I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Barbara Crampton about her latest movie, We Are Still Here (read our DVD review here), out on Blu-Ray and DVD today, in which she plays Anne, a married woman grieving the loss of her teenage son who moves to an unwelcoming house in the country.
She had a lot to offer about what it's like to return to the horror genre later in life and the tight-knit community within which the movies are being made these days, among other things.
If you think you're unfamiliar with Crampton, I can assure you you're just having a momentary lapse of memory. She's probably best known for Re-Animator (but let's not forget Chopping Mall, please!), and she also appeared in soap operas throughout the 90s and 00s, including Guiding Light and The Young and the Restless. As for how she found her way back to the comfort of the horror genre? I'll let her tell it to you in her own words.
Please enjoy excerpts from our conversation, below.
You've gone full circle in your career, from the horror genre to working in soaps and now back again. What drew you back?
They asked me! Plain and simple, they asked me. I got married kind of late in life, for the second time actually, and had moved up to San Francisco and, you know, roles were kind of drying up for me in my late 30s. I think that's a really hard time for any actress. And I really wanted to focus on my husband and my new family – I had two children back to back – so I really wasn't thinking about acting again or being in the business. And I got a call out of the blue to work on a movie called You're Next and they didn't want to meet me or talk to me, they just wanted to hire me for this mom role.
And I read the script, and I thought, this is a really good movie and interesting and fun, and you know, it was kind of done on a low budget and I didn't really know who the people were – I've since come to know them quite well, you know, they're all amazing filmmakers, all the people who acted in the movie and in front of the screen and behind the screen – and the movie did so well for them, and I was just along for the ride and I think it reintroduced me to other filmmakers, and I subsequently just started getting calls. And I realized, you know, motherhood is really hard and acting is really fun, and I forgot how much I loved it and how much I missed it until I worked on that movie.
I was having the most amazing time! It was the best movie to come back to working on because everybody, all these people are somewhat auteurs in their own right, you know Ti West and Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz, and of course Adam Wingard, he's just gone on to have an amazing career. And so it drew me back, and then I realized I could work again! I could be the mother! I could maybe someday play the grandmother!
And so here I am, later in life, having a resurgence playing roles, I guess, you know that they need people for. And it was just because they asked me, I had a good time and I thought I'm going to continue to do this. I've just been getting calls, and now I'm helping to produce a couple of other movies, and I guess I'm kind of doing it again! It's really fun for me, and it doesn't matter where you live anymore, apparently. I live in San Francisco. It's not like it used to be, where you have to be right there. You can live anywhere and fly all over to make movies.
Do you see much of a difference in the way movies are made since you've returned?
Well, they're digital, so it's much faster. And seemingly almost anybody can make a movie now. It's not this mysterious, magical process anymore. Anybody can learn how to do it and put some players and a script together and get some bodies to work on a movie, but to do it well, of course, is a different story. But also, when I was younger, the movies I did had the distribution built in, and we didn't have to worry about selling a movie.
Today, these young filmmakers I'm working with, it seems all important to get your film edited and ready so you can submit it to one of the big genre film festivals where distributors go and watch and look for their new products, and it just seems like a wonderful way for people to share their products, to meet other people, and collaborate and find out information about this movie, that movie. You know, the word of mouth about all of these other movies that are in production are so visible now with the aid of social media and Twitter and Facebook.
Everybody knows what everybody's doing and the community today is much more in tune with one another. In the 80s, I just knew the people I was working with on a film set. I didn't know a director unless I was working with him, but now I've met all of these young directors at film festivals and karaoke in LA and bowling parties. It just seems like there is a whole community now, and they're so supportive of one another and so collaborative.
I think it's just fantastic. I'm enjoying my time now working in it now more than I did in the 80s! I felt like I was just doing my little acting job, coming and doing it, and then we'd get a review by Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael and that was it. Now I meet all the reviewers at the film festivals! It's just much more of an exciting, artistic community that is really collaborative, so I think it's really exciting now. I'm just jazzed to be back and hanging out with all of these young people.
We Are Still Here had a really small cast and a great role for you, the whole of which turned out to be really entertaining. Tell me how you came to be involved.
