What if you lost someone close to you and there was a way that you could communicate with them one last time to properly say goodbye? Would you do it? And would you heed the warning that you are absolutely forbidden from “opening the door” that makes it all possible? In THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR (opening in theaters today), a grief-ridden mother (played by THE WALKING DEAD’s Sarah Wayne Callies) who loses her son makes that choice and must face the consequences.
We were fortunate enough to chat with the director and co-writer of the project Johannas Roberts about the origins of this story, what it was like to shoot in India and what some of his favorite genre movies are.
Blumhouse.com: How’d this project come about? Was this one of those ideas you had percolating for a while that you’d always wanted to do, or was this a recent idea that came together quickly?
Johannas Roberts: It’s a combination of various different things. At the very heart of it, it obviously has a lot of influences with movies like PET SEMETERY and THE GRUDGE. I loved all the J-horror stuff. That’d always been the style of movie I’ve wanted to make since I first got into the industry. I just hadn’t had the right story to tell. I had a vague idea of a door and not being able to open the door. It’d been in my mind, but hadn’t been able to put it to anything. While working with the producers of my previous film STORAGE 24, they were Indian and I got to know their culture and their world a bit and suddenly I thought it’d be an interesting place to set a movie. I did some research and came across this town in South India where all the houses are empty and no one knows what’s happened to the occupants. It’s all been fenced off. There are signs all outside the village that say “do not enter after sunset” because the ghosts of the dead will walk the village and I thought now that’s a great story! Everything from there, story-wise came together rather quickly.
Blumhouse.com: At that point, had you ever been to India before?
Johannas Roberts: No, I hadn’t! So the first draft of the script was written with no knowledge at all of India, except for having a lot of Indian friends. But then I went over the course of a year, year-and-a-half traveling from state to state in India, until we found the place we wanted to shoot in which ended up being Mumbai and then once there, I soaked up all the local culture.
Blumhouse.com: The horror genre always provides the perfect template for tapping into stories about things we never want to think about. I can think of nothing more terrible than suffering the loss of a child. As a writer on this film, how difficult was it to “go there.” Do you have children yourself?
Johannas Roberts: It’s interesting, isn’t it? When you write, you write in a bubble and you come up with these ideas and they drive the plot of the movie to some dark places. At the time of writing this, I didn’t have children, but now I have a son. A script is your blueprint, and then you start to bring it to life and cast this thing. Sarah (Wayne Callies) came on board. Jeremy (Sisto) came on board. And we got the kids. And we shot the car crash sequence, and it was one of the most horrendous sequences I’ve ever put on film. Both shooting it and then watching it back. You play it with an audience and you can feel it affecting people because it’s very dark. You don’t realize how dark some of the themes that you’re dealing with are until you see them come to life. Now having a son and seeing this scene, it’s pretty affecting.
Blumhouse.com: Let’s talk about the casting a bit. I rather like Sarah Wayne Callies a lot. Like the rest of America, are you an obsessive watcher of THE WALKING DEAD? (Laughs)
Johannas Roberts: (Laughs) I knew her from a bit of everything. I knew her from PRISON BREAK. She’d also done a Milla Jovovich movie called FACES IN THE CROWD that I’d seen. And yes, I loved her in THE WALKING DEAD. To me, she just seemed to fit Maria perfectly. I needed someone that came across like an everyday mother, but someone you could believe would move to India and live their life there. Just someone who you could see going into a dark place. I always thought she had a bit of a dark edge when I’ve seen her in other things and I think that paid off in this movie.
Blumhouse.com: What about Jeremy Sisto? When he pops up in a horror movie, he always makes interesting choices when it comes to genre films he’s in. Were you familiar with his stuff?
Johannas Roberts: I knew all of his stuff! The thing I actually like about Jeremy and the reason we cast him is when you watch the movie, you’re watching one woman’s descent into madness. That’s quite a tough thing to watch. You basically watch Sarah fall apart in front of your eyes. It’s a full on journey. And you needed a warmth there and a stability to play that off against and Jeremy really has that. You get that from him in the movie and he’s the one bit of sanity that you see that contrasts as Sarah starts to fall apart. That was the reasoning behind casting him.
Blumhouse.com: What was shooting like shooting in India? Because you mentioned before that you’d never been there before writing this and the prospect of shooting anywhere I’m not too familiar with scares me! What was it like for you?
Johannas Roberts: India was great! I’d come up from doing movies on tiny, tiny budgets. My first movie was made on 5000 pounds. So I’ve come up through a different way of filmmaking, in having to fight amongst the chaos. India really suited me. It is a bit of chaotic in terms of how everything got put together and it was an enormous crew. There were up to 300 people at certain times. But it was just fantastic. You can’t bend it to your way of working, which I think is what often trips up filmmakers going abroad. You always have to work out the way that the local crew work, and then flow with it. Like water! You have to maybe diverse it in some way, but you can’t actually stop it from working. Once you get into it, it’s fine. But crazy! I would go back and shoot there in a heartbeat. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever experienced and very hard to explain to someone that hasn’t been!
Blumhouse.com: Since the film deals with supernatural themes, are you a believer in that sort of thing? Have you personally ever experienced something you couldn’t explain, whether it was while making this movie or beforehand?
Johannas Roberts: Yeah, I had 3 distinct moments in my life where I’ve gone, “OK. That’s weird. That’s strange.” (Laughs) You can always rationalize stuff and try to write it off as whatever it might be. The more time that goes by, the more you tell yourself it didn’t really happen. But I very strongly believe there’s things out there we don’t see. I very much love these movies because they get to explore the possibilities of what could be out there. To me, I’ve always been fascinated with the afterlife and the supernatural. I definitely believe there is stuff beyond what we understand.
Johannas Roberts: Oddly, this movie has a bit of everything that drove me to the genre. We pay homage to the TV movie THE WOMAN IN BLACK. Not the Daniel Radcliffe one, but the original series, which was the first and only thing that has ever made me scream out loud. I literally screamed during that movie. When it came to making this, that was in my mind. I got into Stephen King’s work rather early. PET SEMETERY terrified me. That’s very much apparent in this movie. I think really to be honest, the first things that really scared me was reading Tolkin and LORD OF THE RINGS. You know, when they’re firing heads over battlements and there are orcs and the slamming of doors… there’s a lot of horror in there! You’re trapped in the mines and you can hear the drums beating. And you’re reading the diary that says “they’re coming. They’re coming.” That’s a proper siege movie! That’s John Carpenter in a fantasy world. (Laughs) That canvas blew my mind as a kid and will stay with me forever. Whenever I’m writing that’s always in my mind. Going into the mines and hearing the drums beat. I believe everything has a veil of Tolkin.
Blumhouse.com: Do you keep up with contemporary horror? What are some of the current movies that excite or scare you?
Johannas Roberts: I watch everything in the genre. I’m a very, very big fan of what James Wan has brought to the genre. I feel to me there was a period 10-15 years ago where J-horror suddenly made everything scary again. Then everything got not scary as these things shifted toward the torture gore movies. Horror lost its way a bit. I felt that what Wan did with INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING has really made horror scary again. It’s been interesting these last few years with THE WITCH, IT FOLLOWS, THE BABADOOK – there’s a lot of different horror, which is cool. It’s great that there’s more new and fresh and good horror. And those films are well crafted, but I’m not screaming the way I am when the little red demon appears behind Patrick Wilson! (Laughs) That scare was so well orchestrated.
Read our interview with Jeremy Sisto right here. THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR is now playing in theaters!