Filmmaker Corin Hardy is a true horror movie nerd. The English director has been an avid fan of the genre since he was 12 creating a number of animations and Super 8 films. BGN had a chance to sit down with the filmmaker during a press junket roundtable promoting his latest film The Nun.
Hardy came into the interview with a stack of sketchbooks filled with storyboards he created while making The Nun. He also propped onto the table a creepy doll that resembles the Demon Nun played by Bonnie Aarons.
Corin chats about why nuns are scary, what films influenced this story and that real life is far more scarier than fiction.
The Nun is based on the film The Name of The Rose, can you tell us what aspects of the film that it’s based on? And if it’s also based on any other horror films?
It wasn’t based on The Name of The Rose, there was some influences and inspirations that James and Gary, [had] when they were writing the story The Name of The Rose, I mean, I haven’t seen that for a long time but I remember it was a Sean Connery and Christian Slater film.
Sean Connery’s a priest and he gets hired to go and investigate a murder in an Abbey, so I think this was a cooler idea, to rift off that, to take it in a supernatural direction. I made, like a kind of mood book when I got the movie and just put down as many inspirations and movies and art that I kind of drew from when I read the script. To give a sense of the lighting and cinematography, I would do this on my movies and kind of show the production design as DOP (director of photography) so I contained that element of black narcissus and copulas Dracula barred from movies. The lighting is kind of bold, [as well as the] compositions in those films.
And Nightmare on Elm Street. It was sort of iconic imagery that we’ve seen and then applying that to sort of a period gothic horror movie. The Exorcist 3 is a film that doesn’t really get talked about enough because it was pretty brilliant and one of the greatest scares of all time. I definitely pay a little homage to it in my film. Yeah, it was classic gothic horror and when you watch, what I grew up watching from, horror movies as a kid, monster movies and Salem’s Lot, realizing that I suddenly had this opportunity to make a classic old-school gothic horror movie into 2018.
I wanted something kind of timeless, contemporary in a sense, but also it didn’t feel like it was being done much now. Not making a spoof or anything like that, I was doing it with a lot of love. It sort of dawned on me, when I was shooting it and Demian and Taissa and they first started shooting, we were up in Transylvania at the foot of the castle surrounded by crosses, blowing smoke through it and suddenly I was looking through the lens and I was like “whoa we’re making a gothic horror movie aren’t we?”
Why are nuns so scary?
I mean, I sort of question are they, first of all?
My mother’s aunt was a nun in England and she was lovely and very jolly, but I was sort of freaked out more just by, I suppose there’s also a practice and there’s a holiness and mystery about what they do and what goes on in the convent and seeing The Conjuring 2 and that character seemed to sort of steal the show in a way. It just felt really iconic straight away. I love black on white and contrast and shapes and angles and I think just the nun habit was almost like a shark thing to me that was, I saw her as a shark and the convent as an ocean and she can sort of lurk in the shadows, she can drift in the corridors, she can hide. You don’t know if that’s a good nun or a bad nun until you like sort of turn around and see her. But then, also of course, the concept of anything that is meant to be trustworthy and good and holy and, is turned upside down—it’s anything but that is a great sort of basis for a horror villain because it’s a deceiver and it’s a demon that can trick your mind and is inhabiting something that is so good.
Did you guys have any consultants from the Vatican or did you talk to someone had really done exorcisms?
I was scared that I was going to make something happen, I didn’t tell you that I was like, training all my life. No, I mean, we, again Gary and James had written the script. We had a real Roman Catholic priest come and bless the set, they do that on the Conjuring movies. It sounded funny, it sounded like a gimmick and yet, when they came, he brought all of his chaplain kits and he had his holy water and it actually felt quite, sort of, comforting to know that he was performing this quite long twenty-minute ritual on the grounds of the castle.
I was sort of taking photos and he flung a big load of holy water in my face, some hit me in the eye, and I felt particularly safe. I sort of, I said to him, “when is this done, are we safe now?” He spoke only in Romanian and he looked at me, really dead serious, and said something to me. The translator said he said you’re safe if you believe. I sort of went, “oh okay.”
Have you ever been inspired by Latin America in terms of horrors or monsters?
I mean, yeah, absolutely. I’ve grown up in England. This is my first time in Mexico City, I came on holiday and to learn and that was a little bit different. When I was creating my film The Hallow, it was trying to tell like a fairy folklore story based on real beliefs in fairy mythology. There were versions of that I was looking at telling around the world, so I researched a lot of folklore in Mexico and Ireland and those certain areas that are rich for it. I’ve never had the opportunity yet to tell one, and I suppose Guillermo [del Toro] is like big inspiration and I’ve learned a lot through his films, through Devil’s Backbone, Pans Labyrinth—the way he speaks about mythology and monsters and stuff is just very passionate. I feel the same.
