Danish Director Martin Barnewitz Enters "Room 205"
Perhaps the era of the sleeper hit horror movie is over in the U.S. Once upon a time, movies like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE could come out of nowhere; foreign films like BLACK SUNDAY and SUSPRIA could pack American audiences into drive-ins and grind houses, while their more upscale brethren like ONIBABA and KWAIDAN could find audiences in the art theatres. Today, a low-budget, foreign-language horror film – no matter how good – is lucky to get a DVD release in the U.S. With little hope of selling tickets stateside, the film becomes not an end in itself but a means to an end, a calling card that can, hopefully, lead to a more lucrative gig.
This is more or less what happened with ROOM 205 (a.k.a. Kollegiet [“The College”]), an effective supernatural thriller from Denmark that impressed audiences at last year’s Screamfest Film Festival in Hollywood. Ghost House Underground, a joint venture between Ghost House Pictures (known for J-Horror remakes like THE GRUDGE) and Grindstone Entertainment Group (one of the country’s bigger direct-to-video companies), picked up the U.S. rights, including a potential American remake; by passing theatres, the film will come out on DVD later this year. Meanwhile, director Martin Barnewitz has landed a deal with Ghost House Pictures to direct THE MESSENGERS 2, a direct-to-video sequel to the 2007 film directed by the Pang Brothers (THE EYE).
ROOM 205 follows Katrine (Neel Ronholt), a young woman from a small town who moves into a dormitory when she goes to a University in the big city. She tries to fit in with her new neighbors, but her situation quickly sours into alienation. Complications take the form of a ghost, which manifests in a bathroom mirror and seems to act on Katrine’s behalf, taking revenge against those who have wronged her. Although the film ultimately comes down squarely in favor of a supernatural explanation, much of it plays like a modern homage to Roman Polanski thrillers like REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY, and THE TENANT, which focused on characters who were paranoid, isolated, and/or alienated from their neighbors.
Cinefantastique Online sat down for a chat with Barnewitz when he was in the U.S. for Screamfest, before the deals for releasing ROOM 205 and directing MESSENGERS 2 had been finalized.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: How did you conceive the idea for this film and develop the screenplay with writer Jannik Tai Mosholt?
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: I had an ex-girlfriend who lived in a dormitory, also some friends who lived in dormitories in Copenhagen. I sensed it was a very good place if you come from the countryside and don’t know any people in the big city, because you share a kitchen and you meet a lot of people. But some people for different reasons fall out of the community; they become outsiders because they’re shy or they do something or have mental problems, maybe. Then it’s almost the worst place to be alone, because you’re surrounded by so many people it’s even worse.
I wanted to explore that topic, and I made a short film. It was more like a psychological horror film, about a girl who moved there and got mixed up with the wrong people and kind of lost it. I just thought it was a good setting, so I wanted to explore that.
What we set out to do was make a film for the target group of 15- to 25- years-old. Make it as scary as possible. And I thought a haunt – some of the most scary films I remember were THE EXORCIST and Japanese films like JU-ON and RINGU, so I thought, ‘How can we combine that?’ I met up with a writer. When you work with people it gets to another place, so he put his stuff in. It ended up much more out in the open, in your face.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: You mention JU-ON and RINGU. One explanation for the success of the J-Horror films is that they come from a culture that has a tradition of ghost stories and folklore. Whether or not people actually believe it, it’s something they grew up with and understand. Is there any equivalent in Denmark?
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: In Denmark, there is no tradition. We don’t have public shrines. We have churches, but we are maybe even less religious than in America. We are Protestants, and very few people go to church, only newborn Christians and old people. So the state religion isn’t that big in the public [realm]. But people believe in spirits and supernatural stuff, New Age Stuff. We had a TV series called “The Power of the Demons,” and it was really popular. It was like a documentary: you followed people through these haunted houses. So, we’re very Western rational people, and at the same time we have this urge toward the unknown. But I would say it’s equivalent with English people and Americans and all over the world.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: What about Danish horror films? There is not really much of a tradition there, either, is there?
