The son of Psycho star Anthony Perkins, Osgood (or “Oz,” as he prefers to be called) Perkins grew up immersed in films and filmmaking, and genre filmmaking in particular. Now working as a writer and director himself, he brings an intuitive sense of storytelling and mood to his own work. Last year, Netflix released his slow-burn ghost story I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House, but his new movie, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, is actually his first film. Completed in 2015, this unsettling, atmospheric take on satanic horror played a handful of film festivals under the title of February, where it earned praise from two of The A.V. Club’s critics. Nearly two years later, it hits theaters at the end of this month.
We spoke to Perkins over the phone a few weeks before The Blackcoat’s Daughter’s release, talking about the film’s long road to theaters, capturing loneliness and loss on screen, and how genre films can serve as a Trojan horse for emotion.
The A.V. Club: It’s been a long road getting The Blackcoat’s Daughter into theaters. How long have you actually been working on it?
Osgood Perkins: I was really finished with the script in 2012, and then we shot at the beginning of 2015, and then we sold it at Toronto right after we wrapped it—we finished it, I edited it, we locked it and took it to Toronto—and then it’s just sort of been in, you know, uninteresting business slowed-down bullshit [since then].
AVC: Since this was your first script, did you have trouble getting it financed? It’s very ambitious in terms of the way it jumps around in time and space.
OP: Yeah. It was the kind of thing were everyone who read it was very interested, they were very complimentary and thought it was great and sophisticated, but those words don’t always equal easy financing. At the time when the script was first going around, horror movies were still kind of slumping; nowadays it’s passé to say that, because everybody has a handsome, successful horror movie. But at the time, we weren’t quite there yet, you know what I mean? So I got a lot of feedback saying, “This is sure great, but we could never make it.” So financing was very hard, and it took a long time. It wasn’t until Emma Roberts and Kiernan Shipka came onto the movie that it was actually perceived to be valuable beyond a nice script.
AVC: Where did you shoot the film? Was it actually a school?
OP: We shot the film entirely in the town of Kemptville, Ontario, which is outside of Ottawa. We found an agricultural college on the decline, and there were, like, 10 or 15 students left at this school. There was this vague administrative presence, with people at typewriters—sorry, computers—but there were very few students around. So we kind of had the run of the place. The dorm buildings especially we could take over entirely. A lot of the crew slept there, and we were able to paint and change the floors and all that because there was nobody there to disenfranchise. There were no students.
AVC: So there were no classes going on while you were shooting?
OP: There were classes going on, but they were in other buildings, other rooms, other voices, you know? We never had to go around anybody.
AVC: And how long was the shoot? Were you trying to work quickly?
OP: It seems like somewhere along the line, there’s this agreed-upon thing that a small movie takes 23 days to shoot. Somewhere someone decided that, so 23 days it is. We had 24 days, and I think we used 23. It all depends. Some people would say, “Well shit, I only had 18, and I made my movie for $4,000,” and other people say, “Well, The Exorcist had 88 days.”
AVC: There’s been a lot of interest in the title being changed from February to The Blackcoat’s Daughter. Can you explain how all that went down, and the thought process behind the new title?
OP: For me, with the [original] title of February, I was going for the idea that a time can also be a location. In other words, you can re-visit a time of year, in the same way you can go back to a house that you used to live in. A certain month or a certain season can elicit a certain emotional response. That’s certainly true for anyone who has a negative anniversary on their calendar—the approach of that month brings the feeling of being very much back in another room. It’s a time that stands outside the rest of the year. So that’s where the title of February came from.
When the movie was bought by A24 to be distributed, I think they wanted a title that indicated the genre a little more strongly. I didn’t accept the alternate titles they were putting forth, so I went through [the film]. And I had a lot of suggestions, but I sort of landed on The Blackcoat’s Daughter. It’s a verse from this rhyme [for which] my brother Elvis wrote the music, and we used it as an incantation at the beginning and at the end of the movie: “Beetle beetle, blackcoat’s daughter, what was in the holy water?” I really liked the word “daughter,” and Elvis and I decided that maybe the backcoat’s daughter was a priest’s daughter. In any case, it worked for a priest, it worked for the devil, it worked for a father, it had the quality of a child raised by this strange black coat. It felt sexy enough.
AVC: That leads me to another question: This film deals with possession and satanic themes while avoiding the the clichés of the genre. It strikes a very different tone, a sad tone. Could you talk about that a little bit?
OP: The intention was to tell a sad story. For me, the movie is about the end. It’s about the last moment, where Joan is done with everything she thought she had to do in order to feel connected, in order to feel held and feel safe. She did all these terrible, terrible things, only to realize that everything’s been lost and she’s made a horrible mess of things. It’s that emptiness. For me the movie is about loss, it’s about the loss of parents, and the feeling of, what do you do after?
The use of the possession [theme]—it’s like you put a bunch of Greeks in the Trojan horse, and you get it past the gates. It’s really about the soldiers that you’re getting through the gates and not the horse, right? How do you hide the hand in the glove? And so, instead of just making a sad story about a girl losing her parents—I could have done that, but you engage with it in a different way if it’s subverted in genre form. I only wanted to indicate the possession subgenre enough to get people oriented, and then you can kind of do what you want. Once you get the horse through the gates, you can all pile out, if that makes sense.
