Rebecca Hall – Road to The Night House
Road to The Night House
By Jay S. Jacobs
It’s not easy to take the entirety of a movie on your shoulders, but that is what Rebecca Hall has done for the new supernatural thriller The Night House. Large chunks of the film consist entirely of Hall’s character of Beth – a teacher who is trying to deal with the recent suicide of her husband – rambling around all alone in her huge lake house and the neighboring woods as more and more disturbing things happen just out of eyeshot.
However, the British actress has never shied away from taking on a challenge. Born to a show-business family (her father was the founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and her mother was an opera singer), Hall has been making intriguing movies for nearly 20 years now. She has starred in such diverse films as her breakout role in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, Ben Affleck's The Town, Iron Man 3, Steven Spielberg’s The BFG and Godzilla vs. Kong. She has also just written and directed her first film, The Passing, which will be coming soon.
A couple of weeks before the release of The Night House, we were one of several sites who were invited to have a virtual chat with Rebecca Hall about the movie.
In preparing for this role, did you reference any horror films, or did you have any influences?
I don't know that I had any specific influences for the character, per se, but I'm certainly influenced and inspired by certain movies in the genre that I love. There's a film called The Changeling from the 70s. A man [who] is the central character is haunted. I rewatched that. I also revisited some general favorites, like the 30s version of Cat People, which has nothing to do with anything, but it was fun to watch. Also The Haunting, a 60s film by Robert Wise, which I think is great. Then there's The Shining and Rosemary's Baby and all those classics. The theme of the central character spiraling and losing their mind is quite a prevalent theme in the horror genre, and I suppose I revisited the ones that I liked in that arena.
Why did you want to take on this film? What attracted you to this role?
There were many reasons, many challenges and many factors about this one. I suppose I was intrigued and perhaps naively seduced about the idea of doing a film that was basically me. It turned out to be an awful lot to shoulder, but I enjoyed it enormously. (laughs) That challenge was intriguing when I read it. I also really liked the character. The turning point for me when I was reading the script was this scene, towards the beginning, before you really know what's going on with her. There's so much mystery around her. Then there's that scene in the classroom with the parent, which is essentially an exposition scene, but I thought it revealed so much about the character. It was so brittle, and weirdly funny. I really liked the toughness, this strangeness about her. I liked her from that scene onwards. From that scene onwards I was like, “Yeah, I want to do this.”
How was Owen’s character influenced by yours?
That's an interesting question. That's more of a question for David, I think ultimately, but I know that there are some layers and little hidden easter eggs around this idea that Owen, or the presence’s character, is in some ways influenced by Beth. I think to get that down, there was at one point during post-production where they had me record all of his lines. To the best of my knowledge, his voice is very, very subtly layered way down in the mix with mine. (laughs)
You have played many roles in this film world. You're an actress, director, producer. At this time in your life, which role challenges you the most, and pushes you to the place that you want to be as an artist?
Oh, I don't know. That's an impossible question to answer. I mean, if there was one that reliably did that then I'm sure I'd have unlocked the secret. (laughs) It varies from project to project, and where I am in my life and what I'm looking for. There are so many variables. I know that on the whole if I make bold decisions, I seem to be more fulfilled. So I try to stick to that.
Do you believe certain houses retain memories? Have you had an experience yourself with a haunted house, whether scary or pleasant?
No, I haven't. I've been asked this a lot. I feel terribly boring that I don't have any good anecdotes. (laughs) I have been in a lot of old houses in my time. I have certainly been in places where I have been told that there were ghosts, I haven't actually experienced anything myself. The closest I got I was shooting something in Massachusetts. I was staying in an incredibly old hotel. I'd been told that it was haunted from Civil War era things. I woke up one morning to a lot of old timey marching and horns, and immediately thought, this is it. This is the ghost. Then I looked at my window, and it was just a huge Civil War reenactment going on. But that's probably the closest I've ever got. (laughs again)
At one point in the film, Beth asked her colleagues, “Do you guys believe in ghosts?” Do you personally believe in them?
I don't know. I'm a bit of an empiricist, so until I have hard evidence in front of me, I tend not to believe, or believe one way or another. So, I don't know. That's my answer to that.
