Beginning with Crank, their blazingly irreverent 2006 debut, and extending to Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, a sugar-rush opus that doubles as a “fuck you” to franchise vanilla, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (better known as Neveldine/Taylor) have embodied everything those with a predilection for subversive cinema could hope for. They’re playful filmmakers without any pretensions or hang-ups about their crude, socially conscious juvenilia, who make films for sharp, attentive viewers yearning to grapple with an ever-increasing technological overload. Recently, each filmmaker announced an intention to make films independent from one another, at least for the time being. For Taylor, it will be an adaptation of the video game Twisted Metal, and for Neveldine, it’s The Vatican Tapes, a “Catholic thriller,” as he puts it, which utilizes surveillance footage, iPhones, and those breathless, hyper-tracking shots from the duo’s previous films to chart new terrain for the possession narrative. I chatted with Neveldine about his recent foray into short-story writing, the visual strategies used in The Vatican Tapes, and his relationship with cult/indie hero Lloyd Kaufman.
First of all, congratulations on your short story, “Meat-Maker,” included in The Blumhouse Book of Nightmares: The Haunted City, which I recently listened to. Could you talk about the story and how that came into being?
I had a couple of movies in development with Blumhouse and I have a close relationship with Cooper Samuelson, as well as Jason [Blum], and they came to me and said, “We want something that’s very much your style of thought. We don’t want to give you any restrictions, we basically want to tell you it’s set in the city, we want it to be horrific, but outside of that we have no other rules.” I was surprised and excited that they wanted me to do it, so I kinda dove into my psyche. There’s an acquaintance of mine who went through similar experiences in his life, so I kinda dove [Laughs] off of that experience and took it to the nth level. It was fun. I really had the creative freedom to do anything and get as dark as I wanted to get.
The story further highlights a theme of possession in your films. I wasn’t surprised when I heard The Vatican Tapes would be your next work, because all of your films seem to have a possession theme to them, where bodies are being taken over by another force. Could you talk a little bit about what drives you to either write stories or make films about bodies that are in trauma or, here, literally possessed?
It’s superficially possession, because I think it’s about control and being out of control. It’s our constant desire to want to be in control, but there are things and factors in this world, and life, where we are simply out of control and have no control of a situation. I think that’s what makes for great stories, where all of the obstacles kind of weigh on us to get to our goal. But that’s an interesting parallel. I certainly never thought of it that way. I feel like The Vatican Tapes is a big departure. But, absolutely, Angela [played by Olivia Dudley] is being controlled by more than possession and she becomes out of control. So it is somewhat similar to Gamer and Crank in some ways, and even Pathology in a weird way.
I always think of the scene in Gamer where Angie’s first seen in Society and you see her being controlled as she moves throughout that world. As I was watching The Vatican Tapes, I felt a parallel there, because this is the first film where you have a woman in the lead, who’s being taken over by a force, but also geared by the church’s male patriarchy and dominance. Did that draw you to the screenplay for The Vatican Tapes, specifically?
It’s funny, I was really surprised when Lakeshore offered me the movie. Truly, I was like, “Do you really want me to do this?” I read the script and I really liked it. I grew up Catholic. I was one of those kids who went to St. Abbey’s School from K through six, went to St. Patrick’s School for seventh and eighth, and went to Immaculate Heart Central in high school, so I knew the catechism inside and out. I had actually read the “Rite of Exorcism” before. I absolutely love The Exorcist, which came out the year I was born. So being that this is a Catholic thriller, there was a very simple, organic attachment to this material. I thought it was really clever and well written and I thought there was a nice twist on it. What I liked about the overall story is that this is an origin story that’s camouflaged underneath this evil-possession film. I wanted to push it a little further—and maybe there’s an opportunity to do more in some other version of The Vatican Tapes with a part two. But I wasn’t interested in bashing the church. I thought, “Wow. There’s the Vatican and Rome is incredibly colorful and there’s a mystery and a history about it.” Not a lot of people know this, but there really are these secret Vatican archives. Secret, of course, didn’t mean secret back then: It just meant private. The translation to us is “secret.” But the Vatican archives are real and there are notes, handbooks, microfiche, photographs, videotape, and film. They have been collecting this for years and years. So I really enjoyed what all of that brought into the story and it would be so cool to have Michael Peña and Djimon Hounsou be the devil hunters in part two. [Laughs]
That would be great. As I watched this, I was thinking that there have been a fair number of possession films of late, but what distinguishes yours is the use of technology and how there are no shortage of screens and devices constantly recording. Obviously, the film’s title alone suggests a mediated presence. Could you talk about decisions you made on the film in terms of how you shot it, with not just surveillance footage at some points, but also POVs from iPhones?
Full disclosure: When I first got this script, it was a found-footage movie. And it was an incredibly well written found-footage movie. But Lakeshore had an idea, they said, “Look, we’re not interested in a found-footage version of this movie. We want to move this into a more cinematic experience. Is there a way that you can change the POV and pull it out of that and into the characters?” and I said, “Yeah. Let me give it a shot.” So I told them I would also like to keep some of the elements, not of found footage, but of surveillance and of big brother and of what is so embedded within our culture today with phones and video capture. I wanted to use it in a way, and I wouldn’t call it mixed media by any means, where it’s more organic with what we’re going through today and the way we live our lives and how we see our lives through the lens of an iPhone. So I wanted to use a couple of those moments, but I also didn’t want to overdo it. Everyone’s Skyping and Facetiming now. I wanted to let the audience know we’re in 2015, and that possession is ancient and the Vatican is ancient, but the technology doesn’t have to be. It was fun as far as transitions and ideas to play with, but again, I was excited that Lakeshore wanted to also move it away from found footage, because I wanted to do something a little different, and I was able to do a little bit of both.