This week we got to talk to Aaron Koontz who directed the new horror western film The Pale Door coming out Friday August 21st 2020
AJ: Hey, Aaron. Thank you for joining us at Infamous Horrors today.
Aaron Koontz:Yeah, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me AJ.
AJ: So how did the idea of The Pale Door come about?
Aaron Koontz: It was… Well, Cameron Burns, my coworker and I kind of had this idea, we wanted to do a really violent Western a few years ago, but it just-It was always proving to be too difficult and kind of the scope of that doing a period piece and indie film was tough. And, so we had that, kind of sitting on the shelf and then I was asked by Universal a while back, to pitch a witch movie falling off the success of Robert Eggers’ The Witch.
Aaron Koontz: And at that moment I pitched this kind of weird amalgamation of this witch story to end this Western that we originally had and kind of put those together. And they responded with like: ‘Wait, why are there cowboys in here? Doesn’t really makes sense.’ And they’re like: ‘We want normal witches.’ I’m like: ‘I don’t know what a normal witch is, but that’s okay.’
AJ: That’s funny coming from a mainstream studio like Universal, like, ‘Wait a minute, we want mainstream witches in this movie.’ Like, nobody’s going to know what this is.
Aaron Koontz: Yeah, yeah. It was, so that was an interesting thing. And then later I was on a screening panel with Joe Lansdale. I told that same story and he thought it was a really cool idea. And then we started working on it together, and then his son became a foreign writer and kind of developed a kind of massage. There’s another movie I’d written to a screenplay that kind of dealt with the Salem Witch trials a little bit. We took some from that. I’m not a researcher that had done there and found a way to kind of integrate these all into this new story and became The Pale Door.
And I really appreciated that it was a period piece, it was a Western and it was very violent and gory, which will satisfying the horror audience. And, I always think it’s interesting when somebody mixes a horror film with the period piece and Western elements to it.
AJ: How is it like suiting a Western film, with the scope of, maybe not a micro budget that you had, but just dealing with not exactly a huge budget? What were some of their perspectives of filming it, like in that products and design, kind of?
Aaron Koontz: Yeah, no, I mean, look, it was very daunting. This was a film and not just being a Western, I mean, we had animals, we had wolves, we had cravens, we had CLO ravens – I’ve learned that’s what they are, cravens. And we have horses and an ensemble cast and stunts and wire work and flour, which make up. So we definitely had a lot to deal with, but the Western elements were really, really difficult because it’s what you have to do is you have to think smartly about how to kind of prioritize where the dollars go, right? So number one, you have to put it into the outfits, like the costume, the wardrobe has to be top-notch and Jillian Bundrick, my costume designer is just a magician. I watched she’s able to do and pull off on a limited budget. So we spent a little more on those to really make the costumes flourish and to kind of feel of the era. And then you really try to consolidate your time. So like, this set is really good, this set is really good, let’s just focus on those. And then, allow us to spend more time kind of like an open area or in the woods and things like that, where you don’t have to worry about the elements as much. And what’s there, maybe you’re just removing some power lines or something, and that’s kind of the gist of it.So, you just have to be smart about where you spend the money, because there’ll be plenty of places where you have to just get by as fast as you can and as inexpensive as you can in between that. But then you can really put some money into the right set pieces and do those correctly. And it starts to kind of cover up where you cut corners elsewhere.
AJ: And how was it like getting the cast on together? Cause everybody in this was great. And even the late actor, I sort of looked at the cast before this interview, but I can’t remember his name.
Aaron Koontz: Devin. Devin Druid.
AJ: Yeah. He was mainly a comedic guy from like Happy Endings and his…
Aaron Koontz: Oh, you mean Zachary Knighton, sorry, he played Duncan. Yeah.
AJ: Yeah. And he was mainly from Happy Endings and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and he just kind of knocked this out in the park. It was like refreshing to see him play a serious guy in this. How was it like working with all of the cast members in this?
Aaron Koontz: Well, I love that you called out what Zach Knighton did, because yes, he even joked with me, he’s like ‘I’m so tired of people wanting me to play Ross from Friends.’ He’s like, ‘I can do more than this, you know?’ And he’s honest, he’s probably got a fun part on a big CBS show right now, Magnum P.I. whatever. He gets out and he does this, but he always wanted to do a Western and he was good friends with Noah Segan, who’s a good friend of mine that we worked together on Starry Eyes and a few movies, including Scare Package. And Noah was like: ‘Look, I’m telling you, Zach kills it.’ And I went back and I watched The Hitcher remake of 2009 with Sean Bean. And I was like ‘Whoa,’ and Zach Knighton was the main guy in that, opposite him.He was really good. And I watched this one small indie drama. This guy’s got it, you know? So I knew he could do it, and we had to get a really large cast, a really wide net to find our Jake to find Devin Druid. And we went everywhere and somebody recommended, I watched 13 Reasons Why show for just, there’s only great young actors.
