Director of ‘The Road’ speaks on ghosts and scaring actors — an Indie Ethos exclusive

November 1, 2012

Last month, not long before Halloween, director Yam Laranas’ well-regarded horror film, the Road, arrived on home video in the US via Freestyle Releasing. During its limited theatrical run it received praise for its atmosphere and manipulation of plot to rise above what most expect from a typical horror film. What better time of year to publish my exclusive interview with the Philippine director than the day after Halloween, All Saints Day, a tradition imported into his country from Mexico’s Day of the Dead. “It’s actually a holiday,” Laranas says speaking via phone from Los Angeles. “We visit the dead. We all go to cemeteries and pray. It’s pretty much the same in Mexico, so there is that exchange. I think ghost stories are universal.”

The Philippines has the unusual distinction of being an Asian country predominantly composed of Roman Catholics, having once been a colony of Spain, says Laranas. That translates to some attachments to the material afterlife, and with that, superstitions about spirits and ghosts. One of the special characteristics of Day of the Dead, is that families not only pray at cemeteries but also decorate graves with candles and flowers. They also have meals there and leave favorite foods of their deceased loved ones, so they might also enjoy a taste of their past life. “We are a country of 7,100 islands, and I would say that probably in different islands we have different beliefs in terms of ghosts, of how they look or how they appear,” Laranas notes. “A lot of people in our culture believe in ghosts. So there are urban legends of ghosts appearing on the road. There are urban legends like a lady who hails a cab and sits in the back, and she disappears all of a sudden. But there’s one sort of urban legend that’s sort of like stalking me: ghosts appear if they died a violent death. They stay in that place where they got killed, and they haunt the place. A lot of people believe in that, and I played with that in the Road.”

The film began as an idea Laranas had in 2005 that was pure cinema, inspired by what he likes best about horror films: the unknown that lingers in the dark. “I was kind of looking into the idea of what do you see in the darkness of the road, on a long road trip,” he says. “It’s more an experiment of what is there that you’re afraid of, and you’re not seeing. That’s why there’s a lot of black there with the really long road shots, which gives time for the audience to fill in what is out there with their imagination.”

Though he had the kernel of an idea for a film, he admits that he could not find a dramatic arc until several years later, around 2010, when he remembered a disturbing true crime story. “It was a real crime that affected me somehow,” he recalls. “It happened in the ‘90s. It was just so random: two sisters coming home from school, and I think a van just stopped right in front of them, and they were just pulled in and raped and killed.”

He says the crime remains unresolved to this day, as the body of one of the girls was never recovered. In a way, the Road is a film that allowed Laranas to cope with the specter of the traumatic story on his psyche. “To me it was sad, so I always think about what happened during the time,” he says. “These sisters had lives before they were killed, and I was wondering how can they fight back? Can they fight back when they are dead? So, as a filmmaker, you fantasize about it, so the fighting back to me was the haunting in the road, and I also ask what triggered this criminality, this absurdist, greedy, heinous crime, so I look back, at the past of the story.”

The film travels all the way back in time to the young life of an innocent child. Familial circumstances, including a clash of religious zealotry and indifference, as well as random misfortune all befall this kid. “I put myself in the shoes of my kid,” says Laranas, who has an 8-year-old son, “like what if my parents are these people? What am I going to believe in. Their minds are being molded at some point, at a certain age, and it’s really critical of how parenting works or it doesn’t work.”

Though part of the inspiration of the film came from a bleak origin, Laranas, who is also the film’s cinematographer (as in most of his films), found ways to delight in the movie-making process. As a fan of the recent Swedish cult horror film Let the Right One In, which was re-made in the United States as Let Me In, Laranas was thrilled to be working with Johan Söderqvist, the composer of the soundtrack to the original Swedish film. “I like the mood and tone that he did with Let the Right One In,” the director says. “I sort of fell in love with that kind of mood. I didn’t want the music of the Road to be a scary score. I wanted it to be an undertone. I wanted it to be part of the blood stream of the film, to be part of the visuals.”

Laranas even had some fun with his actors. At one point, he says he pulled out their performances by playing on their primal, irrational fears. “There was one scene in the car, where [Barbie Forteza] was beside some really horrific vision. She was really screaming. She was really, really scared because she never saw the actor who played the ghost with prosthetics and all. I asked everyone, ‘Don’t tell her,’ and I told her, ‘Don’t look until I say, roll,’ and then I put the ghost inside. As I rolled the camera the ghost was beside her, and she was screaming like crazy … almost like in tears, and after the take she was laughing and almost cursing me.”

Besides its attention to mood, one of the Road’s key elements comes from the way Laranas plays with the story’s chronology. The decision to tell the story backwards came well into the of making the film. “I would say 25 percent had to be made in the editing,” Laranas explains. “Originally, it was thought of as a linear kind of story. As I was working with my writer [Aloy Adlawan], we thought it didn’t work … It would feel like any other slasher or teen movie. Every step of the way, I wanted the audience to predict and think about every single slasher film that they’d seen. Eventually, at the end of the movie, it’s not the actual movie they think it is.”

Laranas hopes people come away from the Road with a feeling they have experienced something beyond horror, which is why it’s so fitting this article appears on All Saints day and not Halloween. “It’s just [I think] we are bound by genres,” he says. “People call it a horror film, but I would say defining it as a horror film for me, personally, is a marketing thing. But I wouldn’t call it horror per se because it’s not a horror film in the sense that it’s not the Ring or Grudge or a slasher film. It’s more a psychological thriller with supernatural elements there.”

Hans Morgenstern

Official red band Trailer:

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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