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A Haunting Tale
An American Haunting is a new film version of a classic supernatural mystery, the Bell Witch of Tennessee in the early 1800s. This true story looks at the Bell family, which was bedeviled by a poltergeist for years, eventually leading to the only case of a human dying because of a haunting.
A few days before the film was set to open, film stars Donald Sutherland, Rachel Hurd-Wood, James D'Arcy and writer/director Courtney Solomon sat down with us in the Regency Hotel in New York to discuss the film.
Have you ever had personal experiences with the supernatural?
Donald Sutherland: Until about six years ago I lived with a ghost in the house we had in Quebec. When they sold it to us they said “there is a ghost in the house” and we said okay. We’re kind of ghost friendly, the idea didn’t terrify us. It was a little annoying because he was angry and he stomped around. He played the piano, and it got to the point of locking doors and taking the keys away. I don’t know how the ghost did it but the ghost opened the damn doors. We had two people who worked on the property – the wife of the guy who lived downstairs; the ghost would come and sit on her bed because she had that kind of a personality. She had been damaged in the same way the child in American Haunting had been damaged. Each of the sisters had been abused in the same way. She was a terrific woman and the ghost used to come sit on the side of the bed and talk to her. Not in an angry way, decently.
We were drilling a well; they used to bring water up from a lake, but Laidlaw came and they brought waste up from the United States to a dumping ground in Canada. Despite all our protests and their promises it leached into the lake and contaminated it with mercury, and you could no longer drink the water or eat the fish from the lake. It’s kind of like Washington State where the Atomic Energy Commission promised that the waste from bombs from Nagasaki until today wouldn’t leak out, and of course it leaked out and it’s leaching day by day towards the Columbia River. We have destroyed our universe. Anyway, the dowser came to do the well because it was difficult to find water on the property. He came into the house and he was sitting there, he had a cup of tea, and he went, there’s a ghost. I said yeah. He said you want me to get rid of it? And we said no, no, no. The people who work in the house; whenever they carry plates into that room, [the spirits] break them. Can you do anything about it? He said, absolutely. He said now its okay. And it was true. Nobody ever broke a plate in that room again. [However] In that room… somebody would go into another room and bang! We lost cutlery but then when the owner of the house died six years ago, the ghost moved.
Whose ghost was it?
Donald Sutherland: His widow says it was his uncle. He was with the Air Force.
How about you?
Courtney Solomon: I believe I have. I’m not making this up so you guys have a good story, by the way. The Bell Witch was known for pulling the covers off the bed, one of the most famous things right to the end of the bed. We have two guestrooms in our house in LA and I come home when I got off four nights ago and my wife’s already been telling me, “The guestroom door flew open about a week ago and the alarm went off,” and whatever else. We have our deck outside the guestroom door completely under construction because it got flooded. It’s not open. It’s bolt locked shut and on the outside of it is actually sheet wood covering it up. So, there isn’t anybody getting into it opening it up, and it flew open. The front door flew open a different day; the dogs started barking at something. This was a couple of weeks ago. She brings it up a couple of days ago and in the guestroom, which the bed’s always made because nobody’s been staying there. The sheets, the cover, the duvet is at the bottom of the bed. She just freaked the hell out of me, I was speaking to her on the phone last night, she’s like “there’s noises coming from upstairs.” I don’t know, I went into the room and I did get the chills around the neck but I think just because I was psyching me out. I mean, you know, there’s been nobody there. I know – you’re looking at me “yeah right.”
I think your wife is pulling one on you.
Courtney Solomon: She might be. She’s really not the type to do something like that. You could be right.
What about you two, any ghostly occurrences?
Rachel Hurd-Wood: Over to you, James.
