What made you decide on a ghost story for you first feature-length film?
CT: To be perfectly honest, I never would have thought my first film would be a ghost story, but things just so happened to align that way. Rodrigo Cortes (the writer/producer) had spent a year and a half researching parapsychology for his film Red Lights, and, being the workaholic that he is, he gathered such a vast amount of data that he was able to write a second movie off of it. And that was Apartment 143.
Originally, he was going to direct it himself, but the success of Buried propelled him onto bigger things, so he decided to entrust me with the project. I was 26 at the time, hungry for adventure, and immediately said yes.
What was it about Rodrigo Cortés screenplay that made you want to make the movie?
CT: I liked that, above all things, Apartment 143 was a film about research, about what it’s like to be out in the field gathering data and forming hypotheses. The point was to provide a cold, rigorous, emotionally detached view of a series of events that unfold in a controlled environment set up by a group of scientists, something I had only seen in films like Primer or, to a certain extent, Pi.
CT: Well, look at the impact reality TV has had in pop culture over the past decade. People are now used to absolute realism, to (allegedly) unscripted material that comes straight from real life. When it comes to genres that appeal directly to the gut, such as porn or horror, it seems like audiences are craving what they perceive as a raw, unadulterated experience devoid of artificiality or stylization. This is, of course, an illusion, for everything is always manipulated to take the shape of a narrative, but it’s true that entertainment in general has adopted a semi-documentary style and there seems to be no way back. Unless you’re Tim Burton, of course.
Unlike other found footage movies Apartment 143 retains a real documentary feel throughout, how did you achieve the distinctive look?
CT: I was always very honest and true to the premise, in the sense that I only used cameras the lead group of scientists would realistically have. Rather than shooting everything in high def and then downgrading it in post, which is what most found footage films do, I looked at my characters and asked, who are these people? Where do they come from?
Hence, I concocted a back story where Dr. Helzer would be the head of Parapsychology at a state university (UCLA had such a degree back in the 70’s), and Ellen and Paul would be students getting their PhDs there. Considering their field would be looked down upon as a pseudo science, the university would hardly send any money their way, so all their equipment would be old and crummy.
I shot in about 12 different formats, including real VHS, Mini DV, or Beta-Cam, using mostly second-hand equipment and embracing the distorted textures and dead pixels that each device would come with.
Similarly, I always made sure each scene had a “set-up” time, where you would see the investigators prep lights, mike their subjects, test the equipment, etc.
Can you tell us about the filming process, unlike other found footage films you use multiple camera angles. What challenges did this present?
CT: The challenge with Apartment 143 was to take a script that would work as a regular movie (if you shot it traditionally, it would still work), and approach it using an utterly experimental, alternative film language. Yet, the film still needed to be as exciting and thrilling as if it were shot using dollies, cranes, and steadycams, so however whacky or creative my approach to filming a scene was, I still needed to make sure I hit every beat as effectively as possible.
The script never specified how each scene had to be shot (aside from acknowledging the existence of security cameras), so I was constantly struggling to come up with solutions with which to build suspense and anticipation without the usual narrative tools. That’s when I decided to ascribe a narrative purpose to every camera and every texture, which resulted in the multiple viewpoints that the movie adopts.
For instance, there’s a scene involving several characters running around in a small space carrying out simultaneous activities, which I wanted a very chaotic feel for, so I decided to give the actors head cameras. Similarly, I chose an old, VHS texture for the kid’s introduction, for I wanted to convey the innocence and nostalgia of a home movie.
Was the transition from making short films to a feature daunting to you?
CT: I had already directed two TV-movies before this, so the length wasn’t a problem. The challenge lay in shooting such a special effects-ridden film in merely four weeks, while coping with the brutal August heat in Barcelona.
Are there any horror directors or filmmakers that have inspired you on your own creative journey?
CT: I’m a big fan of John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Takeshi Miike, Tobe Hooper, John Landis, as well as other filmmakers who aren’t necessarily “horror” directors but who have made some of the best films in the genre, such as Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby), Spielberg (Jaws), Friedkin (The Exorcist), Hitchcock (Psycho), or Wise (The Haunting).
CT: I certainly want to stay within the thriller/horror realm for the next couple of years, yes.
Have you considered a feature version of you fantastic short ‘Coming to town”?
CT: Thanks for the kind words! I made that short when I was 22, but it still holds up. I’ve entertained the thought, but there may not be enough material there for a feature. Or maybe there is…
And finally Have you ever had a ghostly encounter yourself?
CT: No, never.
Apartment 143 is out on DVD October 15th