Exclusive Interview: Writer/Director Mel House Talks Psychic Experiment, Upcoming Projects and More!
On Tuesday, December 6th, Lionsgate is set to release writer/director Mel House's latest genre offering, Psychic Experiment. Featuring an all-star cast including Katie Featherston, Debbie Rochon, Adrienne King, Reggie Bannister, Glenn Morshower, Kathy Lamkin and Shannon Lark, the flick is centered around an idyllic, small, self-sufficient community which seems like the perfect neighborhood on the surface.
After all, everything you could possibly need is within walking distance. But eventually the pastoral exterior conceals a dark past and an even darker secret, and as a group of individuals - each with their own ties and agendas with the town and each other - converge on the enclave, strange things begin to happen. Very strange things. Strange enough to test - and then break - the very fabric of reality itself.
In honor of Psychic Experiment's upcoming home release bow, Dread Central recently caught up with House to get the lowdown on the film which has been three years in the making, his experiences while working on Psychic Experiment and what's up next on his ever-busy production slate.
Read on for our exclusive interview with House, and look for upcoming interviews with Psychic Experiment stars (and DC staff favorites) Debbie Rochon and Adrienne King coming very soon!
Dread Central: Tell us a bit about Psychic Experiment and where the story idea came from.
Mel House: Psychic Experiment basically focuses on a small community that has cropped up around a research facility. But back to the story: it is slowly revealed that the facility is doing strange experiments on the townsfolk – in fact, the town exists almost solely to be this giant Petri dish for the facility. The experiments (psychic in nature, as you might gather) are heavily steeped in weird MKULTRA type psy-ops, with an eye toward weaponization. Between the folks at the facility mucking with people’s heads, the types of people they muck with, and the people that are out to stop them (or steal the technology for themselves) – let’s just say wackiness ensues and by “wackiness,” I mean lots of body horror and killer dolls, of course.
Similar to what we have down here in Houston with NASA and the Clear Lake area, I guess and the initial idea was to have it be a walkable community (hence the original title, Walking Distance), but that stuff started falling by the wayside during every step of production – due to either losing locations, time constraints, the first edit, or the final 93 minute cut. As you can imagine, when cutting down a 2 hour film to 93 minutes, all the “walking” is what goes first! So when Lionsgate wanted to change the title, I had no problem with it as it had mutated into a different beast.
Oddly enough though, Experiment began life as a zombie film back when I started writing the script as Walking Distance in my college years. I’d spun in a lot of personal demons in there, stuff I was dealing with at that time in my life – crappy childhood, girl trouble, homesickness, relationship tension from being multiracial, etc. Most of that stuff stayed intact on through to Experiment, actually but at any rate, there hadn’t been a high-profile zombie film in a while – the only two I remember from back then are I, Zombie and The Dead Hate The Living. Over the course of the decade or so that went by until we actually were prepared to make the movie, there was the whole zombie resurgence with 28 Days Later, Shaun, Land, etc. After seeing 28 Days Later, I was like, “That’s a pretty definitive statement on this zombie thing…I’m not even going to try to go this route.” So I searched for something else to wrap the story around and stumbled onto something much weirder, and with hindsight, more my taste these days. So I guess it all worked out.
Dread Central: Was this always a movie you intended on making independently? What were the positive aspects of working independently, and what kind of challenges did you face making Psychic Experiment on your own terms?
House: Yes, it was. Initially I was going to even try and make it for WAY less than we did- like unrealistically less- which James LaMarr, my co-producer, still gives me crap about that on a regular basis. But I had no delusions that we could make this crazy flick in any manner other than on our own. Fortunately, we rooked in enough like-minded individuals so that it became- well, I wouldn’t say 'easy' but definitely 'do-able.'
Of course we had the obvious freedom of doing what we wanted to do without worrying about pandering to commercialism (for better or worse). And we could cast who we wanted, which for me amounted to “people I loved watching as a kid that I want to work with now”. This is a recurring theme for me. Oddly enough, that freedom and the ensuing sales process taught me TONS about the whole 'business vs. art' paradigm- but that’s a whole other interview. I’ll just say the process was not unlike when they let Amish kids go nuts for a year to decide whether they’re in or out, except that our particular Devil’s Playground was about three years long.
Drawbacks were the obvious ones- little money and little time- because when you don’t have enough money there’s never enough time. Realistically, there were a few hitches with the practical and visual effects that I think would have been avoided if we had had the budget to bring on bigger houses, but that wasn’t the reality of the situation. You do what you have to do and make what Faustian bargains you have to make to get things done with what little money you have, get to the finish line, and hopefully lick your wounds and learn your lessons later. Additionally, we’re all wearing five or six hats during the production – I wasn’t just the director, I was building sets, part time “VFX supervisor” (quotes around that for a reason), gun wrangler, etc. Melanie (Donihoo) not only acted in the film but was also UPM, craft services and more or less location manager too. There was very little sleeping going on.