It’s a very rare occurrence that this writer has the opportunity to speak with female directors in the horror genre, which is why I was very happy to interview Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo about her upcoming supernatural thriller After.Life, which hits theaters in limited release this Friday courtesy of Anchor Bay.
Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s own personal journey to get After.Life made is compelling enough to be its very own movie. The young director came to the United States from Warsaw to study film at NYU, and during her freshman year at the University she made her presence as an up-and-coming storyteller felt immediately. Pate, a short film she did for NYU, was selected to debut during the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. Wojtowicz-Vosloo spoke about how Pate’s involvement in the prestigious festival changed her life forever.
“Usually at Sundance the short films get overlooked,” said Wojtowicz-Vosloo. “That’s why it was so surprising for me all the attention Pate received. I wasn’t expecting that at all. After Sundance I hired an agent to field my offers, but all of the projects I was offered to direct back then didn’t really resonate with me. I have very specific sensibilities so I knew for me to do great work that my next film would have to be something that I was truly passionate about.”
Those sensibilities and passion led to Wojtowicz-Vosloo penning the script for After.Life alongside her husband, Paul Vosloo, and third writing partner Jakub Korolczuk. The script process took the trio about three years to complete, and for the director the idea for After.Life started with a single scene she envisioned.
Wojtowicz-Vosloo said, “Before we started After.Life, I always had this scene in my head of a woman on a slab and a mortician standing over her. The woman who should be dead speaks, and the mortician responds to her. It was a powerful idea to me.”
After.Life’s story is centered around Anna (played by Christina Ricci), who is in a violent car crash only to awaken inside a funeral home where the director, Eliot (Liam Neeson), is preparing her body for burial. Anna is confused as to whether or not she’s really dead, but Eliot convinces her that she is dead and is merely in the transitional phase before death.
However, things may not be what they seem so it’s up to Anna’s boyfriend, Paul (Justin Long), to figure out what Eliot is up to before it’s too late for Anna. For Wojtowicz-Vosloo exploring the theme of life after (and even before) death was something that spoke to her on a very personal level.
“I’ve always been both fascinated and terrified by the idea of death. My father died when I was 10 years old, and it left a huge impact on my life and made me wonder what really happens to us after we die,” said Wojtowicz-Vosloo.
However, After.Life is much more than the exploration of death; for the first-time director it’s also about what it means to be alive.
“I thought a lot about what happens to the body after death, what happens to your soul, or even what stages your consciousness goes through,” explained Wojtowicz-Vosloo. “I wanted to go beyond this idea of death and look at the human experience as a whole. If someone is physically alive but moves along like an empty vessel, is that person truly alive?”
This three-year exploration of the human existence for Wojtowicz-Vosloo meant a lot of research and preparation as she and the other writers were putting together the script for After.Life. The writer/director spent time in every single morgue in New York City and even made the trek out to the West Coast to visit the Los Angeles County Morgue. She said the experience was eye-opening.
“I happened to visit the LA Morgue one of the months when they were overcrowded with bodies, maybe around 800 so laying on these bunk beds in large refrigerated rooms. It was such a visceral experience on so many levels. There were so many different states of decomposition that I saw just in that one day, it felt like Hell on Earth,” Wojtowicz-Vosloo said.
Once Wojtowicz-Vosloo was ready to start filming After.Life, she immediately knew who she wanted for her funeral director Eliot — the incomparable Liam Neeson.
“I always dreamed Liam would play Eliot, but I never knew if we could get him or not because he is always in demand,” explained Wojtowicz-Vosloo. “We sent him the script and my short film, and he responded to both of them. We met to talk about what my vision for After.Life was, and he liked what I wanted to do. I was very lucky to get a group of great actors like Liam, Christina, and Justin who believed in this film.”
I asked Wojtowicz-Vosloo about where she found inspiration and even influences as a storyteller. She discussed her love of some of the great horror classics including The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Misery, and Dead Ringers just to name a few. It turns out the horror genre is something that has always spoken to the young filmmaker even before she came to the States.
Wojtowicz-Vosloo said, “I’ve always gravitated towards darker stories so it feels natural to be directing a genre film. Working in horror allows storytellers the opportunity to play with different realities, and there aren’t many other genres where you can do that. For me, horror has to start with a good story. It’s that story that is the foundation for everything else — then I can take that story and create heightened experiences for the audience and play with the mood and tone of a film to create something very special. I hope that’s what I did with After.Life,” added Wojtowicz-Vosloo.
With After.Life being somewhat of an unusual horror film to make it into theaters these days (meaning: it’s not a remake or a sequel to a well-established franchise), I asked Wojtowicz-Vosloo to talk about her thoughts on the current state of the industry and how After.Life fits into that landscape.
“I’m not quite sure that audiences are ready for After.Life since there aren’t a lot of distinctive horror films that make it into theaters these days,” explained Wojtowicz-Vosloo. “Horror fans are smart so I think they will like After.Life if they give it a chance, but I am aware of what we’re up against.”
“I really would love if the horror industry could get back to its roots, and that starts with focusing on great storytelling. I love to push the envelope and take a lot of risks with my work so hopefully that risk will pay off for After.Life,” Wojtowicz-Vosloo added.
Once After.Life is released in theaters on April 9th, the writer/director is already looking to line up her next project and is planning on sticking to what she knows best: the horror genre.
Wojtowicz-Vosloo said, “After we debuted After.Life at AFI in November, 2009, I received a few directing offers that I must say are a lot better quality than what I was given after Sundance. Right now my main focus is seeing After.Life through until it gets into theaters this week; then I can focus on my next project, which may be this really great thriller that I’ve been offered. I’m pretty excited about it.”
“I just want to make sure I get on set soon and it’s not as big of a gap in time as it was between Pate and After.Life. I love the idea that filmmaking is a collaborative effort so I am excited to work with someone else’s material for my next film.”
Photos courtesy of Bart Babinski and Anchor Bay Films
After.Life – Trailer
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