Interviews Movies

Talkin’ Shop with “They Remain” Director Philip Gelatt

We caught up with Philip Gelatt, director of “They Remain” and sci-fi/horror extraordinaire, to talk about his experience creating “They Remain,” all things science-fiction, and love of the cinema!

Philip Gelatt
Philip Gelatt

What got you into filmmaking and what, do you feel, were the creative moves that brought you to this point, directing “They Remain?” 

Philip: I’ve always been a movie fan. I mean, I had one of those cliché youths that was spent just watching movies all the time. But, to be honest, I was never really 100% sure I wanted to make movies. I went to film school but not for any kind of production. I went into a film studies department…so basically, I just watched more movies and read more about movies all through college. Lots of theory. Lots of history.

Then I got an internship at a film production company and started reading scripts for them. And that was really the first time I started to think “oh, I bet I could write a script better than most of these.” I mean…it shouldn’t shock anyone, but when you’re reading a slush pile of screenplays there is a lot of bad writing in there. And there is a lot to be learned from reading bad writing…you can really learn from others’ mistakes.

So I started writing. And then some producers I had come to know read one of my first screenplays and wanted to make it. They put a little budget together and I ended up directing it myself. That film is called “The Bleeding House” and it is a sort of strange horror-ish thriller. From there I spent a few years just working as a screenwriter but always had it in mind that I’d want to direct again. And when I read “-30-” I knew I’d found something that fit where my head was at, at that time. And now here we are!

They Remain
Still from “They Remain”

What draws you to the science fiction/horror genre? In particular, why choose Laird Barron’s “-30-“?

Philip: Well, I was raised on both of those genres. They are like…I don’t know how to say it exactly but they’re like the language I speak. Science-fiction is a beautiful genre because it dwells in the possible, in the not-quite, in the might-be-one-day, or in the never-will-be-but-wouldn’t-it-be-great-if? And that’s very attractive. There’s both a lot of narrative possibility and emotional possibility there. When I wrote “Europa Report” I wanted to make it the most hopeful movie I could.

As for horror, well…I tend to think about horror as the pure genre of the subconscious. It’s a genre that’s free in ways no other genres are. It can get away with barely a thread of plot. It can be shot dirty and cheap or exquisitely. It can be imaginistic or realistic or a blend of both. Horror is both, I think, the most base, crude and terrible of genres but also the most artistic and aspirational. At its best, it’s an amazing blend of high and low art. There’s just nothing else like a great horror film. To be a little grandiloquent, horror is the genre of dreams, of the truth of the human subconscious.

“-30-” really, for me, encapsulated a lot of what I love about both genres. It’s a dark science-fiction piece about the impossibility of human knowledge and that ties directly into a creeping sense of horror.

Any big influences that you were drawing from, when shooting “They Remain”?

Philip: Ah my influences probably won’t shock anyone. I am a big Kubrick fan. I thought a lot about “The Shining” while making this film. My DP and I talked a lot about Tarkovsky while we were shooting, in particular “Solaris.” I am a super fan of the films of Kiyoshi Kurasawa. I think nobody does atmosphere like him and his work is always lurking at the back of my mind. An atmosphere of dread was the absolute most important thing I was after in making the film. Then there were films with more direct parallels to what we were doing: Saul Bass’s “Phase IV,” Colin Eggleston’s “The Long Weekend.” Movies about people trapped in a nature gone strange.

They Remain
Still from “They Remain”

What’s your favorite way to enjoy movies? 

Philip: In the theater. Definitely. 100%. I’ve become keenly and painfully aware lately how hard it is to really watch a movie at home. There are so many distractions. No matter how big your screen, it’s never going to suck you in in the same way a theater does. It’s like you have to work to really watch a movie at home, whereas a theater just pulls you in naturally.

What was something particularly memorable about the making of “They Remain”? Any good war stories? 

Philip: I have such fond memories of making the film. The best part of any production is the people who meet on the way. Film is a collaborative art, completely. And I was so lucky to have such a great team working on this with me. They were great both in a creative sense but also on a personal level, which was lucky because a lot of production was very hard. We were out in the woods, weather was terrible. Our schedule was tight. Shooting inside those structures was a nightmare. I don’t know if I have any one particularly good war story, but I will say nearly every day was like its own little battle and without the strong support I had, the movie wouldn’t be what it is.

What’s next for you? Any projects in development? What’s your ultimate dream project?

Philip: Coming out, hopefully in 2019, is an animated dark fantasy film called “The Spine of Night.” It’s being hand drawn using old school rotoscope techniques and I am very excited about it. Betty Gabriel, of “Get Out” fame, is in it. Other than that, I have been writing a lot of science-fiction material for other people. I do have a few projects that I hope will be my next as director. I can’t say much more than that other that…well…they’re all either sci-fi, horror, or both. Shocker, I know. My ultimate dream project would be something like M. John Harrison’s novel “Light” or Karl Edward Wagner’s “Kane” or China Mieville’s “The Scar.” Something uncompromising and very deep genre.

Thanks so much, Philip, for talking with us! Congratulations on a beautiful film; we’ll catch up with you on “The Spine of Night”! After making a splash in limited release, “They Remain” will be available on-demand and on DVD May 29. If you love sci-fi as much as Philip and I do, you won’t want to miss it. Read our review of “They Remain” here

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