INTERVIEW: ‘The Unholy’ Writer & Director Evan Spiliotopoulos
With UK cinemas reopening this week, horror fans can look forward to the start of a busy schedule with new releases Spiral: From the Book of Saw and The Unholy.
The Unholy follows Alice, a young hearing-impaired girl who, after a supposed visitation from the Virgin Mary, is inexplicably able to hear, speak and heal the sick. As word spreads and people from near and far flock to witness her miracles, a disgraced journalist (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) hoping to revive his career, visits the small New England town to investigate. When terrifying events begin to happen all around, he starts to question if these phenomena are the works of the Virgin Mary or something more sinister.
We recently had the opportunity to chat with the director, Evan Spiliotopoulos, about adapting the novel, working with producer and horror legend Sam Raimi and what it was like shooting the finishing moments of the film through the pandemic.
Huge congratulations on your directorial debut! What was it about James Herbert’s best-selling book Shrine which really called out to you?
I read it when I was 13 (I was already a little movie buff) and I saw it as a marriage between The Exorcist and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, which I believe in Europe may be known as The Big Carnival. Just to refresh your memory, Ace in the Hole is Kirk Douglas as a morally compromised journalist who discovers a treasure hunter trapped in a mineshaft – but he’s the only one who knows where he is. But instead of saving him, he delays his rescue, so he can milk the story as much as possible.
So I just felt that that the combination of a totally egotistical cynic entering a small town where eerie things are happening, and then manipulating the story to his own advantage, but then realising that he’s unleashed a spiritual Pandora’s box and only he can stop it, but at the cost of everything he always wanted – is a great character. And I will say I’ve been trying to get it made for a very long time since I got into the film industry. It was fortuitous that it happened now because the term fake news is so much in the Zeitgeist and the movie, without wanting to get too pretentious, is beyond being a ghost story. It’s also a little bit about what happens when a journalist, who we look to to inform the public and speak the truth, manipulates the truth to his own advantage, and what catastrophe that could bring to a small community.
So Sam Raimi produced the film – how involved was he in the project?
I don’t think I could have survived the shoot if it hadn’t been for Sam! But Sam is beyond a movie God, beyond a horror movie god, he’s a very approachable human being. I’d like to say he’s just a kid from Michigan who happened to land in movies. He was instrumental in the pre-production stage, and he was with us for the beginning of the shoot. But unfortunately, the timing went against us as he went off to direct the Doctor Strange sequel while we were still shooting.
The biggest piece of advice he gave me was that pre-production is the last time you’ll be able to make mistakes and not pay for them. And pre-production is so critical. If there are any young filmmakers who are reading this, and you’re wanting to be directors, I need to reinforce that you have the opportunity to test things, to rehearse. If you are able to rehearse your actors, which is not always the case as the higher up they are, the tighter their schedule is – but if you have the opportunity, go for it. Rehearse your camera and rehearse your tricky, tricky camera moves. Also, put your makeup team through the test to apply any prosthetics as a rehearsal, so you can get them to be as efficient as possible, because prosthetics take a long time to apply – but we managed to cut two hours out of that schedule. Rehearse your visual effects and rehearse anything technical that could go wrong on the day, and you will show up very, very prepared on that first day.
The Unholy features an intriguing mix of supernatural and religious horror, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, aka the Winchester Brother’s dad, is the leading man. Was he always your go-to star, because it’s such a great match!
Oh yes. So one of the reasons, again keeping Ace in the Hole in mind, the only way you can watch a morally corrupt jerk for 90 minutes is if he’s played by Kirk Douglas. And Kirk Douglas is charming and fun and sexy. Who’s like that? It’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan. I call him the effortlessly cool dude, (because they had me describe him in the three words in a previous interview!) But Jeffrey has put a patent on playing guys that normally you’d want to just hate but because it’s him, they’re just charming. So Negan obviously and the Comedian in Watchmen, there’s just something about this guy that makes you want him to turn out good. And that’s what I needed for Finn, because he’s a jerk for 90% of the movie.
Yeah, you really root for him in the end! How did you go about putting the rest of the talented cast together?
So some of them were meetings. Cary (Elwes) was a meeting because I wanted Bishop Gyles to be a politician, a very photogenic media savvy member of the church. And Cary has this Errol Flynn swagger to him, and he was the perfect choice. Diogo (Morgado), who plays Monsignor Dale, was also a meeting and the rest were auditions. Even the great Bill Sadler was an audition. But what we feel is the big discovery of our movie is Cricket Brown as Alice – this is her first film and her first job of any kind in front of the camera. She was doing student shorts and she’s done an off Broadway play. We thought Alice was going to be the hardest part to cast, but we actually found an abundance of riches – there’s a lot of young talent out there. In the end, I thought there were at least nine actresses who could have done it, but Cricket was the best of the nine. And we are super, super happy with her.
Yeah she’s fantastic. The genre of horror rooted in religion has evolved over the past couple of years, particularly with films like Saint Maud and The Conjuring – what was it about this sub-genre that intrigued you?
