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David S. Goyer on The Unborn

The Dark Knight scribe talks horror.

David S. Goyer on The Unborn

When David Goyer writes, he’s mister comic book. As a director, he seems to be Mr. Horror. Though he did the indie Zigzag and Blade Trinity, his recent directorial work was the in limbo thriller The Invisible and now The Unborn. The Unborn tells the story of a young girl haunted by the spirit of… well, the title itself is kind of a spoiler.


Crave Online: Is it true you didn’t want to direct this script originally?

David Goyer: Well, first of all I was maybe going to direct another film instead, so there was that. Then I didn’t know, I’d never done a horror film before so I didn’t know if I was kind of ready to do a horror film. But then we started talking about someone else directing it and I didn’t really want someone else to do it so then I said, "Screw it, I’ll do it."

Crave Online: What was the biggest surprised of making horror films?

David Goyer: I think the biggest surprise is just, I think directing a horror film is sort of a lot like directing a comedy which is there’s not really a formula for what’s funny or what’s scary. There are these kind of innate rhythms and you just have to find them. I mean, I know what scares me. It’s not particularly scary when you’re doing it on the set because you’ve got 100 people around you and you know what’s coming obviously. So it’s not until you get into the editing room that you can decide whether or not it’s scary but it’s really not until you test it. We tested this film more than any film I’ve been involved in before. It’s there in black and white kind of. They scream or they don’t scream. Then you just modulate it and hopefully you get more screams the more you go along.

Crave Online: What’s the genesis of the idea?

David Goyer: I was in Chicago on set for The Dark Knight, visiting and I was just at dinner one night with my wife and I said, "Hey, you know, what would be scary?" What? "If you did a movie about a girl who has an unborn twin and she’s being haunted by the twin that never got born?" And she said, "That’s f*cked up. Or, that’s messed up." And I said, "Yeah, and the unborn twin," I don’t know why I said this, "His nickname should’ve been Jumby and somebody’ll say Jumby wants to be born now." She says, "Huh, you should go write that." So I did. Then I just started doing research so twins, and that led me to heterochromia which is the idea of blue eyes turning brown. That led me also to Mengele’s research with twins and with eye color bizarrely. Which is all true. That led me into the legend of the dybbuk which is also true. And I started reading all this stuff and it just fit together and I thought, "Oh, it’s an interesting way to maybe do a new spin on a possession/exorcism story."

Crave Online: Is there a pro-life metaphor in there? Life begins at demonic possession.

David Goyer: No. I mean, pro life for a demon baby? No.

Crave Online: How far have you come as a director?

David Goyer: Oh, a lot. I think most people when they start doing really know what they’re doing. God knows I learned a lot on Blade but I know that for me at least, this is the first time I was kind of able to cut in my head and say, "No, I don’t need that shot. I need that shot." And the movie turned out, I storyboarded a lot of the film but it turned out very similar to what I had boarded and what I had – – so I don’t know, I remember the fourth script I wrote was Blade and that was the first time I felt like oh, I really as a writer sort of am on a role now. This is the fourth thing I had directed and I just felt like oh, I’m really getting the hang of it now.

Crave Online: What’s your collaborative process with the cinematographer?

David Goyer: Well, obviously I’m friends with Chris Nolan and he was encouraging me to shoot anamorphic which is the format that he shoots all of his movies in and it’s a format that I had never worked in before, even as a writer. Well, with the exception of Batman Begins. And anamorphic, I also think I would not have shot with anamorphic if it had been my first film directing because you need a bit more technical expertise when you’re shooting with it. But, you know, I picked a DP that had shot anamorphic before and we just spent a lotta time, you know, in the locations talking it over. I find at least for me, the films that are scariest are the ones that feel a bit more realistic so we try not to have a lot of crazy, you know a lot of long takes, a lot of not, camera movements that draw attention to themselves and things like that. But I mean hopefully at least from the beginning frame, it’s kind of creepy with that frozen river as you’re going down, it looks like that.

Crave Online: And the sound, did you make sounds on set or put it in later?

David Goyer: No, I mean, obviously some you think you’ll have a bang or something like that in but sound is, I mean, it’s not really that much of a secret but scary movies, probably half of it is the sound so you spend a long time with the sound and you wrestle with the sound and you wrestle with, interestingly enough, when you’re previewing the film, you’ve only got temp sounds and you don’t have foley and things like that so you have a lot more music in it. Then as they start to build the sound design and the soundtrack, you find yourself pulling music cues out when you’re on the final mix. So a lot of the scenes when she hears the tapping in the mirror and stuff like that, those used to have music in them but I think they become scarier with just the silence. I don’t know, like I really like the sequence at the beginning of the film where she hears something on the baby monitor and then she’s sort of looking up in the bottom of the stairs. I just like, it’s very quiet and you just kind of hear the creaking of the stairs.

Crave Online: Do you start with a sound design concept or does it evolve in post production.

