Martha Coolidge Talks 'The Unknown,' The James Cameron Mini-series That Almost Was, And Her Upcoming Cyber Thriller Feature

Martha Coolidge has a new anthology series on Sony's Crackle, The Unknown, premieres this Friday, July the 13th 2012 online. I've written a bit about it before, but the series is a horror anthology with a wrap-a-round segment featuring Dominic Monaghan as a blogger searching for truth about unsolved, supernatural and unexploained phenomenon a la The X-Files (or Fringe for you young'uns).

Martha Coolidge, who also directed the films Valley Girl (YES), Real Genius and Rambling Rose, has directed four of the six episodes in The Unkown. This isn't her first work in anthology horror: she directed an episode in each of the three seasons of the 1980s The Twilight Zone reboot (one of only two women to do so, alongside male genre directors like Wes Craven) and the stories in The Unknown are very Twilight-Zone-y, according to her.

"Horror has a whole different meaning today than it used to,"  she says. "My episodes aren't gory, they're thrillers, twisty, like The Twilight Zone."

Since Coolidge has directed so many thrillers for TV, like CSI, she feels very comfortable in that medium.  TV is more about the story, not the director, she believes, and therefore allows one to branch out into all different kinds of genre. There was a time when a NY Times film critic said of Coolidge, 'when are people going to let this woman out of high school?', referring to her success with teen rom coms. It wasn't until she directed Rambling Rose in 1991 that she finally broke out into adult dramedy. She's moved into new territory long since.

"I've done horror, fantasy, procedural crime stories, guns, VFX (though there are more VFX in romance, comedy and dramas than you would think)," she says.  "From Twilight Zone, to CSI, Sledge Hammer to Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, from If These Walls Could Talk II to The Unknown, TV has been very good to me in the breadth of the material.  In fact, I don't think I've done any romantic comedy on TV,  or much teenage subject matter on TV.  But I spent two years in pre-production to direct Jim Cameron's epic action mini-series for Fox on a manned mission to Mars.  We never made the show but it was perfect for me.  I think some of the reasons for this hiring outside my perceived comfort areas are:  TV is shot so fast that generally producers want directors who know what they are doing, as they can't afford mistakes.  TV though also gender and ethnically biased in hiring, is more sensitive to wanting to reflect diversity than any studio or indie film company ever is so programs and media pressure to open jobs up to other than white men have been pretty successful.  But, shockingly there are still shows that have never hired a woman or ethnic director.  And there are quite a few that only hire one, or one each, each year.

I have to say hats off to Crackle and Chris Collins and Steve Tzirlin for hiring me.  I'm sure they had no idea how right I was for this, but they didn't balk at it and went past the surface  assumptions to get my expertise.  I had a great time on the shows and really enjoyed the material, the crew and the actors."

Directing thrillers like this is all a part of her eclectic career, she believes; like The Twilight Zone,  episodes of The Unknown feature moral twists and karmic revenge.

Life Sentence is reminiscent of the 2001 horror film Frailty, in which a man may or may not be insane, or a demon-hunter. Set in a prison and between two male convicts, it is a classic story of good versus evil, of demonic forces vying for the souls of the innocent. Spare the Child has a very Masters of Horror-y feel to it; it is about exploitation and revenge, the third world against the greedy first, and it involves some found-footage and popular history as a setting. And yes, there is a twist in both. I haven't seen the others yet, but they will all be available after the 13th of July launch date on the Crackle website, and possibly on a DVD or other platform after that.

"There are several levels to how to tell stories like these," she explains. "First is to understand the complexity of the story and the universe in which it resides.  The premise of these stories was first and for most that they are real people in a real world no matter what the paranormal elements may be so my work began with the actors.  They had to understand the depth of their own buried responsibility and guilt, as well as their righteous indignation and fight for survival.  The actor has to balance the causes of their actions in their performance and the director then carefully orchestrates what you want the audience to know and when, making sure the multiple layers are felt.  For example if you are set upon by a random attacker and you fight and kill him you will feel good.  But if you are set upon by a man whose child you killed in the past, even if it was by accident cause by your negligence and if you feel guilty about it maybe you won't fight back, or maybe you'll jump out a window and kill yourself to avoid him but die.

