From Houston to horror: The 'sick and twisted' mind behind The Possession
The Possession, starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick, is currently in its second week in theaters. The movie focuses on a dysfunctional couple and their little girl’s yard sale find: A mysterious box containing a malevolent spirit which takes possession of the girl. Jewish reggae/rap/alternative artist Matisyahu makes his screen debut as her exorcist.
Movie-goers’ feedback has been enthusiastic: The film debuted at the top spot at the box office last weekend, and has been described by fans as “brilliant and scary” … “the scariest movie I’ve ever seen” … “I’m not sleeping for a month” … “who comes up with this?!”
That would be husband-and-wife co-writers Juliet Snowden and Stiles White. They also co-wrote the scripts for 2005’s Boogeyman, and 2009’s Knowing, which starred Nicolas Cage and made Roger Ebert’s Best Movies of 2009 list.
White grew up in Houston, attended Pepperdine University and met Juliet in L.A. Before his screenwriting career, Stiles worked for Stan Winston Studio as a special character effects coordinator on more than 25 films, including The Sixth Sense, What Lies Beneath, and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. He spoke to CultureMap's Marlo Saucedo about growing up in Houston and writing horror movies.
CultureMap: How did you two meet?
Stiles White: Through friends. Juliet is originally from Louisiana and was finishing film school at USC. So we're both sort of these like-minded transplants out here in Los Angeles trying to break into the screenwriting field. We started dating while each of us were working on our separate writing endeavors. And simply by spending time together, we're discussing our scripts, giving each other little ideas and suggestions.
Over time, it evolved into trying to write something together. You seriously never know how writing partnerships are going to work out. But we both had the same serious attitude about the work and the kinds of stories we wanted to tell. And by working together, the writing was better than what we were doing individually. That extra something was just there in the pages. So we stuck with it and eventually got one of our sample scripts out to some agents around town, and things started to happen after that.
CM: What led you to special effects? Was writing part of the long-term plan, or did you fall into it?
SW: Writing was always the long-term plan, but I had various day jobs until I could make that happen. I had been an assistant to a couple of producers. I worked in a book store. Things like that. My neighbor across the hall from my apartment was one of the supervisors for Stan Winston Studio. We became good friends, especially when I found out where he worked. Movies like Alien, Predator and Terminator were some of my all-time favorites.
The real dibbuk box has Hebrew carvings on the outside and inside the box the new owner found a couple old coins, a small candle holder, lockets of hair. Furthermore, he found traces of wax drippings on the outside of the box, as if it had been used for some kind of ritual. Was the box built to somehow contain a dibbuk?
One day my friend called me and said they needed some assistant help over at the studio and wanted to know if I was interested. I jumped at it. I ended up working there for almost nine years. It was absolutely the best job ever. I saw amazing artistic creations come to life every day. But I was also learning about how movies actually get made. Part of my job was to read all the scripts that came in, sit in on production meetings, coordinate storyboards, create budgets, etc. I think I absorbed all of that and put it into our writing. I developed a very good sense of what a movie was supposed to look like, even at the script phase before everything goes into production.
CM: So, in The Possession, what IS the dibbuk’s ultimate goal? What does it want?
SW: The word dibbuk comes from Jewish folklore. It's a malicious or malevolent possessing spirit, an abbreviation of dibbuk me-ru'aḥ ra'ah ("a cleavage of an evil spirit"). To back up a little, this whole project started with a 2004 article in The Los Angeles Times. There was a story about a man who bought an antique wooden box at a yard sale. The woman selling the various items said that the box had belonged to her grandmother, who had dubbed the cabinet a "dibbuk box" and warned her kids to never open it. Not only that, the grandmother had instructed the family that when she died, she was to be buried with the box, and, for various reasons, that request was not granted.
So, this guy buys the box and immediately weird things start happening in his life. A whole series of unexplained phenomena: Disembodied voices in the house, lights smashing and breaking without cause, sudden illnesses, intense nightmares of an ancient hag attacking the man in his sleep. The man realizes that all these events started as soon as the box came into his life. He sells it on eBay, and now weird phenomena start happening all over again to the new owner. That person also sells it, a third owner now gets it and guess what? The phenomena keep happening.
