I said it in my review and I’m saying it again! Co-directing a film about a haunted house is about the last thing you’d expect twin brothers to do after having grown up in a purportedly haunted house but that’s exactly what Aaron and Austin Keeling did and they did a fine job of it to boot. What was so striking for me about The House on Pine Street was that, despite the budget they had to play with, the film serves up such simple yet utterly effective scares thanks to the crew’s sheer gumption, resourcefulness and perfect casting choices.
With the Keeling brothers attending this year’s Fant Festival in Bilbao along with co-writer/producer Natalie Jones and Production and Costume Designer Monique Thomas, SCREAM’s Howard Gorman sat down with them to chat about the festival’s opening film and what it was that drove them to tap into their childhood fears for this, their debut feature…
SCREAM: So Austin, Aaron and Natalie, you’ve known each other since forever and live together now. Did you literally decide to lock yourselves away in a house together with the intention of putting your heads together to start writing screenplays?
Aaron: Yeah, we’ve known each other since middle school and then we met Monique when we went to college. I think we’ve always known that we wanted to make stuff together as soon as we graduated and I think the idea to live together was that we needed to force ourselves to write together otherwise it would never happen.
Natalie: We also just actually like each other as well. [laughs]
Aaron: Yes we do! So we just isolated ourselves for about eight months and did nothing but write.
SCREAM: One thing is being friends and another is moving in together because things change and you learn new and unexpected things about each other. How did the relationship change and what did you learn about each other?
Natalie: It felt natural really. We were kind of used to each other and we’d been on road trips sleeping in the car and stuff so we were used to close quarters but writing together is a different kind of story.
Austin: It was fun. When we lived together, if one of us disagreed about an idea and it got heated there was no escape and we were trapped with each other but it was fun even though there were definitely some rough patches.
Natalie: But the good thing about three people is that there is always someone there to mediate… usually Austin.
Aaron: Even though this was the first time we wrote a full-length script together it just came together really naturally. It took a long time but we were really just all on the same page before putting any words onto paper. We certainly talked about things we didn’t like in certain horror movies and what we did like in other ones and what we wanted to aim for.
Natalie: We knew right from the beginning that we wanted to do a haunted house movie.
SCREAM: Why were you so set on that idea from the word go, especially with Austin and Aaron having lived in a purportedly haunted house as kids? If I’d been raised in a haunted house the last thing I’d want to do is revisit my childhood terrors.
Austin: I don’t know. I was scared growing up in the house every now and again but once we moved out that idea has just always fascinated me and I think it just planted this unstoppable fascination with haunted houses. We take tours from old houses and do all kinds of weird things. We just love houses and we love old haunted ones particularly.
Aaron: There was actually one time in our apartment, when we were writing, that we heard a voice so we all slept in the same room. Basically everything scares us! We hear a knock on the door and we immediately are like, “It’s a ghost!”
Austin: I think those supernatural kind of movies were the first horror movies I ever saw too. I saw both versions of The Haunting, the 1963 and the 1999 version, even though I hate the latter version. Things like that and maybe House on Haunted Hill were kind of our introduction to horror movies and so I think there’s always been this kind of sweet spot on those kinds of haunted house movies.
Aaron: We went to a psychic for research but it was a total bust.
Austin: But when we were filming at someone’s house we did actually meet someone who was friends with a medium. This medium got very interested in the story and she came to our cast and crew screening and wanted to take us ghost hunting and all these kings of things.
Natalie: She actually even said it was very accurate and we managed to scare her which is a good sign as she is in haunted houses all the time.
SCREAM: Is it really true that whilst you were shooting the film at the house some supernatural occurrences may or may not have taken place?
Monique: There were some things that got picked up on the microphone. One day our sound guy told us that he could hear children laughing and we went outside and there were no children anywhere. Another day we were down in the basement and he asked us to go and tell whoever was talking upstairs to be quiet. We ran upstairs and the only person there was our actor, Taylor Bottles, sitting alone reading a book. Oh! There was a day we did a séance too. [laughs]
Austin: Yeah, the lights were flickering but it turned out it was because the breaker box was on the blink.
SCREAM: Tell me a bit about this creepy sounding house. You found it on Craigslist and the owner pretty much let you do whatever you needed to do there, right?
Aaron: That’s right. He didn’t live there so we went to live there for a month but we had to rig some stunt wires on the ceiling. We asked him nicely, “Is it alright if we drill into your ceiling?” and he was absolutely fine with it. We painted walls, did some wallpapering and we even had to break a window at one point. It was the owner that came with a ladder and broke the window for us.
Monique: He refused to wear shoes and we asked him to please put some shoes on and he just went, “Why? It’s summer.”
Aaron: Another time we had to break a door but the door was original to the house so it was like hundreds of years old. The owner had a friend who was a coffin maker and so his friend came and scored the door so that it would break in just the right way so that we could then fix it. He was just so awesome.
