Paul Solet is no stranger to Icons of Fright or myself; having met him through Fangoria releasing our short horror films on DVD a few years ago, I was fortunate to then witness his step-by-step progress in getting his first genre feature, GRACE, off the ground. Joining with Adam Green’s ArieScope Pictures for production, Paul’s film debuted at Sundance to awed, anxious and some fainting audience members; and spent 9 months on the festival circuit before its theatrical and DVD releases in 2009. While there are projects brewing for Mr. Solet that we can’t give away yet, I spoke to him about the GRACE experience, his foray into horror on the radio, Boston celebrity, as well as some officially announced projects coming our way; we touch on his thoughts on the Hollywood process and how he approaches meetings and work, and wrap up with a look at some Dirty Lights..
AB: We’re coming up on 3 years since GRACE was released in theaters and on DVD. Now that some time’s passed, and you have some perspective, what can you offer on the experience?
Paul Solet: Thanks man. No one knows the GRACE experience more intimately than you do, having traveled many miles over many years to document her story, so it’s really awesome to debrief with you.
GRACE was a wonderful experience for me in so many ways. There are so many people on that team I expect to be working with for many, many years to come, and that’s very important to me, from you to Adam Green and the Ariescope team, to my DP Zoran Popovic and Editor Darrin Navarro and many more. We had very little time and money to make that movie, but we threw so much love at our challenges that we were able to overcome almost all of them. We had so many doubters, it took years and years to raise the money to make that movie, so getting to premiere it at Sundance was really magical. The movie was so well-respected within the industry and so popular with critics, it really opened so many doors. People always told me it was too weird a script, too dark, too strange for people to understand, so it was a tremendous validation not just to see it have a theatrical release, but a fantastic run on television and cable all over the world as well. At the end of the day, you need to make people some money, and there’s something really great about seeing that happen for the people that believed in the movie.
Have you seen it since its festival run? Most directors I know can’t objectively watch any of their work, they’re thinking of “that was the day we lost five setups”, etc. And you lived with it for so long before it was produced. I know you stayed for every festival screening, though that was primarily to observe how audiences and cultures reacted to the film..thoughts?
No, not since then, but many, many times during the festival run. I know a lot of directors don’t like to watch their movies at festivals, but I found it so valuable seeing how a movie works with different audiences. GRACE played so many festivals in so many countries I was able to see it with literally dozens of different audiences, so I kind of feel like I was able to rediscover the movie alongside them; the experiences on set sort of merged with the experience of the overall film through all those viewers’ eyes.
Often there’s a film or series of films that makes people realize this is a path they need to follow in. I know a lot of films that influenced you early on.. but I’m wondering if there was a certain film or films that made you really truly discover the importance of story above all. Or was that something that obviously revealed itself through becoming a writer?
That’s a great question. I’m not sure if I can point to any one movie that drove the importance of story home to me. It’s more the combined experience of growing up living and breathing movies and the overall sense of when I was satisfied with a film and when I wasn’t. Spectacle is great, I love a good spectacle — but if I feel deceived by a story, or feel that it’s lazy or inconsistent, I always get really sad and disappointed. It’s funny, I know I take this stuff more seriously than is probably healthy, but that’s the nature of love.
Any particular genre films since GRACE’s release that have knocked you out? Director-wise, who should we keep an eye on, if anyone in particular?
I really liked ANIMAL KINGDOM, and A PROPHET and thought BULLHEAD was staggeringly beautiful. I liked SNOWTOWN MURDERS and the RED RIDING trilogy a lot as well. Goddamn punishing movies, but so brave. I also really loved TAKE SHELTER. Fucking gorgeous movie, and made for nothing. BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW was a real treat for me, too. The balls it takes to put a movie like that together. Man, I just was grinning the whole time. I was very excited to see Alamo Drafthouse start distributing movies, that was a really exciting development for me as a fan. James Shapiro, who was instrumental on the GRACE team with Mark Ward and Jon Saba, is heading up that effort and he just has exceptionally good taste in movies, and a hell of an eye for emerging projects. As for emerging genre directors, I loved what André Øvredal did with TROLL HUNTER. Very excited to see him work in Hollywood.
Are the same things that got under your skin as a younger genre viewer the same things that do now? Have you noticed your tastes changing at all since truly being immersed in the film business?
My world is pretty much a continuous research project, so whatever I’m working on will determine what I’m taking in. I spent the last year and a half on a project that brought me very deep into the art world, so my film intake has been a little more obscure as a result, but I am genre-obsessed for life, so a steady diet of horror movies continues always.
Has your writing process changed at all since you’ve had a film successfully made, or when it’s your own spec script vs. a studio assignment?
