Up-and-coming actress Allie Gallerani is quickly discovering that in all types of business, truth can be stranger than fiction, and not all people turn out to truly be how they initially presented themselves. In her new horror film, ‘The Institute,’ the actress powerfully showcased the authentic struggles women regularly contended while they sought treatment at Maryland’s Rosewood Center during the late 19th century. The performer was stunned when she first discovered that the questionable psychological treatment her protagonist received at the title facility actually occurred; she initially believed the story was just a fictitious account that was created by James Franco, who co-directed and executive produced the thriller.
Franco, who also starred in the drama, co-directed ‘The Institute’ with his frequent filmmaking collaborator, Pamela Romanowsky. The horror movie is now playing in select theaters and on Digital and VOD, courtesy of Momentum Pictures.
Set in 1893, ‘The Institute’ follows the sophisticate socialite, Isabel Porter (Gallerani), as she decides to check herself into the Rosewood Institute in Baltimore, as she wishes to be treated for her grief. Her brother, Roderick (Joe Pease), is also concerned about how the death of their parents has affected his sister, but he’s hesitant about her seemingly rash decision to enter the facility. But Isabel’s physician, Dr. Torrington (Eric Roberts), assures Roderick that Rosewood will provide the best treatment for her sorrow.
But Roderick’s concern continues over Isabel’s treatment and progress continue to grow when he visits her at Rosewood. He begins to question if his sister’s new physicians, Dr. Cairn (Franco) and Dr. Lemelle (Tim Blake Nelson), are providing her with the best care possible. Isabel insists to her brother that she’s receiving the care she needs. However, her caretakers are actually performing pseudo-scientific experiments that rely on brainwashing and occult practices to obtain their desired results in their patients.
Isabel’s curiosity about the treatment that she’s receiving does eventually begin to grow, particularly after she considers Roderick’s objects and the practices she witnesses the staff using on the lower class patients. But she ultimately decides to overlook her instincts, as she wishes to become Dr. Cairn’s star patient, which turns out to be a decision that changes her life forever.
Romanowsky and Gallerani generously took the time to sit down in New York City recently to talk about making ‘The Institute’ during an exclusive interview. Among other things, the co-director mentioned that with her education in psychology, she enjoys the process of exploring memory identity, perception and perspective in a diverse range of stories, especially ones that feature strong protagonists like Isabel. The actress also discussed that she was immediately drawn to play the emotional struggling lead character in the horror film after Franco sent her the script, which was penned by Adam Rager and Matt Rager, as she felt the protagonist’s emotionally daunting journey needed to be told on screen.
ShockYa (SY): Allie, you play Isabel in the new horror thriller, ‘The Institute,’ which marks one of your first feature film leading roles. What was it about the character, as well as the overall script, that convinced you to take on playing the protagonist?
Allie Gallerani (AG): I was sent the script before I knew I was going to be involved in the film. James said, “I’m working on this, so check it out. Let me know what you think.” So I read it and said, “I need to be in this film, even if it’s only as a nurse who only has three lines.”
I thought it was so fascinating, and unlike anything I had ever seen before. As an actress, you read a lot of bad scripts, so when you find a good one, you think, I have to do this. I was beyond thrilled when (Franco) asked me to play Isabel. It was a no-brainer for me to take the role.
SY: Pamela, you co-directed ‘The Institute’ with James. What was it about the script, which was written by Adam Rager and Matt Rager, that convinced you to take on helming the film?
Pamela Romanowsky (PR): My interest in the film has two parts. First, I thought, why should I make a horror film, and why should I pick this particular story? I’m really interested in psychology-my undergrad degree is in pysch, and it’s something I love to explore in movies. A lot of my films have the cinematic expression of psychology, memory identity, perception and perspective. All of those things are such rich terrain to explore. Exploring the imagery and sounds that make you feel the way you do is a fascinating process for me.
The film is also based on a true story and a real place. I think the reason why I wanted to make a horror film is that there’s such a pleasure in exploring the dark impulses of humanity in this elevated way. There’s a cathartic experience to it.