"But the biggest difference between directing shows like this and comedy is how you use the camera and pacing.  For example waiting for something to happen is generally not good in a comedy, you don't want the audience to anticipate, or get bored.  But in horror the waiting, anticipation and behavior while doing that is what builds the tension.  In the meantime you get to observe and feel the layers of the performance or the storytelling.  For example; You may not only fear the attack, but fear the inner psyche of the lead actor.  You may become aware of the dangerous aspects of a 'friend's' behavior before the lead is and fear that.  The camera can move a lot (whereas moving the camera a lot in comedy tends to interfere with the humor) and that movement can make you feel someone is watching, something is coming, it can bring your attention to a detail as you move in closer and reveal a surprise.  The inertia of the direction of the movement or intention of the camera can set you up to expect something that then shocks you when it comes from another direction.  Close ups can create tension by revealing the thoughts inside a person's eyes and face but hiding what is really happening or coming outside the picture.  Each kind of camera movement and the texture of it also has a meaning, for example shaky hand held makes you feel like someone is there, watching, or its the POV of a character.  A smoother but still organic move by a steady cam can make you feel that you the audience are moving through a space, or that you are almost there in the space.  A steady move by a dolly can feel like your own mind is moving it's attention around on the people in the story, it can be come almost like an invisible "focus" in your storytelling.  Spielberg is a master at this.  Also contrary to the tendency with TV and Web shows I like to intersperse and use wide shots effectively.  Wide views can make you feel how isolated a character is, how intimidating a place or space is, how dark or mysterious it is.  It can also create an effective shock when you move from wide to very tight.  All of these are tools of the storytelling.  But to get back to your question the most important elements to walking the fine line of moral tension in storytelling is to have the performance contain it, and you choose carefully the order in which you reveal the elements.  Its very difficult to do if it's not in the performance.  There are moments when the the character can be unaware of their own responsibility but you the director show or mimic a visual (or sound) reference to the element you want to bring up.  There are two important things I played with in these shows, mirrors and music (sounds).  I used a lot of mirrors and sometimes multiple mirrors when characters may be 'lying or two-faced' or presenting a false front – (in Spare the Child I have an entire scene like this).  Or when a character is facing a truth they never faced before (almost like a mirror – Yesterday has good examples of this)  In Spare the Child and in Life Sentence there are definite musical themes and sounds that should evoke thoughts or memories of elements of the characters life.  The space in Life Sentence is a real setting but also metaphoric for the restrictions on the characters and how little choice they have.  Privacy Settings has a visual style that is breezy at first but ultimately reflects the false surface of everything in the character's life and security."

Check out the trailer:

Of course I have to ask Coolidge about being a woman director; this site is all about women directors of genre. How could I not ask ger what her opinion is on the topic? Like other directors of her generation who rose to prominence in the 1980s,  she has felt the sting of femininity in her profession.

"Being a woman director has been, and remains, a handicap," she insists. "But like all people who have no choice about who we are the only way to approach it is make it an advantage.  The nature of the world we live in is male dominated including the bulk of the entertainment and stories that we tell.  It is important that women do have a strong veto power over the stories we go see.  Mothers control a lot of children's viewing habits, wives and girlfriends nix going to see certain kinds of movies that guys want to see.  TV and the Internet are different in one major way few people go to movies alone, but many many people watch TV and the Internet alone which would reduce the veto power.  Most companies assume that a person most like their audience will do the best job of making it and they mistake age, gender, ethnicity and sometimes athletic ability for 'like.'  But inner interests can be much more powerful than those exterior traits.  When I got into the business I remember one producer refusing to interview me for an action based Karate picture because he couldn't imagine me doing killer Karate.  But the key word there was I could IMAGINE it and a director's job is to place the camera not perform the Karate.  My small, female and now older exterior may belie my interior life that enjoys fast cars, boxing, horrifying aspects of the human psyche and even space travel – when I would no more fly in a space ship than jump off top of the Niagara Falls.

"One producer looked at me prior to shooting one night and announced that if I were any older or frailer he would never have hired me.  Later during shooting he exclaimed that he couldn't keep up with me, that no one could and where did I get my endurance and energy.  He and I have worked together several more times since. We all have to learn to look past the surface and see the inner workings of each other, and who is right for what project, story, or performance – even what political office to serve in."