I met Ted Geoghegan because he was one of the publicists on You're Next. That's kind of like his day job, he's written, I think, 11 scripts that have gotten produced, and this is probably the biggest one that he's done. But to make extra money, he's a publicist and very well known in our little community. But I met him on You're Next, and sometimes you meet someone and you just really get each other's personalities, and that was the case with Ted and I...we kept in touch, and he sent me the script, and said I have just written this and kind of want to get your take on it, let me know what you think.
Unbeknownst to me, he did have me in mind for the part of Anne, but at the time he didn't tell me that. He just wanted my feedback, and I thought it was really great and had aspects of [H.P.] Lovecraft and [John] Carpenter and [Lucio] Fulci and a lot of things going on, and I liked that it was grounded in some older characters that had a sense of loss and there was a weighty foundation to springboard from.
And so I told him it was great and really didn't have too many notes for him. Then he called me again, maybe three months later, and said, 'About that script you read. I have Travis Stevens on board as a producer and we've taken it to Dark Sky, and they're really interested, and they're going to put up the money for it.' And I said, wow! That's great.
And then he said, 'And I really want you to play the part of Anne.' And I said, well, thank you! That's amazing! I was surprised, even though when I read it I thought, you know, I could probably play this part, you know, it's so hard to get a movie made – even though anyone can do it these days – when everything comes together, when it happens, it feels like magic. We have some cast members, we have a producer, we have a start date. It feels like Christmas.
And then I asked him, well, who are you going to get to direct? And he said, "Well, me." And he hadn't told me that he wanted to direct. I think he said he had someone in mind to direct, but he liked this script so much – it was one of his favorite scripts he had written – and Travis is known for working with first time directors and is a completely wonderfully hands on producer and knows everything about every aspect of filmmaking, so they were a really wonderful team together and created a really nice set and energy for us to work on. It was a great experience all the way around, and so nice to have such a big part, as you say, to carry through all the way to the end. That was quite a little gift to me.
Where was it filmed? Was it actually filmed in that house?
Yes, it was a real house in upstate New York just north of Rochester in a little town called Palmyra, known as the birth of Mormonism, actually. A very small little town. A wonderful little film community. They do a lot of theater there. The lady who played Cat is a frequent player in a lot of productions in Rochester, and the gentleman who played Dagmar lives in Rochester and works all the time as an actor, and the girl in the bar who tries to kill me in the movie? She lived in Los Angeles for a long time and did a lot of Star Trek episodes. So we had a lot of really wonderful people in the movie that were from the community.
The house we filmed in? The people were part of a church group that Travis met...it's so funny, they're part of a church group, but they came together to help us make a horror movie! And the pastor of the church in the town is in the movie. He's one of the guys at the end whose stomach sort of explodes and whose intestines come out [laughs].
How funny! Of all the movies, that's the one he decides to lend his talents!
And his daughter plays the young Dagmar ghost, the little girl, in the movie. And the people who own the house were part of that church group, and they moved out of the house and down the street for about a month! We basically took over their house for about a month!
It was a great house! Very atmospheric.
Wasn't it? I think so, too, very big and rambling, and it was really twice as big as what you saw. We only filmed in a part of it. We used a lot of it for hair and makeup and wardrobe, and then we had a couple of rooms for the production team. It was a fantastic house. It was great.
What did you do to prepare for the role of Anne in terms of identifying with grief? It was a pretty heavy role.
I only have a small inkling of what it could be like to lose a child. I have two children of my own. I have a stepson who's 20. I can only imagine what it's like to lose one of them. I thought I should probably do a little bit more research into that because it was a pretty heavy thing, and it was an emotion that I wanted to keep alive throughout the whole movie. And so I actually knew two women who lost children...and so I interviewed both of those women and asked them very pointed and in depth questions by email, just because I thought it might be difficult to answer the questions in person...
I asked questions like what their relationship was like with their husband, and how did they view their own life, and did they ever feel like they couldn't go on, and what was it like on a daily basis, and what were the little things they did to make themselves feel better. You know, because the movie's also – even though it's a short movie – it's a long time to watch someone in grief. So I wanted to show some moments where she felt like she could have a bit of happiness, and was it okay to feel that or do you feel guilty about having those moments when you have a little levity, because it really had only just happened.
