The BMD Interview: Elijah Wood & Daniel Noah, Of The VISITATIONS Podcast
Elijah Wood and Daniel Noah's Visitations podcast (available on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Shudder and more) is one of 2019's most delightful surprises, each episode offering an intimate deep-dive into the minds of a wide variety of creators with ties to the horror genre. The first season of Visitations comes to a close today, with Wood and Noah sitting down with Academy Award winner Guillermo del Toro (you can and should listen to that episode here).
To celebrate the completion of their first season as podcast hosts, I sat down with Wood and Noah to talk about how Visitations came to be, what they've learned while conducting these interviews, Spectrevison's forthcoming Lovecraft adaptation, Color Out of Space, and to ask 'em a few questions about the horror genre of my own. What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of that chat.
BMD: I'm curious about the genesis of Visitations. What conversation did you have that led to, "Hey, let's do a podcast"?
Elijah Wood: We had discussed doing a podcast prior to this opportunity coming up, throwing around the idea of eventually jumping into that space without any concrete idea of how we would do that. But I think as admirers of the medium - and documentary nerds, and certainly as interview nerds - I think when we were talking about it prior to the opportunity coming up. It was just loving the medium and wondering if there was anything we could contribute from the genre space in that medium. Then, we're friends with the folks at Shudder, and they approached us saying, "We have this mandate to do a number of podcasts, there is this mutual respect on either side, do you have any ideas? Is there something you'd want to do?" It wasn't necessarily that me or (Daniel Noah) would host it, it was just that we'd produce it and out of that we had a brainstorming session and thought deeply about what we wanted to do, what we could do that felt like it wasn't being done and felt like a slightly different approach. Once we thought about doing an interview-based show, what was really important to us was that it wasn't a promotional show, that it wasn't a series that people would come on to promote their latest film or project. That was really key. The thing that got us really excited once we were talking about it being an interview show was that it would be something that would feel like you were a fly on the wall. So literally, a visitation. We would go to someone's home, we would record the process of getting to that person's home or office, we'd be recording the whole time, and then we would sit down with that person for two hours where hopefully, they would forget-- we would all forget-- that we were being recorded. All the formality of the interview would be gone, and hopefully there would be vulnerability that would come out of the interaction that would differentiate itself from a traditional interview format.
Daniel Noah: Yeah, the model for us was the Maysles Brothers format. It was our way of doing an audio version of a Maysles Brothers documentary, audio verite. When we were young dreamers, the inability to gain access to information about the inner lives of our heroes was very frustrating. It's not hard to find people pontificating about their work or their projects, but it is hard to find information about why people do what they do. For us, that felt like something that wasn't really being covered. There are so many wonderful podcasts out there that are very detailed and informative and fascinating that cover a person's work. But getting under the skin of it, getting at the why, feels like a much more rarefied treasure. When I was dreaming of making movies, I would've lost my mind about a 45-minute recording of one of my favorite filmmakers just talking in private with his or her friends. So that's what we tried to do. Going into it, we didn't have much more of an idea than that we're going to try to have organic conversations and see what happens. It was really after we recorded our second episode with Ana Lily Amirpour that it crystallized for Elijah and me what this could be. She went to such a personal place, so generously, in a way that caught even us off-guard. I suddenly understood that this format we created would be creating a platform for people to talk through the events of their lives and how those events have been the gas in the engine that drives the work that they make. If these are the kinds of conversations we have in private, then why not have them when people are willing and comfortable in public? That can be very meaningful to other artists who are maybe feeling alone and would be so moved to hear that the filmmakers and artists who created this work they love have similar paths and fears and vulnerabilities.
EW: I think that's the thing I love about a lot of these interviews, I think it's illustrated really well in Taika (Waititi's) interview. We're listening to this guy talking about how all of this could go away tomorrow and he's working in a very unorthodox journey to get to where he is as a filmmaker, and that's really inspiring. We're listening to this guy who's now made eighteen movies for Marvel and still be afraid that it could go away, and still have the same insecurities and fears. So we were thinking that that's so inspiring to anybody who wants to create. Whether it's a piece of music or a movie or otherwise, if there's someone you admire talking about their fears, it makes that person extremely relatable. We're all coming at it from a similar place.
What is the production cycle on this? Did you just carve out a couple of months to travel around, do these all at once, or are you fitting them in wherever you can? What's your schedule like?
EW: It's funny, I think the initial concept was that we were going to try and record these all before Christmas of last year, and that was -
DN: So funny.
