We like the idea that people almost cannot take what they see because I want to see such a film.
Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala know a thing or two about terrorizing audiences. After creeping under our skin with their 2014 breakout debut Goodnight Mommy—about young twin brothers turning malevolent on the woman they believe to have insidiously taken their mother’s place—the Austrian filmmaking duo chalks up another win with their first foray into English-language territory with the down-is-up horror puzzle box The Lodge. Franz and Fiala’s new pressure-cooker conceit once again mines maternal relationships with adversarial children pitting adults against pipsqueaks, ensnaring viewers in a feeling of snowbound confusion and devastating paranoia.
Still reeling after their mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone) takes her own life, teenaged Aidan (Jaeden Lieberher) and his younger sister Mia (Lia McHugh) stubbornly reject their newly separated dad Richard’s (Richard Armitage) curious new fiancée, Grace (Riley Keough), a much younger flame who they blame for their mom’s devastation and the interloper in a collapsed family unit. Doing his best to forge a new path out of fragments and reverse the kids’ deep seeded resentment for their soon-to-be stepmom, Richard insists the disharmonious tribe head up to the family’s remote cabin in the mountains for some compulsory holiday cheer. However, when he gets called back into work, Aidan and Mia are none too thrilled to be left alone with Grace in the titular lodge. The reluctant children have no choice but to go along, but that doesn’t mean they have to play nice. The kiddos ignore supper calls. Knocks on doors go unanswered. In dad’s absence, things are chilly and they get much more literally so once a winter blizzard buffets the house in white and further seals them in. Then just as the youngsters appear to be warming, or at least thawing, to her presence, a foreboding cocktail of events—the power goes out, the provisions go missing—unearth Grace’s personal demons as she secretly pops pills to keep herself mentally upright. A steady exercise in claustrophobia, Franz and Fiala’s slow-boil plot swerves towards a full-circle payoff that comes with the film’s disturbing and totally unpredictable conclusion.
The Lodge world premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The Lodge opens in select theaters on February 7, 2020.
You occupy a super rare space as an aunt/nephew filmmaking duo. I actually don’t have other examples of that.
Veronika Franz: I don’t think there are. [laughs]
What are your first memories of bonding over cinema together?
Veronika: I still live in Vienna and Severin grew up on the countryside like an hour away from Vienna. When I needed a babysitter for my children, Severin was 13 or 14 years old and he wanted to see more movies. He had a local video store in his hometown, but he had seen all of the films there. Obviously in Vienna they had more, bigger video stores. Back then, it was still VHS cassettes. He would come over on the weekends to look after the children, and instead of paying him, we would go to the video store and rent VHS tapes so he could watch them during the night.
Severin Fiala: We would rent 12 to 15 movies in one weekend. We were watching them all night through. At some point Veronika would come home from whatever she had done and sit down next to me—“What are you watching?” We found out that, even though there’s a huge age difference, we kind of liked the same films and felt the same towards them, which was funny and weird. We continued watching stuff together. But we never planned on actually making films together.
Veronika: It was not only genre films.
Severin: There was one evening where we watched Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, Faces by Cassavetes, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan—that was my favorite.
Veronika: I rewatched that a week ago with my son. It’s incredible! [laughs]
Severin: The last film that’s missing is Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. So we watched these and we were equally fascinated by all of them.
Veronika: Art films and genre films.
Severin: I actually wanted to write about them when I did final exams in school. I wanted to write about Friday the 13th Part VIII and one of those Spanish zombie movies from the ‘70s from Amando de Ossorio. Both films are set in a ship and in both films the geography of the ship changes all the time—unintentionally. It’s so funny. It looks like a fishing boat, then they go down and it’s huge with ten rooms.
Veronika: There’s a gym. [laughs]
Severin: Yeah, the geography is never the same. I found it really interesting. I said to myself, “You should write about that.”
Veronika: So Severin went to film school and I used to be a film journalist like you actually. Then after ten years, I didn’t start making films but writing films with my former husband. I also worked as an assistant director. I did every job. I never went to film school—I’m an autodidact.
Severin: Veronika was at a festival as a journalist and got to know this Austrian director-actor who used to be famous in the ‘70s. Now he was like 200 kilos and very mean, but also very witty and funny and charismatic and inventive. He made like four films a year for no money. Basically, a very fast person with a very slow body in a way because he was so big. Veronika saw him in a breakfast room and it was literally him sitting all alone. All the other tables were full, but no one wanted to sit next to him.
Veronika: For several days actually. I only talked to him because I felt so sorry for him, but I got to know him. I really thought that he was a very fascinating character and someone should do a movie about him. He used to work with Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the German cinema of the ‘70s. He was kind of erschwerte in that group. I mean, he was crazy. I thought he was really crazy.
