|Interview: Sean Stone on "Greystone Park"
|by Peter Sobczynski
The first-time filmmaker (and the son of you-know who) talks about his feature debut as writer-director, the horror film "Greystone Park."
For those looking for a brand-new horror film to watch over Halloween, the pickings are admittedly on the slim side--outside of "The Cabin in the Woods," most recent efforts in the genre are the usual array of rip-offs, remakes and brainless gorefests with little to distinguish themselves from their cinematic forefathers outside of sheer laziness. One film that does attempt to shake things up is "Greystone Park," the debut feature from Sean Stone. The film stars Stone and co-writer Alexander Wraith as themselves, a pair of filmmakers who decide to break into an abandoned mental hospital--one that naturally specialized in electroshocks and other barbaric procedures--to film what is inside and gradually begin to discover that they may not be entirely alone, at least in the paranormal sense. Blending together narrative and documentary storytelling tropes, the film is not entirely perfect but it has been made with a certain style that is intriguing. If nothing else, it held my interest throughout, which is more than I can say for the "Paranormal Activity" series entire.
If the name Sean Stone sounds a bit familiar, it is because he is the son of Oliver and has worked in the past on many of his dad's projects both in front of the camera (you may recall him as Juliette Lewis's little brother in the "I Love Mallory" flashback sequence in "Natural Born Killers") and behind (he directed behind-the-scenes documentaries for the DVDs of "Nixon," "Alexander" and "W"). Although one could try to make tortured connections between his work here and that of the old man--the only real one being that both have kicked off their directorial careers with low-budget horror movies--this is not an example of a second-generation filmmaker trying to emulate the parent because they have nothing to say. As I said, "Greystone Park" is not without its flaws but as a first effort, it gets the job done and makes me curious to see what he comes up with next.
Via e-mail, I recently interviewed Stone and he talked about the film, his cinematic influences and the unique challenges of directing his father for a change.
"Greystone Park" is now available on DVD from Xlrator for $14.99
Although you have obviously spent nearly all of your life around the world of film, what was it about filmmaking that particularly grabbed you and made you want to do it for yourself?
Writing was my first great passion; as a kid I wanted to be a baseball player, and a writer. I actually wrote my first short at 7; I was hacking away on a typewriter next to my father who was writing his film "Heaven & Earth." My short film idea was ripped from "The Goonies," about my friends and I going on a treasure hunt, running into a band of pirates. Granted I never made that one, but I kept working on other scripts over the years, and by the time I was 15 I knew that if I was ever going to realize these visions I had in my head, to transform them from script to screen, I’d have to become a director myself.
Like so many other beginning filmmakers, your first feature is a horror film Is this a genre that you have a particular fondness for and if so, were there any films or filmmakers that proved to be especially influential, both in general and in the specific case of this film?
At 17, ten years after writing my first short film script, I tried making a ‘home-made’ short - a horror film. It was about a masked-killer stalking me and my friends in my house one night; but I wanted to blur the lines of reality and dream, to have my character realize at the end that I was the killer. It wasn’t particularly original, but it was fun to shoot, as I think most horror films are... except that when you’re working with a bunch of non-actor friends, and no production crew, it rarely goes anywhere. We ended up shooting some hilarious scenes of my friends getting dragged off by the killer, but they were more interested in watching MTV rap videos all night than filming. So we never completed that film; but if I can ever find the video we shot, it should honestly go on ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’.
I’ve loved horror films, practically since birth; at 4 years old I was demanding my mom to take me to see "Pet Semetary"! I don’t know what 4-year-old likes to get scared like that, but to me, it excited my imagination that there were monsters in the world; and more importantly, I wanted to fight them. I used to imagine elaborate stories of all the famous horror monsters, from Freddy to Chucky to Jason and Leatherface, in one movie. They’d be terrorizing girls, and I’d have to step up and fight them. And I think that’s the primal fascination with horror – it’s clear good and evil; if you kill a monster, it’s not like killing another human being. It’s more permissible; and it makes you mentally stronger in confronting your fear.
Can you talk a little bit about the initial development of the idea that would become "Greystone Park"?
I met Alexander Wraith at dinner with my father, very much as you see in the opening of the movie. Alex, as a Jersey native, had been exploring haunted places pretty much since he was born, as anyone who’s heard of the magazine ‘Haunted NJ’ can understand. But once he came across Greystone, he felt he’d found the mother lode of haunted locations, a gateway to other dimensions. The way he described the place reminded me of the hotel in "The Shining," and I was immediately intrigued by the prospect of a ghost hunt. The next night we were breaking in, exploring the abandoned mental hospital, and that’s when we started hearing the first ‘bumps in the night’. Based on that first experience, we started writing the script, feeling we had a great little story to tell. Little did I know how true it would become, as we kept going back to Greystone and other haunted places; as the adventures continued, we found the things we wrote in the script, about possessions, shadow attacks, demonic interference and near-madness, became all-too real.
The film has an obvious documentary-like feel, right down to you appearing in it as yourself? Was this aspect a part of the concept from the very beginning or did it develop later?
Initially I wasn’t going to act in the film; I’d written the script based on the Greystone experience, and I planned on just directing it. But Alex and I had recorded our first break-in, and when people saw me on camera, from our producers to sales agents, they advised that I play myself. So I took their advice, at which point I asked my father to play the father character, as himself. The concept for the film was always to make a documentary-style hand-held film, based on actual events; it just so happened that we were recreating events that happened to us, rather than taking the story of someone else.
