It was not lost on both of us that of all Jan de Bont’s films – in which many are pop culture canon like Speed and Twister – that the focus of the interview would be on his 1999 horror film, The Haunting. (The reason being is because Paramount has released a nifty new Blu-ray.) When talking to de Bont, you can tell his feelings on the film are a mixed bag. But, like a lot of people, his admiration for the film over the years has grown. At the time, even though it made a lot of money, it was derided for too much CGI. Also, not much attention was given to the cast, but now, retroactively – Liam Neeson (before he was really an action star), Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, and even a cameo from a creepy Bruce Dern – it’s an all-star cast. (With a crazy sequence involving a statue of a lion eating Owen Wilson’s head, which de Bont walks us through ahead.
But then, in 2003, de Bont film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life … and that was it for him. It’s been 17 years since the director of Speed has made a film. And ahead, he explains the experience on that film was so bad it turned him off of Hollywood filmmaking. But, with streamers at the forefront today, he does hint that, maybe, he’d be open to a return.
In the pantheon of movies you’ve done, where The Haunting rank for you? I am surprised of all your movies, this one is the focus.
Yeah, I understand. It doesn’t relate too much to the other projects I’ve worked on, of course. It relates to some other movies I worked on as a cinematographer. Maybe it might be more clear to you when I explain that this project was developed by Spielberg.
I was working on that film, Minority Report, which I was really excited about. And before I was working still on Twister, the post production. And Spielberg got Tom Cruise to work on Minority Report. Then he said, “Why don’t you take the movie I was going to do, The Haunting, and I can do this with Tom Cruise when he’s available for his scheduling.” And so it is kind of… I would have probably not chosen it if it was coming out of nowhere.
But because we could have lost Minority Report and he wanted to make it, and he wanted Tom Cruise. so basically that’s how I got involved in The Haunting. But I said I liked it. It’s not, like you said, it wouldn’t be top of my list to working on, but I thought it was intriguing because I like the idea of the vulnerable kind of innocent, believing young girl coming to this place. Then there’s a whole different and darker side to that house, but she refuses to see that, and she refuses to really believe there’s evil in the house. So I thought it was interesting to do that.
I get the impression more people like this movie now than they did then.
Yeah. You’re exactly right, because I had experienced the same thing. Because I go to Europe and meet film students, and journalists, and they liked the movie, too. Because the initial reaction in the United States was really looking at The Haunting more as a remake of the old black and white movie. And of course, it’s nothing even close to that. And they see it much more as a separate movie that’s a totally different interpretation.
I have two theories why. The first is, people then seemed to complain about the CGI. I don’t think anyone would watch this today and go, “What’s all this CGI?” I think people would just go, “Oh yeah, this is a normal movie.”
Yeah, exactly. In hindsight, I have to say, I don’t mind the CGI when he appears, because that you cannot do it for real. But it could have been more mysterious, like if you really don’t quite know if it moved, but it did move, but maybe you might’ve mistaken interpreting it that way. And you’re right. And now everybody’s so used to seeing all those things in a big effect movie, or an action movie.
The other thing is, and I don’t know if you’ve thought about this, you retroactively have this amazing cast that probably was not appreciated then. Even Liam Neeson. Obviously he was very famous. He had just been in Star Wars before this came out. But people didn’t really know him as the action star from Taken yet.
People weren’t used to him in this more action-y role. And you’ve got Owen Wilson before he’s famous. Catherine Zeta Jones. People just knew her from Mask of Zorro. So you have all these big name stars in it that weren’t quite where we think of them today.
Well, actually, I loved casting at the time. But to me, it is such a big danger casting a star in a movie that depends on a lot of actions and reactions. And if you see, let’s say, Julia Roberts. If she would have been in this movie that, for instance, you always will see Julia Roberts reacting to something. You’d never see the character. And that would be devastating for the movie. With Lili Taylor, nobody knew Lili Taylor, or barely. She had only been in independent movies. But she’s such an amazing actress. And she was completely great. And so was Owen Wilson. And so was Catherine Zeta Jones. Completely different characters that hadn’t been seen yet, too much.