James D’Arcy: Well, kind of. My grandmother died about five years ago. She had had cancer for a long time and was in hospital. One night, I woke up in the middle of the night – I mean really, I got one of those wide-awake moments. It wasn’t like there was a person in the room, but there was a feeling in the room, I would say. It wasn’t even a voice, but if it would have had a voice, the feeling was saying, “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine. It’s all going to work out.” I went straight back to sleep. That’s the thing that I always now think is the weirdest thing about all of that. Instead of sitting up, wondering about what had happened; I literally just rolled over and went straight back to sleep. The next thing that happened was my mother came and woke me up and told me that my grandmother had passed on.
Rachel Hurd-Wood: I have never had any supernatural experiences. I don’t really believe in ghosts. But if anything were to happen, then I guess I’d be more open with it.
James D’Arcy: You’d have to be…
Rachel Hurd-Wood: Yeah…
James D’Arcy: Because it had happened. (They both laugh.)
You seem to like the horror genre, huh?
Donald Sutherland: Nothing to do with genre. The genre has to be with the director. It’s the reality of the character. Nick Roeg changed my life. I’ve got a son named after him. He called me up and said do you have any experience with the paranormal. I spent a lot of time, because I lived right next door to the spiritualists association, I used to go in and sit, I’d go upstairs and listen to séances, a bunch of people sitting in chairs like a lecture, except the lecture was talking to somebody from somewhere else. It was extraordinary, and they told me a bunch of things that made a difference in my life. Nick Roeg sent me the script of Don’t Look Now and I liked it a lot. I liked the two films he’d made, Walkabout and the one he made with Donald Cammell [Performance, starring Mick Jagger]. I liked them tremendously. I had this conversation with him – he was in England and I was in Florida. He said, “Did you like the script?” And I said I like it a lot, I just think it’s incorrect to take extra sensory perception and use it as a vehicle for horror. If that man experiences extra sensory perception they should react to it positively. I think that I should recognize what his fate is and save his life as a result of it. He shouldn’t be punished because he has extra sensory perception. And Nick said, quite succinctly, “Do you want to do the film or not?” It was the first time I really came to terms with the fact that directors make movies. You go onstage; once you go out onstage it’s just you and the audience. The director can be waving his hands saying “don’t say that, you piece of shit!” But you can say it. There’s a certain autonomy you don’t have.
James, I heard that you don’t like horror movies.
James D’Arcy: Well, only because I do exactly what I’m supposed to do in a horror film. Which is…
Rachel Hurd-Wood: Cry like a little girl. (chuckles)
James D’Arcy: She’s been doing this all day. (laughs) You know, I jump up in the air. I scream. And then I can’t sleep for four days afterwards. Ever since I saw The Shining, I’m not very good at horror films.
But you keep making them…
James D’Arcy: That’s true. (laughs) Well, they’re a different thing to make than to actually go and watch. I don’t have anything against horror films. They’re just not the kind of thing that I would go and watch. You know, certainly, with this film, I think it’s – it is a PG-13, it’s not a straight up slasher gorefest. It’s kind of hopefully got something slightly more of the thriller in it. It’s asking the audience to do a little bit of work. As well as having all of these jumps and scary moments.
Do you like horror films, Rachel?
Rachel Hurd-Wood: I love them. That’s my favorite genre of movie.
Is that what made you want to do this film?
Rachel Hurd-Wood: No, not so much. It’s more just the story that I found intriguing. And the character… I was really drawn to the whole project. It was really, really cool doing a horror movie as well.
Were you familiar with the Bell Witch legend?
Donald Sutherland: No. I don’t know much about American history. It’s interesting. I’m educated in Canada. I spent most of my theatrical life in England. I try to catch up but there’s so much out [there].
The Bell Witch is sort of a classic supernatural story. I remember reading about it when I was a little kid. As a filmmaker how much did you feel that you had to stay close to the story as it’s been told over the years and how much did you take license for a movie?
