Just two months ago, the horror anthology Scare Package premiered on Shudder, which was spearheaded by Aaron B. Koontz (and it involved a handful of other talented filmmakers as well) and Cameron Burns. Now, the duo is back with yet another genre offering, The Pale Door, which pits a group of cowboys against a coven of witches.
Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to speak with Koontz about his latest film, and he discussed how Keith Lansdale got involved in the project (with Joe Lansdale helping out a bit, too), the immense challenges they faced during production on The Pale Door, and how Koontz was able to pull together a murderers’ row of talent in front of the screen for the horror Western.
The Pale Door will be in theaters this weekend and will also be available to stream on VOD and Digital platforms as well, courtesy of RLJE Films.
Great to speak with you again, Aaron, and congrats on the film. I’m curious how the stars aligned for you guys on The Pale Door?
Aaron B. Koontz: Once I moved to Texas, I knew I wanted to make a Western. Cameron and I had written not a very great screenplay about seven or eight years ago, a long time ago, and it just didn’t really work. We had a really good setup and opening, but we just didn’t feel like it was going where we wanted it to go. I had an opportunity to pitch to Universal a witch movie, as they were trying to capitalize off of the success of Eggers’ The Witch. And I was like, “You know what? It’d be fun to do a witchy Western.” Cameron and I got excited about it, but then Universal was not excited about it because they wanted “normal witches,” whatever that means [laughs].
They were like, “Why are there cowboys? We didn’t ask for anything about cowboys,” and that was that. I told that story on a screenwriting panel, and I was on that panel with both Joe and Keith, who are both Texas-based screenwriters. It was such an honor. But I told that story, and Joe and Keith look at me, and they’re like, “That’s an idea. You should make that.” We went to dinner that night, and we kept talking about it, and I was like, “Well, look, I could really use some help in flushing out some of the voices of these characters. I think there’s some opportunities here.” Originally, Joe was going to write, too, but he just was very busy, so he oversaw this with us, and was giving us notes throughout. Keith came on as a full-on writer, and we took this idea that I had had with Cameron, and it became The Pale Door. We were so honored to be able to work with the Lansdales on it. They’re just wonderful people, and so, so talented.
I don’t want to say this is your “most ambitious” piece, but I would definitely say it’s differently ambitious than something like Scare Package. You have to be period authentic, there’s a lot of amazing makeup, and you’ve got a big cast. How much did Scare Package help you to prepare for taking on The Pale Door then?
Aaron B. Koontz: Well, you might not want to say it’s the most ambitious, but I will say it’s the most ambitious film, for sure. I will say this was exponentially harder for us to make than Scare Package. Scare Package was tough because of how it was spread out, working with different filmmakers, in that amount of time, but this, when you factor in the elements of a period piece, the animals, and then we had children at the beginning, we had stunts, we had wire work, we had four-hour makeup jobs. And unfortunately, because the dates got shifted a couple of times, we had to go at the one moment that we had, when the money was available, and we did it during tornado season in Oklahoma. It turned out to be the worst season of tornadoes ever.
There were Category 5 tornadoes coming at us. There was hail, flooding. We lost days of shooting. The generator got struck by lightning. There’s a scene toward the end, and we had made this whole blood pit, then it flooded because it rained so badly. Then snakes got in the blood pit, so we couldn’t put actors in it, because originally the actors were going to go in it. But I had already shot the ending of the movie, and they were covered in blood, so I had to find a way to cover them in blood, so we decided to rain blood. We just had to find these ways to mix and match, so it was unbelievably difficult.
I think every movie as a filmmaker, you’re just trying to listen to your voice, and I definitely have gotten so much calmer in my old age, and so I know how to balance things. So, when everything was so chaotic and all that craziness was going on, I was able to stay calm and stay focused and keep everybody going, even though in the back of my head, it was like that meme with the fire and the puppet. It was like that going on in my head. But I was like, “No, it’s okay, I’ve got it. We will make this happen.”
I would say the biggest benefit was probably my director of photography, Andrew Baird. We worked together on Scare Package, and we really hit a stride on that movie, so we knew how fast we could work, and then that really helped us when we got to The Pale Door. I think that camaraderie really hit a next level, which includes my producing team, too, like Cameron Burns, Ashleigh Snead, Alex Euting, and Shawn Talley, who were all involved in Scare Package, they were on The Pale Door as well for the Paper Street team. We learned those lessons from the production aspects, but creatively, this was a whole other animal, in so many ways.
Can you talk about bringing together the talent for this ensemble? You have so many fantastic players here, and it was great that everyone gets all these fun character beats throughout.
Aaron B. Koontz: Oh, thank you so much. It meant the world to get the people that we did. I mean, Melora Walters, in particular, is the reason why I make movies. That’s not hyperbole. I watched Magnolia at 18 years old, and her end look at the end of that movie, I was struck. I sat through all the credits. My friends came out, and I was like, “I think I’m going to watch this movie again.” It’s three hours and seven minutes, and I went and watched Magnolia again. That night, I decided that I wanted to make movies. So, with Melora Walters, I wrote the character for her.
Originally, our approach was to go after all these huge names, but then I was like, “You know what, let’s just do the Avengers version of indie horror actors and genre actors.” So, that became the approach. Once we settled on that, I said, “Well, I’m casting all my favorite actors.” I have loved Stan Shaw in so many different roles over the years, and I had this really poignant part, and I knew he could do it. With Pat Healy and Noah [Segan], obviously I knew them both from Starry Eyes, and I knew I had wanted to work with them. And Bill Sage has blown me away for years. He’s a chameleon in everything he does, and I just love working with that guy. Plus, with Zach Knighton, Happy Endings is one of my favorite shows, but I knew he had the dramatic chops, too, so there was just something there.
The piece that had to make it all work, was the Jake character, and that was the one that I knew I had to cast outside the box and find somebody new to me. We searched forever to find our Jake. And then someone had mentioned watching 13 Reasons Why, and Devin [Druid] blew me away. He just has such a presence, and I felt like he could bring this emotional core to the character. We also had Natasha Bassett, who played Pearl, and Tina Parker from Better Call Saul, too. I’m over the moon that we were able to get the people that we did, and it’s a new family that I have now, and I was so honored to have the cast that I had for The Pale Door.
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