What's the spookiest place you've ever been to?
Hmm. I'm just trying to think. I've been to a lot of spooky places. It wasn't spooky, but [one that] was filled with a lot of history, is the ancient Greek theatre in Epidaurus. I was doing a play there. I went there a bunch. My father directed plays there when I was a kid, so I used to go there a lot. It seats 1500 people. It's been around, obviously, since forever. I was doing a production of Winter's Tale there. Simon Russell Beale during it makes a speech where he references the Oracle down the road. We're all on stage doing the scene. He started talking about the Oracle, which, as we were standing, it was literally historically down the road. It felt like the whole temperature of the area changed. It had been completely still and suddenly there was a huge rush of wind. I remember that we were all very spooked, but in an excited way, in a wonderful way. That's probably the most enervating environment I've been in. (laughs)
Can you tell us what it was like working with director David Bruckner?
I really had a great time with him. It's very rare that you work with a director who is so consistent about the genre that they want to work in. He's very specific. This is his thing. He does horror. He understands it. He knows how to manipulate and plot and lay all the foundations to create the jump scares and do all the things that you need. He's also incredibly smart and emotionally intuitive. So, the blend of those two things is really exciting. It shows in his work. I'd seen The Ritual, which was the film that he did previous to this one. I like horror movies on the whole and I was absolutely flabbergasted by how scary that film was. Flabbergasted. I think he's a real talent. I loved working with him.
When you're attacked in the bathroom scene, what was it like shooting that scene?
The honest answer is that it was kind of funny. (laughs) We were doing a lot of things on the fly and getting shots. It was as a quick shoot and all the tough things about independent filmmaking. When it came to doing that scene, we talked about what the idea was, but it wasn't like there was someone choreographing it. As we got into it further, there were stunts and all these very practical, detailed work. The initial idea of me having this interaction-slash-romantic encounter with an invisible presence was essentially just me improvising it, which was fairly embarrassing. (laughs again) I mean, I wasn't embarrassed, because I realized pretty quickly that I was going to look silly. I just accepted that and knew that everyone would laugh at me and just got on with it. After a while, it became strangely liberating. It felt like doing an intuitive dance, or something, which was nothing like anything I've ever done before as an actor. It's nice to use your physicality in that respect.
Most of the film is just you in the scene and an invisible being. What was it like acting by yourself? Did you find it challenging as an actor?
I knew it was going to be challenging going into it. I thought, well, I've never done this before, give this a go. I don't think I even guessed appropriately how challenging it would be. There's a strange thing you don't entirely realize as an actor. You derive an awful lot of energy and stamina and even generating creative ideas from the people that you're working with. It's a bit like if you're at a party, and someone comes in who's got a lot of charisma, and suddenly the party gets really great. (laughs) You're bouncing off their energy. This was a bit like being at a party with no guests, but you still have to make the party good, which is just exhausting.
You had some great scenes with Sara Goldberg and Vondie Curtis-Hall. What was it like working with these great talents and adjusting your mindset for these scenes compared to the scenes only featuring you on screen?
It's such a relief. I was so excited every time I got to do things with them. I think Sara Goldberg and Vondie Curtis-Hall, they're so, so good. I have so much respect for them. I thought that the relationship between my character and Sarah's character was really refreshing. Honestly, it's rare in a genre movie or horror movie that you see a pretty good depiction of female friendship. Also, just the fact that there is this underlying theme of people trying to help Beth. I thought that was interesting. Sarah, I love her work. It was just really fun when we got to do those scenes. There was a lot of meat to get into.
What were your thoughts when you first read the script?
This is scary. Also, this is fun. There were some aspects of the script that I thought were very intelligent and sensitive in regard to a depiction of a woman dealing with grief. Trying to rationalize and come to terms with a catastrophic event that's happened four days before the movie starts. Within that sensitivity and credible depiction of something very real and very serious, I also felt the opportunity for a truly cinematic, fun experience. Something that people could go to together and scream. Giggle about the fact that they're screaming. Go on a on a bit of a roller coaster ride, which I think is as valid as all the serious stuff. I love the combination of the two.
What draws you to these horror projects or these ghost stories?