While it doesn't exactly fit in with the whole found-footage trend that has dominated horror lately in junk like "V/H/S" and the "Paranormal Activity" films, there is enough of a kinship that some many lump it with them anyway. What are your thoughts on this particular trend and "Greystone Park's place, if any, within it?
I’ve never been a big fan of found footage because I felt it gave away too much, to announce at the beginning of the film that everyone is missing or dead! After "Blair Witch," you’d think that people, knowing the film is fictitious, would not be drawn into stories like that. But I think people watch the films because in a weird way, they do pull us into that state of suspended disbelief, where the camera-work and sound design occasionally make us forget that it’s all staged. I suppose it’s a bit like the use of hand-held camera work in the 1960’s New Wave cinema, and the breaking of traditional Hollywood narrative structures. And toward that end, shooting hand-held films with digital cameras does give independence to filmmakers to not have to garner a massive budget for a full-scale production. You do get ‘junk’ out of that trend, but some of that junk becomes a cult classic, just like ‘junk movies’ of the 1970s and ‘80s are still entertaining us to this day.
With "Greystone Park," I never thought of it as found footage. We were alive at the end of the experience, and we weren’t going to pretend otherwise. However, I wanted to create a meta-reality between documentary and cinema. We passed the camera back and forth between the actors; we shot real haunted locations, allowing the actors to explore the space as they shot. But when we scripted story beats, we made sure we got the camera to the position it needed to be in. That means there’s lots of cuts in the film, and even the hints of a score, to create an overall ‘feeling’ of being with the kids on their journey into the darkness. So the film compares more closely to "End of Watch," stylistically, than it does to "Paranormal Activity."
The film blends fact and fiction together and I was wondering what you feel your responsibilities as a filmmaker are when it comes to juggling the two.
I started my career with documentaries, from shooting the behind the scenes for my father’s "Alexander," to political short documentaries on the "Nixon" (2008 re-release) and "W." DVDs. And anyone who’s done documentaries knows, they’re no more objective than a narrative film; documentaries take a point of view; even the people inside the documentaries can be lying when they relate information. So it’s up to the filmmaker’s own integrity to be as morally honest to the audience as possible.
Thankfully with "Greystone Park," I don’t think anyone will complain that we’ve distorted history, or twisted children’s minds! But we did, I think, a compelling job of taking the viewer into the world of the supernatural – and when you experience paranormal events, reality begins to blur, much like you’d experience if you were going ‘crazy’. So the film’s conceit is that as the kids explore the abandoned mental hospital, they are driven increasingly mad by the paranormal, much like the ghosts of the mental patients who once inhabited that space. The other important theme is that it is our own fears that drive our madness; for the shadows themselves can only play tricks, until your fear solidifies them into visions of a more definite and horrifying nature. I think those two points are valid, and so whatever events we exaggerated still serve to elaborate that narrative.
Assuming that you have probably been asked a zillion questions along this line, I have tried so far to avoid bringing up your father. However, he does appear in the film and I was curious about what it was like to direct him.
The only nerve-wracking part of directing my father was the fact that I gave him about four pages of dialogue, and he had no time to rehearse, so I had no idea if he’d show up and remember any of it! But since I gave him a ghost story to tell which he’d told to me since I was a little boy, he pulled it off quite naturally, as a veteran storyteller would. And then he offered his little directorial notes when I was doing my part as an actor; but he did it in a very off-hand, respectful way. Overall, between the red wine, hookah and friends we’d gathered, it was a relaxed and enjoyable scene to shoot.
Because of your name, "Greystone Park" is likely to have a higher profile than most films from first-time directors, but that can cut both ways--there is a higher awareness but people may go to see it expecting something akin to an Oliver Stone film without judging it on its own merits. What has the experience of showing the film to audiences and getting their feedback been like so far?
Alex Wraith had a great line to encapsulate "Greystone Park" – “It makes you crazy.” And maybe that’s why I’ve seen such polarizing reactions. It seems people either love it or think it’s the worst film ever made! And many hate it without even seeing it. I’ve heard ridiculous criticisms of the film, from the notion that we ripped off "Grave Encounters," to the idea that my father payed for the movie. And sometimes you wonder where these attacks are coming from, because even IMDb posted a fraudulent budget for the film at over 3 million dollars! We spent far less than a million on the whole thing, including distribution. So I understand if people don’t like the film, but to get the extreme reactions we’re getting indicates a level of jealousy and resentment that I suppose I have to go through sooner or later in order to become my own man, as a writer-director, distinct from my father.
On the other hand, it’s great when audiences get the film, and talk about how chilling it is, or the attention to detail in making it, including the ‘shadow men’ you can find carefully placed in the background of most scenes. But the only thing I haven’t seen much response to is the fact that it’s a true story. It’s disappointing that people don’t realize Greystone is real, unlike the fictitious Blair Witch; that Alex and I have lived through the things that happened in "Paranormal Activity"; that we really risked our lives by breaking into these abandoned buildings, trying to make as honest a film as possible about the paranormal. What other filmmakers of ‘found footage’ have lived the experience they claim to be documenting?
Is there anything else that you are working on right now?
Alex Wraith and I are putting together our next feature, a martial arts comedy called "Enter the Fist." It’s an homage to the ‘70s/’80s action hero cinema. You can check out some of the auditions on YouTube, and I can pretty much guarantee a laugh out of it.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3454
originally posted: 10/29/12 05:04:13
last updated: 10/29/12 11:22:56