Severin: No one wanted to do a film on him because he was so crazy.
This is Peter Kern you’re talking about.
Veronika: Peter Kern, yeah.
I don’t know how much of this was a joke when you said it, but you told Kevin Smith at Sundance that you’re both drawn to difficult people.
Severin: We are, yes. That’s not a joke. After two years of shooting with Peter Kern, we realized just how difficult he was and why. Luckily we got the movie finished, but he was a very difficult person—and amazingly fascinating. You shouldn’t dismiss people just because someone is difficult. You can get great thoughts, great emotions. It was a painful relationship, but it was also a very intense and interesting one. During that film, we wrote the script for Goodnight Mommy, not really planning to do it, but just as a distraction. We thought, “Let’s just write it down.” Once we had written it down we said, “Why not make it?”
Veronika: “We already made one thing together. Why not try making this too?”
Severin: It was never a career plan. We stumbled into that movie. After Goodnight Mommy, we got so many requests from agents in America who wanted to represent us and actually we didn’t want any. We felt like we wanted to stay in Austria and do our own stuff and we didn’t care. But they were persistent with so many emails and we were—at least back then—very polite and thought, “We need to answer every email.” It was like 30 or 40 emails a day from agencies. We said, “This has to stop because we can’t work anymore.” We were just replying to emails. So we just picked one agency and said, “Let’s take anyone to make it stop.” It did stop, but then the next thing started, which was that they would send us hundreds of scripts, which mostly sucked.
I wonder what the bulk of those scripts looked like, and maybe continue to be, because a lot of people think of you as strictly horror filmmakers. But I know you don’t identify as such. You lean into that psychological thriller space and cross over into arthouse cinema as well.
Severin: We like to make the films we enjoy watching. As we said before, there is a huge variety of things. It can be Friday the 13th or Lancelot du Lac.
Veronika: We don’t differentiate between the two. We like to see good films. There are very good films in horror and very good films in the arthouse section. Do they have something to say? Is it disturbing? That’s what counts. You can very often find that in genre horror films because they often talk about taboos and society, but do it in a suspenseful way. That’s why we like it.
Severin: It’s okay every once in a while to watch a horror film that’s like a rollercoaster ride, which is exciting but you forget about it soon after. But when it comes to making films that will be around for a very, very long time, I think we better make films that say something.
Veronika: It has to have meaning. We spend our lives with it. It doesn’t make any sense to—
Severin: Do something just to entertain other people. Just as we love difficult people, we also love to have difficult conversations every once in a while where you really get something out of the other person. I think filmmaking is the same. We want to give something personal, but we also want to get something in return. We want to shake the audience up in a way that we really get something from them. We want to see that they really feel something.
Veronika: We were actually very proud because with Goodnight Mommy we had three cases of people fainting in the cinema. We like the idea that people almost cannot take what they see because I want to see such a film.
Severin: Me too. I want to see a film that makes me faint. There’s actually another guy who works the same way: obviously Gaspar Noé. We had the same release date for Goodnight Mommy and something he did that year [LOVE].
Veronika: In the States.
Severin: He was actually waiting for a Q&A when he saw somebody stumbling out of our screening having a panic attack. He was pointing at her: “What did she watch? I want to see that.” [laughs] I’m very proud. It’s about shaking people up—not for the fun of it, but to be confronted with something. We wouldn’t want to do it like teachers, telling people they should feel something. We want to ask questions in a way that might be uncomfortable, and we know there are no easy answers. We won’t give any and they won’t have any for themselves. It’s important that we ask questions and that people still want to listen to us. That’s why we do these horror films.
I’m a huge fan of Riley Keough. She’s one of my favorite actors at the moment.
Veronika: Good taste!
She confessed at Sundance that she was ill-prepared for this audition. That seemed to work in her favor.
Veronika: What we didn’t reveal at Sundance is that we were considering another actress who was very much prepared and—
Severin: Also a very good actress.
Veronika: Yes, a very good actress. The other actress had already started a journal about the character’s trauma. Then we met Riley, first on Skype and later personally. You know—it’s about meeting someone and connecting. That’s the first step: can you trust this person?
Severin: And will this person be able to trust you?
Veronika: That’s the base. Of course there’s professionalism, but we’re not so much interested in that. We were interested in improvisation and I think Riley likes that very much.
Severin: What we saw in Riley is something that we felt was related to her character. It was a kind of shyness. She’s very sympathetic and likable.
Veronika: And very fragile.