EW: -- because the reality of production became apparent. Once we realized that we were going to people's homes or office or wherever they created, the idea of - in some instances, we have a studio available and we were able to do a bunch in a day, but it required us to be fitting it not just in our schedules, but in the available schedules of the guests. So that just extended the production over the course of months. Then it was also about: we have a giant list of people that we really want to talk to and we're really hopeful that we can do this. We also realized that we would have to stay in L.A. for the bulk of these recordings, so we couldn't travel to New York, we couldn't travel to Europe. But most of the people that we wanted to interview were in L.A. Did I answer the question? [Laughter]
Yeah, you definitely did.
DN: Like everything else in the business, the people you most want to work with are busy and you're waiting for them to be available.
EW: Yeah, we were constantly adding people as we were going, just by way of their being available or not.
DN: Yeah, there were some people that we talked to that were game to do the show, but their schedules just didn't work.
Has there been anyone you wanted on the show, but was uncomfortable about having you doing it in their home?
DN: Well, there was one, but he didn't end up doing it. To date, everyone we've done is someone that we're friends with already, and I think that made it easier.
EW: Friends or acquaintances.
DN: Friends or acquaintances, right. Like Dan Harmon, we met him at his office. There were a couple of people early on that ultimately didn't work out that were uncomfortable.
EW: They suggested that we go to a public place. Actually, one of the people we recorded in their home suggested a public place very early on, and to a certain degree, there was a finding of the show as we were going along. When the suggestion was brought up, we were like, no, we can't do public because the subject needs to feel of the utmost comfort for it to be as - not as revealing, but for the conversation to be as intimate and vulnerable as possible.
DN: But I think from the listener's point of view, as well, if this were on-camera, it's a totally different dynamic with a camera crew in your house. It's a very different proposition to an audio crew. An audio crew still maintains a certain degree of privacy, but at the same time, the listener hopefully has the exciting feeling of, "Oh my God, I'm not typically allowed to cross this boundary. "I'm in Taika's house! I'm listening to Taika on his couch!"
As soon as you're pointing a camera at someone's face, that's going to change the dynamic drastically. Every time.
EW: It totally does, and people change, as well. If we were all on camera, Daniel and I would be different. We would ask questions that are totally different. There's a finality to it, there's an awareness of the artifice of it to a degree, that you're on a show. The whole idea of this is that you cease to be aware that there's a show at all.
DN: Totally. It's worked surprisingly well in almost every case, like guests have said to us, "I forgot you were recording." In fact, I think there were some cases where we ended up cutting stuff that felt like it went too far in exposing someone's private life. We make hard decisions, because we don't want anyone to feel like they got tricked.
EW: Oh, no.
DN: Even in the moment, there were conversations where we sensed that the guest didn't necessarily want to go the private places that we were inching toward, and Elijah and I would kind of look at each other, and go, "Okay, we're not going to push." We do, but we always let the guest set the agenda, just in their body language and we try not to push anyone down a path they don't want to go. They're told upfront in the podcast: this is an examination of why we make art, in a personal way. So they know what they've signed up for, and it works out shockingly well. Like I said, there's some stuff on the cutting room floor that we have releases on, but we felt like, out of respect, it's something that should remain with them.
EW: The last thing we want is this to feel exploitative.
EW: It's supposed to be enlightening and inspiring.
Have you noticed a throughline in these interviews? Anything that seems to be universal among people about their love for horror?
DN: Yeah, there was a certain point where we realized we were inadvertently conducting a psychological experiment, we were collecting data. There were certain commonalities that were shocking. Stunningly consistent. A sense of feeling othered, a stranger in a strange land. For whatever reason, someone feels like they don't fit into the culture that they are in as a child. The other is transience. A lot of the people, as children, moved around a lot. There were frequent feelings of the loss of a critical emotional support figure in childhood: a parent, relative, either because of death or circumstance or divorce. All of them were incredibly fearful kids, almost debilitatingly fearful, who around the time of adolescence, flipped and started doing things they were too afraid to do in the past. Those were the formative things that just kept coming up over and over. Elijah and I started to go, holy shit, that's us, too! We have the same story, we have the exact same elements. So it has been really shocking in that respect.
Yeah, that's a super fascinating number of statistics to sort of blindly stumble into in the process of doing a podcast.
EW: That's the thing too, Scott: no agenda at all. The only agenda on our part was just to have a wonderful deep dive conversations about people's lives and what led them to create. That's it. Then suddenly, out of that, every time we'd interview someone, these flags would keep raising. It would just keep repeating over and over again.
