Spooky Fest 2013: Director Jay Stern Talks “Spirit Cabinet”

Posted by Michael Parsons on October 17, 2013 in / No Comments


Director Jay Stern took a few minutes to talk to us about his second feature film, which premiered last night at The Spooky Movie International Horror Film Festival at the AFI Silver Theater. An old-school ghost story infused with plenty of subtle humor by comedian-turned-screenwriter M. Sweeney Lawless, “Spirit Cabinet” centers on eight people who meet for a séance in an old Bronx brownstone where a young woman insists the spirit of her recently deceased mother is dwelling.

Jay Stern - courtesy of World Wide Lab
Jay Stern – courtesy of World Wide Lab

Pa/Pa Reviews: So, I understand you run a comedy film festival up in New York.

Jay Stern: Yes, it’s called the Iron Mule, it’s the first Saturday of every month. We do animation, experimental, documentary. The comedy genre is really broad.

PPR: It can even overlap into horror….

JS: It can. We showed a really funny New Zealand zombie film and some UK animation – a zombie romance.

PPR: Tell me about “Spirit Cabinet”.

JS: The writer of the film (Meg Sweeney Lawless), a woman who I collaborated with for many, many years and eventually married – and am still married to (smiling) – describes it as “a nice little séance movie”. And how we made the film… we had a location open up, this nice little house, while we were working on another project. Then our other project got stalled. We had a cast and crew so we thought, why not take this time to make a film? And using these elements, what type of fun could we have? The idea of a séance film really jumped out instantly, considering what we had to work with…. [the film] is a mystery with a serious ghost element to it. And all ghost stories are ultimately about justice.

PPR: Was making a horror film always in the back of your mind?

JS: My real interest is drama. The first feature I did was this adaptation of a Jacobean play called “The Changeling”. The most interesting part of that film was the appearance of the ghost. That’s what really struck me about the play, the idea of this ghost who’d been murdered…. and how the crime kind of spirals out of control, that “Tell-Tale Heart” kinda thing. But it’s hard to call “Spirit Cabinet” a horror film, given the range of what horror films are out there now. The genre is so splintered. This film doesn’t have that high level of violence. I think the violence that’s in the film is really shocking, but there’s not a lot of gore, not a lot of slasher stuff. And the type of fun that’s had with it doesn’t make fun of the “ghost” conventions, necessarily. So, it was a hard thing for us to classify. I think it might be more of a thriller, more of a murder mystery than a horror film.

PPR: So, was your intention more to tell a deep story or scare the audience?

JS: Definitely the former more than the latter. The real truth is, we shot this in five days. I don’t even know if we fully intended to get a feature out of it, but we did. It turned out to be better than the sum of its parts because of the drama.

PPR: What has been your most grueling project so far?

JS: Well, I’m in the middle of one right now which has been five years in the making. It’s a romantic comedy-musical called “The Adventures of Paul and Marian”. There’s a lot of the cast from [“Spirit Cabinet”] – it’s the one we were working when the location for that opened up. The main issue for [“Paul and Marian”] was, we were planning on doing rear-projection and shooting on a sound stage…. but we ended up going to a green screen… which does allow us to do a lot of different things we could’t have done otherwise.



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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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