October 10, 2012

Q&A with Apartment 143's Carles Torrens

On Monday 15th October Momentum Pictures will be releasing the spooky found footage style flick Apartment 143, on DVD, in the UK. Recently I had the chance to ask the film's director, Carles Torrens, about the film, and below is what he had to say. Enjoy!

Carles, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions for the Lair of Filth.

      Lair of Filth  (LoF) - Carles, aside from the Spanish TV movie Plou a Barcelona, Apartment 143 (Emergo) is your first feature film. The screenplay was written by Rodrigo Cortez, who directed Buried, so how did you become attached to the project?

Carles Torrens (CT) - Apartment 143 stemmed from the yearlong research that Rodrigo underwent to pen the screenplay for his latest film, Red Lights. Being the workaholic that he is, he gathered enough material to write not one but two movies, and that’s how the project came about.

In fact, he was originally slated to direct the movie himself, but the success of Buried propelled him onto bigger things. Fearing that Apartment 143 would get stuck in limbo, he approached me with an offer to direct in April 2010. Needless to say, I said yes right away; I was 26 at the time, and ready for an adventure.

      LoF - Did you follow the screenplay word for word, or is there anything you added to the final film?

CT - I pretty much followed the screenplay word for word, except for two scenes, which I intentionally set up as improvisations; the one where Alan wakes his daughter up, and the breakfast scene. I basically approached them as theater exercises, giving the actors conflicting objectives, as well as specific instructions on how to react if their scene partner said a specific line or invaded their personal space. I’m pretty happy with the way they turned out.

Also, I decided to make Paul’s character Latino, since I feel you can no longer set a movie in the US and have everyone be white, and I made Ellen Irish, in order to add more diversity to the group of scientists.

LoF - I watched Apartment 143 recently and really enjoyed it, and was surprised by the sustained intensity throughout. Movies like Paranormal Activity and Atrocious had more gradual build-ups to the strange occurrences, but in Apartment 143 the action starts straight away. Was this something that appealed to you when approaching the film?

CT - The biggest difference between my film and the Paranormal Activity series lies in its core philosophy. Those films are mostly improvised, with the actors operating the camera themselves in order to create an alleged sense of realism. The entertainment comes from endlessly waiting for something to happen, until you start getting really nervous; they’re very effective that way, but they don’t necessarily work as nail-biting thrillers (they don’t try to, either). Since most of the directorial choices are left at random (whatever the actor films is what ends up on screen), it’s hard for those movies to build suspense, to gradually pick up momentum and create an inner rhythm.

In my film, however, every single choice has been meticulously planned ahead of time to make sure the rollercoaster ride is as thrilling as it can be. Indeed, everything is scripted, every camera angle and texture has a narrative purpose, the blocking is highly choreographed, and the filming is always done by a professional cameraman who hits every beat as effectively as possible. Hence, every “casual” pan, tilt, or camera jerk is intentional, even if one may get the feeling that the footage has been captured and assembled at random. In a way, the camerawork in Apartment 143 is a lot closer to REC or Cloverfield than it is to the PA movies.

      LoF - Were you influenced by any other films, or books, when making Apartment 143?
      CT - Apartment 143 is mainly a film about research, about what it’s like to be out in the field gathering data and forming hypotheses.

Hence, my main influences were movies like Primer or Pi, which take a logical impossibility and coat with a very plausible veil of pseudo-science that grounds them in reality, to the point where you actually believe you’re learning something (of course, it’s all a magic trick).

Keep in mind I made this film before Paranormal Activity 2 had come out, so I didn’t have a frame of reference as to how to tell a story from the P.O.V of a bunch of security cameras. Thus, I borrowed much of the narrative language from the show Big Brother.
      LoF - The effects during the film, without giving anything away, were particularly impressive. How challenging were these to execute?
      CT - We mostly stuck to practical effects, using CG for enhancement purposes only, as well as wire removal. Alex Villagrassa, who did the special effects on the REC movies, worked alongside Gabriel Pare and Maria de la Camara, our production designers, to achieve a good balance between both techniques. Gabriel and Maria have a very extensive background in theatre set design, so they know a lot of old school tricks that still work ten times better than most computer-generated stuff. As for Alex, he is self-taught and absolutely brilliant, and was patient enough to show me the ropes, as I had never done SFX of this caliber before.
        Just to give you an example of how it all worked together, let’s take the scene where the team and Alan White make their way down the hallway amidst a hurricane of paranormal activity. Gabriel and Maria set up a gigantic fan at the very end, and started pouring hamster litter into it. Then, a bunch of people in the crew (not just art department members, but also make-up artists, grips, electricians, catering staff, etc) hid behind the doors and started banging on them repeatedly.

