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The Resident - Antti Jokinen interview

The Resident

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ANTTI Jokinen talks about some of the challenges of shooting psychological horror thriller The Resident and the joy of getting to work with Oscar winner Hilary Swank and horror icon Christopher Lee on his debut feature.

He also talks about trying to bring something different to the genre and his own favourite horror films.

Q. I gather the idea for The Resident came to you from an article you read on a plane?
Antti Jokinen: Well, I’ve always been a big fan of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant and Hithcock’s Dial M For Murder and I was looking to write and direct a film that was cost effective and something similar to the films I enjoyed from the ‘70s and earlier. I wanted to make something with more of a European sensibility. Then I read an article regarding a psychological doctor who was talking about a woman who kept coming to him because she was afraid there was someone sleeping under her bed. Eventually, the doctor said: “Why don’t you cut the legs off the bed?” And he never saw her again [laughs]. I kind of liked that approach and started to think of all those basic childhood fears of somebody being under the bed and the fact that when you’re sleeping you are not aware of what is happening around you. So, that started me off.

Q. How easy was it to make from that point?
Antti Jokinen: It still wasn’t easy to make… in fact, it was extremely difficult. The structure of the film is different from a lot of films… there is a lot of sexual tension and claustrophobia and this wasn’t one of those formulaic Hollywood movies they usually make nowadays. It was also difficult to cast, partly due to the things I’ve just mentioned. But then Hammer saw it.

Q. That must have been an amazing feeling to be approached by such an iconic – and recently revived – horror studio?
Antti Jokinen: I have to admit, I was a bit concerned when Hammer first said they wanted to make it because this isn’t really a horror film… it has strong psychological aspects to it. But then I met with the studio and they told me they didn’t just want to make horror films either. They responded to me when I called it a character driven terror, for which I would need good actors. They were intrigued to make that kind of film, rather than giving it the ‘axe in the head’ treatment.

Q. You’ve mentioned Hitchcock, so is that something you feel this film is? Do you see the Jeffrey Dean Morgan character as something of a contemporary Norman Bates?
Antti Jokinen: Yes, I’m a huge fan of Hitchcock and I always wanted to bring a human aspect to every character. I didn’t want there to be a one dimensional villain or an obvious good person or bad person in The Resident. I really liked what Hitchcock did with the Norman Bates character – there seemed to be some reason for what he was doing. He had his motives… they may have been screwed up [laughs] but they made sense to him and you could understand where they were coming from, what they were influenced by. It’s the same with the Max character here. I wanted him to be human and understandable. He has his demons and he isn’t bad in a one dimensional way… by social standards, yes, but by his own not so much [laughs].

Q. You’ve also managed to lure a Hammer horror icon back into the genre for the first time in 30 years with Christopher Lee. How did you get him? And how was working with him?
Antti Jokinen: Hammer wanted to cast him; the part wasn’t actually written for him – so that was 100% an accident! Obviously, it was a perfect part for him, though, and I was super happy to get him. And he was amazing to work with. Christopher Lee is like New York…you just point the camera at him and it works. But really, I just sent him the material and he responded to it, so I’m the director who is reuniting Christopher Lee with the Hammer films, which makes me so happy.

Q. Did you ever feel a sense of nerves when you first got to meet such an icon? I know Martin Scorsese said that even when he directed Max Von Sydow [in Shutter Island] he had an aura about him that was sometimes intimidating…
Antti Jokinen: I think I was excited, but Christopher Lee is just such an all-around nice guy. He doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable. If anything, he puts in extra effort to ensure people feel that way. So, he was great to work with and he also carries himself in a low maintenance way. It’s more a case of him turning on the charm when the camera is rolling. So, I never really felt that kind of nervousness about directing him.

Q. You also have Oscar winner Hilary Swank in the leading role… Were you surprised by her devotion to the project given that she went and extensively researched what it was like to be an ER surgeon?
Antti Jokinen: It was like a ray of lightning when she came on board because if you have someone like Jessica Simpson in your first scene, performing an operation as a leading doctor, you run the risk of people leaving the scene laughing. You need someone who is smart, sexy and who is a really great actress to convey all the things I needed from this film, but even so I would still never have dreamed of getting someone of her status starring in the film. It was a magnificent thing for me.

Hilary Swank in The Resident

The preparation was something I liked her to do. For that big operating scene, for instance, I wanted her hands to move in the right way and I wanted her character to be very active. I’m not interested in female characters who run around the room like a headless chicken. I wanted to establish early on that she was strong and capable of taking care of herself. And that opening scene [in the operating theatre] was key in selling that. So, she based her research around that idea, too, and went to work in an ER. She has raised the bar very high for me now… when I work with different actors in the future I’m going to expect them to be as good and as dedicated!

