Exclusive interview with Dan Bush – director of horror-thriller The Vault
This September, something very special rears its head for horror fans. A film that sits snugly in that calm and collected middle-ground between the Horror and Thriller genres – delivering both the cool mechanics of a heist plot and also the bold scares of a strong scare-fest.
The Vault is a great film. You’ll come away enjoying the sudden tilt into the supernatural almost as much as you enjoyed From Dusk ‘Till Dawn‘s head-long dive into an abyss of vampiric lore. You’ll adore the heist-portion of the film even more. And you might even come away wanting a The Purge-style franchise out of this (with mask variations to boot).
We had a chat with director of The Vault, Dan Bush, about the film and his career to date. We touched upon David Cronenberg, Melissa McBride, James Franco and much more.
Spoilers for The Vault and for some of Dan Bush’s other films lay ahead.
Christopher Hart: I want to start by saying that I truly loved The Vault. I came away very impressed indeed.
Dan Bush: Wow. Thanks!
CH: The film blends the heist and horror genres so well. I knew about the supernatural content going in, but I’m curious to know how the film played for those who went in blind to this. What kind of feedback have you had from those who went in without any prior knowledge of what was to come? One character mentions the ghosts early on, but this is perhaps easy to dismiss, as he presents it only as fanciful rumour.
DB: That’s great to hear that your experience was that the genre blend worked. I remember being thrown of[f] watching From Dusk ‘Till Dawn in the theater. I’m probably still too close to The Vault to tell if this is seamless. I’ve only gotten feedback from a few friends who watched it cold and they said that act two was where things got exciting. Audiences now have the trailer – which implies what is to come so I hope they are satisfied when the movie flips.
CH: Horror seems be your genre-of-choice quite often (with a hint of Science Fiction too). When did your fascination with this genre start? Which horror authors or directors did you admire most, growing up?
DB: Actually, when I collaborated on The Signal with Jacob Gentry and David Bruckner, I considered it a challenge to do a horror movie. At the time, I wasn’t instinctively drawn to horror as much as I was sci-fi, but while making the signal we wanted to explore violence and horror in a way that provided some social commentary – a conversation on the nature of violence itself. I love horror and sci-fi because it is an opportunity and a challenge to explore the extremities of the human condition – to study extreme circumstances – and the challenge is to do it with a sense of truth – truth in the imagined circumstances. My favorite horror movies are not obscure. I love creature movies like The Thing, and Alien. I also love psychological horror like Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining. Then there’s Return of The Living Dead and [An] American Werewolf in London – which are probably two of the most fun movie going experienced I’ve ever had. And the directors I most admired growing up? That’s an impossible question. But they weren’t all horror guys. John Carpenter and Ridley Scott of course – but I loved Arthur Penn, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Miloš Forman, Mike Nichols and so many more of those 70s masters. In film school in the early 90s my favorite movies were Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch), Trust (Hal Hartley), Drugstore Cowboy (Gus Van Sant), Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino) and Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee).
CH: The Vault does a few things better than any other heist film I’ve seen. One of these is that you truly feel Leah’s world crumble as soon as she learns that the police are outside. “This was supposed to be simple. Now: it’s a different situation,” the caller wonderfully summarises. Francesca Eastwood does a brilliant job of conveying the complex dismay that Leah feels at this crucial turning point. You don’t always see this in heist films – often the lead bank robber receives such news with arrogance. Can you talk a little about how you managed to make this moment so powerful?
DB: These actors were all fantastic. This is a character driven movie and it was blessed with these actors – some of the best actors working today. In a way the whole movie is about hostages. The image of the hostage is where heist meets horror. It’s an idea that swirls around every character in the film – not just the actual hostages, but the bank robbers too. That was the precise moment in the movie where Leah realizes they are trapped between forces inside the bank and outside the bank. Now it’s a pressure cooker. Francesca went deep with this role and she really seemed to live in Leah’s skin — or perhaps the other way around, perhaps she was possessed by Leah. Her character was so pent-up and in such a constant struggle to contain the monster inside, and Fran killed it. We actually weren’t sure at times on set if she was still in character or not. For that scene, we set our focus marks and we just rolled one take.
CH: Let’s talk about how you came to choose Eastwood for the role of Leah. I remember her well from Fargo Season 3, which was only a small role, but she still managed to stand out. Which project in her career really stood out for you? Can you tell us a little about how her audition played out?
