Back in September, I reviewed the new supernatural horror The Old Ways, calling it “one of the best horror films of the year.” I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with its director, Christopher Alender to discuss not only the movie but also Muppets Haunted Mansion which his production company Soapbox Films produced that premieres on Disney+ this week.
In The Old Ways, which premiered at Sitges, “Cristina, a journalist of Mexican origins, travels to the home of her ancestors in Veracruz to investigate a story involving witchcraft and healers. Once there, she is kidnapped by a group of locals who claim that she’s possessed by the devil and that she needs to be exorcised. When she tries to escape this nightmarish situation, the woman starts to believe that her captors may actually be right…”
Horror Fuel: “You’ve had quite the impressive career, like Muppets Now. I love the Muppets, Gonzo and Pepe are my favorites. I once had a life-size Miss Piggy puppet.”
Christopher Alender: “I’ve noticed a lot of crossover with horror fans and the Muppets.”
Horror Fuel: “That’s a trip. You’ve also done The Mortuary Collection which was fantastic.”
Christopher Alender: “Thank you. I’m trying [laughter].”
Horror Fuel: “But The Old Ways is incredible. In fact, it will be featured on our “Top 10 of 2021″ list this December.”
Christopher Alender: “Oh, wow! Thank you! You have written so much great stuff about us already.”
Horror Fuel: “Well, you are making amazing films. Speaking of amazing, can you tell us about the filming location for The Old Ways? It looks so exotic and really gives off a historical, ancient vibe.”
Christopher Alender: “It was filmed in the exotic part of Burbank, California. It was mostly shot on a sound stage. My production company, which does a lot of films and commercials, has a small sound stage in Burbank. We built the whole interior of the complex in the movie on our stage. Then we shot a couple of days in Puerto Rico for the jungle and cave footage, and the exterior of the compound. But yeah, the bulk of it was filmed in an air-conditioned building in an industrial park.”
Horror Fuel: “Are you serious? A sound stage? I would have never have guessed. The movie just got a little more impressive.”
Christopher Alender: “Oh, that’s good.”
Horror Fuel: “If you will, can you tell our readers about the culture in the film, it feels so steeped in what feels like ancient ways?”
Christopher Alender: “So, Marcos Gabriel wrote it. He and I have been partners in the movie-making business for a long time, we met in college in the mid-90s. He’s from Puerto Rico and grew up in Florida. He grew up very down the middle Catholic, but now and again, his mom would tell him some stories that just kind of blew his mind about her growing up in Puerto Rico. One night when she was a little girl, she came downstairs and saw her dad in a metal tub and they were hitting him with chicken feathers and chanting. It terrified her. They were trying to cast out something and that story stuck with Marcos.”
When we were talking about movie ideas, we thought that would be a really cool point of view for what is kind of a traditional exorcism story. So it came from a cultural perspective. We wanted it to come from the view of the person possessed. We just started researching and researching. We didn’t even know at the time exactly where we wanted to go. At the time it started out as a generic jungle location. The more research we did, the more we started to find ancient things, like archeological stuff that we wanted to incorporate. We found a point on a map where we could find all of those elements, which ended up being on the coast of Mexico, where the Myan and the Aztec empires ran into each other. It’s on the east coast so it also has Caribean influences as well Catholic influences. It really has a rich tapestry that we could start drawing from. It was exciting to discover that there’s no real bible just the culture and magic. It’s always very personalized. That gave us a lot of freedom to craft it around the characters and what they were experiencing. Yeah, so, we really dug in and brought in consultants for our makeup and hair. Everybody came on board with their own input and experiences. We really had a lot of open dialogue and feedback and created our own lore.”
HorrorFuel: “In the scenes where they are doing the exorcisms, was that completely fabricated or based on real ceremonies?
Christopher Alender: “It’s a little of everything. Some of it was things we saw in documentaries and on YouTube. Some are taken from different cultures, the psychic surgery for instance. That was something we had seen from various cultures from Latin America and different places. We cobbled together things. When they start flying and things like that it becomes pretty unrealistic.
