Monday 7 January 2019

Inner Ghosts (Portugal/Brazil 2018: Dir Paulo Leite) plus interview with the director

I had the privilege of seeing Paulo Leite’s challenging and unorthodox tale of science and the supernatural last year at the inaugural Soho Horror Film Festival. Sharing the programme with a diverse range of films shown during that weekend, Inner Ghosts shone out as something rather special, an intriguing combination of quaintness and naivety, big ideas and, towards the end, some truly scary moments.

Inner Ghosts is primarily the story of Helen, a scientific University researcher studying the brain and its capacity to retain information, bidding for a grant to investigate how memory might be unlocked in the mind of Alzheimer’s patients. Helen was also a ‘sensitive,’ past tense because she let lapse her psychic abilities following the death of her daughter Lily, with whom she could not communicate after Lily's passing.

After Helen’s mentor Moira dies, she bequeathes the researcher an apartment, rich in atmosphere and spirits. Feeling that there would be some worth in carrying out memory experiments with the dead, Helen installs herself in the flat with her protégé, Moira’s daughter Rachel, a psychic in training. They are later joined by Elsa, a young graphic designer who appeals to Helen for help because of demonic visions that she has been experiencing, which are becoming more and more powerful and increasingly frightening.

Fuelled by Helen winning the grant for the research, the three ‘sensitives’ begin a series of experiments to test the extent of ‘brain’ retention by spirits. Helen’s boss Dr Steinman, anxious to make commercial capital from the successful grant bid, is keen for Helen to reach her conclusions using more secular techniques, but when Helen discovers after one successful psychic session that certain images have been imprinted on a roll of blank film left in the room, images which might provide a stronger link with the dead, Steinman’s interest is piqued, and events take a much nastier turn.

Inner Ghosts is predominantly a film about ideas – the conflict between religion, spirituality and science. For the most part it’s a very talky film, and the closest comparison in terms of tone is probably Nigel Kneale’s 1972 BBC drama The Stone Tape. That’s not to say it doesn’t take a dark turn about two thirds in, with one particular scene guaranteed to shock audiences expecting 90 minutes of chin stroking erudition.

It also contains some great performances. Iris Cayatte and Elizabeth Bochmann are impressively bewildered and scared as Rachel and Elsa respectively, and Norman MacCallum is a decidedly nasty specimen of University life in the role of Steinman. But the biggest applause must go to Celia Williams as Helen. Not only is she in every scene of the film, but she has the unenviable job of conveying dialogue convincingly which in less talented hands might have sounded rather hokey. She absolutely succeeds.

Helen and the team face a terrifying vision in Inner Ghosts
I was so intrigued by this quietly audacious film that I tracked down Paulo to ask him some questions about the making of it. I am extremely grateful to him for being very candid and honest about the highs and lows of independent film-making in his responses.

DEoL: Can I first ask about your production company, ‘Bad Behavior,’ in that it’s a horror film based outfit located in Portugal, a country which doesn’t really have a fright movie history?

PL: I worked in Portuguese films for over 15 years and rarely saw a project that remotely touched the horror genre - which is sad because horror is a genre where you can say and do virtually anything, from brainless fun to the sharpest social commentary. If you look at the genre’s canon, you’ll see an incredible diversity of subjects, voices and styles that makes me think that 500 years from now, researchers who want to learn about 20th and 21st Century humans will look into our horror films more than into any other genre. Sadly, the Portuguese cultural scene and our film community are very snobby when it comes to the horror genre. They do not see any interest in it and our film fund follows the same trend. But regardless of that I have always written horror stories and screenplays. Lots of them. Because I could not find any producer interested in the genre, I decided to produce myself. That’s why my company, ‘Bad Behavior’, was created. I wanted a space where we could discuss horror projects without any prejudice; a place for horror lovers with horror projects. Because I had previous experience with film marketing and financing, I used the networking I had in order to secure some funding for the company. The rest was hard work.

DEoL: You funded some of Inner Ghosts through a Kickstarter programme. Obviously, you met your target (as the film got made!) but what types of people or organisations gave money to the movie? 

PL: Inner Ghosts was privately funded based on my pitch and then I worked on the script for a few months. It’s important to say that I wrote five horror scripts before Inner Ghosts. However, I needed one project to start the company – one I could produce with very little money. That’s why I chose Inner Ghosts, which was the sixth film I wrote, specifically to be the first one produced. I used venture capital to fund the company and the film. I already knew the investors and we have a great relationship. They trusted me and my long-term vision – and I am very thankful for that. I showed them the film a month ago and they loved it. The Kickstarter campaign came during the last stages of post-production. We ran out of money for the sound mix because of some VFX that were needed and I decided to try crowdfunding. I had helped other campaigns in the past and studied a lot about the subject, so I was eager to try it for myself. In order to make our case more “alluring” I gave an Associate Producer credit to my backers. They appear on IMDB and on the film’s end credits. Executive Producer credits were given to people who made a significant contribution to the film – not always in the form of money.