DN: Some of the most magical moments on the show for everyone were when you'd see these connections or you'd hear these connections being made in real-time.
EW: The Flanagan episode's a really good illustration that, I think.
DN: Absolutely. One of my favorites. We've known Flanagan close to ten years, I'd always considered him a close friend. So I think he was very comfortable and open with us. In that episode, you hear him realize things about his life that he hadn't thought about before. When we were leaving, he literally said to us, "I had realizations today that I've never had before, about the connection I make between the choices in my work and my life."
If you had a wishlist of big-time guests, like you're just shooting for the moon, who are you gunning for?
EW: We could probably go on and on with that, but I think for us, the filmmakers that don't live in the U.S. I'm obsessed with the husband and wife team behind The Strange Color Of Your Body's Tears and...
Let The Corpses Tan.
EW: Oh fuck me, man. I think they're such extraordinary filmmakers, and it's weird to me that not more people know who they are. I would love to sit down with them. I'm also obsessed with the notion of husband-wife teams, people who work together, filmmakers or producers, or whatever. Any creative unit work dynamic. I think it's really interesting.
DN: I think a lot of it is also geographical. There are people that were on the list that we'd hope maybe they'd be in L.A., we just didn't have the travel budget. We'd love to do Lynne Ramsay or Claire Denis. We have a massive database of people that we would like. We hope we get to do more.
EW: It's not just filmmakers. We want to make every season as diverse as possible.
DN: And everyone's coming at their artistic processes-- there's always commonalities, but a writer or a production designer: as long as we can connect them to the genre, then they meet the criteria.
What's the scariest movie both of y'all have seen recently? It can be a new one or an old one.
EW: But we have to have seen it recently?
Yeah. The first one that comes to mind. Last good horror movie you saw.
DN: Scariest or best? Those are two different--
Fair. Okay, let's go scariest because I think scariest is actually more rare than "good."
EW: This doesn't count - it's not even admissible. I was going to say Chernobyl, but it's not a horror movie.
I would argue that that counts as horror.
EW: Well, it's true horror, it's something that really happened and a lot of people's lives were tragically affected by it. Yeah man, that got under my skin. I found it disturbing, uncomfortable, and beautifully made. The performances are so incredible. I can't think of the last horror movie I saw that freaked me out.
DN: I think it's harder when you make horror movies, to see behind that curtain. It's hard to get scared. That's always an experience I'm chasing. There have been horror films where there's awe at the accomplishment, but I don't know if I felt scared watching them.
EW: I'm a little behind, too. I might have had an answer for you if I were a little more up to date. I still haven't seen Hagazussa on Shudder, which came out last year. There's a list of things that I've yet to see, that have come out this year.
DN: I'm often extremely behind on new films because we're so busy. I only saw It a couple of days ago, and I was genuinely scared during some of the clown sequences. That was the last one that got my adrenaline pumping.
EW: I've gotta say, [Birth.Movies.Death. is] doing a very good job of supporting the people doing the most interesting stuff. It's got to be said how extraordinary it is that there are thousands of people going to a cinema to see the weirdness that is Midsommar. There are people that think they're going to see a horror movie that will be really bummed. That movie is a beautiful fucking crazy art film. It's a total Trojan horse! It made me so happy walking out of that cinema and thinking, "Oh my god, there are people that think they're getting something they are not", and that is incredible. I have great admiration for Ari and his work.
DN: Even though I didn't see it recently, for some reason a movie that locked into my mind is The Entity. Some of the parts are so disturbing - I might name that as the scariest movie I've ever seen. It's really scary.
Man, I don't even know what I would even identify as the scariest - actually, I do. I think Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is maybe the scariest thing that I've ever seen.
DN: Oh, that's a good one.
It's terrifying. Once you get past the prologue and it gets into the Laura Palmer stuff, everything from there on out is just horrible and upsetting.
What's your favorite flavor of horror, though? If Midsommar is folk horror, Halloween is slashers, so on and so forth, is there one that you favor over others?
EW: Yeah, I love all horror but I think I can be drawn to horror that is emotionally impactful. Also, horror that- and we talk about this a lot, as it's one of the tenets which our company is predicated on - the horror where you can remove the genre elements and you can still a compelling story and not just hanging their hat on genre specifically. Whether that's an emotionally impactful story or just something you can connect with, those are the horror movies that I think also have the most lasting impression and keep affecting people generation to generation. There's no trick, there's something real at its core. That's the stuff I tend to gravitate toward the most.