It's a funny thing. I didn't embark on my career thinking I'm going to do lots of genre. As it turns out, there's often more extreme parts in genre, in horror. I'm a sucker for signing up for something that's going to really use me. It's going to be tough. It's going to put me through it. Don't ask me why. I've got no idea. But I am. Often there's just more to do in these films as an actor, that feels scary in regards of what your capabilities are. You don't know if you're going to pull it off. I like going into something with that feeling. So I end up picking them, I think because of that. And on another note, I think that there is huge opportunity for genre to tackle non-genre subjects, like grief, like death. They're these large existential questions of life that can sometimes be things that we find difficult to talk about as people. [They] sometimes can be more fruitfully addressed if they are dealt with indirectly. There's the veil of genre over them [which] means that you're dealing with it not head on. That can sometimes be more rewarding than a drama that deals with them straight on.
The scene where Stacey Martin as Madeleine confesses to you what went on between her and Owen, it's a very intense segment. How did you go about filming that scene?
It was very well written. Most of the heavy lifting is done when a scene is well written like that. I think we were both aware that there was a mirroring that needed to go on – an enigmatic mystery around it. There are many interpretations of this movie, and I suppose our job was slightly trying to hold all of them at the same time. I suppose we were conscious of making it real, but also making it slightly off kilter. Whether that was to do with our body shapes, or how we were sat opposite each other and mirroring each other in that sense. Also I remember David doing… the way he shot, it was really fascinating, because of the conventional way that you would shoot a scene with a few people sitting opposite each other. There's a line which you're not meant to cross. The cameras have crossed the line, which meant it blurred the perspective for both of us. The shots that have shifted, and almost was the same angle as my shot on her side and her side on my side, if you see what I mean. The whole thing was to make it uncanny and slightly unsettling. I was aware of that when we were shooting it. I thought it was such a brilliant idea.
The house that you guys were in was pretty spectacular. Can you kind of describe what was like filming there? And where was it filmed?
The house was a real house. It was quite surprising for everyone, because initially there was a lot of chatter – we're probably going to have to build it. How would we find something like this? It's on a lake and has all these things. They did that right on the front of the water with a large picture window. We shot the majority of it in that house. Then, from there, the production, the design team, did an extraordinary job of creating a normal looking interior, and then recreating it on a soundstage. I suppose as an actor, I'd spent so much time by the point we've got into the soundstage inside the regular house, similar to the audience experience, I was very thrown seeing something that was familiar and yet different. When we went onto the soundstage, I knew it was going to work production design wise because they had subtly done the differences.
Your character runs the gamut of emotions in this movie. How did you get in the right headspace to enact the depth of emotion you had, particularly when expressing deep grief and paralyzing terror?
It's a very tricky question. That's one of those questions. It's a bit like you don't really want to know how the sausage gets made. I suppose, acting is odd. If the material is well written, and if you believe it, when you're reading it, then I know that I'll believe it when I'm acting it. It honestly just becomes a question of believing what's happening to me is happening to me and letting my emotions happen. In a weird way, I tried not to prepare all that much for this one. I wanted to be quite instinctive, and surprise myself in a strange way. It ended up producing the best results if I just I thought about Beth, thought about where she is at the beginning of any given scene, and then just let myself react and see what happened. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it didn't. That's the joy of moviemaking.
What was your favorite scene to film?
I enjoyed an awful lot of these ones. I really enjoyed the unconventional scenes with people like the scene with a suicide note. I enjoyed doing that. I thought that was a very interestingly written scene. But honestly, the physical stuff was really enjoyable for me, because it was not something that I'd really done before. Trying to convey quite extreme emotions physically and throw myself around and do all that kind of stuff. Whether it was very carefully organized with a stunt team, or essentially improvised by me, [it] was really fun. I really enjoyed it.
Women have been such central characters to horror and suspense films for generations. Why has this job been so rewarding for female actors?