Not a whole lot, I don’t think. Every project demands a slightly different approach, but I am a firm believer in the outline whether I’m writing for hire or for myself. I know a couple very good screenwriters who just dive in, but that isn’t me. I think most of the stuff I’ve learned about writing since GRACE has been about long-term development, as opposed to ground floor construction. Building projects with companies like Protozoa and Film44 has been such a great experience for me, and I’ve learned so much from those guys. I tend to write very, very quickly when I’m working alone because I spend most of my waking hours holed up like some kind of film monk or something, so watching projects flourish in these long term partnerships has taught me to slow down and let a project find its own voice between drafts.
How was the experience of working on Tales from Beyond the Pale? You ended up reworking an existing screenplay to fit the radio play format, right? My favorite part of sound for film and any entertainment is that people really don’t dissect what went into it, like they might watching a visual effect in a film. Sound just drills into you and bypasses that analytical part of your mind.
I loved every episode of the show I heard, but definitely gagged a lot during yours. Did you do research into sound effects, IE how cutting in a certain surgery might sound, or did you go for a gut reaction based on experimenting?
Well put! THE CONFORMATION began as a feature, yes. I had intended to take it out as a pitch, but when Glenn and Larry asked if I was interested in doing a Beyond The Pale episode it seemed like the perfect place for it. I just love those old radio plays, they’re whip-smart, no pandering just pure story and rhythm. I wanted to do one just like the original Mercury Theater shows, from formatting to the sound effects. I got ahold of the original radio play format and set to work adapting an illustrated treatment I had intended to use to pitch the movie. So much fun for a screenplay geek, like time traveling!
The sound work was very much a team effort. We were less interested here in the reality of the sound work than in the effect emotionally and viscerally. I’m usually pretty faithful to reality, but radio as a medium demands exaggeration of sound effects in just the same way silent film demands exaggeration of physical movement. In post production, I brought in long time collaborator Jake Hamilton as a sound wolf and he really ran with the purist approach, recording custom stuff, rather than relying on libraries. He spent two weeks flinging himself into bathtubs of ice, cutting up pumpkins with scalpels, dropping rotting melons from his rooftop. Austin Wintory (GRACE’s composer), composed a truly masterful series of cues for the show as well, bringing in the amazingly talented Tina Guo to record some of the most haunting solo cello I have ever heard.
It really was a joy to work on. Unfiltered story, for the story’s sake. Larry and Glen are such great guys. Truly committed to making something special. I really hope people take a minute to listen to some of these shows.
Now for the important question: can you come home to the Boston area without being hounded by people who know “Jack Chop”? What’s your take on the viral popularity of that?
It’s funny, people start trying to buy me beers almost as soon as I step off the plane in Boston. Me and Green would always bust on each other in Boston accents on set, so that’s where it came from, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t expect the Jack Chop viral phenomenon. I love the hell out of Boston – no matter how long I live in LA, it will always be my home – so I think the whole thing is hysterical.
How does one keep their sanity when enduring the sometimes-glacial pace to get a project to fruition in Hollywood? Or to spend months/years developing something only to have it slip through your fingers? Is it easier to endure once you’ve had one project push through?
Projects come and go, it’s just the way it works, but the challenge is that you have to simultaneously treat every one like it’s the next movie you’re making, and be prepared to let it go at the drop of a dime. There are so many things you have no control over in this business, so I try to stay focused on the things I can effect. The most important thing for me is to keep creating. I am always writing scripts, but I’ll write a children’s book, produce a pilot, do a photography show, run a marathon, direct a radio play, whatever the universe serves up. Having those other outlets is a hugely freeing thing for me. Nevertheless, despite my best efforts, it remains my principal challenge in life to be less obsessed with making movies….
A Fangoria interview with writer Steven Susco revealed the fact that the long-gestating DEATHDREAM remake, Zero Dark Thirty, (which I assume will now be retitled ) is a project you are attached to direct. How did that come about? GRACE feels like a spiritual cousin to that film, even though I know you hadn’t seen it until after writing GRACE. And now it’s one of your favorite old school genre films.
I have a copy of DEATHDREAM that Bob Clark signed for me on my mantle. I love that movie so much, and Steven Susco’s script for the remake is absolutely crushing. He really is one of our best genre writers working, but when he approached me to read it I was still so nervous because I just love that movie so much. I knew I would not have been able to hold my tongue if he hadn’t done Alan Ormsby’s script justice, and Steven is such a nice guy, I was really dreading it.
But I could not be more blown away by that script. It is hands down the best remake I have ever encountered on page or screen. An absolutely soul-shattering movie, honoring the original and existing as its own unique, utterly haunting, entity. It’s a true passion project for the whole team, from producer Michael Douglas on down, so we’ve really been taking great care to find the right partners for it. But I have a feeling Andy may be coming home in the near future….