DB: Adding to the above, I’d seen clips from Outlaws and Angels and I saw the potential for Leah in Fran immediately. In Outlaws, especially towards the end of that movie, I saw a similar character to Leah too – a woman with a monster inside and who was maybe failing to contain that monster. Also – I saw her handle the gun in that movie and I just knew. I also wanted the sisters, Leah and Vee, to be antagonistic forces to each other. One question is will these siblings trust each other in order to survive? Taryn Manning was perfect for Vee – she is fantastic and brought the wild chaotic, unpredictable, trickster figure to Vee. But she also nailed this intense loyalty that Vee had to have. Meanwhile Francesca Eastwood nailed the intense, pent-up, military control freak that is Leah. Watching her struggle to maintain control and composure despite the pressure and the heat was intense. We are waiting for her character to break at any minute and we know, because of Fran, that when she does it’s not going to be pretty.
CH: James Franco is a pretty big name in Hollywood. What drew him to this role? His character has a certain importance to the narrative (which I won’t spoil for readers here) – was this part of the attraction, do you think?
DB: I wanted an actor that could hold the entire layer role in his eyes. That was James Franco. I also wanted that big recognizable presence. A figure that makes you ask – why is he in a “supporting” role?
CH: The song ‘Crimson and Clover’ by Tommy James & the Shondells bookends the narrative. Tommy James wrote these lyrics for simplistic reasons (his favour colour was crimson and his favourite flower was a clover), but I’m curious to know if these lyrics bear any deeper meaning for you – in relation to The Vault‘s narrative? Why did you choose this song, in particular?
DB: The song was more about a signature and what was playing on the radio during the original event – back in 1982. I wanted a “haunted” psychedelic pop tune that would have been on the radio in the early 80s. From a logical standpoint it just had to pre-date 1982 and for it to work we obviously had to have a song with a lot of presence like this one has, so we reconnect the instant it comes on – something memorable that would prime the audience – so that, upon hearing it, they would subconsciously associate it with impending doom. I was looking for early 80s pop songs but I had trouble finding the perfect fit. My production designer, Jessee Clarkson suggested Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, who did a famous version of the song, but it was not quite as psychedelic as the original version. I think ‘Crimson & Clover’ is really effective in the movie without needing to be an 80s song.
CH: Similarly, is the compass on Leah’s arm (which even the stunt double wears, too) of any significance? A compass is a tool to help someone who is trying to find their way. Leah seems like someone who is very much lost. She has a tenuous grip on leadership and she expresses that she doesn’t want to be there. Would that be a fair parallel to draw?
DB: Yes. It’s also got a military/nautical relevance.
CH: It’s really refreshing to see a modern film handle tension and pacing as well as The Vault does. How did you go about plotting the speed of the narrative? How large of a role did the film’s score play in achieving the desired outcome?
DB: I wanted the tension to ramp and then plateau – then ramp again and plateau again, and so on, to keep the pressure mounting and the dread relentless, like a balloon that keeps filling and swelling until it pops. I especially wanted the big act II shift to be relentless. Shaun Drew’s score was essential for this to work. We also wanted to create a real sense of dread continuing beneath the action/horror set pieces. We wanted to give the bank it’s own character, like The Overlook Hotel in The Shining or the Nostromo in Alien.
CH: A lot of horror films like this are turned into successful franchises. Could you see this happening for The Vault? Do you have any plans in place for a sequel?
DB: No plans as of yet… but I have a cool idea for a sequel, should it manifest.
CH: Let’s talk about one of your earliest films – The Signal. Both the premise and the feel of The Signal very much remind me of David Cronenberg’s work (mainly Shivers, Rabid and Videodrome). Was Cronenberg an influence on this film or on your career? If so, how does he inspire you?
DB: I co-directed The Signal with David Bruckner and Jacob Gentry, so I can’t exactly speak for their segments of that movie, but Videodrome was a huge influence on me in terms of what movies can do to take the viewer on the trip WITH the protagonist – allowing the audience to experience the anxiety, schizophrenia and confusion simultaneously with the main character. It is similar to the scene in my segment of The Signal when the Clark character, played by Scott Poythress, struggles with being “signalized”, and in his delusional state he takes a decapitated head, wired it to a car battery and tries to re-animate it. He only realized he’s talking to a decapitated head when Ben (Justin Welborn) shakes him out of it.
CH: In the second part of the film, The Signal pretty much becomes a comedy, after being rather serious up until that poit. This is similar to The Vault in the sense that there’s a sudden genre-flip, part-way through the film. It feels like you enjoying toying with audience expectations – leading them down one path, then revealing something altogether different. Are these sudden shifts intentional and how important do you feel it is to break the boundaries of cinematic expectation?
