For two moviemakers so thoroughly fascinated by familial trauma, The Lodge co-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala share a family dynamic that is exceedingly healthy—so healthy, in fact, that the Austrian writer-directors’ potent professional partnership is actually an outgrowth of their relationship as aunt and nephew.
At 14, when the now-34-year-old Fiala was growing up with an insatiable appetite for horror films and no means of watching them, he and Franz found a solution: While Franz was away on weekends covering film festivals as a critic, Fiala would babysit her son at her home in Vienna, and instead of cash, Fiala would be paid in rentals of his choice from Franz’s local video store. Their movie marathons evolved into a unique mentorship, and ultimately the two went on to make their mark on an Austrian film landscape sorely lacking in horror cinema.
Today, Franz and Fiala’s international reputation as auteurs of the genre is well-established, and their latest and first English-language film, The Lodge, is a testament to their ever-increasing influence in the North American horror space. Alongside Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, their 2014 feature, Goodnight Mommy, became a focal point of critical discussion surrounding so-called “elevated horror”—a trendy, albeit insufficient term ascribed to any film made in the mid- to-late 2010s that crafts genre tropes with the style and narrative traits of arthouse cinema. Its tale of a mother’s (Susanne Wuest) fractured relationship with her two sons (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) is the progenitor for the premise of The Lodge, which follows a stepmother-to-be (Riley Keough) whose past demons disrupt her attempts to connect with her fiancé’s (Richard Armitage) reticent children (Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh) during a snowbound cabin retreat. The film’s slow-burn cadence, suffocating atmosphere, and punctuated bursts of violence shocked and awed midnight crowds at its Sundance world premiere this year, proving that a stateside appetite for such morbid mood pieces indeed persists.
We asked Franz and Fiala to share a conversation on their approach to horror screenwriting, the difference between what’s on the page and what ends up on-screen, and how haunting lead performances and locations can transform a script long after you think it’s “finished.”
Severin Fiala (SF): My parents would let me watch just about any film, but when it came to horror, my father said, “You can watch everything else… just not that weird stuff with chainsaws and monsters.” So, obviously that became the only thing I was interested in.
My mother, not being much of a film fan, was never sure what was OK to show her kids and what wasn’t, so she showed us Psycho when I was 10. I wasn’t accustomed to suspense in movies, so when Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh, steals the money in the beginning of the film, it was thrilling: “Where is this going?” After the twist in the shower scene, my realization that the film was going to continue without its main character opened up something in my brain. That experience showed me how cinema could toy with an audience by telling a story in a different way.
Veronika Franz (VF): My first experience with horror was seeing Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers on television. The film is actually a comedy, but it was the first vampire movie I’d ever seen, so I didn’t appreciate the humor in it. I was so frightened that I went to bed that night, barricaded my doors, and wrapped myself in blankets. I was scared for weeks that a vampire would enter my room and bite me. Later, I began watching more films on TV that were intended to be scary, like The Exorcist, which traumatized me. My first cinematic horror experience was seeing The Amityville Horror, and that scared the shit out of me. But I found that I really liked being scared to death by all of these films. You once told me that we share an enjoyment of nightmares, and I agree.
SF: It helps to face dark subject matter in a safe environment. A horror film may scare you and make you afraid of dying… but then it’s over. The experience is like almost riding a rollercoaster—but films, as opposed to roller coasters, can inspire more intellectual thought. Being scared to death while you’re on the ride is a great way to trigger questions about yourself and about life.
VF: And questions about death, which are also important. Still, when you’re 10 or 11, you don’t really analyze the main character dying in the middle of the movie. That critical engagement comes later, when you start reflecting: “Why did that make such a huge impression?”
SF: Analysis is something you do only after you’ve fallen in love with cinema. The point at which that started for me was in film school, and then when you and I started making films together. As it’s happening, you understand more and more why and how these films you fell in love with actually work.
VF: An analytical perspective can take away from the pure joy and genuine fear of the experience, though. Every time you and I watch horror movies, we like to rediscover that childish fear we once had. It’s important to try to forget about how a director is manipulating you and just experience what they want you to experience as purely as possible.
SF: Yes, but that’s very hard for film critics and even harder for moviemakers. If you already know how everything is put together, it’s nearly impossible to get that out of your head.
VF: When it comes to thinking critically about process, I try to focus on narrative: How is the story being told? With The Exorcist, for example, I’m interested in its theme of the “faces” people wear—how the characters wear masks in their daily lives, and how when they change, you begin to see that their inner-self is much different than you first suspected. This is especially true when we’re first introduced to demon who possesses Regan, played by Linda Blair: The demonic presence brings out something unexpected in her.
SF: Our 2014 film, Goodnight Mommy, and our new film, The Lodge, have traces of that.
VF: In our storytelling, we try to stick to character. When you commit to the perspectives of more than one character, there will be at least two realities conflicting with each other in the film, and that creates multiple possibilities for the audience interpreting a scene.
