Frightfest interview: Another star Maria Olsen Ian White August 20, 2014 Film4 Frightfest, Interviews, Women Of Horror 5432 Actress, producer and writer Maria Olsen has seemingly been making films for as long as I can remember but that’s a false memory because, although she’s been performing since childhood, Maria only began making movies a relatively short time ago. Still, her list of credits is exceptional and include the fantastic Rob Zombie movie ‘Lords of Salem’, the hit TV series ‘American Horror Story’, ‘Paranormal Activity 3’ and ‘Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief’. She has won several awards for acting and directing and is the owner of MOnsterworks66, an innovative and exciting young film company that – like Maria – has quickly established itself as a creative force to be reckoned with. Maria appears in two films that are being shown at this year’s Frightfest – ‘Starry Eyes’ (which has already garnered some outstanding reviews Stateside) – and Jason Bognacki’s beautiful and spellbinding debut feature ‘Another’, which I’m personally predicting will be the break-out hit of the Festival and is easily my favourite film of the year so far. Maria was born in South Africa, is the eighth great-Granddaughter of the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn and is so phenomenally busy that I really don’t know how she found time to answer all my questions, but I’m very grateful she did. She’s a fascinating lady. MR: What drew you to ‘Another’? Did Jason Bognacki approach you directly to play the role or were you asked to audition? (Were you in Jason’s original short film of ‘Another’?) And what do you think of the completed film? I originally auditioned for Jason for another role in another feature (yes, I get a kick out of saying “another” time and time again!), and booked it…and never shot it…but I’ve appeared in almost all of Jason’s other projects since then. The footage for one wonderful short was, unfortunately lost after a system crash, but I do believe that another short, Beyond The Red Door, is still in post. As I really love Jason’s style – his cinematography is truly astounding – I jumped at the chance to be in Another when he asked me to. I’ve never seen the short film, though, and he just contacted me one day to say he had decided to turn the short into a feature…and of course I thought this was the best idea ever! As I simply love visually rich film, I think Another is truly a stand-out feature that is head and shoulders above almost everything else I’ve seen. It’s obvious that its roots are in classic giallo, but Another is giallo transformed into a thrilling and enchanting visual feast. MR: What is Jason like to work with? He obviously trusts his actors and the intelligence of the audience a great deal and there are several fantastic dialogue scenes in the movie where he isn’t afraid to keep the camera still and concentrated on the actors’ performance. It feels very classic in its execution. With Jason, I never really have to think about character development. All I have to do is learn my lines and then show up on set. He will then tell me exactly what he wants me to do and exactly how he wants every take of every line performed. We would often shoot a monologue – or even a few words – many different ways and with many different emotional undertones, and then he would choose that take with the “performance mood” that would best suit the story’s development. My favorite moment was when he said “And, in this take, I want…tears… Action!” Yes, I cried. MR: The other ingredient ‘Another’ has (which I think has been largely lost in cinema-horror) is it is a very sensual film. Not only does the story unfold as slowly but deliberately as a witches spell (there’s a very hallucinogenic feel to the movie) but there is a particular slow-burn intensity to the later scenes you and Paulie Rojas have together which we don’t really get to see in most modern horror. Your pursuit of Paulie’s character is, sometimes, like a seduction and you also look particularly beautiful in the third Act of the film, which is particularly fantastic to see considering the kind of extreme make-ups directors often want you to wear. Beautiful? Me? Why, thank you…I hadn’t actually thought about it (my mind usually goes to places like “ooooh, do I look fat in that dress?”) I do love this type of visually stunning beauty-yet-evil, though, and, in that sense, the final scenes in Another remind me of Coppola’s Dracula (particularly Lucy Westenra’s death in the crypt as the all-blood-and-white Bloofer Lady) and of some of the more sumptuous scenes in Interview with a Vampire. And, yes, it was a pleasure not to have to wear tons of latex and silicone…even though Jason did make up for it by having me hold a demon-puppet in my mouth for quite a few takes! MR: What were those scenes like to play? It’s a side of you weren’t not allowed to see very often! And at the close of the movie are you and Paulie going for the longest screen kiss in horror history?! I always held my breath when I shot in that dress as it’s one of the most form-fitting items of clothing I’ve ever worn! It was also very long for me, and I was always afraid of tripping over it in the middle of some crucial scene. I was very happy when my feet were out of frame, and I could work barefoot or in my boots. In the screen-kiss scene with Paulie, Jason had us slowly spin around in a circle, which – although it looks stunning on screen – meant that the end of the dress literally wrapped itself around my ankles. I was quite sure that I was going to fall on my face at any moment…but I survived to fight another