L.A. based filmmaker Vincent Grashaw has been making short films since 2002. He spent years honing his skills before releasing his first feature film 'Coldwater' to a fairly mixed bag of reviews in 2013. Fast forward almost a decade later and Grashaw's third feature 'What Josiah Saw' is "a darkly grim, well written Southern gothic horror with a shocking twist". A film that will surely catapult him onto the next level.
Ahead of its premiere on Shudder this past Thursday our writer Gavin Logan had the opportunity to ask the director some questions about the filming process, how he helped his actors find their characters and the importance of not hesitating in bringing the real life horror to the surface.
GL: Hello Vincent. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. How did you come onto the project and what was it that attracted you to it?
VG: The writer had sent me the script in increments. Initially 10 to 20 pages to get my thoughts on it and I had known Robert Alan Dilts for about 5 years at the time and really liked this writing. But on this one (script) particularly it felt like it was dabbling in the horror space, that's where it was leading me. By the end of the first chapter I was pretty much more rattled than I had been reading anything and so I told him to keep writing because he was not going to finish it. But he did and I was enthralled with where it went. Very unexpected. I had no idea and I liked how rich the characters were. The climax felt very fresh and this was in 2013 and at the time there hadn't really been this sort of new imagining of horror movies like 'It Follows', 'The Witch', 'Babadook' or 'Hereditary'. Ya know these slow burn, psychological dramas that turn into horror and I knew when those films came out that I was on the right track with this. I knew this was the next film I wanted to make. Spent 6 years trying to do it and had funding fall apart two times before things started to happen.
GL: Was there specific films that you looked towards as inspiration to give you that southern gothic feel?
VG: I don't know if there were any particular films. Obviously the films that I watched from my teenage years helped establish my film aesthetics. When you're young things that blow you away just stick with you differently. I just attribute what I've built from those experiences. I could name about 200 movies but there wasn't just one film. I just felt that this film was a fresh take on horror that I hadn't seen and it would penetrate peoples thick skin and they would feel something from watching it.
GL: How did working on this film differ from your previous feature films?
VG: It was the hardest film I've ever made. It was the hardest to get through. You're putting out fires all the time on every film but with this one especially so many things happened to us that had nothing even to do with movie making. At one point our Air BnB got robbed and cops ended up doing a sting and busting the guy at a hotel. There's a whole story to that. They got all the stuff back a few days later but still. By the end of the shoot I was having PTSD nightmares every day for weeks thinking I was still shooting. That said you're always thinking "What's gonna go wrong here today" but by the end we knew what we were capturing and we were very excited. My DP would jump on my back from excitement about what we shot for the day and so it was trench warfare a bit, you were bonding with the crew just getting through the days. My other films I don't remember having that kind of intensity in capturing what we needed and the difficulty there.
GL: The cast are all outstanding. What was it like working with a legend like Robert Patrick and what specifically do you think he brought to the role?
VG: Every actor in this film including all the locals where we filmed were so fantastic. I was able to connect with Robert through a friend of mine called Ronnie Gene Blevins who is in the movie too. I had been casting that role and in 2015 when I had some financing, initially we cast Michael Parks and unfortunately he passed away and then funding fell through and so by the time 2019 came I was able to get on a Skype call with Robert and he was very complimentary of the script but he was obviously a little reluctant. Robert basically told me "Give me your best film and I'll watch it and if I love it, I'll do your movie" and he called me afterwards and said "God damn we're doing this" and that was cool to hear him say that.
GL: The film deals with a lot of difficult topics. Was there anything from the script that you either omitted or added during shooting that differed from the original script?
VG: Yeah definitely. When you have a script for 5 or 6 years that you're trying to get financed, inherently you keep messing with it. It gets better, you throw things outs, you try things, you go back to certain things. We did that a lot Robert (Alan Dilts) and I and so I think out of all the chapters what changed significantly was probably Eli's, back and forth, different variations of. Mary's changed a little but I would say the opening chapter and the end of the film had always stayed the same. The initial first cut of this movie was two hours thirty eight minutes without credits so I knew I had to get it down at least to under two hours otherwise some people would be very pissed at me I'm sure. So I did my best and we got it down to about one hour fifty six minutes or so so there was a lot left out. Initially you get a little nervous about cutting so many scenes but now I don't miss any of it and I know we did the right things there. I feel like everything there is necessary and it's a movie that requires the audience to invest in and commit to to really reap all the benefits.
GL: What was the most challenging scene to film?
