Interview: Michael Bartlett, The Director Of New Horror “Treehouse”, Talks About The Art of Suspense
Michael Bartlett, the man behind stylish new horror film Treehouse, talks to Top 10 Films about the challenges of getting a low budget production off the ground, his own inspirations & the art of perfect suspense.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Michael Bartlett this week about his new horror Treehouse. The film, which follows in the footsteps of The Hills Have Eyes and, more recently Wrong Turn, offers a few neat twists along the way, invigorated by the director’s sense of visual style and smart construction of suspense. Bartlett, who mixes film production with his 9 to 5 day job, has a distinct passion for horror cinema, particular the thrillers of the 1970s and 1980s, which shines through his work. A director to look out for in future, Treehouse makes its way to DVD in the UK this month with its US release in November.
1. Firstly, I want to say, I thought the film was excellent – a real b-movie horror treat! What attracted you to the story in the first place?
Thank you so much for the kind words and also for the detailed review you wrote. I was pitched the project by Alex Child in a Soho pub back in 2009. What attracted me to Treehouse. was that, as Alex was walking me through the plot, I could immediately see the poster and key moments from the trailer. It is the kind of project every producer dreams of being pitched. The story was different back then – with different antagonists and running only at 60 pages. So I spent some time providing notes and script structure ideas to Alex and Miles. They would send me revised drafts and I’d feedback.
At the time I was too busy trying to get my time travel movie, Timeless., off the ground. I was also very busy prepping Zombie Diaries 2.. So Alex and Miles optioned the script to another producer. I remember being pretty devastated when I found this out, but at the end of the day I don’t blame them as no-one wants to wait around on people who aren’t getting things moving.
It all ended up playing out perfectly. I moved to the USA after Zombie Diaries 2. and found myself living in the town Winter’s Bone. was shot in. And it reminded me of Treehouse.
I had this strange feeling that I was destined to direct this film, so I stayed very calm and did not bug Alex and Miles. Then one day, in 2011 I believe, they came to me and said they had exhausted all other options and would like to revisit with me. That was one of the best moments of my career, I have to admit.
2. Did you work with writers Alex Child and Miles Harrington to bring your own stamp to the script?
**SPOLIERS** Very much so. I was very honest with the guys about how I wanted to proceed: I would take their script, rewrite it and change the antagonists. They were originally mutant hillbillies. And I felt like I had seen the whole Wrong Turn thing done way too much. That is why I opted to go for juveniles as the antagonists. I met some kids out here in Missouri who I thought were grown men – only to find out they were 16 and still rode the School Bus! And I remember when I was younger, the real fear when I was a teenager was of other teenagers. Especially if there were no adults around to stop any violence.
There was one incident where a group surrounded me and I remember at the time hearing their sneakers hitting the ground and how they sounded like army boots of a platoon marching around me. I realised that fear can sometimes distort a situation to make something seem bigger and scarier than it actually is. I drew on this experience also for the script.
My approach with Alex and Miles was simple. I told them that most producers reel off the line: “I LOVE your script” and then they f*** with you and make you to rewrite your own story and make your characters do things that aren’t true to them. You suddenly realise they didn’t love your script. They loved your premise but wanted to do it their way. But, of course, they will not tell you that up front or you would tell them to take a hike.
So I told the guys straight: “I LOVE your premise. I LOVE your characters. But I want to change the bulk of the story from the 2nd act onwards and I want to change the antagonists.” The deal I offered them was simple. I would do a rewrite for free. However at the end of the process if they were not happy, they could walk away and owe me nothing and I would have no rights on the project. I did this because I like to believe I am one of the few producers left in this business with absolute integrity. I care much more about telling stories that I believe are important and need to be told. I have a day job which allows me to keep this attitude rather than being a cut-throat guy who does what he has to in order to pay the bills. I often invest at least two years of my life into each film I make. So you have to make the time count!
Alex and Miles were just a joy to work with. I would write a sequence every week and send to them. They would feedback and we would revise. I am a huge proponent of the ‘Sequences’ method of screenplay structure. The guys always came back hard on my rewrites and we’d go back and forth. Finally, we worked it out and locked the script and at that point I went out and found a team and made the thing happen.
3. Treehouse manages to find that balance between giving audiences the conventional thrills they expect and offering something new as well – was that an aspect of the script you particularly liked?
