Possessing a passion for filmmaking and cinema appreciation since he was a child, Eric Bress has been driven to make movies and television shows for the majority of his life. As such, Bress has been professionally making movies and shows since the late 1990s. Best known The Butterfly Effect and the Final Destination series, Bress also co-created the show Kyle XY. After more than a decade since he directed The Butterfly Effect in 2004, Bress has directed his latest film Ghosts of War – which centers on World War II American soldiers in a haunted mansion. Wanting to learn more about his background and his latest film, I was able to interview Bress for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some movies you loved watching? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
Eric Bress: When I was eleven years old I snuck into The Shining at the local singleplex. I came in halfway through the movie, when Jack tells Wendy to “get the fuck out of here” while he’s writing. It then turns into a rocket ride descent into madness and redrum. I was terrified. When the next showing began, I finally watched the first hour of the film, which was now more disturbing than the second half as the Grady Twins appeared for the first time and Dick Holloran explains the Shining to Danny and hearing about Tony and his visions. To say it had a profound effect on me would be an understatement. I still watch the film yearly and whenever it comes on the big screen. I highly recommend the import Blu-Ray El Splendor (sp) which is the “European cut” which is 30 minutes shorter, mostly losing scenes that true fans will miss, but the result is that the film from beginning to end is a thriller that never lets its foot off the gas.
I was six when I saw Jaws and still watch it yearly, though I couldn’t even swim in the camp lake that summer. The other movies I would watch over and over again were The Warriors, Bad Boys (with Sean Penn, not Will Smith) and Pink Floyd The Wall. Each are horror movies in one way or another of decidedly different genres. And all are rewatchable. As for comedy, back in the 70s I had a Panasonic tape recorder I’d sneak into movie theaters and “bootleg” movies such as Meatballs, Animal House and The Jerk. I played the audio tapes of those films hundreds of times. Even now, watching The Jerk, I will think, “there’s about to be a car driveby” because of how the sound design has been permanently etched in my memories.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career as a creative? Was there a moment in which this goal crystalized for you?
Bress: Growing up, my best childhood friends would make fun of me by mocking me for repeatedly saying, “That would be good for a movie.” I always carried a Super 8 camera around with me, which later turned into a bulky VHS porto-pack rig. I always knew I wanted to be somehow involved in the movie business and when I saw BLOW OUT in 1981 it was like my brain exploded. Sound Design was my first fetish and the way it was put on display in that film clarified all the mysteries of how film sound was made. I decided to focus on that, but living in NY didn’t really lend itself to that part of the business. I imagine the only thing mixed in NYC are film commercials and music. I once interned at a music mixdown studio in Manhattan hoping to get closer to my BLOW OUT dream, but other than cleaning up the drunken vomit from one member of Naughty By Nature, I have few takeaways from that gig. Other than the important epiphany that I didn’t want to pursue the career of cokehead music engineer who showed up at 2am for a mixing session and blasted the same track ad nauseam for 12 hours before going home and crawling into bed. It wasn’t until I put on my big boy pants and moved out to LA with no money or friends that I had any chance of getting what I wanted. It was a long slow slog of bad jobs, bad scripts and great friends who were all in the same struggling artist position that I was.
I had made a thousand little short films in my teens but never sat down to write a full-length script until my senior year at Syracuse University. I love writing. It is its own reward. As much as I love directing a film, it can be exhausting and endless, like animation. But with writing, you can write ten great minutes of a film in a single day and feel good about what you’ve accomplished.
Meeting my writing and directing partner Jonathan Gruber (J. Mackye Gruber) was the best thing to happen in my career. It forced both of us to really drill down on the hard work of writing and producing and keeping to schedules and deadlines that no one else on the planet but the two of you cares about. Writing with Jonathan was copious and prolific. We wrote in every genre, hoping one of our odd little scripts would be loved by someone, anyone, willing to put money into it. Blackouts was the script that eventually became The Butterfly Effect. It sat on a shelf for two years after we showed it to someone, one guy mind you, who said it wasn’t for him. We were so sensitive to that one little bit of bad feedback that we dropped the entire project entirely until the late JC Spink, an interested manager at the time, read a few comedies of ours and asked, “Got anything else?” and we thought, “Oh shit, there’s that Blackout script… Should we even bother showing it to him?” He read it that day and called us at sunset and said, “Come over tomorrow, we want to sign you.” At that moment, I finally felt like real Hollywood writer.
