Fantastic Fest Interviews Movies

Fantastic Fest 2019: In conversation with “The Cleansing Hour” Director Damien LeVeck

“The Cleansing Hour” premiered at Fantastic Fest on Friday, September 20, and it’s been one of my favorites of the fest so far. The film was written and directed by Damien LeVeck and stars Kyle Gallner as Drew, Ryan Guzman as Father Max and Alix Angelis as Lane.

“The Cleansing Hour” is about millennial entrepreneurs, Drew and Max, who run a webcast that streams live exorcisms that are, in fact, elaborately staged hoaxes.

But they get their comeuppance when Drew’s fiancée Lane becomes mysteriously possessed by a real demon that holds the crew hostage. Drew discovers that the demon’s sinister motive is not only about revenge, but also to expose the dark secrets he, Max and Lane have been hiding from one another. With only the show clock remaining, it’s a matter of time before either the truth is revealed or the demon forces them to meet their maker.

We had a chance to speak with LeVeck about the film, the exorcism genre and those amazing practical effects. Check it out!

What has been your journey to becoming a director and writer, having worked primarily as an editor?

Damien: I always knew that I wanted to write and direct. I was one of those kids who, from a very young age — probably about 12 years old — I knew that I wanted to write and direct movies. Once the rubber meets the road and you’re faced with reality; and the path to that is always hard and nobody knows really what that path is and everyone finds their own path. I ended up going to film school at USC in Los Angeles and by the time I graduated I knew there were certain things I knew I didn’t want to do. Initially, I did not really want to work in film development.

I got into post-production as an editor and I always knew that I was a pretty good editor. I discovered it in college, editing my own projects and for various classes and everything. I really cut my teeth in editing in documentaries. My first documentary was this talk that I ended up producing as well. And then I made a natural segue from documentary film into unscripted television. In between there I was kind of careful about the jobs that I took and not pigeonholing myself as ‘oh he’s a commercial editor,’ or ‘oh he’s a music video editor.’ I took every kind of editing work I could find so I could stay sharp and have a lot of experience doing a lot of different kinds of editing. But I did get into quite a bit of unscripted television editing. You learn a lot from your different jobs, and that was one of the ones where I got to learn a lot about storytelling because you’re doing it all in reverse. You’re shooting a bunch of stuff and then you have to cut it into something that tells the story in a very concise way.

It also taught me a lot about directing because oftentimes when you’re editing other people’s stuff — especially something that can be as run and gun as reality TV — you don’t have shots that you need. I remembered all of that whenever I was on set and took that experience with me. Once I finally got onto a set I was like, ‘I know I’m going to need this shot or this shot.’ So it makes the process of preparing to direct something a lot easier. When I started in post-production I was still writing and was still pursuing that golden goose of writing and directing. I was just trying to figure out what’s going to be good enough for me to put my efforts into making something. I know some people have a different attitude of ‘just go out and shoot something man,’ which is good too but I am one of those people who does everything a thousand percent. I’m not going to put all my heart and soul into something unless I’m completely committed to it, and that’s when “The Cleansing Hour” short film came about. We raised a lot of money on Kickstarter to make that, and the whole process of doing it took almost a year. It was extremely labor intensive but we made it with the intention of turning it into a feature. So that’s how we got to that point.

What was it like transitioning from the short film to the feature film?

Damien: By expanding the short and stretching it out over 90 minutes it allowed me to really dive into this thematic element of the movie much deeper. So who are these characters and what are their backgrounds? The theme of social media is that the movie is very meta because you are an audience member are watching people watching people. You get to sort of experience that on another level because we expanded it in terms of the different spectators, with people all over the world who are watching. We expanded it in terms of the chat feed. There’s a whole other movie to watch if you go back and only watch the chat feed of “The Cleansing Hour” because it’s full of people who believe, people who hate, people who are trolls, vile and Christian and non-believer and all these different things; you can take them in. It also gave me an opportunity to really show that these people like Father Max for all intents and purposes is a horrible human being, and is a broken human being, and that stuff is very relatable.

