Q&A with Michael Shlain, Director of “In A Foreign Town”
Name a Horror character you relate to on a spiritual/personal level?
Well, you said spiritual, so I have to go right to Tim Robbins’ Jacob from JACOB’S LADDER. The central idea of the film as expressed by Danny Aiello (quoting Meister Eckhart) is that Hell is an internal state that we create with our resistance. That the inner demons that seem to persecute are an extension of what we can’t accept; old beliefs and ways of being that we’re holding on to. And there’s the promise that if I can let go of these old ideas, that I’ll discover that the devils are really angels. That the things I fear most are benevolent forces that are really trying to set me free This has been a key theme in my personal journey and has helped re-frame and navigate some challenging experiences.
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?
When I was in college, I started writing a screenplay about a man who finds out that his whole life is a scientific behavior experiment and that all his family and friends are actors. I got stuck and never finished it—and then that same year The Truman Show and Dark City came out, followed by The Matrix a year later. I’m with David Lynch that ideas are these things that get downloaded to us from the ethers. Perhaps sometimes to several individuals at once (like the Television and the Periodic Table). Not sure there’s such a thing as a bad idea, but it’s more about finding the right shape and timing for their expression. Since then, I’ve gotten to play with some of these same themes around questioning reality in other projects, including IN A FOREIGN TOWN.
Do you consider yourself part of a horror community?
As I followed IAFT on the festival circuit, I experienced an initiation into the Weird Fiction community, especially after spending time at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and NecronomiCon. As a subset of broader horror fandom, there seems to be a certain kinship in looking at the world slightly askance, having a certain amount of suspicion of things at their face value and just relishing how bizarre, strange, and mysterious our world really is.
When you’re building the world of your film, where do you look for inspiration?
I was very lucky that for IN A FOREIGN TOWN, I got to draw inspirations from the stories of one of the greatest horror authors of all time. With an abundance of inspiration, the challenge became about how to best translate the mood, setting and characters to film. The quest became about discovering the right physical details that would encapsulate the emotional values of Mr. Ligotti’s stories. And for that, my team and I looked to the choices that would disturb and unsettle us the most.
What would you do if you woke up inside of your film?
From a certain perspective, I can say that this actually happens. IN A FOREIGN TOWN is about how traumatic experiences in our family history can haunt us in the present day. When these traumas are triggered, it’s as if we emotionally time travel into the experience of the hurt, scared child inside of us, re-living all of those awful-feeling emotions. Over the years I’ve learned to not fight these experiences, to breathe through them, observe what information comes up, and reach out to trusted friends and counseling resources for support.
Who would be on your ultimate horror villain squad?
If this were a football team: The Xenomorph, King Kong and Leatherface in the starting lineup. Coached by Hannibal Lecter, with color commentary by Pinhead.
Lightning round: Freddy or Jason? Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft? Practical or CGI? Post Apocalypse or Pre Apocalypse?
Freddy for sure. I love that Wes Craven was inspired by surrealism. The first three films terrified me when I saw them as a kid, and I actually stopped watching horror movies for a while after. I was also obsessed with the Freddy’s Nightmare’s TV series.
H.P. Lovecraft. Indescribable cosmic elder gods beat killer cars and clowns. (That said, I have huge respect for King and his world-building.)
Practical whenever possible. Horror aims directly for the guts and our body has an innate reaction to physical forms, textures and organic movement. I think subtle CGI augmentation to a physical build can work, but I’ll always strive for a base in the practical.
I confess I had to look up “Pre-Apocalypse” as a genre. I’m going to pivot and say “Apocalypse Now”
How do you go about creating the props and sets for your film? How do you create objects that are relatable but unfamiliar?
Relatable but unfamiliar– someone’s read Freud’s essay on the Uncanny?! For IN A FOREIGN TOWN, we aimed to create a sense of familiar things in a context that would raise disturbing questions in our audience. A clinic we expect to be clean is crawling with black mold. Our calm-sounding doctor is surrounded by threatening medical devices. We also took pains to connect the visual symbols, just as we might find in a recurring dream: Hatcher’s V-neck hospital uniform mirrors the pajamas of his childhood, the blue star pattern behind the Showman is echoed in Father’s tie and the wallpaper of the house. And the Quine logo is everywhere. All this is intended to create an atmosphere where things feel not …quite…right. My favorite uncanny prop is Father’s watch where we removed the hands— a direct quote from Bergman’s WILD STRAWBERRIES.
What scares you, and does it inspire your storytelling?What scares me the most is my own capacity for self-betrayal. I think Ligotti is on point that a lot of what I consider to be “me”—”MY thoughts”, “MY beliefs”, “MY will” is actually not mine at all. Whether it’s a product of family or social conditioning, trauma response or G-d knows what, there are parts of my consciousness that I don’t understand and am not in control of. And if I’m not careful, under stress or other triggering environments, I may react in a way that is not consistent with my values and risk hurting myself and the people I love. I believe this is at the root of the fear of demonic possession. And yes, those mysteries of consciousness very much inspire the stories I’m moved to tell.
And finally, Ghostface would like to know ‘What’s your favourite scary movie?’
The Exorcist. It’s one of a few movies that legitimately scared me as an adult. I believe that what makes it so effective is that both the novel and Blatty’s consequent screenplay takes the idea of evil very seriously. As a runner up, I must call out The Babadook. It understood the reality of trauma and grief so well and the mechanics of the monster and the main character’s journey is imbued with that deep understanding.