HorrorHound's own Jay Kay had the opportunity to sit down with The Vigil director Keith Thomas and star Dave Davis before the pandemic shut down the world, in an article that initially ran in HorrorHound #82. With The Vigil hitting On-Demand this Friday, February 26th, via IFC Midnight, we thought it was a perfect time to publish the interview online, to make sure everyone had a chance to find out more about this exciting feature – especially considering this particular issue of HorrorHound is now sold out. Enjoy!
THE VIGIL • by Jay Kay
Yakov is a man of broken faith. He is lost after a personal tragedy has changed him and moved him far away from the Orthodox Jewish community he once knew. After a support group, Yakov is approached to watch a dead body as a “shinner” one night. Though he feels like there is something off in the home, as a part of his duties, Yakov will confront his deep-seated fears, guilt, and memories as he waits for the sun to rise.
One of the closing-day films at the Sitges Film Festival, The Vigil is a mesmerizing portrait of tension, contrast, and humanity against the canvas of devote Jewish faith. We spoke with filmmaker Keith Thomas and the lead actor Dave Davis (Yakov) about this powerful and frightening debut feature that captivated the Sitges audience and challenged their belief and how it blended, historic, supernatural, humanistic, and reflective horror storytelling in a well-crafted chamber piece. In this interview, we discuss the impact and detail of the audio design, the authenticity of a faith-based community, and the terror of home-bound isolation for HorrorHound.
HorrorHound: Can you talk about being here at the Sitges with The Vigil as a closing film?
Keith Thomas (director): I have always wanted to be at Sitges and just as a filmgoer to watch this lineup of movies here as well as to have our movie be the closing-night film is incredible!
HH: What is your approach to scaring the audience? They seem really hooked at the screening.
KT: For me, the most important part of the scare is not the scare itself. It is not when the thing appears, because that is the cathartic moment, a release. It is the tension. It is that juicy build, that sequence, which I love to stretch out! Ideally, I wanted 60 percent of the film to be that stretch of tension. With the dead body Yakov is watching, for example, I wanted to push the audience to keep watching the film, to keep them on the edge of their seat. How much can we push them? How much can we make them wonder what will happen next in the house and what is going to happen to that body?
HH: This is your debut feature. How much of your love of horror played into this film?
KT: I am a big horror fan and grew up with [it]. Horror is just my expression, my outlet. So, as a fan, I wanted this film to be more of a roller coaster rather than a slow-burn, I wanted to hit and hit hard, so once things start, they don’t stop! From there, it came down to what are the scares and what are the tropes we wanted to use … finding a formula that allows us to create new things that works in a very emotional framework. For me, it was trying to get as deep into this character, this emotion and these difficult themes that we are trying to cover in the film, and at the same time, scare the audience in a way that is fun!
HH: Can you talk about what research went into building the complete and authentic character of Yakov?
KT: I had written the character to be somewhat vague. We do learn why and how he left, but in terms of what happened after he left? What is he doing now? How he had left, Dave and I had to figure it out even though it is not in the film because the viewer does not need it but Dave could pull from it building that authenticity.
Dave Davis (Yakov): Well, I wanted to be authentic, and I wanted to tell the stories of the people who this film represented. So, I tried to go into it with as much of a blank slate as possible. During my time and meeting the people who came from this community, I tried to just listen to them and to find the things they said that I connected the most with. I wanted to learn from that as well as bring it to Keith’s story. We found that in the relationships with God, community, and one’s personal understanding of faith. So, I would like to think that what I brought to it was my perspective on those concepts through the filters of Keith’s script and through those people I had the privilege of speaking with and becoming friends with during the filming process. I also added stuff from my family to make it feel more personal.
KT: I will say that Dave really went in trying to embody this character. One element that this film did not have much of was Yiddish. From what we had at the beginning of the project to what we see in the finished film, Dave added to it. Dave would come up to me and say, “Once we get this line down, can we do this in Yiddish?” He was just adding, and he felt more comfortable doing that. He felt that reactions in some scenes would be better in Yiddish.
HH: How did the idea of making Yakov a “shinner” come about?
KT: A lot of it comes from my own background. I went to Rabbinical School to study theology. Even though I went to school for it, I am not a rabbi. These experiences helped to form this story, including the demon in the film, which is very much a real demon from Rabbican text. A lot of things around it are rooted in reality. I did a deep dive into the research when I was writing the script and making sure that the world was possible, including building a community around this character of Yakov, who neither of us come from but all of us can relate to.
Setting it in that community, there was a heavy amount of research into the community aspects, the supernatural aspects, the religious aspects, and more, then Dave himself also did a deep dive in terms of figuring out dialect. It was crucial to understand how people who have left this community and move into this secular world hold themselves and communicate? Dave spent a lot of time speaking to a variety of people including Malky (Goldman), who was the key on so many levels. The people who are in the opening sequence are legit. They are people who were a part of the community and left the community through an organization just like that one.
HH: Speaking of the house, can you discuss the theme of isolation in The Vigil?
KT: Looking at it, we are really doing a contained horror film with a single setting for most of the running time. I wanted to try to isolate the main character as much as possible, to reflect both his kind of inner turmoil and guilt. The isolation also worked to both enforce his isolation from the community and his personal isolation. That isolation highlights his ability to not be able to emotionally get over his past traumas and not interact with people like he would want to. To do that, we used the location of the house and cinematography through really old and anamorphic lens to get as much distortion to isolate Yakov in the frame.