DEoL: Before we talk about the film itself, I must mention the casting. It's a largely female cast, and the central performance from Celia Williams as Helen is extraordinary. How did you find your actors, and was it hard to get them on board a movie which is quite unorthodox?

A visitation from the beyond in Inner Ghosts
PL: The casting of Inner Ghosts was a weird journey. From the beginning I wanted to make the film in English language. First, because of commercial reasons. I wanted to make some money back on my film and everybody knows how hard it is to sell any film in a foreign language. Now, one of the things that I learned was that you cannot make a Portuguese cast perform in English. We do not have many actors who are so fluent that the audience wouldn’t notice. So, I set another – even harder – goal: to get a majority British cast. Now I had a bigger problem: how do I get British actors in Portugal when I can’t afford even one airline ticket? Again, I was extremely lucky because I found a theatre company in Lisbon that performs in English... with British actors! On one hand, I was limited to the number of British actors I had in Lisbon. On the other hand, because I chose them early in the process, I could write for them as the rewriting process went along. Celia Williams was love at first sight and because I knew I wanted her the moment I met her, I could write for her. A similar process happened with the other roles. They all read the script and were highly supportive. They fully understood what I was going for and trusted me. I also think that horror projects are so rare in Portugal that they also saw Inner Ghosts as a 'and now for something completely different' career move. I’m happy they did.

DEoL: Turning to the movie itself, you wrote the script. What influenced the story? I mentioned when I met you at the Soho Horror Film Festival that the themes of science and the supernatural were very Nigel Kneale like, so I take it that was one influence?

PL: Yes, I have always been a huge fan of British horror and sci-fi. I must have hundreds of old British films I’ve been accumulating since the old VHS days. As a kid growing up in Brazil, I used to watch (and collect) British films and they had a big influence on me. Some of my influences are, by now, a kind of cliché like Dead of Night (1945), Village of the Damned (1960), The Wicker Man (1973), Demons of the Mind (1972) and Frightmare (1974). However, I am also very drawn towards lesser-known gems like The Night My Number Came Up (1955) and Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968). I’m also a die-hard fan of British horror TV shows like Hammer House of Horror that I used to watch religiously every week. I’m also a big fan of non-horror British films like In Which We Serve (1942). Nigel Kneale’s large body of work is also a big influence: Quatermass was an instant hit with me, but I also love his lesser-known plays like Beasts (1976) from which I steal a lot. British films have an elegance in speech and style that I particularly love. British horror builds everything on top of that. That’s why it is so unique.

DEoL: The science in the film feels well researched and very plausible. Did you do a lot of research? Also, was it the science or the supernatural (or both) that appealed to you more as a story device?

PL: I read lots and lots of ghost stories; and at some point, I decided to read non-fiction about the paranormal – always trying to understand it a little better. But the books I have read about ghosts left me truly disappointed. That includes most of the best-selling books written by famous mediums and psychics. They write a lot, but rarely say anything that’s meaningful. What I mean is we get a lot of stories where the dead say they are fine, that they loved aunt Felicia’s eulogy during the funeral service... and little more. I have always been left with the impression that those high-profile mediums are either frauds, or they’ve been hanging out with the wrong spiritual crowd (I can’t tell which is true). It’s hard to believe that people with actual access to the other side only get superficial stuff. Let’s be honest: so, you have access to the dead and you never asked them what it feels to be dead? Come on! There’s a lot more to know: do they watch us having sex? Do they smell our food? Do they still keep in touch with the things that were relevant to them when they were alive? Do they have relationships on the other side like we do? Do they talk to each other on the other side? How close are they to God? No books ever addressed these questions. Then I tried to find scientific research and papers that actually try to give us answers. And there’s plenty of it. They offer fascinating information that horror films could use, but never do. I tried to use some of it.

DEoL: Despite its location, the movie feels very 'English' - was that deliberate?

PL: Yes. That was the idea. It’s part of what I like to see. I do not think I was very successful (I disagree - DEoL), but I will try to make it better.

Celia Williams as Helen in Inner Ghosts
DEoL: Without giving too much away, this is a film of 'two halves' - a very quiet, thoughtful and spiritual first half, which gives way to a more visceral second section. Without spoiling too much, can you tell me about some of the more challenging effects work in the movie (which comes across really effectively, by the way). Mitch Harrod, lead programmer at the Soho Film Festival, said that there were scenes in your movie which he'd never seen done before. Were you aware while making it that you were breaking new ground?

