The Haunting in Connecticut was released in theaters on March 27 and promotional material for the movie claims it is based on the true story of a haunting experienced by the Snedeker family in the 1980s in Southington, Connecticut. I had an opportunity to speak with very charming producer Andrew Trapani about ghost stories, filming in Winnipeg, and how he went from designing Solar Eclipse to producing Scooby-Doo. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.
You come from a video game background, with games like Solar Eclipse and Legacy of Kain. How did your interest in video game design lead to a career in producing feature films?
I actually fell into the video game business. It was a fortunate intersection of circumstance. I took a summer job testing video games for a company in northern California called Crystal Dynamics. I came into the business at a time when games were transitioning from cartridge-based games to CD-based games. The company I was working for was on the cutting edge of 32-bit technology. Suddenly you had all this storage space and you were able to do really high end 3-D graphic renderings and use that in the storytelling. Also, you could use live action and actually shoot small movies to provide a real narrative. I think that got me really excited about storytelling and seeing what was possible to make the game playing experience more enriching for the player.
For one game in particular, Solar Eclipse, which was published on Sony Playstation in 1995 or 1996, we shot a 30-minute live action component in Los Angeles over three days. I felt very comfortable on set with the planning required to achieve success in that environment and with the unpredictability of it all. That was the springboard that got me thinking about producing movies.
Some of the films you’ve been involved with have been the remake of The Amityville Horror, The Fog, Day of the Dead, and Final Destination. Would you say you are drawn to stories of the supernatural?
I think it’s on a case by case basis. Some projects I was really excited about because if it was a remake, I was a fan of the original and I thought the remake could improve on what had been done. Also, it was something that was commercial that not only would find an audience, but first and foremost, we could set up with a studio and actually get produced. It’s harder and harder to get a movie set up and actually get it to the screen. I do enjoy horror movies. I think I expect more from them now and I really enjoy that we can pull off something that is scary and compelling at the PG 13 rating. It’s a lot more challenging to tell a story with real characters and have those genuine scares without the blood and guts that has become so in vogue lately. In the case of The Haunting in Connecticut, I thought it was an amazing story with all the supernatural tropes in this tale and also this great dramatic throughline of the real life drama the family was dealing with — the cancer and the marital problems.
How did you get involved with The Haunting?
Haunting actually goes back several years. We began the process in 2003. We were trying to set up The Amityville Horror, which was a very complex situation. The writer who was involved in Amityville was a great guy by the name of Dan Farrands, who I also worked with on The Haunting in Connecticut. He had seen the documentary on Discovery — it was called A Haunting in Connecticut — and he walked in my office one day, handed me this DVD and said, “This is scarier than Amityville. Watch it!”
That was the beginning of this quest to get the film made. For the first year or so, we were shopping the project, and I used the documentary as a kind of sales tool. I think people in the industry thought it was a little too close to Amityville in terms of the subject matter, but ultimately we brought on a pair of great writers, Tim Metcalf and Adam Simon, and we figured out a concise take on this material which we felt set it apart from many of our predecessors. We were able to sell it on a pitch to Gold Circle films. They financed the development of the script. From there, Gold Circle partnered with Lionsgate Films and we set about our director search, which is when we found the wonderfully talented Peter Cornwell. The machine was in full gear at that point, with casting and prep, until we shot the film in Winnipeg in the fall of 2007.
You shot the film in Winnipeg?
It was a really wonderful experience to spend a few months in Winnipeg. We had such great people, immensely talented. Eveyone really tried to bring their A game every day. I got out right before it got really really cold! We wrapped on Halloween, appropriately enough, and I think it snowed.
I’ll throw in a funny story about our time in Winnipeg. We’re shooting a horror film and I think if people are at all disposed to seeing something in the corner or wondering if that shadow is more than a shadow, it’s on a film set. Most of the cast and the part of the crew that had been flown in stayed at the Fort Garry Hotel. Unbeknownst to me until about two or three weeks in, it’s apparently one of the most haunted hotels in North America. As soon as I heard this, I dove into the backstory and heard about a woman who tragically committed suicide decades ago. They see her ghost periodically. I had to share this story with my fellow filmmakers and some people were not happy to hear about that. They did not want to hear about the ghost who may or may not be in the Fort Garry.
The film’s menace comes in large part from the atmosphere and the anticipation of what may happen, though there are some “jump out of your seat” moments spaced throughout the story. What did you want your writers, director and director of photography to bring to the film in terms of building atmosphere?
I spent a fair amount of time with the writers and it really was a team effort to cultivate the script. We hoped we could create a blueprint for the atmosphere the director could take and expand upon. We coupled it with the real strong emotional throughline so you could feel for these characters and still have the big scares that make the audience leap out of their seats when they experience them onscreen. Tim and Adam were consummate pros. There were at least one or two times during the twelve or thirteen drafts of the screenplay when we thought we weren’t going to find our way out of the woods. To their credit, the writers felt like the ideas coming from producers and executives were all to make the script better and we came out into the clearing with something we thought was pretty darn good.
