Q&A: The Blackcoat’s Daughter with Oz Perkins, Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton

Last Thursday, March 23, the new Alamo Drafthouse NYC in Brooklyn hosted a special screening of the well-received first film by Osgood Perkins, The Blackcoat’s DaughterThe Blackcoat’s Daughter is a psychological horror film set in a girls’ boarding school starring Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men) as Kat, a troubled student caught at the school during vacation, and co-starring Lucy Boynton and Emma Roberts, which premiered at the 2015 Toronto Film Fest but is finally getting a limited theatrical release.  The film opens this Friday, March 31, at the Alamo NYC.

After the screening, Mr. Perkins, who has since released his follow-up picture, the subdued ghost story I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, through Netflix, sat with Shudder’s Sam Zimmerman, along with stars Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton, for the entertainingly candid Q&A presented below (edited for space and clarity).

On Making a “Classy” Horror Film

Osgood Perkins:          When I wrote it, it seems old-fashioned to say this, but the horror genre was sort of in trouble.  Now that’s such a stupid thing to say because the horror genre has never been more of the moment.  Everybody and their mom has a great horror movie.  But at the time it sort of felt like a beleaguered slum. What I wanted to do, honestly, was write something that felt kind of classy and elegant. So in assembling the other artists to do this with me, whether it was the cinematographer, the actors, all of it was designed to be … I hate to make it sound shallow but it was designed to be comely.  Attractive and sort of stylish and beautiful and poised.  No one was doing that at the time – now everyone is doing that.

Right around when I started writing, I watched two movies in the same week.  I watched the original Let the Right One In – well, the only Let the Right One In, not the film by Matt Reeves – and I watched The Strangers by my friend Bryan Bertino, who also produced this movie.  The Strangers especially – I was caught off guard by how sad it was.   The movie starts with 15 minutes of straight up break-up drama.

Lucy Boynton:            It was really exciting to read a script for a horror film that was not a horror film. It has everything you would want in a horror film, but it’s just so devastating. It’s more about the experience of these people – their experience of grief and loss. Which everyone on some level can relate to, whether it’s a fear of grief and loss, or the experience, and the vulnerable place where that experience leaves you. So reading the script was kind of like the end of the film, where you are just left on the brink and there’s nothing.

Kiernan Shipka:          When I read the script, I immediately knew it was good (laughs).

On the School

OP:      When we were scouting locations, there were two possible doors.  Door number one was to find a school that was all brick and gargoyles and stained-glass – that kind of school. And I knew that was not the kind of school I wanted.  Because the scariest American school is like Columbine – not picturesque at all – a featureless, square, cutout building.  Those places have become the kind of places we see on the news.  Those are the scary places. So the fact that we were able to find someplace that felt utilitarian, strangely, and also, the whole idea about boarding school – you’re there alone, and it’s not that your parents don’t want you, but they don’t want you that much (laughs), they want you to be at school in another state. It’s just under the surface, but it is kind of true.  I knew I did not want the kind of school where there was a cross on the top of every building.  Instead we picked a place where everything is one-story and kind of sad.

On the Location

OP:      We put New York plates on the cars to say it was New York, but in reality it was just outside of Ottawa in a really small town.  In what was the coldest recorded February in 40 years.

KS:      We were feeling it.  There was one day when it wasn’t in the negatives and I was so happy.  I think that may give you a picture of what the shoot was like.  Honestly, I am an LA person so having a real winter, the more reality and the more true feelings you could get, especially when you are playing a character who is so far outside of your comfort zone, it was helpful.  It helped me – made me want to cry more.

OP:      This town, there was nothing, not even a bad Starbucks.  I lived there for weeks and weeks just so upset.  And then Shipka shows up from LA and I see her walking through town with a kombucha.

KS:      I’ll find kombucha wherever I go.

On Possession as a Plot Device

OP:      Possession has the same comfort that we find in Adderall or heroin or beer or pornography – the idea is that you lose something and then you are like a glove with no hand in it.  In this case she loses both of her parents – she intuits that they are dead – so what is left behind is a sort of limp glove.  So you want something that warms you.  So in a movie like this, you can make it be the devil, but she could have just as easily reached for the pipe.  That would be a different movie.  Of course, people who invest in movies, they go, “Hmm, possession you say?  I’ve got $1 million for that.”  Whereas you say, here’s a 14-year-old girl fixing up, and they say, “That’s less, here’s $40 grand.”

On the Film’s Devil Figure

OP:      Have you ever taken ayahuasca?  It was such a horrifying time that I had, and that devil was my guy.  And he was enormous.  I had my costume designer brilliantly assemble this weird nettled guy in the suit – we called him Ned.  Which we really shot a lot of, but in the end it was the Jaws thing – he didn’t break, but he sucked on camera.  He just did not look right, he did not look like my ayahuasca vision at all.  But obscured and abstracted and in shadow, it became good in that way.  I liked obscuring him and not showing him, which is more in keeping with the rest of the film.  Originally, we have him sitting in the audience when Kat was playing piano – we shot reverses of him sitting in the seats and it looked ridiculous.  It looked like Yo Gabba Gabba.

LB:      That poor guy who was in the suit kept getting high off the fumes from the glue.  He kept having to be sent to lie down because you would notice the Devil nodding slightly.  And now he has been cut from the film.

KS:      There goes Ned.  Ned down!  Ned down!

On the Music and Sound Design

OP:      A lot of what is written on the page, frankly, is sound.  It’s such an important element, especially for a horror movie.  I was really quite down on this movie when we were cutting it, until we laid in the soundtrack the music and the atmosphere.  It’s such a big component – it was like walking around with two fingers instead of 10.  So when I put the music and sound in, all of a sudden the lacquer came onto the whole picture and it felt right. My brother wrote the score, and he has never written a score before.  He just nailed it.  But there are times, of course, when the best choice is silence.  And there were a lot of times when we just used the sounds of the school, for instance, the sound of the doors.

On the Delay Between Shooting and Theatrical Release

KS:      When I was filming it, I was so concerned with Kat, I made the character my first priority. To now look at the film as a whole just makes me so happy. It was such an intimate experience filming something like this.

OP:      I made a whole other movie in between this movie being made and coming out – a movie on Netflix called I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House.  This movie was such torture to pull together, and to get financed, and to make.  It was my first film.  I never made any music videos or anything.  And making the second movie from Netflix, you know, it is what everyone says it is.  It’s like the old studio system where all of a sudden you have all of the money in the world, and all of the time in the world, and they don’t bother you.  Like I’m Billy Wilder or something (laughs).

On the Twist (spoiler-phobes beware)

OP:      I don’t want to say that the twist was well handled.  I’m never convinced that I got it 100% right in terms of the telling.  In the script it was a bit different, in the script you see a continuous stretch of time from Kat being shot in the furnace room, and it then tracks her almost first-person experience of being taken in a helicopter, and being taken in an ambulance, and going through rehab, and eventually she wakes up and it’s her in the room with the priest and we connected directly.  I shot all of that stuff and it was just bad.  We just did it badly – couldn’t use it.  But I wanted to use different people because it was more stylistic, more theatrical I guess, to use different actors.

KS:      Emma shot all of her stuff before me so that was lucky.  Because Oz had already seen all of her footage and we could work out little nuances, trace similarities and things like that.  But separated enough that people do not automatically figure it out.  So it was good that we shot at different times, so I could mimic certain little things that she did.  But more important to me was how to meld the little similarities and differences so as to make it a shocking reveal.

Thanks to Alamo Drafthouse NYC and all the participants for the Q&A.

© Cinema Strikes Back

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