Sleep Sweet: Stephen Cognetti of Hell House LLC (Interview)
by Timothy Pizza
As a horror director, were you always into horror?
As a filmmaker, horror came very late to me. When I was in film school, I was always doing shorts, and all my shorts are comedies, and everything I've done since film school has all been comedy. It's all been short film comedies. I was always more of a comedic mind. I just realized I love horror movies, so that's the thing. I always watched horror movies, but I never thought about making them. You know someone approached me and said, "What do you think about making a horror film?" I said, "I never even thought about it." And then over the process of a year, just kind of worked on formulating the idea of Hell House and it slowly came together. Through this process I discovered I enjoyed the horror writing process and creating a scare ... because I know what scares me and I was just writing scares that I’d like to see myself, and I would like to see in the film, so that was actually a pretty easy transition.
Did your experience in comedy influence the way you write horror?
I think writing jokes and writing scares are very similar. I think there's two ways of writing jokes. I think there's the jokes you know going into a script, a situation you know you want to explore comedically. I think there's things that just come naturally while you're writing and on top of that things where you think “Oh, and this could be funny, too.” It comes to you during the writing process. I think with writing horror, it’s the same thing, there's some points you want to hit. Some scares you know about, but then as you're writing it and you're immersed in this world, more ideas come to you about how you can add layers onto certain scares and it's the same thing about jokes too. So I think it's very similar.
Were the characters in Hell House LLC already friends before the film?
No. That’s the whole thing. They had to seem like a group that's been working together and known each other for years, it's the friendship. I made them all drive out together in the same car the day before we began filming. That was the first time they were all together in one place for an extended period. It was a two hour drive out there to the shooting location from New York City, so they're all together in the car. I did that because I knew the first scene we were shooting was going to be all of them in the car on their way to the Abaddon Hotel. So it's just about getting them together and comfortable with eac hother. They're all very funny people themselves. They all have good senses of humor, and personalities that fit what we were looking for. They were all comfortable around each other, immediately joking with each other and having that “back and forth,” so that worked out perfectly.
Hell House LLC had an interesting format to the story structure, how did you set that up?
I modeled it after an episode of Dateline or 60 Minutes, something like a documentary show. I’ve always described it as an episode Dateline, but instead investigating a murder they're investigating a haunted house gone wrong.
Did you ever get creeped out after editing or filming for long hours of time?
I'm desensitized to everything when I'm editing the video of the movies. I had to ask my wife a few times, Is this even scary anymore? I shot it, I've been through every frame of the film a million times, and when I'm looking at it, it's not scary to me, just because I'm so immersed in it. I do get spooked when it's either late at night or early in the morning and I’m writing. I sometimes write very early in the morning, like 5:00 AM, before the sun's up, and I play some classical music, and while I'm writing, sometimes I spook myself. It's more of the writing process where I've actually get a chill. For that, I listen to ... It's German. It's on my phone right now, I can peek at it. I can't even pronounce this guy's name. I've been listening to it, since I've written Hell House, the original. It's a composer by the name of Vladimir Martinov. Sometimes I put it on during, while we're setting up for some of the scenes in the movie to get the actors in a spooky mindset. I would put that on the speakers, playing throughout the hotel, just to get a little bit of creep in the air, right before we turn off the lights and start to shoot. It's great stuff to write to, it's very eerie. Some of the music I listen to, more of an eerie kind of a classical music that ... It's just great to write to it. And then early in the morning, there's no one awake, it's still dark out and just sometimes I creep myself out for sure.
Are there any horror movies that really inspired you?
Lake Mungo was a cool twist just because when you thought it was over, and you thought it had the resolution, they just had one more thing added in the end that just threw everything that you had thought you saw out the window, and it was just fun in that way. I like Lake Mungo because all the scares are ... Lake Mungo was definitely an early inspiration for Hell House. Just knowing that you can do documentary style horror is so cool, and it makes the scares seem so much more real when you feel that you're actually watching a real documentary, and so, Lake Mungo did it, I think it was in 2006, 7, 8, something like that, but they did it so brilliantly.
Were the scares all scripted or was that something that you worked out on set, especially the one with Sarah going in Paul’s room in the first Hell House LLC?
All the scares are scripted. So, and at that scene, that's Sarah with Paul. It was just one of the early subtle scares that I enjoyed writing leading up to our more intense ones.
Sara was great. She was one of the actresses that upon first audition, we said, “that's her.” Like done, moving on. We auditioned so many people, especially for Hell House I, and then Hell House II. She came in, in character, and she dressed the part. In one of the scenes she auditioned for was one of her initial interviews in the film with Diane five years after her friends had all died. She didn't wear any make-up. She didn't wear anything that popped on screen. She was just very dark, everything about her, and that's what she brought into the audition, and so, she just knocked it out of the park.
Are there big plans for Hell House LLC III?
Yeah, we're going to get into a lot of stuff to wrap up the storyline. This is the last chapter, and we're casting now. We'll probably be casting now into early 2019, and then we're going to start shooting in May and we’re planning on an October release. The script is scary and a lot is going to happen. I’m very excited to get into production but we have a lot of work to do before May.