Interview: ‘The Shrine’ Director John Kanutz

A cult hit on DVD, the 2008 horror/comedy Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer endeared up-and-coming genre director Jon Knautz to many in the horror community, and fans have been eagerly anticipating his next film. While many were of course hoping it would be a Jack Brooks sequel (which is still toiling in development hell, according to Knautz), it’s instead turned out to be a shockingly straight-forward occult horror movie entitled The Shrine, about an overeager American journalist and her two companions who run afoul of the citizens of a bizarre Polish village while investigating a series of strange disappearances.

Recently I hopped on the phone with Knautz to speak about the film, and we managed to cover a lot of ground, including a discussion about the movie’s classical slow-burn approach, his decision to use only practical makeup effects, and what classic films influenced him in coming up with both the story and the specific mood he wanted to create. See inside for the full interview, and then catch The Shrine on VOD starting now. It’s a good film, and I encourage all horror fans to check it out.

Shrine

Note: There are some minor-to-moderate plot spoilers ahead, which I have flagged within the text. I will say, however, that the details revealed are comparable to what’s already in the trailer.

Bloody Disgusting: First of all, I really liked the movie. It plays with your expectations of how it’s gonna play out; the twist is really great. Could you talk about that, and also was making a straight-ahead horror film after directing ‘Jack Brooks’ an attempt to play with the expectations of what your audience expects from you as well?

Jon Knautz: Well yeah, I mean…I think it’s always [good] for a director to try and do something different than the last film he’s made, so there was definitely that…I also just wanted to do a straight horror film. I didn’t want to sort of do the sort of cross-genre thing, with the comedy/horror like ‘Jack Brooks’, and see if we could just handle a sort of mysterious, real horror film. So it was definitely motivation to see if I could pull that off.

And in terms of the twist, I mean yeah, that’s sort of how the story came about. It was just kind of thinking about playing it up a certain way so you really get an impression about these people, and then sort of flip it and realize that, you know, [it's not] what you expected. It sort of all built from there, and then we started setting the location, and then sort of reverse-engineered…or worked backwards, I guess, from the script to sort of develop and create the whole storyline. So it was a lot of fun.

BD: Yeah, I really liked the approach, it was really interesting. I mean, there’s definitely a feel too of some older ’70s horror films in a way. Was that a vibe that you were intentionally zeroing in on?

JK: I mean, I definitely wanted to do something that was sort of [a] detective kind of thing, like just a story unraveling and somebody trying to figure it out [and] putting all the pieces together. I’m a big fan of ‘Candyman’, I really like that sort of, you know…Virginia Madsen’s character sort of digging deeper into like the myth and the story behind the Candyman. I have a lot of fun with those movies. I [think] those movies are really fun to watch by yourself, to kind of really get wrapped up into this unraveling [story]. And definitely ‘The Wicker Man’ – the original – and elements of the ‘The Ring’…I was watching that.

I think I was sort of inspired by somebody [investigating] a story about some sort of fantastic, bizarre thing with question marks surrounding it and starting to dig, and dig, and dig, until it’s like you’re too deep and you can’t get out. And I love the idea of them just like…leaving and going to a country that’s very unfamiliar to them.

It’s almost like going back in time a little bit because the town is so secluded, to really take them out of their element and throw them into this sort of crazy scenario that they’re very uncomfortable in, but they’re just so driven to get the answers they can’t stop digging until they figure something out. But of course then by that point they’re trapped. And then again, sort of working our way back towards the twist that we’d started from.

BD: It’s sort of a cautionary tale for over-eager journalists in some ways.

JK: Yeah, it’s like leave it alone, man, jesus! You’re gonna die. Relax!

BD: I also like how you avoided any real in-depth explanation about what happens. That’s something I appreciated, especially now that so many films are so exposition-heavy. Did you ever have a back-story laid out previously?

JK: No, god no. That was a conscious decision from the beginning, to just not do [that]. To me what’s scary is the unknown. If you explain it, it’s not scary anymore. So just sort of explain some of it, kind of understand that there’s something here that’s pretty heavy, pretty evil, pretty serious, and then just kind of go…I mean, what’s the point of trying to understand it if you never will. It’s out of this world, it’s supernatural.

