How They Did It: Conjuring The Possession of Michael King

David Jung, writer-director of found-footage horror feature The Possession of Michael King, explains how he created the illusion of demonic possession in his main character using a simple effect with a trick monitor.

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When you’re shooting a film with a really tight budget, the most important thing you can do is plan. Plan as much as you possibly can. Then get everyone on board that plan. Use storyboards, pictures, explain the scenes and the shots. Act them out, give precise details, over and over again, until you’re blue in the face, because when you’re on set, every second counts, and every set-up takes way longer than you can possibly imagine. Lucky for me, I dove into the process of making The Possession of Michael King with that motto in mind. Still, in retrospect, I could have planned much, much more.

Since the film was shot documentary style, or found-footage style, I had to find a way to get around some of the confines that presented. All of my shots had to be motivated by the character. I couldn’t just pop in for a close-up if I wanted to convey emotion, or cut to a shot of a knife in a drawer that had gone missing, to build tension. I had to establish my hero’s camera and the cameras he placed around the house, and stick with them.

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David Jung, right, talks to actors Shane Johnson and Julie McNiven on set

This presented a lot of hurdles. For a lot of scenes, I would only have one or two angles to choose from when trying to edit the film together. I also had to put a lot of thought into choosing the locations of the cameras Michael, our lead character, is placing around the house. I had one camera per room, so one camera and one angle had to capture all of the action that took place in that location throughout the entire film! It was a bit maddening at times, especially when, as the writer and director, I was the only one that knew the script intimately enough to be able to figure out where and how to place these cameras.

The time and budget constraints also meant that I had to figure out how to pull off some of the practical effects myself. I had a few ideas for special camera rigs and I was lucky that the camera house we worked with, Radiant Images, were just as excited about helping me to build those rigs as I was. For a shot in the psychiatrist’s office, where the camera flies out of the hands of the cameraman and shoots up towards the ceiling, flipping end over end in the process, I mounted a camera on a long section of steel pipe, and placed a lever on the end. Two grips on ladders raised the pipe while a third grip turned the lever, spinning the camera 720 degrees. We also had some pretty cool SI-2K camera rigs that our lead character would wear on his body to get that great first-person POV stuff.

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Shane Johnson raises Julie McNiven up in a scene from The Possession of Michael King

However, the most problematic scene to shoot was one of the first scenes I wrote for the movie. In it, Michael, our lead, has finally decided to face up to the possibility that the voices in his head are more than just his own potential madness, and are a real demonic presence. He wants to confront them. He decides to accomplish this by aiming a camera at himself, attached to a television/monitor. With the camera live, Michael sits beside the television. He can look at his own image on the screen, and thereby have a conversation with himself, interview-style. Michael turns to the screen and asks it a question, then turns away – so, in effect, the image on the screen appears to be turning to face him. Suggesting a slight shift in Michael’s schizophrenic personality, the effect is quite creepy.

When I first wrote the script, there were a lot of questions about how I planned to shoot that scene. Everyone seemed to think that it was incredibly effective, original, and terrifying, but no one could quite envision how I intended to shoot it. So I shot a test scene to prove the concept. This was before lead actor Shane Johnson was cast, and before the movie had even found a financier. I was lucky that a good friend of mine had just secured financing for his film, and his crew agreed to shoot my scene with me. The test turned out great. I think it’s one of the reasons the film got financed, and it definitely secured my place on board as the director.

We started casting the film, and this scene was one of the sides the actors came in and read for me. The problem was, most of them would only read half of the dialogue. They played Michael, but not the possessed Michael, as well. I wanted them to play both parts. We had to have a few people come back in a few times before they got the hang of it. When they did, it was amazing to see these actors slowly transform into the persona of the demon, and then respond as regular Michael. It was very creepy. Even in the room.

When we shot the film, for the timing of it to work correctly in the wide shot – the money shot – we had to pre-tape a section of Shane’s performance, then play it back. Shane would then match his previous performance up to a point, and then stop. It was at this point that his performance on the TV screen would keep going, and the face would then appear to separate from Shane’s as it turned to look at him. It took Shane a while to get the timing right, but once he nailed it the effect was tremendous. We could have done this as a burn-in later on and had Shane play against a black screen, but the live performance was so raw and edgy, I don’t know if we would have captured the same thing.

