Exclusive Interview: Alejandro Amenebar on Regression

Regression is the new movie from the director of he Others and Open Your Eyes (the original Spanish language basis for Vanilla Sky). Ethan Hawke stars as a detective investigating a case of Satanic ritual abuse of a young girl (Emma Watson), using regression therapy to uncover the memories of the cult. I got to speak with writer/director Alejandro Amanebar by phone about his latest film. Regression is now playing in theaters.

Nerd Report: When did you first hear about regression therapy and think there could be a movie there?

Alejandro Amenebar: A few years ago. A few years back I really wanted to make a movie about The Devil as a MacGuffin to do a horror movie. But then I couldn’t find an interesting approach to the subject. So I put it aside and a few years later, I read about Satanic ritual abuse and all these therapies. I thought that was a very, very interesting approach and something that I hadn’t seen very often in movies about The Devil. So that allowed me to tell a movie about The Devil but mainly about the mind and how the mind plays with us.

Emma Watson and Ethan Hawke in Regression

Emma Watson and Ethan Hawke in Regression

Nerd Report: Ethan was very impressed by how you use the camera to tell the story. Did you have a different approach in style to this than your previous movies?

Alejandro Amenebar: I like trying to find the most accurate style for each movie. In this case, I really admire all those American thrillers from the ‘70s. Marathon Man, All the President’s Men, and of course the horror movies from that time. We wanted to get some style from those movies which meant to try not to do many crazy things with the camera. The light, we decided for it to be more expressive or express an itch that the camera tried to keep still most of the time. Of course, focus on the work with the actors. The other thing is that we were avoiding digital effects. In one of the scenes, we tried and we realized that it didn’t work with this movie. The movie was analogical somehow.

Nerd Report: In what scene did you try the digital effect?

Alejandro Amenebar: The scene of Rose, the grandmother, when weird things are happening in the house. We tried there and we decided to avoid it.

Nerd Report: When you’re writing and directing a very intense film does it stick with you?

Alejandro Amenebar: When you write, you have to try to get into the story. Of course, you try to get into the mood and that means that I am always listening to soundtracks. In this case, I was listening to many of Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtracks. In the case of shooting, I try to be on focus of course. That means that sometimes you don’t even remember what you were doing apart from shooting. As compared to actors, some of them can get rid of the character right after you say “cut.” They really put it aside. Some others stay in character. In my case, I guess I cannot get rid of the movie for a while.

Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson in Regression

Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson in Regression

Nerd Report: Did you do additional research on cults or even police work for Regression?

Alejandro Amenebar: Yeah, I was into Minnesota and living there for a couple of weeks, visiting police stations. That was very, very interesting, and visiting churches as well. I have to say, I was very well treated there.

Nerd Report: Did you shoot with traditional film or digital?

Alejandro Amenebar: We did digital. We were going to do it analogical with real film because our DP insisted on that. That has to do with what I was saying before, that everything that had to do with digital, the movie rejected it. But we were shooting in Toronto and by that time they had closed down the laboratories for film in Toronto. So we decided to go digital.

Nerd Report: Did you learn to appreciate digital while you were working with it?

Alejandro Amenebar: Oh yeah, I love it. I realized one year before shooting this one, because I was doing a music video, and we shot it in digital. There was something about film itself that made you feel as if you were in the past century. I prefer digital for sure. I understand the difference. I remember my DP explained me the difference. It has to do with grades of color. The real thing is is you go faster and can focus more on the work with the actors when you work in digital.

Nerd Report: How difficult was casting for Regression?

Alejandro Amenebar: We were very lucky. I really wanted to work with Ethan for many years. I’ve been following his career and I thought he could be a very interesting guy, and he was. He understood the nature of this project. The same happened with Emma. So it was quite fast I would say.

Ethan Hawke in Regression

Ethan Hawke in Regression

Nerd Report: Did you have to direct Ethan to appear so haunted, or had he already decided on that?

Alejandro Amenebar: Well, when he read the script for the first time, the first thing he said to me was, “Who is this guy? I don’t have much information about him.” And I said, “Well, let’s try not to give that information about the past life of this detective. With a few elements and playing with what’s going on and with his interaction with the rest of the characters, let’s try to find out who he is.” So I think he played it in that way. Also one thing he said when we were rehearsing that kind of shocked me was that this guy is slipping. “I can feel this guy is slipping already.” So he was able to keep that idea all the way through he movie.

Nerd Report: Are you fully making English language movies now? Do you still think of any for Spanish?

