Writer/Director Sonny Mallhi Talks Anguish


91E5JZ5dytL._SL1500_No stranger to the movie industry, having co-produced The Lakehouse, exec produced The Stranger and House at the End of the Street, and written and exec produced The Roommate, Sonny Mallhi finally makes himself comfy in the helmer’s chair with the supernatural shocker Anguish.

Inspired by true events and making the deliberate decision to shoot something that goes completely against the Hollywood grain, Mallhi came up with a coming-of-age tale of sorts as teenager Tess (Ryan Simpkins) realizes what she believed to be psychological problems may actually be a supernatural “gift” that allows spirits to take over her body. Possessed by the soul of a recently deceased girl, it’s up to Tess to decide whether she wants to keep fighting or surrender to this “unwelcome guest.”

To celebrate the impending UK theatrical and US DVD release of the movie, Dread Central caught up with Mallhi to discuss how Anguish was the film that convinced him now was his time to take the plunge and start directing and if writing a supernatural script succeeded in quashing the skeptic in him.

DC: Having written and produced a number of genre projects over the years, what was it about Anguish that convinced you this was the one for you to direct?

Mallhi: I’d written a couple of scripts before that got made but with Anguish there was something more personal about the story and I felt like I could get a handle on it myself. There were a lot of different directions that this story could go in, and I knew that if I didn’t direct it, it wouldn’t be done the way that I thought it should be done. There are choices in this movie that are unusual that some people are going to love, some people are going to hate, but they were choices that I wanted to make. I knew that selling it to a studio to do a bigger movie would mean that they wouldn’t let me direct it. Also, there was a decision about the third act where maybe it could be an exorcism movie or maybe it’s more of a dramatic, emotional third act and I knew no one was going to want to do that stupid idea [laughs] so I decided I was going to direct it so I could do that myself. Other than that, I knew the town where I set it. Somehow I envisioned the place, and I envisioned certain things about it that I just knew I wanted to do. Directing it was really the only way I could really ensure those decisions were made, for better or for worse.

DC: You shot the film in your home town and you just mentioned that you really wanted it all to play out like you had it in your mind. Did that make collaborating with your DP, Amanda Treyz, much harder when it came to remaining true to your vision and also to filming your home town just the way you wanted people to see it in the movie?

Mallhi: Well, she and the actors are really the only people I brought in from LA. I’d met a lot of cinematographers, some who were bigger names, but there was something about her that just sort of clicked. What I liked about her was that she wasn’t limiting; she knew how to bring out my vision without limiting it, and then enhanced it. One of the coolest things I learned as a director was that the relationship between a director and a cinematographer is just really cool. Cool in the fact that there are these moments where she kind of reads your mind. She also had the style I was looking for, based on a few things of hers that I’d seen before.

DC: You said you wanted to go against the studio grain with a totally different type of possession movie so I imagine you kept second guessing your decisions or scrapping and rewriting things.

Mallhi: Erm. YES! ALL THE TIME! There was a story I found that was really interesting. It was a slightly older story that was basically what the movie is about and it was more spiritual than an exorcism; there was a spiritual resolution to it. I was sick of ghost stories and I wanted something that felt real. There are so many exorcism and possession stories and I wanted something that was unique. So I didn’t have any of this in mind until I read this story but I really liked the idea. I showed my script to executive friends and they all said things like, “Yeah, I really liked it … until it wasn’t an exorcism.” So I was actually going to do a deal with a studio on it but they wanted to make it an exorcism but part of me kept saying, “Come on. That’s not really part of the story.” And that was the point when I decided I was just going to direct it. All I know is that I would have been really bored had it gone down an exorcism route. I don’t want be sat there directing something that I’m going to be really bored about.

In answer to your point, all the questions and worries that I had, from a practical point, were in the script. Once you’re making the movie, there was nothing I could edit to make it an exorcism movie so after that I would probably just sit there and think, “Oh, maybe I should have made an exorcism movie.” [laughs]

DC: It’s also a very family-focused movie centering on two mothers and the grief they are suffering. Was it a challenge honing into and writing about this maternal bond between the mothers and their daughters?