PL: Well, thank you for the kind compliment. The horror genre is so diverse, it’s unlikely that I’ve been really breaking new ground. However, I did want to show a couple of things I had never seen in other films, since my knowledge is limited. Or, things that I saw, but that I thought I could push a little further. Putting that into Inner Ghosts was a huge challenge for several reasons. First, because the experimental nature of what I was doing was very difficult for everybody to grasp. Through the shooting process I had to fight to get what I wanted, since some people could not envision what I was trying to get, therefore, tried to give me something else. The problem was that I myself was not entirely sure we could pull it off. Like I said before, I was willing to take the risk. Many times, when a filmmaker takes risks, he’ll be alone. Why? Because of the second reason: at our budget level, being alone in our risks is inevitable. Inner Ghosts was made with very little money and we could not afford some tests (well, we could but then we wouldn’t be able to afford the shooting!). Sometimes you only have one chance to shoot it and you’ll end up with whatever you shot. In some scenes you are very successful. Some other scenes won’t go that well and you’ll end up cutting. The third challenge was time. Because I had never done those scenes and my crew had never done them either, it all put a big pressure on me because I only had three weeks to shoot the entire film. I simply could not afford another week. That’s micro-budget film-making: you’ll never end up exactly with what you wanted. You’ll end up with something else. That’s the thing that fascinates me. In a certain way, I’m also a spectator.

DEoL:  So the movie is currently screening at various film festivals. How is it being received? What sort of things have people been saying about it?

PL: It’s a mixed bag. Some people don’t like it. Some do. Some hate it. Some love it. My goal is that they won’t forget it so soon. I don’t want people to be indifferent. I understand that both the first half and the final sequence are very challenging. However, I believe there’s an audience who wants to be challenged. People complain about the sameness in too many horror films. Well...

DEoL:  It's certainly in my top 10 films of the year. I loved its bravery, the way it wasn't afraid to take its time, and the slide into the nightmarish which you almost don't see coming. How much does the film match up to your original expectations when you scripted it?

PL: It’s difficult to say, because I never wanted it to be exactly like I scripted it. I love working with actors, so I gave them a lot of freedom to say what I wrote with their own words. And there was a lot of that in the film. This means that the actors will always transform your script. The murder scene and the final scene, however, surpassed my expectations. Like I said, there was a lot of risk in those scenes and that resulted in a lot of work to get it right. I had to change the editor months into the post-production because he could not get it right. Plus, I had to change the sound post crew three times because none of them could envision the sound for the final scene. It took months to get that right. We had to break that final scene and design the sound for each part.

There were several things going on and they couldn’t sound the same. In a film like this, no one is really sure about the end result while we are shooting. I was following my gut feeling and a desire to try something a little different. I was ten times more nervous than anyone. However, I was fully aware that my search would continue during post. I learned a lot about film-making by making Inner Ghosts. It was a nerve-wrecking experience.

DEoL: What's next for ‘Bad Behavior’ productions? Can you say that you've almost single handedly put feature Portuguese horror on the map?

PL: Well, the hardest film in a filmmaker’s career is not the first one. It is the second. I have two films I wrote that I must make. They are a bit more expensive and way more complex. One is called Through the Eyes of a Child and other one is still untitled. Both scripts are finished and I’m trying to raise the money to make them. Both projects have been selected to markets and had great feedback. I’m currently trying to get a British co-producer, since I’d like to make them in London. They are very different from Inner Ghosts but continue my explorations into the paranormal. They both bring to the table a few concepts that, again, I have never seen done in the same way I want to make them. Putting together the financing of those two films will be my mission for 2019. I should be shooting a proof of concept for one of those films in the first quarter of the year. If other producers want to work with me in their projects, I’m also game. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, I’m also working as a consultant to other filmmakers, helping them with their horror scripts. Producers like my feedback and I love reading horror scripts.

DEoL: And lastly I note that you're also a fan of disco music. I take you're not DJ Paulo Leite from Portugal, who seems to crop up on Spotify lists? If you are well done! If not, do you DJ?

PL: No, I don’t DJ. It’s funny because I get that question a lot, since we both share the same name, and yet we have never met. But yes, I am a big music fan. I have a huge record collection and disco is one of my favourite genres. I even wrote a book about music licensing for films and most of the examples I give are horror films. Your question is twice interesting because I feel there is an element in disco music that has everything to do with the horror genre. Most disco music has a clear message: let’s dance, have fun, love and have sex. That’s a powerful message that reflects the very positive, prosperous and carefree spirit of 70’s America – a spirit that was smashed by the 80’s and all of its horrors (AIDS being one of them). Since the end of the disco era, you’ll never find such an optimistic sound landscape, ever again. Now, horror sends you the opposite message: horrible things happen to nice people and the cavalry is not coming! We are all alone in a universe that does not care about us. I love the contrapuntal possibilities of horror’s nihilism and disco’s deliciousness. Hopefully, I’ll be exploring this in the projects I’m trying to make next.

DEoL: I can't wait. Thanks for your time Paulo and best of luck with Inner Ghosts and all your future projects!


  1. Very nice interview. I watched Inner Ghosts last night and loved it. Very original movie. Reading this interview did two things: 1) made me eager to see Paulo Leite's next film and 2) gave me a list of British horror films to explore-- I haven't seen them all!
    Thank you for exploring Inner Ghosts more deeply.

  2. Thanks for the comments Rae. I'm not sure if Paulo has anything in the pipeline at the moment (good prompt for me to ask him!). Yes I've seen it three times now. I managed to programme it for a film festival in the UK a couple of years ago and Paulo came over for the screening. He's a lovely, thoughtful guy. Glad you like the site.