David Goyer: Usually it evolves in the process of post production. I mean, I think with a movie like this, I told my sound designers, and I’ve worked with him before, is we really have a latitude to be nonliteral. So the visual style is fairly literal or fairly naturalistic but the sound design wasn’t literal at all. I don’t know if you’ll notice but we hit various things that don’t make an sound like when she’s watching the kind of haunted film, any time the lens would flare, we would have this kind of slightly grating high pitch sound. Any time the light would happen or things like that which was just fun to bring sounds to things like that because it obviously affects people on an unconscious way.

Crave Online: How much better prepared do you feel to do your next film?

David Goyer: Oh, a lot. A lot more. This was a film that I felt I prepared well for and we didn’t encounter any big surprises. It went fairly smoothly so I’m excited to dive into another one.

Crave Online: Did you warn Odette she’d have stuff stuck in her eyes?

David Goyer: No, I would spring that on her. I used to spring that on her at the last minute and in fact, that particular day, we were in an ophthalmologist’s lab and the ophthalmologist was our sort of tech advisor on the day and I said, "Is there anything really uncomfortable we could do to her now?" And he said, "Well, I could put this speculum thing in her eye." So right before we rolled, I said, "You know, honey, we’re just going to do this little thing. It’s fine, and we’re rolling." She was like, "What, what? What are you doing?" I said, "It’s okay, we’re just going to do one take and I’ll do it too." Then we did like eight takes and then we ran out of time. No, I didn’t do it.

Crave Online: That reaction seemed authentic.

David Goyer: Oh, no, it was. She was intensely uncomfortable and she was uncomfortable with the potato bugs.

Crave Online: That wasn’t CGI? 

David Goyer: There were CGI bugs but there were about 500 real ones and they were all over her. In fact, we finished filming and we were resetting and stopped filming for about 15 minutes and she started screaming all of a sudden because one of them was in her bra. She was like, "Get it off me, get it off me." She started tearing off her clothes.

Crave Online: You and Jonah Nolan have a real chance at a screenwriting nomination. Have you wrapped your mind around that?

David Goyer: No. I mean, I don’t think any of us could’ve imagined the reaction, the reception that The Dark Knight had. We thought it would do well but it did far and beyond anything anyone expected so I’m enormously proud of my small contribution to the film. What can I say? But you can’t even wrap your head around that.

Crave Online: Are the discussions about the third one happening?

David Goyer: Maybe. I don’t know. If there were, I wouldn’t tell you.

Crave Online: Can you give us an update on your next projects, directing and writing?

David Goyer: The next project directing-wise is I cowrote a pilot for ABC called Flash Forward with Brannon Braga. I’ll be directing that in February and we just cast Joseph Fiennes and John Cho from Harold and Kumar and Courtney Vance and Jack Davenport, a couple other guys. So we’ll be shooting that in February. I think it’s designed, for ABC at least, it’s meant to be kind of a companion for Lost. So we’ll be shooting that in LA and then I’ve written an adaptation, sort of a reimagining of The Invisible Man for Universal that theoretically would be the next feature I direct.

Crave Online: Do you have an actor in mind?

David Goyer: I do but I don’t want to say because we’re just in the midst of talking with this person, so.

Crave Online: Is that why you put a clip of The Invisible Man in the Unborn?

David Goyer: Yes, it was. It was, just as a little fun homage. Or maybe a hopeful homage, I don’t know.

Crave Online: Any updates on Magneto

David Goyer: Magneto, they’re just waiting to see what happens with Wolverine. It was like sort of, they were deciding whether or not to do that one, Wolverine or Magneto first. They decided to go with Wolverine so I decided to do Unborn. Now they still want to make it and they’re hoping Wolverine will be a big hit and that’ll open the way for Magneto.

Crave Online: Could Invisible Man possibly conflict with that?

David Goyer: Yeah. It could. But those are rich man’s problems I guess. Not me specifically.

Crave Online: What’s going to be on the DVD, extended footage or deleted scenes?

David Goyer: You know, there really aren’t, there’s a couple deleted scenes. There’s not like any amazing, it’s not like Jacob’s Ladder where there were just whole incredible sequences and scenes that didn’t make it into the movie. There’s not that much, you know, there’s going to be an extended version. It’s a couple minutes longer. There’s four or five deleted scenes that are kind of interesting.

Crave Online: You had to scale back for PG-13?

David Goyer: But we didn’t, shockingly we did not have to scale back very much. I mean, we intended it to be PG-13 and so when they say scaled back, there’s one shot where that woman’s back breaks. There was a third shot, so that was cut out. There was the shot where the boy in the dream reaches into the girl’s stomach where we had to trim eight frames. Stuff like that. It was very minor. No scenes, no characters, nothing like that.

Crave Online: Nothing you put in to bait the MPAA?

David Goyer: No, uh uh. Well, my editor had also cut The Grudge and Emily Rose and so when I was shooting, I relied on him a lot to say, "What do you think we can sort of get away with and what can’t we?" I think we’re riding the bleeding edge of PG-13 but I think it worked.

Crave Online: How did the name Jumby come to you?

David Goyer: I just made it up and then freakishly I found out that Jumby is actually like Guyanese for ghost or spirit or something.