Mallhi: You know? I’m not even sure. For me, I guess I sort of tap into my own mother. I think my idea was that everybody has someone they love and what if you’re going through something that there’s no answers for? In this case it happened to be two mothers and two daughters but I think their emotions can apply to anyone. I think it just comes down to being less of a maternalistic instinct and is more about someone you love more than anyone else in the world who is in pain.

DC: I also read that you wrote the film because you are very skeptical of the supernatural and you hoped it might help you find some kind of enlightenment.

Mallhi: Very much so. I was just talking about my mother. She is someone who believes in everything and I have friends like that too. Most people I think believe in something or something has happened to them and I’ve even had experiences that felt very supernatural but I can never actually “enjoy” them. They would have been amazing things if I actually believed them but I just can’t. The interesting part of this story was me trying to understand why people do believe. And you know what? I sort of learned stuff. I still don’t think I really believe in all of that but I came to a place of thinking, “What’s the harm in believing that?”

Like we said, I grew up in this small town and I think it’s much harder in these places to be able to open up your mind and think about other notions. You believe in doctors or you may believe in a priest, but that’s about it. And I think if someone, like the girl in Anguish, is in such pain and none of those things are working, 99% of the people just keep going to doctors and keep trying to break through one wall instead of maybe trying a slightly different path. That’s the interesting part about believing in something supernatural or spiritual because it allows you to perhaps take a different path. I still have a hard time believing it all but I certainly begrudge people less and if that situation happened to me then I might be open.

DC: Tell me a little about Ryan Simpkins, who plays Tess, because she is just amazing at all of 15 years young when you shot the film.

Mallhi: Taking ownership over the project myself meant that I could sit down with my great casting director and, rather than looking for a bigger name, I said we should just read people and just see who’s good. Ryan came in and there was just something about her that told me she’s a movie star. All the actors we chose were like that; they all just seemed to get the roles. But yeah, Tess is a REALLY hard role. Even just talking to Ryan and giving her directions, she had the instincts. There are very few people like this but you just look at them and you can just tell what’s going on inside their head. It’s kind of cool.

DC: You’ve said that even though you’ve been on loads of sets before as a producer, taking on the role of director was a much bigger challenge than you expected. How so?

Mallhi: It’s hard, man! I thought I was as equipped as anyone could be. I’d worked with directors and I’d been on sets so I had been as close to it as possible without actually directing. I had a sense of what was going on that did help me, I think, but once you’re in the director’s shoes, the biggest adjustment was that everyone asks YOU the questions first. As a producer it’s kind of cool because you only need to help fill in a bit when not all the answers are there, but as a director you get all the questions first. But it had its good things too. I think the coolest was when people understood what I was getting at without even talking to them about it; just bringing people together who just got it all. But nothing can replicate the pressure of being in a director’s shoes. Unless you actually do it there’s absolutely no way you can understand it. Thankfully, though, the cool stuff outweighed all the stresses.

DC: So, despite the stress, can you see yourself directing more movies?

Mallhi: I think so. In anything I’ve done it’s all about what’s interesting to me and if something sparks. Right now I think I’ve found a couple of projects so now it’s just about if they get made. Interestingly they’re a little bit more horror than this one. One thing that was very hard with Anguish was walking the line between a drama and a horror, and I think I’m beaten down by just how hard it was to walk that line so what I want to do now is some straight-up horror with characters that I love and with an idea that I think is really intriguing. One is supernatural but the other one isn’t. Real people scare me more than anything and so the non-supernatural one is more along those lines and I’m excited about it.

Anguish is in UK cinemas from April 1st whilst the film sees a US DVD release on April 5th (available here) and a UK DVD release on April 11th (available here).

In the meanwhile, we’ll leave you with the official UK trailer for the movie.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cR4-6q_-uPI]

Anguish DVD artwork



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