Gevedon, Stephen (Session 9)
Horror fans best know Stephen Gevedon as the co-writer and co-star of Brad Anderson’s Session 9, in which he played Mike. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Stephen as we took a look back at the making of the film as well as finding out what he has in store for the future both as a writer and actor.
Sean Clark: So first off how did you and Brad Anderson begin working together?
Stephen Gevedon: Well we met in college back around 1986. It was a small college with only about 1500 students.
SC: What college was it?
SG: Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He had seen me a few years later in a couple of pictures I had done called Smoke and Blue in the Face and asked me to be in his film Happy Accidents. One day I get a call from him and he asked me if I wanted to write a horror picture with him and that became Session 9.
SC: Had you ever written anything before?
SG: No, but like I said Brad and I were friends so he had a pretty good idea what I was capable of.
SC: One of the most amazing things about Session 9 is the location of Danvers State Hospital where it was filmed. Was there ever any other location considered other than Danvers?
SG: Yeah, there was the North Hampton facility which is in North Hampton. I actually didn’t end up going there but saw some pictures of, but I think Brad ended up visiting. The reason for that was because of Danvers’ condition at the time. North Hampton was probably going to be easier to get in terms of permits and stuff like that because it was a newer facility. If you have been up to Danvers, there is the big bat like building, as we call it, and then there are all of these newer buildings that were obviously built much late. North Hampton had a newer style of architecture, and just didn’t have that creepy gothic style of architecture that the main building at Danvers had to offer.
SC: So Danvers was always your first choice?
SG: Yeah, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the look of it. There is also a history that surrounding the town of Danvers, which I don’t know if a lot of people know this but the Salem witch trials actually took place in Danvers and not Salem, at least not what is now Salem. In fact that area outside of Boston was rezoned and renamed because of the Salem witch trials, and I guess Danvers sort of lobbied for that. So if you take the Salem witch trials tour you’re actually kind of nowhere near where it really happened, although Salem is right next door. So with that kind of history and architecture it was an obvious first choice.
SC: Was it a hard sell to the studio or investors to let you, one of the writers, act in a major role in the film?
SG: No actually. Or if it was, I didn’t hear about it. Partly because that was how we presented the project to everyone. When we sent the various packages out to the people we wanted to work with it was very clear that Brad was to direct, that Brad and I wrote it, and that I get to play this character Mike. Everything else is up for grabs and they signed off on that. If they had a problem with it, it would have come very early and if people did pass on it because of that, I never heard of it. It helped that I was an actor to begin with though.
SC: How involved were you in the actual making of the film? Did you have any say or input as far as casting the other actors or anything?
SG: Very much so and I credit Brad with that. Certainly from a writer’s perspective I was ridiculously involved in the making of the movie from start to finish. I was in almost all or at least a good portion of the pre-production and production meetings. In regards to casting there was a lot of input that I had in terms of the feel of the film when Brad and I were writing it. We were having almost producer/director conversations about what kind of movie we wanted to make and how it should feel, even suggesting camera shots, some of which ended up making it in the picture. (Laughs.) During the making of it Brad directed I didn’t get anywhere near that. Afterwards I was there during the test screenings and the production meetings with the studios as well as in the editing room. Actually, after Brad did his first initial pass at it I came in and we went back and fourth and all that.
SC: Speaking of the editing, what are your feelings about the subplot of the homeless woman living in the hospital being removed from the final cut of the film?
SG: Let’s put it this way; I wasn’t against it. What happened was when we saw the movie the first time it just didn’t feel like that character was really all that developed. That character didn’t have the impact that I think I was expecting her to have in the narrative, but at the same time she wasn’t necessarily a distraction, either. I didn’t really know how she would wind up playing. When it became an issue with the test screenings where people were confused about who this woman was, confusing her with the woman on the tapes and not really understanding if she was a homeless woman living there or an apparition or what. That kind of stuff made it easier just to get rid of that entire subplot all together and streamline the entire picture. I do feel bad for the actress.
SC: I personally think that it was the right decision. Removing the subplot reinforces the supernatural element that would be partially taken away by reveling that she was responsible for certain aspects of the story that I fell are best left unexplained.
SG: Yeah, and in some ways she was just serving as another red herring and we found we had enough of those. She was also to serve as some sort of moral device of retribution for Gordon that he gets his comeuppance, which you can see in the extras on the DVD. That didn’t work either because she just hadn’t been developed enough. She was supposed to be threatened by these people in the house and the subplot was turning into a whole secondary plot that was not going to happen, we weren’t going to shoot that. So there you go.
SC: Did you have any strange experiences filming in Danvers? I know Peter Mullan, who played Gordon, mentioned having some creepy experiences during filming. What about yourself?