That's an interesting question. I suppose it has and it hasn't. (laughs) There's a fine line. Did we just enjoy watching women scream or what is it? I think that the thing that I loved about this one was that it takes existing tropes around horror – of seeing a woman being a victim and being frightened – but it inverted it a little bit. Beth isn't entirely a victim. She has had a terrible thing happen to her, but she's sort of a detective. She's investigating and wants to get to something. Not just the realities of what's happened to her husband, but she also wants to still get to the bottom of what's going on in her brain. How she's processing this grief. Because of that, she is quite reckless. She runs towards the danger. She doesn't leave the house because she's locked in. She doesn't leave the house because she is ready to go through anything. She's standing there saying “Come and get me. I want a ghost. I want to see my husband. I want to know what's going on. I'm ready for it. I'll take it.” [That] is quite a bit of inversion of the standard trope. I liked that a lot. It makes it very intriguing and also quite frightening. I think there's only one thing scarier than a woman being scared in the house – it's a woman being scared in the house who wants to be scared. Because you don't know what she's going to do. (laughs again)
The film is very dark and suspenseful. Were you able to have any moments of levity on set behind the scenes?
Yeah. (laughs) You have to. In my experience, sometimes not always, but sometimes when the material is particularly dark, you have to have a break. You have to have a catharsis and a release. Otherwise you go crazy. I for one was very conscious of being the only thing that crew got to look at most of the time. (laughs again) If I'm going to wander around here being very po ’faced and miserable everyone's going to have a terrible time. There was actually much more jollity and laughter on this set than some more comedic things that I've done. I was also very willing to get laughed at when I was making out with a ghost, which everyone found very funny.
Are there any like routines or tactics to use at the end of an intense shooting day?
I try to let go of it as quickly as possible. It's healthier for me to leave work at the door once the makeup is off. Sometimes that's easier said than done. This one, it was all right. I'm not sure that I had any tactics. Going home and seeing my daughter was my tactic because she didn't give me any room to be indulgent and miserable.
You made your directorial debut with Passing at the start of the year. What's the lesson as a director that you'll take on to your next film that you direct?
What didn’t I learn? You can't measure the amount that you learn just by doing something. I learned a huge amount about directing from watching my father, even when I was a kid. [Watching him] handle and direct actors in a rehearsal room. I understood an awful lot about movie directors from spending my entire life and career on movie sets – watching them and thinking about it. I always wanted to direct, so I took lessons from all of those things. But none of that compares to actually doing it. I couldn't even begin to tell you what I learned. It's just experience, isn't it? You just take everything on to the next thing.
What kind of headspace do you think Beth was in at the end when we leave her?
I think that one could look at the film as being a journey for a woman who cannot possibly begin to understand what has just happened. She's lost her husband to suicide, out of the blue. She's left with a sense of: I thought I knew this person. Actually, I didn't. I had no idea he was capable of doing that. In a way, I think that the journey she goes on becomes about: What else? Let me imagine what's the most extreme version of that idea. What kind of monster can I imagine that he could have been, to help me deal with the actual reality? There is a reading of the movie where, by the end of the film, she's come to terms with what's happened. She's able to cry about it. At the beginning of the film, she's in shock. She doesn't know what's going on. By the end of the film, she's actually able to start grieving. That's how I see it.
You're no stranger to working on productions of massive scales and magnitudes, like Godzilla vs Kong. Of course, you also have much smaller, intimate productions like this one. What's the contrast like as an actress? Do you prefer one over the other? Or are there certain things about each one that you appreciate?
Oh, there's definitely things about each one that I appreciate. On a small independent film, you're always hustled for time. You're always being pushed around. It's always incredibly stressful. You never have time to breathe, or sit down or relax, or any of those things. If you did just that, you'd go crazy. But I do think that there is a source of camaraderie and team spirit that happens on those films that can often yield very creative results. On the big ones, it's lovely to constantly be asked if I need a cup of tea and a blanket, basically. (laughs) You can also feel slightly, how can I help? What can I do to do more on this? I appreciate that the scale of those ones, the resources are appropriate. It's really difficult to make films on tiny budgets in 20 days or something. I feel bad for filmmakers, because the fact that it has happened doesn't mean it should continue to happen. There should be a little bit more room for creativity. Sometimes on the big ones, there's too much room and wasted resources. So I don't know, I think it's like a combination of the two somehow is often where you find the sweet spot.
Did you have any creative influence on the development of the character of Beth or on the story in general?
