Updated: Apr 22, 2020
Radha Mitchell, star of Pitch Black, Man On Fire and Silent Hill, talks to us about new horror film Dreamkatcher released 28 April, how the pandemic might affect movie-goers in future, and her ongoing support for short film projects.
It's going to be an ongoing theme for most interviews over the coming weeks and months. As delighted as I am for the opportunity to speak with Radha Mitchell about, among many things, the release of her new film Dreamkatcher, there is a giant elephant in the room impossible not to talk about first; Covid-19 and the ensuing lockdown.
"Well, I'm in the house, so it's all good. Weather is not bad. I haven't been outside for two days. I'm just taking it easy but LA is getting quieter and quieter at the moment with what's going on."
It cannot be overstated how much the film industry has been impacted by the pandemic. With productions grinding to a halt all over the world, LA must be one of the places where this cessation in production can be most keenly felt.
"Well, as an actress, you go through these long periods of not working and then working, so you're used to that kind of 'camel drinking the water while it's there' attitude. As a producer, I think people are sticking to their guns and continuing to make their phone calls and work with the optimism of the future. As a writer, I think it's like perfect circumstance because you just sit in your room and write [laughs]. It's probably a good thing.
"In terms of people watching movies at home and releases of films coinciding with theatrical releases, I think there will be more of that in the future. Has it ground to a halt? Yes, production's ground to halt, but I don't think optimism has ground to a halt."
We agree it will be interesting to see what the appetites of movie-lovers will be after this period of lockdown ends, not just in terms of what they want to watch, but also how they want to watch it. During this period of isolation, she reflects on the home viewing interests of other people as well as her own.
"At first, living in America, I was so sensitive to the idea that everybody's armed here. I thought, 'Oh my God, they're going to lose their minds and shoot each other on the streets.' That hasn't happened, so that's a relief, but I went full horror movie. You know the paranoid part of your mind you visit that is the worst-case scenario. I was thinking about that for the first week, so I was only going to watch comedies, anything to lift my mood and take me out of that head space, but I've calmed down a bit now [laughter].
"A lot of people have been watching pandemic movies, which you think would be the last thing they want to do. There's still a lot of people that want to watch thrillers and horror in the middle of this, which is surprising to me but also great that there's a space for something like Dreamkatcher."
Which brings us perfectly back to the topic that's brought us together. Dreamkatcher is the new horror from director Kerry Harris co-starring Henry Thomas and Lin Shaye. It's the story of a young boy who tries to stop his bad dreams by stealing a dreamcatcher from a mysterious neighbour, forcing his family to rescue him from a nightmarish entity.
It's a return to the genre after a few years for Radha, who plays the step mother Gail to young, haunted Josh (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong). How did she get involved both as an actor and executive producer?
"A couple of years ago Kerry Harris, the director, introduced me to the story that he was trying to get made. He was friendly with a friend of mine, Orian Williams, also one of the producers on the movie, who I made a movie with called Big Sur, and we stayed friends because we live in LA. Then Dreamkatcher came back into the zeitgeist at a time I'd already been telling people around me it would be a really good idea to make a horror movie that we all have some ownership in, something we could produce together. Then this script came back and it seemed like, 'Well this is exactly that.'
"The script obviously has this human drama element to it and it's a very unusual relationship in a way, the playing out of the psychodrama between the stepmother and son and that's always an interesting subject.
"Then to be able to delve into the realm of dreams and this idea of a dream hijack or your dreams being interrupted, then cognitive behavioural therapy, which is something that Kerry introduced me to through the character. It was a lot of opportunity to think and expound on certain ideas and look at my own psyche and play with the rational and the irrational."
The indie spirit of the project came to the fore as soon as production began. Filmed in upstate New York, the location turned out to be a lot further from the Big Apple than Radha initially expected. Weekend trips to the city were ruled out and the whole crew stayed locally throughout production.
"I was dropped off to this cabin with no car, no cell phone reception. There was internet but three days alone in this hut in the middle of nowhere gave me a real sense of what this character was going to experience. It really had that sense of isolation and I couldn't handle that. I was like 'get me outta here.' It's just too much. I moved to this big house where half the crew were staying, and it ended up being fun, like having a bunch of roommates. We'd just shoot the movie and then come back at night and continue talking about it."
The initial isolation that helped her delve into the character of Gail, was not the only interesting aspect of the role for the actor. The maternal relationship is one often seen in horror, but not so much between a step-parent and sons/daughters. With this relationship playing such a key role in the film, how was it working with Finlay Wojtak-Hissong?
"Oh, that relationship certainly had something unusual about it, and adult about it. We don't really have a saccharine depiction of a sweet little child. He's interesting. Even Fin as an actor, he was very self-contained and very adult for his age. He was nine and he would come to sit and drink a cup of coffee and prepare for the day. Couldn't believe he was drinking coffee, but he had his own way of doing things.
"Then I think in the way he's depicted too, there's a vulnerability in his sweetness, even just how he's embodied. Kerry would often tell him just tune into the angry robot. Then he'd become quite detached and very simple in his delivery of lines. You see this schizophrenic struggle play out in the kid between being this little boy who really misses his mom but would like Gail to replace that person in his life, and then being this devilish-possessed entity. That was interesting.
