Director Christopher Alender’s horror film, The Old Ways, has garnered a ton of positive reviews and buzz for its unique and authentic take on a possession story, outside of the usual confines of Roman Catholic traditions.
Alender spoke to us about the genesis of the much discussed film, as well as his work on a decidedly less horrifying subject, Muppets Haunted Mansion, in this exclusive interview.
What are the origins of your new film, The Old Ways?
Christopher Alender: The writer of The Old Ways, Marcos Gabriel, have been working together ever since we met in college in 1995, almost a quarter of a century ago, and we were talking about a project we could pull off as a first film. Marcos grew up in Puerto Rico and he was raised super Catholic, but occasionally his mother would blow his mind with a story about Pre-Catholic traditions and rituals. One day he came downstairs and found his Dad in a metal wash tub being beaten with someone holding chicken feathers, so those experiences obviously stuck with him and became the basis for the movie we wanted to do, from the perspective of that person with the chicken feathers.
Marcos had a clear vision of that world and wrote ten pages or so and showed them to me and I said “I think there is something here.” From there, he got a quick draft together, while I was researching the topics, and we would go back and rewrite the script. The tons of research we did helped inform the overall look and feel of the film.
One of the images that really stands out in the film, and on the poster and in the stills, is the look of the bruja, Luz. What went into that character’s make-up, costuming, and design?
Alender: That was something that we worked on a lot and our make-up designer Cali Mazariego brought that design to life. We started with rough sketches on an ipad, but we had to figure out how the character would wear it and apply it in a practical sense. How would she put it on? We figured that it would be clay from the steam, that would harden and show the cracks. The ceremonial blood would come from a chicken, but Cali came up with the idea for the overall look and the loose skeletal markings. She handled all of the hair, make-up, and prosthetics.
The film clearly connects the ideas of addiction and possession together, but were they easy to weave together?
Alender: One of the fun things that horror films allow you to do is social commentary. In any other genre, the story would seem too outlandish, but you can get away with it in a horror film. So you can work with metaphors and distract the audience with a demon.
Structurally, it is the basis of the film which is really about the stages of an intervention. It has all the elements of family outreach, denial, withdrawal, forgiveness, and responsibility. I liked exploring the different types of help, such as the enablers vs. those that practice “tough love” in The Old Ways.
We often associate the idea of possession with Catholicism, but ancient cultures have always had rituals to expel evil spirits and demons from human beings. How did you blend the rituals of the bruja and “old religions” with the ones that we are most familiar with from other films?
Alender: Marcos was adamant that the point of view remained the point of the possessed person in the story. The usual narrative is told from the perspective of the parent or the loved one who sees their family member possessed. Our approach to the methods brought in Latin America, Afro-Caribbean, Aztec, and Mayan influences.
What we found in our research was that there is no book for the bruja to learn from; it is instead a very personalized experience that is unique to the individual, which gave us a ton of freedom to shape our story. We did find that we needed to zero in on our setting however, to make the place real, and ground in reality in terms of the paint choices, living spaces, etc.
When it came to the demon, you definitely stuck to the old showbiz adage of not showing the monster until the end in The Old Ways.
Alender: With a low budget, you want the monster to look good once you do show something. And we did want to show it, especially when you are playing with the idea that it may only be in her head. All of my favorite movies like Jaws and Alien take the same approach, so we did as well.
Aside from horror, you also directed a few episodes of the new Muppets series on Disney+, Muppets Now, correct?
Alender: Yes, we produced those through my company Soapbox films. We have worked on Muppets projects for over a decade, and that series was shot right before The Old Ways. Working on both Muppets and The Old Ways do share some similarities in terms of world building and movie magic, how to frame them and how to light them. And of course, you have films like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth that had horror elements as well.
Did you also work on the upcoming Muppets Haunted Mansion?
Alender: Yes we did, and it was a lot of fun to do that project. We also do a lot of work for Disney Parks, and when we started Muppets Haunted Mansion, we thought “we aren’t going to be able to shoot any stuff in the ride” because it is designed to be a ride and not act as a movie set. Once you turn the lights on, it look very different in the Mansion, and the building is obviously designed for the ride.
All of the teams from the parks were on board and they gave us all sorts of references material such as lidar scans, schematics, and even a Doom Buggy to examine. The Mansion in the movie is Muppet-fied to a great extent and it is really a new version to add to the canon of all of the other Mansions in Disney Parks around the world. We reworked the classic Haunted Mansion wallpaper with Muppet motifs, as well as the wrought iron gates, ax handles, door numbers, etc. Muppets Haunted Mansion may even be a little edgier than you expect, but then again, The Mansion and The Muppets have always gone farther than you expect in a lot of cases.
You are obviously pretty busy with a lot of projects, but are there any ones that are imminent?
Alender: We are working on another horror film, probably going the studio path on this one. Once the blu-ray for The Old Ways comes out, we will probably kick the tires on a sequel or a tv series. I also have a Sc-Fi thriller that I have been working on for some time that we are currently casting.
The Old Ways is currently available to stream on Netflix and the blu-ray version (which includes the behind the scenes documentary –The Old Ways: A Look Beyond, director & writer commentary, storyboard comparisons and deleted scenes) will be in stores on October 12.
Muppets Haunted Mansion debuts on Disney+ on October 8.