So to just kind of leave it as one of those things…a reality that we could never understand. I really just wanted to…the only thing I really wanted to explain was the way the evil works. Not where it came from, not why it’s there, because I just didn’t want to go there.

BD: I agree that it diminishes the scare factor if you explain everything too much.

JK: Yeah, I think it can get a little corny…I don’t know, it just kind of…deflates everything a little bit I find. And to me, it just wasn’t about that. The movie wasn’t about where this evil came from, like I just didn’t care. I just wanted to see what it does.

BD: Yeah, there’s something about the idea of absolute evil that’s so much scarier.

JK: Yeah, just pure evil that exists, you can’t do anything about it, you just gotta deal with it.

BD: I also saw shades of Bava’s ‘Black Sunday’, solely based on the iron maiden mask aspect. Was that something you thought about when you were developing it?

JK: Oh yeah, there’s no question about it. I’d obviously seen…just looking at the poster for ‘Black Sunday’, and watching the film. I definitely looked at some Bava films, that one in particular. You know, I remember seeing it with my buddy and we were just kinda like ‘Wow, that’s such a great idea!’ There’s this woman, and she’s a witch, and they need to do something to her. It was such an original thing, it was like, put this mask onto her face to contain her. Yeah, that definitely really inspired me visually. I thought that was really great. So yes, there was definitely some ‘Black Sunday’ inspiration, there’s no question about it.

BD: The mask really is a striking image.

JK: [Note: This paragraph contains spoilers.] Yeah, I just wanted to do something really painful and horrible. Because they dug too deep. You know, that was the thing, these journalists went too far, and they’ve gotta pay the price. There’s a million things you can do, they can get burned at the stake, they can…you know, whatever you want, the sky’s the limit. I just really loved the idea of just taking this iron mask that…you imagine the people of the town make themselves. And they’re rough, and they’re just like hammered together in their own way, and these giant spikes that just penetrate your eyes, and then this mask is now locked on your face for eternity kinda thing. I guess perhaps they believe that this is what needs to be done to you.

I definitely pulled a lot of inspiration from ‘Apocalypto’, because I loved the idea of when Jaguar Paw and his mates are captured by these Mayans who just believe…you know, they worship the sun gods and they’ve got these radical ideas of what needs to be done. It’s such a ceremony when they murder you. It’s more than murder, it’s like the ceremony that they perform. And it’s such a bizarre way that they…they have to paint your body blue, and it’s like ‘Why? Why are they fucking painting you blue?’ You don’t know, it doesn’t matter. It’s just part of what they believe what needs to be done.

And then they bring them up, and they rip the hearts out, and they cut the heads off, and they roll it down the steps, and people are celebrating and grabbing the heads and holding them. And it’s just sick, it’s just so sick and wrong. It’s like watching a train wreck. You’re just staring it going ‘I cannot figure this out. Why am I still watching? It’s horrible, but it’s intriguing at the same time.’

[Note: This paragraph contains spoilers.] I really love the idea of this sort of…I didn’t want them to just capture these journalists and then just slit their throats. I really wanted it to be this sort of ceremony that they do that seems to have some sort of purpose, but ultimately it’s just really sick and twisted. [I] just really [tried] to hurt the audience there. Get the journalists back for digging too deep, right?

BD: Also, watching the film – because I didn’t know too terribly much about the movie before I started watching it – there’s a point in the first half hour where you’re like, ‘Where is this gonna go?’ Because it starts out in a slow-burn, I guess.

JK: Yeah, it was the slow-burn approach, definitely.

BD: When you’ve shown it to people in the past, have you ever been tempted to tell them like, ‘Just stick with it, once you get past the first half hour’…because people have such low attention spans now and they expect to be bombarded with action-heavy sequences and stuff right away. Is that something you’ve been telling people who you’ve shown the film to?