day! And I think it goes without saying that I’m far more comfortable in my jeans and hoodie than I am in my dress and heels! And the nails! It took hours to get them on and off but Narcisse Chico Kitabata did a perfectly wonderful job every time! MR: You’re originally from South Africa, a country with very close associations to magic and mysticism (one of my favourite horror films is ‘Dust Devil’ made by the SA writer / director Richard Stanley) – do you believe in witchcraft? I read in an interview that you think you were abducted by a UFO when you were a child, could you tell me a little bit about that and any other experiences you’ve had with the paranormal? I was almost abducted by a UFO when I was a child…what a difference one little word makes! As for whether or not I believe in witchcraft, if you mean do I believe that there are powerful women who are able to do things that the majority of people cannot do and who wield a great deal of personal charisma and magnetism, then, yes, I do believe in witchcraft and, indeed, some of my best friends are witches! MR: You’ve been performing all your life but didn’t break into screen-acting until you reached LA. Was the transition from stage to screen acting difficult? Do you still do any theatre? And I read somewhere that you haven’t had any formal drama-school training: what’s your process as an actress? I read somewhere else you can do an incredible amount of preparation before a shoot, how much research and prep did you do for the character you played in ‘Another’? Are you an instinctive actress and do you think your lack of formal training might have contributed to your success, and kept you challenging yourself and being open to working in other parts of the industry as well as acting? Acting for stage and acting for screen ARE different skills, and proficiency with one does not necessarily lead to proficiency with the other. Yes, I literally grew up in the theater – I’ve been on stage since I was six years old – and once I realized that I had to change my audition style from theater to film in order to be considered for film projects, I learned how, and the number of film projects I booked increased almost immediately. Changing from theater-style to film-style comprises making everything smaller and subtler…you no longer have to reach the deaf little old lady in the back row of the theater, and yet you still have to get depth of emotion across to the audience. Yes, I do still do theater, but the play must be one that particularly excites me and my shooting schedule mustn’t be overwhelmingly busy. I was, for instance, extremely fortunate to be able to play Mrs. Kendal in a production of The Elephant Man in January, and this was a role I had long wanted to play and a play that I had long wanted to be a part of. I have indeed not had any formal training as an actress, unless you count a few years of drama classes in high school. My process involves two phases: first I learn the lines – just learn to remember the words one after another – usually while I knit one of my scarves and then I think about things in order to determine how the character feels in every scene. I use the clues left by the writer in the script to figure out what the character’s basic underlying need/base emotion is, and then I interpret every scene in terms of that need/emotion to see how it’s manifesting at that particular time. I’ve often said that if I can’t connect emotionally with a role, I can’t play it, and that is something I will always stand by. I’m very empathic and very emotion-driven. I like being totally in the moment, emotionally, and I like really connecting with whoever I’m acting opposite. With Another, I’m not sure if you’ll believe me when I tell you that I never had sight of the entire script. Jason would send me particular scenes, and then we would shoot them, but the story was constantly evolving and constantly changing, and I never had a grasp of Jason’s overarching story until I saw the feature. This caused my process to become smaller – not change, merely become directed to a specific scene or line – and how I would interpret something in order to portray it on screen became more personal when, with other projects where I have an understanding of the entire story, how I would interpret something would be influenced a lot by my character’s relationships with other characters and the events that take place within the story. Yes, I would class myself as an instinctive actress, and, yes, I do believe my lack of formal training has actually helped me as I’m more open and less rigid in my approach to interpreting and performing a scene than a lot of actors I’ve seen. I’m not sure, however, whether a particular method of acting opens or closes one to working in other areas of the industry, and I think my easy transition into producing came, instead, from my years working in the financial and accounting worlds at PriceWaterhouseCoopers/Coopers & Lybrand. MR: I’ve just heard a great interview with you when you talk about your role as a producer sometimes requiring you to do crazy things like drive down steep icy covered roads to help cast members with ear infections! Is one of the things you enjoy about movie-making the camaraderie of working on set, in whatever capacity? Do you enjoy working on the bigger budget films like ‘Percy Jackson’ as much as the lower budget independents? Working on set as a producer is different from working on set as an actor, and both roles have their different responsibilities and stresses. When I act, I don’t have to worry about whether the coffee machine is working or why an actor hasn’t learned