So is there any plans for a sequel? Is there going to be another nun standalone movie?
You know how it goes.
Will we see the nun in Conjuring 3?
Dude, I can’t tell you anything. I’d be objected from the universe, but yeah, if people like this movie then there definitely is more stories to tell. In Conjuring you can go anywhere with that and I love the idea of Father Burke or Sister Irene, [in] some further adventures. Without spoiling, of course, whether they survive or not.
Where you given any parameters having nuns as a part of The Conjuring or were you given? Was there any advice?
It was more like a given, really, The parameters as I understood them because I am a fan of those movies and I wasn’t going to sort of like try and take it somewhere completely different. But I also, I mean James and Gary both said from the start [what] we want this to be, and that’s what is great to hear, but we were already pleased with The Conjuring movies and the Annabelle movies and we don’t want to keep repeating anything. We want to take it somewhere different which is what made me sign onto the job, it was sort of like that’s it, it was almost like a fresh, new Conjuring movie. And yet, by going really old school, that period, we talked and we would collaborate and Gary was there also, we’d sometimes like, “are you sure that this adds up to this?” And then we wanted to get into that and little things like continuity things that we wanted to make sure we got right.
As a lifelong horror fan, what scares you? Did you incorporate any of that into how terrifying Valak is in this one?
NO. Real life scares me.
And this to me is like, I find it really fun to escape into a horror movie, that’s what it’s all about, that’s what I get a kick out of and enjoy and that’s what I was obsessed with as a kid is going to the cinema and shutting out the world, but the real world is far more terrifying than The Nun.
What for you the most challenging scene in the film?
The water’s a challenge, everyone was like you sure “you want to do the water?” wasn’t in the script, there was a different ending in the script and it was effectively a gateway to hell. But I like a gut feeling that when you have things like gateways to hell you have to go through some kind of transformation or something, kind of like a portal. They can’t just be literally a gate. And I always thought of having an affinity with water, you know if you go in the ocean and you look on the surface, it’s one thing. Once you’re underneath, it’s completely different and everything changes so, I kind of said I wanted to build this idea that this kind of like catacombs of always, you know all the evil is just like welling up down there.
It enables a gateway to sort of happen without being able to see it too clearly.
So that was a challenge. We had Taissa getting dragged through the water in full makeup, getting dragged through the water and Demian in there and all sorts, that was a challenge.
What was the last thing that made you jump?
Well, we were doing an interview about an hour ago and it was the last one, just in there, and the guy said something like, he asked, well my answer was to do The Exorcist and I said the word the exorcist and he went (explosion sound), it was that big thunderclap a couple of hours ago and we were sort of like “whoa we shouldn’t be talking about this” and it started raining straight after. I’ve got two daughters and sometimes they make me jump in the middle of the night. They’re suddenly standing there in your room and in a movie.
I don’t know, I watched Hereditary, there are some good things in there that made me jump.
Is there for space for improvisation for a horror film that’s already scripted?
There definitely is. There’s a lot of technical, you know mechanisms that you have sort of instrument to kind of get a scare to work or build the tension, but then you want the actors to feel alive and so I think when you’re working with the actors you kind of build up a trust that you can stick to the script and you find out, how Demian will say I don’t know if I’d say it like this so I think it’s just the instinct of the director to decide whether that’s what you want to go with or definitely try and give them freedom around.
But there is just something you just got to end up here, you’ve got to stand like one inch from that and if you don’t, it’s not going to work or you got to angle your head a certain way. So I think you build up a trust and they trust you to know that you aren’t like placing them everywhere and they feel like objects.
With the #MeToo movement, does this come across as a feminist film? Is it somehow women-empowered?
I’d love to say that. It did occur to me that even, assuming that you agree that she is a woman, or he is a woman, I mean, yeah, it worked great I think in 2018 to have this really iconic terrifying female villain and really I think, iconic female heroine, to battling out good and evil, black and white. I quite like heavy contrasts and I quite like a horror movie that can address things like that in quite a sort of black and white way as well sometimes.
[This film] makes me think about old cinematic horror elements with more CGI effects, is that a tension that you’re trying to work within this movie?