Alejandro Amenebar: It always depends on the story. Of course, in the case of this story, once we realized it was going to be about Satanic ritual abuse and it’s a phenomenon that really took place mainly in North America, we knew that we would have to shoot it in English. That’s the great thing about making movies. You don’t know where you will end up, or which language you’ll end up doing the movie.

Nerd Report: What are your favorite scary movies?

Alejandro Amenebar: Of course The Exorcist is a great movie and Rosemary’s Baby. I loved The Omen, the first one. I saw that when I was a child. Alien. I guess we tend to be impressed by the movies that we saw when we were children, so all those movies from the ‘70s and the beginning of the ‘80s were very impressive for me.

Nerd Report: Did you know back then that you wanted to make scary movies?

Alejandro Amenebar: When I was a child, I was scared of anything. For me, making horror movies has also been a way of getting rid of my fears. It’s true that I was scared of anything, but at the same time I loved horror movies. At that time, I didn’t know I wanted to be a film director. I didn’t even know what that was, but I remember writing short stories and most of them were mystery stories, and doing drawings for them. Then when I did my first short movie, it was a horror movie. Then my first feature was horror. I feel particularly attached to that fear, although I think in the case of Regression, although it plays with many horror elements having to do with the Satanic ritual, etc., I think it really is a thriller. I wouldn’t define it as a horror movie.

Exclusive Interview: Ethan Hawke on Regression

Ethan Hawke has a new movie out in theaters this weekend. Regression stars Hawke as a detective investigating a suspected Satanic cult ritual, using regression therapy to find clues in the memories of its victims. Alejandro Amenebar wrote and directed Regression.

Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson in Regression

Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson in Regression

I got to speak with Hawke by phone this week to discuss the new film. Having spoken with him many times for films like Before Midnight, Boyhood and Predestination, I was impressed by how each film inspires the same level of thought, no matter the genre. Regression is in theaters now.

Nerd Report: I’m always impressed how you’re on the front lines with all of your films. Is that part of your passion to take such a hands on role?

Ethan Hawke: I don’t know. I’ve just been doing this a while and it seems important to stand by the process at every level. From when you’re first in preproduction to shooting to finishing films and then to releasing them, there’s always different stages in a film’s life. And with some films, it’s really easy and some films it’s always hard. It’s a little mysterious to me. Every time you start a movie, you have this secret hope it might be brilliant. Some turn out okay and sometimes they don’t.

Nerd Report: If we look at your post Boyhood movies, would we notice anything? I know doing Boyhood for 12 years never kept you from doing other films, but did having finished it propel you into a new stage?

Ethan Hawke: No, I wouldn’t say. There’s a couple films that have changed my career a little bit. Dead Poets Society obviously changed my life. Training Day in a lot of ways is my first really adult performance that kind of helped me make the transition into another part of my life. This year has been one of my favorites, the year after Boyhood came out. I did this movie Good Kill with Andrew Niccol that I feel really proud of. The movie Predestination is one of my favorites I’ve ever made. I finished this movie, a Chet Baker biopic that I really kind of killed myself on. It’s a really strong movie, so in some ways it definitely feels like a new chapter. In truth, for pretty much the last 30 years I’ve been doing the same thing. I feel a little bit like a cat. I keep trying to stay alive and keep trying to be a part of this profession that I love so much.

Nerd Report: As a film lover, were you a big Amenebar fan?

Ethan Hawke: That’s why I did the film. I was very interested in him. This film is kind of unique. Every now and then, someone comes along and they have a voice with a camera that’s different than other people’s voices. I think it was pretty clear with Open Your Eyes and The Others, this guy had a voice. The Sea Inside continued that. Then he did Agora with Rachel Weisz that was so interesting and strange. I really liked it. So I did this really for no other reason than I felt that he was an interesting person to work with.

Nerd Report: Was it different to work for that voice with the camera?

Ethan Hawke: It was very different. I have to say, it’s the first time in my life that I really just had to give. All my normal tools for helping directors just didn’t work. It was the first time I really felt like I was helping someone paint. He had a very clear vision of the movie that he wanted to make. It was about executing those ideas. If I have an idea about what this character would dress, it was the opposite of what Alejandro wanted. If I had an idea about what this character might say, it was the opposite of what Alejandro wanted. But he’s so kind and loving and supportive that I just gave in to doing it his way.

Emma Watson and Ethan Hawke in Regression

Emma Watson and Ethan Hawke in Regression

Nerd Report: Had you heard of regression therapy before this movie?