Severin: She also seemed to be nervous in a sense and we felt that could be connected to the character. In the American system, it’s actually very hard to audition people because they usually don’t do it. They just send in tapes or go by the different films they’ve been in or you go through agents to meet those people. So in the U.S., it’s even more about your instincts as a director when you pick people for parts. With Riley, we had the feeling she’s gonna be right. It was the same way with the guy who plays the cult priest. That’s Riley’s real dad [Danny Keough]. We didn’t find any professional actors for the part. We were already shooting and kind of desperate. Riley was FaceTiming with her dad and turned the mobile around and said, “Say hi to my dad!”
Veronika: We said to each other, “Look at him! That’s our cult priest!” [laughs] He actually looked as he does in the film. We didn’t do anything. That’s just how he looked.
Severin: It’s all instinct. That’s maybe not satisfactory as an answer, but it was really good to find out later on that every single one of our actors had a very strong connection to the part he or she was playing. For example, Riley’s father grew up in a cult environment. When we shot it, he was nearly unable to take it because it felt so real for him. The place was really looking like the place he grew up in and we didn’t know about it—not at all. We picked him because we had a feeling he would be right and it turned out to be maybe too close. So we can’t say there’s a criteria when we pick actors. It’s about instinct.
Veronika: Riley was very honest and we talked about our mothers. We knew that she was the granddaughter of Elvis.
Severin: No, we did not know that. First meeting her, we had no idea. I looked it up later—I remember the moment. We were talking about our families and she was very open about everything. She liked that because there was no difference between the stories we told. We were equally honest. Only then I Googled her and realized she’s the granddaughter of Elvis and that all of her family is pretty famous. But we were not interested in that. She liked that we had no idea.
What were some of the bigger challenges you faced on The Lodge shooting with a crew in Montreal, after having shot Goodnight Mommy in Austria in your native tongue with a different set of rules?
Veronika: We tried to stay the same. We fought for that. In Austria, films are state funded so we have to convince juries. But once you have the money you’re pretty free to do what you want.
Severin: In the States, you’re confronted with people who give their own money and that’s a different thing. As Veronika said, we tried to stay the same. It was different fights than in Austria. It was different problems. In the U.S., you have a huge variety of super professional, honest and great actors, and the same goes for the crew. The whole technical department was amazing we have to say. Then other things are much more bureaucratic in a way because it’s a huge film crew. It’s all about unions and they make you hire very many people. You have to move this super large crew from one place to another. Everything just becomes so much bigger and therefore everything is so much slower. It felt entirely different at moments. In Austria, we talked to our actors—the twin boys and also the actress—much, much longer because they had never acted before. That wasn’t the case with The Lodge. We worked very quickly with the actors, but we lost time on logistics and organization, which is a bit dreadful because it’s boring stuff.
Veronika: It’s also a matter of trust—always. Of course if you’re shooting in your own country and in your own language, you know all the people. Austria is a small country. That’s different to now working with a British production company, a U.S. production company and a Canadian line producer. You don’t know if they’re telling you the truth. You can only hope that they are. It was kind of hard. It’s important to build relationships based on trust, and while some people are very honest, some people aren’t. This makes it very complicated.
Severin: You basically start all over again. In Austria, we had working relationships with many people that you can always go back to. You know how they work. We didn’t know a single person except for our editor on The Lodge before we started it.
Veronika: When we said that we wanted the house to be lonely, that it should be—
Veronika: We really meant it. We wanted to find an isolated house with no neighbors. Only the woods. They showed us these houses and we said, “But it’s not isolated. There’s a highway down there. The neighbors can wave at us.” They said, “Yeah, but you can shoot it so it looks isolated.”
Severin: We wanted it to be isolated.
Veronika: It took them a while to really understand that we needed it to be real. Riley should break into the ice on the lake. They said, “We’re going to shoot that in a pool.” No, we’re not going to shoot it in a pool. We’re going to shoot it on the lake. They went, “What?” [laughs]
Severin: We understand the producer’s point of view. When it comes to the isolation, they think it makes no difference as long as it looks isolated in the picture. It’s as good as if it was really isolated, and we don’t think so. It’s a different thing because we spend time there. Even for the actress, it’s different because there’s really nothing around forever. She has a different feeling than if she was next to a highway. It’s about that. You can say this is not important enough for a location decision, but we believe it is.
Veronika: Also, they have many, many rules. We obviously also have rules in Austria, but they’re not that strict about protecting everyone.
Severin: I think I know the explanation for that. Austria is not a film industry per say because all films are state funded and all films lose money. It’s basically the government financing films as an art form. Whereas in the U.S. it’s much more competitive.
Veronika: It’s a job.