DB: David Bruckner directed the first act of The Signal and Jacob Gentry helmed the second act, the dark comedy segment. Honestly, Dave and I were not completely aware until Jacob started shooting his segment how wonderfully absurdist it was. We also had no Idea how it would be received, but I think more than anything else, the darkly comedic turn in Jacob’s segment is what makes The Signal stand out. I do love experimenting with complex, story structures and I think all my movies are ambitious in that way. I like for my audience to get a little lost – to lose their plot bearings a bit so that they must find anchor in the emotional reality of the characters. It’s always a huge risk, but, like a riddle, it has the potential to open up new connections for the viewer.
CH: Let’s go forward to one of your more recent films – The Reconstruction of William Zero. Again, I saw hints of David Cronenberg in this – this time with similarities to Dead Ringers. In Cronenberg’s film, Jeremy Irons plays two identical twins. In your film, Conal Bryne plays clones of the same man (and of each other). Was Dead Ringers an inspiration?
DB: Dead Ringers was not a direct inspiration, but I looked at every story I could find, including Dead Ringers, with doubles or fractured identities, be it via cloning, time travel, parallel universe or classic Jekyll and Hyde stuff. I had already made a short film called Ghost of Old Highways (about a civil war soldier chasing down and assassinating alternate versions of himself) and was already exploring story structures that featured alternate versions of the same person. With William Zero the challenge was transference. Could I transfer the audience’s identification with the protagonist to his clone? After all, the concept of cloning a person necessarily questions who we are as people and what the nature of our identity is at its core. So, I had to disrupt, in my own story, the classic idea of catharsis itself. If cloning disrupts our idea of “the self” then my story structure for William Zero had to disrupt the idea of a single protagonist. See what I mean? It get’s complicated.
CH: You got to work with Melissa McBride here, at a time when she was already in The Walking Dead. Can you tell us what you observed about her acting methodology and her approach to this role?
DB: I always reach for the best actors I gan get. Melissa was only just starting season 1 of WD when we approached her. She has been a part of the Atlanta community for years and one of our producers, Linda Burns, knew her so I got a meeting with her and luckily she was interested, available and willing. I was lucky to be able to work with such a talent and in hindsight I really wish I had used her more in the film.
CH: “Life is a whim of several billion cells to be you for a while,” one character states (quoting Groucho Marx, but without remembering the source). At another point our protagonist asks: “What if I don’t want to be William Blakely?” To me, much of this film is about the fragility of identity and mirage of what we believe to be true. Can you tell us about the themes that you and Bryne were trying to get across here?
DB: We were interested in two versions of one man. The innocent and the monster. One who has hope and wants to belong and discovers adolescent love. The other who has been abandoned and cast out. One, who discovers what it means to be a human and ultimately make the greatest human choice, self sacrifice, and the other, who realizes he is not human and is therefore capable of taking human life. I wanted to contrast these two forces in human nature. Also, I’m fascinated with our need to belong and how it informs who we are as people. In some way all my movies are about that at their core.
CH: You have a film currently in post-production called The Dark Red. This is about a dark cult. Can you tell us anything about what we can expect? The horror genre is full of films – both old and new – about sinister cults. Which films did you draw on, for inspiration, when conceiving this film?
DB: The Dark Red is a story told by an unreliable narrator, a woman named Sybil who has been committed to a psychiatric ward and claims her baby was taken via forced cesarian, by a cult — for its ancient bloodline and the powers that come with it. In the film we cut from the psychiatric session to Sybil’s story as she tells it. And in the story within the story, we watch Sybil evolve from a meek victim to powerful (think Sarah Conner) fighter. On one level, the movie is about the concept of a constructed narrative that a less-than-sane person has to create in order to cope with a reality. In that vein I drew on everything from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash to Peter Shafer’s Equus.
A huge thank you to Dan for taking the time to chat with us.
Whether you were already a fan of Dan’s work or an eager newcomer, we hope our interview got you excited to check out The Vault. Few horrors work well enough to stick with you and this one did for me. I highly recommend it.
The Vault is in cinemas and on iTunes and Digital HD from 8th September.
Image credits: Redwire Pictures, Content Media, Culmination Productions, Casadelic Pictures, Jeff Rice Films, LB Entertainment, Imprint Entertainment, Psychopia Pictures