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Q&A: Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy on “AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR”

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After expanding his short film THE PACT into the successful haunted-house feature of the same name, Nicholas McCarthy tackles a more complex take on similar themes in the just-released AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR. The writer/director took some time to discuss this tale of domestic deviltry with FANGORIA.

Originally titled HOME, released in New York City this past Friday and opening in LA September 26 from IFC Films, AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR divides its time between three heroines—real estate agent Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno), her artist sister Vera (Naya Rivera) and a troubled teen girl (Ashley Rickards)—who become embroiled with a demonic force residing in the latter’s former home. It’s a spooky change of pace for Rivera and Rickards, better known for the more lighthearted TV series GLEE and AWKWARD. respectively, and an ambitious, updated approach to traditional supernatural fare for McCarthy.

FANGORIA: Were you offered any interesting outside projects after THE PACT’s success?

NICHOLAS McCARTHY: THE PACT was better known overseas, but yeah, after it came out, I started to show up on the lists of potential directors for horror projects. AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR actually grew out of the experience of having an offer on the table to direct a more mainstream horror movie—something pitched to that world of broad, popular appeal, potential big theatrical release, etc. I had this moment where I asked myself if I really wanted to go there so soon, and I realized that I had to try and make a more personal project first, one that took different kinds of chances. So I said no to that other thing, and forged ahead with making this weird little movie instead.

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FANG: What led you to re-examine some of THE PACT’s themes with AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR, and what new ones did you want to explore?

McCARTHY: THE PACT was made very quickly, and when we were all spat out on the other side, I felt like there was something about the experience I wanted to revisit. Though a lot of AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR was initially written without getting too rational about the how and why of what we were seeing, I was conscious that the project was a further exploration of a lot of the things I had started with THE PACT. I knew that for that reason, I had to make AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR with all the key collaborators from the first movie—there was no question it had to be the same core crew. But this time, we decided we were going to try to stretch ourselves even more. It was foolhardy, really, because the script was so complicated for the budget we had. But in the end, that became a key philosophical idea for us as we made it—to keep pushing and not be afraid to fail.

FANG: How did you settle on the film’s unusual narrative structure?

McCARTHY: In some ways, that was a response to the stranglehold a certain kind of storytelling has on so much of Hollywood now. It’s almost hard to remember that really great films break the rules, not affirm them. When I began writing, I was thinking about PSYCHO and how unusual its structure is. Then I mixed in this separate story a cabdriver had told me about a witch doctor who bought souls. I remember giving the first draft to a friend of mine who makes his living writing TV and movies. The first thing he told me was that I shouldn’t structure the film this way. No offense to my very talented friend, but I knew I was doing the right thing if he disapproved!

FANG: Was it a challenge to both script and edit AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR, given that structure?

McCARTHY: It was a big chance to approach the timeline in a fluid way, since I knew there was no way the original order of the scenes in the script was going to feel right in the edit. There were bound to be too many variables; things would change. I found the structure with my editor through screening different cuts to many, many people. This was a risky way to make a movie—not only because there were so many different ways to go in the edit, but also because having a malleable structure leaves you open for producers and financiers to feel they should “fix” the film as it takes shape. Fortunately, the producers let me shape it as I saw fit, in the end simply giving me a reasonable list of suggestions.

FANG: Were you also consciously trying to avoid the tropes of other devil-centric films?

McCARTHY: Genre movies, I believe, are about using familiar conventions, but finding unfamiliar ways to get there. I actually tend to like films that follow conventions in traditional ways. It’s a kind of experience horror fans in particular crave—the comfort food of traditional stories with small surprises. Like the love of slasher movies—one of the reasons they appeal is that they are so rigidly coded, they’re practically like Westerns. So with AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR, I was sort of finding my own way into the conventions established by other movies about Satan, demonology, etc., and not wanting to shy away from them.

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FANG: Naya Rivera and Ashley Rickards are both newcomers to horror. Did you enjoy directing them out of their comfort zones, and did they enjoy stepping into darker territory?

McCARTHY: With all of the actors, we never really talked about this being a horror movie; we just talked about their characters. Ashley is an extremely committed actress who loved that she was doing something bizarre. We invented different physical things for her to accomplish for the various states her character was in. It was fun. Naya, I believe, liked being in a movie with so few other people—on GLEE, she’s always surrounded by a million characters. There’s a lot of just her on the screen. Naya also has a really great, serious moment with this little girl toward the end of the film. It’s not exactly the kind of thing she gets to do on TV, and she sank her teeth into that.

FANG: Given how important the settings are to the story, what went into finding the right homes to shoot in?

McCARTHY: For THE PACT, we decorated and renovated a house to give the movie the look and feel we wanted. But this script demanded many houses and we had not much more money, so building things was out of the question. But that caused us to approach it differently, in a philosophical way—what existing houses fed into what we wanted for this film? We began to look at different houses that were for sale, and gravitated toward those that had something to them that felt alienating—sometimes for some unlikely reason we couldn’t put our finger on. For example, in the house that Catalina’s character is selling, there was an atrium in the living room. My idea was to put the statue of the angel in there, and all of a sudden, we had this very strange set. I’m not sure we would have gotten that kind of stuff if we had built those spaces from scratch.

FANG: How explicit did you want the horror content to be?

McCARTHY: I look forward to doing a super-gory movie one day, but the horror here comes from the atmosphere we were trying to create, and the surreal, even absurd storyline. There’s one shot in the whole film where we see blood, and it’s a trickle. There are also brief flashes of a little out-of-focus blood in that sequence.

FANG: Are you interested in further exploring this territory in future films?

McCARTHY: AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR and THE PACT were conceived as sister movies, and I actually have a story for a third film with the same themes. In some ways, my idea for this third “sisters” movie has the most shocking twist of all. I told it to Julien Maury, one of the directors of INSIDE—one of the most extreme horror films ever—and he loved it and told me I had to make it. So we will see.

FANG: Did you have any involvement in the upcoming THE PACT 2?

McCARTHY: I didn’t, but I wished them well. As a horror fan, I consider it an honor to have a sequel made to something I did.

FANG: What else are you working on at the moment?

McCARTHY: There’s a horror anthology feature as well as an anthology TV series that might be happening next. There’s also a feature script I love that I didn’t write, which I’m hoping to direct. But maybe I’ll write whatever the next one is.

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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