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The Reaping - Stephen Hopkins interview

Hilary Swank in The Reaping

Compiled by Jack Foley

STEPHEN Hopkins talks about some of the challenges of directing new horror movie The Reaping and why he tried to make it a little bit different…

Is it true that you toyed with some of the conventions of the genre with this film?
A: Hopefully there’s a little twist on them, I think.

How important is that to you to keep it different from the usual genre fare?
A. I saw it more as a supernatural thriller than an out-and-out genre horror movie. There was necessary information that you had to have, because it’s a thriller and there’s a mystery to it. I love those movies when they go down to the basement, but as long as they go down to the basement for a really good reason, I think, as opposed to going down there just because it’s creepy. That’s the difference to me.

It had to have a logic to everything. I’m hideously logical. I have to understand the nature of what the characters want and then that helps me. When Hilary [Swank] rang up and said she was doing it, I thought: “Well, if Hilary’s doing it, that means we could do something maybe based on reality, as if this is really happening, as opposed to happening in a sideways universe.”

And also you could do something maybe a bit more sophisticated and more atmospheric, a bit more grounded in some real emotional stuff. Because for me, personally, if I see that in horror movies, that’s when I get scared. If I don’t believe any of it, then it’s just a fun riot. It’s fun to watch but it’s something that I’m not so good at.

But this also dabbles in something that’s very close to a lot of people’s hearts. How do you make a film about debunking miracles without disavowing faith?
A: I have my own spiritual beliefs. I’ve had spiritual occurrences; I’ve seen things that I can’t explain. And to me, that makes life exciting. I know that for me personally, I believe there’s a landscape that exists underneath everything that we can see in present-day stuff. And I think that makes life kind of a detective story.

You go: “I wonder how things work?” I wasn’t brought up a Christian. I’m not a Christian. I embrace some of the ideas from it but before I did the film, I had to look back at the Old Testament, which is pretty hair-raising stuff. I mean, I spoke to the head of the Methodist Church, and the Baptists own most of the land we shot on. So I had to meet with the leaders of the churches, and they loved the script because it was about loss of faith and they think this is the big issue in the church right now.

And then, of course, when we were down there, these horrible disasters happened, and people were going: “Well, how could God let this happen? And what is the master plan for this?” It became an integral part of the story. I felt that was such an interesting theme and such a real theme that it just helped me make it through the film.

Why do they feel that loss of faith a big issue?
A: After [Hurricanes] Katrina and Rita, when we were shooting, people really questioned. They saw terrible things and they questioned: “What is the point of this? What’s God’s master plan? That I would lose my children or lose my livelihood or everyone we know does?”

A lot of this film has the same kind of tension you brought to 24. It has a kind of documentary style…
A: Yeah, I think it gives it a certain tension, that idea. I mean, it’s really like ‘70s movies, where people were trying to do stuff that didn’t look lit, and it was more ambiguous and all that kind of stuff. I think that it does give you tension. Even if I shot in sets, I wouldn’t allow one to take a wall off. I’d cram them in the corner as if you just happened to be in the right place. I’m a big fan of William Friedkin and Michael Mann as well. They’re similar, I think, in some ways.

Friedkin, on French Connection, he’d set-up a scene and not show the camera operators the scene. Then he would bring the camera operator and they’d shoot, and so the camera operator didn’t know what was going on. He’d have to chase it. And I did that on 24. But then you articulate that because after the first take it doesn’t work. But you remember what you were looking for, and I think that’s a great form of filmmaking, because it feels more immediate. It’s what we’re used to seeing on the news. Do you know what I mean?

There’s a sense that you’re in amongst stuff, as opposed to far away from it. I love films that are made on these super-long lenses where everyone looks terribly glamorous and everything’s out of focus, but I don’t really believe it, because I’m not in there with it.

What was it like when Hilary set up the birthday surprise for you on the set?
A: Oh, it was a nightmare. I’m shooting this pig farm on my birthday and it’s near midnight, and we’re being eaten alive. I’ve got 8 million pages to shoot after lunch, which is midnight, and I’m pulling my hair out thinking. And I get the call to come to the tent, and I think: “Oh, God, birthday cake, this is the last thing I need!”

So, I go in there and I guess she’s had this photo taken of me, and there are 150 people – men, women, children and dogs – with my mask on. And I walk in [laughs] and this day I walk around the corner, and I’m really grumpy because I don’t want to be there. I’m like Mr. Grumpy. And then all of a sudden I just don’t know what to do. It must’ve taken me 30 seconds to even figure out what on earth was going on because my mind was so elsewhere. She got me. I’ve still got loads of the masks.

Did you really hire locust wranglers?
A: Actually, it’s someone I’d worked with before, on Ghost and the Darkness and Nightmare On Elm Street 5. He wrangled 50 tarantulas which we had to shoot in Nightmare On Elm Street. We had this scene where Freddy’s arm gets pulled off and it lands on the ground, and it turns into tarantulas. So we paint 50 tarantulas green and red. It’s a low-budget, non-union film, and they put these little walls up so they’re trapped in, because they hate each other, tarantulas. So we turn the camera on, we drop the walls, they scatter…

But they hadn’t worked out how to capture them, so we have a studio full of 50 tarantulas. It was in Culver City, and that was the same guy. He did a lot of stuff for me on The Ghost and the Darkness and when he came on here, we had between 10 and 20,000 locusts – but that would actually not even cover this table.

What plague was the most challenging?
A: I think the final fire from the sky one, because all the other plagues are sort of landscape-bound. This is something where you have to turn a corner and go into Miracle World just here, and it was a tough one for me, that one.

Getting back to the themes of the film. Do you feel that good overcomes evil, and if so, why?
A: Good overcomes evil. I think life is like English soccer. I think the best team doesn’t always win. There’s lots of draws. I’ve seen great examples of mass good being committed, like in Louisiana after this thing. I’ve been to countries in Africa where I’ve seen people do such marvelous work. I’ve been to Haiti, where I met a doctor who was so horrified by how awful it was there that he moved, left his very expensive country-club practice and brought his family and daughters down to start a hospital on his own dime in Haiti. And I thought these people never get press.

What gets press in the world is people doing bad stuff a lot of the time. I’ve seen so much good in the world that it would be nice to broadcast some of that stuff a little bit more, and the other stuff a bit less, I think.

What did your family think during Katrina? Were they worried about you?
A: We couldn’t get phone calls, so that didn’t happen. There were no phones, no nothing. Warner Bros. was great though. They brought a plane in and we took the whole crew, my cats, everyone, Hilary’s parrots, we all jumped on a plane. I’ve been through hurricanes before.

I was born in a hurricane in Jamaica in the basement of a hotel. I was called Hurricane Hopkins. I lived in San Lucia. My whole house was wiped away there. I’ve been through hurricanes, so to me it wasn’t so horrific, but no one knew it was going to be that powerful until the very, very last second. It just took place in a few hours. It wasn’t going to hit, it wasn’t going to hit, pow, it was just there. And everyone went, “wow”.

When you’re the director, what do you do to lead your cast and crew out of this?
A: You pretend not to panic at all, I think. [laughs] And we were very lucky. We only just got out because they didn’t want us to take off. They said: “You can’t take off.” We were the last plane out, which sounds very dramatic but it’s true. And I wondered what would happen if we couldn’t take off. I mean, we were there for Hurricane Rita, the second one, and a whole roof came down when we were shooting. That was terrible, the second one.

Read our interview with Hilary Swank