Director Tom Provost spoke to Fieldingonfilm.com about his career and about his film, The Presence (2010), a ghost story starring Mira Sorvino that was recently released on DVD. (This interview contains spoilers.)
Where were you born?
Port Arthur, Texas. An oil refining town on the coast of Texas, NE of Galveston.
Tell me a bit about yourself: How did you get involved in the film industry? (Based on the IMDB information, it looks like you got your start in acting.) Did you go to film school? Self taught?
I was born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas, on the coast of Texas next to Louisiana. My first memory as a child is sitting in a movie theatre, and I knew then I wanted somehow to be involved with movies. For much of my life, I wanted to be an actor, and in my 20’s, that was my main pursuit. But in my teens, there were some movies that made me begin to think about directing as well as acting and that slowly blossomed. (Many movies influenced me growing up… but when it came to thinking about being a filmmaker, the three biggest influences were Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Dressed to Kill.)
When I went to college, I ended up going through the University of Texas film school, thinking that was “less irresponsible” than studying acting. I also majored in English Lit… try explaining to your parents how English Lit and Filmmaking are responsible majors in college! I loved the UT film school, and it really opened my eyes to the wonders of being behind the camera. While I still did pursue acting full time for a while after college, I always knew I’d end up behind the camera.
Since you received your degree in English lit, do you have any particular books that are favorites?
Oh my, another list. I am a huge list guy. I even have a list of my favorite books I send to people. I’ll list a few here, though:
THE WOMAN IN WHITE by Wilkie Collins: Collins was contemporaries/good friends with Dickens and their books came out at the same time. I like Collins better, even, and The Woman in White is incredible. An intricate mystery/romance that, once you get into it, will nail you to your seat. His use of voice, his plotting, and his look at the mores of the time are incredible. And it is simply a suspenseful, thrilling read.
A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving: It’s not a perfect book and I wish he had structured the end a little bit differently. But none of that takes away from the tremendous reach of the novel, as well as at times being one of the funniest books ever written. You will find yourself in hysterics, only to be in tears soon after.
THE SHORT STORIES OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR: She is my favorite author. Dark, disturbing, hilarious, shocking… her work is wildly original, was very controversial and remains bracing even today. She’s the best. Her book of letters, The Habit of Being, is also very entertaining and deeply insightful.
EMPIRE FALLS by Richard Russo: Russo is perhaps my favorite author writing today and this is his masterpiece. He is a funny, warm, very insightful writer who has a very generous view of people, as opposed to a few other big name writers currently who are pretty savage in their view of man. What a great novel.
THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY by Michael Chabon: Chabon astounds me. His writing is so beautiful, so insightful, he can take your breath away. This novel pulses with such life and is filled with characters about whom you come to care deeply.
PEACE LIKE A RIVER by Lief Enger: Beautifully written novel that takes my breath away. I hope this guy continues writing, his second book was also terrific. Audacious and kind of simple at the same time. Wonderful. The last few chapters are some of my favorite writing of all time.
MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot: I am a huge Jan Austen fan, but Middlemarch surpasses even Austen and I would agree with some who say this might be The Great Novel. Her command of character, story, place and, more importantly, morality and community, can’t be beat.
THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU by Jonathan Tropper: This is a recent book that blew me away. It is so good, I read it twice through, one time after the other. And then a third time later. It is hilarious, heartbreaking, moving, everything you want in a novel.
I need to throw in some scary ones I guess, and these also are in my top canon:
DRACULA by Bram Stoker: Terrifying. Could have been written yesterday. The first half gives me nightmares every time I read it.
THE SHINING/SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King: It is hard to pick a favorite King, there are so many I love, for different reasons. These two, though, had a big effect on me when I was growing up. If I had to pick one, I guess I would say Salem’s Lot, his twist on Dracula. King can set a place like no other and also can create characters about whom you deeply care, which makes the terror that much more intense.
THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin: This is a recent novel that blew me away. It’s a ‘post-apocalypse vampire’ book that is so much more than that, I hate to even describe it. Extremely suspenseful with beautiful writing that had me crying more than I would like to admit.
A SIMPLE PLAN by Scott Smith: Not inherently a horror novel but it is one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. A very simple set up that becomes very suspenseful and goes very deep into the dark heart of ordinary man. Great writing as well. I called in sick to work to finish this.
HEART SHAPED BOX and HORNS by Joe Hill: He is Stephen King’s son but does not use King’s name, which I think is very cool. Heart Shaped Box is a classic, terrifying ghost story that also contains incredible writing and Horns starts off as a true horror book then goes very deep. Hill is the real thing, a remarkable writer.
What was your experience with your first screenplay, Under Suspicion, which lists W. Peter Iliff as a cowriter. Was this a case of you knowing each other or was it a typical case of Hollywood bringing on another writing to “improve” a screenplay?
It is a typical case of W. Peter Illif being brought on to improve my work
I was hired by Morgan Freeman’s production company, Revelations Entertainment, to adapt a french film Gar De Vu. I knew from the start it would star Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman, two of the greatest actors alive, and it was fun to be able to tailor the dialogue to their speech cadences and personas. As with most movies that start that way, we went through a number of drafts and then Ilif, a very good writer, was brought on to rework my version. While I still love my first version of the script best, I was the writer for hire, which meant I was hired to do what the producers wanted. I was pretty cocky and will admit now I fought them a lot more than I should have. Which was part of the reason Peter was then brought on, I was very resistant to some of Revelations’ notes. So I learned in that type of situation if I wanted to keep the job, I needed to be more collaborative. But it also was what made me think, ‘Well, if you think you know everything, then get off your butt and go make a movie on your own.” Which eventually led to The Presence.
How did you get the idea for The Presence? And how long did it take to go from script to screen?
The initial idea… watching a man in a house you slowly come to realize is a ghost… was the idea of a friend who didn’t know what else to do with it. I always wanted to do a ghost story and the idea really fired me up. Knowing the genre, I wrote the script and, as can happen, he did not like it when I was finished. But I did. After wrestling with it, we parted on the project and I ended up with it.
All told, it took about 8 years to make The Presence. Over a year to write it and get it to a place I thought was worth making. Then a couple of years to raise the first round of money, then two years to find the location. And when we found this perfect location, we had to wait over a year to shoot there. Was this or any movie worth that much time and effort? Sometimes I wonder. But it is what we love to do and so we do it, over and over, no matter how long it takes.
The original drafts of The Presence were even leaner and more spare than the finished product… which many may find hard to believe! My idea was to do something extremely lean and mean, to pare the movie down to the bare essentials, which is why, for instance, the characters have no names. No one had any backstory, they were archetypes, so they had no names. As I wrote through a couple of drafts, getting notes from friends, little hints of backstory crept in, as well as hints of what the Man In Black was whispering into the character’s ears.
When Mira and I started working on her character’s backstory, I would send her questions to which she would write out long answers. Much of this type of work never comes into a movie, even a movie less spare than ours. This type of work helps the actors flesh out their characters. At one point as we worked, Mira and I talked about whether or not the woman had suffered child abuse, as some of her reactions seemed to indicate the possibility. I left it up to Mira to decide. One day, shortly before we began shooting, she told me, ‘Yes, she suffered abuse in her past.” So we decided to bring references to that into the movie, both in the whispers and in her scene with the boyfriend in the kitchen.
I’m curious about the Ghost. Are we to assume that he’s the drowned criminal mentioned in that newspaper article?
I left that for the audience to decide!
I don’t mean to be pretentious about it, but I love ambiguity and so I left many things in the movie unanswered, so that the audience could think about them, come up with their own conclusions, debate the answers afterwards, etc. Many people have told me the movie led to hours long conversations afterwards, which is wonderful to hear.