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: The ones we have are like Lars Von Trier’s THE KINGDOM, which I think is very good. And we have Ole Bornedal’s NIGHT WATCH – he did a remake here.1 But that’s more like a thriller. We don’t really have a horror tradition. Horror is difficult in Denmark. We have maybe one horror film a year. The challenge in Denmark is that we are only 5-million people, so it’s a limited audience, whereas in America it’s like 300-million, in Germany 80-million and so on. That’s the difficulty in being a small country and having a small language. People are not…some reviewers do not review it as a genre; they review it as a drama. They are not used to genres; we are not genre-oriented or experienced. They think it’s too much or too crazy.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: That must make it hard to get financing.
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: Yeah. Normally you go through the Danish Film institute, which is state funding. That’s a good thing, because if we didn’t have the state funding, we would only have very broad family comedies, because they are the only ones that really pay themselves back. But at the same time, it can be difficult, because it’s like there was only one studio in Hollywood; there’s only one place where the money is. So you have to go to the consultants, who analyze your script or your treatment, and they are doing it out of an ‘art view’ – the artistic value- and many of them do not like horror films. Therefore, it’s very difficult.
But me and my producer we didn’t go to the Film Institute. We financed it solely from a company, which is very rare in Denmark. It’s totally one company’s money, equipment, editing suites, sound stages and all that. It was made for $1-million U.S. dollars, so it’s quite cheap.
STEVE BIODROWSK: So if Denmark has so little in the way of horror, what inspired you to make a horror film?
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: My main inspiration was divided into three categories:
The old masters from the ‘70s and ‘80s like Roman Polanski. You’ve got Kubrick’s SHINING – a major influence. Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST. Dario Argento. All these in the ‘70s…there was something about the films that was very good. It was more about people, and you could have dark endings, too. They were more edgy and more experimental in some ways. So that was a huge influence to me.
Then we have the J-horror scene that influenced me, because suddenly you could have an everyday setting like broad daylight, a living room, the safest place in the world in the heart of your home, and it could be so scary you couldn’t believe it. They suddenly brought the supernatural into our homes and our daily life, urban settings. And they had these special kind of ghosts – I can’t remember the name, it’s “K” something – that’s part of their Shinto religion. It’s an avenging evil demon, a spirit or ghost, that comes back to haunt you and almost kill you – frighten you to death.2 That is a tradition we don’t have that much in the West; it’s more like the White Lady in the Castle: ‘Please find my body and put me to rest.’ Also, the J-horror wave – they trust the atmosphere; they trust the silence. The moment can fold out; you don’t have to pace it that much. That’s an inspiration.
I come from a Danish tradition, and we have a different way of doing things. Then I like the old Danish and Scandinavian folklore. We have these spirits that are totally menacing and non-negotiable and just want to get at your throat.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Obviously you developed this knowing it would be a low-budget film, but still, there must have been times on set when it was difficult to achieve what was scripted.
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: First, it’s always time. The less time you have, the less set-ups you can get, so you have to compromise all the time. One of the big challenges was the ghost: how should she movie, how should she act. So it didn’t become ridiculous. But all else was the normal challenges: the logistics, lamps being broken so we need another one but we can’t get it, so how do we improvise on the fly?
It wasn’t that hard a shoot. It was of course long days. One of the difficult things was how to direct the actors. Because a scary scene is only scary when you edit it and put the music in. When you stand with an actor doing the close-up – we had the ghost almost always there so there was something to react to – but how do you tell the actor [to be scared]? A flirting scene is more simple because they know it from their own life. That was a challenge because it’s not kitchen sink drama.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: You have a ghost that manifests courtesy of a mirror, which is an intriguing idea that feels like genuine mythology. Did you make that up or find some basis in folklore?
