As it happens, one of my readers knows Sandy Petersen, who is one of the executive producers for the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society‘s The Whisperer in Darkness movie (and for the RPG buffs out there: yes, that Sandy Petersen). Sandy was happy to answer some of my questions about the movie. The interview’s after the fold: we conducted it by email, so at least you won’t have to listen to me for once.
I have to say: it’s not the primary focus of my online activities these days, more’s the pity – but it’s nice to just have some unambiguously game-related material for a change. Especially since it involves the chance to talk to somebody who created the game which currently takes up half a shelf of my gaming bookshelf. The movie is currently being shown abroad; hopefully, they’ll be showing it in the States this summer/fall somewhere that’s close to DC.
ML: Let’s start with the basics: if you could describe yourself, and your involvement in the HPLHS production of The Whisperer in Darkness.
Sandy – I’m Sandy Petersen, author of the Call of Cthulhu paper roleplaying game, among other accomplishments. I’ve been a professional game designer for 31 years. Anyone curious about my output can look me up on Mobygames, Pen&Paper RPG database, or even Wikipedia I imagine. My involvement with The Whisperer in Darkness started several years ago when I e-mailed Sean Branney about how pleased I was with how The Call of Cthulhu movie came out. Lovecraft is famously difficult to film, and I thought they did a terrific job. Amongst other gushing, fan-boy type praise, I mentioned that if they were ever in need of investors for future projects to look me up.
Last year, Sean Branney (director of Whisperer and one of the two founders of HPLHS) took me up on that offer. He said that the picture was almost finished, but they were short of financing for the last bit of final material, specifically the soundtrack/score and special effects for the Mi-Go themselves. I flew down to Hollywood (amazingly enough, that’s where HPLHS is located) with Ben Monroe, a friend of mine who both knows Lovecraft plus has a film degree and has worked on several movies. Our goal was to see the movie as it stood and decide if it was worthy of an investment.
Movies are of course notoriously risky, but after seeing what Messrs. Branney and Lehman had created, I immediately took the plunge. My specific reasoning was that I liked the movie so much that even if it never made a nickel, I would be thrilled to have my name associated with it. And I saw it without the final score or most of the special effects.
ML: Speaking as one of the executive producers, what were the primary obstacles or complications involved with bringing the project to the big screen?
Sandy – well my only obstacle was coming up with the money frankly. I did bombard the hapless Mr. Branney with suggestions and question from time to time but I made it clear that I trusted their judgment. They asked me how I wanted to be on the credits, and I pumped for “Guidance Ro-Man” but they refused, since they wanted to keep the 1930s theme, to their credit. I’m in the credits twice, though so very exciting for me. Not only as one of the “executive producers” but another credit at the end which I will let be a surprise for viewers.
Some of the major obstacles that I saw from my rather outsider’s point of view was the score actually – we had to hire the composer to work full time on it for several months in order to get it done perfectly. That was part of the reason for my investment actually. Another issue was how to show the Mi-Go. Stop-motion figures were made but frankly the cost of doing real stop-motion was prohibitive for a small indie like this. They didn’t even shoot in Canada to save money. So they went to a CGI shop that did special rendering on the models which made them look like they were stop-motion, which kind of gave us the best of both worlds.
Lovecraft is, of course, immensely hard to bring to the screen. I wasn’t involved in the film during the scriptwriting, but I imagine one of the major obstacles was that the story The Whisperer in Darkness is entirely told in a darkened room or via letters. It needs some kind of pay-off in movie form. Note that I’m not criticizing Lovecraft here – the art of the printed word and of the film are different, that’s all. So Messrs. Branney and Lehman added a sort of epilog to the original story, which runs about a third of the film, and works out just grand, as far as I’m concerned. I was very nervous about it going in (“horrors, they’re changing HPL’s holy script!”), but they did a great job and it actually greatly boosts the original story as a film. Another potential problem with a film like this is obviously finding decent actors and I don’t know how they did it, but I love the guys they selected.
ML: It’s a cliche to ask, “What’s it like, working on a movie like this?” …but it’s a cliche for a reason. So… what’s it like, working on a movie like this?
Sandy – From my vantage point here in Texas hundreds of miles away from the production, it seemed pretty easy. I’m sure it was different up close.
ML: The last HPLHS movie (The Call of Cthulhu) was deliberately done in a 1920s silent movie style, while The Whisperer in Darkness has a more 1930s feel to it. What prompted the differences in style and format? – and, in a related question, what were the major influences on The Whisperer in Darkness film?
Sandy – my understanding is that the goal was, quite simply, to present the movie as if it had been scripted by Lovecraft himself at the time. In other words, The Call of Cthulhu was a silent movie because the story, The Call of Cthulhu, was published in 1928, so it was filmed as if released in 1928, when silent movies were king. Lovecraft’s story The Whisperer in Darkness was published in 1931, so it was filmed as if released in 1931 – the same year as Frankenstein. All the clothing is period. The cars, the airplane, the train, everything is right for 1931. I kept looking for anachronisms but couldn’t find them on the sets.
The Whisperer in Darkness does not feel like a normal 1931 horror movie, nor should it. Lovecraft’s stories called upon concepts and terrors that were not dreamt of in normal horror tales. He was at his strongest when dealing with cosmic things, and The Whisperer tries to stay true to that.
ML – Lastly: what’s up next for the HPLHS? With the cancellation of the Guillermo del Toro At The Mountains of Madness project, adapting that story would appear to be wide open – but there are several other obvious choices. Any hints?
Sandy – All I can say is that they have kindly told me that they would consider letting me invest in their next movie. Mountains of Madness is probably one of the easier-to-film Lovecraft stories, but would probably cost a fortune. I’m pumped for Rats in the Walls myself, though they’d have to change the name of the main character’s cat.
(ML, again: first, RitW would be on my list – but so would The Shadow Over Innsmouth, or The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Second: oh, my, yes, they’ll need to change the name of the cat.)