Severin: People are exploited badly because it’s all about money. No one actually cares when the government pays for it so they pay the minimum wage. But if it’s competitive like in the U.S. and you put up your own money, I think you’re tempted to exploit people much more badly than in Austria. That’s why they have so many rules. That’s why it’s very difficult to make films.
Veronika: For example, when the electricity dies in the movie, we wanted the house to be colder. For actors, it’s very difficult to play the cold so we wanted to help them. We should create an environment that’s as real as possible. So we turned the temperature down. [laughs] The next day, the union was there and asking if we were crazy. They said it was not allowed.
Severin: We think it’s very weird because outside it was like minus 30 degrees. It’s totally fine to have outdoor shoots for weeks, but it’s not okay to have an indoor shoot with 15 degrees. We didn’t get why this was so dangerous.
Veronika And we wanted Riley to blow into the chimney—
Severin: Just to start a fire basically. We weren’t allowed to do it.
Veronika: And she said she wanted to do it! So it was not about her. She said, “Yes, I’ll do it! I smoke anyway. I don’t care.”
Severin: You have a very strict schedule and spend too much time on very stupid things so that was a bit annoying. Let’s just say there are pros and cons. You win some, you lose some. And when it comes to budgets, the feeling remains the same on every film. You don’t have enough money to do what you want. $30,000 or $2 million or more millions—it’s always the same thing.
The work always expands to fill the money and time allotted. It never seems like enough.
Veronika: Yes, yes.
I often wonder about that with certain directors, especially indie filmmakers who are known to consistently work with the smaller budgets. What would their films look like if they had blockbuster money? Sort of going on a tangent here: I couldn’t help but notice just how open you are in talking about future projects that are either in development or ideas that might never come to fruition. Most filmmakers are incredibly secretive by comparison. For instance, I’ve seen your names attached to a TV series based on Stephen King’s Carrie, which would see you partner up with Sam Raimi or so I’ve heard. What are you seriously considering at the moment?
Severin: The main issue is that you never know which one is going to work out most quickly. People have told us to take on as many projects as you can because 90% of them will fall apart anyway. Luckily or unluckily for us, that didn’t prove true. We have many projects that really could work out. But we don’t know which one will really be the next one. There’s also a period piece that we’re planning on doing in German language.
Veronika: Our segment for The Field Guide to Evil anthology was a kind of preparatory exercise for that movie.
Severin: Yeah, it’s kind of connected to that. It’s called The Devil’s Bath, which was the expression for melancholia back in the eighteenth century. The film is also horror, arthouse and a kind of true story about that European phenomenon. We won’t spoil it, but it’s rather dark and deals with issues of, again, religion and depression and murder and suicide. That one is 95% financed or something like that.
Veronika: We’re going to shoot that next summer.
Severin: If anything else gets ready before that, like the Carrie television project you mentioned or other scripts that American and British writers are writing for us at the moment, then we might do something before The Devil’s Bath. But the safe thing looks like that period piece next year.
Veronika: Besides preparing a little bit for the period piece, we’re already writing this one script for Universal and Michael De Luca. We need to deliver that script.
Severin: We stopped writing it to do The Lodge. Now we have to finish it.
Veronika: It’s set in a container ship. It’s about refugees actually.
This is The Fortress?
Severin: Yes. It’s a refugee crisis horror film, or a survival thriller, on a container ship.
Veronika: To write the first draft, or the treatment, we actually boarded a container ship. We thought we should ride one to know how that feels and to know the geography of the ship. We’re going to do that again—for the script. [laughs] We’ll go from Europe to the States or something. Last time, it was only two weeks.
Severin: Oh, it was very funny. Due to the waves, the laptop would shift from one side of the table to the other. Us too, while we were writing.
That’s about as Looney Tunes as you can get.
Veronika: [laughs] Yes!
Severin: Veronika got landsick when it stopped.
Veronika: And I never got seasick.
Severin: When we got back to mainland, she was landsick for a week.
You obviously have a great dynamic. How often do you quarrel in the creative process?
Veronika: On set, rarely. It’s more in the editing room when the very last decisions are taken. Then we can fight for hours over one small detail.
Severin: A small detail that no one else will ever realize. Just because you’re so involved, you think, “This is the most important thing in the movie.” We had a huge fight on the documentary for like seven or eight consecutive hours. It was this one shot of a guy leaving through a door. We were arguing where it should be: “At this point in the movie or one second later?”
Veronika: Now we don’t know who won. [laughs]
Severin: We rewatched the film recently wondering, “How could we have ever argued about this? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Veronika: This kind of work is very—how do you say?—like a tunnel. You just have to come through to the other side.
Severin: We only argue because we both think it’s the most important decision in that moment. We know that—now. [laughs] We never take it personally. Even if we have different opinions, we know we both really want what’s best for the film.