Most ghost stories go into great detail about ‘who is the ghost, why is the ghost still hanging around, etc.” I find that to be the least interesting part of a ghost story so I wondered if I could make a ghost story where I left that part out. The article is something we put in to give people audience who need it something to latch on to if they so desire. I have a history for the ghost in my mind… and that reference very well may be it! I’d rather keep it to myself, though, rather than say specifically who I think is the ghost.
What about the Man in Black? I thought that maybe he was the embodiment of her “demons” from the past, but then he takes on a more sinister role, trying to corrupt the Ghost.
For me, the Man In Black is a demon, pure and simple. I took some of the theology in the movie from a terrific book by C. S. Lewis called The Screwtape Letters, which is a series of letters from an elderly demon to his nephew about how to mess up the lives of humans. That is how I see The Man In Black. Again, though, I left it open to interpretation. Some people do view the movie as entirely in the woman’s head. I myself think everything happening in the movie is real, but I love that people bring different views and interpretations to it.
How did you go about casting the roles? I understand that Sorvino was the first on-board, but how did you end up casting Tony Curran, who I think is brilliant in the film.
We had a wonderful casting director, Alyssa Weisberg, who is also a co-producer. She very much believed in the project and was the one to get on the phone and call agents and force them to read the script. The roles are pretty strong, I think, and agents responded positively. So did the actors. I agree that Tony is wonderful. His manager sent us his reel to consider. I confess, I did not know his work or who he was. I started playing the reel and before the reel was finished playing, I was on the phone to Alyssa telling her to make him an offer. I’m very thankful he took the part! He is indeed brilliant and I hope it brings him attention.
How did you see the Woodsman? Is he a guardian angel? A projection of the Woman’s mind?
I believe he is real. And an angel. Others have different views, as noted above. In the Bible, when angels appear, everyone is terrified. I loved the idea that the biggest force for good in the movie is also the scariest, so we worked hard to make him very scary until you suddenly realize why he is there. I also from the beginning wanted to cast a black man in this part. In art, almost always angels are depicted as white men and women. Yet black people, of course, go to heaven… if heaven and hell even figure into your belief system. They do mine. So I was very adamant this role be played by an actor who was black.
You had mentioned on the DVD extras that some have referred to the film as “spiritual.” Was that your intention to make a spiritual or religious film?
Whatever the intent, I think it’s impossible to make a ghost story and have it not be spiritual. A ghost story is about spirits and the afterlife. Of course, there are so many different beliefs and views of the afterlife, so each movie or story can present those particular beliefs. For instance, Jacob’s Ladder, a favorite of mine, stems to a large degree from The Tibetan Book of The Dead. I am a Christian and the movie has some christian theology in it, but I did not want to shove my own theology down the audience’s throat. I wanted to do the movie in a way where while people can certainly pick up on my theology, they can also bring their own beliefs to the movie as well. That seems to have worked, people have wildly different interpretations of what is going on. I love that.
In some ways, The Presence is a bit like Ghost. You mentioned on the DVD extras that you are a fan of the ghost story. Which films/books are your favorites?
So many people reference that movie lately! Which is great, I enjoy it. But I never thought about Ghost when I was making The Presence. Many women have also cited Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Jane Eyre as references to how the movie makes them feel. It definitely has a gothic romance/twisted Grimm fairy tale feel.
As for my own favorite ghost stories: I love the movies The Changeling (my favorite ghost movie), The Haunting, The Ring, The Others, The Innocents, What Lies Beneath, The Orphanage, Poltergeist… .. I could go on and on! But those are my favorites. Stephen King’s novel The Shining is essentially a ghost story, it is one of my favorite novels (I am a huge fan of King) and it had an enormous impact on me when I read it as a child.
Since this interview is a tie-in with Halloween … do you enjoy horror films? Which ones are your favorites?
Wow, again, I could go on and on! I love horror films, yes. More the type of film that doesn’t show gore than the ones that are all blood and guts… but I love some of them as well, such as the remake of Dawn of the Dead, directed by Zach Snyder. It is true horror but also a superbly made film that ranks with the best.
