Andrew Van den Houten on THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
Originally published by Dark Recesses Press, 2007
THE GIRL NEXT DOOR by Jack Ketchum is the toughest book I’ve ever read, period. Several times, I was tempted to throw it away so I wouldn’t have to suffer another page of the hell that lay between its covers. But, in the end, I had to finish it, had to know how it played out. Had to know if any of the characters would survive with me and whether or not their conclusion would be an act of mercy or of further torture, or worse.. Turning the final page I sat relieved and drained. At least the story was over though it would stay with me for a long time I knew. Then a couple of years later, along comes a relatively unknown production company called Moderncine’ who, for some godforsaken reason, thought it would be a good idea to bring this tragic tale to life on screen. Let me tell you, it was with much hesitation and inner debate that I eventually decide to get in touch with those responsible for thinking the world needed a movie like this. While I can’t say I enjoyed sitting down to watch the screener of this film – saying I “enjoyed” it just doesn’t seem right - I can attest that this is a movie that will haunt all who experience it long after the end credits roll. With Moderncine’s first feature film, award winning HEADPSACE, under there belt, I assumed THE GIRL NEXT DOOR was in good hands. But what of the sanity and reason behind the minds of the creators involved? Why did they think the world needed to be dragged into that basement to be tortured and punished along with that poor young girl is inspired by true events over thirty years ago? What good could this madness reap from those brave enough to watch the film version of this controversial book? Never being one to settle for speculation, I phoned up co-producer Andrew Van den Houten, and decided it was time to ask him a few questions.
Rick Hipson - Dallas (AKA Jack Ketchum) had mentioned that you read The Girl Next Door while on vacation and immediately knew you had to contact him and turn the book into a movie. What was it about this book that was so profound and affective for you that you couldn’t not attempt to adapt it to film?
Andrew Van den Houten - Well, I think the fact that the film truly captures the struggle of the young children and this family and this era really is a metaphor for American culture. I think. In a much larger way. An this book being such an unforgiving, honest and truthful, painful actually just very, very honest you couldn’t deny that the story had to be told. And that’s the thing that sucked because had I read the book and gone ‘oh god what an exploitive piece of crap or this book is really trying to take advantage of sexually exploiting young people and being in very compromising, abusive situations….. and thought to myself Ketchum really has gone off the deep end both that’s not really the case at all.
If anything, it’s brought me closer to my belief in this country which is freedom of speech and asking that freedom of speech to help tell a story that people don’t necessarily want to talk about.
RH - Was this your first visit into Ketchum’s world or have you experienced a lot of his work before TGND?
AV - I hadn’t really read much of his work until my producing partner Bill Miller turned me on to him and then I first read The Lost. I read Red and several other of his books thereafter. I was intrigued not only by The Girl Next Door, but also through the short stories at the end of that book which were quite beautiful yarns, and I thought this man who has pretty much spent most of his life in my neighbourhood on the upper West side.
RH - Oh, I hadn’t known that.
AV - Well, he now lives blocks away from where I was born and where I lived, from where I came from, literally, so who would have guessed that Ketchum lives less then ten blocks away.
RH - In a past interview Ketchum discusses where a lot of his inspiration for writing THE GIRL NEXT DOOR and much of the setting came as a result of where he used to live. Obviously you’re more familiar with that particular area than I am.
AV - Well, that’s a little different because Ketchum grew up in Livingston, New Jersey. I grew up in New York City in Manhatten. In Ketchum’s later years he moved to New York City and that’s when I referred to living within a ten block radius from where he was from. That was not based off where he was writing and his experience of living by where the Girl Next Door takes place.
But, his short story at the end of The Girl Next Door deals with Manhattan and you know, his current environment where he lives. I can relate to that quite well. Not that I couldn’t relate to The Girl Next Door, but I certainly was drawn to it and forced to take it in and ultimately admit that we live in this sick of a society that things can happen like this.
RH - Okay, let’s jump from conception to commitment. What sort of things did you do to fully prepare for the task at hand of bringing this brutal story to life before casting and shooting were to commence?
AV - Well, of course we immediately researched the Benechwesky family. That’s the first logical thing you do when you read a book like that. You wanna find out what this is really based off of so you can really draw a more well rounded conclusion as to whatever this story that’s being told really means. Now, that was my first step. My next step was speaking to people like my stepfather and other people who are professionals in the field and understand their opinions on abuse and really reflect on my opinions on abuse and understand where I stood in the whole picture of this and how I felt about it. Then, of course, the next step for me was to research and find the right and most appropriate director for the project who understood and closely aligned to what my thoughts were in terms of the social implications of the original story. I quite frankly didn’t understand how to picture a movie like this. I was looking for a director who could literally sit down and go... ‘this movie is about one, two, and three and this is how it’s going to look and this is how it’s going to be told.' When I had Greg Wilson at a meeting at our office on the Upper West Side in Manhattan with William Miller, my producing partner and the cinematographer of the film, Greg Wilson immediately pitched it as one, a social horror movie, two, a coming of age film and three, a film that deals with social horror.