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: It was based on research. It was a choice at some point in the writing. You can have all this exposition about mirrors and how to do it. The difficult thing about this film is it is like part teenage film and part horror film. If it had been older adults maybe there would have been more room for it, but you only have ninety minutes and you have to pick your … but there is more – you could have explored that – but we made a choice not to do that. There is a lot of folklore about mirrors and what mirrors can do.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: The ghost in your film materializes in a form that resembles a walking corpse rather than a phantom. Why did you take that approach?
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: It was [to be scarier]. When you do films, things evolve in certain directions. I met with the effects people, and they said, ‘What about this look?’ I said, ‘Well, maybe she looks too much like a demon from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.’ In J-Horror they are just pale, with black around the lips and eyes. It would be so strange to rip it off; we had to do our own thing. The thing with her is she died, so she transformed; she got warped a little bit. That’s the reason. It’s the same actor, but she has makeup on. That was the most scary choice we could come up with.
But it was a fine line. How do you research that? I don’t see ghosts in my everyday life. A big thing is: how does a ghost move? We tried different things like making her walk backwards and stuff like that.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Morten Jacobsen and Thomas Foldberg supplied the makeup effects, which are very good. Are there many facilities in Denmark that can supply the horror movie makeup effects?
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: There is, but only one is really professional. Everyone who has money uses [them]. We said, “We only have a limited amount of money; where do we want to put it? We could save some stuff here, but we have to pay these effects guys. If the dead girl looks bad, we lose everything.’ They’re called SOTA effects. They also did [work] for THE KINGDOM.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Fortunately, the horror effects did not seem to be spliced in from another movie. They felt integrated, not like a compromise.
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: We said this is the way we go, and we have to go into it fully.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Rather like in the JU-ON films, when we find out the reason for the haunting, it turns out that the ghost is of a woman who was brutally murdered. Were you worried that viewers might sympathize with her and this would decrease her ability to be frightening?
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: I know what you mean, but… We thought about that, but we choose to say that, when you die a very violent death, a horrible death, your ghost gets warped and goes completely crazy. So it’s just aggressive.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: At times the ghost seemed to be acting out Katrine’s wishes. All the victims are people who have offended Katrine. Sanne (Julie Olgaard) even accuses Katrine of committing the murders, and we’re supposed to think she’s mean for pointing the finger at the wrong person, you have to stop and say, “Well, there’s a good reason she might suspect Katrine.”
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: It’s a strange thing. The writer and I talked about it when writing, and we didn’t know what to… it just sort of happened. We sort of find out Katrina has a connection with the ghost because she touched the mirror with her blood. So in some ways she’s hooked up with the ghost. That was our explanation. Because the ghost is not that… it’s a difficult thing because there were other drafts where she was like – because she has been raped, her sexuality has been perversely warped, so when she jumps on people she did it in a more sexual way. So that’s also an interpretation. You could say she goes after all the ones that have [sex], but it only holds true for the guy. The thing is she has a connection with Katrina. She goes after… This is all interpretation afterwards. Maybe it could be that Katrina’s secret wishes come through. Her secret wish got them killed.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: In modern movies, we don’t necessarily expect ghosts to be malicious; like in THE SIXTH SENSE – if you can just communicate with them, you can put them to rest. But in Totem and Taboo, Freud explains why ghosts – even those of loved ones – are frightening figures in primitive cultures. He interpreted this as projection: “I hated my dead parents but I can’t admit it, so I imagine that they hate me in the afterlife.” Films like JU-ON and ROOM 205 seem to tap into that old-fashioned dread – the idea that, no matter what they were like in life, the dead hate the living.
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: The strange thing about THE EXORCIST is that we get so scared. That’s what I like about horror films. You can meet death in the theatre’s darkness. It’s a very biological genre, because your heart starts beating, your palms start sweating. For some reason you get really scared. It makes more sense if it’s a slasher film, because we all would be scared of being attacked like that. But the same thing is with the supernatural horror – we get so scared of this. I think it must be some primitive instinct that we have, deep down, some religious urge that gets tapped into in some way. I never experienced a ghost, so why am I scared?
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Despite the supernatural element, your film has the trappings of a psychological horror film by Polanski – the sense of alienation and paranoia. What is your favorite Polanski film?
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: I think my favorite Polanski film is THE TENANT. It really is so radical and really to the edge. I think if as a director you can say that you have a theme you explore in your films, it is when reality slides or breaks down for a person. That’s what I love about Polanski’s films, like in ROSEMARY’S BABY and REPULSION. So Roman Polanski is a huge influence, because the acting is so good, the blocking is so good, the atmosphere, the serious tone – particularly in the three films I’m talking about here. It’s just so tight and dark and well done. He is a major influence, for everyone. How can he not be?
STEVE BIODROWSKI: To me the interesting thing about ROSEMARY’S BABY is that, if you see it when you’re fifteen, it’s not that great – too slow, not enough thrills. When you get older, you see it’s about a young woman, married and pregnant for the first time, and you realize it’s very ordinary, everyday stuff – completely realistic and believable, not like a typical horror movie at all. It’s scary not because something is jumping out at her every five minutes but because you relate to Rosemary. ROOM 205 deliberately works on a similar level: a girl away from home for the first time, on her own, feeling isolated. You relate to her as if you’re watching a drama, not a genre film.
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: It could have gone more in that direction, but we had to make a choice because we said, ‘What is the target audience?’ The short I made was much more into the dread of everyday life that ripples. ‘Am I going insane? Are they looking at me? Are they out to get me?’
STEVE BIODROWSKI: You give a lot of close-ups to Neel Ronholt as Katrine, emphasizing her innocence and vulnerability, like Mia Farrow in ROSEMARY’S BABY. Ronholt does a great job. You get the feeling that female audiences would really like this movie because they could relate to her.
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: Many Danish teenagers have grown up with her because she is the big sister in a TV series, called MY SISTER’S KIDS, a family comedy. They have seen her in three or four films, and this is like the film were she grows up and goes to college and gets laid and haunted and beat up and all that. That was interesting to do; she was interested in doing something else.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Your film operates in an older tradition, like the Polanski films, or like THE INNOCENTS. You introduce the situation and characters and let it develop slowly before the scares emerge. The trend now is to start off with shocks and keep them coming at regular intervals.
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: Here in America, Ghost House Pictures have almost a set of rules. They want ten or fifteen jump scares, six or seven suspense scenes, and strong characters. That’s what they aim for. I could have done that. Because the most common comment I get is people think it is a bit slow in the beginning. Then again other people say they like the slow build up; it builds and builds and builds, and then explodes. We did some screenings and stuff, so it was something we were thinking about: Should we put more scares in? But at that time it was too late, because we had reshot what we could and we couldn’t go back.
It’s very interesting what horror films can do. That is the main interest for me. You sit in the darkness of a theatre. You can’t escape it. If it’s really good, it goes in your blood. If it’s a drama, you can analyze it. An effective horror film goes in your blood and you can’t escape. I think it’s a healthy thing. That’s my view on it. We as people need to be confronted with these things. We are afraid of death and pain and disease. The horror film can explore these radical themes, and we can get a catharsis and be purified and maybe learn a little more about ourselves. And of course you should not forget the pure element of a roller-coaster ride. You should not underestimate that. Some of the critics in Denmark could not understand that. That is also an element, especially in a teenage horror film. You have the jump scenes. I’ve been in a theatre with some of the kids – it did quite good in Denmark. I went to a full cinema filled with girls and boys. It was fantastic, they were screaming, really enjoying themselves, and I got lots of letters from young kids saying it was a perfect film to take a date to, because she got so scared.
That’s also an element – the roller-coaster ride. But if it’s only a roller-coaster ride, I figure there needs to be a little more; you need to dig a little deeper. You have David Lynch; you have David Cronenberg – very intellectual. On the other side you have all the other guys: Eli Roth and…
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Having seen audiences react to the picture, were you surprised by any of the reactions?
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: When I watch it with very young people – fifteen or twenty years – they scream a lot. Even at things that seemed too small, that I thought were lame. That was a great surprise. But with a more adult audience, they’re a little more under control. When kids come to the cinema, they’re all hyped up and they want to go for the ride. There was even a guy who wrote that he took a mirror into the cinema to scare some girls. I don’t know…
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Is there anything you are particularly proud of?
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: When I saw it in Denmark with a full house, one scene that gets the biggest jump is the first scene with the girl and the washing machines. That one I like. And I like the party scene also, the way it’s shot, where she takes coke. The way it’s solved – I liked that. It worked; people get it. I think the elevator scene also worked quite well because we draw it out quite long.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Was there anything that did not work as well as you liked?
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: There are some scenes that were cut. We shot some scenes that were just wrong. Really slow tempo. We went out and reshot the scene where she comes to him at night. It was shot in daytime. It took out all the tension. It didn’t work at all. He had a long monologue about his grandfather who died near a mirror; it was okay, but it just didn’t work. There’s lots of stuff I would have done differently if I had more time and money. I’m a very bad judge of my own film, because I see all that’s wrong. ‘That’s the day we had to get in early so we only have two set ups.’
STEVE BIODROWSKI: I understand the film did well in Denmark.
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: The press release said we beat all the American horror films. It did 80,000 in Denmark, which is quite good for a genre like this.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: Is that enough to justify a sequel?
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: I don’t think so. Probably some of the producers would like a sequel, but I don’t think I would. You would probably have to do it outside of the Danish Film Institute again. In Denmark I want to take a step up the ladder. The next thing I have is ‘THE SHINING Meets THE GRUDGE.’ Also some psychological thriller horror films that are a little bit more adult, if you can say that. It’s not like I look down upon teenage films at all, but I’ve done that one, and it’s a difficult thing to get through at the Danish Film Institute. If I had to choose between teen horror and adult horror, I would choose adult horror.
STEVE BIODROWSKI: You mentioned Ole Bornedal’s American remake of his Danish thriller NIGHTWATCH. Would you do the same for ROOM 205?
MARTIN BARNEWITZ: I would, yes. It would be different. You would have to rewrite it to American sensibilities – American realism. You do different stuff when you come to a dorm in America. People are perhaps a bit younger, a bit more immature. I don’t know – that could just be my prejudice; I have to check that out. If I was that lucky, hopefully the budget would be bigger and you could expand on some things. Get the American sensibility without making it look like any American teen horror film. That would be cool. It would be a chance to redo some of the things I didn’t do enough.
I would love to do something here in America, really hardcore, supernatural, in an American setting. Make it as scary as possible. Of course you have to think something original up, but I think it could be done. Of course the budgets are higher here, so there’s more to play with.
My heart is directed toward horror and thrillers, which is really what I want to do. In Denmark it is difficult to do, so I want to expand my network. I’m hoping to get some stuff going here. Maybe if I can bring a Scandinavian feel here it would be great.
- What Barnewitz is describing sounds like an “Onryo,” a vengeful ghost. There are several Japanese words starting with “K” that refer to ghosts or spirits (e.g. “Kaidan” or “ghost story), but I can find none that match his description. For example, the Shinto word “kami” refers simply to a spirit within an object.
- NIGHTWATCH is not to be mistaken with the 2004 Russian fantasy film (a.k.a. Nochen Dozer). It is a 1994 thriller about a night watchman who finds strange things going on in the building where he works. Bornedal’s 1997 remake starred Ewan McGregor, Nick Nolte, and Patricia Arquette.