Q&A with David E. Tolchinsky, Director of “Cassandra”

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Name a Horror character you relate to on a spiritual/personal level?
Well, if I say I relate to a horror character, you might think I’m guilty of that character’s gruesome misdeeds or desire to do those gruesome misdeeds. So no, I won’t answer this question.

But I will say as a writer, I’m intrigued by characters who have unique and well developed moral frameworks – what they will absolutely do, what they would never do. So, Hannibal Lecter will eat people but he can’t stand to see Agent Starling disrespected. Wilson Fisk (is he a horror character? I think of him as that since he beats people to death with his bare fists) thinks he’s the good Samaritan, helping to heal the city, only to realize he’s not the good Samaritan, but “the ill intent.” And also – he beats people to death with his bare hands like a monster, but then acts like a scared little boy around Vanessa. So, characters who have two distinct sides at war with one another intrigue me.

More simply, I probably relate to Cole, the picked on/isolated little kid from The Sixth Sense. No, I don’t see dead people all the time, but I do relate to that feeling of isolation. I was a lonely, frightened little kid. And now, I’m a lonely frightened college professor/filmmaker. That’s a joke – actually I’m happily married. But who doesn’t carry around a version of our younger selves with us? That’s why I think I relate to the pain/trauma/fear at work in horror films.

You’ve gotta go through some bad ideas to get to the good ones. Tell us one of your bad ideas. How do you get past the bad ones to find your spark?
I have no bad ideas. Only badly crafted renderings of my ideas. OK, I have bad ideas – those that don’t ignite my passion to actually write the screenplay (and not just write a draft, but to keep working on it until it’s right).

Sometimes I don’t have that passion not because the idea is bad, but because there’s something about the idea that scares me. Or something about the idea that feels intellectual, probably because I haven’t brought the characters to life.

You have to write the bad versions to get to the good versions, yes! So, I keep chipping away at my story, like a hunk of wood or clay. And I find ways of getting deeper into my stories, if they feel distant or flat. Like I walk around and become my characters — you might see me walking down the street mumbling to myself. And by the way research shows that yes, writers are on the same spectrum as schizophrenics; we all hear voices; I guess the difference is the extent to which you can tell if the voices are real or not. But the irony is the voices have to be real, your characters have to be alive and independent (yes, my characters surprise me! You want to do that? No way! That’s the most exciting part of writing), if your story is to feel alive.

And sometimes I stare into space and imagine scenes from my movie. When my then-girlfriend now spouse Debra and I first started going out, she’d come home and I’d be staring into space and she’d be like what are you doing and I’d say I’m working. She was a little disturbed, but now she takes my craziness for granted.

And I check my movie against what I know about structure and craft. Are the act breaks where I want them to be? Is there momentum? Is there a visual metaphor? How much dialogue and scene description can I get rid of? What gives the piece shape and closure?

And I show my work to people I trust. Spouse Debra in particular interrogates me about the politics of what I’ve written (often difficult, complex discussions when writing horror or darker fare). Ultimately, the way I get to the good version is to put my work away for a while and pick it back up – months or even years later. When you do that, you know exactly what a work needs. Or if you’re lucky you might say – hey, this is good! Why didn’t I recognize that years ago? Back to . . . maybe what you had written scared you. . .

And I’ve had this experience to: The thing I’ve tortured over doesn’t seem to catch anyone’s attention, but the thing I puked out in a week is the thing people respond to. So, we have to get past the complex, torturous ideas, to get that to that simple idea that you don’t even recognize as good. . .

Do you consider yourself part of a horror community?
I’ve always had a close group of writer friend/colleagues from running a screenwriter program at Northwestern, but I haven’t been part of a horror community. But since showing at Nightmares Film Festival, and Women in Horror Film Festival and now being part of Alter, I’m starting to. It’s particularly fun to meet people from Chicago who are doing similar dark work.

When you’re building the world of your film, where do you look for inspiration?
Everywhere. Anyway. My dreams. The news. A painting. An image that might be a dream or a memory (Cassandra is built on such an image). A twist on an old story. A myth. The Bible. The Arabian Nights. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Shakespeare.

The Wizard of Oz is always a starting point model – parts of one’s identity is split up and has to be brought back together and the thing you seek is what you already have.

And the Monkey’s Paw – the dark wish is always a great way to start a story. For money. For a loved one to be alive again. . . horror and pain ensue. . .

What would you do if you woke up inside of your film?
I’d say – well isn’t this appropriate payback for my bringing these disturbing worlds to life. Lol. Like the old Twilight Zone episodes where wrongdoers would wake up and find themselves in some nightmarish scenario.