"Then for me, Gail, I feel like there's a Gail in all of us. We want to rationalise and take control of the problem or the thing that frightens us and make it into a problem that can be solved. She's struggling to connect to this child and help him. Then ultimately her perspective shifts in a very dramatic way."
With such emphasis on this relationship, casting the right actor to play the haunted son must have been an extensive process. How did the young star come to be the actor chosen for the role?
"It was just through Kerry's instincts. He was auditioning children and came across Fin, who hadn't done a lot of work, but who had all these qualities that made sense with this character. Then, having worked with a lot of amazing actors in my life, from Denzel Washington to Johnny Depp, when meeting Fin, there was a chemistry. You just don't know what's going to happen when you're dealing with children but he was a really serious little actor and improviser. As soon as I met him, I knew that there was going to be something about him. I guess that's what Kerry was reacting to when he cast him as well."
It's a first feature for director Kerry Harris, but certainly not his first rodeo. In fact, he had previously worked with Lin Shaye and Henry Thomas on web series Grip and Electric. These previous working relationships must have been a huge help with a small team on a tight budget
"What was cool about Kerry is that he satisfied all of our actor's egos. He allowed us to play out our own ideas, because we were all embroidering the mythology of what is a dreamcatcher and some of that was going on during the shoot. There was also a really flexible DP, George Wieser, who was very open to moving with us, and if we changed our minds he wasn't frustrated with moving the camera here to there or whatever.
"We weren't stuck in the mud about what it could be. That was because Kerry was flexible and open minded about things and aware of what, I think, the real the magic of cinema is, when people can be surprised by what they're creating. There was that excitement and uncertainty at times which kept us inspired."
Another inspiration while making the film, as in the case of so many horror films, is the location and the setting in which the story is told. Production design and art direction play such an important part in building the world of any story, but particularly in horror.
"Particularly in this one, because the house frames the story and also creates a real sense of who the characters are. Henry's character is a commercial music writer. You get a sense that you're in the space of the musician. There's a bohemian feeling to the space but we were literally in a house with no cell phone reception in, not the middle of nowhere, but somewhere quite isolated.
"Lin's space, a friend of Kerry's owned the barn where that set was. The woman who owned the barn was this bohemian artist type person. She had these teepees on the property that informed a lot of just the background of Lin's character.
"The main house was an old house and it did have a creaky staircase and the kids' room was like an attic space. It had the original finishing, it was pokey up there. You had real sense of history and a ghostly feeling almost to the point of cliche [laughter]. The house was perfect for the creepy side of things but it also had a beauty and a romance to it. These places were definitely voices in the story."
Moving away from the film, back in 2002 Radha directed her own feature film Four Reasons, starring alongside Josh Lucas. Did having that experience behind the camera change how she approached her future work in front of it?
"Yes. You realise how technical things are. Earlier, as an actress, I'd be more about just the emotion. I still get swept away with the emotion of things, but from the other side, you realise how technical it is. Yes, you're capturing the emotion, but as a director, I hope that they're standing in the light. How does this fit into the whole thing?
"As an actor now, I'm always not so much about my character but more about the story. What's the story? It has informed a lot of my decisions, maybe more so than the character. You're more like a craftsman focused on your piece of the pie. You're the star of whatever movie you're in even if you've got two lines [laughter]."
As well as her extensive work in features and TV, Radha still supports short film projects. In fact, I happened to catch one short of hers, Whoever Was Using This Bed, at a UK film festival back in 2017. She is also executive producer on two more shorts called Pass the Salt, Please and the upcoming Mary's Room.
"Pass the Salt, Please is this lovely repartee between two older characters and their sexual fantasies and how that conversation plays out in an unexpected way. I was just into it because I really feel like people's sexuality at a certain age is ignored or ridiculed or discredited and I felt like both women and men need to be sexualized in their later years. There's nothing graphic about it. It's just a conversation then it opens up a space and I thought that was an important story that needs to be told.
"Mary's Room is a movie that my cousin has directed. It's a story about how we curate our experience to the point of losing our humanity. In this case, the man has a robot that he lives with as an almost surrogate girlfriend and he's navigating a real relationship in that space. It's an interesting question. 'Is the fake thing better than the real thing? It's in the zeitgeist of where we're at, we are starting to manicure our reality to the point where it's just our vision and there's no interplay between that and the magic of somebody else or even the community."
Expanding on her interest in short film, she says she's both keen to explore new material and to support new filmmakers looking to make their mark.
"Short films can introduce a filmmaker to the world, but also I think as formats are changing people don't want to watch long films. They want to watch short snippets in two minutes. There's now this whole new re-evaluation of what a short film means in culture.
"The films I've been involved in have been more about the poetry of filmmaking and not feeding into the box of something that can be consumed or sold in the same way, just something that can be made because somebody wants to make it. I always think there's something magical and special about that."
Bringing the conversation back to Dreamkatcher at the end of our call, I ask what has been the most rewarding experience throughout the whole process of making the film.
"Well, that we wait to see, let's see if anybody watches it [laughter]! That will be very rewarding, but then when you look back at your life, it's just about did you have a good time? In this case, the community of making this film and being able to make a film with friends is something very special and a unique experience."
Dreamkatcher will be released by Lionsgate on DVD and online on 28 April.
You can follow Radha Mitchell on Twitter: @Radha_Mitchell