He had a dark past and he and broken people hurt each other. So there’s a very human element to it and that’s really something that I love about this concept is that it’s a character piece, and this is the kind of movies we like to make anyway, is that I get to examine characters and what makes them complex and what makes them human beings. I think that “The Cleansing Hour” is timely and it gets to examine themes that are very important to today’s day and age.

Some are more subtle than others, but I’m happy that people are picking up on it too, and that people can look at it and they can laugh and then maybe even be introspective after they leave the theater.

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L-R: Ryan Guzman as Father Max and Kyle Gallner as Drew in “The Cleansing Hour”

What was it like working with Kyle Gallner, Ryan Guzman and Alix Angelis as the main leads?

Damien: I would say I lucked out working with these guys because they are such talented actors and it’s a real relief working with people who are such professionals and who have such great attitudes. It could be very easy for someone to be a diva and be difficult and be cantankerous whenever you’re on a set. Making movies is hard. Making independent films is even harder whenever you have time and budget constraints. And I really had a cast full of lovely people who are exceptionally talented and who, in so many ways, made my job easier and made me look really good.

We went through quite a process casting this movie and spent almost a year casting it. I put a lot of care into who I chose to work with. At the end of the day it’s still a crap shoot because you don’t know who people are, how they’re going to be once you get on set. There’s always that sort of a concern there because they’re all different people; they all work in different ways. When you talk with them you don’t have any concept of how much preparation have they done and are they going to be able to be on-script or be off-script and everything, and they totally were and they do totally work in different ways, but they show up and they did and they delivered. And I just couldn’t have been happier. And I too am a big Kyle Gallner fan. I feel like I really lucked out whenever I found out that he wanted to do this movie, and it’s nice watching actors work because they always bring a third dimension to the words on the page. They give the character a life that you’ve never even realized. And that’s just really a testament to their talent and their ability.

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Alix Angelis as Lane in “The Cleansing Hour”

One of the elements of the film that I enjoyed was the portrayal of Lane, possessed by a demon, played by Alix Angelis. What was your approach to the demonic possession in “The Cleansing Hour”?

Damien: This is very important to me. I am a big fan of the exorcism genre. “The Exorcist” is still the movie that sort of sets the bar for everything. It’s still my favorite exorcism film. It’s just a great movie. It’s a great screenplay that also has one of the most iconic demonic possession performances ever. It goes without saying that these movies have been very influential on me. In approaching this movie I still wanted to make this performance — make this character and this experience on screen for the audience unique, in its own way. And that’s challenging. So there are a few things that I really paid attention to. The first thing was just in writing it. I worked very hard to make sure that this character was not like sort of a sadistic game show host. I didn’t want it to be clownish or cartoonish in any way.

I was walking a very fine line with a demon that [is], you know, mysterious but also extremely powerful at the same time. And what I always told Alix was that we’re going for more Hannibal Lecter here. Less is more with the words. There’s more room for the performers to really shine. The other thing that I really focused a lot on was the appearance. There are some cliches when it comes to these possession movies, and one of them is that the possessed person all of a sudden has these abilities that somehow transcend human physical constraints. For example: How many times in a possession movie have you seen the possessed girl’s jaw go all the way down to her stomach? That is not physically possible. So we’re not going to do that at all. Whatever happens to her has to be physically possible. Even in “The Exorcist,” a human being’s head cannot spin 360 degrees around, not physically possible. And the makeup was meant to be subtle as well.

Alix still spent three hours in a chair almost every day. The makeup was inspired by the devil showing up at the end, and if you look closely at the devil’s face he has these little horns coming off his jaw. When she’s in her stage three makeup and in the latter half of the movie she’s got these bumps on her jaw. It’s like the devil is actually kind of pushing through her face.

We tried to make the makeup not too over-the-top but definitely turn her into a different person. Alix has this very angular face with these sort of cutting blue eyes and she’s also got another, a petite figure. So it actually didn’t take much in terms of appliances to really alter her appearance and allow her to fully embody a new character through the makeup. The third thing that we did to really make this a truly unique demonic possession experience with this character is her voice.