In Cassandra, it looks like Field is drinking some tasty looking scotch. I might have a sip of that before the horror sets in. 

Who would be on your ultimate horror villain squad?
No idea. But my son and I used to come up with who we’d want around a table playing poker – Darth Vader (Search your feelings . . you know I’m bluffing), Emperor (Yes, yes, raise me) both made appearances. And others. Batman? (Deal the cards! In his batman voice) etc. We’d pretend we were each of them. . . in turn. Sometimes we’d pretend they were waiters or waitresses at a diner  Yes, yes, you know you want that slice of pie. . .

Anyway, I’d be open to having various monsters in our poker game (and yes, I do play poker and I box) or serving us food.

Lightning round: Freddy or Jason? Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft? Practical or CGI? Post Apocalypse or Pre Apocalypse?
No idea. Like it all. But do think practicals yes is usually the way to go. I took a special effects class at USC as part of my MFA education – learning how special effects were done (or used to be done) it was like having the dark secrets of the universe unlocked. Motion control, matte paintings, stop action, puppetry, miniatures – loved it all. Cassandra had to be done with practicals/none of us was interested in CGI even though of course CGI can be breathtaking/is a valid choice (i.e. the bear scene in The Revenant; some of the work in Game of Thrones for example).

How do you go about creating the props and sets for your film? How do you create objects that are relatable but unfamiliar?
I love how in Hereditary they filmed the family in rooms, to make it look like we were looking into a doll house. So, the rooms were familiar, but the angle/perspective added something new/creepy/unfamiliar. That’s how you do it. Hitchcock did it by creating forced perspective sets (The Birds).

For me, sometimes it’s the unfamiliar sound you associate with a familiar image/object. In Cassandra, I mixed in all kinds of sounds with young Cassandra’s movements, some consciously noticeable, some not. The Ring is my favorite example of making the familiar scary – it’s the sound of those frogs (I think it’s frogs, I was camping and suddenly felt like I was in the ring because of the frogs on the pond I was near) behind the various scenes that makes the movie so scary/haunting.

Other than that, in Cassandra, I depended on genius production designer/FX artist Sarah Sharp to make everything look familiar yet unfamiliar.

What scares you, and does it inspire your storytelling?
Ju-on (the original) didn’t scare me, but gave me horrible nightmares. I think because it didn’t make narrative sense, so my mind was having to process it. Ironic since as a screenwriting professor, I’m often teaching my students about narrative structure. But the lesson is: If you mess with our expectations or leave parts of a story off, or don’t give enough information, we might be confused (that’s the bad version) or we might be intrigued enough (again, especially with the right actions or scary sound) to keep thinking or dreaming about the story (that’s the good version).

So, every movie I watch, I’m usually thinking why it was effective or not, what techniques (old or new) are being used. So not consciously putting that technique into play, but probably it’s in there somewhere, affecting the choices I’m making.

And . . .

Bears scare me but no, they don’t inspire me  But that scene in The Revenant – with the bear coming at him. That’s basically my nightmare. So, I guess I’m inspired that they brought that to life. And probably again intuitively I’ll try to bring some nightmare to life at some point. (And politically I’m always asking why, why, why bring a nightmare to life? To help people process fear in a safe environment? Jordan Peele brings nightmares to life to comment on race, relationship and class. . . But me? What is the purpose of my stories? See my statement below. Anyway, always thinking. . . )

And. . .

Heights frighten me, but still I walked the Inca Trail in Peru, often on the side of a narrow 3-foot wide cliff (just because there was no choice once I was there!), and my wife has gotten me to ski which is again my nightmare but I enjoy wrestling with the anxiety and the last time I went skiing, I actually wasn’t scared, was just enjoying it. So back to why bring dark movies to life – because they help us process whatever trauma/fear is inside us. . .? Because if you can identify what society is afraid of at a particular time, you can try to solve that fear/change that fear?

Anyway, back to skiing: You want to fall back away from the mountain, but you have to lean forwards towards the mountain/fall. Scary! But the idea of “falling in” to your fear rather than away from it – that’s a metaphor for everything. Fall into what scares you, embrace it, rather than back away from it. And again, is that why we make scary movies? Maybe so!

The monologist Spalding Gray would purposely seek out experiences that scared him; a lot of his funny monologues were based on those experiences. And so doubly tragic that he killed himself. . . something must have scared him too much. . .