SF: In Goodnight Mommy, there are two perspectives clashing throughout the entire film: Two kids are afraid that the woman claiming to be their mother is not their mother, and through the kids’ perspective, the woman appears monstrous—this mysterious, evil presence. Then when the film takes a different turn, things start to look like the complete opposite. Shifting perspectives ultimately makes the film’s events much more tragic.
VF: That’s why, even if it’s harder or takes longer to get it just right, we really try not to place a scene in the script because we feel we “need it now,” for plot purposes.
If a scene isn’t right for the characters, you shouldn’t do it. We get many scripts from the U.S. to read with a lot of plot mechanics, but when you look closer at them, you start thinking, “Would the characters do that?” That’s an immediate dead end.
SF: The film needs to make sense from all the characters’ points of view, but the problem is that it’s much harder to write a script that way. With The Lodge, we always said we wanted to achieve a kind of hypnotic, rhythmic quality in the way the film unfolds.
It needed to cast a spell on the audience in the same way the characters appear to be cast under a spell themselves. That’s what was in the writing.
VF: Yes, but I’m not sure if you could read that in the script for The Lodge. Our method is that we read the script out loud to each other, and that’s a very painful process [laughs], because when you read it out loud, you hear how stupid the lines sound when we deliver them too fast or too slowly. Our editor is a cellist, so when we sit in the editing room together, that becomes the ultimate writing process. Moviemaking is deeply connected to musicianship, so his feel for the rhythm of a story made it easier to shape the film.
SF: There are also things on the page that we know we want a certain way, but that are hard for producers or anyone else reading the script to understand. In the script, it might just mention “an empty hallway,” and not much else. For a producer, that might seem like a two-second shot of an empty hallway, and the atmosphere that we want to create in the sequence doesn’t translate to the script.
VF: Our scripts are very short. The script for Goodnight Mommy, a 99-minute film, is 65 or 70 pages. That can be difficult to read if you don’t know how.
SF: Martin Gschlacht, our cinematographer on Goodnight Mommy, said to us, “You have a problem: Your film is only going to be an hour long.” We said, “Oh, we actually think it’s going to be too long.” Our scripts always seem short, but we also know that the film will need time to breathe. Hypnotizing the audience isn’t done with quick pacing and cuts and rushing through scenes. Making The Lodge, we knew that every scene that’s short on the page would end up much longer when we shot and edited it, because we needed the characters to stay in the house and feel the oppressiveness of the location.
We found our location very late—just some weeks before the shoot. But generally I think you need to find your location as early as possible, then re-adjust your writing to the location once you’ve found it.
VF: Scouting for The Lodge, we found this crucifix-shaped house in the wilderness almost accidentally. We couldn’t use it as our main setting, but it was so strange that it kept us thinking about how we could use it, so we wrote it into the script.
SF: You should definitely write with specific locations in mind whenever possible. But one scene in The Lodge set in an attic wasn’t in our first draft of the script because we didn’t know that the house would have such an amazing attic! We saw it and both thought it was the most impressive thing in the entire house, so we needed to write something centered around the attic. So, it’s 100 percent necessary to adapt your script to your location in real time. It’s about constantly improvising.
VF: That’s why we don’t do any read-throughs with actors. Our scenes are carefully written, but we want actors to deliver them in their own way.
SF: Coming from Austria, most actors are theatrically trained, so they’re used to playing very dramatic stage acting, which can feel like overacting in film. So we’ve tried to work with non-actors in Austria because they’re less likely to fall into that trap. On the other hand, their lack of training makes them not very good at reading scripts and learning dialogue. So we’ve learned to improvise a lot. That brings fresh life to a scene that might otherwise be in danger of feeling too technical.
And in the same way that our writing is a reaction to our location, we also take parts of our leads—whether it’s Susanne Wuest in Goodnight Mommy or Riley Keough in The Lodge, and incorporate them into the script, to make the characters feel real by more closely connecting them to the people playing them. Screenwriting is never really finished.
VF: When we write together, we discipline each other. When you’re only writing on your own, it’s difficult to get up at seven or eight ’o clock, because you might not feel inspired on that day. But if you’re working as a pair, your writing partner will show up, and that will force you to sit down and try. We’re also each other’s first audience members. If I tell you a stupid idea, you’ll say, “That’s a very stupid idea,” and then we’ll drop it. There’s a sense of total trust because we both know it’s for the good of the film. It’s never about ego.
SF: Again, it sounds obvious, but everything you do must in some way be important for the story you’re telling. Horror is one of the genres that can address important issues and still manage to consistently draw and entertain audiences. Many moviemakers might try to make horror films that are bigger, with more special effects and other distractions that cost a lot of time, money, and energy. But those things don’t help the core of your film. The questions you have to ask are, “What are the things I really want to tell the audience?” and “What’s the easiest way of telling them?” Stripping away anything unnecessary or overwrought will make your genre film stronger, not weaker.
VF: And the big advantage of independent genre moviemaking is the creative freedom. You may not have budgetary freedom, but having less pressure from financiers means you can really stick to your original vision. Don’t listen to the people saying, “This story isn’t possible, it’s too expensive to write.” Fight for every idea you have.
—as told to Max Weinstein
The Lodge is now in theaters, courtesy of NEON.