I guess it’s the spiritual aspect of it. There’s a quote from Stanley Kubrick when he did The Shining and he was talking to Stephen King and developing the story – he said: “Well, you know, every ghost story for me, even the scary ones are essentially optimistic, because it implies an afterlife.” So even this one, which is a movie about satanic forces, is optimistic because if you’ve got the bad guy, it only stands to reason there’s got to be the good guy somewhere. Even the dark ones have that quest which I think we all have have – is there anything next?
So Jerry goes through a fascinating and sort of humbling journey in this film, which is refreshing to see and a different take on the leading man. Was that always your intention with the character?
Yeah absolutely. There is only to my knowledge, (and I know that somebody’s going to pop up on social media going oh there’s actually 15 other movies like this!) the only movie that has a protagonist who is a journalist investigating a supernatural event is The Kolchack series with the original cast (there has been remakes), but with Darren McGavin in the early 70s – two movies that lead to a series, the two movies are fantastic. But I love the idea of a cynical journalist who’s just in it for himself, who comes across this great story. And now, this man who’s an atheist has to prove that these things are real miracles, otherwise he doesn’t have a story, which I thought was wonderful.
So I have to ask, who came up with the Metallica reference on the cow?!
That’s an original from my screenplay. You know, it’s a pretty serious movie in general, but we wanted to give the early parts a sense of humour. I find that amusing an audience that way makes them like the characters more and also puts them in a sense of, “oh, this is gonna be nice.”
The production was so involved, for example the sound design from Alice’s perspective and the impressive cinematography, how long did it take to shoot the film?
I had the longest shooting schedule of any movie since Lawrence of Arabia because of the pandemic. So that’s why I kind of chuckled because we had to shut down and restart. Basically, we had a seven week shoot – we shut down on week four in March, because of the pandemic – and we all came home. We had this unique opportunity – which you don’t normally get – to stop the movie, see what we had, edit what we already had and then go back. The studio was very generous, and they really liked what they saw because our budget for Sony is about what Spider-Man‘s catering budget is! So they could have easily taken a tax write off, but they liked what they saw, the cast were committed and the crew in Massachusetts (where we shot the film) was fully committed – and everybody wanted to return.
So the second half of the shooting was in September when the CDC of Massachusetts gave us the okay. But it was with arduous restrictions. So basically, the actors, obviously when you’re shooting are the only ones to take the mask off, they were very vulnerable. So everybody else had to wear full PPE including face masks, visors, plastic gloves, a gown that made me look like Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers. We had to shoot reduced hours, so instead of 12 hours days, which we were doing, we were doing 10 hour days. We also had to spray down the set for every scene with an antiseptic spray, which you think would take 10 minutes, but it was 10 minutes, six-seven times a day – so you’re losing hours. Oh, and we couldn’t have extras indoors. So our big climax was shot on the first week of production, thankfully, because otherwise, I don’t know how we would have finished this thing. But we could only have 10 extras indoors spaced six feet apart, or three family units of three spaced six feet apart. So there is a scene in the movie, which is a funeral scene, where if you ever get the Blu-ray and pause it, it’s the same 10 people! We would shoot them, redress them, move them, shoot them, redress them, move them until they filled the church, and you had to do those things. But you mentioned the cinematography. And I gotta tell you, Craig Wroblewski, Canadian director of photography, who did Stephen King’s In the Tall Grass and is now shooting The Umbrella Academy, was our VP and he’s extraordinary and I never want to make a movie without him again. But yeah, everybody was great.
What were the main inspirations for the creature design?
The idea was making a corrupt Virgin Mary image, and I will add that Sam Raimi was extremely involved in that aspect as well. The costume design is by Jennifer Trembley and the makeup is by Oscar nominee Adrian Moreau. But Mary’s performed by two people. She’s primarily performed visibly by Marina Mazeppa, who is a contortionist. And the joke here is she’s a 23 year old Ukrainian, she’s like a supermodel, and in the funeral scene that I mentioned, we actually put her in there as one of the mourners just as an Easter Egg, so people can see. She’s voiced by Lorna Larkin, who’s an Irish actress. The reason I really wanted an Irish actress, which was incredibly hard to find may I add, because we had to get one who was here in the United States, who was SAG, who was affordable, who was the right age. So you think there’s an abundance, but then all these little things that have happened that reduce it, but anyway, we got Lorna. And in the back story of our movie, which takes place in 1845, Massachusetts was primarily Irish immigrants. So I wanted the character to be from that period. Also when you hear her in the context of the 21st century, it sounds like she’s from somewhere else clearly. So it gave that essence of the other intruding on our community. So yeah, corrupt Virgin Mary is what we were working with.
Out now in UK cinemas, The Unholy is produced by Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert and Evan Spiliotopoulos, written for the screen and directed by Evan Spiliotopoulos, and is based upon James Herbert’s best-selling book Shrine.