SG: Not during the filming really. I went up and visited a bunch of times prior to the filming and I’ll tell you this much; film sets are notoriously boring places if you are not doing anything. When you don’t need to be near the camera or the people shooting, people tend to walk off and congregate amongst themselves or spend some time alone somewhere. Oddly enough that didn’t happen on this shoot. Everybody clustered around everybody else. In terms of creepy experiences I wasn’t going to be wondering off set through the building by myself. Every time I got to a certain point where I couldn’t hear other people I would just stop and turn around. The weight and the history of that building had just a general creepiness, but nothing specific happened if that is what you’re asking. There were no weird apparitions or bad nightmares or anything like that, no.
SC: How much actual set dressing did you have do for the film and how much was already there in the hospital?
SG: The morgue was one of the only bits of set dressing we had to do. It was just a big empty room basically. The morgue doors were all fake, made out of Styrofoam and stuff. In terms of the other morgue equipment we tried to use as much as we could from the building that would fit into a morgue set. In fact I think that was really it in terms of what was set dressed for the picture.
SC: Did you have access to film in the entire building or were there areas that were off limits?
SG: Once we began filming there were vast portions of the Kirkbride building that we were technically not allowed in. nobody went in them, really, mainly because they were very dangerous places to be wandering around in. As far as the other buildings on that property we didn’t have much interest in being in them because we weren’t shooting there.
SC: Do you recall what the budget of the film was?
SG: Well they say it’s $1.5 million at the end of the day. I can only guess that’s right. Not a very big budgeted movie.
SC: I had heard that you guys actually got to use the location of Danvers State Hospital for free from the Massachusetts film commission. Is that true?
SG: Yeah, free in that they didn’t rent it out to us. There were some permit issues and monies needed to be paid for that kind of stuff. Brad had had a relationship with the then Massachusetts film board director, a really great guy who did a lot of work and helping out. His name escapes me but he was very helpful getting the various authorities to sign off on this.
SC: Getting that location must have been like hitting the jackpot. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have cost to build sets like that.
SG: If we couldn’t have filmed there, or having to build the sets, we wouldn’t have made the movie. It just wouldn’t have happened. It was a definite boon to the picture.
SC: Both you and Brad had been up inside Danvers prior to writing the script correct?
SG: We had gotten to a point in terms of very basic plotting and what we wanted to do and realized that the locations actually existed. Let’s just go up there and see what it is and write around that location.
SC: How did finding out where you could and couldn’t film within the buildings effect the screenplay later?
SG: You know honestly we didn’t know where we could and couldn’t film. We just wrote what we liked. For example we liked the big gymnasium. I remember when we walked in there the first time I came in looking at the stage from underneath the projection room area there and I thought, okay we’ve got to use this. If this is not a Kubrick shot I don’t know what the hell is. A nice big open empty place and that’s how that worked. We just picked locations or areas of the building that we were intrigued by and got to film in them. It worked quite well. It wasn’t like we wrote this entire sequence that takes place here and now we find out that were not even allowed anywhere near that part of the building and had to rewrite it. Fortunately that’s not how it worked.
SC: Speaking of Kubrick I know that both your self and Brad are big fans of his work. I noticed the similarity to The Shining in the use of titles throughout the film to establish each passing day. Was that intentional or just unconscious influence leaking in?
SG: I hate to sound pretentious, but the way the creative process works is you think of something and it works from a practical stand point, and then you realize you’re ripping off Kubrick, you have to kind of go with it. That’s how the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday titles worked; it was our ticking clock. Sort of the High Noon shot of the clock, if you will. We came up with that and simultaneously thought, oh well Kubrick did it in The Shining but so what? It’s been done before and it’s been done prior. It will just be another homage to Kubrick.
SC: What was it like going into the building for the very first time exploring?
SG: Pretty daunting. The tunnel that became Jeff’s tunnel, where he runs down and the lights follow him as they go off, was the tunnel we went through to get into the building the first time. It would lead you right up under the Kirkbride, and that’s not a short walk. It’s a pretty long tunnel, about 200 yards, and it’s underneath the entire grounds there…and pitch black. The way it kept going on and on and the condition the building is in when you get in there, you have to be very careful where you walk. You can’t just go stomping through the place or the floor could come out from underneath you. It’s really exhausting because you are constantly on your toes watching out for falling debris, but more than that even you’ve got to be a thick skinned person to not have that place effect you. There’s not a lot of chuckles in that place. Not a lot of yucks going on. Then when you start finding patient commitment forms from 1906 just lying around, it adds a whole other dimension to the humanity of the people that were there. The people that were there and forgotten etc, etc. So it is a pretty daunting sort of thing. Every time Brad and I went up there we would go up for two or three hours at a time. We went up there two or three times, I can’t remember. We were just exhausted afterwards. We would go grab some lunch and just be like wasted.
SC: Do you follow urban exploration at all or was it just that one time scouting for the film?
SG: It was really just that one time. Growing up in Manhattan when I was a kid, what’s now the Trump World Wide Park Plaza thing over there on the Westside highway, that all used to be abandoned freight train stations and you could get to the piers, the ones which were still standing and had not been knocked down or refurbished. We would go exploring out there, as kids would do. We would just go explore around. As for this it was really a one off thing for me. I’m not a particularly huge urban spelunker.
