The Cellar tells the story of Keira Woods (Cuthbert), whose daughter mysteriously vanishes in the cellar of their new house in the country. Keira soon discovers there is an ancient and powerful entity controlling their home that she will have to face or risk losing her family’s souls forever.
A tale as old as time, if you move into an old house in the country that has a dark basement - you really shouldn't have to think twice to go down there. However, it's one of the greatest tropes in horror storytelling, and writer-director Brendan Muldowney has the perfect twist and motive in why you really should go down into that creepy, dark, musty basement.
I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Brendan about the story conception for his new feature horror film The Cellar, which is based on his short film The Ten Steps, how he utilizes sound design for optimal scares in both his writing and in post, and the importance of creating character hooks.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Other than the universal scare that is a basement or a cellar in a big and scary old house, where did the initial story seed come from for this particular story?
Brendan Muldowney: It came from a short film I made called The Ten Steps in 2004 - a short film that did very well for us. It won Best Short at the Fantastic Film Festival, and many more genre festivals, and also won prizes at the New York International Children's Film Festival. So, in a way, we knew there was something special about it. And over the years, I've just seen comments on different platforms, people saying, ‘What happens next after this short?” The short is basically the opening of the feature, say the first half-hour, it's the walking down the steps.
Sadie: Are you using similar story elements in the feature version?
Brendan: Yeah, exactly the same. The original short was inspired by Robert Wise’s The Haunting. The idea was to try and make a film that had no gore, and it was all about atmosphere. When I tried to expand it, I was going, ‘Which direction will I go?’ There are two ends of the scale in horror; there's transgressive, dark horror, or there's the sort of theme park like a funfair ride. I wanted to make it for a broad audience and make a fun movie, so that's really what I decided to do. The original idea of making a horror film with no gore fed into this and just suited it.
Sadie: Yeah, it works so well. How much time was spent in the research phase in creating that backstory and that lore with the physicist?
Brendan: Well, being honest, it's sort of hokum. But that doesn't mean I didn't do some research, I had many different ideas, there was Irish mythology in there at one stage. But once I settled on the idea that mathematics had to be somewhere at the end at the bottom of this, it helped that I've been interested in the universe, and to do research on this, you can spend hours. There was a whole section that was cut out when she goes to talk to the professor. There's a whole section where he explains dimensions, but it just wasn't working, it was just a little too much science. But yeah, I did a fair amount of research. I started with something called Evil Numbers. I just thought with the name, ‘OK, this is going to work.’ And then of course it didn't it. So you know, the string theory, the idea of 10 dimensions, 11 dimensions, or whether it's 21 dimensions was where I started to think this is going to work with The Ten Steps.
Sadie: In terms of the writing process for you, do you approach it as a writer first, or do you approach it as both writer and director?
Brendan: Probably when I write, I always write what I see. I've heard people discuss when you visualize, do you actually see it in your head? I sort of do. So, I think I do write as a director. I've been writing for years; I think I've got a little better, maybe not stories or whatever, but I've definitely got better at structuring a script. And I definitely know how to write it so that a reader is going to enjoy it, so it's not just written as a director's blueprint. But I've been writing versions of this for years; in 2007, I wrote a feature version of the short film, the short film expanded into a feature that didn't work, then I tried a version where the short film was a prologue, and the new family moved into the house that wasn't really working. It takes a while sometimes; it should be simple.
One of those versions, where there was a new family that moved in, I thought was very good. And so did my producer, but it wasn't working for financers [laughs] so we had to go back to work a bit, talk to script editors, and I was getting really pushed on characters, and coming up with good character hooks can be hard, especially when you are making a full-on horror movie. Once I decided if the daughter goes missing, and you've got a mother who desperately wants to find her daughter, it's a really strong character hook. And it was getting me through all these script editing meetings, because I had a good character hook.
It also helps because I'm playing with a lot of tropes that are in horror films. And in fairness, I'm playing with lots of stuff that people have seen. But this idea of why do people go down the dark stairs, while having a parent looking for their child who's gone missing, it's about the best reason you'll get to have someone do that stupid thing, then go down the dark stairs.
Sadie: That perfectly leads to my next question about your character development. Not to give away any spoilers but there is a pretty great twist in this movie – was Keira's trajectory already in mind for you from the beginning?
Brendan: This was another reason that I was having trouble with a new family moving in, because my protagonist was another daughter, another 16-year-old. And I was finding it hard to send an innocent character to hell, basically. So even though Keira comes around, and she understands her foibles, she's still an advertising exec who's exploiting young people's vulnerabilities. So, it was far easier to send her to hell.
Sadie: The sound design and music on this is so great. It’s haunting, disturbing, and memorable. With you being the chief world builder, did you have a specific soundscape in mind? Or was this more of a collaborative effort with your sound and music team?
Brendan: All of the above. I am somebody who really understands and appreciates that sound and music is as important as any other parts of the process. In fact, it's one of my favorite parts of the process. And I also write with sound in mind. I may go to the next line in action, ‘Keira looked towards the corridor.’ I'll skip a line, and I'll have in capital letters, or I might say, ‘The door opens.' And then I'll go to one line by itself and in capital letters, I'll go ‘CREEK.’ in big capital letters. [laughs] So in fairness, I do write sound into it. And I also think it's good for the reader reading the script. But having said that, the guys I work with Quentin Collette, I've worked with him before on my previous film Pilgrimage and he's fantastic. And Stephen McKeon, the composer I've worked with on all my features and on half of my shorts. The reason I keep working with them is because they're great.
Sadie: It’s a great team. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Brendan: It's very hard to know because there's different stages in your life when you become aware of films. As a young person, Star Wars would have had a very big effect, I would have been seven I'd say when it came out, and I remember going to the cinema, every birthday party in my class, we would go to the cinema and go to McDonald's afterward. That was the thing, McDonald's was just new in the country. But I saw Star Wars probably like ten times. Obviously, this is not my favorite film of all time. There are many other moments throughout my, like the moment where I realized, ‘Wow, maybe this is a career.’ I have to maybe go back to Star Wars and that Dolby sound and just experiencing the cinema, I think was eye-opening to a young me.
The Cellar will be in Theaters and will stream on Shudder on April 15.