JK: Yeah, I mean, I definitely let people know that it’s a build-up. I guess for me, I just wanted to do something like that. And when I watch films from like the ’70s – I watch a movie like ‘Deliverance’ – I just don’t really see pacing like that anymore, and I really, really miss it. Because I fucking love it. And most of the people…my buddies, you know, even people that aren’t film buffs…you throw on a movie like ‘Deliverance’ and they’re like ‘Oh yeah, this is great!’

Yes, it’s potentially a little difficult because it’s slower, and you can definitely see that recently people’s attention spans…I think the whole MTV generation are a little bit more ‘Give it to [me] now!’ But I wanted to challenge myself and do it, and see if people could just kind of start to get pulled in, you know?

Like reading a great book, and little pieces start to get revealed, and every time a question gets answered, another one gets asked, and you want to now know that. And then to just really get it up until at the end you’re like ‘Oh my god, we’re in Hell! We went too deep down the hole, this is chaos now!’ And to really just culminate in this giant ending, and then that’s it, it’s over. It’s was just like…crawling up the rollercoaster the whole time and then it just fucking drops at the end and then the movie’s over. I really wanted to do that. I wanted to try it out and see if people could appreciate it.

BD: That’s really similar to Ti West’s last movie, ‘The House of the Devil’.

JK: Right. Yeah, definitely. That film is so moody. That’s what I love about it. You just felt it, you know? You’re just constantly feeling like you’re in another decade, you’re right there with this girl…it was almost like a character piece. And you’re on this ride, and you don’t understand, and then it kind of blows at the end, in a good way. And you’re left just sort of feeling the experience of it, rather than like sitting there and going ‘Ok, it’s been five minutes, give me something entertaining!’ It’s more just the experience of travelling through this scenario with this girl. I thought it was great.

Shrine

BD: I think filmmakers today a lot of times don’t allow people to get lost in movies anymore, like you’re talking about.

JK: Yeah, because when you think about it, it’s like, especially nowadays, god, even like the last five years…now, you just pull out your iPod, your iPhone…just like instantaneous little videogames you’re playing, or you go on YouTube and watch like a really funny video that a guy that [rides] a bike in[to] a tree and falls, and you laugh, and you’re like, ‘let’s watch another one!’…You know, [those things] are great, but I think everyone is so wrapped up in just instantaneous entertainment, cause no one has the time. It’s like, ‘You wanna see this?‘ ‘Yeah, is it quick? Ok cool, let me watch it, I’ve only got fucking four seconds.’

Whereas this was…you know, I wanted people to…shut the lights off…it’s like picking up a good book, and you know, you’re gonna go into something. You’re gonna leave your life for an hour and a half and really just feel the experience and then come out of it. Those are great! I think that’s what makes movies fun, when you can just kind of get wrapped up in this journey on the screen.

BD: Another way this film harkens back to an earlier era is your use of practical effects, which is obviously much rarer than it ever has been. The effects in this are really spectacular, and it raises the production value tremendously. Whenever I see a bigger-budget movie, particularly a horror film, that has these CG effects, no matter how state-of-the-art they are it almost cheapens it for me in a way. Is that how you feel about it?

JK: Yeah, definitely. They’re really…I’ve had so many conversations about this, it’s really interesting. Like, I think people in general…you subconsciously know when something is computer graphics, but you also subconsciously know when something’s practical. You just know. When you see a demon’s face, you know that’s a mask, or that’s CGI…you just know!

But for whatever reason, I find people just respond very differently to one versus the other. And I’ve never quite figured out what it is. I think because when it’s a practical effect, you just know that it’s existing right there on that set, in that location, with the people around it. Perhaps you just subconsciously feel that it’s more appropriate, whereas when it’s CGI, if it’s not done right, there’s something so synthetic about it.

I don’t know, I always picture…some guy was on a computer for 14 days rendering that. I don’t know, it just kind of…it feels very separated from the film. Whereas practical effects – which can also be done poorly, you’ve gotta do them right – the practical effects really seem to intertwine with the humans and the real locations within the film a lot better.