What kind of pre-preproduction do you do on a project before it is announced? Like how do you personally prepare when there’s a possibility of you coming on board a project?
In addition to knowing what a movie looks and sounds and smells like, I want to know what it’s really about. I want to have a firm understanding of what’s driving the characters and how I plug into those motivations personally. All of that grows and changes as you work on something, but I think it’s irresponsible to come into a room without a real foundation of that understanding. I routinely have the experience of producers being sort of shocked when I walk into a meeting with a bag full of books and photography and presentation material, but I think that’s the greatest service you can do for your creative partners and yourself as a director. The more effectively and efficiently you can convey your vision for a movie, the faster you can all determine whether that’s the movie your partners are hoping to make. If they’re not, you’ve made a friend and hopefully helped them get that much closer to understanding what it is they do want to do with their film. In the end, that kind of thing just helps everyone.
Recently I’ve seen you really dive into still photography. I remember you going out and shooting with (fellow director) Will Rot casually, but regularly. Was this a means to keep creatively energized in between films? Do some creative work without anyone else’s input?
That was part of it, definitely. I love Will, he’s an incredible photographer and he really taught me so much about still photography. I actually just Executive Produced a hilarious pilot he directed for Jack Stewart’s series THE CARTRIDGE FAMILY that shows off his madness brilliantly. I think for me the photography started as a way to keep growing visually while spending so much time writing during every day, but it really became a huge passion of mine. I had no idea people would respond so strongly to the work.
What attracts you to photography? Would you consider it to be the most succinct form of storytelling, only one image? Or can it be about immortalizing a mood and texture vs. telling a story?
Yes on all counts, that’s well articulated. There’s something really magical about freezing a single moment. I shoot almost exclusively on the street. It’s a magical thing, you’re out there searching, really looking, and you don’t know what on earth for until it finds you. It engages you absolutely. When I have a camera around my neck I am truly looking at the world, really studying all of its moving parts and how they come together in millions of little moments. It’s this wash of beauty and ugliness, all this texture and emotion and human interplay that you are totally powerless over in all ways except in your ability to capture it one image at a time. There’s something seriously fucking incredible to me about that.
What cameras/formats do you shoot with, and does your process on a print involve much digital work afterwards? In the print work I still do, I’ve always tried to get as much of what I wanted in-camera as I can.
I’ve come to really marvel at what people can do with their photographs in post-production, but I’m mostly interested in the actual moment. I shoot most of my street stuff on a 60D with a fixed 30mm 1.4f lens. I love the vari-angle screen on that camera and the lens allows me a lot of freedom in low light situations. Will taught me that equipment doesn’t make the photographer, and I really believe that. I’ve become an Instagram junkie, too — a good Instagram feed tells you so much about the way someone sees the world. I just love that stuff so much.
Tell me about your exhibition, Dirty Lights, coming up. How did it come about, and how and when can people see it?
It’s September 8th, at Swing House Studios; 7175 Willoughby Avenue in Los Angeles. By Invitation 6:00-8:00pm, Open to All 8:00-Midnight.
Will, Jason Alvino and rock photographer Piper Ferguson and I share our stills and turn each other onto our favorite stuff, and we started talking with about putting a show together with our very favorite folks, and Dirty Lights was born. We assembled the best still photography from some of LA’s most compelling directors, cinematographers, musicians, comedians, writers, and photographers. We all work in features, or commercials, or as professional photographers, but the still image is something we all share, so we have thirteen incredibly diverse artists — admired veterans like Michael Tighe, Piper, and Joseph Llanes, sought-after upstarts like Eliot Lee Hazel, Tamar Levine, David Uzzardi, William Rot, Jason Alvino, and Emma Garr, alongside the photography of artists throughout the entertainment industry, from guitarist Neal Casal (Ryan Adams and Chris Robinson), to comedian Andy Dick, to Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique (BLACK SWAN), to myself.
Piper has deep roots in LA’s music scene, so she partnered with Hollywood’s world famous Swing House Studios, a rehearsal space for the best bands in the world whenever they’re in town. Swing House CEO Phil Jaurigui loved the idea and joined forces to bring in the most exciting bands we could imagine to add a musical experience to the night as powerful as the visual. We’re really excited. No one has ever done a show quite like this — uniting Hollywood’s artists and industries and scenes and minds to celebrate the still image. You’ll be able to see the work by appointment afterwards, but this is all about one night, September 8th.
Dirty Lights flyer (c)2012 Will Rot
Black and White stills (c) Paul Solet
Grace poster (c) 2009 Anchor Bay Entertainment
The Conformation poster (c) 2011 Glass Eye Pix
Jack Chop photo (c) 2009 ArieScope Pictures