RH - I remember Greg mentioning the other aspect of it when he said that at the root of it all you have this innocent romance going on with the core characters, Meg and David. Greg seemed to feel that this was a lot of what is at the heart of this movie, even with all the other horrific parts.
AV - Yeah, and he was unwavering in the terms of sticking to his guns in dealing with the content as per the pitch that he gave us. That was, to me, the sign of a director who doesn’t just know how to pitch well, but he’s a guy who can pitch well and then deliver. I never questioned if he could deliver or not, but I did question whether or not as a producer I would be able to really facilitate all the tools that he would need, especially helping to push the cast into really playing and help give him the cast that he needed as well as the environment and period that he needed to reflect. My challenges were much more about creating the production value and maintaining the integrity of the story from a production standpoint and certainly from a derivative book trying to maintain the key elements of that book in whatever translation he was going to do based off this screenplay we were working off of.
AV - Well, I knew that if this movie was like watching a car wreck, which is what the book is like, then people were going to be unable to take their eyes off of the screen. And people were going to have to sit there and find out how this tragic story ends or otherwise they would be guilty of pretty much what everyone is guilty of every day in this country which is denying the fact that these things happen and ignoring them. That being said, I mean the priority here was to avoid being exploitative and be true to the pitch that the director had and with what Jack Ketchum captured with the essence of his novel which was translated in the screenplay.
My fear was less about whether people were going to watch this movie or not and more about whether people were going to watch this movie and go ‘God, these film makers should never make another film again which, quite frankly, I’d tell them to piss off, but at the end of the day I make movies because I want people to watch them. I wanted a film that people would feel was socially relevant and certainly a film that stayed true to my concerns about abuse and about the issues of abuse in this country and around the world for that matter. Ultimately, stepping it up and having people ‘feel the film’ has relevance and I definitely feel we’ve made the move that does that.
RH - I think so too. A concern I had going into watching the movie was whether or not you were going to get that same style and level of respect for telling such a horrible story that Ketchum conveyed in his book. As far as I’m concerned you did that very well. It’s easy to see you had great respect for the victims at hand and, of course, you were also sensitive as far as carrying the sense of human emotions across, even with the bad people that were in the story. Ketchum did that well and you continue that with this movie.
AV - I would tend to agree with that. You know, it’s like once you’ve placed the bet, if you’re a gambler, you can’t really sit around and analyze and question whether you’ve done the right thing or not. You kind of have to wait it out and see how the tables turn, you know?
RH - What was your involvement in selecting the overall cast and crew?
AV - Well, I’ve been at ninety percent of the casting sessions we’ve ever had for our company. The funny thing is the one session I wasn’t at for The Girl Next Door was the one where they selected the girl! [laughs] No decisions are made final until I see everyone who is considered and at least see tapes so I am very involved and I definitely put my input and listen to other people’s thoughts in the room. Our casting director, my producing partner, and certainly our director and I try to bring a different perspective and at least share in that process. Probably the most important thing is the quality of the cast and of course the quality of the production team you’re working with.
RH - Did you have a particular criteria or vision in advance that helped you spot the perfect people for each respective role?
AV - In terms of crew, we work with a lot of the same people. I’ve been working with some of these guys for seven, eight years now.
RH - So Greg being one of the few where this was his initial project with you?
AV - Greg was one of the few, yeah, the director, but he had worked with my producing partner who is the cinematographer as well as the gaffer on our film, and on a feature film he had directed before I had met him.
But in short, William Atherton, I immediately knew he was right for the older David part and I suggested and highly recommended him for that role. I actually had to fight with his agent, or his manager, to explain the importance of that role for him and get her to understand it as well. That was directly my doing. And I would certainly say the suggestion of Daniel Manche as the lead playing young David, because I had worked with him on Head Space and knew immediately he was going to be a very important figure to make this film. As far as I’m concerned, I knew Daniel Manche was David as soon as I read this book. I was like, if we do this as a film – I knew it. We had to work around his schedule because he was doing this Tarzan show on Broadway. That created a whole bunch of drama.
RH - I’ll have to check out HEADSPACE because it sounds like it fueled a lot of the choices for cast and crew of this movie.
AV - Totally. Totally. We actually just finished the movie HOME MOVIE and the star of that movie is the one who played the young kid in The Girl Next Door, Woofer (Austin Williams). He plays the star of HOME MOVIE with his sister, Amber Williams. You can see the incestuous, repetitive nature to our films [laughs]
RH - Were there any major concerns and/or challenges that you experienced in working with a mostly child based cast, legal concerns or otherwise?