But that all being said, I’m definitely not against CGI in any way. I just think there’s a time and place for practical and there’s a time and place for CGI. I think certain effects – certainly like rain, or fog, or fire – there’s certainly ways you can do that with CGI and it blends in perfectly. But I think when it comes to actual creatures, when it comes to things the…protagonists are really interacting with and they need to emotionally respond to, it’s better when it’s practical.

BD: I’m assuming the mist-shrouded effect in the forest scenes in your film was computer-generated.

JK: Yeah, that was definitely a combination of CG and practical. Yeah, again I think it’s all about trying to intertwine it properly and to really hide your CGI and to not…you have to be subtle with it, I guess. We used CGI to create this mist in the forest because it was literally impossible to do that practically. We actually tried smoke machines and stuff, and the tiniest gust of wind [and] the smoke’s gone. You have no control over it.

And because it was a mist, it was a fog, I felt CGI can do that, it will look okay. It wasn’t like I was trying to create a monster standing there. And then once the character’s are actually in the fog and they’re traveling through it, yeah we’re on a soundstage, where we had tons of control and we were able to just shoot smoke into the room and let it kind of settle for a bit, and we’d be able to shoot for half an hour before we had to re-fill it again. So it was easy.

BD: The cinematography also really elevates the film. There’s such a classical approach and style there. Talk about creating that, and who your D.P. was.

JK: James Griffith, who’s a really great guy. We got along really, really well. Really funny guy, awesome people person, real easy to get along with. And just like…James got it. He understands when you’ve gotta move and you’ve gotta just get it done, [and] he understands when you’ve gotta take the time to set it up properly. He was just really, really excellent to work with all around, and that’s just so important with a D.P. Just as a director, it’s you and the D.P. the whole time.

And we referenced all sorts of films. I mean, we looked at…I always look at ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, Coppola’s ‘Dracula’, because that, as far as I’m concerned, is the last great practical film that we’ve got. I mean, what they did in that movie, it just blows my mind. All the in-camera effects. Just the mood of that film, it’s just such a piece of art.

So we looked at a lot of stuff from that, and definitely just all sorts of horror films, and referenced all sorts of movies. And then just the color palette. We talked a lot about really sort of de-saturating and sucking the color out of this town when they get there, to just make it feel like that life itself just doesn’t exist in this town, and it’s very lifeless and just, you know, dull coloring. And he was just right on board, he just got it. And then we did a whole bunch of work with it in post, to kinda get it to where we want[ed]. So he was fantastic to work with.

BD: Well again, I really liked the film. There aren’t many movies like that anymore, so I appreciated it.

JK: Great. Well thank you so much, I appreciate that.

BD: I also wanted to of course ask you about ‘Jack Brooks’ and whether there will be a sequel, because that film has a big cult fan base. What’s going on with that?

JK: You know, we have a story for ‘Jack Brooks 2′ that I absolutely love. It’s so much fun! We’ve been like playing around with it for…I don’t know, 2 1/2 years now…It’s big, that’s the only thing. I mean, part one ended like, you know, Jack’s going on to become Indiana Jones. So it’s like…it’s epic man. I’m so excited about it. We are developing it, but it’s just sitting in the development world. Unfortunately there’s no trigger on when it’s gonna go, but hopefully soon because we’ve got a hell of a story for it. I think fans are gonna go ape-shit, because it’s like [a] full-blown, in-your-face action movie.

BD: Is this like your ‘Army of Darkness’ in a way?

JK: You got it! Exactly! It’s the ‘Army of Darkness’ version of ‘Jack Brooks’.

BD: Are there any other upcoming genre projects coming up for you?

JK: We’ve got several things on the go right now…What I’m really excited about is we’re doing something very different right now, just to kind of switch genres again. We’re doing a sort of dysfunctional family dark comedy that I’m really pumped about. I had a script read this morning, and it’s great. It’s going really, really well. We’re gonna be shooting that pretty soon. Very character-based stuff, really funny, really dark, so I’m pretty excited about that.

BD: Does that have a title?

JK: At the moment, it doesn’t. It’s the ‘Untitled Brokestreet Dysfunctional Family Dark Comedy’. [Laughs]