ScreenPicks recently posed some questions to Philip Gelatt,  the director of the new film They Remain.  The movie centers on two researchers – Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) and Keith (William Jackson Harper) – who have been charged with investigating a remote wooded site.  The area was once the home of a mysterious, violent cult. As the two continue with their investigations, strange and bizarre events begin to happen.

What inspired the story for They Remain and what themes does the film explore?

The story is based on a novella titled “—30—” by Laird Barron. Laird is a supremely talented writer of crime and horror fiction. The story is a dark and ambiguous piece and my first read of it left me frustrated and aggravated but wanting to go back and re-read it. I found myself kind of desperate to try to figure just what the hell I had missed. What was going on in the shadows of that story? What were important details right under my nose?

After my second or third re-read, I was in love with the story and thinking to myself “what a great challenge to try to adapt this!”  

The film is exploring the feeling of uncertainty. It’s about two people searching for something in the woods, they’re uncertain exactly what they’re searching for and the longer they’re out there, the more uncertain they become about the world around them and their own interior lives. 

It is a strange story and a mysterious story and I wanted to lean into both of those things. It’s about feeling trapped and lost and unable to see the things you are looking for. Y’know… happy-go-lucky, good feelings!

What was it like to work with the two leads – William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson — and how were they cast?

They were both fantastic to work with. Smart, dedicated, full of ideas and willing to explore their roles fully.  We cast them out of New York and they both have strong backgrounds in theater. I knew I wanted actors who came from live theater because there is a certain stagey-ness to this project. Yes, it’s outdoors, but the sets are still rather limited and it is basically just those two actors the whole time.  

We didn’t do an audition process, instead, I sent prospective actors the script to read and then brought them in for a conversation about the material and the part. I was looking for people who came in with strong ideas about their characters and with whom I had a good rapport. To make a movie like this you need great collaborators and both of them were exactly that. 

Are there any directors that you particularly admire and how have they influenced your work, if at all?

Oh, I admire a lot of the standard names: Kubrick, Carpenter, Lynch. I am a huge fan of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Movies like Cure and Pulse. I find his work so atmospheric and so unsettling. I will also cop to being a fan of Polanski’s work. I know that is a fraught statement but I’ve learned a lot from his craft.  

I’m attracted to filmmakers who have a honed sense of style that is, on its surface, simple but which they manage to use to great atmospheric and psychological effect. Kurasawa’s films, in particular, I find just mesmerizing. They are slow, yes, but in that slowness there is great depth and… I don’t know how to explain it exactly… a chance for viewers to really enter the story space and explore it for themselves. If that makes any sense. 

I thought a lot about The Shining while making this film. In particular, the way Kubrick’s film has such a simple story on its surface (“Family goes to remote hotel, dad goes crazy and tries to kill his wife and child.”) but under that surface there is an almost unfathomable depth to it. I mean that both in a thematic sense and in a narrative sense. 

I wanted to try to do something similar here. Simple story on its surface (“Two scientist go into the woods and are driven crazy.”) but then also provide clues and insinuations and narrative ellipses that would hopefully encourage audiences to jump into meanings and ideas below the surface. 

The other feature which you directed – The Bleeding House – is also a horror film. Is that a genre that particularly interests you?

Absolutely. I love the horror genre truly and deeply. That being said, in approaching They Remain, I set out to make a horror film that wasn’t necessarily playing by the standard rules of the genre. I wanted to do something that felt like its own thing. Horror-adjacent. Thriller-adjacent. Science-fiction-adjacent.  

It gets back to that idea of uncertainty… it extended, for me, even to the question of genre. Viewers, hopefully, will come away from the film wondering just what it is they saw. 

Is there anything in general that you would like to tell audiences about They Remain?

That it is meant to be frustrating and challenging and to feel not quite right. I hope those traits feel like an invitation to solve the film. I hope people come up with their own theories as to what has happened and what is really going on. What is the company really after? Is the cult really gone? Why is that dog out there? What is she working on and is he working on? Is that giant horn real?

It’s a film that’s inviting you to explore its details and dig into those questions. I guess, in short, I hope viewers feel about the film the same way I felt about the novella the first time I read it.

Would you like to share with us what your future projects are?

Sure! The project I’m most excited about is a thing called The Spine of Night. It is an R rated surreal fantasy film, being hand-animated in a style reminiscent of the 1982 Heavy Metal or Ralph Bakshi’s Fire & Ice. It has an amazing cast and a story that is quintessentially epic. Swords, sorcery, psychedelic visions. It’s great. We’re on schedule to finish animation this year and hopefully we’ll be getting out there for everyone to see late in 2019.