Courtney Solomon: I thought I was actually pretty good in putting a card up at the end that said this was just one version of how it ended and not the only version. Because I thought that it was my responsibility to say that as a filmmaker. Thank God I did too because I screened it in Tennessee in Nashville, and we’re doing a Q & A in front of five hundred people and this guy stands up. I guess he’s about sixty-five and he says, “I’m Carney Bell, the great-great grandson of John Bell.” I’m thinking “oh shit.” You know, like five hundred people, everybody claps for him, a big standing ovation and this big pall of silence and then he announces he loves the film. I think to myself, “What are the chances?” Based on what my film said about his [forefather] – and he wasn’t the only one there was like twenty of them. Right there as far away from me as you are. And there’s a CBS, NBC, ABC, Local Tennessee filming this live. This is a national film festival opening film just a week and a half ago. And he said he loved it. It was how he imagined it, with his having grown up with this legend. And he thanked me for putting that card on there.
I stayed true to what I saw consistent in the books I read. Not just Monahan’s book, not just the ending, but what happens to Betsy, what happens to John, the things that they saw on the farm; the voices. I didn’t go as deep into the speaking of the Bell Witch and I didn’t touch on Andrew Jackson just because it didn’t fit into the screenplay I created. [Legend claims the future President had been John Bell, Jr.’s commander in the Battle of New Orleans and visited the home when he heard of the spirit, where he experienced the supernatural occurrences firsthand.] It would have seemed like I was trying to validate how true this story really is if I’d put the Andrew Jackson scene in there because it just didn’t fit. I had a draft of the script I tried to put it into. It sort of wound away from where the whole story was going. It didn’t seem natural anymore. So I said to myself although its cool, sometimes if it doesn’t fit, you shouldn’t put it in. Instead I did a little internet episode that we have out there that talks about Andrew Jackson and the legend. I stayed true to the basic things that happened that were consistent in all the stories, whether it was told in Ingram’s original version or in one of the versions done just as [recently] as two or three years ago.
The role must have been very physically strenuous, on you, Rachel. Donald had mentioned that when they shoot in Romania you really get dragged up the stairs. Everything was very physical and really done. You must have been black and blue after they were finished some of those stunts.
Rachel Hurd-Wood: You know what? It wasn’t too bad because there were so many stunt people looking out for me, and because Courtney was doing so much of the stuff himself. He’d be dragging me around and telling me how to jerk my head so I wouldn’t… you know – whatever. It was alright. No lasting damage done. It was fine.
James D’Arcy: She was great. She really was. And she’s being very modest about that now. Honestly, for days and days and days she was kind of slapped and pushed and kicked and thrown around and…
Well [being dragged] up the stairs…
James D’Arcy: Up the stairs. On wires. All that kind of stuff. And she always came to work in the morning with a smile on her face. I think that was really admirable. Maybe not so much by the end of day, but then she’d sleep and by the time the next morning came around it was almost like she’d forgotten yesterday. It was really impressive.
John Bell Sr. is on one level a good man, but he commits a horrible crime. How much do you have to understand where he’s coming from?
Donald Sutherland: Completely. People find all sorts of justification, and I know that we could give you arguments that would explain why it happened. There was a scene that was written that was much more explicit and covered his passion, desire self content. You must understand that even though there is a need to ask complicity, it can never be allowed to exist; it can never be an excuse for anything, ever. But the fact of it is, these are human beings, and they make adjustments, they continue to live. I’ve seen too many of those. One out of four, twenty five percent of the women in this country have experienced something of that within a family. It’s devastating. The woman we spoke with in my house made very clear what she went through, what each of her sisters went through. But these relationships generally continue for a period of time. It’s not a one event as it turned out to be in the screen. It’s a director’s choice. The character submits to the inevitable punishment, because he knows what that poltergeist is doing. He knows why it’s doing it, and it’s hurting her. He wants to deny it and avoid it. There are a lot of people who lived through the Third Reich. How can they sit here and allow the Sudan, Darfur to happen? Does that answer your question? Do you know what your question was?
Was there anything that you brought to this script – any input you gave Courtney?
Donald Sutherland: I can’t remember what it was. But I do remember that Courtney brought me lots of information, and I sent him lots of information, and we had a very collaborative exchange. Sometimes I would find things in my mouth that didn’t feel right in the continuity of what I had assumed the character to be, and we would try to pull that together.
