I’m watching horror movies now they’re going for scares in the same way that comedies go for laughs. It’s just like they’re like forcing me to feel something and not showing me a few pieces of a puzzle and letting my imagination do a lot of the work.
BEARS: It’s always scary if you’re creating something yourself because you’re putting your own demons into it.
Galland: Exactly, these are good taglines. We gotta get your card and come to you for some poster taglines.
BEARS: I love the mystery of the old toy, this forgotten teddy-bear. Did you have like, a toy from your childhood that you kept way longer than you should have?
Galland: Maybe that’s why you think the demon’s part pig.
Krause: Maybe, maybe! It was all – yes, yes it’s all in my head, in my brain.
Galland: “That’ll do, pig”
Krause: But, yeah, I love my Babe. I sleep – whenever I go home to my hometown in northern Virginia I sleep with Babe.
Galland: So cute.
BEARS: I still have some stuffed animals from my childhood.
Galland: Me too, seriously, yeah.
BEARS: What do you think it is, that we connect to these objects – and what the objects take on? Because that’s a part of this film.
Galland: Certainly, it’s there in the title. It’s the pun of the title, right?
BEARS: The possessions that you have take on another life.
Galland: I mean, I think about that a lot. I mean, the memories that we attach to things. Yeah, like anthropomorphizing, to use a SAT word, I mean I love, I’m a cat and a dog person, and I’m always interacting with these pets and thinking like, ‘Holy shit they’re- like, they have all sorts of emotion and complex behavior.’ In the back of my head I’m always wondering like, ‘How much am I putting onto that?’ But I also think that the energy that you do put onto something makes it real. Like that in itself is significant, you know? So that, anthropomorphizing an object does give it that strength and power.
Ava’s Possessions screened last night at Fantasia International Film Festival and continues its festival run next in Germany.