Exclusive Interview: Writer/Director Michael Nickles Talks Playback

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Dread Central recently checked in with writer/director Michael Nickles in support of Playback, his latest directorial effort which hits theaters on March 9th and is currently available on VOD courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

We talked with Nickles about the inspiration behind Playback, whether or not his career as an actor has influenced his work at all, his experiences helming his latest project and if there are more horror films in his directing future.

Dread Central: Can you talk a bit about what inspired your script since there was a lot more going on in Playback than just a guy running around killing people; also, did your career as an actor inspire you to make a ‘horror cinema’ story at all?

Michael Nickles: You know, I’m usually not aware of what influenced me until much, much later, but I’ll give it a shot. I was brought aboard Playback as a gun-for-hire and had to find my way into a story that I didn’t initiate. That can be difficult because you have to find something that excites you in order to write anything, let alone 90+ pages of material. I definitely wasn’t interested in doing a “guy-runs-around-killing-people” movie. I wanted to experiment with something different, something like a puzzle. I like movies that drop you into something, some ongoing story, and ask you to get up-to-speed on your own.

[Steven] Soderbergh is an inspiration for that kind of storytelling. He plays with time a lot. Christopher Nolan did the same thing in a lot of his earlier indie work. They ask you to pay attention and don’t necessarily make it easy for you to catch up. But somehow you do, and that’s what makes it fun. It’s engaging. I’d say that was on my mind a lot when I wrote Playback. How do I take that particular kind of indie sensibility and apply it to a genre film? How do I make this story puzzling enough to be intriguing and entertaining but not so complex that it’s impenetrable, or worse, boring? It’s a difficult thing to balance, and I may not have succeeded, but I’d rather shoot for something challenging than follow an expected formula.

The decision to make a “cinema story” came from the same impulse – my desire to create a puzzle. This one takes the shape of a Chinese box. I like the idea of a movie within a movie because it reminds the audience that they are watching a film. Granted, it can take you out of the story for a moment. But it can also remind you that you are actually part of the process – writing, shooting and viewing. It’s meant to plant the little seed of an idea that the audience could become as corrupted by Playback as the characters within the film become.

DC: Talk a bit about putting your cast together. Did you work with them before shooting at all? Also, with Christian Slater’s role being a bit different and a lot edgier than we’re used to seeing him do in his adult career, can you talk a bit about working with him and if he had any reservations with the role at all?

Michael Nickles: Our casting director, Jen Levy, did a great job of bringing the entire cast together. We did some rehearsals before shooting, but on indie films like this one there’s not a lot of time or money for it, unfortunately. I’m glad you felt their performances were natural. I feel the same way–some crazy, supernatural things happen in Playback, things that really require a suspension of disbelief, but none of the actors ever removed themselves from the reality of the story. They committed completely.

Christian Slater was a joy to work with, even before he started shooting. We were a small crew, freezing our butts off in Michigan, and Christian knew we were working hard, long hours. One night-—days before he was scheduled to arrive-—he arranged to send the crew a hot, delicious second meal from one of the local restaurants. It was a very generous, thoughtful thing to do and much appreciated.

I don’t think he had any reservations about the role. He’s a consummate professional. He brought all his formidable skills and talent to the task. It was great seeing him. He and I had worked together as actors in the past, and he was just as energetic and focused as I remembered him being.

DC: I noticed this is your second horror feature; what kind of horror movies speak to you as a storyteller, and how did that influence you while creating Playback?

Michael Nickles: Some of my favorites films in the genre are Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, The Exorcist, Peeping Tom and Cannibal Holocaust. Or, more recently, Martyrs, The Ring and Let the Right One In. For pure fun I like Scream, American Werewolf in London and Evil Dead 2. I’m a big fan of Blue Velvet; some people don’t consider it a horror film, but I do.

Obviously, there’s a similarity between The Ring and Playback in that they both deal with a demonic spirit and the transfer of that spirit via technology. I love The Ring. I particularly like how Gore Verbinski visually centered the entire film around what is, essentially, a black and white experimental short. That was awesome to see in a big studio movie. And it was so creepy and memorable. I am definitely inspired by that film. At the same time, I don’t think Playback is any sort of new “take” on it. It certainly isn’t meant to be. It has its own rules, logic and mythology, and our approach to the “ghost in the machine” aspect is much lighter.

DC: With the open ending of Playback, do you have any thoughts on a sequel and, if so, where the story would go from here?

Michael Nickles: There aren’t any plans for a sequel at the moment, but that may change; you never know. The question at the end of the film is clearly whether or not the demonic spirit succeeded in its quest. It is purposefully open for interpretation.

DC: Magnolia/Magnet is one of my favorite distributors for horror films, and they have a great reputation for releasing some really incredible projects. Can you talk a bit about how it feels to have them on board to release Playback?

Michael Nickles: They’re a great company with a lot of integrity. I was in a theater recently, and the audience clapped and whistled when the Magnet logo came on screen. It was interesting. I think fans know that Magnolia/Magnet has a great deal of respect for the genre and aren’t there to just dump out product. In that theater I could feel the appreciation.

DC: What’s up next for you? Any plans to continue working in the horror genre?

Michael Nickles: I’m always writing, always wrestling with that blank page. I finished another horror script recently and am pushing that forward. In the meantime I’m working on a thriller – something that kind of freaks me out as I’m writing, which for me, is a lot of fun.

Exclusive Interview: Writer/Director Michael Nickles Talks Playback

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