There were some things we cut out, we were going to do a thing called eye scraping which is pretty common. They take like a razor and do like Lasik surgery. It was in the script for a long time while we researched things that had been done before, different types of eye trauma. But we ended up saying, ‘I don’t think we can do this better than it’s been done before so we cut it.”
Horror Fuel: “Ouch! No thank you. I wear contacts and the thought of anything near my eye freaks me out. I had shots in one eye once, it was not okay.
You are the first filmmaker to ever say to me that something was cut because it couldn’t be done better than before. You have no idea how much of my respect you just earned. If only every filmmaker thought that way, we’d have a lot less terrible remakes and copied scenes.
I watch a lot of movies and I have to say the exorcisms really impressed me. They are so different that than the ones we always see. That goes far in my book. I thought the crucifixion parts were a really cool idea. I love the way that it is done.”
Christopher Alender: ” Oh no. That was fun. It’s cool that you were along for the ride.”
HorrorFuel: We usually get super complex over-elaborate effects, like in The Exorcist, but The Old Ways does it so simply, but it’s so effective.”
Christopher Alender: “In particular, Marcos (screenwriter) was a huge horror fan as a kid – I watched all genres – but in the early days we both watched a lot of horror. We really tried to acknowledge what had already been done and then whenever possible zig and zag do things where you think I know what this is and then it is something different. Hopefully, that yielded some unique things.”
HorrorFuel: “Oh, it did. I really appreciate films that are different. We see so much of the same thing over and over. The Old Ways brings so many unique things to the table, like the exorcisms, the culture, the story. It’s a winner.
I found the relationship between Cristina being possessed and her mental health issues and her addiction really interesting.”
Christopher Alender: “That’s the fun thing about horror, you can really bring up social issues. It was great to be able to dig into that. Drug abuse is not only destroying our country but many others too. With horror, you can kind of go big with your metaphors in a way that you can’t get away with in most genres. If it was like a drama, you’d be like oh no. In horror, you can get away with more stuff. Horror plays on other emotions and fans are more open to other ideas.”
HorrorFuel: “What are you hoping viewers take away from the film?”
Christopher Alender: “You know, personally I feel they will be attracted to the argument. I think the story is really an argument that there is really a valid point of view from both sides that isn’t black or white but more gray. I think a lot of people have been talking about the old ways and how much better it was. They weren’t necessary, but maybe there are parts that are. That’s kind of the argument that we have in the movie. You’ve got Cristina who is very secularized, she’s a big city girl, and you’ve got Luz who is the polar opposite. She’s grounded in her religion and rituals and can see the demon world out of one eye. Then there’s Miranda who is in the middle. She’s educated and smart but loves the traditions. We bring Cristina in and she has to take from it what she can and find her own point of view. I think that’s really interesting, especially with her being an American and she doesn’t really have a conception of the old world. I think I’m from Spain, but I don’t know, I don’t have recipes from the old world. I think it’s very romantic, that notion of being able to go back where you came from and be accepted and find a connection and some sort of truth. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I wonder if your cultural identity can be somehow embedded in your DNA. I don’t know if that is real or not, but I like to think it could be. That was really interesting to me, that angle.
Also, the idea of tough love, the type of love that Miranda has for Cristina, her cousin, and is willing to do those things that aren’t popular to help her. To have an intervention of some sort instead of being an enabler. I think that’s an interesting takeaway. There’s a lot of little nuggets in there. I think just love between the two cousins, that side story really bubbles up to the forefront in a way that I wasn’t expecting when we were shooting. That was a pleasant surprise. That was cool.”
HorrorFuel: “I really like that aspect and she literally beat her demons and found where she belongs.
A few minutes ago you mentioned your production company Soapbox, what drove you to create it?”