Yanes: The last time you directed something was in 2004’s The Butterfly Effect. What are ways you think you’ve improved as a director during this gap? For instance, was there a moment in Kyle XY (or another project) in which you saw a director doing something that you knew you wanted to try?
Bress: I still love, absolutely love The Butterfly Effect. But first and foremost, as a screenplay, there’s virtually no subtext in the dialog. People say exactly what they’re thinking 99% of the time. I’d like to think I’ve improved as a writer where that would never happen again. As a writer and director of Ghosts of War, I had to be conscious of two layers of every character. Each character has a specific intent for every line of dialog and every reaction to their circumstances, but beneath that, there’s another reality at play which needs to underscore that. So as a director relating to actors, there needed to be detailed conversations regarding nuanced choices they’d have to bring to the table during their performances. That was an additional challenge to this film that probably doesn’t occur often on other films because the stories are three-dimensional, not four.
On the visual side of directing, I wanted to work with Lorenzo Senatore (the DP) extensively on the look of the film, knowing that every lens chosen, every camera move, every filter or light design needed to bring the audience closer to the experience our characters were having. When Gruber and I shot-designed The Butterfly Effect, we wanted the cinematic experience to evolve throughout the film. So that for the first ten minutes, the camera barely moves at all, then we introduce simple dolly moves, then steadicam, then all the stuff shot in prison is all handheld like a documentary, then a hybrid of everything as each reality changes. Ghosts of War had a similar attention to cinematography. I wanted to keep the WW2 stuff in a familiar cinematic language like a Saving Private Ryan and slowly transition to a timeless haunted house film like The Shining. It’s a delicate process because you never want the audience to feel that visual manipulation.
Yanes: You’ve been in entertainment production since the late-1990s. In your opinion, what is the biggest industry change to take place during this time?
Bress: Netflix. And Coronavirus. Actually, there have been too many to count. Maybe the biggest one that has affected me over the years is the reduction of theatrical releases. When I started, studios made ten million dollar films, forty million dollar films, 100 million dollar films, etc. Now, you’re either a Marvel tent-pole movie or you’re an under $3M horror film. That makes it near impossible to get a film like Ghosts of War made. Netflix has opened up the spectrum a little wider, having the money to fund all kinds of budgets. Last night I watched a beautiful looking Netflix TV pilot where obviously money is being spent on the show, but there’s a “car crash” at the onset of the pilot which was basically a skidding car and we never see any collision until the actress bangs her head on the steering wheel. It blew my mind a little that there wasn’t a ten car pile up for a Netflix original, so even they have to cut corners from time to time making all that product.
Yanes: Your latest film is Ghosts of War. What was the inspiration for this project?
Bress: I’ve written many spec scripts in the horror genre for many years and there’s a million similar movies where the nice family moves into the haunted house. Some are excellent, others are derivative cash grabs of shit. I watch a lot of them. And once, the thought came to me, “Just once, I’d like to see some badasses move into that haunted house. Trained killers. Just to see it play out a little differently without all of the same predictable beats and tropes.” When Friday the 13th Jason Takes Manhattan came out I was so excited to finally see Jason arrive in a crime-ridden city where the “innocents” actually knew how to use knives and kill someone with a car antenna, but I was crushed when he didn’t take on the Crips or the Bloods. But I still like the idea of watching two badasses face off more than the typical derivative innocent family trope.
Yanes: In your director’s statement you are quoted as saying, “Ghosts of War was my way of trying to give to an audience something that can’t be explained to them, but a feeling. A visceral experience.” What steps did you take to turn this story into a visceral experience? Specifically, did know you’d have to approach the cinematography and sound design in distinct ways to achieve this goal?
Bress: It sounds obvious to even say, but cinematography and sound design are everything to a film. Hopefully the there is a planned vision from the very start for them to work together. Like I said before, my first childhood interest/passion/fetish was sound mixing. So much can be done to the audience on a subconscious level when playing with sound. I once read that in the very beginning of Gasper Noe’s Irreversible, he laid in a subsonic sound that would make an audience nauseated before the film even got going, hitting them with a total mind-fuck they were completely unaware of. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers here, but there are sounds from the end of Ghosts of War that are played backwards in the beginning of the film, just to create a disturbing soundscape using noises from the same sonic toolbox.