Was it nerve-wracking at all doing scenes with Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek at the same time? It must have been a little daunting.
James D’Arcy: By the time you start shooting, you kind of have known each other for a few weeks. We had a little time to rehearse and what have you. Yeah, there’s a freeze on, but you can’t allow it be utterly terrorizing. Otherwise, you know, frankly as an actor that’s the kind of thing you want to happen. If you’re so terrified that you just stand there, then you’re probably doing the wrong job. It’s wonderful to work with both of them. They’re both fantastic actors. It was a great honor. They were both very generous, kind, warm and obviously very talented people. So it was actually very good fun.
How about that first day with them?
Rachel Hurd-Wood: Having those two present on the set is always amusing. It’s so fascinating to see what they bring to the whole set. They’re really different people, with different styles of acting. It was really cool to mix it up a bit. It was fun.
Did you learn anything from Sissy and from Donald?
Rachel Hurd-Wood: I did. Sure. Tons. And from James as well, of course.
James D’Arcy: What did you learn from me?
Rachel Hurd-Wood: (laughs) A lot of dirty jokes.
James D’Arcy: (motions towards tape recorder) Where’s the rewind button?
Rachel Hurd-Wood: I learned how to scream from Sissy. I was doing really pathetic screams before and she taught me how to scream gutturally. Just little subtle things as well. They’re just really amazing, just to watch them, you learn so much. They’re great. And James, as well.
What did your wife [actress Francine Racette] think of An American Haunting?
Donald Sutherland: I had her fingernails in my wrist. She screamed and went out the… and I do to. It’s scary. It makes me jump. They do things for real. When Rachel is dragged up the stairs, she’s dragged up the stairs. When the carriage went over, the carriage went over. How are we going to do this? "Well, we’re going to run the carriage into a log. It’ll tip over." But what about the people in it? "They’ll be okay."
How do you keep up the energy when you come to work every day and you’re getting beaten and slapped around?
Rachel Hurd-Wood: I don’t know. I think power naps is what did it, really. And chocolate.
James D’Arcy: You were pretty good at power naps. I remember that.
Rachel Hurd-Wood: (laughs) All the time. Seriously. Every five minutes we had that we weren’t working, I’d just be asleep.
How was it doing all those stunts and being jerked? You said it was Courtney doing the stunts with you. Was it difficult? Was it strenuous? Did you feel exhausted when it was time for those power naps?
Rachel Hurd-Wood: Yeah. God, it was really exhausting. All the stuff. When you’re just moving such a long time... It may not be stuff like running or sprinting or climbing trees or whatever, but it’s really tiring stuff to constantly be jerking your head around and then to have your hair pulled. It was really tiring. But it was fun. It was fun. I’m babbling so much, I’m sorry… (laughs)
On the great shots, the shot with the carriage, was that CGI or mechanical?
Courtney Solomon: No, that was real. That was a stunt.
That was mechanically?
Courtney Solomon: Well it wasn’t even mechanical. It was an actual stunt. Yeah, it’s mechanically enhanced.
But they set it up so the character would do the 360 and land.
Courtney Solomon: We rehearsed it without all the chassis on the carriage, just with the actual skeleton about forty times and videotaped it. About ten percent of the time it actually did the full flip and landed right side up, which is what I wanted. The day comes with shooting, everything’s there, the real horses; you know, the piston, the guy’s on the carriage, and eight cameras, first take, it does a full flip and it lands right side up. That’s when you’re lucky because you just didn’t know; because it’s different every single time that thing goes because you’ve got a four thousand pound piston going boom, propelling it in the air, its actually hitting that tree, which is four thousand, it’s a real tree, you know, those guys are on it, you have to release those horses that instant so they can jump because otherwise when that carriage goes over its gonna be a train wreck because it’ll land on the horses, no more gladiator horses. That’s what they were the gladiator horses. That would be the end of that. And the guys needed to jump off and hope that they clear so that the carriage doesn’t actually land on them but they didn’t know which way it was actually going to go. Is it going to go left, is it going to go right, is it gonna go this far, that far? You don’t know. So it was all done realistically, I mean completely really.
