If you read my review of Gerard Johnstone’s Housebound, you’ll know that I’m super impressed by the guy. But my enthusiasm for his talent went through the roof when I found out that his budget was just $250,000. To put that in perspective, Paranormal Activity‘s initial budget was $15,000 and that was shot on consumer-grade digital cameras (and looks it, obviously). Housebound has the cinematic language and style of a much bigger production and I’m frankly floored that it cost so little to achieve it.
Gerard answered my questions via email, which is why there isn’t a ton of back and forth with the questions. I get that this is an advertisement for the film, but whenever possible, I like to talk to filmmakers or whomever I’m interviewing like a person. That said, Gerard gave some great answers to a few stilted questions and I’m really grateful that he took the time. Without further ado…
I’m always fascinated by the writing process, especially with writer/directors. The script for Housebound strikes me as particularly tight, with lots of foreshadowing that doesn’t announce itself as such. I guess the question is: how did you put your story together? Did you go back and add the little hints after you’d done the hard work of breaking the story or were they always there?
Well I learned firsthand just how incredibly difficult mysteries are to write. It helped that I had the ending in mind first and knew what the major twists would be, but figuring out how to set them up really broke me. Basically I had a near nervous breakdown and spent months just waking up at midday, remembering who I was and how little progress I had made and basically hating myself and the fact that I’d ever chosen this to be my feature film debut. In the end, we actually had to just start shooting a script which I felt was structurally flawed, but after the horror of seeing it shot, the upshot was that I could clearly see what wasn’t working, so it was easier to come up with better ideas. Then the challenge for my producer was to figure out a way to raise the money so we could do those ideas. The problem was, I’d given myself very few options narratively by literally keeping the story contained in the house, but once I made the concession to allow her to travel as far as the neighbour’s house, it opened up new possibilities and gave the story some forward momentum.
Were there any specific cinematic touchstones going into this film? To me it felt like a cross pollination of The ‘Burbs, Rear Window and To Kill A Mockingbird, but I’d obviously love to know what you had in mind.
I think Rear Window a little bit. Definitely Hitchcock. My girlfriend and I love nothing more than to watch a good Hitchcock film on a rainy Sunday night, but I was aware that there would also be comparisons to Rear Window’s unofficial remake ‘Disturbia’ with the house arrest element, so I was keen to stay away from that as much as possible. I read that To Kill a Mockingbird reference in the review and it made me laugh because I hadn’t consciously thought about it, but it was the first novel I ever studied at school and I loved the character of Boo Radley, so it’s entirely possible. I think the most conscious references were The Changeling, The Legend of Hell House, Poltergeist, The People Under the Stairs and The Orphanage.
I don’t know if you see it this way, but the film is quite ambitious (I don’t see a lot of first-time directors staging set pieces the way you do here) and I wonder what the biggest challenge was in making it. What were you dreading or looking forward to filming the most?
The biggest challenge was the budget. We only had $250k, but we weren’t willing to sacrifice performances or aesthetics, so we ended up with only half the film in the can at the end of the shoot. But I’m glad we stuck to our guns. And it actually turned out to be the best thing, because I had time to write another draft while we raised more money to finish. But there is something clinically wrong with me, I’m always trying to make something way beyond the budget. It was the same thing with the TV show I made previous and the one I’m doing now. I’ve got gun fights and car chases and a hundred different locations, and I’m only realising a week before we’re about to shoot that we can’t afford it. I guess it’s tricky, you don’t want audiences to feel cheated, as movie tickets are so expensive these days. But it’s great to see Housebound on iTunes alongside films that were made for 300 times it’s budget, it makes all the pain and hard work a distant memory.
In the States, we had a toy called Teddy Ruxpin, which was a teddy bear with a tape cassette in its back that would “talk” to you and read stories (sorry if you already know what this is). I had one as a kid and loved it, so I had a strong reaction to a particular scene in your film. Does your talking bear have a similar background? Is he also an 80s staple or an invention for the movie?
He’s definitely an 80s staple, and I loved Teddy Ruxpin growing up, but we couldn’t get the rights to use him, given the context of what happens in the film so we had to create a new one.
And of course…what’s next?
Hopefully this show I’m making at the moment will make it across to America. It’s a youth-skewed action comedy. Hard to describe but I guess in terms of content and tone it’s somewhere between Sledge Hammer and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. After that, I’d like to make an other movie. I’m attached to something but it’s not quite green lit yet, so I’ll get in trouble if I talk about it.
I saved this question for last because it implies something about the plot that gives away a pretty major third-act twist. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I’d advise avoiding this last bit.
This is a spoiler-y question, so I can exclude it if need be, but are you at all a fan of the Gary Busey film, Hider In The House? In it, he plays a pyromaniac who walls off a section of an attic for a house that’s still under construction and lives there. There’s also a more recent film, The Pact, which has a similar subplot involving a man living in a secret room of a home. Where did the idea come from for you personally?
As long as you say SPOILER ALERT in caps before we get to this question, no problem, as this is sort of our Sixth Sense moment. I always just thought that it would be a creepy idea to have a person hiding in the walls. I’m not a fan of Hider in the House, but I did seek it out and the 70s TV movie Bad Ronald, because I hadn’t seen any movie where they’d done this twist on a ghost movie, so I was keen to find out if it was well-trodden territory. I didn’t really watch them though, I just sort of skimmed through to see how different the ideas were. I did see The Pact, which came out when we were editing our first block of shooting. I thought was really great, and I was a little bit bummed out that it was a similar twist, but we took 3 years to finish Housebound so it was inevitable someone was going to beat us to the punch and I was pretty zen about it. I’ve spoken to people who really liked both movies and don’t feel that one really takes away from the other.
On a similar note, was the initial idea for the film to make a ghost story that…wasn’t a ghost story?