And finally, Ghostface would like to know ‘What’s your favourite scary movie?’
No particular favorite, but the ones mentioned above (The Sixth Sense, Ju On, Hereditary, Silence of the Lambs) are pretty great. As is The Others and Psycho. And Get Out (Jordan Peele is my hero). And Island of the Lost Souls (the original 30s version) (eat no meat! Spill no blood! What is the law!) – deeply disturbing for a kid. And yes, my psychiatrist father would show me disturbing movies way too early! Thanks, Dad 

In general, I’m a fan of psychological horror, not so much horror comedy or slasher films. But hey – if you’re watching, I’ll watch too. But be prepared to have a discussion afterwards – what was the meaning of the violence against women? Was it necessary? How were women depicted? In general, I’d rather see stories where women are not the victims or the object of hate, that the fear we’re wrestling with is something other than fear of women. In contrast though the TV series Unbelievable was immensely powerful, and was explicitly violent, but was also about, from a female perspective, control (or the lack of), power (or the lack of), rage, and the emotional effects of trauma. So maybe the violence was necessary?

As to Cassandra (my current favorite scary movie, my odd bird of a child – a pun you’ll understand once viewing it — how could I not love it?), I remember reading an article in The New Yorker about psychiatrists in Chicago who had reinterpreted their patients’ dreams as memories of abuse. These psychiatrists were part of a short-lived movement called “memory recovery therapy.” Disturbing to me is that I had had the same dream as a five-year-old as one of the patients in the article— two “things” standing outside my window watching. I had always experienced that image as a memory, not as a dream. As it turns out, it was just a dream, and so were the dreams of the patients. The psychiatrists had inadvertently or intentionally “implanted” memories of abuse in their patients. Meanwhile, the “recovered memories” had caused trauma, raised questions and had made shambles of the patients’ relationships with the accused family members and/or friends. “Recovered memories therapy” was replaced by “false memory syndrome,” and the destruction of the careers of the psychiatrists involved.

Years later, as a screenwriter, I pondered — what if one of the psychiatrists had stumbled upon actual abuse (and no doubt some of the memory recovery psychiatrists did just that), but disavowed that abuse, for fear of being sued or imprisoned. I also thought of my childhood during which I felt I was a victim of verbal/emotional (not sexual) abuse, with an authority figure who knew and did nothing to stop it. And that’s how I backed into the story of Cassandra which as it took shape became about excavating horror, guilt, and rage.

For those who don’t know, the half-goddess Cassandra was able to predict the future, but since she rejected Apollo’s advances, was cursed never to be believed, so she went mad. Significantly, Cassandra could speak to birds, which were seen as the link between humans and the gods. Meanwhile, Actaeon peered at Artemis while she was naked, so she punished him by turning him into a stag. Punished him in a rage. . .

For me, Cassandra, birds, and stags are symbols of people now standing up for themselves against sexual abusers but (in the case of Cassandra) at the same time sometimes not believed and therefore silenced. Power and powerlessness. Fear and rage.

As a professor of screenwriting at Northwestern University, I teach that, for the audience, every scene in a screenplay takes places in the present, even if it’s a flashback. Given that our film is about uncertain dreams, memories, and timelines, I wondered could I raise questions about what exactly we are experiencing–past, present or future. So, Officer Crawley is talking to an investigator about events at a house that she can’t remember as we see her driving towards the house where she meets the owner who describes his past as a memory recovery psychiatrist. In that past, we meet the owner’s patient, who invokes a memory of an even more distant past. Or perhaps that distant past is the present and the future something that is being imagined.

Writing this film brought forth the above-mentioned images and the references which sometimes surprised me. Directing this film forced me to understand and communicate the meaning of those images to my actors and crew. All 28+ of us stayed on a farm for a week in Monroe, WI, the supposed site of Cassandra’s next murder. And yes, strange things began to happen on that farm, namely a shared, deeply emotional journey that we all still talk about. Scoring/sound designing this film (I was trained as a composer at Yale before I began studying screenwriting at USC film school) was starting all over again – intuitively creating something whose origins (again) I wasn’t quite aware of. At the same time, I was also scoring Debra Tolchinsky’s NYTimes Op-Doc, Contaminated Memories. Debra wanted me to make the music itself somehow contaminated. No doubt for me as a composer, there was a cross-pollination between the two works.

Perhaps Cassandra will stir fear or rage, and dreams or memories of events that may or may not have happened. . . the past is always in flux. And sometimes the past can feel more present than the present itself. Who knows.

Thanks for watching. And thanks for not giving away the ending.