I worked a lot on this voice because I wanted to do something that we’d never heard before. And I also wanted to avoid the cliche of pitching down and layering the voice that is so common and the laziest way of making someone sound evil. We tried out a bunch of different options — everything from pitching down her voice to working with filters and blending in animal noises and all that. We cast another actor to dub her voice but we didn’t just stop there. We blended it with Alix’s voice at the same time, and there was a very delicate sort of ebb and flow in terms of how much we used Alix’s voice and the other actor’s voice was going to come through.

We did a lot of work with filters, pitching and blending of different sounds with the voice in order to create something, in order to change it along with the story. If the demon was really, really angry and it might get lower in the possession and the actor’s voice might come through more. If it was more subtle and calm you might hear more of Alix’s voice altered. So ultimately, I’m very proud of the voice because I wanted to make something that was very unique and that we haven’t heard before. I think we did that and a big shout out to William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin, who made “The Exorcist,” and Mercedes McCambridge, who did the possession voice.

They were the ultimate inspiration for this route that we took creatively.

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Kyle Gallner as Drew in “The Cleansing Hour”

This film mostly takes place in one location. Was it challenging to kind of figure out how you were going to keep it dynamic?

Damien: It was a bit of a challenge to keep it dynamic and keep it interesting, shooting in just one room the whole time. It was challenging for different reasons but my goal going in — and I told our production designer, Lauren Slatten, that I want to make sure that no matter where we point the camera, we’re see something interesting. She was able to transform the space into something that looked like a room that had a story, and that you could sort of pull out of that story like, ‘why did these guys set up their set in this room.?’ And also create like this confined feeling so that as a viewer you understand that these guys have nowhere they can run.

They really are stuck there. Over the course of the movie you do see the entire room. You’re on the set, you’re over the makeup area, you’re in the bathroom. We get to see the whole set and the whole space that these guys live in. There are plenty of examples of where I wish I could have done it differently in order to show the space a little bit better. But there’s a delicate balance between the amount of time you have to do a set up and the amount of time that you have to get out of that scene. It’s always a compromise you’re constantly making when you’re making a movie on a budget and with limited days. I still think that we pulled it off and you do know what the room looks like, and you have a good feeling for it.

Can you talk about the practical effects? They looked so good in the film.

Damien: Thank you. I’m a big fan of practical effects. I think the happy medium is always going to be do it 90% practical and then augment 10% with the CGI. And that is really the way to go. There’s just something tangible about practical effects because the eye subconsciously knows that it’s real. So we did as much practical as we possibly could. The only thing we really did with the devil that wasn’t practical was his eyes. We added the distortion coming out of his mouth and there was a light that was in his mouth. We were trying to make his mouth and eyes glow. Ultimately it’s a practical effect.

We wanted to make as much as practical as possible going in so we worked with an Academy Award-nominated company in Los Angeles to create this stuff. And I think they really knocked it out of the park, and it makes me so happy when our genre fans watched the movie and they light up and they see this and they have an appreciation for it. There really is another level of complexity working with practical effects. You’ve got these things that you can’t reset, like the neck prosthetics for whenever Chris slashes his neck. We could only do one take. We only had one of them and didn’t have time to do more. That kind of stuff adds another challenge that brings so much to the movie at the end of the day. I think it really gives another level of fun to the viewing experience whenever you get to have a movie that has all these practical effects because the CGI almost feels like you’re cheating in a way.

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Alix Angelis as Lane and Ryan Guzman as Father Max in “The Cleansing Hour”

What’s next? Where can people see “The Cleansing Hour?”

Damien: It will be on Shudder in 2020. No official release date yet. It’s also going to be at the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival in Catalonia, Spain, screening on October 10. We are in competition there and it’s probably the biggest genre film festival in Europe that has been around for 51 years actually, so we’re honored to be a part of that.

You can find “The Cleaning Hour” on Shudder in 2020! You won’t want to miss it. You can follow Damien on Twitter and Instagram and follow “The Cleansing Hour” on Twitter and Instagram.

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Featured image credit: Heather Kennedy

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