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The Mothman Prophecies Q&A
© Jason Myers

In between a double feature of The Mothman Prophecies and Arlington Road at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre, director Mark Pellington took some time to answer a few audience questions about his newest film.

Mark Pellington on the importance of sound design in The Mothman Prophecies:

MP: The sound-design and the sound of the film was one of the reasons that I did it. When I first read the script... I was reading it, and there was all of the phone calls, and the implied threat via sound. We hired our sound designer before we hired our director of photography. That should give you a sense of how important sound was in the film. We had this fantastic sound designer, Claude Letessier, who did Thin Red Line; James McQuaide, one of the producers, said, "There's this guy who's fantastic." And his ideas about sound merged really well with the ideas that our composers, Tomandandy, who I've worked with for years and who have been great collaborators. The pairing of Claude and Tomandandy was a fantastic match. The editor, Brian Berdan, also had a huge influence on the sound and the construction. And I'm quite proud of it.

It says in the beginning that the film was inspired by true events.

MP: I'd say "inspired by true events." John Keel wrote a book in the mid seventies called The Mothman Prophecies, which was really a chronicling of these events. [SPOILERS AHEAD] The main true catastrophic event was the collapse of the Silver Bridge. It really did collapse one night right before Christmas. The town had been plagued for over a 13-month period with strange phone calls, sightings of winged creatures. A plethora of kind of strange, paranormal, odd events.

You would have had to make a five-hour movie to put in all of Keel's book. What I think [screenwriter] Richard Hatem did really brilliantly was to take Keel's nonfiction book and create a narrative framework for the film. And he invented the character of John Klein as the engine to kind of drive through. And he composited different characters together. You know, Gordon Smallwood was a composite of a couple different experiences. [Richard Hatem] really made it a character piece, and let us follow with Gere through the film to kind of experience these things.

What made you decide to do the movie?

MP: I had had a previous positive successful relationship with Lakeshore [production company], with Tom Rosenberg and Garret Lucchesi and Richard Wright. And I had made my previous two films for them. And right after I finished Arlington Road, they gave me Richard's first script, and I passed on it at the time, because I wanted to see how Arlington Road would do… and what I wanted to do.

And then, to make a long story short, they came back, and they had explored different avenues on which way this movie could go. Because this movie could go a lot of different ways. You could make it more overt, make it more of a creature movie. And when I signed on, I asked... I said, "Let's just start fresh. Let me bring in a couple of friends of mine. And let us see if we can do our draft in a month." And it was very much inspired by and very much kind of building on the original house that Richard Hatem built, but we decided, "Let's remodel a little bit."

And I was interested not in making a creature movie, but I was interested in making a movie about subjectivity and perception and fear and not showing the Mothman. You know, if we can not show the Mothman at all, it'll be a success. So, we kind of shaped it. Put in a lot of the sound ideas, put in a lot of these ideas that I was interested, and we kind of put it into a draft, and said, "Look, we got nothing to lose. Let's do it." And they liked it, and they want back to Richard, who had been involved, and he signed on, and then we went from there.

On Richard Gere:

MP: He's never really been in a movie like this before. I mean, he's usually known for romances or something like that. But, I think he internalizes really well. He keeps his cool. He brings a maturity... he brings an intelligence to it. And he was a really great guy to work with... incredibly supportive of my sometimes unorthodox methodology.

On Laura Linney and Debra Messing:

MP: Laura was right at the top of my list. You just wanted somebody with a grace, and a reality, and a kind of trustworthiness. You know, all the qualities that Connie needed to have, I believe Laura brought that to the table. And Richard and the producers had a pretty good experience with her, and it was kind of a no-brainer.

With Debra, it was more... we came up with a long list. These things are kind of organic. Somebody suggested Debra, and within two minutes of her walking in the door, I was like "Boom. That's it." You know. She's not overexposed in movies. [YO! MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD.] This is a small role, but a really important role. And she worked really really hard on it. She would be in the bed, and I would give her.... Our music supervisor gave us CDs of a lot of ambient, more off-beat music, even when we were shooting, that I played on the set. Like a... creepy baseline we'd just play over and over again to get people in the mood... and I gave Debra a CD while we were shooting her. She wouldn't get out of the hospital bed. She would stay there while they were relighting around her, and she just would sit there with the headphones on, throwing herself into the zone of pain and subjectivity and weirdness. So we'd be like, "Hey, Debra, do you want a sandwich?" And she'd be like, "...what...?" And I was really proud of her. She really really worked her ass off, and really involved herself.

