Interview: The Seventh Spectrum Writer David Halberstadt Talks “Attic”
Anthony Parisi | On Oct 12, 2013
In addition to being the Online Editor of the Cinema & New Media Arts, I also collaborate with program director Joshua Sikora and his independent film company, New Renaissance Pictures. Recently, we began releasing an anthology of short films online at Hulu and our website. I was the editor on each of the films along with being an executive producer, cinematographer, and director on select entries.
The series, entitled The Seventh Spectrum, imagines a universe made up of different “spectrums” of reality. The short films within the series chronicle mysterious events that occur when elements or creatures from other spectrums of reality intrude on our normal world. As an anthology, each film explores this concept from a different angle and the stories come to life through a variety of tones and genres. Some of the stories are light and full of humor, while others venture into darker, more suspenseful territory.
In this ongoing feature, I’ll conduct interviews with key filmmakers from the series. Last week I spoke with director William Hellmuth about “Valley of Mist”. The following is my talk with David Halberstadt, who wrote the award-winning film “Attic”.
How long did it take to write Attic? Did you go through a lot of story changes and ideas or did it stay pretty consistent?
I think we ended up with eight or nine drafts over a period of seven months. I wanted to write a horror script that would fit into this new series. My goal for the film was to make something really simple that relied more on ambiance and what you can’t see. So I began writing the first draft and just a few days later, William Hellmuth [the director] contacted me to find out if I had any short scripts that I’d be willing to let him direct. William’s one of those guys that has directing in his blood and he was getting restless because he’d finished “Valley of Mist” recently and didn’t have anything else lined up. A few days later I finished the first draft and he really wanted to make it.
There was quite a bit of change between the first and final drafts. Originally, Rachel was in her own townhouse, had a roommate instead of a sister, and it was pretty dialog heavy. One of the first major changes was to strip out as much of the dialog as possible to make it much more of a mood piece. But perhaps the most drastic change was that there was no “mother” aspect in the first couple drafts. I don’t remember exactly how that idea came about but it really helped make this “haunting” more personal and added a lot more depth to the story. The only thing that stayed pretty consistent was the final scene.
Being a big fan of ghost stories, especially supposedly true cases, one of the things I run across a lot is that people’s first reaction to paranormal activity like this is doubt and skepticism. You don’t want to admit that what you’re experiencing is paranormal because it’s a frightening concept. In our story, the sounds are innocuous enough at first that it wouldn’t trigger a flight response just then. Also, Rachel has just returned from a trip overseas so she’s feeling pretty jet lagged. At first she’s not sure if what she’s hearing is her overactive imagination or just normal house noises that she would normally never hear because she’s usually asleep at that time. For the record, I don’t believe in ghosts or hauntings but I find the stories fascinating and creepy all the same.
The story plays with psychology and the death of Rachel’s mother continues to affect her. When you write, do you tend to start from thematic elements like this or do these flow out of the plot you develop?
The psychological aspect was always part of the script but, as I mentioned earlier, the connection to the girls’ mother came at a later point. The original idea was simply about a girl who starts hearing noises in her attic and wonders if it’s really happening or just in her head. I don’t really think about themes when I’m writing the first couple drafts. My first priority is to get the bare-bones story onto the page and oftentimes, the themes tend to come naturally after that.
Even when the themes start revealing themselves, I’m hesitant to focus on one particular thematic interpretation. Is Rachel a victim of her inability to let go of her mother, or of her mother’s inability to let go of Rachel? Or is it something else entirely? Obviously I have my own ideas of what it all means but I want everyone who sees the film to bring in their own interpretations. There are multiple ways to read the film and I don’t think any of them are wrong. It’s more interesting that way and the audience is able to feel more connected to it because I’m not spelling things out for them. That’s my hope anyway.
What interests you about the horror/suspense genre? What appeals to you about storytelling in that context?
What I’ve always liked about the horror genre is that it can take these deeply felt fears and anxieties we all have and bring them to the surface where we can deal with them. They can either manifest as literal monsters or as more metaphorical ones but in either case, they challenge us to face our fears while also shining a light to expose them. We fear death, we fear the dark, we have all these fears but when they become “real”, they become something we can at least fight if not defeat. Perhaps more than any other genre, good and evil are clearly defined and horror is often much more honest about how seductive and destructive evil can be.
Horror is also one of the most technically rigorous genres a filmmaker can work in. Every single aspect of the film has to work toward a singular goal and if one piece is off, it ruins the mood and potentially the whole film. There’s a reason why so many master filmmakers have made horror films. It’s creatively stimulating and very challenging.
And sometimes you just want to have that experience of being scared in a safe environment. When you’re truly scared and adrenaline kicks in, you’re able to release some of that pent-up energy inside you. It’s a lot like riding a rollercoaster. While you’re riding, you’re probably screaming your head off for two or three minutes, but then you come off of it laughing and happy that you’re alive. It’s the same way with a great scary movie. More than any other genre the horror film can grab an entire audience and make everybody jump at the same moment. There’s more energy and community among a group of people during a horror movie than in any other genre I’ve ever come across. I want to give people that rush.
The ending is definitely the darkest and most mysterious thing to happen in the Spectrum series so far. Why did you decide that was a fitting end to the story?
Really early on I felt like this was the only way it could end. With the themes we’re tackling and the genre we’re working in, it just felt natural. You’ve got this woman who is unable move on from her past and in the end, the past literally consumes her. There’s a lot of myself in the character of Rachel; some of my own insecurities and fears. It’s a dark ending but it’s also a warning that this can and does happen in real life. Not that people get eaten by their furniture, but that you can be destroyed by your own vices. Hold on to something like a grudge long enough and it’ll eat you up until there’s nothing left. That’s another great thing that horror can do. In fact, writing the movie helped me to let go of some issues that I was having a hard time with. Just to be clear though, I have a wonderful relationship with my mother!
Do you think it’s possible that Rachel is still alive somewhere? Have you ever considered a follow-up short or would you be interested in another filmmaker picking up the thread of what’s happening with this other “spectrum” that breaks into the world here?
I think it certainly works as a definitive ending but it’s also possible that she’s still alive. One of the things I love about the world of The Seventh Spectrum is that anything can happen. I’ve got a few vague ideas in my head for a continuation of the story but I’d be just as happy if someone else was inspired enough by the film to make their own sequel. Personally, I would be disappointed if this was the last we ever saw of Rachel. Maybe she’ll turn up in one of the other films coming up. (You can’t see it, but I just winked.)
William says you are working on a new western screenplay with him. How has it been transitioning from shorter scripts to a longer, feature film?
It’s certainly going to be new territory for me in a couple ways. This is the first script that I’ve adapted from another source, in this case a novel, so that brings in a bunch of unique challenges. We have this great book that William and I both love so there’s the question of how faithful we want to be and how we can enhance the script without destroying what we loved in the first place. It’s a tricky balance and more than anything, we want to do this incredible book justice.
The western is also a genre that I’ve never written in before. I did grow up watching John Wayne movies with my dad so I have more than a passing familiarity with westerns. It’s also a genre that we don’t get as often anymore. They’re pretty rare nowadays. I’m really happy to be working with William on another project and I think it will be a great film.
Anthony Parisi (@AnthonyParisi) is an independent filmmaker, photographer, and writer. For many years he has collaborated with New Renaissance Pictures to create a variety of web series, feature films, and television series. He also has a prolific background in documentaries, contributing to many National Park films seen across the country. As an artist and storyteller, he is deeply passionate about the visual arts and new possibilities for cinema in the digital age. Visit him online at www.anthonyparisifilm.com