Sound effects that are used one way during a ghostly sequence are actually tweaked sounds from the practical world in Act Three. For example, the sound of a creaking rope is actually a tweaked mechanical sound from a laboratory that appears later in the story. Most of this will go over the viewers’ heads, even the second timers, but Jonathan Wales, a fantastic sound designer and mixer, and I made sure that while the film takes place on different planes of reality, there is a sonic tapestry that ties everything together. My only hope is that the viewer will crank the sound to near-theater levels if possible. I’m an audiophile that way and my greatest hope is that people will see this on good home systems because Covid-19 prevented them from seeing it in a theater. I won’t even mention my dread of someone streaming this on their phone.
As for the look of the film, I constantly watch films to try to figure out which lenses are being used, how the cutting works to best add suspense, and I tried to filter all of that into Ghosts of War. The house was actually built on soundstage and when the soldiers first hear a suspicious sound I wanted a single tracking shot that would pull the audience through the house the way The Interview chapter in The Shining takes you through the Overlook’s lobby to Mr. Ullman’s office and you unconsciously assimilate the geography of the space. Antonello Rubino, the production designer, designed the house so we could see nearly every room with one continuous take. And by never cutting away as the soldiers get closer and closer to a creepy sound, we don’t release the tension the way we would if we were forced to cut back and forth from the source of the terror to the actors’ faces. In other scenes that were surreal, Lorenzo also got his hands on some unique lenses to make sure the moments were caught practically instead of adding computer generated distortions in post. And when the entire perspective of the film changes, we go from anamorphic lenses to spherical, which subtly changes the way the image is transferred to the screen.
Yanes: Clearly, a lot of historical research was done for Ghosts of War. Was there any information about World War II that you came across that shocked you?
Bress: While researching World War 2, one of the biggest discoveries was that there was a Nazi concentration camp in France not far from Strasbourg. That gave me license to add a scene where our heroes encounter a group of concentration camp refugees escaping through the French countryside. Despite that, I was told several times, “I don’t get this scene. There were no concentration camps in France.” It was like a condescending teacher drawing a red line across my eighth grade test paper. But the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp certainly existed and it pissed me off, particularly as a Jew, to have to nod and smile to an ignorant holocaust denier.
Yanes: Ghosts of War has a ton of leading actors and actors who are the verge stardom. What was it like working with them? On this note, what advice would you offer to aspiring actors in regards to people directors want to work with?
Bress: Okay, every director during a press junket has to say how wonderful all the actors were to work with no matter how bad things actually might have been. In my case, however, all of the actors suited up and showed up spectacularly. Yes, they were all committed to their dual roles. Yes, they showed up with all their lines memorized. Yes, they hung around the set and you didn’t need to send ten P.A.s to pull them from their trailers. But they were also all really great guys, fun to just talk about life to between scenes, who all had interesting lives and goals. None of them drank and partied in Sofia Bulgaria, even on weekends, which was a huge relief because no director wants their actors to show up on Monday morning hungover and in a foul mood. Total pros, all of them.
To any aspiring actors I would say, “forget your ego and get down to the work.” Every day there are tons of camera set ups and it’s common for actors to wander away and get their heads into a book, an argument over the phone, something that makes it hard to reload the scene and pull the trigger and call, “Action!” Brenton, Skylar, Kyle, Theo and Alan were always accessible, close to camera and ready to go. You have no idea how invaluable it is when you’re fighting the clock and all you want to do is give the actors more chances to give you their best work. I would never want to work with an actor that is just there for the paycheck, that you have to coax to the set, because it wastes time. Not my time, theirs.
Yanes: When people finish watching Ghosts of War, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Bress: Like The Butterfly Effect, you can never assume all people will respond similarly to a challenging ending. Some people will love the twists and turns, some may prefer a more predictable ending. So I know better than to get caught up with that. I just want audiences to connect with the characters and reflect upon the fact that we’re often haunted by the decisions we make. And I really wanted to make a war film where the horror components are really an experiential allegory for P.T.S.D.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Bress: I always swing for the fences when I write. Which is to say that I start a screenplay with two strikes against it commercially speaking simply because it’s a film that I would personally like to see, but one that Hollywood would probably never make. I’ve written thrillers where the two leads are an elderly couple fighting supernatural forces. I wrote a screenplay where the entire film takes place in reverse time, not skipping backwards in time, like Memento, but where the ENTIRE film would be shot and edited and played in reverse for the story to work. I’m now writing a western with a female lead called the Schoolmarm. It’s a project I absolutely love, but what studio is willing to make a western…with a female lead? And yet I can’t stop working on it.
Thankfully I’m casting a real film with real money behind it called Wrecking Ball. It’s a twisty little revenge film with a clever as shit antihero and I love it. We’re currently casting so I’m excited to get back in the director’s chair and do this all over again.