Yeah, I did, actually. I mean, I did. I wouldn't get right up in there and start asking to rewrite things. But I had ideas when I first read the script, and they were they were things that I wanted to amplify. I was keen to try and to push her strength. Her dark sense of humor. I thought that felt very true to life. I didn't feel like she had to be constantly crying and sad. I felt like it was better that she was angry at this point, in this moment of grief. I definitely pushed for that. There were certain other narrative aspects about the ending that I put in some two pennies worth. But that’s true of most projects, I think.
You really plumb the depths of Beth’s grief, in between some really strong scares. Which of those aspects of the story were more challenging for you as a performer?
That's a good question. They are both hard, but it's same thing but different, really. Whatever you're doing, you're always just striving to find the most credible version of the story that you have to tell. I feel like I'm always running two parallel tracks in my head. Is what I'm doing best serving the story and the progression of what information needs to get across to the audience in this moment? The other one is, am I being emotionally credible? The scary stuff is gasp response. (laughs) I would often ask David to just make a loud noise, or slam something, so I could just naturally react to something. The other stuff takes a little bit more thinking, but it's emotionally intuitive.
What was the most challenging scene to shoot?
They were all pretty challenging. Probably, the make out scene with the invisible presence because there was nothing to react against. (laughs) I kept putting my fingers up in the air and just thinking, is this right? Or does this look like I'm just 10 years old in the schoolyard pretending to make out with myself?
Did you listen to the song “Calvary Cross” (by Richard and Linda Thompson) during filming? Can you share any insight as to why that song was chosen as a song that becomes part of the obsession with Beth and the entity?
Yeah, I guess there's a lot of things that you can read into that song. The lyrics. There's some backstory with the how the song was written. All this stuff that I'm not really sure about. I know that David and the writers had this song in their heads from very early on. I wasn't all that familiar with it. I became very familiar with it. I’m very familiar with it now. If I hear the first two notes, it makes my stomach turn over. And will probably for the rest of time.
What sets the psychological horror genre apart from the other genres you've worked on?
There's just opportunity to push the limits. To see people at the very limits of human emotions. I think there's more opportunity to do that with psychological thrillers and horrors than there is with drama. Sometimes. Not always, but sometimes. It can be very interesting.
Was it fun to meet your movie look-alikes in the film?
Yeah. (laughs) It was. It was really fun and a little weird.
Beth is still trying to figure out if she likes brandy to drink. Do you have a drink that helps you relax, alcoholic or not?
I don't like brandy at all. I'm with Beth on that one. But a girl’s got to do what a girl's got to do, I guess. My drink of preference is probably a mezcal.
The film was a throwback to the Universal monster films of the 20s 30s and 40s and the Hammer Horror films. Did that draw you into the scripts, it being a refreshing throwback of horror?
Yes, it did, actually. It did. That's a good question. It really did. I really like horror films but I'm not crazy about the ones that have a lot of violence. I've always enjoyed a haunted house movie and the more classical old-fashioned ones that are that are really molded around suspense and invisible psychological scares. I thought this did harken back to those films but also had it had a lot of very refreshing modern twists and spins. It works. I was scared when I watched it in the cinema. It was maybe the last film that I saw in the cinema before COVID. I will honestly never forget the experience of being in there, watching it with everybody. Because even the things that I knew were coming, I still jumped. Everyone was screaming so much. That just really was thrilling.
Is there one film that scared you more than others?
Yeah, probably. I’m trying to think of what it is. I don't know. There's a lot. There's a lot. I still get very scared by The Shining. I saw that when I was very young and developed a bit of fixation with that. I’ve watched that many times, but it still gets me. Also, I couldn't quite make it through [was] Hereditary recently. I was just horrified.
The end of the movie can be read in different ways. Can you tell us if David or anyone else gave you clues about how they thought it ended?
I wouldn't want to ruin anyone's experience by saying what I think. I do have an opinion. I think there are two, if not three, possible interpretations of the whole thing that work when you add up all the variables. I love that about it. I would never want to say what I think, for fear of destroying one of the others.
What is next for you?
Getting this film out into the world. Then I'm going to be promoting and getting my film that I directed and wrote out into the world, which I'm really looking forward to. I'm going to do a bit more acting. I'm currently shooting something right now [that] just started. Hopefully, more of the same. (laughs) More acting, more directing.
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