FUTURES: 'The Pact' Writer/Director Nicholas McCarthy On Going From Arty Shorts to Mainstream Horror
Why He's On Our Radar: After debuting his creepy short "The Pact" at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Nicholas McCarthy returned a year later to Park City with his feature film, which expanded on the short and was also titled "The Pact." McCarthy's stellar debut played well with horror fans and critics, culminating in a coveted distribution deal with IFC Films. "The Pact" comes out this Friday in select theaters. (Watch the trailer and the short film at the bottom of this page.)
The film centers on a Annie (Caity Lotz), a rebellious young woman who returns home to attend her much-despised mother's funeral. Upon spending a night in her childhood home, she begins to sense a mysterious presence, one that leads her to uncover something terrible about her mother's mysterious past. Cue the frights.
Nothing personal, but you're 40 and this marks your feature film debut. What took so long?
As far as the journey, I have a background like a lot of people who love movies. Ever since I was really young I've been obsessed with them -- not only with watching them, but making them. Maybe as opposed to other filmmakers I never really went about trying to achieve this dream of getting a film made in a machiavellian way. I just made these little short films that no one wanted to see. It was only when I got older that I started to think, "Maybe I should really do this as a career." It's an easy place to be as a younger person -- talking about it and indulging.
About five or six years ago, I had a film festival programmer see a short I made. He loved this weird six minute film called "Made." I've never watched anything I made with strangers before. It was so clear the movie was missing the mark. Nobody gave a shit about it. I kind of realized at that moment that if I was going to pursue forward and make a feature film, I needed to reach out to the audience more.
So I began to keep that in mind with the films that I started to make as a short filmmaker, but I also started to write genre films. Even though I love art movies, I [also] love horror movies, film noir movies and musicals. Just movies with really clear signposts. Once I started writing those kind of movies, I realized I had what I thought was talent [at that].
I began having meetings with everyone I knew, and started making short films with real intent. Although I had not planned for "The Pact" to become a feature, a crazy, natural thing happened. This company saw the short in January of 2011, then three days after Sundance they said, "Let's make a feature out of it."
It was a crazy breakneck schedule, but everything leading up to that prepared me for that moment.
It's a completely surreal experience -- a little unreal -- so see it opening in theaters. Really my producers just left me alone to craft this kind of modest, very creepy little movie that I had just written almost overnight. At the end of the day when we got into Sundance and it sold, it was a kind of bizarre experience. Now I just want to do it again. It's been an amazing last year.
Did you make the short as a calling card of sorts? The feature is bracingly mainsteam, miles away from the arty shorts you made early in your career.
I don't think a lot of horror fans would respond to the short. It hasn't really gotten out there. Really that short was never made to be a teaser for a feature. "The Pact" short film is more of a character study with this horror atmosphere that ends on this ambiguous note. I made the movie purely out of frustration. I was a guy who was facing turnining 40. I had a kid and no clear career path other than this crazy dream to write and direct and be paid for it. "The Pact" short is a personal film: It's a movie with strengths came from the fact that I wasn't thinking about any audience. I wasn't thinking about anything other than I have this story I need to tell. I remember when I got it into Sundance I had this conversation with a programmer. It ends in this ambigious way, so he asked me if I thought horror fans would be pissed with me. I just thought to myself, they might be, but in that moment I just had to think, "Fuck what everybody else thinks. This is what I want to see."
Once it screened it was clear that beyond the ambiguity and beyond the art film stuff, there was this horror atmosphere, and that's what people responded to. People would all say the same thing: "Your movie scared the shit out of me."
When I made the feature, I kind of just chanelled a different side in myself. Really "The Pact" feature was a movie that reflected the movies I wanted to see when I was 15 years old.
Now that you've successfully tackled the horror genre, are you intent to move on? Or do you want to carve out a place for yourself as a horror helmer?
It's an interesting question. When I was growing up as a guy who loves horror movies, I was always dissapointed when someone would debut with a horror film and use that as a stepping stone to do something else. It always seemed to be this kind of betrayal to fans of the genre; as if it was saying, "Now that I'm inside, I don't need to do those grubby, stupid movies anymore."
To me the horror genre is the most kind of cinematic of genres. All I want to do is tell stories that are interesting to me. I can only follow my nose as a writer and director. There was this moment after the festival where I met with a lot of agents and managers. You get this distraction thinking about money and career. But that's not why I got into this. I got into this because I like to tell stories. I was still in that creepy space of "The Pact." I wrote another movie, and it should be shooting in the fall. It's another genre film. But I'll say this: It feels more like "The Pact" short than the feature.
So what can you tell me about it?
I can't say too much, but I'll say this: It's about the Devil. I was raised a Catholic, so I know something about it [laughs].
Here's the trailer for the short that inspired "The Pact":