Interviewed by Lesley Coffin
It’s always a challenge to change courses in ones career from actor to director, and can be all the harder when your first project can’t get traction. Osgood Perkins (son of Anthony Perkins) has appeared in several films as an actor, but for over a decade had tried to get his script for his atmospheric art-house horror film February made. It finally came together with the help of producers Byran Bertino and Adrienne Biddle, and the film premiered at 2015’s Toronto Film Festival as part of the Vanguard Program, the same festival slate his I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House played at last year’s TIFF. February garnered high praise for its mix of atmosphere mood, beautiful cinematography, and genuine scares, and was acquired by A24 Films, the same production company behind another art-house horror film, last year’s The Witch. I spoke with Perkins about the haunting beauty of his directorial (and writing) debut, the three young actresses at the center of his film, and working with his brother, Elvis Perkins on the score.
I saw the film two years ago so I of course had to rewatch the screener. And it felt like a completely different experience knowing what will happen. There’s a different atmosphere and you notice elements you missed before. Do you take the multiple viewing experience into account when constructing a film?
I don’t think anyone’s ever asked about that, and I’m not sure I’ve really sat down and thought about it before. I hope it’s still compelling upon rewatch. I’m well aware we made a quiet film and either you will want to be in that room with them or you won’t. But I think the mood and atmosphere we established makes people want to stay, and maybe even go back. In terms of plot, I don’t really care about plot. It’s mandatory that you have a plot, but it’s kind of that homework you just have to do. I think people will be more likely to notice the score or cinematography during a second look, and I’d be just as happy with that.
I really took notice of the music, and particularly how much of the movie has extended scenes without music where you’d normally expect it. How closely did you work with your brother on the score and deciding where and how to include it?
We were in the same boat because Elvis had never scored a movie and I’d never directed. But we have sort of an unspoken language between us, we both just kind of know what we think’s good. And that sounds vague, but if you’re responsible for making a movie or authoring something, you better know what you like and think is good. And then you have to hope there are enough people who agree with you to help you get it made. I gave Elvis the score for The Shining and Goblin’s theme from Dario Argento’s Suspiria. But we listened to those because that’s the film music we like, not to imitate it. What was so great about working with my brother was, we share a lot of humor and there’s a lot of that in his music, you just have to go about 5 levels deep. There are funny aspects to it, but we might be the only two people to ever know it. At the sisters’ house, where the older women live, there’s always organ music and Elvis played all this organ music to sound like bible music but he’s playing it backwards. It’s imperceptible to viewers, but I love it and it ultimately does feel right for the film.
There have been a few movies that fall under this label, and I think we’re seeing a rise, but you really did make an art-house horror film. Horror films have such a history of being commercially driven films, even indies, is it more difficult to make a small, quiet film like this as a horror movie? Did you have people pressuring you to turn it into something more commercial?
It nearly impossible, just fucking impossible. I had to sit on this script for a decade, taking meetings all over town, and they’d sit across the table, say “this is amazing, but we could never make a movie like this.” And it just makes you realize, until 5 people make it before you, they’ll never think it can be made. It’s just the economics of things, because everyone with money seems to be afraid of losing it. And they should be. Most people won’t make the money back they invest. I got really lucky because I found people that wanted to make this movie. People who loved me and wanted to help me. They didn’t invest because they thought there would be some big financial return, because guess what…there isn’t one. They wanted to help get me off the ground as a filmmaker. It’s like the days when we had patrons of the arts, people with money who paid artist to paint for no reason. The most rewarding thing about this has been the big fans of horror, fans who spend all their time thinking about horror films, have really embraced the film. I’ve played at a few horror festivals and heard people say this was one of their favorites. It’s incredibly gratifying to be able to make a sad, quiet horror film that people who love the genre really like and think is cool.
When you first went around town with the script were you already planning to step away from acting and start directing, or was that something you worked up to?
I had my producing partners who really believed in the script, promised to find the money and get it made, and they were the people who really supported me taking on directing. I had there complete support as a writer and a director. It starts with someone saying, “We have to do this.” For me personally, directing is a return to what I wanted to do as kid, and I’d been blown off course by my life story. When Bryan and Adrianne said, “We think you should direct the movie,” I decided it was that do or die opportunity. I’d never made a commercial, music video, short film, nothing. So day one on this really was, day one for me.
How did you select the three leads for this film?
We got the script to Emma Roberts because we thought she was right for the role. And as spiritually impoverish as this might sound, getting her attached early on could help us get the money to make the movie. Those are the metrics of celebrity. But what she really brought to the role was so much more than I anticipated. She’s so smart, professional, and game for anything. And when she read it, she said she couldn’t sleep because it upset her so much, and that’s why she signed on. She recommended Kiernan Shipka, and I thought that was inspired. Lucy Boynton had already made Sing Street, but no one had seen it yet. And I had to read hundreds of girls for that part, and watch hundreds of tapes. And I cast her off the tape. All I can say, from my years as an actor and now working with actors is, you want intelligent actors. I can’t tell an actor what to do, there’s no way to tell someone how to move their face or dart their eyes, that has to come from them. All I can tell them is, what’s going on and what I think the movies about. But I can’t tell them what to think. You need actors intelligent enough to master the material on their own, and all three of these young ladies turned out to be my angels on this movie.
The film doesn’t just have three young women at the center of the story, but has a feminine touch on screen, which to me really made the film stand out visually. The camera work is so graceful and gentle, it just enhances the feeling of dread that lingers over the whole movie. How did you describe how the film would look or feel when working with your cinematographer?
I wish I could say I knew everything I wanted and everything that came together happened because I wanted it to. But one thing I did know was, I wanted a female director of photography on this film and not only hired Julie Kirkwood, who I also hired for my second film. But I don’t think I can say why I wanted that, except what you said about the impact her touch had. So much of making a movie is about making a decision and trusting your instincts. If you’re in control of the material and confident, you’ll be right more times than your wrong.
When I saw the film, it was still under the title February. Why did it go through the name chance and how did you select The Blackcoat’s Daughter.
When A24 picked the film up they wanted to position the film in the genre a little more, which I understood. I went to a lyric in one of Elvis’s songs, which was a piece from an old folk nursery rhyme. I thought people wouldn’t have heard the term before, so it still had that strange, compelling title that worked thematically. Honestly, I liked the word daughter being in the title as well. But, it will always be February to me.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website)