Our second and final interview for this year’s batch of Welcome to the Blumhouse horror movies, an anthology on Amazon Prime Video that gives new directors a chance at making a low-budget horror film with Blumhouse, is with Axelle Carolyn, who is probably more experienced than some of the other filmmakers. Her first feature, Soulmate, came out in 2013, but she followed that with a segment in the horror anthology, Tales of Halloween a few years later.
Carolyn’s new film, The Manor, stars Barbara Hershey as Judith Albright, a woman whos is moved into a large nursing home after she suffers a stroke, but when she starts experiencing supernatural encounters, she has to convince the staff that she doesn’t belong there and isn’t suffering from early stages of dementia. Her grandson Josh (Nicholas Alexander) believes her but the doctors and nurses there seem to be involved in something quite nefarious.
Below the Line spoke with Ms. Carolyn over Zoom during a break in filming one of the final episodes of this season of American Horror Story.
Below the Line: I was a little worried when I saw the trailer, and I realized this was about dementia, because my mother is dealing with very late-stage dementia. What got you started on the idea of making a movie in a retirement home with all these great veteran actors, like Barbara Hershey?
Axelle Carolyn: Just like you, I had the same experience of seeing a loved one go through dementia. My Dad, the last five years of his life, he was a college professor, and I saw him change, and little bits of him go away. Even though I was living in a different country, so I didn’t see him very often, it’s an experience that’s, as you know, incredibly striking. It really leaves something with you. I had to process that in some way, and I think that idea and seeing him in that nursing home and seeing how other people would treat him in that nursing home. Two years before, he was teaching classes at university. I attended that university, and I saw him there, and I knew what he was like, and how he was admired and how he had such a great intellect. And then two, three years later, he’s in a nursing home, and he’s being treated like a child. It was very difficult to process, and there were instances where he would say something early on in his disease, where he would see something, and we wouldn’t believe it, because we knew that he was sick, and we would just dismiss the experience. He woke up my mom one night, and he said, “Don’t you mind all those people watching us when we sleep?” Little things like that, which were incredibly spooky. If he really saw something, how isolating and how terrifying that experience is. Because I’m a huge horror fan, and this is how I process most things, that’s what I channeled into this story. That was kind of the birth of it.
BTL: It’s really tough, because like you say, you spend your entire life with a relative, and they just have changed. How did you get Barbara Hershey on board? She’s a legendary actor, but she also hasn’t done very much in recent years. Did you send her the script or did you have some sort of pitch to her?
Carolyn: We sent her the script through our casting director, and I sent a letter I think that went with that, explaining what I had in mind for the movie, but also how I thought she was perfect for this and how I saw it. She responded very quickly, actually, which was wonderful — I think, the same day or the morning after we already heard back that she was interested. But she wanted to meet first, and she had a couple of things she wanted to discuss before she could really sign on. I went to meet her at her house, and we spent hours just going through the script and looking at every page and every line of dialogue and talking about what I had in mind, what the dialogue meant, what the events meant with the emotion and what was behind it. We were very close to production when we cast this. Our preproduction was fairly fast, so that was great, because as she was signing on, we already realized we didn’t have anything that we were going to clash against. It was not only a process of me pitching to her that she’s going to be great, and this is gonna be awesome and her kind of explaining to me how she saw everything.
But it was really just the preproduction work and the rehearsal work all in one big session in one afternoon. She’s incredibly dedicated and focused and detail-oriented and just taking everything. She didn’t look at this and think, “This is a silly horror movie. I can just go for it and just be broad.” She thought, “Every single thing has to ring true, and I have to do justice to this character.” We also discussed things like, I know she wanted to speak to doctors about what a stroke was like and what effects it could have. So, she has a very slight limp in the movie which you’d notice if you pay attention, but little things like that she brought to it that really made it come alive.
BTL: Was this something you were making as a standalone movie separate from anything else in the Welcome to the Blumhouse and then Blumhouse decided to put it into this package?
Carolyn: I got the script to Amazon, and Amazon brought it to Blumhouse. I mean, it took years to get to that point and get it made and write it and everything. When I brought it to them, I had a finished script for this, and I knew a lot of the other directors either cowrote or got a script from Blumhouse, and they were put together with the script. In my case, it was more like I finished a script, we sent it to Amazon. Amazon loved it, and then brought it to Blumhouse. [My movie] was actually the second one to shoot. We didn’t release it last year because of COVID, and because of everything that was happening in nursing homes, it seemed not the right time for that kind of story, but I shot it two years ago. We shot it in LA — most of the others were shot in New Orleans, and I didn’t have a lot of interactions with them.