So much of the way we’ve treated women in medicine and psychology is really dark, especially during this period of time. This was an awful time to be a woman in a hospital. A lot of things that were “medicalized” and treated were just part of being human, including postpartum depression and grief. There were all of these human things that were treated like a psychological crisis. Really terrible things happened in the name of that, like lobotomies and gaslighting. It was a really dark time in our history. So there was a part of me that wanted to explore that.
I also love that there are pieces of historical literature woven into the script, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe stories. I also like that the plot involves a metaphor for filmmaking in it. James’ character is a doctor who does drama therapy, with almost good intentions. He convinces his star patients, the ones he really likes, to participate in this treatment. Even though he has morally ambiguous intentions, he convinces his patients to do these things because he believes in the art. So he convinces people that they really are living in the skin of someone else, and encourages them to become these characters…
AG: …in the name of science! (laughs)
PR: So I thought all of those elements were fascinating. I thought it would be really interesting to do this weird little side project as a horror film, and I hadn’t done that before.
James and I have been friends for a long time. Over the years, one of our traditions has been going to midnight movies, so we’ve seen all of these horror films together. So it was cool to be able to assemble all of the things that we love from those movies, and put them into the visual style and tone in this film.
Working together is great-I love working with him. He’s fascinating and passionate, and also very curious and exploratory. He’s an actor and director, which is always fascinating to me. As a director, you don’t always get to see how other directors’ work, but actors do-they get to see all kinds of different directing styles. So he brought to the table all of these different ideas. It’s fascinating to have another human being to problem solve, and brainstorm, with while you’re working.
SY: In the beginning of the drama, Isabel is shown to still be grieving over the loss of her parents’ recent tragic death, which is why she’s driven to voluntarily check into the title Rosewood Institute. But the longer she remains in the facility, the more she loses touch with reality, as well as her true self. What was the process of showcasing your character’s emotional descent and initial willingness to do anything to please Dr. Cairn, while also maintaining her underlying determination to hold onto her true identity?
AG: I think it’s always interesting to see stories where people start to lose themselves, or touch with reality. Then as the audience, you’re not sure what’s real, and what they’re imagining. So I was interested in the loss of identity, and then building it back up. I think there’s nothing scarier than being under someone else’s control, and completely lose yourself.
**SPOILER ALERT** The moment that really clicks for me is when Isabel realizes that she’s been under someone else’s control the entire time. She wakes up and stops taking the drugs. She realizes what has been done to her, and what she’s done. **END SPOILER ALERT** That’s horror to me-it’s pure, psychological deep fear.
PR: That’s the same for me. To me, horror films are more about creepy people, and the horrible things people do to each other, psychologically. I think gore is interesting, and it is part of the genre, but I’m not really afraid of blood-I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie, and don’t get startled easily.
I’m also not really scare of supernatural things, but I’m definitely scared of people. I think people can do awful things to each other, and are great at justifying those things. So I wanted to take that idea of control, power and manipulation to an extreme and fascinating way.
SY: The film is based on true events, like you mentioned earlier, Pamela. So what kind of research did you both do into the type of psychological treatment someone like Isabel would have received in the late 1800s, particularly in an institute like the Rosewood Center?
PR: Yes, we did a lot of research. Given that it’s based on a real place and a true story, there’s a lot that has been written about it. There are also a lot of cool videos on YouTube. We also found this great cache of medical photos from the era at the Burns Archive here in New York, and you see some of those photos in the film’s opening title sequence. So my research folder for this film is huge, and takes up most of my hard drive. (Gallerani laughs.)
The photos are fascinating and beautiful, but are also creepy in the way that photographs were taken at the time. The people in the photos had to stay very still, so there’s this weird, stilted tone that’s part of their smiles and posture. So getting to do a period film that’s based on a true story provided all kind of research opportunities.
AG: As an actor, you’re lucky that everyone has built the world for you. All of their research comes together. The set designer, for example, has created the physical world that you’re going to exist in as an actor.
I also took psychology courses, and learned about the dark and sorted history of treatments. I also liked watching ‘The Knick,’ and I had also seen Sarah Ruhl’s play, ‘In the Next Room.’ It explores the antiquated treatment of women with hysteria. Doctors would do horrible things to women when they were neurotic, sad or grieving. So I had some familiarity with the themes of the movie. But I don’t know if I knew the movie was based on a true story until after we were done filming.