        Then, Alex came in later in postproduction and digitally erased the fan, added more particles to the air, and created the enormous crack that splits the ceiling open.
      LoF - Apartment 143 was filmed in Spain, I believe, however you have an English speaking cast. Why did you choose not to film in Spanish?

CT - Well, the film takes place in the United States, so it makes more sense to shoot it English, doesn’t it? (Though everyone speaks Spanish there now). The reason we shot in Spain was because we’re from there and want to support our industry, but as filmmakers, I’d like to think we have the freedom to set our stories wherever we want, regardless of their nationality.

      LoF - How did you go about finding the cast? There seemed to be a mix of Spanish and American actors in the film.

CT - We cast the film in L.A, except for the roles of Heseltine (the medium) and the grandfather. They were played by Francesc Garrido and Fermi Reixach respectively, whom I admire greatly. I had always wanted to work with Francesc, so this was a great opportunity, and I had previously directed Fermi on a mini-series for Catalan television.
      LoF - Spanish genre movies, and directors, seem to be creating big waves within horror at the moment, with films such as the [REC] series, Julia’s Eyes and Atrocious. How is the horror scene within Spain itself? Is it as popular there?

CT - It is indeed very popular, and going through a Golden Age at the moment. For the past few decades, institutions like the Sitges Film Festival or the Semana Fantastica de Donosti have done a great job getting Spanish audiences acquainted with the horror genre, undoubtedly spawning a new generation of filmmakers thirsty for experimenting and breaking new ground.

      LoF - What are your personal favorite horror films?

      CT -  I’m sure I’m forgetting a few, but The Thing (Carpenter’s), Jaws, Audition, Poltergeist, The Fly (Cronenberg’s), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, REC, The Exorcist, 28 Days Later, The Devil’s Rejects, or The Innocents are definitely up there.
      LoF - Apartment 143 has been described as Paranormal Activity meets The Ring and Poltergeist. Would you say that this is a fair comparison?

      CT -  I don’t really see The Ring there, and PA is the obvious comparison, but Poltergeist would be the one I drew the most inspiration from out of the three. At its core, Apartment 143 is the story of a family, told with an equal measure of drama, comedy, tenderness, and sadism, very much like the Amblin films of the 80’s, and, indeed, Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece.
      LoF -  If I knew nothing about Apartment 143, how would you sell it to me?
      CT - Apartment 143 is, first and foremost, a film about research, about what it’s like to be out in the field gathering data and forming hypotheses. The point is to provide a cold, rigorous, emotionally detached view of a series of events that unfold in a controlled environment created group of scientists, who, in this case, are parapsychologists, but who could very well be geologists or chemical engineers. You’re supposed to be right there with them, experiencing the frustration, excitement, and, ultimately, fear, of discovering something new and potentially dangerous.

      LoF - The sound mix in Apartment 143 is phenomenal; and the film is incredibly effective when watched at a loud volume. Scenes such as the strobe light scene create incredible tension, without relying on a sudden jump scares, so was the sound design just as important to you as the script?

CT - Absolutely. A huge portion of our budget went into sound design, which was essential in hitting the suspense beats as effectively as possible. You’re supposed to convince the audience that the footage they’re watching is real, so you’re pretty limited when it comes to camerawork and lighting. Luckily, however, sound settles into the viewer’s mind in a very subliminal way, so you have a lot more leeway to experiment and manipulate.

      LoF - Finally, what does the future hold for Carles Torrens? Do you have more movies lined up? And do you plan on directing more horror movies?

      CT -  I do plan to revisit the horror genre, yes. I currently have a couple of feature-length projects in early stages of development, and I just finished directing a short film called SEQUENCE, which will hit the festival circuit really soon. So keep an eye out for it!

Carles, thank you once again for taking the time to answer these questions!

Apartment 143 is released in the UK on DVD on October 15th from Momentum Pictures.

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