I took those interviews and kept them with me all the time, and read them throughout the day and read them in the morning just to get myself in the mood. Ted and I both wanted her to also feel like she still loved her husband. Frequently when this happens, it's really hard to relate to the other people in your family, because you're really just angry and in deep despair, but we want to root for these characters, so we wanted to feel some love between then and for the audience feel that they wanted this couple to recover and be able to move on, so we tried to balance out the grief with moments of hope. The interviews were very important, however, to the entire process.
You mentioned the short duration of the movie, which I thought was interesting. Because despite the short length, it never felt as if you were being shortchanged. The first half was an emotional, fear based horror that your character seemed to carry and the second part brought in the scary wacky neighbors and the gore.
Yeah, I think that Ted wanted to have a supernatural horror movie that felt like a ghost story, but frequently with a lot of those movies, you don't get a lot of the gore. It is mostly fear and emotion and hauntings, and it is sort of something that keeps you on the edge of your seat. But to have some all out, balls out gore is not something you normally identify with a supernatural horror movie, so he wanted to have both of those elements in there and make it a fun movie and make it satisfying for horror fans.
Did you by any chance film it in sequence so you got to film the sad parts and get your own kind of happy ending, too [laughs]?
I don't remember what our schedule was, but usually it never feels right for an actor, to be honest with you. They do what's best for production, and you just have to find your way to have it make sense for you. So there was some of the ending of the move that we shot pretty early on. That's kind of difficult, so you have to know the totality of your emotional life in the whole movie.
Frequently what I'll do is I'll create a little graph, which will make sense to me, but not to anybody else, as to how deep is my anger or my sadness and where are my lighter moments, and, you know, how can I create this and make it like a piece of music and not play the same thing two scenes in a row or try to make a little extra color. I make a little graph...so I kind of know where I am. But having said that, when you're finally done filming the entire picture, that's when I really know how to play the character, because I've been through it. And then I go, aha! I could have done this in that scene or that in this scene. Really, what I think would be optimal is if I filmed every movie twice. I'd give my best performances that way.
So what's next? You have some other projects in the pipeline, will any be coming our way in 2015 or 2016?
Well, who knows? We had distribution for We Are Still Here and of course You're Next was bought right away and sat on the shelf for two years. I have this other movie that's been playing the festival circuit called Sun Choke, and that's kind of a psychological thriller movie, and I play the caretaker of a woman who is mentally unstable. It's a very dark, really wonderfully deep look at the horrors of what can go on in the mind if unchecked. We're waiting for somebody to buy it, and hopefully that will happen soon. It's playing at Elijah Wood's SpectreFest coming up in Los Angeles and I was just at FrightFest in London and it played there and a bunch of other places.
Then I also did a movie called Road Games and that was an English and French co-production that premiered at FrightFest. That has actually sold! I'm not at liberty to say who it sold to, but it sold to a very good company and so I think that announcement is coming out very soon. It's about a serial killer, but you don't know who the killer is until the end of the movie and it could be any one of five characters. It's a thriller and a horror and a comedy, and there's a lot going on in that one, and I think people will really enjoy it. It's lighter than some of the other movies I've been doing recently.
I'm also producing a movie for my friend Jackson Stewart who was an intern for Stewart Gordon for many years. He's done many short movies, and I've been in a couple of them, He wrote a wonderful script along with Stephen Scarlata, who was one of the producers and worked on Jodorowsky's Dune, and we have some wonderful actors on that movie and just finished principal photography and tweaking some editing, and hopefully that will be done in the next few months.
Yes! And there's another movie called The Divine Tragedies which [played at ShriekFest this past weekend]. It might have premiered that, but I'm not sure if it's played anywhere else yet...
Awesome! You have a lot going on.
I feel like I'm working now more than I ever have.
So there's a resurgence of horror, it seems, even on the small screen. Would you ever do a TV show like Scream or Scream Queens? Or would you rather not commit to LA?
No, it doesn't matter. I could do a guest star in something or potentially go down there here and there...I could do that. I don't tend to focus on television, really, and my agents tend to focus more on movies for me, but I'm not opposed to doing something on the small screen. I think it's wonderful, and I love it! I love Penny Dreadful, and I loved Hannibal, and I was sad that it got canceled. Scream Queens I haven't seen yet, but I look forward to catching up on it.
It is a great time for horror, and it's a great month! We're in the greatest month of the year!!