I wanted to follow up on that, just because, I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen anything like that before. It’s a very big deal. I mean was that just an inspired moment when you were writing? Did it feel natural?
Courtney Solomon: Oh it totally felt natural. I wanted to show that there was no way to escape this thing. There were a lot of different examples in the real stories about the witch in the twenty books and how they couldn’t escape. Sometimes they would try to take Betsy into Benny’s house or sometimes they’d try to do this and it would always find them and stalk them. So I came up with something like that, that was sort of an extreme example but that happened to be repetitive in showing the same theme, point over and over again. I just thought that was a great moment to do that with. When I wrote the whole thing I envisioned the shot I was like, I’m going to do this shot with no cuts, no cuts at all. I’m gonna use CG going through the walls so that I can seamlessly put it together. Basically from the moment it goes off her in the carriage and transitions into her bedroom and the bedroom is empty. There’s no cut until it actually hits the tree and the explosion happens and the tree falls down. All that is, you know, about thirty-eight shots, seamlessly put together making over a minute of film, you know, and I wanted it to be that way because I was trying to create what it looks like when you’re a spirit. When you’re going through walls and if you’re traveling at that kind of speed – for the audience look at it through a spirit’s point of view. Because I haven’t really seen that you know. I’ve heard some comments subsequently about Evil Dead, which I’ve never seen, so if there’s any similarity there it’s not purposeful.
These days it's sort of unprecedented for a film to be restructured so drastically between releases. I mean we have the UK release and the American release, they’re pretty different. Can you talk about that process?
Courtney Solomon: It was actually the critics and the audience at that helped me realize what some of the flaws were in the first version. I started to think to myself, if ten of the ten people say the same thing, and especially after my Dungeons and Dragons experience, its going to be a hundred thousand of a hundred thousand people. They’re pretty much going to say the same thing, maybe 99.9999999%. They can’t all be wrong and I can be right. So I think if you can do it. You should do it. I luckily got myself into a position where I could do it. I took some of the bigger things that I kept hearing and sort of put them together as a set of notes that I made myself. Also from individual conversations and Q&A’s at AFI and even friends who saw the film. Then I stayed away from it for like two months. I just totally didn’t think about it. Like the Christmas holidays and when I started the New Year I said to myself okay, now I’ll go back to it. I had the distance and with those notes to now look at it with fresh eyes and went, you know what, that stuff is right, and now I can fix it. Because I did have the material, it was just choices that I made in the first place that weren’t necessarily the right choices. Again, your job is to make what you love as a filmmaker, but also you’re making the film for the audience mainly. You want it to be as good for them as possible, as enjoyable for them as possible, and as many people to like it as possible.
The UK version is a little different than from the US version. Have you guys seen both? What do you think?
Rachel Hurd-Wood: The US version is sooo much better.
James D’Arcy: It is a much better film, the US version.
You narrate the UK version…
James D’Arcy: But not the American version… That’s true. I know, I am in it less. I’m not saying it’s better because I am in it less. (laughs) Although that thought did cross my mind. I think that the story is much clearer in the American version. I think it’s far easier to go along with what is happening. When finally our twist is revealed, I think it’s a much more palatable twist than the UK version. I think it’s a great testament to Courtney. When he screened it – having finished the film, with all the credits at the AFI Festival last October or November – he then had the courage to go back and change. Having heard from a variety of people more or less the same comment, to go back and address all of that, I think that’s a very brave thing to do. And I think it’s paid off handsomely.
Do you have a film that you wish the director would have gone back and changed?
James D’Arcy: Sure. (pause, then laughs) I’m not going to name them. (laughs heartily)
Donald, do you get a lot of input into your projects?
Donald Sutherland: I was talking about Commander in Chief. Which is now finished...