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The fully possessed Michael King

Getting everyone on the same page to make this work during filming was incredibly hard. It was one of those moments that I almost didn’t trust myself as a director. Was I right? Would this really work? The lesson I learned was that when you’re steering the ship, sometimes you’re the only one that understands exactly what it is you’re trying to accomplish. That’s OK. You need to have the confidence to follow through with it.

Strangely enough, this defining scene, the scene that essentially got the movie off the ground and established me as director, was all but cut from the finished film! I was very torn about it, but ultimately acquiesced into letting it get chopped down. Is the film better for it? I guess that’s up to interpretation. I just wish I still had a version of it to show so you could decide for yourself.  Instead, here’s the original scene as written in the script:

 

INT. MICHAEL KING’S HOUSE – OFFICE – DAY (D8)

Lines under Michael’s eyes. Behind him, his office door is open. As he talks, a SHADOW seems to crawl up the hallway.

MICHAEL

Thought if I got a good night sleep… this would end, I’d feel… normal again. But those voices… I guess they’re not going to go away… not on their own.

(beat)

I need to confront this.

INT. MICHAEL KING’S HOUSE – OFFICE – DAY (D8)

Two chairs are set-up. Atop one chair, a FLAT SCREEN TELEVISION SET. It’s positioned to be at eye level with the person sitting in the opposite chair. As if one were interviewing the television. We notice a few other cameras set up in the room as well.

Michael comes over and sits in the chair. As he does, a CLOSE-UP of his face appears on the television screen beside him. We realize that he’s got a camera positioned on his face, and he’s recording his image live onto the TV screen.

Michael turns toward the TV screen, as he does, his image on the screen, following the movement of his head, looks away.

MICHAEL

So… are you real? Or am I going insane?

Michael turns back to the TV.

MICHAEL (CONT’D)

Neither choice is appealing. But I suppose… one of them must be true.

Michael turns away… waiting, wondering…

MICHAEL (CONT’D)

I guess…

(swallows hard)

I’d rather you were real.

A long silence… and then:

The face on the TV turns to look right at Michael.

This is TV MICHAEL. And while Michael is terrified, sweaty, a nervous wreck… TV Michael is dead calm.

TV MICHAEL

What if they’re both true.

Michael’s color drains.

MICHAEL

What if… what if I said I was satisfied. That you proved your existence. Would you leave?

TV MICHAEL

No.

MICHAEL

Why not?

TV MICHAEL

Because we wouldn’t believe you.

MICHAEL

What kind of proof do you need?

TV MICHAEL

You know what happens when you die?

MICHAEL

No.

TV MICHAEL

You’re set free. Free from this place we’re trapped in. Wouldn’t that be nice?

MICHAEL

I don’t know.

TV MICHAEL

Don’t you see? By killing someone… you’re setting them free.

MICHAEL

I’m not going to kill anyone.

TV MICHAEL

You already have.

MICHAEL

What? Who?

TV MICHAEL

You know.

MICHAEL

Samantha? No. That wasn’t my fault. That was an accident.

TV MICHAEL

She’s dead because of you.

MICHAEL

No.

TV MICHAEL

You’re already a killer, Michael. You want to do it again, don’t you?

MICHAEL

No!

TV MICHAEL

We can make you do it. But if we do, you might not like who we choose.

MICHAEL

You can’t make me do anything. You’re just in my head.

(screaming)

You’re just in my fucking head!

Michael sits there a moment. Wondering WTF is going on with him. He hesitatingly glances at the TV screen:

And Michael’s image on the screen turns to look right at him.

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Anchor Bay Films opens The Possession of Michael King in theaters on August 22, 2014 and VOD and iTunes on August 26, 2014. Images courtesy of Anchor Bay Films.

Bonus: Weekend Trivia Giveaway Contest! For a chance to win a Blu-ray DVD of The Possession of Michael King, visit our Google+, Twitter, and Facebook pages, and pick one of the three trivia questions we’ve posted. Then email your full name, address, phone number, and answer to one of the questions to staff@moviemaker.com by Sunday, August 24, 11.59pm PST. On Monday, August 25, three winners will be chosen at random from the pool of correct answers. Good luck!

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