Christopher Alender: “Wow, it started in 2002. We mostly were doing advertising stuff for people like Disney. It started growing organically. As it did – I was almost reluctant at first because I didn’t know if I wanted to run a company – we thought we’d start building it and getting all the tools and build relationships and we wanted to start making our own movies. Maybe ten years ago we started dipping our toes into that, directing and producing and we started doing our own projects. Now, we’ve done five or six completely from scratch. We’re still trying to figure out how to earn a living with that [laughter]. We are getting closer to that every day. This movie is doing pretty well. We are going to do bigger and bigger things. In the meantime, we are producing movies and TV. We just made Muppets Haunted Mansion, which comes out in a few days. We shot that in the exact same studio where we shot The Old Ways. It’s a very different use of the same space. It turned out really good. It’s exciting. We want to make cool stuff. I like directing, I like doing special effects, I like editing. I like all of it.”
HorrorFuel: “That’s fantastic. I hope you get all the success you can handle.
Is there anything you can tell us about Muppets Haunted Mansion? I’ve really been looking forward to seeing it and the trailers look great.”
Christopher Alender: “Maybe a little. It came out really good and I think you’ll get a kick out of it. It’s got a lot of cool easter eggs. We really got to muppetize it. Each park has a haunted mansion and they’re different with different architecture and different stories associated with it. So, this one exists like another haunted mansion. So we were able to take a lot of liberties that are worth watching out for, like the iconic wallpaper, we’ve got our version of that and the door knockers, the numbers on the doors. Everything in it is muppety. There are some really cool cameos and a great cast. It’s pretty fun. It’s a little bit dark in a way that I think Muppet and Haunted Mansion fans are going to like. It’s not like super “G” rated. It’s definitely a little bit edgy in a fun way. There’s a lot of cool stuff. We worked hand in hand with the actual park and the Imagineers. They gave us access to whatever we needed. We actually have a real buggy in the production from the ride. Stuff like that. I can’t say anymore. I don’t want Disney to get me [laughter].
HorrorFuel: “[laughter]. I wouldn’t want to get you in any trouble. I’m excited. Do you have another project in mind?”
Christopher Alender: “I’ve got a couple. One thing, we are starting to discuss maybe doing a sequel or series for The Old Way, which I think would be pretty cool. Once we find out how well The Old Ways does on Netflix, that will help us to decide. Marcos is writing and I’m developing another movie that we are pitching around, it’s a horror film set in the normal world. I’ve got this science-fiction thriller, kind of a Body Snatchersish kind of thing that I’ve been developing for about ten years. I finally have a cast member or two attached to it. We need to get a couple more. Yeah, we’re just working on stuff. The pandemic moved things around. We’ve still got one film festival, Filmquest, to do with The Old Ways. We’ve been nominated for like eleven awards. We’re hoping we get one of those Cthulus.
The Blu-ray is coming out. It’s really cool by the way. We made a feature-length behind-the-scenes-special. That’s on there and you get the commentary track and a bunch of really cool deleted scenes, and you get an alternate ending, and storyboards. ”
HorrorFuel: “That sounds amazing. I can’t wait to see the bonus features. And I look forward to seeing what you do next. And I think a series would be fantastic. There’s a lot of different stories that could be told.
One more question. If you could give any advice to up-and-coming filmmakers what would it be?
Christopher Alender: “I would say this: make as many things as you can. Marcos and I made a little movie in college. The budget was $4,000. It was okay for what it was, but I spent a long time not making more and I think if I would have I would have gotten a lot better a lot faster. I wish I had just kept finding excuses to make stuff, even like really short stuff. The generation behind me in film school started a little thing where they would hold a little film festival every month. The only rule was it had to be three shots, only three shots. I thought that was genius because you don’t have an excuse not to make a three-shot film. I really wish we had done that years ago, but you live and learn.”
HorrorFuel: “Well, it seems like everything is still working out for you. You’ve created some great films so far.
Alender has already proven his talent as a filmmaker with films such as The Old Ways and I can’t wait to see what he does next. To stay up to date on his projects please visit his official website. And make sure to get your copy of The Old Ways on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital on October 12, 2021. Muppets Haunted Mansion makes its premiere on Disney+ on October 8th.