Ethan Hawke: No. I’ve always found any kind of high end psychiatric hocus pocus pretty fraudulent. One of the fun things about being an actor is you’re not just studying human behavior but you’re also studying human behavior throughout the centuries. As a student of acting, you’re also a student of writing. Whether it’s Shakespeare or Chekhov or Pirandello or Maupassant or whatever it is, you see that human beings are kind of driven by the same fears and hopes and dreams and desires throughout history. Psychiatric fads come and go, just like iPhones and horse carriages and all that stuff, but what’s happening inside our hearts is pretty consistent. So whenever anybody thinks they’ve got it all figured out, I figure they don’t have it all figured out.

Nerd Report: Have you learned anything about portraying fear from doing a number of horror films like Sinister and The Purge?

Ethan Hawke: Yeah, I guess I did. I really learned a lot of it from Scott Derrickson. Sinister was a really interesting experience for me. That’s really a flat our horror film. Yeah, I’ve made thrillers before but I’d never made a horror film, like a really Friday night midnight scary movie. Scott did the most interesting thing. He cut together the footage of some of the more famous scenes, like from The Shining. If you see Jack Nicholson be scary in The Shining without seeing Shelly Duvall’s fear on her face, he’s not scary at all. He’s kind of silly. It’s actually her that makes him scary. Scott really taught me that. Fear is not a sexy emotion. Actors love to be cool or like to be funny, they like to be badass, but fear is not an emotion that people find attractive. So it’s one that people are often scared of playing or shy of playing. I learned from Scott how to embrace that and how to really use that as a tool.

Nerd Report: Did you do any special research for the detective part, or did you draw on any of your past work playing cops?

Ethan Hawke and David Thewlis on the case in Regression

Ethan Hawke and David Thewlis on the case in Regression

Ethan Hawke: I did this movie right after Regression called Born to be Blue. It follows the life of jazz musician Chet Baker. That’s the kind of movie that required a ton of research. Whenever I tried to do research for Regression, I started realizing that this movie is different. This movie is kind of happening in Amenebar’s head. That’s what I was saying, like if I had an idea for the movie, I started doing some research and that was not what Amenebar wanted. He didn’t want Minnesota accents. I would have this idea that I should be studying the way real cops or detectives dress. That’s not what he wanted. It was very clear that he saw the movie in his head and it was this dream landscape where he could talk about the ideas he wanted to talk about. It really had nothing to do with research of real detectives.

Nerd Report: Do you stay in the intensity of the film at the end of the day, or are you good at leaving it on the set?

Ethan Hawke: Some movies are different than others. Characters get inside you. The deeper you go down the rabbit hole, the harder it is to come out. So there’s no one answer to that. You’re always trying to dance around inside you’re own imagination. In a lot of ways, it’s a little bit like a guided meditation. If you’re doing a comedy and you’re walking yourself through seeing what’s hysterical and funny and silly about life, then that carries into your day. If you’re playing Macbeth and all you’re doing is thinking about tragedy, death, greed, power, psychosis and suicide then that makes its way into your day. One of the more challenging aspects of the profession as I get older is how to continue to go deeper down the rabbit hole without getting lost.

Nerd Report: When the movie is more plot driven, is that different for you than when you can really just talk about the characters like in the Before movies?

Ethan Hawke: My joke is always the more plot there is, the more you get paid. There’s a certain falsehood in creating drama always. What’s wonderful about the movies I’ve gotten to make with Richard Linklater is that Rick’s allergic to plot. Whenever he sees the workings of plot, he just gets bored. In general, audiences love plot. It’s this thing people love. What’s going to happen next? What’s going to happen next? In mainstream movies, your job as an actor is to try to sell the plot. The more plot there is, the more bad lines you have, is always what it is. TV shows are chock full of plot. Actors have to sell these terrible lines.

Nerd Report: Since you mentioned Dead Poets Society at the beginning of this interview, that’s become such a classic and meaningful to so many generations. Was there a point shortly after you made it that you realized it was going to endure?

Ethan Hawke: You know, when you’re 18 you have no idea what the word endure even means. So no, I don’t think it was until years later when I see people with “carpe diem” tattooed on their arm, or people still in restaurants say, “Oh captain my captain” to me. It’s such a rare experience to have a movie connect with people on such a deep level and I don’t think I could have known then. I remember being in a restaurant at about 18, Robert Sean Leonard and I went out to dinner. There was a table, a group of people and they all stood on their chairs and said, “Oh captain my captain.” We assumed that would be normal, it would happen when every movie comes out and it certainly wasn’t.