BTL: When I spoke to the other Welcome to the Blumhouse directors, I learned that most of them were shot in Louisiana with the same crew, much like a TV show, but it’s interesting that yours was a separate movie entirely.
Carolyn: Thankfully, that wasn’t the case for this one. Nocturnal was the first one to go, and that was shot in L.A., and then mine shot in L.A., and then they moved production into New Orleans. I had a little bit more latitude to pick my crew, picking my DP and my first AD, my editor, the production designer, basically all the heads of department, which was really, really good. We had a fantastic crew; I could not have been happier. My DP was phenomenal. My first AD was a joy to work with, my production designer was a star, the composer. They were really, really strong, really great people, and the fact that we shot in L.A. allowed us to… one of the things we were thinking was that if we shot in New Orleans, we would have to fly in the cast, and a lot of people at that age especially don’t really want to get out of the house and spend a lot of time away from their home, so it might be easier to cast [in L.A.]. It turns out that we had we have a couple of people from the cast, who actually flew in from New York or from Florida. That was weird [chuckles], but it was great to get to shoot it here.
BTL: I’m glad you brought up your heads of department, because that’s usually a question I like to ask directors. Were you working with some people you’ve worked with before or did you find new people? What do you look for when you’re trying to find a DP, for instance?
Carolyn: It was all new people in this case. I made two features before this. My first one was shot in England, so the whole crew was British, and I tried to bring back the DP Sarah Dean, who is phenomenal, but she’s not quite in the system here. I don’t think she’s union here, so we bumped against that, and I had to look for someone new. I looked at tons and tons and tons of people, some very specific, and then found this amazing DP Andrés Sánchez, who was based in Miami and who flew over just to meet and was really passionate about this. I think he made a movie from Blumhouse, but it wasn’t a horror — it was something else– but he already knew them. But I found him independently of that, just by looking at his work, and it worked out really nicely. We got on really well. And then, a bunch of other people I had met a bunch of these through the line producer who introduced me to some people, and I met Lee [Blaine], the first AD, through her, and he was phenomenal. He’s done a lot of commercials, so he was very keen to do a feature. Our production designer came in through one of our producers, Rick Bosner. She’s called Tracy Dishman, and she is based in Texas and in LA, and at this time, she was in LA and it was incredibly lucky. We had to find her very close to production. There was a bunch of things that happened, and thankfully we only had one main location, and everything else was outside. But she only had two weeks to work on that location, and she made it look phenomenal. She changed all the furniture, she put in all the wallpaper, and really created the look for that. She was incredible — she came in and the next day she already had a lot of references to show me and a lot of “Here’s what we’re gonna do for this room, here’s what we’re going to do for that.” I’m very specific usually for everything that’s very visual. I put together a lot of references and images that allowed her to get started a little bit quicker, but she was incredibly prepared. Really, really good crew. Honestly, the production of the dream
BTL: When you call a movie The Manor, you really need to have this amazing location, so were the exteriors and interior the same place?
Carolyn: Yeah, yeah, and it’s in downtown L.A. It’s in the middle of traffic. It used to be, I think, a frat house at some point, and it then became kind of a convent, and there’s still a group of nuns who live in the house in the back who you would see walking around. There’s something really spooky about seeing this nun in this old-fashioned flowing outfit walk through. I love that house, I loved it. I was very, very sad when we left. We shot three weeks in there, and it was wonderful. Some of the exteriors that look like we’re in a park, actually, were just a little piece of the garden on the side of the house.
BTL: Was it empty when you found it or was it still being used?
Carolyn: No, it’s just this place. I think the remaining nuns lived in the guest house at the back. I think they just bought the house, and they weren’t sure what they were going to do with it. It’s right next to the house where Sam Raimi shot Drag Me to Hell.
BTL: Oh, that’s pretty cool. Did everyone stay in the house and have rooms there or did they just go back to their homes, those who lived nearby?
Carolyn: No one stayed in the house. Again, it was downtown L.A., so everybody was within 30 minutes of home.