The Omen was the first ‘scary’ movie I saw in a theatre. I almost did not survive. What a terrific film, even today. Carpenter’s Halloween also terrified me and remains a favorite. I was not old enough to see an R rated movie and went with my mom and my best friend at the time. We all ended up in the same seat the last 30 minutes. I was in Jr High School when the original Friday the 13th came out and we snuck into it over and over, as well as all the other slasher films that followed. It’s not great but I have a big place in my heart for that movie, and it was a game changer in many ways for Hollywood movies. In college, Nightmare on Elm Street and Angel Heart are the two I remember disturbing me the most. More recently, Ils (Them), a french film, just about made me wet my pants, to be blunt. As did Paranormal Activity, which I think is genius. Alien of course… it’s a masterpiece. As is The Exorcist, a movie I did not like in college but have come to appreciate enormously.
Some of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen are not true horror movies. Fatal Attraction, for instance, is really unnerving, for a whole host of reasons. Lyne is a terrific director. He also directed Jacob’s Ladder, which scared me even more than Fatal Attraction. Then there is Session 9. Have you seen that?? Wow, is that a frightening movie. I watched it at home having missed it in the theatres and it is the only time I’ve ever watched a scary movie where I had to turn on the lights… even upstairs. Terrific. Se7en is in my top ten, it’s a true masterpiece and as unsettling a movie as I can imagine watching. Yet I watch it again and again for it’s artistry, which is remarkable. (I cannot wait to see Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.)
A few others ones I love: Diabolique, in many ways the grandaddy of them all, holds up to this day. I love 70’s films and two thrillers from the 70’s I find very frightening are Eyes of Laura Mars and Coma. Even The China Syndrome is a very frightening movie, though it is in no way a ‘scary’ movie. Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is my favorite version, what a wonderful movie. And of course from the 70’s there is also Jaws. Sheer genius.
What inspires you as a filmmaker?
A sense of wonder is probably my favorite part of storytelling/filmmaking. Any movie of any genre that creates a sense of wonder, and a world into which you can enter and live, I’ll see over and over again. We tried very hard to create that in The Presence. I also love to be challenged as well as moved emotionally. Again, we tried to challenge the audience in The Presence by asking the audience to do a lot of the work. Even my shooting style asks this. I shot wide a lot of the time, so that the audience has to look around the frame and find what is important, rather than me as director using close-ups to telegraph what is important. Alan J. Pakula, one of my favorite directors, was a master at that and he and Roman Polanski are probably the biggest influences in my directing style for this film. Pakula’s Klute and Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby contain some of the best directing I’ve ever seen. Watch those two movies and you will see many, many influences in The Presence.
And, finally, what was the significance of the birds crashing into that outhouse?
You keep asking me to reveal things I kept out of the movie!
Ok, I’ll give you this… while I have in my mind specifically what is going on, what I will say is that it could be the Man In Black trying to freak out the woman, it could be the Woodsman trying to warn her something is wrong, it could simply be that evil has come to the island and nature is slowly going awry… or…. fill in the blank! I love hearing what people think about it. The outhouse scenes seem to really creep people out, which was certainly my intent.
What’s next for you?
Two projects currently. One is my dream project, Mr. Clark. It is very different from The Presence. I don’t want to say too much as we are about to start sending it to actors. The logline is ‘A dark and surprising twist on ‘It’s A Wonderful Life.’ It’s an emotional drama structured, in part, like a detective story, that takes place in a small industrial town. The look of the movie will be based on Edward Hopper paintings. It takes place in the winter so we are limited on when we can shoot, we need snow for the movie. The plan is for Winter 2012.
I am also working with some filmmakers, Robby Morgan and Eric DeWolf, on a project called Hypnophobia. It’s a very cool thriller that I think the audience will really enjoy. Robby has written a terrific screenplay that is a little mind-blowing in some ways. They are raising the money right now and we will shoot it next fall: It can be found on Facebook, under Hypnophobiamovie.