In terms of the director, Peter Cornwell had directed this amazing claymation short film called Ward 13. Pretty much every major studio wanted to meet with him after it came on the radar. As soon as we heard he had responded to the script, we got very excited. Peter came in with not too many changes to the script but great ideas for how to take what he thought was original about the film and bring his own unique vision to those bits.
Our DP, Adam Swica, had just come off working with George Romero on Diary of the Dead and had this amazing body of work. With Peter being a first time feature director, it was such an asset to have someone with his experience not only in the genre but experience in filmmaking, quite frankly.
The original events that kick off the haunting are based in the spiritualism movement, which had its beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Are you interested in why people are drawn to movements like spiritualism?
I have a theory. I think we all wonder what else is out there. Are we alone? When we are at the end of our run and it’s time to be six feet under, is that really the end? I think that’s what drives much of the fascination with the supernatural. I think that’s the strongest allure when people look at these types of stories. It’s about trying to understand if there’s a greater context to the world that we know.
Were any of the participants in the real events involved in the making of your film at any point?
Very much so. When we started this process we sought to locate the family and get their life rights so we had a measure of exclusivity. That wasn’t the easiest thing to do, because in the documentary, they spoke in silhouette and they changed their names. To me, that only piqued my interest further. It lent a measure of credibility. Some of the families we had worked with in other stories in the past, I questioned their credibility in terms of what their intentions were with talking about their story. With this family, I got the sense that something undoubtedly had transpired. We actually tracked them down by leaving a voice mail at their church. The mother called us back and said it must be time to tell this story, full fledged, if people are tracking me down at my church. She was an asset and a tremendous contributor.
The rest of the family members were passively involved. They all agreed and worked through their mother to communicate thoughts to us about the story. They were great supporters of the whole process. For the most part, they are happy with the film, which, to me, is honestly one of the most important things. I told Carmen [the mother] when we started all the way back in 2003, I’m not going to be the guy writing the cheque to finance the film and I’m not going to direct it and I’m not going to have final cut, but I will work tirelessly to maintain the integrity of what your family went through. She still speaks with me and says nice things, so I think I kept my promise on that one.
Were you involved with the casting of the film?
I was involved in everything from finding the documentary until the film was onscreen. Yes, I was there for the entire casting process.
I think they were all very good. One that stood out to me was Kyle Gallner, because I thought he was so believable in portraying the pain his character was in and the way he was drawing away from his family and the world of the living because he couldn’t cope any more.
All I can say is look out world, here comes Kyle. Not only is he the great talent you saw on the screen, he’s an amazing young man with a great head on his shoulders. With this role, we knew we needed someone beyond good to handle what was undoubtedly the most challenging role in the picture. We have to feel for him in the beginning and we also have to go down this path where he goes into Jack Nicholson and The Shining land and really be afraid of him. Kyle really understood the material, his character and what he needed to bring to each scene. He could be doing two scenes in the same day that had to be on such a different emotional plane as an actor, and he just inherently really got it. I feel so fortunate we landed him. He’s like lightning in a bottle. He’s on his way. He’s just been cast in the forthcoming remake of The Nightmare on Elm Street, and he’s playing the lead in that, so I’m really happy for him.
Obviously, Virginia [Madsen] was key, because we went after the mother character first. When we landed Virginia we felt like we were sending the message that this project is different than other haunted house films. We could attract an Oscar-nominated actress. From there, it just kept going.
I had never worked with Elias Koteas before, but having him on staff was just an eye-opening experience to see someone so committed and so in character throughout the process. Amanda Crew was a local find. We were very fortunate. She’s a Canadian actress. I don’t want to say we discovered her, but we found her and a couple of months after our film, she was cast in Sex Drive and a couple of other films, so you will definitely be seeing more from her. Martin Donovan playing the father is another amazing character actor who always delivers. Last but not least are the two kids who were both local casting in Canada. It’s not easy for kids to be in that environment on set and also be really terrified and both Ty [Wood] and Sophi [Knight] were great, really hardworking and talented.
What’s up next for you?
I have a new business venture right now. My business partner is Brian Gilbert, who most recently was president of production for the late Stan Winston’s production company. Brian and I have a new production and management company. Brian just produced the new live action Scooby Doo, which is in post-production. It’s an origin story called The Mystery Begins. That airs on Cartoon Network in the fall and later will be released on DVD.
I’ve reteamed with Tim and Adam, the writers on The Haunting in Connecticut, to do another supernatural thriller. It’s an adaptation of a book called The Man Who Would Not Die. It’s a smart ghost story with a little sci-fi bent to it. Another high profile one we’re in the formative stages of doing is a biopic on the late John Delorean. The last one, which I really wish I could tell you the title of, but we’re still dotting “i”s and crossing “t”s, is on a very well known haunted house. We’re coming to terms on doing the first movie ever based on this house.Powered by Sidelines