SCREAM: Tell me a little about your decision to cast Emily Goss as your heavily pregnant leading lady, Jennifer.
Aaron: Well we really wanted to use local talent because the response in Kansas City was amazing so we wanted to keep it all local. We were blown away by all the talent we found but Jennifer’s character is in every single scene and Emily sent in a tape and immediately it was just wow. It’s her eyes and most people comment on that. She has got VERY expressive eyes. Often in the auditions a lot of the actors would be switched on and acting well when they were saying their lines but when they were not saying lines they would kind of turn off. That was so great about Emily because even when someone else was doing something you could see she was still there and still acting.
Also, all the characters were great and especially Emily, she just brought so much to the rehearsal process. It was just amazing. We already had a clear idea about what we wanted but then she would have all these other ideas. A lot of them we didn’t go with but a lot of them we did and it was just so much fun playing with and finding the character.
Monique: She did a lot of research into things like self-harm tendencies and she had a whole back-story about that that most of the crew never even knew.
Aaron: What was also great was that we had a pregnancy suit and she wore it ALL the time. Some of the crew even actually thought she was pregnant.
Natalie: She would even wear it when we went out to dinner and people would come up and ask her how far along she was and she would answer them as if she were Jennifer.
Austin: Ha, you make it sound like we argue all the time. We argued a bit when we were writing because it was a private situation then when just our egos were at stake. By the time it came to shooting I wasn’t sure it was going to go so smoothly at first but it really just did.
Aaron: We were all on the same page. We haven’t been on a tonne of sets before but I’ve been on some sets where there is so much ego going into it where the director is like, “This is my way or the highway,” but for us, we knew what we wanted and we got what we wanted but everyone pitched in too. C.J. (Drumeller), our sound guy, would have great ideas every once in a while and we used them and everyone on set was just a huge part of the creation of the movie.
SCREAM: You must have had a lot of feedback about the film. Has anyone come up with any hypotheses that have really taken you aback?
Aaron: Well we have a very, very clear explanation for what the presence in the house is and what causes it.
Austin: And what the rules are…Why it does what it does.
Aaron: What’s amazing is that we get some people who pick up on it immediately and then we also get people saying something else that we expected which is the argument between ‘Is it in her head?’ ‘Is it in the house?’ ‘Did she create the ghost?’ But then, every once in a while we’ll get people saying thinks like, “Oh, it was all the husband messing with her.” So it’s interesting talking to people afterwards. We never tell anyone what is wrong or right and I’m just so grateful to hear other people’s ideas.
I think the most striking comment was after Cinequest when a young girl came up to us and asked us if we had written the script about schizophrenia. The truth is that we had never even thought about that but she told us that her aunt was schizophrenic and she said that she could never really relate to her and what she was going through until she saw our film. That was just like WOW! We didn’t ever intend for anything like that but it was really cool to hear.
Monique: Ironically, someone told us that our movie isn’t for anyone who is pregnant, or may one day be pregnant, or who has been pregnant. That cuts out A LOT of people!
SCREAM: There are inescapable comparisons between The House on Pine Street and another tiny film called The Babadook. Do you think that the success of The Babadook is a help or a hindrance to the success of your film?
Austin: We had literally just finished the draft and we were all ready to make our film and the trailer for The Babadook came out. It was certainly disheartening but I have seen The Babadook and it’s amazing but it is different. I think it’s helped though. I think a lot of the reasons why people who don’t like our movie don’t like it is because it’s short on the spectacle. We weren’t going for that type of movie and I think The Babadook was a big one in opening up horror to real-life emotions and a woman going through struggles that aren’t just a guy chasing her around with a knife. That film is something much deeper and that’s what we were going for too so I do think it helps in terms of getting people to see where our movie is coming from.
This being our first film we obviously drew heavily on some of our influences and we weren’t trying to making something that was completely groundbreaking or revolutionary. We were trying to see if we could actually make a movie and we were trying to make the horror movie that we would want to see. I think this is the type of thing we’d like to see more of where the film is giving credence to the characters and their issues and their stories and their thoughts and not just focusing on the scares.
SCREAM: I think you have a new film in mind already. Are you able to share a little about that at all?
Natalie: The three of us have been writing something and the working title is White Deer.
Austin: It is another horror film but it’s different and about a cult in a small town with a legend of this white deer that shows up sometimes. It’s less about the cult itself and it’s more about it taking place in this small town by the woods where there is a myth of the creature in the woods. The Blair Witch Project was huge for us so we knew that we wanted to go into the woods next. It’s all very early stages yet though.
SCREAM: Well it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking to you all and I wish you the best of luck with The House on Pine Street.
Our pleasure Howard. We hope everyone enjoys the movie and we hope we scare you.
We’d like to thank all four for chatting to SCREAM and I can’t recommend the movie enough so I’ll leave you with a greeting from them together with the trailer. Also, if you haven’t yet read it, my review can be found at the following link:
Words: Howard Gorman (@HowardGorman)