Probably Say Anything, right? Most people knew her from that?
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Yeah. That’s it. In hindsight, it looks like a cast that people remember.
Rewatching, I completely forgot Owen Wilson was in this. Also I love that his character’s name is Luke, which is his brother’s name.
And I liked him for the part because he could put a little lighter moments in it to take the scare, or some of the fear factors, out. And I think he’s perfect for this movie. He makes me laugh, but not like a big broad laugh. He makes me smile a little bit. And that’s really good if you can achieve that in a movie like this.
He has an amazing death scene. He gets his head bitten off by a lion statue.
[Laughs] That doesn’t happen all the time.
I made an audible reaction.
Yeah, and actually, it was a scene that we had to make a copy of his facial expressions. So you have to act an expression, a reaction, that you don’t know if he would ever do that in real life. And so you have to be really careful it’s not too big, or it’s not too little. Because in real life, if you see that lion’s head come at you the reaction would be there. And then it would be in total shock and total fear. So we had to kind of pick something in the middle. And it was kind of, some of the takes it worked. And with other takes it didn’t work so well. And we had to kind of darken it a little bit.
Bruce Dern is in this movie, briefly. How did that happen?
I had met him once before, and I thought it needed a guy that we can put down fairly quickly what he’s all about. And, of course, you know how he acts.
And how expressive he is in this in his face. So the very first time you see him, and she meets him at the gate, and you know right away, there’s something really not quite right with him. You know? And that is so good that he can do that, almost in one or two shots. And he can do that. He’s perfectly right for that.
During the pandemic I’ve re-watched a lot of your movies…
Obviously I watched Speed for the first time in five or six years. And Twister. I am curious, what have you been doing? After Laura Croft: Tomb Raider – Circle of Life you stopped making movies.
Yeah. It was not such a great experience. But more from the reason how the studio tried to really interfere with it in a way. And the thing itself is that the makers of the game were also involved. And they never told me that they, also, have a say in the story.
Suddenly there were all these changes that have taken, and who had to be what, and what cast. And then suddenly it became such a big scene. Everything was a big deal. And then the very first day of shooting, it was in Greece, on the Island. The very first day, we got a call, “Oh, I want to congratulate you on your first day. And by the way, you have to cut $12 million out of your budget.” The very first day! And in those days, $12 million, that’s like four scenes.
And I said, wait a second. So what happens to the storyboard? You’re going to create massive gaps in this story. And then how do you fill it? What are you going to replace it with? And then that kept following us. It was really … it’s a pity. I kind of like working with her [Angelina Jolie], and she’s a character, but I thought she was a very interesting character to work with. She’s definitely very opinionated. But not in a negative way, I feel. She was difficult to work with, but for me it was, probably, not a problem. I didn’t really see anything negative at that time. And I really ended up liking her very much, so.
And then basically you say, wait a second, every movie’s going to be like this? Where the studio has a say in what will be done, what scenes have to be in, and even what kind of shirts somebody has to wear at one point? They didn’t like the buttons on one shirt! I still remember, I got a call, “I didn’t like the buttons on the shirt.” I don’t even remember. What was the guy’s name? The male lead in that movie? Man, I forgot his name. But then, “Wait a second. You’re calling me because you don’t like the buttons on the shirt?” That was so absurd. Really. And then also having to really constantly deal with budget issues.
I’m guessing Ciarán Hinds?
There were films that I wanted to work on, and unfortunately they also did not get made. None of them got made. I said, wait a second, is this too much work? This is too difficult. Because I felt this wasn’t a traditional period, where studios were taking a much bigger part in the making of the movie. And it became… that’s not worth it. You know?
But with Netflix and all the streaming services, it seems like little interference, comparatively.
Oh, there is hardly any. They like the script and that’s it. And then go and make it, you know?
Well, you should do that. I want to see another movie from you.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I have to say that I did like some of those series a lot, and I’ve followed them from A to Z, all the episodes, and I cannot stop watching until it’s over. So, who knows. I don’t know.
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