AVC: That makes total sense. This film, and your other film I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House, are both minimalist, ambiguous films. Did you design them to be open to interpretation?
OP: I think that it’s a fine line [before] overly ambiguous things start to feel like too much work for the audience. As an audience member, when I watch something that’s overly ambiguous, I appreciate what it’s doing and the artistry behind it, but at the end of the day I find I mostly want to be told what the intention is, or mostly what the filmmaker thinks. I’m not that interested in plot. I’m not that interested in, “this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens.” That can be great also, but I just don’t find myself going towards that in the creative process. I find myself much more turned on by mood and color and shadow and being observational.
I know I’m asking for a certain amount of tolerance from the audience when it comes to that, but I just feel like there’s a better bond between the viewer and the artist when you’re given enough to enjoy [a work], but left to have your own experience. I don’t mean to sound wishy-washy, I know it can be frustrating. But I think I couch these movies enough in [genre]—“oh, it’s a demonic possession movie,” “oh, it’s a ghost story”—so you can kind of feel the edges, and then be inside that with the character, and feel the human experience within that framework.
AVC: So if I may try to summarize what you were just saying, you’re trying to use the genre as a vessel to contain a tone or atmosphere.
OP: Exactly. And ultimately to be more like portraiture—I know that’s a dirty word in movies, but I really like portraiture, and I think that using motion pictures as a vehicle for portraiture? Why the fuck not? In the case of both my movies [so far], I really am mostly interested in portraits of lonely, broken people who have lost a lot. That’s what I want to look at in the movie that I’m making.
AVC: Would you say that that’s a personal thing for you, your desire to explore this theme?
OP: I think it ends up that way. I’m not sitting down and saying, “I have this specific intention to create a quiet portrait of a lonely, sad, grieving, broken person.” It just kind of comes out that way. I know there are people who approach screenwriting like, “these are my story points, and this is my climax,” and all that. And of course, when I’m writing, it comes to that also. But I’m more interested, ultimately, in seeing what happens with me in the process, because all that writing is just me sorting through and exploring and wondering and figuring out [my thoughts]. I try to make it not wholly abstract, I try to contain it within a recognizable genre film, or recognizable story arc-ish. Maybe it sounds like bullshit, but I’m just practicing my understanding of myself and what comes out of me, and I think as long as you’re doing that intelligently, and prettily, and without hurting anyone, it’s a noble enough endeavor.
AVC: So are you more image-driven then, or character-driven, or how do you conceive a film?
OP: That’s a good question. [Pauses.] I feel like I’m atmospherically driven. I’m going on a feeling. I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House, that’s driven by the feeling that I get when I’m in an old place that has my own personal history in it. There’s a quality of an emotional echo chamber. The literal feeling of ghosts, of traces and remnants, and the solemnness of that, is a very real feeling for me. So I think I’m leading with that. Likewise, in The Blackcoat’s Daughter I was leading with the feeling of having lost [someone], and not really knowing what the fuck to do with that, and worrying about what happens next. That feeling of abandonment is what I’m leading with, and everything just fills itself in after that. Once you make the container, all the other stuff flows into it.
AVC: Your brother did the music for both of your films, yeah?
OP: That’s correct.
AVC: How do you two work together?
OP: He more or less composes independently, especially on The Blackcoat’s Daughter, where he had never done any film scoring or any scoring of any kind. My producers were generous enough to go out on a limb with me, because I just knew he could do it. He and I have very much the same sensibility, there’s a dark humor to us that’s the same, and I intuited somehow that he would do it right. We don’t have any sort of brother mind meld—although maybe we do, because he wrote it all independently. He came to visit the set so he could see what we were doing, and read the script, obviously, so he knew what I meant by it, and I had sent him enough images so he could get the feeling, but in the same way I knew he could do it, he knew what I was doing. I knew he could do it without hearing it, and he knew what I was going for without seeing it. It was just sort of a higher understanding. I‘m not there to tell him how to arrange what he does. He delivered it more or less sight unseen, and it all fit.
AVC: We’ve been talking a lot about mood, and tone, and how these stories flow out of you organically. Could you see yourself taking a sharp right turn, tonally? Or do you think you’re going to keep going along the same aesthetic path?
OP: I’ve got one more of this [type of film] in me that I’ve already written, and I’m trying to set up now. It’s kind of the most extreme version so far, with the third one [in the cycle] being the synthesis of everything. It’s really quite far out, and my agents are—I wouldn’t say they’re nervous, but they’re bearing down to try to find a way to put this one together. And after that I’m going to try to do entirely different things. I want to make a movie about Los Angeles. I want to make a Hollywood movie. I want to make a noir, or something like that. I’m not going to keep beating on this, but the third movie in the cycle is really pretty far out. So hopefully I’ll be able to get a budget and actually be able to make it.
A24 and DirecTV will release The Blackcoat’s Daughter in theaters and on VOD on March 31. I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House is currently streaming on Netflix.