Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Evan Spiliotopoulos has had steadied success as a screenwriter on massive studio films like HERCULES, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), CHARLIE’S ANGELS (2019). He’s even got a G.I. JOE spin-off feature, SNAKE EYES, readied for release next month. However, wanting to shake up the norm, he turned his attention to making his directorial debut earlier this year with THE UNHOLY. Based on author James Herbert’s novel “Shrine,” the chilling, thought-provoking adaptation revolves around a young, hearing-impaired woman, Alice (Cricket Brown), who believes she’s a conduit for the Virgin Mary to perform miracles, and shady, skeptical journalist Gerry Fenn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) whose looking to exploit a newsworthy story to his benefit. Yet, when spooky, sinister stuff starts happening, it causes Gerry to question everything.
At the film’s recent press day for its Home Entertainment release, we spoke to the affable writer-director about his discoveries, everything from casting his leading lady to the valuable lessons he learned from the experience of helming a picture, especially during a worldwide pandemic.
Cricket Brown is a revelation. Where did you find her?
“So I thought the part of Alice was going to be the hardest part to cast because it’s so challenging. The part is written to be 16, but of course we wanted someone who was 18 or older. Otherwise they’d work half days. So we auditioned and it wound up being the easiest part to cast. I saw at least 9 young actresses who could’ve done this part. The reason I went with Cricket is that she combined both the look that I could find in a small Massachusetts town, but also a weirdly spiritual aura. We use the expression ‘old soul.’ She’s been around since Atlantis as far as I’m concerned.
There’s something so wise and profound about her. Her work ethic is beyond a professional stage star. The veteran actors were just blown away by her. Cary Elwes and Jeffrey [Dean Morgan] were coming up to me like, ‘Where did you find her?! What’s she done?!’ She had done one off-Broadway production and a few short films. That’s it.”
I’m always curious about when projects manifest. It’s always at an exact right time in our culture. Your adaptation deals with religious zealotry, consumerism, the media, worship of false prophets. Why this film for you and why now?
“The why now just happened. Basically, I read the book when I was 13 when it first came out. I was a big James Herbert fan. I immediately recognized it was a marriage between THE EXORCIST and ACE IN THE HOLE. I love genre-melding. It was that combination of great horror story with a journalism thriller. As I progressed in the film industry, I was carrying the book around with me thinking, ‘Who will adopt this orphaned child for me?’ Screen Gems jumped in in 2018. By then, the term ‘fake news’ was in the zeitgeist. Hilarious because the whole point of the book is ‘fake news.’ It basically goes to show you corrupt journalism has been around since journalism – in every profession, by the way.
As soon as you’re in a position of power where your job is to tell the truth, avoiding the temptation to move the truth to serve your own agenda is sometimes hard to resist, apparently. The character of Gerry Fenn is the human embodiment of ‘fake news,’ which made our news extremely topical.”
I know you had production challenges on this because of the pandemic shut down the shoot. I was wondering if you can elaborate on that.
“We started shooting in February of 2020. 4 weeks into our 7 week shoot, something happened that you may or may not have heard about, and basically we got shut down. We got shut down on March 16 and I found myself in a unique position, I really don’t know what other directors had this opportunity, of taking the first half of production footage and assembling it over 5 months virtually with my editor, and seeing what I had and what I’m missing and need to do.
Thankfully, the studio was determined to finish the movie. The actors were behind it 100% and we got to go back to Massachusetts in September and not only shoot the 3 weeks that were left, but because of the COVID protocols, we had fewer hours, a slower, more cumbersome production and we had to hose down the set with antiseptic spray for every set piece. Everything was slowing us down. Time is your enemy when you’re making a movie. You’re just trying to meet your days. The studio gave us an extra week and a half and got to finish our movie properly.
Two of our actors, Cary and Diogo [Morgado], because of their scheduling conflicts, were unable to return, but they wanted to finish, thank goodness. What we had to do was for 3 of Diogo’s scenes and 2 of Cary’s scenes, we shot them in Lisbon and Los Angeles, respectively, against a green screen. Some of them are scenes of Cary, Diogo and Jeffrey where they’re around a table and the actors are in 3 different parts of the world. Diogo is in Lisbon. Cary is sitting in Los Angeles. And Jeffrey’s right across in Massachusetts. I recognize that shows like THE MANDALORIAN do this stuff all the time. Not a little $10 million horror movie like mine. The fact we got through this is a testament to the studio and the actors’ passion and the crew, but also luck.”
When you returned to finish the film, how was directing the actors when you had a lot of protective gear on?
“I’m going to make a very big confession here and say we did much fewer takes in the second part of production in order to meet our days. I, first of all, couldn’t even go near the actors when we were indoors. When we were outdoors, I could go up to them as long as a shield was down. But indoors, they were in the church and I was outside in a tent and had the voice of God mic basically directing them.
The good news is, because we had the first 4 weeks of production, these actors all knew their characters. The other aspect was they’re all superstars. It was basically little instructions like, ‘You forgot to pick up the glass,’ that kind of stuff. I don’t know if I could’ve got through it as a first time director if the cast wasn’t so professional and talented and brilliant.”
What did you learn about yourself making this, your directorial debut, and would you go back to directing?
“I will do it again. It always depends on the material, if it’s compelling. What I learned is pre-production is your best friend. The pre-production is the last time you’re going to be able to make mistakes and not pay for them. Rehearse everything. And, unfortunately, you don’t get the opportunity to rehearse the actors. People don’t realize this. The busier the actor is, the less likely they are to show up before their scenes. It happens all the time – it’s just the way it is. Rehearse your camera moves. Go to the locations or builds and go through with your DP and a video camera and rehearse all the moves you’re going to make. See if you can light up and do an experiment with the lighting. Make sure the make-up people have rehearsed their process with somebody who is not the actor over and over again, to be as efficient as possible, because physical make-up takes time and eats up your schedule. Rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal. On every aspect of your production. It’s going to save your life while you’re actually shooting.”
THE UNHOLY is now available on digital, DVD/ Blu-Ray and On Demand.