Did you ever find yourself becoming disturbed by the subject matter? Did it ever scare you as you were making it?

MP: Not anymore than I normally scare myself. It's very interesting. Like, the subject matter of Arlington Road, I thought about more every day than this. I mean, Jeff Bridges and I would sit there sometimes, really depressed, because like, "You know what we're really making here? Do you realize? We're really just saying that evil exists, and we're pathetically inclined to blame only one person." And we would sit there really depressed.

This energy [on Mothman] was really different. I never got scared, but when you go on location, you're in Pittsburgh, which is a great town, you're around all these coalmines and weird places and power lines. There's an energy. I'd say that there's an energy that we all felt, but I wouldn't say that it scared me. It scared me that I wasn't going to finish on time.

How did your background in music videos and commercials prepare you for doing a movie?

MP: If I answered that question after I did my first movie, I'd be like, "Man, I've got a lot to learn." I love doing music videos, because they're short and they're very free narratively. You don't have to really work with dialogue. They're short. It's the difference between a novel and a poem. Commercials really only prepared me in that they let me use multiple cameras or try different tricks out technically. I don't think that anything really prepares you for doing a movie other than doing a film.

And, my first movie, I made so many mistakes on it, that I was like, "Okay, I've got to make another one right away." You know. Make less, and learn, and maybe try to put a little more of your style ? not to overwhelm it, but to say maybe this is a little more me. And on this one, after feeling better about Arlington Road in terms of narrative, what I liked about the script was that there were more opportunities to play around, musically and sonically.

Is the thriller genre something that you're really interested in, or do you want to make other types of films?

MP: Well, I hope that my next one isn't about a [SPOILERS IN THIS SENTENCE] single white male whose wife is dead, and in a spiraling descent of paranoia with some tragedy at the end. I think I'll keep away from that one. Maybe I'll have a female character next time. I don't know. We've done a couple of junkets, and people have asked me that. I don't think I consciously chose that one. I don't know. I think I'll have to do a couple more before somebody can say that, "Oh, there's a type of movie that he makes." I know I'd like to do a drama. There's other types of movies that I would like to make. I tend to gravitate towards slightly darker things.

What was your rehearsing like? How did you interact with the actors?

MP: We had a little bit more than the standard two-week [rehearsal] period. I would say that I think that the first meeting with an actor is almost the most important one. Because that's where you really make the choice, and you really see... you can sit there and believe that "that could be my person." I don't tend to over-rehearse. We tend to rehearse to get the text right. We don't rehearse too much for blocking. I write this extremely detailed kind of emotional manifesto, scene for scene. Images, ideas, feelings that I give, with books of visuals and music, to the actors. To the key creative people. So it's kind of like my mind opens up, and I give it to them, and then let them kind of interpret that. And then, within shooting, I'm there. Cameron Crowe gave me good advice: don't try to be their best friend. Be more of a father figure.

And each actor's so different. You know, Will Patton, fantastic, will do 12 takes and every one of them will be different. He'll explore. Laura's trained a different way. And she taught me a lot about not trying to manufacture moments within a scene... and letting it build from within her character. So, for me, I think half of it is finding great actors, trusting them, and letting them act. And then just being there and saying, "You know. That feels a little false." And, "Let's try this." Because they're all so different. Some need to be left alone. Some need to be coddled. Some need to be kicked in the ass. So, I kind of just have to say, "How do I get what I see from them?" Discuss it with them. And take it from there.... Hope it works out.

How much of what we saw on screen was in the script, and how much was created along the way?

MP: We never really went into any one day, saying, "Well what are we going to do today? We're kinda just going to wing it." There was some experimentation in the hotel room, because the hotel room we shot for nine days at the end. And I actually sat and showed Richard and Laura the film, everything that had been assembled up to that date.