Aaron Koontz: And I watched it and there’s some bigger names on there, but then Devin just jumped out of the screen to me. Like he just, I thought, had so much emotional weight and resonance to his performance and the emotional stuff that he did was so powerful. So once I cast him, and I knew that Zach and him kind of looked alike as well, then they’re brothers, like this is perfect to play the two brothers. And then he was just kind of like, I joked with my casting director. I said, look, I want to get, cause I was lucky… At first, we went after some huge names, and then later when the budget got a little lower, it was like, ‘Look, you can kind of cast who you want.’ I was like, ‘Oh great, well then I’m going to go after all of these kinds of the Avengers of indie horror, indie genre. The Pat Healy, Noah Segan, Bill Sage, Stan Shaw and he’s just played Lester. Just, I remember seeing Stan as a kid, my mom made me watch Fried Green Tomatoes all the time. And I saw him in that, and he’s amazing, and I loved him in Monster Squad.
Aaron Koontz: It’s just a lot of scene stealers in the background that I want to bring them to the foreground and was amazing. And Melora Walters is like a dream, she’s my muse. And you know, it just became this kind of wonderful, wonderful group of people. And I’m unbelievably lucky to get the group I had.
AJ: Right. And kind of continuing on like, the Avengers prospect: Bill Sage, that must’ve been incredible to have him on the set as well.
Aaron Koontz: He’s magic, he’s complete magic. And just brought so much to Dodd. I mean, we talked so much about how Dodd… and Dodd’s always wearing black, and Jake, he’s always wearing white, and where they start on their journeys in this film, and then where they kind of end up, and what needs to happen there in that arc, and it just became this beautiful thing to watch.And once Bill really sinks his teeth into something, and this guy’s a poet, you know?
Aaron Koontz: He writes poetry every night. He’s just this amazing thoughtful person who understands the nuance of character on such a level. And it was an absolute joy to like watch him like really get into like who Dodd was, what it meant, why he did some of the bad things that he did. And that’s a theme of the film. It’s about how hate begets hate and violence creates more violence. And it all has an origin, and we as a society and as people can start to examine that, and understand where these things come from. And I didn’t want it just to be cowboys versus, like good versus evil. You have cowboys and witches, but the witches come from a similar place of where this heat kind of, maybe created the first witches.
AJ: They’re outlaws themselves as well.
Aaron Koontz: Exactly. Like what created and the incident with him and the children, what created them? And the violence that created him to have this journey and this outlet. So like, there’s something that I thought was really nice about pairing them and how that could work, but Bill just really kind of sunk his teeth into how that works. And I mean, he’s just a joy and he got to see the movie recently too, and was so happy, and that just made me, made everything worth it, it made everything worth it.
AJ: And one final question for you, what were some of the horror films that you grew up on, that kind of inspired you and your writing and filmmaking when it came to horror films?
Aaron Koontz God, so as a kid, I was obsessed with Jaws, but I didn’t even know Jaws was a horror film at the time. I just, in my mind, horror films were just Freddie, Jason, Michael Myers and all that.
AJ: Yeah. Kind of the mainstream version of horror film, yeah?
Aaron Koontz: No, I just like… Well, I wasn’t allowed to watch them either. My mom was, I grew up in a strong Christian home, so-
AJ: As did I.
Aaron Koontz: I just sneak around and borrow video tapes, and my grandmother got HBO for free and I would take the tape and record overnight and then we’re going to get a new tape in the next day. And that would show me all the crazy stuff. So, I just, I’ve loved horror because it was that forbidden fruit. And then it became something that was so important.
But I mean with this too, I really think that I wanted a little bit of the descend was a big kind of comp here at times, where I thought about the ways they dealt with, just kind of being out of their element, being in a place where they feel unsafe, they feel trapped, they don’t know how to escape. And these creatures, these people, these whatever – we don’t know what exactly is going on – are now coming after them. I thought there was something there. Also, I really liked the kind of descend into madness, especially of Sam Neill’s character in The Mouth of Madness, he does that as well.
AJ: Yeah. Such a brilliant performance.
Aaron Koontz: But also in Event Horizon in particular, I thought just kind of where that went, and that kind of like, you’re opening this portal to Hell in a way, was fun. And then, even when Pat Healy, there’s a moment after the spoil for how you decipher this interview, but you know, even at the end, there’s a moment with Pat Healy. I was talking with my makeup people, Becky Ingram and David Greathouse, were just so phenomenal on this. And they’re like, ‘What are you kind of picturing?’ And I’m like, ‘I kind of want Sam Neill of Event Horizon here, you know?’ So we kind of really went for that, and they nailed it, they completely nailed it. So, yeah, look, I’m a cinephile and I’m a horror purist in every single way, so this was just really fun to be able to play with the genres like this, and poke & tone and all that, at the same time.
AJ: Aaron, thank you so much for joining us at Infamous Horrors today. It’s been really fun talking to you.
Aaron Koontz Yeah. Like, such a pleasure. Thank you so much for watching the movie and for taking the time to talk about it. It means the world to me. So really appreciate it.
Now available in theaters, on Demand and Digital.