Donald Sutherland: I talked to Mike Horowitz and he said, “is there another word beyond miracle?” It’s hard to fire two show writers and put it on hiatus…
Early in your career you made some great comedies. It seems in recent years you’re not getting as many…?
Donald Sutherland: You’re right. It just depends. I remember asking if I could audition for Same Time Next Year. And the producer said why? Does he do comedy?
Do you intend to do more theater?
Donald Sutherland: Maybe. I don’t intend to die tomorrow but I could.
Do you miss a live audience?
Donald Sutherland: No. I was just thinking of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. He said being married to Elizabeth Taylor was like having a one night stand every night of your life. The only thing that really fascinates me is marriage. I live with the most beautiful, extraordinary woman. Shockingly intelligent. Every day of my life, you know. So I kind of do what she says. If she wants me to go to the theater, I go to the theater. Because when we do the theater she goes every night and comes backstage and she loves it. And I love doing it. But it’s really doing it for her.
Both of you have done a lot of period work. Do those roles interest you, or do you think there is something about you that suggests the past?
Rachel Hurd-Wood: That’s what’s around.
James D’Arcy: In Britain, that is a great staple of the good projects that are around. I don’t think there’s an actor on the planet that would say to you, yeah, I just want to do that one thing forever. Nobody wants to pigeonhole themselves in that way. So, you’re always trying for different things and… you know it’s very easy to kind of lump in period drama as one thing. But actually, if the characters are sufficiently different, then that’s what you’re aiming for – to play a wide variety of people. I think sometimes people from the 1500s get lumped in with people from the 1800s. Whereas, if we’re dealing with modern day, you know, 2004 is period. So you try just to work with as wide a variety of different things as you can. In Britain, truly the best scripts are the period dramas, so it’s difficult to say no to them.
Were you a little burned out from your project before this [Dungeons and Dragons] that you felt the need to wait a few years for the perfect thing to?
Courtney Solomon: No, well, I had to recover, right? I didn’t like my project before this. So, you know, I’ll be honest about it. I mean, it wasn’t very good so it wasn’t quite so easy to get your next project done. And Hollywood’s not a very forgiving town, is it? So I mean, you do a crappy movie and they’re not too interested. You do a good movie and you know you have seven offers that you don’t have time to read.
You’ve worked with some of the greatest directors ever; Altman, Roeg, Fellini, Pakula, Malle, Bertolucci... Do you bring something different to a set when there’s a newer director like Courtney Solomon?
Donald Sutherland: I bring something different to each set. It doesn’t have to do with their newness or their oldness. The film that they want to make, that’s what you have to serve. I don’t have anything to do with the film, I just have to provide a character that makes some sense.
I know it’s not a huge part of your career, but I have to ask you, I love Kate Bush and you worked with her in the video for “Cloudbusting.” How did you get involved with that and what was she like to work with?
Donald Sutherland: She was great. I kept getting messages that she wanted to speak to me, and I didn’t want to know anything about her. She found out from Julie Christie’s hairdresser where I was, at the Savoy I had a place in the back where I stayed. She came and knocked on my door. When I opened the door, I’m tall, I didn’t see anybody. I looked down and there she was. And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘I want you to play Wilhelm Reich,’ and I said, ‘Oh Christ.’ You know, Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism, I had a copy of it. You couldn’t put a copy of it anywhere, I had a print out copy of it in 1974, that I took with me to Bertolucci when I went to play Attila in Novecento (which was known as 1900 in English). I wanted to make a fascist who – because of the bottom line of Reich, the second layer of psychology is fascistic. The second layer of ourselves is fascistic. I wanted to create a character who you would look at and go, ‘But for the grace of God there go I.’ Bertolucci wanted to be able to create a character that could hold a child by his feet and hit him against the side of a building and turn his head into a squashed pumpkin. Which is what we did. So it so profoundly impressed me that she wanted to do that. I adored her. Was her video successful?
More in Europe than in the US… Do you think you’ll ever write an autobiography?
Donald Sutherland: No. I can’t remember anything. I can remember jokes. I can remember thousands and thousands and thousands of jokes.