The New Daughter is a 2009 film with strong Lovecraftian themes, starring Kevin Costner. It’s based on a short story by John Connolly, which you’ll find in his excellent horror collection Nocturnes.
(Thanks to director Luiso Berdejo for sending me some great “behind the scenes” images. You’ll find them at the end of this interview.)
S.P. Miskowski interviews director Luiso Berdejo:
1. What attracted you to the story?
The script of The New Daughter contained many things that interested me from the moment I read it, such as the supernatural elements, the eeriness of the story, the mythological creatures, some sort of unnatural bizarre monster miscegenation (or possession, if you rather calling it that…), and mainly the possibility of experiencing it all through the eyes of the two protagonist kids. Unfolding supernatural and paranormal experiences through kids’ eyes is always exciting, in terms of storytelling.
2. Was the screenplay adaptation complete when you decided to direct The New Daughter? Did you make changes to the storyline as you went along, or did you follow the screenplay as written?
There was already a solid script, but what the producers were looking for was a personal perspective to the story, so I made several notes and I developed some scenes that we later on ended up filming; such as the underground scene of Kevin going into the mound as if he were going inside his own fears, changing the story from summertime to the fall in order to create a gloomier and more ominous environment, I cleaned up the mythology a little bit to make it more well-grounded and “real”, I added the furniture mound inside the house to connect Louisa’s journey more directly to the mythology of the mound walkers, I added her transformation at the end as a point of no return for Louisa and her father…
There were small things added in several moments in an attempt to make the story more natural and authentic, so that I could have a solid foundation that would allow me to create a singular atmosphere, which was my main goal with a story that more or less we had seen before.
3. How did you draw sensitive and focused performances from the child actors? Did you use different techniques in working with the children and with adult actors?
I love working with child actors, they understand the movie set as a fun place, and no matter how responsible they are, you still get to play with the scenes and lines in a way you would never do it with adult actors.
Working with Ivana (Baquero) and Gattlin (Griffith) was a blast, we worked hard but we played a lot as well, we spent the weekends together, I went out with their families to the movies, to restaurants, we talked about their characters’ journey throughout the movie… We ended up being very close and confident, and that familiarity and comradeship were key when they added it to their great professionalism.
When you need to obtain a certain reaction or expression from a child actor, you can play around with as many elements as you have. You can give them weird or disorienting directions a second before you start to film, or another adult actor in the scene can deliver his lines in a certain way that is going to confuse the kid or send him/her in a particular direction… and since they are so natural plus very talented professionals, they will never cut the take and they will keep playing the scene influenced by any environmental situation (or misunderstanding) you have created. If you really know what you want and you do things in a spirited and playful way, you can mess around with the scenes until you get what you want from your child actors. I must say that Kevin (Costner) was very helpful with this matter. If, for instance, I wanted a cute reaction from the child, Kevin delivered his lines super slow or with a different voice, what instantly brought an expression of contained laugh to the child, and that, when edited in the right way, will give you that cute reaction you were trying to achieve.
At the end of the day, it’s all about knowing what you need for each scene and figuring out the best and funniest way to get that from the kids. Even if they end up looking scared as hell, the ride still has to be fun for them.
4. Was it your idea, or was it already stated in the screenplay by John Travis, the way you allowed the camera to linger upon framed photo images and long shots in which shadows and silhouettes moved mysteriously, causing a sense of unease?
The script was already solid and effective when I first read it, but as a director I had to create the atmosphere and the mood on screen.
When you are dealing with a well-known story –like this one about a family moving to a spooky house in the woods looking for a fresh start– it is your duty to offer a new perspective to the audience, so they don’t feel they are watching the same thing again. That’s what I tried to accomplish with my camera, my editing, my sound design, my music, my performances and so on… a different angle to a classical plot.
My goal was adding an uneasiness and density to the story and the characters in such a way that when the supernatural elements finally materialize, your inner self feels them somehow reasonable. I wanted to create a unique universe where the supernatural can be possible, instead of a mere chimera. And in order to make that happen, I used wide lenses, long shots, silhouettes and shadows rather than on the nose revelations, an ominous sound design, an eerie music, ambiguous performances, etc.… basically anything I had on hand was used to build up certain discomfort, always suggesting rather than showing.
I even removed the red color from anything on screen up until Louisa is “possessed” by a monster. At that very same moment, John shatters a glass in the kitchen sink, he cuts his finger and he consequently bleeds… That drop of blood is the first red thing that appears in the entire film, it is the turning point of the story, the marriage between both the human and the monster world, and I wanted it to be important even in an unconscious level… Up until that event, we got rid of any red spot in the movie, even covering the traffic signs or painting the red lights of the cars in brown. That was a real commitment for the art department, and I thank them big time for it.
5. The short story by John Connolly leaves the reader with a bit more ambiguity than the film. It’s unlikely yet possible that the father in the short story is dreaming or imagining some of the events, or is projecting his fears onto a daughter who is changing from childhood to early womanhood. Or the story offers us a metaphor for these changes. In the film you move on from these natural fears into a clearly supernatural explanation. At what point do you expect the audience to recognize that shift, and know that something supernatural is definitely occurring around this family?
Those endings in which it is suggested that anything you’ve seen might have just happened in somebody’s imagination, are always disappointing to me. I love supernatural elements, creatures, tunnels, rituals, underworld monsters, passages and ancient mythology, so I really wanted to play with them fearlessly. I wanted everyone in the theatre to be sure that those guys were real and they were there, living among us, eating, breeding and killing as we do.
