Q&A: Deborah Twiss Talks “A CRY FROM WITHIN” and Her True HauntingFearful Features,Movies/TV,News Michael Gingold
Back in 1997, writer/actress Deborah Twiss spun some of her own experiences into the female-vigilante shocker A GUN FOR JENNIFER. Now she has plumbed supernatural incidents from her past for A CRY FROM WITHIN, on DVD and VOD tomorrow. Twiss talks her occult encounters both reel and real in this exclusive interview.
Released by Breaking Glass Pictures, A CRY FROM WITHIN stars Twiss (who has also been seen in KICK-ASS and THE MIDNIGHT GAME) and Eric Roberts as Cecile and Jonathan, a married couple who leave the city for a house in the country after Cecile has a miscarriage. Shortly after moving in with their children Ariel and Morgan (played by Twiss’ daughter and son, Sydney and Matthew McCann), they begin experiencing strange phenomena, including manifestations of a spectral, scraggly-haired child, that seem to be tied to the house’s former owner (Cathy Moriarty) and her elderly, dying mother. In addition to writing and starring, Twiss (pictured below with Matthew and Sydney at CRY’s New York premiere last week) co-directed the film with Zachary Miller, and the two produced with Donna McKenna, Bruce Aitken and Cathy Gentile.
FANGORIA: Tell us about the real-life events that inspired A CRY FROM WITHIN.
DEBORAH TWISS: When Sydney was 1 year old and my son Matthew was 2 1/2, we moved into my husband’s parents’ brownstone in Brooklyn, a very cool old place built in the 1880s. My husband’s family never noticed anything strange while living there, but when we moved in, something quickly became obvious to me and my kids, especially my daughter. There was a presence in the house that began to attack her. It would hit her, grab her, terrorize her—very scary. Each time it would happen, she would freak out and scramble to me, quivering uncontrollably, her eyes squeezed shut. “He hit me,” she would whisper. When I would ask her who, she told me, “The bad boy.”
The first summer we were there, my brother came to stay and brought his dog Kiowa, who was a gentle giant; everyone loved Kiowa. Then one night, we were all having dinner and suddenly Kiowa lunged and bit Sydney in the face. Everyone went nuts. We rushed Sydney to the emergency room, and there was a plastic surgeon on staff that night who stitched her up. When we got home, little Matthew came to me and said, “Mama, the bad boy made Kiowa bite Sydney.”
After that, things calmed down for a couple of weeks. Then one evening, we were sitting at the table having dinner, with Sydney sitting on my lap. Sydney kept giggling and saying, “Matty, stop,” and kicking her legs. I asked her what she was talking about, and she told me Matty was tickling her. I pointed out that Matt was sitting across from her in his high chair, and she looked under the table. Whatever she saw freaked her out so horribly, she dove into my shirt, curled into a ball and started shaking uncontrollably—utterly horrifying. I stood up, handed her to my husband and told him to take the two kids out of the house, and that I was going to handle this. I stood in the middle of the room and said, “I don’t know who you are or what you want, but stop hurting my baby! Talk to me! Tell me what you want. I can help you!” And it was as if a hood came over my head, and inside played out this horrific scene of who this entity was and why he was so freaked out. He told me his name, Sebastien.
My brother then came flying into the room, freaked out, and told me he had just woken up from a really disturbing dream about a little boy who had lived in the house, whose name started with an “S.” I said, “Sebastien?” and my brother was shocked that I knew that. It was “shown” to me, I guess you could say, that Sebastien wanted his story told, and wanted me to make it into a film.
It was hard for me, though. I would start writing and just feel it was too exploitative; I didn’t want to use the experience for a film. But then the hauntings would begin again and I would start writing again. One night, I stayed up very late and had gotten through almost 30 pages effortlessly. It was flowing and natural, but it felt completely wrong and, again, exploitative. I closed the computer and decided I wouldn’t proceed anymore, and went to bed. As I lay there, I heard, from the very front of the room, 40 feet away, someone slip off the chair and the pitter-patter of little bare feet across the hardwood floor to my side of the bed. I kept my eyes closed, my heart beating wildly, and heard breathing right next to me. I slowly opened my eyes, and it was the strangest thing. I could “sense” a presence, almost like when you see heat on the road in the summer, and felt this being near me. I knew at that moment what I had to do, and I promised I would get it done and let everyone know his story and that he existed. Over the next five days, I finished the first complete draft.
FANG: How closely does the movie hew to what really happened?
TWISS: There’s a lot that is similar regarding the story I “saw,” but the supporting story of the family and Alice [Moriarty] and Sophia [Pat Patterson] was all created to be the vehicle for the core story. I studied acting at Stella Adler Acting Conservatory, and one thing they taught has really has stuck with me, and can be applied to all aspects of creating for the stage or film or TV: “No one cares about your own shitty little life. For something to be worthy of the stage or screen, it must be elevated to something the masses can identify with.”