PR: Oh, really?
AG: Yes, I wasn’t aware. You wouldn’t suspect it; I thought it was just from the mind of James, and accepted it unquestionably. (laughs)
SY: Speaking of the set design, since the majority of the thriller is set in the title location, were you able to shoot the film on location in an actual hospital?
AG: Yes, we filmed almost the entire movie in one old building that was right outside of downtown L.A. It was very disconcerting, as it was originally a building for young women who had just moved out of their (family) homes, and were doing secretarial work. So it was accurate to the period. It had these long, dark corridors, lanterns, beautiful drapes and old paintings, and that helped. We also added some scary Victorian and Gothic things in.
PR: I always prefer to shoot on location, but the vibe of this building was very creepy. Like Allie said, it’s in the middle of downtown L.A. So there’s this weird cognitive dissidence between the downtown area of a modern city and this weird Victorian building. When you drive by it, it’s a real mismatch to see. But architecturally, it was right, because it had the bones of what we needed to be correct for the period.
Since we shot the movie in a couple of weeks, and mainly overnight, we had to be in one building, by the virtue of logistics. We didn’t have time to move to other places, but there was one night where we shot a scene in the woods.
(Mainly shooting in the one building) was an interesting design challenge, because we only had four or five rooms that we could use. So we had to keep rebuilding them, in order to make them look like they’re different locations. We would do things like change the door and entrance to a room, as well as the windows, in order to make the architecture look different. We also had a whole scheme with the lighting-there were electric and gas lights, which helped us assemble this sprawling space, even though it was contained.
SY: What was the experience, as both the director and lead actress, of shooting ‘The Institute’ independently on that shorter shooting schedule? Did it influence your creativity while you were filming?
AG: It definitely made me feel crazy, which was good for getting into character! (laughs)
PR: It is tough to shoot that fast. We wanted to have creative control over the film, and to do that, you’re limited to a micro-budget. Time is money in filmmaking, and we just had less time to shoot this one. It was a challenge, but it was ultimately worth it to everybody to maintain control over it.
SY: Also speaking of the film’s lighting earlier, what was the experience of collaborating with your cinematographer, Pedro Gómez Millán, on figuring out how you wanted to present the story visually?
PR: We knew a lot of the feeling would have to be captured on camera while we were filming, as we didn’t have the time or budget to do a lot of effects. There are obviously some visual effects in it, particularly for the more gory moments.
But the color palette is really there in the costume and production design, as well as in the lighting. A big part of the story depended on differentiating the locations through either electric or gas lighting.
The visuals were also influenced by the lenses that we used, and the way that we treated them. Everything was created to make them feel as though they have a period feel. We wanted there to be a non-modern quality to the film, so we put a silk stocking on the back of every lens, which is an old-school camera technique, and lends a softness to everything.
SY: Following up on the costumes, in the beginning of ‘The Institute,’ Isabel is the epitome of what higher class women were expected to look like during the late 1800s, as she dressed in elegant dresses. But as she further continues her treatment with Dr. Cairn, her appearance becomes more disheveled. What was the process of collaborating with the drama’s costume designer, David Page, to create the protagonist’s increasingly unkempt look?
AG: I had a love-hate relationship with the costumes, especially the corsets! (laughs) But those period pieces are a work of art. Even though it’s very painful to wear a corset, and you can’t breathe, (wearing them) really helped me get into character of someone who’s completely restricted. It helped me feel as though I had to be rigid and perfect. All of my movements had to be economical, because you can’t exert when you’re wearing a corset and high heels. As those costumes began to get stripped away, that helped inform the character’s transformation, as well.
SY: In addition to crafting Isabel’s emotional descent in the drama, what was your experience of creating her physicality, particularly the longer she stays in the Rosewood Institute?
AG: I did a couple of my own stunts while we were filming. The physicality definitely changed throughout the story, as as she takes away all of the Victorian clothing and starts basically wearing a sack. She also starts taking these drugs, so I was trying to convey that she starts to relax, maybe even too much. She no longer has the restraints of society weighing her down; she’s now exploring her new way of living in a social class that she probably never interacted with before in a real way.