One of the most visceral movie experiences that filmmakers can create for audiences is producing ideas and feelings that can’t be easily explained. That’s certainly the case for the new supernatural horror feature, ‘Ghosts of War.’ Filmmaker Eric Bress masterfully set out to convey the anxiety that soldiers who are unable to fully contend with the physical and emotional traumas of fighting in war regularly develop, and did just that with his latest drama. He ultimately crafted a hypervigilant, disorienting story that blurs the lines between reality and the perceived atrocities that both the soldiers and viewers witnessed throughout the plot’s tragic events.
‘Ghosts of War’ was written and directed by Bress, a horror genre veteran who also scribed and helmed ‘The Butterfly Effect,’ and penned several entries in the ‘Final Destination’ series. His latest psychological thriller is now available on DirecTV, and will also be released in Virtual Cinema Screenings, as well as On Demand and Digital, this Friday, July 17, by Vertical Entertainment.
‘Ghosts of War’ is set during the bleakest days of World War II, during which five battled-hardened soldiers are given a cake assignment: to hold down a Chateau in the French countryside formerly used by the Nazi high command. What begins as an unexpected respite quickly descends into madness when they encounter an enemy far more terrifying than anything seen on the battlefield.
Cut off from contact with the outside world, Lieutenant Goodson (Brenton Thwaite) and his men (played by Theo Rossi, Kyle Gallner, Skylar Astin and Alan Ritchson) begin experiencing inexplicable events, and are taunted by malevolent unseen forces. Something is occupying the house-an evil that will not let them leave alive. The soldiers eventually uncover that they’re being hunted by the Helwig family, the house’s original residents, who were brutally slaughtered by the Nazis, and are now seeking vengeance for their gruesome slaughter.
When the die-hard soldiers’ skill sets are rendered useless in the face of their supernatural enemy, their last-ditch attempts to escape lead to the discovery that they are trapped in a twisted nightmare. They also realize that the sins of their own crimes that are returning upon them may be more unbearable than the evil lurking within the house.
Bress generously took the time recently to talk about writing and directing ‘Ghosts of War’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that he was inspired to pen the movie after he discovered that veterans were committing suicide at high rates, because they weren’t receiving proper treatment, and wanted to delve into the subject of PTSD in a unique way. He also discussed how he was able to cast such drastically diverse actors as Thwaites, Rossi, Gallner, Astin and Alan Ritchson as the five distinctly different soldiers, as they were all able to fill the different character troupes in war and horror films.
The conversation with Bress began with the scribe discussing what inspired him to pen the script for ‘Ghosts of War,’ and what the overall writing process was like on the drama. “I first thought of the idea during a time when veterans were committing suicide at the rate of 20 a day. They weren’t being treated properly, or getting enough care from our government,” he shared. “So I thought it might be interesting to create a story that wouldn’t just tell people about PTSD in the same way as such films as ‘The Hurt Locker,’ which have done so effectively.
The writer wanted “the audience to feel that pain and constant sense of dread anytime there’s a bang in the room.” So he thought that the “horror (genre) might be the best way to emotionally convey what a soldier might go through after undergoing time at war.”
So Bress decided that “Rather than do the typical haunted house movie, where a family moves into a house and finds out that it’s haunted, I thought it might be more interesting to bring a bunch of battle-hardened soldiers into the house, and see what would happen.” He added that “There were other examples of that in the (war) universe, but a lot of them were from Korea, or were very campy. I wasn’t able to find too many examples of World War II soldiers in the typical haunted house horror movie genre. So I didn’t think it was all too stale, and I was confident that I could give the audience something new. That was pretty much when I started to tackle the idea.
“As for the writing process…when I write, I generally get on a motorcycle and start driving up the Pacific Coast Highway. About 40 minutes outside Malibu, my left brain turns off, and my right brain starts going through a creative burst. I just get flooded with ideas,” the filmmaker also shared.
“So when I first begin with the inception of an idea in that way, it allows a filterless way of going through all the ideas that I can possibly come up with. I’ll do that for about five hours, and then I’ll turn around and come home, and write everything I remember down on a computer,” Bress continued. “So it generally starts off in a theoretical place, where I’m just getting ideas from the universe,” he added with a laugh. “Then I begin to shape them into something more of a cohesive narrative.
“I then go into the research, and watch documentaries, read books and look up information on the internet, so I can get a better sense of the time and place. (For ‘Ghosts of War,’) I tried to lean into the reality of what might have actually happened (during World War II) before I started writing the script out,” the scribe also shared.
After he finished penning the screenplay, Bress delved right into helming the thriller. He revealed that he feels that working on the script helped influence his directorial style on the set. He also noted that he feels that both writing and helming the movie was extremely helpful for not just him, but also the rest of the crew and the cast.
“I feel it’s easier for the actors to work with a director whose lived inside of the script, and knows every detail about it, especially the characters. A writer-director knows much more detail about (the characters’) backstories, and can have much more detailed conversations with the actors about the person they’re about to play,” the director shared.
“I find that to be a lot more fulfilling than when I just wrote a script, and handed it off to another director.” The same thing’s true “if I read (someone else’s) script, and it’s complex, and clearly a lot of thought went into it, and there’s potential for me to direct it. I never feel like I can do it justice…I like it when an actor can come up to me at any time, with any question, and there’s nobody who’s better suited to answer than me,” Bress also noted.
Further speaking of the actors, the filmmaker then delved into what the casting process was like for ‘Ghosts of War.’ “It was interesting, because the film was specifically written with certain troupes that the audience has become familiar with before the story begins to take off. There are characters with names like Eugene the geek and Butchie the musclebound guy. Our hero’s name is Chris Goodson. I didn’t want the audience to waste time figuring out who these characters are,” he revealed.
“I was really lucky to work with this brilliant casting director, Brandon Henry Rodriguez, who was able to go through all kinds of actors after he read the script. He was able to provide me with these awesome ideas,” Bress gushed. “I had seen all of these actors before.
“I had seen Theo Rossi on ‘Sons of Anarchy,’ so I knew he was going to be an incredible Kirk in the film, and be the every man. I had seen Skylar Astin in ‘Pitch Perfect,’ so he seemed perfect for the role of the know-it-all soldier of Eugene. What was great when I met him was that he’s a lot different from the characters he plays,” the helmer revealed. “He’s a lot more rugged and mannish, and I thought I could use that for the seemingly nerdy soldier, who really isn’t nerdy. He’s fully capable of committing cold-blooded acts, if need be.
“Brenton Thwaites was the total get, because I always pictured him, in terms of body and personality type, for the lead character. He’s the calm, quite type, who even after killing someone, could shrug guiltily to his men and say, ‘Sorry guys, we went the wrong way, so we have to back up two hours now,” Bress shared. “I had seen him before in ‘Oculus,’ and I thought he was fantastic in that…He was so easy to work with, and was always ready to roll when the cameras were set up.”
“It was also great to find Kyle Gallner for the role of Tappert. That (character) was actually the hardest search of all,” the filmmaker admitted. “We needed someone who was intense, even when he was just standing there, and staring off into the horizon, doing nothing,” he added with a laugh.
“I almost couldn’t hire Kyle. It was almost one week before we were about to start shooting, and the assistant directors were screaming at me, ‘You have to find your Tappert character!’ But I just wasn’t satisfied with how the casting process was going,” Bress divulged.
“I then spoke to Kyle, and knew he was definitely the right person for the job. But his hair was down to his shoulders, and he was contractually obligated not to cut it for a TV show,” the director shared. “So I did a little bit of research, and found out that snipers were often allowed to have a lenient dress code, and wear knit wool caps. So I thought, this is perfect; he can hide his hair under the cap. So he wore the cap throughout the film, instead of wearing a wig, so that he could have his hair hidden. I’m so glad it worked out that way, because his performance was just so intense.”
With the majority of ‘Ghosts of War’ set in the French Chateau mansion and its surrounding property, where the soldiers are stationed, Bress then explained what the process of finding the house, and filming on location there, was like throughout the shoot. “The reality is that the house is in Bulgaria, and it was actually the king’s castle before democracy took hold in the country. It’s now a museum, so we were only allowed to shoot the exteriors, and occasionally one soldier-usually Brenton Thwaites-in the upstairs window for a shot or two.
“The entire interior of the house was then built on a soundstage, and we had to make sure it fit perfectly with the dimensions of the exterior that we were going to have on screen,” the filmmaker further explained.
“I wanted an old-style kitchen that didn’t have modern appliances or an island. I did want an original oven, which in those days were also used to heat the house, more than even fireplaces. That was when we decided to shoot in Bulgaria, and I got this amazing production designer, Antonello Rubino, to build the entire interior of the mansion on a soundstage,” Bress also shared.
With the movie set to be released in Virtual Cinema Screenings and On Demand this Friday, the helmer then delved into his thoughts and feelings about the digital distribution. “It’s kind of a bittersweet pill to have everyone go through all of this work, and not end up on theater screens, which was the way the movie was shot,” he admitted. “But at the same time, it’s really great, because due to the quarantine, a lot of people are home, and there’s not that much fresh content out there. So to release the film (digitally this week), in a world where we have to (only see content by) streaming, we can have as many people see it at home as possible.”