I am a very big believer in three key things when it comes to writing a film. The first is structure. A good, solid structure is essential. Know the midpoint, know your act breaks, and know why they exist. These are like recipes from a cookbook of screenwriting you can just apply. The same goes with some of the techniques. Like a jump scare at the beginning; like the sound design used when Elizabeth sees the figure (that entire scene is a homage to the opening of the Exorcist – watch them both and you will see!); like the gentle moving camera that glides in half circle formations around the characters in the ‘Walkie Talkie’ scene – which is just a recycled technique I learned from Pontypool.
But then this is where I start to differ from others. The second key thing is originality – which, of course, touches on your question. I will do things I have not seen before but which feel right. Tilting up to the Treehouse after the climb up is obvious; spinning gently as we push in helps add a touch of vertigo and puts the audience off kilter. I also like a lot of slow tilts ups, a technique I use to often add a sense of gravity and revelation. The third thing is unpredictability. When I wrote the scene with Elizabeth unconscious I was not sure if Elizabeth had died or not. In the original script she had. Sometimes it’s good to just write and let your characters lead you. They often will make good and sound decisions because they are trying to survive. Then you can just throw something crazy at them and see how they react. Sometimes this works. Sometimes you write yourself into a corner. But it’s a method I use that helps to create these times where you feel what you are seeing is new.
4. I was very impressed with the visual style of the film – one of its greatest attributes (indeed, I was reminded of John Carpenter a few times) – where do you draw your inspiration from when it comes to the movement of the camera and mise-en-scene? What directors, for example, do you admire?
One of my first memories as a child, and indeed the first film I ever remember, is Dark Star by John Carpenter. So I am not surprised there is a connection there. His best friend’s son is actually a producer on the film – Martin Myers. I am sure you recognise the surname!
My brother, Geoff, was the person who used to show me Dark Star. He then got me into the audio book of War of the Worlds. He is about 16 years older than me, so rather than being the typical big brother, he was just like a really cool adult who spent a lot of time with me in my early childhood. I even remember watching an episode of Star Trek called ‘Spok’s Brain’ and asked him if he would build a contraption like that for me, believing he could. I have to say my childhood was very good. I am very lucky.
When I got to the age of 12 I turned into a kid who would stay up late and watch all kinds of weird television at night. I remember I would often see the same two movies playing – Martin by George Romero and The Vanishing by George Sluizer. I believe strongly that it is these two movies that had the greatest influence on me. They were so incredibly immersive. I have a real soft spot for 70s and 80s cinema.
I also spent a lot of time watching Tales of the Unexpected, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. And this always happened with my parents. So they had a massive influence on me by letting me watch these shows. I just developed into a ‘storyteller’ at a young age and became a huge fan of suspense and mystery.
In terms of camera movements and shot design, a lot of it comes naturally. I know when it feels right to creep a shot forwards or push in on an actor. The first time I ever noticed it and started studying it was when I saw the short film The French Doors by Steve Ayson. When a film really knows how to move a camera to tell a story it is one of the most satisfying things to me as a viewer. In my humble opinion the recent movie Prisoners is just gorgeous in the way it mixes shot composition, shot movement and color design.
5. How would describe yourself as a director? For instance, the finished film displays a powerful visual aesthetic that makes me think you’re quite technically minded but how important is it for you to work with actors to get the performance you want?
It might be best if I explain how I direct a scene. Firstly, the DP and I will discuss the general look – what sort of lenses we want; the kind of mood; if we will use color in any way to tell the story or mark anything significant. I rarely shot list! Which might surprise people. I find it a waste of time. I turn up on location/set (which the production designer and his team build out to my specs) and then I bring in the actors and run the scene. I have my script supervisor talk through everything and the actors move around as per the script instructions.
Next I decide on tweaks to the blocking. Once that is decided, we then start running the scene for real – and I walk around and watch the actors from various angles and observe them. We do it over and over again and it feels natural. Once I feel we have a working scene, I tell the DP what shots I want and then he figures out lighting setups and we compromise if necessary. I will try various lenses out and tweak the shot in every set up. The Treehouse DP, J. Christopher Campbell, said he has never met another director who, to use his words, “cares more about every frame.”
6. Although the film is visually very impressive, you seem to favour suspense and atmosphere over gore or on-screen violence – would you say this is something you were particularly conscious of? For example, I thought the scene with the walkie-talkie attack on the girls and the suggestion of off-screen violence was fantastic – a real highlight for me.