Q. Similarly, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, I believe he went and spoke to psychiatrists to inform his portrayal of his mental state, so as not to appear too hammy… How much did that bring to his performance in your opinion?
Antti Jokinen: I was there when he met the psychiatrist and it was more behavioural things. I didn’t want him to play a crazy guy; I wanted him to look and act normally, because people like that can act normally. So, I think the delicate things he does in this role are perfect… because they hint at problems rather than hammering them home. I mean, often, you can’t tell from a person just by talking to them or seeing them for the first time if they’re unstable or not. Jeffrey needed to be able to convey so many interior things in his character, so a lot of the subtle things he does came out of those meetings.

Q. New York and the apartment are also key characters in the film. How did you go about finding your location?
Antti Jokinen: We built the apartment… all the hallways and rooms, etc. We couldn’t have found a place like that in New York, so we decided to build it ourselves for practical reasons, especially as we only had 30 days to shoot. Also, from a production point of view, so much of what takes place in the film happens in the dark, so we could light it in a way that would be successful. Another of the things that we paid a lot of attention to with the apartment was giving it a timeless quality – the architecture is timeless, the clothes… Hopefully, you could watch this in 10 years and it won’t look outdated. The only thing we couldn’t do that with was the computers, so hopefully they won’t change that much now.

Q. How stressful did the tight shoot make things?
Antti Jokinen: That was stressful but these days most independent films are made that way. We were just very well prepared and ready to go. I had rehearsed with the actors and with Guillermo [Navarro, director of photography]. We built seven foot miniatures of all the sets, we planned all the shots, and we storyboarded every scene, so that when it came to shooting we knew exactly what we wanted to achieve. We were ready to go.

Q. What was it like getting to work with Guillermo Navarro as your cinematographer, given his reputation from working on films like Pan’s Labyrinth?
Antti Jokinen: I love Pan’s Labyrinth and that was the main reason I wanted him to work on this film. I think he worked for half of his fee because he responded to the material. I think a lot of DPs like films that take place in darkness. I also enjoyed The Devil’s Backbone, another of his films, and that also had a lot of darkness in it. So, once again I either got lucky or was very skilful at bullshitting people to get them to come on board [laughs]! But I think there were many situations that he carried us through. I mean, I come from a music and commercial background, but I didn’t want the film to be too glossy or too stylised. I wanted it to have a cinematic look and he helped to bring that. Another thing… all our light in the film is reflected… I never use straight lighting, as in normal films.

Q. What was the biggest lesson you learned from the experience of making The Resident?
Antti Jokinen: I think the biggest lesson is preparation, preparation, preparation. This was my first feature film and so stepping into this world, I learned so many lessons. But I’ll be 10 times more prepared next time.

Q. How difficult is it to keep surprising people within the horror genre nowadays? I mean it’s both rare and refreshing to find a horror movie that, firstly, isn’t a remake and, secondly, doesn’t rely on gore… Is the genre running out of ideas?
Antti Jokinen: I don’t think it’s the horror filmmakers who are not running out of ideas so much as the studios. I mean, why else would they keep making the Saw movies? But I think writers and producers are always keen on finding new ways of scaring people, so I don’t think filmmakers are as much to blame, so much as the market place. Personally, I don’t like the axe in the head approach. I think that the best horror needs to have a psychological aspect to it like so many of the great movies back in the day like The Omen or Psycho. I still think that The Omen is one of the scariest films ever made. It’s the same with Silence of The Lambs – that’s one of the smartest and scariest films ever made because they paid attention to the characters and story.

Q. Similarly, how difficult is it to keep a movie’s secrets secret nowadays? Your trailer, for instance, gives quite a lot away… Is that frustrating?
Antti Jokinen: It’s very difficult. One of the bad things about making your first film is that you don’t get last cut, or much of a say in how the marketing companies want to sell the movie. Sometimes it doesn’t go hand in hand with what you want to keep away from the audience. I did campaign for the trailer not to show the good guy or the bad guy. But so much relies on opening weekend now that companies want to do as much as they can to make people come and see it. So, it becomes a balancing act. Of course, as a filmmaker you want to keep as much of plot as secret as possible, but that isn’t always in your control.

Q. Given your reputation for finding striking angles and lighting, which scenes are you most proud of in The Resident?
Antti Jokinen: A lot of the ones I’m most proud of give too much of the plot away [laughs]! But I really like the shot the first time we reveal that one of the characters goes under her bed. It’s a continuous shot. The other one is the jump scene involving the mirror.

Read our review of The Resident