BTL: That makes sense. I obviously don’t want to spoil the movie, but there are some creatures in the movie. I was curious whether they were done practically for the actors to interact with or with visual effects or a mix of the two?
Carolyn: I am very much a practical effects kind of girl, actually to the point where like a lot of horror fans, my first passion was that I wanted to be a special effects makeup artist. But I’m definitely very passionate about creatures and monsters and makeup effects, so it was absolutely wonderful to get to do this and have a monster that a man in the suit that we could go and design, and we hired Illusion Industries — Todd Tucker‘s company– and we had this amazing designer and artists, Martin Astles. I don’t want to reveal too much about the monster. I gave him the concept, and again, I had a lot of visual references. I brought them textures that I like and shapes that I like, and I think they really liked that I was so prepared and didn’t just come in and say, “Hey, come up with a monster.” They did such a gorgeous job in putting it together, and the first day that they brought the monster on set that we got to film it was Halloween, and I could not have had a happier day. They actually assembled the suit together, and the monster’s in my bedroom, the fully assembled suit on a mannequin in my bedroom.
BTL: Were Barbara and the other actors pretty game to do this stuff? I think Barbara has done horror before.
Carolyn: She has an awareness of how it works, so it makes it much easier. Again, she doesn’t want to phone anything in, so when she’s scared, she has to get to that place. One of the things that we had to work out together was trying to make it a bit bigger, because in horror, if you don’t look terrified, the audience is not going to be worried about you. As much as you can make a great monster, the thing that sells it is the way that the characters react to it. It’s the way that Barbara is going to look terrified when she looks at it. The first few takes were always going to be a little more subdued, because she would react in a way that felt more genuine to her, and then we would push it a little and try to go, “How far we can go without making it look cheesy, or make it look cliché, but just kind of enhancing those emotions a little bit?”
BTL: Did you end up doing the post during COVID, or did you have it finished beforehand?
Carolyn: We did the Director’s Cut in person because that was just right before COVID, and then COVID happened just as we were doing the network notes. The last few months of posts were really hard, really hard, because everybody had to figure out how the hell to make that workflow work. I had to do color correction on an iPad and sound design on an iPad. I’m very curious to see how this movie looks and sounds when they have it finally on the big screen. I know we have a screening coming up. It’s exciting. It’s also a little bit terrifying.
BTL: I was wondering about that, because I don’t think the last batch was able to get any kind of screening in a theater. Maybe at a drive-thru.
Carolyn: They got to do a little bit of stuff in person. I actually spoke to Emmanuel [Osei-Kuffour] who did the Black Box, and they shot it just right after me. Their post was about the same time, because my edit time was a little longer somehow. He got to go in for some stuff that I didn’t get to go into. I think everybody was still figuring it out, and so some people got to do a little bit more. It was difficult. It was really difficult. I mean, again, try to do a sound mix with headphones on an iPad.
BTL: Are you shooting something now or developing something to do next?
Carolyn: I’ve been doing a lot of TV since. I’ve been very lucky to do a lot of … again, I’m very much a horror girl, so genre stuff is completely my jam. Just before COVID, just as I was finishing my Director’s Cut, I got offered an episode of The Haunting of Bly Manor with Michael Flanagan, so I got to do that, and then after that, I did an episode of Creepshow, and a couple episodes of American Horror Story, which is what I’m finishing right now. I’m actually finishing shooting the finale of season 10 of American Horror Story, and that airs next month, so it’s a very, very tight turnover.
BTL: I’m guessing it must be great to be a horror filmmaker who can also direct TV, since there’s so much horror on TV. You can direct television while developing your next movie.
Carolyn: I’m writing my own stuff, and I’m also looking for scripts. I really want to remain a feature filmmaker, and I’d like to do my own series as well. In the meantime, doing high-quality episodic with people who are as inspiring as Mike Flanagan and Ryan Murphy, I mean, how much more can you wish for? It’s fantastic! Mike is incredibly supportive and encouraging and gives you a lot of freedom when you’re prepping your episodes. It almost feels like you’re making mini-features, but you’re doing it with an infrastructure that’s already in place. You get to play with all of the big train sets. You don’t have to beg to get cranes and to get balloons to light your set and all those elements that are sometimes difficult when you’re making smaller budget movies. It’s really fun.
The Manor can be watched on Amazon Prime Video starting Friday, Oct. 8.
All photos courtesy Amazon and Blumhouse, except where noted.