Most horror fans’ first encounter with the work of Iain Softley occurred in 2005 with the moody New Orleans-set paranormal thriller THE SKELETON KEY, in which the director expertly balanced earthy realism with a dreamlike occult netherworld for a film which resonated with genre aficionados and mainstream audiences alike.
Softley has finally returned to the genre with the savage, intense survival-horror feature CURVE, which just recently arrived on Netflix and pivots on an amazing breakout performance from Julianne Hough, best known for her work in Dancing with the Stars and most recently Grease Live! Hough plays Mallory, a young bride-to-be en route to Denver by highway, a lengthy journey during which she begins to question her life choices… then makes the worst choice of all when she picks up buff and charming hitchhiker, Christian (Teddy Sears, The Flash), whose true intentions are revealed in a shocking turn of dialogue.
A desperate attempt to ditch her psychopathic passenger results in Mallory spending the majority of the film upside down, one leg pinned within the wreckage of her overturned truck at the bottom of a deep ravine. I won’t divulge where the story goes from there, but it can best be summed up as a cross between THE HITCHER and 127 HOURS — including the horrific decision faced by James Franco’s character in the latter film.
I caught up with Softley to talk about the genesis of CURVE, Hough’s physically demanding performance, and the possibility of a SKELETON KEY sequel…
BLUMHOUSE.COM: How did you come to be involved with CURVE?
IAN SOFTLEY: I was in L.A. a couple of years ago and met with Jason Blum, whom I’d met earlier when I was making movies for Universal, and he said “You should come work with us at Blumhouse.” So he sent me some scripts, the first of which was CURVE… but at the time it was still uncertain as to whether it was available. They sent me some other scripts, which I liked, but I finally went back to Jason and said “I really like that first one you sent me.” After a couple of days, he came back and said “It’s yours if you want it.”
BH: What was it about the script that convinced you it was the right one?
IS: I was particularly interested in CURVE because of the way the story wove through multiple genres. The first act had the feel of films like BEFORE SUNRISE, where the lives of two young people intersect while they’re traveling… but the second act became a survival story, and the third act, at least to me, was reminiscent in many ways to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. I was really intrigued by the way it went through these very different gears.
BH: When it becomes a survival tale, it falls on Julianne to carry the story, and I thought she did a great job. How did you arrive at casting her? The role is pretty far removed from her girl-next-door image.
IS: It is, and I think that is something that most appealed to her, because she wanted to explore a very different side to her, something that’s never been seen by her audience. I had previously met her at a number of auditions, and once she got the role, she then participated in readings with the other actors, particularly for the part of Christian. I was especially impressed by how far she was willing and able to go into those dark places, and quite convincingly, and how authentic she was in that portrayal.
BH: I’m certain it was a physically demanding role as well.
IS: It definitely was, and I think that her background as a trained dancer really helped her in that regard. The role required her to act in very uncomfortable positions for very long hours each day… but she was accustomed to grueling and physically demanding situations, as all professional dancers are; they’re trained to break through the “pain barrier” in rehearsal to perfect their performance. I think only someone in that kind of physical shape could really satisfy the demands of this role.
Julianne was also game for anything, and threw herself completely into it. We shot the entire movie on location, and the extremes of heat and cold were very demanding; she realized that exposing herself to those elements, she could achieve the right level of authenticity.
BH: It seemed that as time passed for the character, the actress herself was also becoming physically strained and exhausted. Did you shoot the ravine scenes in sequence?
IS: We couldn’t always shoot everything in sequence, but pretty much the first and second acts were shot in the order they appear in the script, and I think that was very useful for her performance.
BH: The tactics the character comes up with to survive feel very natural, to the point where the audience can really follow her thought process. Were those choices all scripted, or did you develop some of it on location?
IS: It was actually scripted in precise detail, mostly because we had such a tight budget and tight schedule. It was so tight, in fact, that I did something I’d never done previously: I broke each scene and each shot into beats. We’d be shooting a sequence where she had to think through different procedures, and she’s working out what she can do with the limited resources around her, so we the audience have to understand it.
We broke it down in rehearsal, and on the day of shooting, so that with each beat she could be looking at, say, a piece of broken glass, and we had to be very specific [about] what her different thoughts were leading toward the next action, what she would choose to do with that. I mean, when it came down to it, Julianne really was in that situation: she was hanging upside down for most of the day; she experienced extremes in temperature; in several scenes she was immersed in freezing water… and she wanted all of that, for the sake of a truly authentic performance.
BH: Another actor who plays against type is Teddy Sears… what inspired you to cast him as a villain?
IS: I think for the sake of that character, it was important to me to find someone who could depict a humble, wholesome farmboy type, who’s also attractive and likable — someone we could imagine as the opposite of Mallory’s fiancé, whom we learn is a very self-centered and materialistic person.
BH: Where did you shoot the majority of the scenes in the ravine, where the truck ends up?
IS: That was shot in Angeles National Park, about two hours north of L.A. That particular area we shot was completely wild, and really was in the middle of nowhere… it not only got the actors into character, but the crew as well.
BH: It reminded me of how surreal this area can be… you can be in the heart of the city, then turn around and you’re suddenly in the depths of the wilderness.
IS: Yeah, and I think it’s actually quite characteristic of the US as well, more so than many of the developed countries… that illusion of civilization dissolves very quickly when you’re off the highway and your car breaks down.
BH: I was curious about how you did the camera setups inside the truck… did you have breakaway sections, or did the camera operator have to crawl into that tight space with Julianne?
IS: We didn’t have any breakaways; it was usually just me and Brad [Shields], the DP and camera operator, spending a lot of time packed into that tiny space. I knew even reading the script that it would pose a challenge choreographing the camera moves, but it was important that we vary the coverage to keep things moving and dynamic. It was very difficult, but due to the size and layout of the truck, we were able to get a wide variety of angles… but it took quite a lot of contorting.
BH: Backing up in time a bit, I wanted to ask you about your earlier horror feature THE SKELETON KEY. It’s developed quite a strong fan following, and now that you’ve returned to the genre, is there a chance you might be able return to that story for a sequel?
IS: SKELETON KEY is also quite a favorite of my films, and we recently had a 10th Anniversary screening of it in Leicester Square in London, and it was very well attended and received. As it turns out, I hadn’t seen the film since it premiered, and one of the things that struck me was how intelligent the script was. I was in L.A. last month, and people told me that they’d seen it multiple times, and I think that’s because the script is so good that you learn new things with each viewing.
For example, watching it for the first time, you experience the suspense, but once you know how it ends, a second viewing reveals a new layer of fun and playfulness, as you can see the way certain things are concealed in plain sight. After hearing about that response, I realized that a sequel wasn’t a bad idea, so I’m going to talk to [writer] Ehren Kruger and see what he says. I’d really be interested in returning to that world.
BH: What some of your other favorite horror films?
IS: Well, it might be a completely different list if you ask me tomorrow… but off the top of my head, I’d have to say THE SHINING, ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE OTHERS, DON’T LOOK NOW, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, and most recently I was quite impressed by IT FOLLOWS, which is very well done.