HH: Was the shaking of the camera an in-camera effect?
KT: Yes, it was. Almost all the effects were in camera, I wanted as practical and tangible effects as possible. A clever example of that came from DP, who put up a piece of old glass in front of the lens and kept moving it to so the image distorted further. We did that with some of the more tense moments.
HH: Can you talk about creating the ambiance of the home and how you fully flushed out the balance of lighting to make it effective and frightening?
KT: This was also super important to me. When I first sat down with our DP Zach Kuperstein to [discuss the] shot list, a big chunk of that was focused on how we were going to light this. We worked on the corners and making the darkness tangible. When I see shadows in the film, I wanted to see pools of darkness where anything can hide because that is where the terror comes from. When we were lighting it practically on set, I wanted those deep, dark shadows. An example of that is a hidden demon in the film. Even in scenes when it is not supposed to be there, I put a demon in there. Then when we did the color in post, I wanted to de-bone it even further. I love the sequences where we are just getting silhouettes. You are feeling as enclosed and claustrophobic as possible in terms of the lighting. You are fogging the room and getting as much atmosphere as possible. Also, shooting in anamorphic, which gets you as much room as you can in such a contained space.
HH: Can you talk about your preparation for Yakov?
DD: That plays directly into the isolation, as well. I spent a lot of time alone during the production. I was staying in my producer Adam’s four-bedroom apartment, when we were not working. I was spending a lot of time alone walking around in the empty apartment. There is a lot of physicality with this role of Yakov, so I had time to practice that while I was alone. I spent a lot of time listening to and repeating my dialect inspirations. As an actor who already likes to go crazy for a role by listening to the same lines repeatedly, talking to yourself and walking around an empty apartment in the middle of a New York winter, it is very easy to lose our mind!
An example of physicality for this character was … just recently, I was looking through photos on my phone, I found a video where something was stuck in my throat and I filmed myself choking. I was choking and I took out my phone and shot a video selfie style showing me choking. Recording that video, helped me in a scene for this film. That is sort of an insight into the madness that I was trying to cultivate.
I also put myself through psychological torment while we were filming it. Actually, the scene that was most daunting for me was the scene when Yakov comes to terms with his brother’s death. It was such a big emotional moment, so I did what I call “emotional edging.” However, I did not allow myself to really cry before we shot the scene. Normally, if I am preparing for role like that, I would practice what I was going to do, but I did not allow myself to get there before the camera was running. So, when we finally filmed that scene, it was such a release.
HH: Can you talk about the haunted-house elements of this film and what went into crafting them?
KT: When I was writing the house during the script stage, I wanted to have multiple levels for this house for a variety of reasons. I constructed the house like you would construct a mind where each room gives you bits of information. I wanted to create each room in a way that made it distinctive. I wanted Yakov to head down into the basement and then move upwards to the upstairs to show his journey, a hero’s journey. I also did not want to have a set built for the house; I wanted a real house.
We were very lucky that one of our executive producers found a very old house that an elderly woman had died in shortly before we started to film in it. We did not touch much inside it, we left it as it was. We did bring some furniture in, to make it look more like a Hasidic home. I wanted that sort of authenticity with it. It was important to me that these walls had these memories baked into them … so we could use that feel that. It was just a presence that you feel in an old place, and that was important to me rather than making some sort of funhouse. At the end of the day, I did not want to create a haunted house that felt super twisted and artificial. I wanted it to feel to the viewer that this was an actual house that someone’s grandmother had lived in.
HH: Can you talk about the writing challenge and how you balanced the supernatural and Yakov’s mental instability during the script stage?
KT: It was definitely one of those things I wanted to set up in a certain way, where the audience is doubting his mental stability even with the supernatural. It could be all in his head, but we wanted to take it a step further to build on his instability and perhaps the supernatural entity is using his mental state as a tool and it is feeding off of it. At the same time though, I wanted also to present a fleshed-out form of PTSD from leaving this community. We did not want to have easy answers for this character.
HH: How impactful was the score and sound design to this film? How detailed did this audio design get?
KT: We spent a long time doing the sound design and working with our composer to come up with this score. It was crucial for me. I listened to music throughout the whole process, from script to post. There were three stages in regard to the audio aspect. There is the first diegetic sound inside the film that we crafted with the sound design, including the sounds you would find in the interior of the house. The second level was the songs we played in the film and the final level was the composer we worked with. We are dealing with a contrast where the community is living and dressing like they are in the 1800s. I wanted some modern elements in the film, like the phone and the music we selected.
I was pushing our composer Michael Yezerski into using Skinny Puppy instead, leaning into some really dark sounds for the film. If you can get the industrial thing going in there, it is going to feel really unique and interesting to have that layered over this 1800s-century garb and this isolated Amish-like community in the city. It is a weird contrast, especially in certain sequences. However, it was really important in elevating this project.
I was super focused on the sound design. It started as early as the script stage. I knew going in, it is 60 to 70 percent of the film, and it is about getting the attention of those watching it. That was something we were hyper, hyper focused on in post, getting that sound right and mixing it so would it play in theaters where we would get that full dynamic range, including things like the creaks and the sounds behind you that move.
The Vigil hits select theaters and VOD this Friday!