The latest feature by director Rich Ragsdale, Ghost House, hit the screens on August 25. Being a horror fanatic, I couldn't resist myself from getting to know more about this indie film's production. That's when I got in touch with two very important people involved with the film's development — lead actor James Landry Hébert and director Rich Ragsdale. What I thought would be a straightforward chat about the film expanded into a very insightful discussion about understanding characterizations, filmmaking and the enigmatic country of Thailand.
Would you like to give a peek into the character you're playing — the motives and actions?
James: Jim is Julie's boyfriend, who takes her on a trip to Thailand in hopes of strengthening their relationship and possibly taking it to the next level. Their relationship is tested in horrid ways no one could imagine, and they'll never be the same after the character-building experience they share abroad. It's an experience that turns non-believers into believers.
About your co-stars — especially Scout Taylor Compton — how would you describe your chemistry and the nature of your onscreen relationship?
James: The real star in this film is Scout Taylor-Compton. She's already a horror veteran and effortlessly one of the most talented actors I've worked with. She and I had just finished a movie together, Get The Girl, where we played partners in crime, so the chemistry was as abundant as her instincts.
The Thai crew were some of the most hardworking people I've known. Having an incredible supporting cast turned this mysterious journey into the adventure of a lifetime! Russell Geoffrey Banks was so good in his supporting role that I can’t wait to see what's in store for him.
Playing a character trapped in a foreign land with ghosts, how does it affect you personally, trying to step into the character's boots and emote accordingly?
James: I didn't really have to do much acting at all. Most of the thoughts and feelings we had abroad were exactly what we needed it to be for the context of the film. The spirit houses in the film are a very real thing in Thailand! They are as common as mailboxes and sit outside every home or place of work. It's like a miniature version of the corresponding building, religiously filled with offerings for the spirits on a daily basis.
If I wasn't a believer earlier, I am now. So much so that the morning before I had to leave the country, I met a well-respected monk in the community to see if he would be willing to tattoo a protective blessing on my back, called Gao Yord. The Thai people believe it makes you invincible. I left a piece of myself there, yet gained so much more in return.
Is there a scene that totally stands out for you? A scene that left you flabbergasted as a viewer.
James: There are so many scenes in this film I just can't get out of my head. But if I had to choose one that stands out, it takes place in what I call the "red room." This is where we find Reno, played by Mark Boone Jr., who is one of my favorite characters in the film.
That being said, it's hard to choose just one, and the sequence of our journey through the river to the temple is filled with unforgettable moments, which for me will last a lifetime.
How was your experience working in Thailand? It's a new location for you I guess, with a very intriguing culture.
James: Filming #GhostHouse in Thailand was truly the most incredible experience of my life! It was my first time being in Southeast Asia. I had a lot to learn, but I instantly loved this place, the people and the culture. Art met life in ways I never knew existed and I felt like I wasn't playing a character, just Jim.
How about your experience with Rich? As an active observer, how did he manage to create the atmosphere for the film?
James: Now, Jim is a hybrid of Rich and I, but the inception of this story was based on a trip to Thailand he and his better half took a few years ago. I believe he was able to create this atmosphere for us not only because he's one of the most creatively sick and twisted minds I know, but also having lived the humanity of this ghost story. I can't imagine a more capable leader for the incredible journey he took us on and I look forward to being able to share this wild ride with the world!
How would you describe your film?
Rich: Well I'd say it's very much a supernatural film. In Thailand, as we understood, ghosts can attach themselves to a person. Not to give too much away, but in our film once you've had the ghost on, you slip in and out of the ghost world. Interestingly, only the victim can see it. It's a parallel world that exists alongside our own. We tried to take traditional American supernatural #horror and marry it with Thai ghost mythology. That's kind of our hook.
Would you consider similarities between this and other Asian horror films like Ju-on and Ringu?
Rich: Yeah there is definitely an influence there. I really love Asian movies. One place where I really drew inspiration from Asian horror is that since we were so low budget (I mean really low budget!), we had to use very simple tricks for our scares. So we used some old-school camera tricks and creative lighting to make stuff scary. The Asian ghost films always have great scares using very minimal FX work.
At a time where people go head over heels for CGI, using practical effects is always encouraging to watch for horror enthusiasts.
Rich: I feel CGI can look really good sometimes, but it sort of takes the wonder out of movies. There isn't a lot of "Gee whiz how did they do that" when you know it was all done with a computer. Our movie is very low budget, and cheap VFX can kill a movie. As a result, we tried to induce as much practical effects as possible. Also, Thailand has so much texture I think it helps to keep a lot of the FX in camera to maintain that organic feeling.
We even built an '80's styled puppet head version of our ghost to give flexibility to her body movements, especially the mouth. We do have one big CGI shot in the film where we see the ghost morph from a real woman into her ghost state as flames shoot up around her. We have a few more VFX tweaks, but as I mentioned, they don't account for a lot.
The movie, because of its location has a visible connection to the intriguing aspect of nature. Would you elaborate on that?
Rich: We shot mostly in Bangkok, then moved out to the Burmese border for the more forest-y stuff. There's an ancient temple we used and there were really no substitutes for it, so we did a huge company move up there. It was a strain on the budget but I just needed it — a real adventure! There are definitely downsides to being ambitious in scope. Many scenes have to be shot quickly and setup times get shorter. Most low budget movies stick to one or two locations, like an old house or a cabin, so you have more shooting time and control.
There are definitely things I wish I had more time to shoot but it's a trade off. That's one reason we ended up building the puppet. Our ending felt too light so we injected more atmosphere and some extra pizzazz. All in all, we are happy with it. It's pretty scary and it feels bigger than its meagre budget. It's a fun little movie. It may not break new grounds, but we tried to make it enjoyable.
As an aspiring filmmaker, I found this interview enlightening. When we talk about direction and production, most viewers neglect a lot of important factors that make up a film. The rapport between a filmmaker and the crew, the creativity in implementing one's vision despite constraints, the mentality to tackle roles and, most importantly, the determination to treat every scene like your movie depends on it.
Being a part of this small adventure with James and Rich, it was thrilling to discover the supernatural shrouding Thailand's culture and the love for old school horror still present in some filmmakers' hearts. It was also fascinating to watch practical effects being created, a dying art I hold in high esteem. I wish good luck for their film, and since it's the month of Halloween, I believe you can't come across Ghost House at a better time.