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Interview: Tom Provost, writer/director of "The Presence"

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Tom Provost is the director of the upcoming film, starring Mira Sorvino, "The Presence". We caught a screening of the film in 2010 at MIFFF in Seattle, which was reviewed here. It earned itself a spot in JAS's top films of 2010, as well. The film impresses with its aesthetics from photography to musical score and provides an original take on the classic ghost story.

First, we'd like to thank you for taking the time out to answer a few questions.

Tell us a bit about yourself and "The Presence".

I was born and raised in Texas, went to college at The University of Texas at Austin, where I majored in both English Literature and Film. When I graduated from UT, I moved straight to Los Angeles, where I have lived ever since. My earliest memory as a child was sitting in a movie theatre. I knew from that moment I somehow wanted to work in movies. The first ten years I lived in LA, I focused entirely on acting as I'd always wanted to be on the big screen more than be behind it. I worked here and there as an actor but after ten years of also waiting tables, I'd had enough and I started to work behind the camera as an editor (promos, independent films, television) which helped lead the way to writing. After a negative experience when hired to write a feature, I decided I might as well make a movie on my own so no one else could tell me what to do. I figured I'd rather do it on my own so if it succeeded, great! And if it failed, well, I had no one else to blame. So I went out and directed a movie.

What was your inspiration for the film and its mythology?

I've always loved Ghost Stories and wanted to try my hand at one. But I wondered if I might be able to give the classic ghost story a twist. Most ghost stories tend to be two movies sewn together. The first half is when the characters (and the audience) slowly begin to realize 'something is in the house.' Once everyone comes to fully realize there is a 'ghost in the house,' the second half of the story turns into an investigation: who is the ghost and why is the ghost hanging around. The first half of a ghost story always is the most fun and interesting to me. I decided to try a ghost story that was only the first half, to see if I could extend that sense of discovery/sense of wonder all the way through and eschew the investigation.

As for the mythology, we've tried very hard to leave a lot of things in the movie ambiguous. It was not my desire to shove my own mythology/theology down the audience's throat. People come away from the movie with a variety of interpretations, which I love. That said, one of my favorite books of all time is C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. If you read that book, you will see where some of the inspiration was derived.

As the writer of the film, is the mythology you created larger than what is shown in the final cut of the film?

Very much so. As noted above, I was not interested in revealing everything. I find movies that are to a certain degree ambiguous fascinating. I wanted to create something that would cause discussion and even disagreement after viewing the movie. Preview audiences have been wildly split over interpreting many aspects of the movie. I like that. In my own head, though, there are specific explanations for everything that happens in the movie.

How have the viewer reactions/feedback been at the festivals it has played at?

So far the reaction has been extremely positive, which has been a lot of fun. We worked very hard in post to get the movie 'right'. My editor, Cecily Rhett, who is brilliant, killed herself over the movie, particularly the first 25 minutes, which has less than 90 seconds of dialogue. It was tricky getting the rhythms and timing correct; we did 5 test screenings to help us gauge what was working and what was not. Conrad Pope, the composer, and Greg King, our post sound supervisor, also did remarkable work on the movie. We all played around a lot, trying to make it work the best way possible. It's been gratifying for us all to see the movie with audiences and hear the audience respond positively.

Has the cast seen the final product? What were their impressions?

Almost everyone has, and they seem to like it very much.

Was Mira Sorvino your first choice for the main character?

Frankly, no, because I did not think an Oscar-winning actress of her stature would consider working with a first time director on such a low budget feature. To our happy surprise, she loved the script and was interesting in doing it.

How do you think producing, directing and writing the film helped the final product?

I am not sure it helped. As a first time director, I should have been using every minute of my time on the set focused on the directing. Yet as producer, I daily had producing work I had to accomplish. I daresay the film would be better had I been just the director, not the producer as well.

What was the most challenging part of making "The Presence"?

Probably our budgetary restrictions, which created time constrictions as well. We were constantly battling not having enough money (and time) to do what we needed to do. We shot 21 days over 24 and by day 15 I was already looking back at a few things I shot the first week I knew I could do better. But not having enough money forces you be creative. I am a huge fan of the movie 'Se7en'. One of the great scenes in that movie is a foot chase through buildings as Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman chase the killer. It was originally intended to be a much bigger chase, with cars and helicopters, through the city. But because of budgetary restrictions of their own, they had to do something different at the last minute. David Fincher has said by being restricted, they came up with something much better than was originally planned. I think the same could be said of our movie. So while it was at times quite difficult to get the movie finished with the small amount of money we had in the bank, it forced us to be creative in ways we would not have been had we a higher budget.