VG: The most challenging scene was definitely the one that I was referring to about some of the actors' reluctance when they first read it at the end of the first chapter between Thomas and Josiah. I won't get into the details about it but something happens between those two characters that's very uncomfortable and so filming that was very tough. Everyone was very prepared for it, we all knew how it was gonna be and at some point the actors even told us ya know it was just very awkward. So after we got a few takes of what we needed Robert and Scott were like "I don't wanna do this anymore" and so we moved on. I knew it was gonna work for the movie. I was really dedicated and committed for that scene working but I knew it was gonna be uncomfortable. If you revised that scene I knew that people weren't going to be willing to depart that first chapter and go on a different journey and meet new characters and want get away from that. I wanted people to be like "that farmhouse, get me away from that farmhouse" but also knowing that when we go back there they'd be wondering what the hell was happening at that point and so that's really what I wanted to accomplish from that scene.
GL: Nick Stahl gives the performance of his life in the film playing Eli, an extremely flawed character just looking to catch a break. Were there specific directions you gave him to help find that character? And how important was it to show him “redeem” himself when he saved the young girl?
VG: Initially in the script Eli was written more like the small-town adonis who was a little more confident about himself at least and had this edge and attitude and that's something that I didn't find a problem with until we started casting and when I thought of Nick Stahl and saw his head shot, it hit me. I always felt Nick inherently had this gentle side to him, very sweet calm nature. In all his films he's sort of vulnerable and he had a quality that I felt Eli was missing when I thought of him. So once we cast him I was very excited. I don't know if, Eli in the script, if we had done it that way, if the audience would have kept rooting for him or even cared that he redeems himself. So I knew that Nick was gonna bring that. I met Nick Stahl in person the first day of filming and you have to trust these actors to just bring it and he did. That guy brings ideas, he collaborates, he's very easy to work with. I think he definitely made Eli a character that people will at least sympathise with, that he wants a clean slate. He wants to start over. His mistakes, he's very aware of and owns up to them. Nick was perfect for him and I think you can see that in his performance.
GL: Am I right in saying shooting began in late 2019? How badly did Covid affect production?
VG: We got lucky with Covid. We filmed November and December 2019 and I started editing in January. I had a rough cut and I do the sound design as well. It's part of directing for me, the sound design, and by March 16th I was going to have a screening with trusted editors and friends and producers and agents to see this first fine cut of the film and on that day Covid shut down everything. So it didn't affect shooting cuz we had shot everything but I basically was barricaded in editing through the lockdown. But I eventually showed some people at a small screening and we got some advice and kept editing it down and picture locked I would say in May 2020. And then went onto the score and colouring and by September 2020 we finished the film, our final mix and colour. We didn't want to premiere the film virtually and at the time it still felt like the festivals were just doing virtual only so it delayed us about a year form premiering at Fantasia 2021 when festivals were coming back to life and so we did almost a year of festival around the world in person and that was sorta important to us.
GL: We won’t directly spoil any of the twists but the revelation during the final sequence is very shocking, particularly the last scene and it really brings the real life horror of childhood trauma to the surface. How difficult was it to explore these traumas without it feeling too exploitative and was there any other alternative version of how that finale was planned out?
VG: No, no alternate endings. Very early in trying to get this movie made there were a couple of production companies and people that would be like "Can we cut that ending, the very last scene" and it's difficult to talk about this without spoiling elements of the ending but I felt like if we cut that ending, what happens before that, people would just leave angry and be like "okay that's it?" so I think that it served a bigger purpose. It definitely wasn't about gratuity or shock, it questions what you may think the motives are for certain characters and adds other layers to others. One thing I will say is that you can have two motives or agendas for Josiah in the whole movie and both of them hold water so I don't even think there's a wrong answer to what you think of the ending and what you think those motives were. It was about keeping that mystery and justifying what happens to our main characters.
GL: We can't wait to see what you do next. Any projects in the pipeline you can tell us about?
VG: Sure. My next film I'm actually in pre-production right now. We're aiming to shoot in October. It's a departure from the horror genre so it's a lighter subject matter. It's called 'Bang Bang' and it's about a retired boxer who sort of comes out of hiding after his grandson is left with him for a period of time. He comes out of his shell to train his grandson and reconnect with people that were in his life before. It's got a lot of heart, emotion and a good amount of comedy and drama. So I'm doing something a little lighter than 'What Josiah Saw' this time but I am a huge fan of horror so I definitely want to get back to doing another one some time.
Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer our questions today Vincent. Best of luck with the success of 'What Josiah Saw' and any future projects.
'What Josiah Saw' is now available to stream exclusively on Shudder
- Gavin Logan