SC: The current state of exploration at Danvers State Hospital has been at an all time high since the release of the film. There are security guards on the grounds 24 hours a day just to try to keep people out. In hindsight would you have done anything differently knowing that now?
SG: Well, the question implies did we have any idea that anyone would ever be interested enough to go up there to explore this thing. That didn’t even cross our minds. When you make a movie, obviously you want it to be successful and for people to get into it, but the thought of people breaking into this place because of a film we made certainly didn’t cross our minds. In terms of what I think about it; on the one hand it’s flattering that you have fans that are so into something you’ve done that they will go that far to be a part of it or learn more about it. The thing that’s disturbing is, I don’t want to call it a holy site or a sacred site but it is a place where people, actual human beings who had lives, were. We had a lot of respect for the place and still do. For the people who wound up there that never left that place and are now just literally numbered graves, and no one will ever know who these people were. It’s not an amusement park is what I’m saying. On the other hand when we went up there we went up with these urban spelunkers who are very respectful of the places they go to. They are not up there to break things or ransack everything. In fact in some cases they will take items for the sake of preservation so others won’t destroy them. I mean if you’re interested, go ahead, but I don’t recommend it because it’s a really dangerous place.
SC: Speaking of taking mementos, did you keep anything from the film?
SG: I kept the book that Mike reads underneath the tree when he tells the story of the Patricia Willard scandal. I also kept the jacket I was wearing.
SC: What was the book?
SG: Balzac's "Die Bauern" (The Farmers). It was a German book my girlfriend gave to me. She thought it would look cool. I think she bought it for like a buck.
SC: Any thoughts on the preservation of Danvers State Hospital?
SG: (Pause) Not really. Honestly I wouldn’t know what to preserve it for. I mean what’s it supposed to be a monument to? On the other hand it is a remarkably beautiful structure but at the same time… no not really.
SC: You worked on the HBO series “OZ”, what was that experience like?
SG: That was great for a number of reasons. One, it was shot here in Manhattan where I live which was extraordinarily convenient. What was really great about it was it was the first season so they built this entire Oz set in this warehouse downtown and Tom Fontana, the writer / producers office, and our dressing rooms were there and everything. So he was extraordinarily available to all the actors. Every time I’d get a scene if I had any questions about what the scene was about he was right there and I could go talk to him because he wrote the thing. It was a lot of fun to do, but at the same time hard because the subject matter was tough. Again not a lot of yucks in prison.
SC: So what is your involvement in the War of the Worlds remake?
SG: I have a small part and that is pretty much it. We shot it here on the East coast in Bayonne, New Jersey. From what I understand it is in the beginning of the picture when the aliens start reeking havoc. It was great. Hell, I got to meet and work with Steven Spielberg a little bit there. You can’t beat that.
SC: So what else is coming up in the future for you?
SG: Brad and I are working on two scripts together. One is in very early stages that we are calling now the “untitled science fiction project”. We’re pretty excited about that. We’ve been kicking this idea around for about two years or so. I’m a big science fiction fan. In fact more of a sci-fi fan than I am a horror fan, actually. Brad is also a big sci-fi fan and is always interested in trying new genres anyways. It’s got some similarities to Session 9 in that it’s about a group of people, probably a bigger group this time, who are doing something that you normally don’t see featured in movies in a place you would normally not see in a film. They are isolated and something happens but this time the something that happens is on a much more global level. Speaking of Steven Spielberg, a good template has been one of my all time favorite films; Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s somewhat of a template for this. However, this is going to be a much darker film. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is another movie we were kicking around as a sort of template. You know what they say, good artists borrow, great artists steal. (Laughs) So those are the pictures we are stealing from. (Laughs) And then we have this other thing that is much more close to being done actually that Brad and I sort of developed together and I wound up writing. It’s a comedy and it’s just a goofy heist movie.
SC: That should be the tag line on the one-sheet. “A goofy heist movie”.
SG: (Laughs) Actually yeah, that’s not a bad tag line at all in fact. So that needs just a little bit of work. The untitled sci-fi project is a bigger movie I think. We’re looking to make a bigger picture, not a million five or five million-dollar movie. More of a fifteen to twenty million dollar type of thing which is nothing in Hollywood standards but is big for us. The comedy, on the other hand, could be a smaller picture. Again we are looking to do a little bigger than we’ve done before. You know bigger and better. Onward and upward. So those are the two right now and hopefully we can get our shit together to do this science fiction picture and start getting it out there and off the ground this year sometime.
I would like to thank Stephen for taking the time out to do this interview. He also told me that there is a possibility of a special screening of Session 9 that may take place in Los Angeles sometime this year. This would be a great opportunity for those that never had the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen. He promised to keep us posted as that develops.