The first 25 minutes of the film has no dialog in it. How do you feel about it now that the film is complete? What inspired you to make such a decision?

It's my favorite part of the movie. It definitely throws some people, who feel the movie really kicks in for them when that first section ends and the movie becomes slightly more traditional - though the rest of the movie still has long stretches with no dialogue. Many people, however, are wildly passionate about the first section, as am I. I wanted to try my hand at 'pure cinema', telling a story completely through visuals. I'd have done the entire movie that way, but I was not creative enough to figure out how to tell the entire story that way!

Was there anything in the film that you were surprised by when you yourself watched the final product?

Definitely! I am a big believer in letting a movie breathe and grow into its own, in post. This very much happened for us. The finished movie, for instance, is not as scary as the script, nor as scary as I intended it to be before we started filming. Even during the filming,t hough, it became apparent the movie was taking on a life of its own, and I worked to shift my directing, slightly, towards that. This became very apparent in post. Watching the visuals and the movie in it's first assembly, we could see that the movie had a dreamlike quality like a gothic Grimm fairy tale. It was bursting through, given the beauty of the visuals (our DP, Collin Brink, is going to be very, very famous) and the location itself, which is stunning. Cecily and I talked about how we could have edited the movie to have more jolts and jump out of your seat moments. We could have forced that onto the movie through the editing to make it 'scarier'. But every time we did a test screening, people (women in particular) kept referring to the movie as a 'gothic romance' or some such. "It's so darkly romantic, I love it!" A lot of women independently compared it to Hitchcock's Rebecca or Bronte's Jane Eyre in the way it made them feel. Given we wanted to let the movie be what it wanted to be, Cecily, Conrad and Greg all began to tailor their work towards that mood and feel. In that way, it turned out a little bit different than I intended when I wrote the script, but I like the final product even more.

The photography and locations in the film are gorgeous. Could you tell us how you came to find and choose this location?

Finding the right location was tough. The location in the script is a character itself, and we needed a location that fulfilled a lot of demands: a cabin that was isolated, next to a river or lake, had no electricity or running water (or would believably appear that way), etc. I looked for two years trying to find the right place. It was not until I posted a Craigslist ad in Oregon that I finally began to get close. One of the responses to those ads was from a woman who knew someone who knew someone who led me to the location, which is in a national forest at the base of Mount Hood. When I saw the cabin from the outside, I was not sure it was right. But the moment I walked in the front door, I knew it was where I wanted to shoot. It is a beautiful location and is actually available to rent in the summers from the National Forest Service.

Did you ever consider selling the screenplay or not wearing as many hats as you did for this film?

Never. This was intended to be done on a low budget in a manner I could creatively make all the decisions on my own. I've had enough of that ... I'd love to be a director for hire on my next project!

Would you consider making a sequel if you were asked by a studio?

I don't know how it could be done, it seems to stand on its own at the end. If they pitched a great idea for it, I consider it. I think someone who have to be pretty creative to figure out a way to do it. But that is just me.

Do you think demons are responsible for bad filmmaking?

Ha! I think I will say 'no comment' to that one. If I direct a train wreck in the future, I don't want my words coming back to haunt me, no pun intended.

If you could take every copy of one movie and sink it to the depths of the ocean, which would it be?

I have a few of those, movies I despise. But I am not yet comfortable bashing someone else's work in print! Look, I think most people who make movies genuinely try to do a good job. Even the best directors, from Hitchcock to Spielberg to David Lean to etc etc, have directed appallingly bad movies. It just happens.

There is something that happens on a movie set, an intangible magic, that helps create a great work of art, whether the most talented people in the world are working on it, or people who don't know what they are doing. It just happens. Think of both The Godfather and Psycho, two of the best films ever made. When both films were viewed on the first assembly, everyone involved was devastated, thinking each was a disaster. Yet obviously, a masterpiece was buried within the footage. I think that same kind of alchemy can occur in a different way. Everyone doing their best and yet something just goes wrong, no matter how hard people are trying. Don't worry, I have a list... certain movies irritate and anger me beyond belief! Meet me at a bar and over a martini, you can get it out of me. Just not in print!

Lastly, is there any news on distribution and/or release date?

We are in negotiations with a very good company right now! Whether we will get a large release or not is up in the air. I myself am obsessed with getting my investors their money back. That will happen a lot faster were we to eschew a wide theatrical release. Yet even some of the investors don't care, they want to see it on the big screen. The next couple of months should determine what is going to happen with the movie.

Thanks again to Tom Provost for answering our questions!

Source of the Bitter: JAS

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