FANG: This is a very different kind of film from A GUN FOR JENNIFER; can you talk about the differences?
TWISS: A GUN FOR JENNIFER is a fun, crazy revenge flick shot on 16mm with my ex-partner Todd Morris directing; he did a fabulous job. We wanted to make a film that was like a ’70s cult movie—extreme, very intense and gritty. It was fun, and cathartic. A CRY FROM WITHIN is a more grown-up film that explores issues families can have, their dark secrets and the damage those secrets can do when they rot and fester.
Everything I write is born of my own experiences. A GUN FOR JENNIFER was inspired by my disgust with injustice in the world. A CRY FROM WITHIN is also influenced by a kind of injustice done to this spirit. The film I’m currently working on, CONFIDENCE GAME, also has a theme of injustice, so I think I’m kind of figuring out something about my own character right here in this interview [laughs]. Apparently, I have an issue regarding injustice.
FANG: How did you find your house location, and did anything scary actually happen there?
TWISS: I have an amazing producing partner, Donna McKenna, who lives on Long Island and knew of this cool real-estate agent/location scout—an amazing combo!—named Tina Fries. Tina had about six fabulous places lined up for us, and the very first one we went was just unbelievable. As we pulled into the driveway, I had this eerie feeling. It was so perfect on the outside, and then I went inside and room after room, it was as if I had lived in the house and written the script for it. It couldn’t have been more perfect. We cancelled the rest of the scout, since we had found our spot. The owner was amazing, the house was perfect, everything was aligned.
Tina is connected to interesting people out there, and had brought a local psychic, Janet Russell, to the scout. Knowing we were shooting a ghost story, she wanted to help us and make sure there wouldn’t be any spirits opposed to what we were doing. How cool is that? Janet looked through the house and indeed felt a presence there, a little girl, but said she was friendly and it would be OK. But then there was a room on the top floor that Janet was very concerned about. She said bad things had happened in there, and we needed to make sure none of the children went in that room when we were shooting.
Of course, one day the kids were off playing, running around with our boom girl, Miren. The child who played the spirit went running into the room, Sydney followed after her, concerned, and she freaked out and grabbed a blanket because she felt a spirit. Matty thought it was funny and took a picture of Sydney and Miren, and look at what is just behind Sydney in the photo [right].
The entity followed Sydney that night to the next location! I called Janet, and she came to set the next day and had a sit-down with the little-girl spirit and Sydney, and the spirit stopped following her. Crazy, right?
FANG: Eric Roberts is kind of cast against type as the father; how did that come about?
TWISS: At one point when I was writing one of the final drafts, Eric was on a reality show, I think it was DR. DREW ON CALL, and he seemed so sweet and sensitive that I thought he would be the perfect Jonathan in the film. Then I realized that Donna had cast him several times. So I approached Donna and said, “Hey, so I hear you can get Eric Roberts…” and the rest is history.
FANG: What led to the decision to cast your own kids, and how did you balance being their mom and their director?
TWISS: My kids started acting when they were very little in my own films, and then begged me to get them an agent so they could go on real auditions. I didn’t want them to be “child actors,” and I really have never wanted to be a “stage mom”! But they met with an agent who loved them and started sending them out, they started booking jobs, they became SAG and they’ve always remained really cool and sweet and never obnoxious. It was an easy decision to let them play Ariel and Morgan in A CRY FROM WITHIN. We have always played pretend and goofed around and had fun, so directing them was just taking our playtime to a new level. After all, in a perfect world, acting really is just playing pretend a million percent.
FANG: How did you and Zachary Miller divide the directing duties?
TWISS: Zachary and I had a chat a year before the shoot happened, when I had someone else lined up to direct, and Zach mentioned he knew someone who could finance a film up to $250,000. I said, “Wow, if you can bring that in, you can totally direct.” He’d been involved with a couple of documentaries and was working as a sales rep, and I thought it could be a nice thing to work with someone who had been a friend since our first meeting in 1997 in Cannes. He’d never directed a narrative feature before, and it seemed like it could be fun.
When we finally got to set, the magical financing sources never showed up. My family was on the hook for the whole thing, and I had this guy on my set who, though nice, had come from the documentary world and wanted to take a “jazz” approach to directing my script. It was then that one of my producers and the AD stepped in and told me I had to direct the actors, or the film was going to fall apart. To really drive home the point, Eric Roberts was ready to walk off. So I was in charge of guiding the actors, and we let Zach stay and yell “Action” and “Cut.”
FANG: What else can you tell us about CONFIDENCE GAME?
TWISS: It’s a violent, sexy noir thriller starring Sean Young, James McCaffrey, Robert Clohessy and Steve Stanulis, and I’m in it too. After some of the things I’ve been through the last couple of years getting A CRY FROM WITHIN made, I’m very inspired to return to revenge flicks!