[SPOILER? I DON'T EVEN KNOW 'ER] So, like the scene of [John Klein] smashing his head in the mirror, we were able to kind of invent. Gary Lucchesi, one of the producers, had an idea that we needed another scare. That's where we came up with idea of him rolling over in bed and finding Debra there. It was kind of a challenge thrown out to me, and I came up with that after a couple of days. So, there was a little bit of invention, but for the most part, we had pretty well designed it.

What was your budget and your shooting schedule?

MP: You know, the budget was, you know, not too high and not too low. More than Blair Witch, less than Titanic. And we shot for like 69 days, but then Gene Warren and his team shot like 28 to 30 days on a model. Fantastic job. And then Cinesite did all the effects and did a great job. You know, I think you're still shooting when you're doing CGI shots. That is another thing I learned a lot about was effects, and they kind of held my hand through that process. And that was another reason I did the film... to learn about effects.

Were there any scenes that were deleted from the final cut?

MP: It's the first movie in history that not one scene was deleted. [Laughs] There are going to be about six... five deleted scenes on the DVD, and three of them we shot knowing that pacing-wise, rhythm-wise, that they could probably go. One of them was an early scene at a church, where Lucinda Jenney is kind of concerned about Gordon, but when you're editing.... She conveyed that with one look in the house at the beginning. It's a scene that you experimented with that you thought was going to be right but that you just didn't need. But they'll be on the DVD.

On Alan Bates:

MP: When you think about that age and intelligence of actor, you think David Soushe, Michael Gambon, Ian McKellen, Nigel Hawthorne before he passed away. John Hurt was a name that came up. There's so many great actors in that range that can play kind of intelligent and damaged. Sheila Jaffe said, "Look, Alan Bates hasn't been in a movie in a while. Why don't we meet him?" And we met him. And he was so emotional and fantastic and smart, and just a great guy. And it wasn't that I didn't get to meet these other guys ? this was near the end of the casting process... and I was like, "Let's just go with him." It was easy. He wanted to do it, and we wanted him to do it, and he hadn't been in a lot of movies, so it worked out.

Was there pressure from the studio to cut the movie in a way that was more straightforward?

MP: We tested it a few times. We made a couple little tweaks. But after the first focus group... which... I'm all for showing it... you know... you have to show it to an audience. You have to sit there with an audience and see... you know... "Oh my God, they're bored here"... you know. We tweaked the Alan Bates scene... put back in a few things that we had taken out, to answer a few questions. I think the lack of tying it all together...the ambiguity of it, was something that appealed to them and appealed to me, because once you start tying up everything and answering every questions for [one group of] people, you're going to alienate everybody else, who doesn't want it. [SPOILORAMA] There's a lot of people who think she didn't have to say, "Wake up, number 37." That they got it. But for every person that gets it.... You just make these judgment calls, and hope that you're doing the right thing.

On the author of the book, John Keel:

MP: He's a really kind, smart man. He really liked the movie. He really felt that the film really captured the spirit and the intention of the book. He felt that Gere's unraveling really mirrored his own unraveling. Again, you can't put everything in there, but he was pleased. And he doesn't seem to be the kind of guy who would sit there and blow smoke up my ass. I think if he hated it, he would have said that. So that was nice. You always want to respect the original source.

On horror films:

MP: I've loved horror films. I've loved supernatural films in the past. I wouldn't have said that I was a huge fan. Like, Oh my God, I'm totally into it. I never really saw The X-Files. I wouldn't say that I was a devout... I don't know what kind of movie this is. Is it supernatural? Is it science fiction? Is it psychological thriller? Is it a mystery? Or is it a combination of all of them.

I'm interested in mystery and the unknown, and in fear. And I think that those ideas are always going to be relevant. It was just so beautiful.... I left to go out and get some air. I came back in, and was peaking through the hole, and I was really just in awe of the power of cinema... of just... in a darkened room, people having this experience, to answer questions that they don't know, for them to reflect. So it gets to be a theological or spiritual thing. There's always going to be movies like that because there's always going to be things in the real world that mystify us, that make us feel like "What the f#$@ is going on and why are we here?" And that's why we listen to music or look at art or come to films.

Jason Myers is film/DVD editor for RevolutionSF.

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