During the editing we realized that if the movie was going to be marketed as a supernatural thriller, the audience might feel that it was taking too long to see those elements on screen, so we came up with the idea of putting a creature on the roof of the house on minute nine. That creature totally sells that you are watching a supernatural film, and it allowed me to keep the peace I wanted in order to create that sense of unease that I believed the story needed.
6. What were your concerns about revealing the physicality of the mound walkers? What decisions did you make about how to shoot these creatures, given the style of makeup and costumes you’d chosen for them?
It was fear more than a concern… I designed the mound walkers with the help of my cherished assistant and storyboard artist Erik Sedwick, based on what the script said plus my own vision. The creatures ended up looking pretty good on paper, but when they were built they weren’t that great, to be completely honest with you. That helped my initial idea of not showing them too much, and presenting them just through sounds effects, shadows, silhouettes, and other characters’ reactions. Hiding them ended up playing well, so I think that overall the movie benefited from it.
I wanted the mound walkers to have a humanoid shape for sure, but I wanted them to look subterranean as well, so I gave them features and textures based on the looks of worms, moles and larvae.
7. Was the final shot of the film controversial? Did audiences have the reaction you hoped for, in the final moment of the film?
In the original ending of the script, you could see how John James was walking through the flames, after the explosion of the mound, carrying Louisa in his arms. I found that pretty unbelievable and a bit cheesy, so I fought for a more ambiguous ending. We came up with the idea of the kid holding the family picture by the fence, and the “indeterminate shape” on its reflection, so the film didn’t fully telegraph a happy ending…
We then realized that the darker the ending was the more surprising the movie looked like, since it had started as an unusual family drama; and that’s when we added the three monsters behind Sam climbing down the house and the tree. By doing so, we killed any chance of a happy resolution, but we believed that it was making the movie more frightening and memorable.
The ending brought surprise and discussion, which I think is great. And even if it is not conventional or satisfactory to some degree, I believe that it is still coherent with what we have learned about the deities and their mythology throughout the film. Maybe it is not a 100% pleasing ending for our so self-centered humankind, but if you ask a mound walker I am quite sure that they will find the conclusion undeniably satisfactory, and from time to time monsters deserve to win too.
8. Was the choice to set the film in the U.S. rather than England (where the short story takes place) due to casting, cost and logistics, or the intended market?
The story was already set in the US when I arrived to the project. I wasn’t part of that decision, but it made total sense to me since it was a US production mainly aimed at a US audience.
9. How was your approach to this project different from your direction of [REC] or Quarantine?
‘The New Daughter’ was the first feature film that I directed, so my approach was totally different to any other project I had worked on before. I had directed two short-films before and written some feature film scripts, but I had never directed a feature before.
As a writer I am always focused on structure, characters and dialogues, but your approach to a film as a director includes so many things that you end up deciding from the color of a wall to the lens you are going to see it trough, from the outfit of your actors to the stock of film you want for a particular location, from how your actress is going to deliver a line to how much light you want in her bedroom, and on and on forever… You use all the choices you make to create what the film needs in each particular moment, since every single one adds to the final result.
On [REC] and Quarantine, I tried to unfold things in a unique bone-chilling way, whereas in The New Daughter my goal was making a distinctive film with a personal and unnerving atmosphere.
10. You’ve directed a number of films classified as horror. Do you see yourself continuing to work in this genre? What do you think horror films offer audiences that you find unique to the genre?
I have written a number of horror films, but I have directed just two films yet: The New Daughter and Violet, a supernatural romantic tale. I will continue working in the horror genre for sure, although my perspective is wider and my ambitions travel in many different directions.
Once you get labeled in the film industry it is hard to shift to something else, and after [REC], Painless and The New Daughter I was quickly classified as a horror and suspense creator. I feel really lucky to be able to make a living out of exploring my fears and trying to connect them with people’s terrors, but I write about many other different subjects as well.
I believe that good horror explores ourselves and connects us with our inner real beings more than any other genre, mainly because it is built upon the arcane and the hidden, those dungeons we don’t usually have the guts to explore even though our minds and hearts spend more time there than anywhere else. Somebody else’s horrors connect us with our own fears because we barely know them; and even if it’s in a spiritual way, it opens concealed portals inside us that sometimes we didn’t even know were there.
We live in a lazy society that barely questions important matters, a world built over mountains of idleness and silly entertainment, and we appreciate when somebody else dares to show us their innermost fears because it is the only time we are going to dare to look at our own.
11. What are you working on at the moment?
I have a very exciting feature film project that will be shot here in the US, a very unique frightening thriller. I am about to close a deal as creator of a (dark) TV show. I am working on a suspenseful novel that will be first published in Spanish. And the last script that I have written has been just filmed in Europe, it is called The Invisible Guardian and it is based on a best selling novel.
I have been writing a lot over the last years and now I am ready and willing to come out of the basement and go back to the director’s chair.
Interview by author S.P. Miskowski.
(Mike here: I highly recommend the movie. Rent it here: The New Daughter. I’m also a huge fan of the John Connolly collection that contains the short story. Purchase it here: Nocturnes.)
Cool interview, I like this movie a lot. Happy to see you giving the movie some exposure, I hope people take the time to watch it. I randomly stumbled upon it on Hulu or some other streaming service a few years ago & was instantly drawn into it. I love the atmosphere & pace of the movie. Along with Banshee Chapter I rewatch it time to time when I can’t find anything else interesting.
Great interview, Mike! Thanks for posting.