Vitals Interview Series Part 5: Director Marc Morgenstern
Vitals is a new claustrophobic horror movie from director Mark Morgenstern. The film stars Christopher Showerman as Richard Carsen, a man who’s trying save his on-the-rocks marriage by taking his wife on vacation to India. Unfortunately, he winds up on ice and about to be harvested for his organs.
Morgenstern recently directed a documentary on the effects of infidelity in the electronic age. It’s called Affairs Across America: The Ashley Madison Story and is centered around the multimillionaire internet guru who started the infamous non-singles dating website with the slogan: “Life is short. Have an affair.”
Perhaps that was the impetus for making his lead character/victim in Vitals a cheating husband. We asked. Read on to find out what Morgenstern said.
Dread Central: So, Morgenstern… any relation to Rhoda? I’m sure you never heard that before; I just thought I'd throw out that little brilliant, totally unique joke of mine.
Marc Morganstern: It’s funny. Ironically, my grandmother’s sister’s name is Rhoda, so I’m sure every day of her life as that show was on, it’s like “Why..?!” But there’s also S. Morgenstern from The Princess Bride, there’s Morgenstern who was Joey’s agent on "Friends."
DC: That’s such a great, memorable name. I bet it’ll help when the movie comes out – nobody will forget it.
MM: Yes. I’m actually looking to do sort of a Hitchcock type thing with Vitals.
DC: Yeah, the movie seems like it could go a lot of different ways, so when the viewer is there for, say, the first five minutes, tell me a little bit about what they’ll be experiencing and where it eventually starts to lead.
MM: All right. Well, it takes place in a motel room in India. A man wakes up and he’s in a bathtub full of ice. He’s missing his kidney; he doesn’t know where he is or how he got there. His wife is trapped in the room next to his. They originally took the vacation to work on their marriage, and now they're in a circumstance where they have to put all their differences aside and work together and forgive each other for their trespasses and things like that and find a way to escape before these organ harvesters return to finish the job and their lives.
DC: Can you talk a little bit about how they cope with little to no connections to the outside world?
MM: What happens is, she has a burner phone that she has taken with her... [If] you go on a foreign vacation [and] bring your normal phone with all your contacts and everything in it, and you lose that, that’s your lifeline; you’re not gonna wanna take that . So she’s got a burner phone; she lost her phone on the last trip that she took so she has a new phone. Now the phone kinda works in this room. It connects for a bit but then it cuts out. But the signal is strongest by his wall by her room so eventually they find a way that they can pass the phone... [and call] the police.
DC: It’s a challenge, but this is a great setting for suspense, the one-location horror movie. Joel Schumacher did it with Phone Booth, and there is that other one with Ryan Reynolds…
DC: Yeah, yeah. So do you draw from some those elements to use that very close space to your advantage, even when there’s a lot of gore?
MM: Absolutely. I think if you have a hundred million dollars and you have 50 sets and 50 locations it's very easy to put together a movie. Yes, you can direct it easily... you are in all these different places and different things, in little snippets of story. To bring it all into one location and to have the actor sustain that, to have a director to be able to direct that to some believability, to be able to write that and have the audience not feel like they need to escape, I think that’s the greatest challenge. And if a director can do that, an actor can do that, and the writer can do that, then they can do anything.
DC: I know that actors, especially, want to sort of feel the texture of their environment. They like to get immersed in their surroundings. Their costume kind of helps them get into character. So when you take a lot of that away from the actors, what does that do to you as a director to be able to get these performances that you know you’re gonna need?
MM: When I write, I like to give characters something they can hold on to or something that is their idiom. The main villain for example has a crossword puzzle. The wife plays with her wedding ring. The other villain has a smoking habit. Little things like that add to the characters that the actors can thrive on. Richard, the main character, I've given him enough!
DC: Poor guy. I think his past is catching up to him, right?
MM: He’s missing his kidney, he’s trying to figure how to get out, he didn’t need a character piece. Part of his marriage issue was there was a little infidelity there; that’s why they’re on the rocks. So I have that as his personal story, but I have such a physical leap for him to try and get through that... I’m not going to say it’s very easy, but that’s the challenge.
DC: How else do you still make him sort of an interesting character, even though he’s inert for a lot of the time from being drugged or knocked out?
