Film and TV

New Film Is a Feast for H.P. Lovecraft Fans

It's a dark time for the followers of Cthulhu. Granted, that's sort of the point of being a follower of Cthulhu, but there's a specific gripe this time (instead of the usual, run-of-the-mill complaints about the day the elder gods rise to devour us all).

The word is that Guillermo Del Toro's massive adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness has been pushed back quite a ways. Universal Studios is balking at an R-rated $150 million horror film, and the project is officially in limbo until they relent, or Del Toro agrees to make it PG-13, or another studio takes over the project.

That means that fans of the mythos have only one hope left for a truly spectacular cinematic adaptation. They're called the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Preservation Society, and they've already produced the definitive version of Lovecraft's seminal The Call of Cthulhu. Rather than a big budget spectacle, which is impossible on the shoestring budget the Society operates on, Cthulhu was produced as a film that came out when the story was released in 1928. The result is a black-and-white silent film featuring an unbelievable stop-motion star that makes for the most exciting trailer we've ever seen.

Now, filmmakers Sean Branney and Andrew Leman are ready to do it all again with The Whisperer in Darkness, a science-fiction tale of the alien Mi-Go and their habit of transporting humans to their planet through the magic of putting our brains in jars. Rather than a '20s silent film, Branney and Leman are producing something like an early talkie. The trailer has been available online for what seems like forever, but delays have kept us waiting so long we'd just about given up hope. Our faith was rewarded when we browse by and saw that Whisperer is finally done!

With that we fired off some quick questions to Branney and Leman to hear what we can expect from their new picture.

Art Attack: First and foremost, what is the release date?

Sean Branney: The formal release date is not set. We're working with distributors to determine the exact how and when of Whisperer being released into the wild. We are hopeful that it will be available on disc by sometime this fall.

AA: What's held up the production so long?

SB: We announced our plans to make Whisperer very early in the process, and we shot a teaser trailer at that time. When we made the teaser, we did not yet have a shooting script in hand, and the process of developing the story into a script that we were all on-board with proved quite time consuming. Once we settled on a shooting script though, production really hasn't been all that long a time for an indie film. We had our first production meetings in April of 2009; we shot principal photography in September and October of 2009. After that we did our effects shots and editing, sound work; the score was composed, and we assembled all of the pieces into the final picture by February 2011.

AA: What new challenges did you face after doing Call of Cthulhu?

SB: Whisperer is a bigger picture than The Call of Cthulhu in almost every way. It's more than twice as long, it features sync sound, we shot on location, etc... Shooting Whisperer required a lot more organization and planning up front, so that we could work as efficiently as possible once we were actually filming. We took our entire crew to New England to film our exteriors in Vermont. They were actually at some of the locations Lovecraft describes in the story. We also shot in New Hampshire and Western Massachusetts. Filming on location was a challenge for a production of our modest budget, but also yielded lovely production values.

AA: How did you create the Mi-Go?

SB: Going into the production, our intention had been to animate the Mi-Go using traditional stop-motion animation techniques of the period. Andrew Leman sculpted maquettes and Sven Bonnichsen built and amazing articulated armature for the creatures. Our Line Producer, John Younger, looked at how much stop motion was necessary and how long it would take to execute it, and he encouraged us to take a meeting with Dilated Pixels, a CGI graphics firm that were big fans of The Call of Cthulhu. Dilated Pixels rendered some sample footage for us, demonstrating how they thought they could use CGI to animate the Mi-Go but still keep the visual feel of 1930s stop motion animation. We were impressed with what they did and we decided to engage their services to do the stop motion digitally. They were able to use their technologies to animate some sequences that would have been very, very difficult to execute using traditional techniques.

AA: How do you feel about the recent announcement of the Del Toro At the Mountains of Madness being pushed back in favor of a PG-13 rated horror film?

SB: It's a disappointment that the project isn't going forward. We've had the chance to talk with Guillermo about it, and a film like that would very likely inspire a lot of new Lovecraft fans. That said though, it's Universal's money and their principal job is to generate revenue for their shareholders, not necessarily to make films tailored to a smaller segment of their market. If they don't feel confident in spending $150M on an R-rated horror film, I suppose that's their prerogative. Guillermo's unlikely to give up easily though and I think either his At the Mountains of Madness or other bigger-budget Lovecraft projects will continue to find their way to the screen. And, of course, we have a few more projects in mind.

AA: What are you most proud of in Whisperer?

Andrew Leman: Pride goes before a fall and it always makes me uneasy even to seem to be boasting. I'm very proud that our team managed to pull off such an ambitious project relying much more on talent and dedication and imagination than on material resources. I'm most proud of the adaptation of Lovecraft's original story into what we believe is a satisfying cinematic version. At first glance some people might say we've made a lot of changes to the story, and while I'll admit there are a few, mostly what we've tried to do is amplify elements that are present in the original tale and better fit them to the needs of a motion picture drama. We believe it works both as a Lovecraft story and as a movie.

AA: You've gone from radio show with At the Mountains of Madness, to silent film with Cthulhu, to early talkie with Whisperer. Will the next film be a modern film?

AL: One never knows what unexpected opportunities will come up, so I can't say for certain. Left to our own devices, I think we're going to continue to work in Mythoscope for a little while longer. It serves the material very well.

AA: Is there anything you couldn't do in Whisperer that you wish you could've?

AL: There are probably always things you wish you could have done, or done differently. But the time comes to let go of those things, hopefully not too much later than the point when you realize there's nothing you can do about it anymore. I wish we could have paid everyone a million dollars.

AA: Do you think a film like Whisperer can bring new Lovecraft fans, or merely please the existing ones?

AL: We very much think that a film like Whisperer, and hopefully Whisperer itself, can create new Lovecraft fans. By taking what we think is so great about Lovecraft's work and adapting it into a more readily accessible medium like film, we hope to bring Lovecraft to a wider audience. The role-playing game Call of Cthulhu created a lot of new Lovecraft fans when it came out, and continues to do so. I was one of them. Well-made movies that treat his original stories with respect can absolutely create new fans. There is much to love about Lovecraft. Movies can't translate all of it, but they can definitely point the way.

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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner