I quite enjoyed Late Phases when I saw it back in March at SXSW. It’s an intriguing werewolf mystery that uses a boatload of practical effects and has a rather unique take on this particular horror subgenre, which is exceedingly hard to get right. The film is set in a retirement home, which is probably the last place most financiers would like to capture on film in today’s youth crazed horror market, but writer Eric Stolze more than makes it work with his blend of humor, pathos, and horror.
I recently hopped on the phone with Stolze to talk about the film, which was directed by Adrian Garcia Bogliano (Here Comes Devil) and stars Nick Damici, Ethan Embry, Tom Noonan, Tina Louise and Lance Guest. Late Phases is currently in theaters and on VOD (iTunes link). Hit the jump for the interview.
ERIC STOLZE: Oh, thanks I appreciate that a lot.
I think it’s a unique choice to set it in a retirement community. I think it has a lot to say about how we kind of marginalize the elderly, and it also kind of flies in the face of how entertainment in general sort of marginalizes them as well.
STOLZE: Oh very much so. A big part of the gestation of the idea was, back when I was writing this in 2011, my grandparents were quite ill and sort of on their last legs and so while I was dealing with that it was sort of a cold splash of water in my face that everybody gets at various points in their life where they realize there is so little dignity in this part of it. There’s so little dignity in the places that you’re put, in the treatment that you’re receiving and the sort of out of sight, out of mind mentality that you’re faced with. It occurred to me that that’s really something horrifying about the real world that you really don’t see in a lot of horror movies. Especially not since the ’80s when teenagers became more and more excited about horror so they started to populate horror more and more. Once upon a time horror movies were almost entirely populated by adults. You wouldn’t really be able to find a teenager in one of the classic Universal Monster movies or one of the Christopher Lee or Vincent Price films of a bygone era. So in many ways this idea seemed like an opportunity to turn the clock back to those kinds of horror films.
I was aware of the premise of the film and I saw that Nick Damici was cast and I thought, “maybe they re-wrote it.” Because he’s younger. But he really pulls Ambrose off quite well. What was your initial reaction to the casting? This guy’s still fairly spry.
STOLZE: He is, but the role really calls for somebody who’s more active than the average septuagenarian.
STOLZE: The whole premise of the character is that he’s a rather physically extraordinary example of a senior citizen, but it’s much easier to age up an actor who’s capable of doing that kind of work than to take a very age appropriate actor and just really hope like hell that they can keep up. I was a big fan of Nick’s from Stake Land, that was the first Dark Sky film I had ever seen. And he has, very appropriately for the tone of the film, he has a very sort of old Hollywood personality type and screen presence. He’s really exuding that old school idea of masculinity that fits the character and the tone of the film so well.
When you’re writing a werewolf movie, especially if you know you’re writing something on a budget, there’s a lot of temptation to make it slow burn and save everything for the end. But this movie really comes out swinging, which I really appreciated. It’s always refreshing to actually have something happen in the first act of a low budget horror film.
STOLZE: Yeah, that’s true. The funny thing is the very first draft of this actually began with a werewolf attack, with the werewolf in basically full display. The attack that happens with the neighbor character Dolores was initially the opening of the film. Back when I was first writing this I didn’t think quite as much about budget because it was such an unusual film that I really honestly assumed it was just going to be used as a writing sample for the entirety of my career. I never thought that someone would have the nerve to take me up on a film like this. It’s really a credit to Dark Sky that they are so invested in finding stories that are out of the ordinary in the genre space that they read this and within days were like, “Yeah, we want this. We want to make this happen.”
Talk a bit about working with Adrian. How much did the script change when he came on board, or did it at all?
STOLZE: Well it didn’t very much aside from, of course all the usual details that go into making it a bit more friendly to production and to the locations that they had. But one of the things that Adrian really responded to was the character of Ambrose. It’s part of why he was so enthusiastic about the film and he saw it so clearly in his head from day one. And since he drives the film it was really just a matter of small details along the way. I was actually floored by how little rewrites went into the script once Adrian came on because he and I came to share a vision of this film that included all the same scenes, all the same ideas of this man at the end of his life sort of preparing for his final days.
STOLZE: Oh, absolutely. And even before Adrian was involved Zak Zeman, one of the producers who’s also very heavily involved with the V/H/S films, he and I had a very long conversation about the film where we agreed that we can’t look the opportunity of practical werewolves in the mouth. It’s vital to us as horror fans to have that and feeling like we owe something to horror fans to have that. To be sure, it’s been so long since we’ve even seen an attempt at practical werewolves effects – it was interesting to have Robert Kurtzman on board, not just because he has such a fantastic legacy of practical and makeup effects, but because you really do need to know that somebody like that is on board because these kind of effects are so elusive. It’s part of why we haven’t seen many werewolf films in a long time, especially in the low budget space, because so often these kinds of films live and die by that fundamental transformation sequence. It was a relief that Kurtzman and Dark Sky and Adrian made it this enormous priority from day one. That transformation sequence, they all believed it was absolutely crucial to landing this film and landing the admiration of horror fans who hold it to a high standard.
And that’s a hugely ambitious sequence. When you have something like that on the page and you see it executed, is it in the realm that you expected? Or is it something that’s completely different? How was it looking at the final version of that scene?
STOLZE: It was so far beyond my initial expectations, which it’s a privilege to get to say that, but the ambition of trying to capture the transformation effects in what appears to be one long fluid take is such a ballsy idea that it never would have occurred to me as I was writing it. I definitely wrote the sequence very episodically. I wrote it in very small increments. First we see the skin on the arm tear away revealing old, gray hair underneath and things like that. I think that as Adrian was reading it that he saw it so smooth and so step by step in his head that he thought, well this is one way to contribute something new to this longstanding tradition of werewolf transformations, is the illusion of one fluid continuous take. In one of our earliest meetings he was telling me this idea and I was like, “Man, more power to you if you can pull that off.” And again, more power to him. It wasn’t a mater of if you can pull it off, but when he did, and it’s people’s favorite part of the movie by far.
STOLZE: American Werewolf is obviously in my top five.
It’s a good choice.
STOLZE: You know, London, not Paris. [Laughs] I don’t know if that goes without saying or not.
It should, but…
STOLZE: [Laughs] There’s got to be fans of Paris out there, right? But even just beyond the list of horror films, I think that’s just such an unusual and extraordinary film, and all the decisions made were so risky that I find that to be an inspiration whatever script I’m working on. Obviously that’s the high watermark of any modern werewolf film. That just goes without saying. But I was also always very partial to Silver Bullet. In part because so many of these werewolf films, the sort of early Universal Wolfman films and the ’80s werewolf films that we had a fun resurgence of, like The Howling, they focus so much on the point of view of the afflicted, of whoever has the curse, but I always appreciated that Silver Bullet was a whodunnit. It’s more of a “who is it?” I appreciated that they utilized that fundamental concealed identity of the werewolf to make it into this really interesting story of who in this town is not who they say they are? Who’s more than they appear to be? That’s such a fun element to play with as a writer that always kind of got my imagination going. It seemed like a really fun opportunity to play around with the mystery element in the script and it helps people focus on the characters as well.
Is there anything coming up for you that you can talk about?
STOLZE: A lot of irons in the fire. A lot of things that are seemingly mere inches away from the trigger being pulled, but you know how it goes. The more you talk about it, it seem the less likely it is to actually happen. But I am pretty optimistic about one, if not a couple, of my other horror specs being put up in front of cameras earlier next year. So hopefully, fingers crossed, that might be the case sooner than later.