MM: I’m sure he’ll be pulling focus in a lot of the scenes. It all depends on how many people I have in the room. If I have a room full of thugs, I don’t need to focus on him. I have our clowns in the room. They’re the comic relief. Ironically, the organ harvesters are the comic relief in this film. Part of the fun things that we have, especially with this set, is the only way they are communicating is through the air vent and through a hole in the wall. So a lot of shots are actually of Jane looking through the hole at an unconscious Richard or looking through the vent and seeing only snippets of his foot or things like that, and we as the audience go, 'Oh, is he dead? Is he alive?' We’re not sure where he is or what’s going on. And then when she looks back and he’s gone or she looks through the hole and he’s ducking his head in the tub, we know that these are little relief moments. Or we know that things are happening that move it along, that if we just had a camera in the room, it would be very easy to see. So I added that extra barrier of their communication.
DC: From a filmmaker's standpoint everyone can understand why you would do a film like this, because you can shoot it quickly, you can do it with a small cast, there’s a lot of leeway to make your small budget pay off big. But from an audience point of view' we’re gonna say, 'Okay, is it just another Turistas? Do we really need another Hostel?' What can you tell horror fans about what they will like about this film?
MM: Well, let’s put it this way: It’s actually not about the horror. If you’re looking for the blood and the guts and things like that, it’s not about that.
DC: [Gestures to the director’s red-stained script pages] The bloody page notwithstanding?
MM: The bloody page notwithstanding, what you will get is the same thing you would get out of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Or you would get out of something that’s The Shining. The Shining certainly wasn’t, besides the hallway full of blood, a bloody film... [or] all gore. It’s all the suspense; it’s all about what is happening next with these characters. And the twists that are happening and the real reason and purpose why they’re in the situation that they are. And everything you think you know about these people is not what it is.
DC: I’d also like to talk a little bit about the cinematography. Just from my own personal standpoint, I love real cinematography, Vittorio Storaro or Gordy Willis, people like that, Roger Deakins. I know that you have to do some of this hand-held stuff because of time and budget, so can you talk a little bit about what the look and feel of the film will be?
MM: One of the things that, say, Sidney Lumet captured in 12 Angry Men is, the longer you’re in the room with these people, the smaller the room gets. So, the more claustrophobic I need you to feel, the tighter the image is going to get. At the beginning of the film we may see as wide as we can, but toward the end of the film... we don’t know what’s happening to the characters. It looks like they may live, or die, all that sort of stuff. The framing gets tighter on the characters. We see less of the room and more of their reaction. And that adds to the urgency of what’s happening. Yes, I don’t have these huge vistas, that we certainly can’t afford on this film, but cinematography definitely plays an important part of this.
DC: And I notice thankfully that you do have some lock-down masters. So we won’t all be reaching for the Dramamine.
MM: Yeah, that's the last thing I want; even the hand-held that is happening is not frenetic hand-held. It’s a floating camera so our eyes aren’t just locked in a position. It’s just so that we feel natural when we’re watching the image.
DC: And who is your DP?
MM: His name is Dan Ayers; he’s worked on "CSI: NY," and actually his list of credentials is so long that there’s too many things you could name. This is my first time working with him. I’m actually new to the country. I moved here from Toronto, Canada, just recently.
MM: Thanks, and actually three weeks into moving here I met Kalex, who’s the producer, and we are making a film.
DC: It’s a real Hollywood story.
MM: It is kind of a Hollywood story. Like literally three weeks into living in this country, I got my visa and I’m now making a movie in Hollywood. And today is actually my birthday.
DC: Wow, happy birthday and welcome to L.A.
MM: Thank you.
DC: Now get back to work!
Vitals comes to us from writer/director Marc Morgenstern. Christopher Showerman, Charlene Amoia, Sachin Metha, Tim Russ, and Claudia Wells co-star. In it Showerman stars as an unassuming electrician who wakes up in an abandoned motel room in a tub of ice with his kidney missing. It’s only a matter of time before he finds his wife in the adjacent room waiting to be the next victim to a horrible organ harvesting organization. Now they must use each other’s wits and skills to escape before their captors return and their dark secrets are revealed.
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