Sam Raimi's company Ghost House Pictures got the rights to the story and that's where we came onto the project. We thought it was a great real-life idea for a horror movie, that an object could be haunted or cursed. And wherever the box goes … the evil follows.
This idea that the dibbuk spirit 'cleaves' to a human host is very scary. Like a parasite, it's hiding in plain sight. The tagline in the trailer says it all: "Darkness lives inside." If the dibbuk had been trapped in the box sometime in the past, there was probably a good reason. Our belief is that the dibbuk eventually takes the life of the host and then moves on to the next victim. It's an evil energy that needs to feed. We thought a father trying to find answers and stop this phenomena that was happening to his daughter would be pretty compelling.
CM: Roger Ebert says in his review, “One of the scariest things about The Possession is that the characters are all real before Emily begins to change.” How important is that to you — that your characters be “real”?
SW: We always start with the characters. Always. A lot of times you already have the "device" in some way. In the case of The Possession, we had the idea of the box that came from the article. But then you ask the question: "Well, who should we give the box to? Who needs to experience this story?" And you start to think about people or real family dynamics. We thought it was interesting that an object could be haunted or cursed. Wherever the box goes . . . the evil follows. So we thought about a way in the story that the box could travel around a bit in the span of a single story.
Then we hit upon the idea of divorced parents and the kids going back and forth between mom and dad's house. Various strange episodes begin to happen in both places because of what's happening to the younger daughter. And you keep developing these characters. We think about them in ways that has nothing to do with horror or anything scary. Why did they split up? Where are they now in this moment when we meet them in the story? They start to become real people to us. So then when it all hits the fan so to speak, you're already caught up in a very relatable story. The phenomena intensifies the events and the audience wants these "real people" to survive. Being married and being writing partners—we're always going to be looking for some kind of family situation or relationship at the heart of our stories.
That movie comes pretty close to what some of my nightmares look like. Sometimes I think, "Where the heck did THAT come from?" You're not in control at all of where a nightmare takes you. If I can work some of those ideas and visuals into a story, maybe other people can relate as well.
CM: Which character or scenario of your own creation do you personally find the most frightening?
SW: Nicolas Cage was certainly dealing with some scary stuff in Knowing. That movie comes pretty close to what some of my nightmares look like. And I don't have bad dreams all the time or anything. But every now and then you have those mornings when you wake up and you start to remember a nightmare and all the "events" you felt like you actually lived while you were asleep. Sometimes I think, "Where the heck did THAT come from?" You're not in control at all of where a nightmare takes you. If I can work some of those ideas and visuals into a story, maybe other people can relate as well.
CM: You graduated from Robert E. Lee High School. Could you tell us what you remember most fondly about Houston?
SW: Growing up in a great neighborhood with a bunch of good friends. I stay in touch with a lot of the old gang, and I think we all feel the same way. It was a special time. Also, as I got into my high school years, I remember seeing a bunch of formative movies at the old Briargrove 3 Dollar Cinema. Do you remember that place? I think it eventually closed in the late '90s. Man, I saw so many movies there. That theater was like my personal big screen VCR. If you saw American Werewolf in London on a Friday night and you wanted to see it again, you just went back on Saturday. For a dollar. And that collective feeling of a bunch of people watching a horror movie, jumping and screaming and laughing in all the right places, I think I've been chasing that experience ever since with my writing.
CM: Do you see anything out of Houston that might lend itself to a good horror concept?
SW: Hmm … not sure. But you know what would be a great title for a horror movie? Houston, We Have A Problem. That could be scary, right? Now I just have to think of a story that goes with it.
CM: When do you anticipate your next project, Ouija, might be in theaters?
SW: We're hard at work on it as we speak. We love the idea that something you can buy in a toy store offers a possible connection to "the other side." The Ouija board and other devices like it have been around for a long time. And if you bring up the word "Ouija" with pretty much any group of people, someone always has a weird story about something that happened to them when they played with the board. We think the audience is ready for a movie about this very strange and mysterious game.
CM: Have you ever used a Ouija board? If so, what did you ask it?
SW: No. No way. I'm totally superstitious about Ouija boards. Juliet is, too. So maybe we're the perfect writers for this...