I have to be honest here – I really don’t enjoy most modern day horror films. I find they throw plot out in favor of gore or shock value. I feel that the horror films I grew up watching would not even be considered horror films in this day and age. So for me, Treehouse is an 80s horror. But in today’s terms it is a coming-of-age suspense thriller. I find with a lot of horrors, the director’s only power over the audience is making them scared of jumping. I don’t mind one or two jumps in my films, but I want to create an immersive world that is scary – one that is bleak and atmospheric and real – so the film itself becomes memorable. I also think you can easily spot people who don’t understand suspense as they will be frustrated that the walkie-talkie scene didn’t cut away to girls being killed with a giant meat clever or something silly like that. There’s plenty of those movies out there if someone wants them. I’m trying to make something different and I hope that is appreciated.
7. On the actors – do you allow actors to have a lot of freedom with their character in terms of what they want to bring to the character and how they feel it should be played, or are you quite strict on sticking to your own ideas?
Yes – I am an unusual director in that anyone can say anything to me. A PA can make a suggestion. An actor can argue. The key is that everyone knows and respects I have final say. As such my film shoots are very relaxed and people feed off of that and are confident. Many times in the production, Daniel Fredrick and J. Michael Trautmann would respectfully disagree with something in the script and ask to say a line in a different way. We must also remember this is a movie set in Missouri, written by three British guys. So lots of dialogue tweaks were needed! I’m very open to ideas. The most important thing for me is that the film comes first. No egos should ever get in the way of the end goal: a great movie.
8. In terms of the film’s production – how was Treehouse funded, and when did you shoot the film/how long did it take?
I optioned the script January 9th 2012. I had the thing funded and crewed and ready to shoot by January 9th 2013. So I turned the script, financing and pre-production around in a year which I am very proud of. In my day job I do a lot of Project Management and my wife always remarks on how focused I can be on realising a goal when I am serious about it. And, of course, I did this while working a 9-5 job! The secret, of course, is to delegate. And Chris Campbell managed bringing in a lot of the crew himself down in Atlanta.
The film was shot in January and February 2013 and was supposed to be ready for Cannes that year in May. However, I was very unhappy with what we had when it was edited. Mainly due to some stuff shot by B-Camera, running out of time due to an illness that swept the cast and crew (we lost J.Michael for three days of our precious 19 day shoot) and a scene directed by someone else when I was ill for a day which turned out disastrous. I insisted on two weekends of re-shoots. The re-shoots took place in November 2013. They were handled by a small Missouri team lead by Sarah Kessinger who worked on Winter’s Bone and Danny Rogers, a brilliant DP and director from Missouri.
In 2014 a lot of time was spent in post. The film was unusual in that it did not follow the normal model of picture-lock followed by sound. Sound would go in and then the picture would be changed. And this is because the movie was so ridiculously sound-design reliant. It is impossible to know the true edits until you see it with the sound.
I think I even made a picture edit one day before the final mix was supposed to start. And for that I have to give big props to Moonshine Pictures in Atlanta and my sound guy, JD Evans. We delivered the film in August 2014. It was a year late, but was worth it to get the film right.
9. How did you find your actors and what drew you to picking those you chose for the key parts – ie. Killian, Elizabeth (I thought Dana Melanie was terrific) and Crawford?
I hired Heather Laird (casting director out of Kansas City) who cast Winter’s Bone. She found Dana and J.Michael through breakdown services and Daniel Fredrick through personal introduction. I looked at just under 1,000 submissions for those three roles myself, which Heather was happy for me to do. Actors were given some sides to read and then I narrowed them down to a final group and went to Skype interviews with finalists and their managers.
And yes, Dana did not put a note wrong in the entire film and responded magnificently to direction. One day, when she is a big movie star and I am just some fat, old guy bragging about his glory days, I can at least tell my grandkids I discovered her. It was probably the second best discovery of my life.
10. There’s an obvious love of the genre that shines through Treehouse – would you say there are films of the past you were thinking about (taking inspiration from) when shooting it? And, can you tell us your favourite horror films?
When I was getting ready to begin rewriting Treehouse, I watched and studied a number of movies with either similar themes (Stand By Me / / Lord of the Flies) or similar genres – what I call the ‘siege movie’ (Assault on Precinct 13 / Tremors / Frozen)
In terms of my favourite horror movies: The Exorcist, Halloween, The Thing, The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity (minus the first 15 minutes).
11. What’s next for you? Do you have some more projects lined up? What’s the next film about?
I plan to take a few months off and enjoy time with my wife. I’m looking to do a new movie sometime in 2015. As soon as I have firm plans I will make an announcement.
Thank you Michael for your time. Best of luck with Treehouse and in future projects.
Michael Bartlett was speaking to Top 10 Films editor Daniel Stephens
Treehouse is available NOW in the UK. The DVD can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk. The film makes its theatrical debut in the USA in November.