Coolidge's upcoming project is a thriller that explores the dark side of humanity; a paranoid thriller and conspiracy film franchise. "It's a story that goes way beyond one movie," she explains. It involves an intricate plot about international cyber security and cyber war. And gamers! She will definitely be addressing the fantasy-fulfillment aspect of gaming and the Internet in this as-yet-unnamed-to-me film project.

It, like her work on The Unknown, is an example of the versatility and branching-out she was talking about earlier in this interview. The digital age represents opportunity, a way to expand on your commitment to the art of storytelling in a diversified distribution model.

Coolidge will be with co-star Taryn Manning at the San Diego Comic Con this weekend, Fridy at 3:30 PM:

3:30 PM – 5:00 PM: Crackle’s “The Unknown” @ the Xbox Lounge
Join director Martha Coolidge and Taryn Manning as they discuss Crackle’s newest original series “The Unknown.” With an interactive fan Q&A, footage showcase, and an autograph signing, fans will be able to experience all that is “The Unknown.” Starting July 13th, Crackle will make five of the six, 22-minute episodes of the series available across all of its existing platforms, with a sixth episode featured exclusively on the Crackle app on Xbox 360® for one week. “The Unknown,” a long-form anthology series, stars Dominic Monaghan (LORD OF THE RINGS, “Lost”), Taryn Manning (“Hawaii Five-0”), and Jay R. Ferguson (“Mad Men”) among many others. The series was created by Chris Collins (“Sons of Anarchy”); produced by Collins and Steve Tzirlin (STAR WARS: CLONE WARS); directed by Martha Coolidge (REAL GENIUS), Kevin Connolly (“Entourage”), and Sam Nicholson (“The Walking Dead”); and written by Collins, Matt Michnovetz (“24”), Aron Coleite (“Heroes”), and Andy Black (“Crossing Jordan”). Each episode of the “The Unknown” chronicles the efforts of an anonymous blogger (Monaghan) to uncover the strange occurrences, supernatural events, and conspiracy theories that are intentionally left undocumented. Hard Rock Hotel San Diego, 207 5th Avenue

For a more detailed run-down of her episodes of The Unkown, here you go!

Yesterday, featuring Brian Krause, Dominic Monaghan, William Atherton, Ryann Turner, and written by Chris Collins: This episode sets up who Mark, the almost paranoid blogger is, and what kinds of stories he looks for.  A priest brings him a story he says would be buried by his church, that precipitated him quitting the church that day. It is the story of a man who though estranged from his wife and child is convinced they are in danger and stalks them waiting outside their house at night until he sees a strange man enter after disconnecting the electricity.  He follows the man inside using a night vision baby monitor to see and in searching the house reveals many shocking secrets of his past and the desperate length he will go to to protect his family.  Another twist is saved for the end when we find out what it was that shocked the priest enough to shake his faith in the church and the world as he knew it.

Life Sentence, featuring Gbenga Akinnagbe, Chris Marquette and Vincent Laresca, and Dominic Monaghan, and written by Gbenga Akinnagbe: three men in prison locked in a life and death battle for survival. A prisoner with only a few days left until his release is thrown together with a new inmate who committed a heinous crime, who says he's an innocent demon hunter picked on by the devil.  Their lives are thrown into turmoil by the machinations of a righteous but sadistic guard.

Spare the Child, featuring Tony Goldwyn, Dominic Monaghan, Kristina Denton, and written by Tom Monteleone: a pharmaceutical company researcher is caught in a tsunami while on a research trip in the Pacific.  After surviving the waves and flooding he meets a local medicine man and is witness to the miraculous healing powers of a local plant that brings a girl back to life.  He makes a pact with the old man to support the girl and brings the plant back to the US to exploit for his company.  On the brink of the realization of his dreams and becoming a very rich man the true nature of his deal is revealed, one shocking development at a time as the price is paid.

Privacy Settings, featuring Taryn Manning, Dominic Monaghan, Jeff Newburg, Frances Fischer, and written by Matt Michnovetz: a mysterious caller alerts the blogger, Mark, to an internet scandal involving a successful young publicist whose life is ravaged by an internet stalker.  As the seeming safety of her life and the intricacies of internet security are destroyed along with our illusions the stalker becomes dangerous.  By the end Mark is dragged into the mess and discovers his own vulnerability.

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