Magnet Releasing, the genre arm of Magnolia Pictures, is gearing up for the theatrical release of Michael Nickles’ Playback, a horror film featuring Christian Slater that’s now available on-demand. The limited theatrical run starts March 9.
“While digging into their town’s infamous past, a group of high school students unwittingly unlock a dark secret, unleashing an evil spirit that takes possession of its victims.” In addition to Slater, the film stars Toby Hemingway, Johnny Pacar and Ambyr Childers.
I recently spoke with Nickels regarding the film’s technological themes, gore content and its homage to The Ring.
Hit the jump to check it out! This film plays with elements of found footage while remaining a more traditionally shot film. What elements of that genre (or conceit) appeal to you?
I enjoy a lot of found footage films – I love the immediacy of them, the energy behind them, and the fact that there’s a part of your brain that often gets tricked into believing that what you’re watching is a documentary. Having said that, I don’t really consider Playback to be part of that sub-genre. Like you said, it’s more of a traditionally shot film. I did like using authentic footage – that Louis Le Prince clip from the 1880s – but it’s used more as a jumping-off point to inspire the larger story.
Playback alludes to the way technology has impacted our lives. Would you say that technology has harmed our lives more than it has improved them?
I think technology has improved our lives immeasurably. I definitely wouldn’t want to go back to the pre-digital world; at the same time, there’s a shadow side to it that I wanted to explore. Our lives are now highly documented – pictures, images, and videos are constantly being captured and shared. As a culture, we have an almost insatiable voyeuristic appetite, and it seems like there’s also this intense desire to tear people apart. That feels dark to me, kind of soulless. The more we distance and desensitize ourselves, the less compassionate and accountable we become. At least that’s my fear.
I don’t want to make too big an issue of it because obviously Playback is not an art film. It’s meant to be a fun, entertaining, teen horror movie. But I will say that it’s not a coincidence that in the last shot the demon is looking right into the camera, at the viewer. It knows you’re there, knows you’re potentially corruptible. Because watching a movie is a somewhat voyeuristic experience, especially a horror movie – your brain and body are responding to these vicarious thrills. The comparison isn’t meant to be an indictment, more like a mirror. You know, what do you like to watch? How far are you willing to go? Where will it take you?
Some moments of the film seem inspired by The Ring, a film that is name-checked by one of the characters. Is The Ring or Ringu sort of a touchstone film for you?
I saw a Michael Winterbottom film the other night, and one of the characters says – I’m paraphrasing – “Everything has already been done before; you can only hope to do it differently.” I liked that. It’s how I feel about a lot of things. I’m certainly inspired by The Ring – it’s a great film – and that’s why I had one of the characters name-check it. I wanted the audience to know we’re on the same page, that I’m aware of what came before Playback. I wanted to be upfront and acknowledge my influences, and there are others besides The Ring. Scream is mentioned, and in the video store there is a lingering shot on a DVD of Peeping Tom, to name just a couple of other favorites.
Playback gets fairly gory at times, what was your approach to the visceral nature of the violence?
It was a conscious decision to put as much gore into the film as our budget would allow. All of the effects were done practically, on-set. I would have gone even further, but without the time to do it properly you run the risk of it not working – and, you know, this was only a twenty day shoot. You’re just moving too fast. But, yes, at its heart Playback is a supernatural/teens-in-peril type of film, and heavy gore is pretty much part of the DNA.
How did Christian Slater’s involvement come about?
Initially, I envisioned casting that role with someone older – a much creepier, slimier-looking guy. But then someone suggested Christian, and I immediately switched gears. He’s an amazing actor and has done incredible work – True Romance is my favorite – and it was easy to fall in love with the idea of him as “Lyons.” He brought his own twist to the role, something that wasn’t in the script, a kind of good-looking charm and charisma that made the character almost likeable and fun to watch.
What was the key to casting the central ensemble of teens?
We tried, as much as possible, to layer in a kind of self-awareness about the type of film we were making. In some ways that meant poking fun at the genre, teasing it a little bit. In other ways, it meant honoring it. The key to casting the ensemble, I think, was knowing the archetypes and casting actors who could embody them with ease and naturalness. I’m really proud of our cast. They all committed to their roles and brought them to life in smart, believable ways. They were also really easy to work with, which goes a long way in my book, especially on a low-budget movie like this one where you really need team players.
What was the genesis of this idea? How much did the central story mutate through the different drafts as you were developing it?
The producers of the film had researched Louis Le Prince and were really intrigued by the mystery surrounding him, so it became my job to figure out how to integrate that mystery into a horror film. The Roundhay Garden footage is actually some of the first moving imagery ever filmed, but it doesn’t easily lend itself to a modern-day horror tale. At one point, I was watching the footage – it’s literally only two seconds long – and decided to slow it down. It was really late at night and I put some music under it, and it started to look different to me, sort of eerie. That’s when things started to click.
The voyeurism motif was there in the early drafts – we all agreed on that from the start. To me, the idea of being watched without my knowing it is really disturbing. However, tracking the search for the baby was something that I kept trying to refine in each new draft. It’s two different characters on two different paths looking for the same thing, and I wanted their discoveries to happen at the same time. That was challenging.
What’s coming up next for you? Any new horror projects you can talk about/hint at?
I finished a horror script recently that I’m excited about – the most I can say at this point is that it’s based on a recurring nightmare I have. I plan to be down in Louisiana, prepping and sweating my ass off sometime in the summer. On the flip side, a holiday comedy I wrote is moving forward with a producer I’ve looked forward to working with for a long time.
Playback is now available On-Demand and hits theaters on March 9th. Check your local listings.