their lines or is late to arrive on set. When I produce, I don’t have to remember lines myself or spend hours and hours in, sometimes, extremely uncomfortable wardrobe or makeup. When I act AND produce during the same day is when the fun starts… And, yes, on-set camaraderie is wonderful! Seeing so many people each doing their job with a single goal in mind is amazing! I think I enjoy working on the indie productions the most as there’s more of a sense of family – it’s like comparing a Mom ‘n Pop store to a Corporation. With the large budget pictures, there’s never a chance to meet everyone or, most times, to really get to know anyone. With the small, indie, productions, you can forge friendships that will last for years in a shoot of a few days. MR: How long ago did you set up MOnsterworks66? There are seemingly more horror producers out there than ever and it’s always been a very competitive genre: what’s your ‘agenda’ for MOnsterworks66? What sets the projects you make (and want to make) apart from other production companies? What are the projects you’ve produced so far you’re most proud of and, as you already create material for the web as well as the big and small screens (and you were kind of a dedicated DC comics fan in South Africa) do you think MOnsterworks66 will ever expand into comic books and other horror mediums? MOnsterworks66 took on its first co-producing job at the end of 2011, but the concept – if not the company – has been around since 2009, which I sent out a MOnster-A-MOnth calendar to local casting directors under the MOnsterworks label. My agenda for MO66 is to produce or co-produce ambitious and entertaining features and shorts in all genres – including horror and all its sub-genres – in which I can participate as both actor and producer. In the last years, MO66 has also co-produced an fantasy-action-adventure feature, Faraway, a scifi-noir feature, Way Down in Chinatown, and also came on board to co-produce a drama, LoveTouchHate, so, yes, I AM open to all genres. I do usually concentrate on the horror-related genres, though, as my on-screen presence is very intense. I do believe it’s the diversity of the projects that I co-produce that puts my company apart from others. At the moment, I’m working on a Gothic Horror (Something Sinister), a Horror/Scifi Comedy (Happy Ending), a Psych Thriller/Horror (Reunion) – among other features – as well as two anthology horror features. I think I’m most proud of my two super-micro-budget features: Something Sinister and Live-In Fear, which will have its world premier at the United Film Festival in Los Angeles in September. Also, MO66 has already expanded – into clothing! Apart from my line of Scary Scarves, there’s also MOnsterworksWear, which can be found right here: http://470697.spreadshirt.com/ Whether MO66 will expand further remains to be seen…bwahahahahaha! I am already a published short story author, though, and the idea of writing a book of MO66 short stories is actually extremely tempting… MR: And on the subject of DC: which superhero / supervillain would you like to play if you were asked? If they ever make a standalone ‘Wonder Woman’ or ‘Supergirl’ movie I would campaign to see you play the arch-nemesis! I would LOVE to play the Big Bad in a standalone DC heroine movie! That would be a dream come true! And there are so many potential nemeses to choose from in Wonder Woman’s world of Greek Mythology…one of the fates (or all three!) would be very interesting though… MR: ‘Another’ isn’t the only film you’re appearing in this Frightfest. Can you tell us a little bit about ‘Starry Eyes’? Starry Eyes tells of one girl’s obsession to become a star in Hollywood and how she finds herself doing much more than she thought possible to make her dream come true. The only trouble is…her dream soon turns into a nightmare. Helmed by Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch, with whom I had worked before on the short film Curtain, Starry Eyes is, like Another, extremely visual and almost surreal…it apparently also has a killer sound track, which I will hear when I finally get to watch the film! MR: I think ‘Lords of Salem’ was very underrated and in its depiction of three witches would almost make a neat double-bill with ‘Another’. It also united three of the great ‘scream queens’ – Patricia Quinn, Judy Geeson and Dee Wallace. Do you have fond memories of making ‘Salem’ and if you could put together your perfect cast of horror greats, who would you choose? I have many amazing memories of shooting Salem, and I will never forget my time at the gorgeously decadent yet seldom seen Los Angeles Theater. This gold-leafed and marbled relic of a lost past waits silently, hidden in the bowels of grey and dusty downtown Los Angeles, yet everything has been meticulously preserved, and it seems as if it’s only waiting for another premiere to light up its chandeliers. I also have many wonderful memories of the shoot itself, of watching Rob work – he’s so quiet and calm – and of being in several scenes with one of my favorite actresses: Patricia Quinn, who I had ADORED as Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (a role that I actually re-created on stage in a review many years ago!) If I could put together my perfect cast of horror greats – both dead and alive – I would choose Ingrid Pitt, Max Schreck, Anthony Hopkins and Tony Todd (which whom I had the honor of recently working on the upcoming feature Agoraphobia). MR: I read and heard a lot about ‘Haddie’ earlier this year, which is particularly exciting because it’s a lead role for you, but I haven’t been able to find out if you’ve gone in front of the