I mean, I think the big challenge in a good horror movie is, I actually think that it’s much much harder to make a really good horror movie than any other kind of movie because ultimately you have to suspend people’s belief for a long time of an hour and a half or two hours. To do that, they’ve got to trust the movie and so it’s constantly a sort of stress when you’re making a film is like you can’t let something let it down and if you suddenly fall out with the movie, the tension dissipates. So, for me, I try and do things as real as possible whenever you can with the actors, with the sets, with the practical effects. I grew up with seventies and eighties horror movies that only had practical and optical effects.
Still love the way they look.
I’m also not naïve enough to know that you can create incredible visual effects but there’s a sort of, for me, there’s a limitation with practical effects where you have to stop before it gets beyond it. And there’s a limitlessness with CGI that you can never stop but you have to know your limits to bring it in. I always want to keep things grounded and as humans, we as humans only find things really moving or scary when you really can see the light in the eyes of the person or the fear of the experience they’re going through. I try to use CGI, absolutely, and I use visual effects but trying to mix em up so you don’t really get accustomed to the exact ingredients that are happening.
I think we’re all kind of drooling over these books up here but is there anything you can share with us and talk a little bit about how sketching plays into your processes as a filmmaker?
Sure, I mean, I know you can’t see this on your interview site, I don’t want to bore the people, except I’ve brought these to show you that I start all my movie process in my sketchbook. Some of the stuff you’re seeing here, didn’t make it into the movie but its sort of like where I came from in exploring…
And these are sketches you have done?
Yeah, this is an idea of a gateway of being under the water. This is the first idea of what it might look like. It described a gothic castle.
This is an underwater valet, what could be like inside the nun’s habit, the ice house, this is before we even saw a location and I found this location, although it was wide it sort of had this door, these steps, this area, this is planning out the bedroom, the perpetual moderation positions of, this is even before we built the sets. The corridor of crosses, rotate an idea. Some of this, early ideas for Daniel was going to be a little bit more demonic entity.
Where did you learn to do the sketches? You went to school?
My grandfather was a really great artist, portrait artist and he taught at an art school and I think I just really took on board, he had a very sketchy soul of using by rows which is still how I draw with just a pen like that and I just keep it like some, I just sketch stuff I kind of try stuff out, so it’s like this idea of the battle.
And it’s almost like I draw it quick and then I’m like wouldn’t that be cool, I’d quite like to [see] how that could work and then it’s like okay how do we do this and then I talk to the DOP (director of photography) and this is sort of Burke exercising Daniel when he was strung up in the barn and it was like maybe we shouldn’t string him up. This didn’t make it in.
In looking at that, I know James and Peter worked on this film as producers and they were on The Conjuring, did they give you autonomy over this story?
It was certainly collaborative, but they were supportive of this and let me go for it. James was like we wanted to take this in a different direction do your thing, it was quite organic and collaborative, if there was any discussion we would have them, it was a very comfortable process. Again, because I think James comes from a true place of loving horror, he gets really excited about it, you just know certain people, if you went around this table, you like a certain band and you like the same band and (snapping fingers) you’re on the same level straight away and or a type of music or a type of film, so with Gary and James and I, even though I never met Gary or James until I did this was sort of straight away talking about cool stuff that we like in movies and I was like well you know I like what I loved about Nightmare On Elm Street 3, there was this practical way the floor boards did this, and it was like yeah yeah, maybe be could be like Salem’s Lot, you sort of just having a dialog about stuff you love.
How is it to have [Demon Nun] as Bonnie [Aarons], did you finally let her go nuts?
Didn’t need to let her go nuts. No, she’s great. Bonnie’s lovely, it was sort of straight away I guess once I got the movie. We were thinking about casting and who’s going to play Father Burke and I was like hang on a minute, we have got the demon, we have the actress who played her in Conjuring 2, and suddenly had a panic well she’s not available, doesn’t want to do it or they don’t want to add her in and so because if she just immediately could kind of captured this iconic kind of character I felt was straight away, you’ve got Michael Myers, you’ve got Freddie Kruger, you’ve got Christopher Lee’s Dracula, and you’ve got the demon nun and I sort of, then got Bonnie and she’s an eccentric kind of character, and she loves scaring people.
I’m like kind of demon enticer who’s a massive horror fan. Bonnie was just like desperate, to do it, she loves being that nun and you couldn’t keep her away. She’d be standing at the side of the set and we’re like “get away”, and we end up putting her in the water and she’s a trooper. Getting pulled under multiple takes and contact lenses, please can you do it again? She’d say yeah, hang on a minute, teeth falling out but she’s also got this very kind of classical Hollywood sort of film star fifties face if you see her without makeup, she’s really got a very stylish look.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
The Nun arrives in theaters nationwide September 7th.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online publication and multimedia space for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association and executive producer of the Black Girl Nerds Podcast.