DN: For me, it's the ghost story. It's always been my favorite subgenre of horror. They're the most elegant, they're the most emotional, they're the most character-driven. They're almost always invariably about loss and grief.
EW: The Changeling.
DN: The Changeling. The Innocents is the movie that I constantly cite as my favorite horror film. Carnival of Souls. It's ironically a genre we've never touched. I think we're so fussy about it that we'd have to have the ingredients for an enduring masterpiece if we were to do something about ghosts.
EW: I've always loved this too as a kid. It connects to what's possible. Those movies tend to be more meaningful because it could really happen. I still think that Paranormal Activity is a masterpiece.
DN: Same, I love it.
EW: That first film is so effective because it cuts to the core of that fear, and it places that fear in your home.
DN: It's a classic ghost story that places it in the home, but it also a devastatingly abusive portrait of an abusive relationship. It's about a boyfriend - she's pleading with him to stop and he won't stop. It's a toxic, terrible relationship. I think that's why the movie is so scary, it's the dynamic between the lovers more than it is the ghost.
EW: Which wouldn't have been possible without The Blair Witch Project.
DN: Which wouldn't have been possible without Ghostwatch.
EW: Somebody just did an oral history of the making of the Blair Witch Project, and they talk about the process from beginning to end. It's so worth the read. It's so fascinating. They had been trying to get that movie made for a couple of years. Just the casting process and how they planned it and set up the campsite, it's just so much smarter than it needed to be.
The thing that still shocks me about Blair Witch is that when it came out, people thought it was real. It's crazy to think of that now, but that was the exact right moment in time where you had the power of the internet to spread it around, but not so much that people were sort of embittered to it and automatically calling bullshit on it.
EW: The concept of a found footage movie hadn't existed yet! They set up their own website about the missing kids and made the lore of the Blair Witch. I saw it on either a burned DVD or a VHS that someone might've had, and I thought it might be real.
DN: All of it goes back to Dracula and Frankenstein, the novels. The epistolary novel, it's the early version of found footage. Faux documents of an event that presents as real. I keep wondering when someone's going to figure out how to do that in a new medium, to trick people. You have to constantly translate that to a new medium to catch people off-guard.
Finally, what can you tell us about Color Out Of Space?
EW: We've seen the movie, it's locked and in post-production. The score, the effects, all of that - it's happening. We love it. Getting a chance to work with Richard (Stanley) on this...man, we've been trying to get this movie made for a number of years, and it was magical to be on set with Richard and this movie for so long. Just seeing the actors with him, to see him with the cast and the crew on the set in his rightful place as a filmmaker was pretty cool.
DN: For us, there are two homecomings for Color Out Of Space. One is Richard, for whom an enormous amount of time elapsed between his last feature film and this one. Everyone, probably including him, wasn't sure what would happen. What was really incredible to watch was that he was nervous to get back in the saddle, but the moment he arrived on set, it was like not a moment had passed. He was in full control of his faculty as a filmmaker. The irony is that we were trying to make this movie, and there was so much anxiety about him. This was hands-down the smoothest production we had ever experienced. It was the opposite of Dr. Moreau.
I believe that Lovecraft is one of the most influential forces in horror that exists, and yet ironically, there has never been a direct adaptation of his work that captures what he did on the page. I'm a big fan of Stuart Gordon as a filmmaker, as well, but in some ways I think he did damage to Lovecraft. By wedding himself to Lovecraft...those are Stuart Gordon films, not Lovecraft films. I love those films, of course, but I think it conflated two brands in a way that was confusing. People hear "Lovecraft" and they think of comedy. They think of Re-Animator. But Lovecraft has no comedy at all. It's bleak cosmic dread. So we wanted a Lovecraft film that Lovecraft would be proud of. When we heard about Richard's Lovecraft script, we were like, "Send that shit over right now!" I remember calling Elijah after reading just the first page of the script and being like, "This is it. We found it." He really figured out a way to film the un-filmable in this movie. It's really magnificent and surprisingly very emotional. It's a story about a family you care about deeply.
EW: Yeah, an essence of Amblin, in a way.
DN: Yeah. So we can't wait for people to see it, it's not far off.
Once again, Visitations can be streamed where your favorite podcasts can be found, including via Apple podcasts, Spotify, and even directly through your TV on the Shudder app. I highly recommend this series (the Richard Stanley episode is particularly compelling, if you're looking for a specific recommendation). Give it a whirl on your next long drive!