cameras yet. Did shooting begin in May, as you were anticipating? What’s the status of the project? And what’s happening to another of your projects I’m looking forward to – ‘Our Zombie Mother’? May did not see us shoot Haddie, unfortunately, as the finances were not yet in place. We have investor interest at the moment, though – and I may also be brought onto the project as a co-producer – and I’m hoping that we can get this off the ground before the end of the year. I did just finish shooting Gore Orphanage in July, though, and that was also a leading role for me. I’ve seen some of the footage – a rough cut has nearly been assembled – and it’s looking fantastic. The film is based on a local legend in Vermilion, Ohio, and we shot it in an historic house in Scottdale, Pennsylvania, under the watchful eye of producer and director Cody Knotts and Emily Lapisardi. As for Our Zombie Mother, there could be exciting news very soon. My producing partner – and series creator – Patrick Griffin met with a network tv executive several weeks ago, and we’re presently waiting to hear whether the series will be picked up! Nothing in Hollywood is certain, though, but, if it does happen, you heard it here first! MR: I’ve also read that the filmmakers of ‘Haddie’ are already planning a sequel. Playing a recurring character in the right franchise can be pretty lucrative, but most sequels betray what made the original so special. Have you ever wanted to play a recurring character? As far as I know, Haddie is the first film in a trilogy, and, yes, I’d LOVE to be a recurring character in a franchise. Mrs Dodds IS recurring in the Percy Jackson franchise, but, if they stay true to the books, she’ll only be returning in film 5! And not all sequels are bad! I think Paranormal Activity 3 was a pretty good movie, and I’m NOT saying that because I was in it…!! MR: As a cat lover myself, I’m curious about the 21 felines you brought from SA to LA with you! Do you think we might possibly see a remake of ‘Cat People’ in your future?! Ha! I’d love to have a remake of Cat People in my future… And I’m sure my cats would be curious about you too! Cat curiosity is most definitely a two-way street 😀 MR: What frightens you in real life? What frightens you in horror movies? Have you ever watched a film or read a book that’s kept you awake at night? Snakes frighten me in real life…it’s quite well know that I have a snake phobia, lol! On a more serious note, loneliness, and the idea of having to spend the rest of my life alone, also frightens me. Nothing really frightens me in horror movies, though, except perhaps snakes. No films have kept me awake at night, although I did have a nightmare after watching Max Schreck in Nosferatu. The ONLY book that’s ever really bothered me is Stephen King’s Pet Sematery. MR: Why do you think people respond so viscerally to horror? And do you think that now the world seems to be entering a particularly dark phase we’ll see more films (maybe like ‘Purge’) that reflect socially what’s going on in the world or do you think horror audiences might start looking for something more escapist and fantastic, as a respite from everyday life? I think people respond so viscerally to horror because the genre tries to answer questions that are basic to the human experience. Questions like “what happens to us when we die” and “is there life after death” and “exactly what IS making that noise out there in the dark” are all central to human existence, and I see the entire genre as one way of trying to find answers to these questions…and it is THIS that people are responding to. I also think that we’ll be seeing more of both types of films: gritty accounts of what’s actually happening – and I’ve been reading disturbing accounts of people thinking The Purge is actually happening – and more artistic and fantastic horror, which, nevertheless, will still strive to make The Boogeyman real. Just like people process things differently, filmmakers also express their experience and understanding of what’s going on in the world differently… MR: Finally – you’ve written at least one screenplay I’ve heard about. Do you think you’ll write more, and maybe start directing your own films? Can you ever imagine a place where you’ll step away from acting to devote yourself completely to behind the scenes? And what drives you? I will most definitely write more screenplays, and I just finished a short film that I plan to shoot over the next few months. I love writing, but I don’t often get time to do it because it’s the one thing that requires lots of uninterrupted time, and I’m CONSTANTLY being interrupted by new emails, texts, phone calls, messages, posts, notifications etc etc! At this stage, I’m not sure whether I will eventually direct my own films – and I certainly won’t direct films that I’m also acting in – because I don’t think that I have enough experience in the film world just yet. I will, though, wherever possible, continue to direct stage productions, because I have literally decades of experience in live theater, and, as I adore the process, I may indeed eventually turn to film direction. No, there is no chance of my totally stepping away from acting, as I would not be able to survive without this creative outlet in my life. What drives me? The quest for stimulation: something interesting to do where I can bring ALL of my talents into play… The quest to be content, which, to me, does indeed involve constantly challenging myself to do new and exciting things. Which is all great news! Maria – thank you for taking so much time out of your hectic schedule to talk with us. It has been an absolute pleasure.