AV - As far as legalities go, I immediately addressed from the outset of this project the highly controversial nature of the film to involve the parents. In fact, before the auditions it was a requirement that the parents had all read the script. And of course, I knew that my battle was their kids should do the movie, but if they (needed to) identify with the material and have the director Greg Wilson explain to them the importance of doing the film and answering their questions because, as a director, he ultimately is the one dealing with the children in terms of the capacity of them expressing the emotional levity of the story. He was the one responsible for them to trust. So there you have it.
RH - So, how many of these kids are in some form of therapy as of this interview just from being involved in this movie?
AV - I have to say I think some kids, believe it or not, I think they understand the material far better because, you know, they have a personal understanding through their own families of what these issues are in life. They have first contact with dealing with friends or hearing about stories about these issues. I think they have the wisdom and I gotta tell you, Dan Manche, the little kid who plays young David, just has such an old soul, man.
RH - It was interesting to learn from Greg that the period piece aspect of the film didn’t pose any critical challenges aside from the obvious demand for consistency. Still, I have to wonder – what sort of financial or organizational issues came up due to the nature of the fifties reference, either expected or unexpected?
AV - Well, I think that the biggest hurdle for us was finding the appropriate houses and I think once we did that…you know, I have the highest regards for my creative team, my production design teams as well as my wardrobe teams. Everyone that I work with is highly, highly skilled and knows and understands that we all come from a background. I come from a film school background of directing and producing so you can give me a few matches and I’ll make you a flame thrower. It doesn’t take much for people who are resourceful of a dollar to take it and turn it into something that’s worth far more. Everyone’s kind of infected with this idea before we go into any of our films. And then we constantly explain if there’s ever a challenge where they feel they cannot do their job, they’re not going to get fired they’re not going to get yelled at or reprimanded because they’re in good company if they have a problem they can’t solve. The thing about producing low budget is that it’s a team effort and we’re all here to be resourceful and supportive and literally problem-solve every challenge all along the way. Does that mean that I’m going to go and sew a costume for somebody? Probably not, but it will mean I’ll find you what you need to do to get that done if you can’t do it yourself. That in and of itself is what producing is all about. It’s finding the way to make something happen when everyone doesn’t think they can or know how they are going to do it and finding and explaining how it can be done and connecting those dots.
RH - One thing I’ve learned from talking to other movie makers is it seems that if you don’t come across any major challenges along the way while working on a film project then you’re probably not stretching yourself very far to begin with.
AV - Absolutely. In fact, at this point we kind of get into them expecting all kinds of problems. Now that we’ve done it time and time again and we find that every production seems to be getting better and better and smoother because we all think ahead of time what problems could be and really discuss them. So, it’s becoming less of a surprise when things come up and more, oh we know how to deal with that because two pictures ago we had this happen and this is how you solve that problem.
RH - At the film’s end, you continue Ketchum’s initial narrative voice over as older David. I loved the affect you created with David’s character at the river where he first met Meg. Who’s idea was that, and how did you pull off the allusion of David’s reflection?
AV - Well, that was Greg’s pitch. Not only including the three descriptions of what the film was about, but it also included this poignant idea for the ending and it was extremely poetic. It absolutely captures it to a ‘T’ with how he pitched it. It was a matter of having both actors at that day on that lake and having beautiful weather so the reflective nature of water would be there and we got it. So there you go.
RH - If you would, Andrew, compare the mindset and atmosphere on set for about the first half of the film to that of the moment we are first taken into the basement?
AV - Well, when we’ve shooting in the house and not in the basement, I’d say, when the cameras weren’t rolling, were more lethargic, more chilled, more mellow, hanging out, enjoying the day. You know, we were outside a lot of the time. And then of course when we were in the basement, when we weren’t shooting, I would kind of describe the energy as a frenetic excitement. People were having fun and enjoying themselves. You kind of have to balance out. I think people were balancing out the dark nature, the dark qualities of what we were dealing with when we weren’t shooting by having moments of levity and then fun to counter it.
RH - I’m sure you must have approached this entire project with certain perspectives and emotions as fueled by the characters and their horrific story in Ketchum’s original novel. Did you find your views and over all take on The Girl Next Door to be at all changed by the time you came to be wrapping things up?
AV - No. If anything, it gave me a deeper understanding of what it must have been like having gone through all that. As a producer on this set, you’re living everything the characters are living through and it was really fucking dark. I mean it was pretty intense, you know.
RH - What do you suppose The Girl Next Door has taught you both as a director and as a general member of lawful society?
AV - Well, I think it’s taught me that children are extremely courageous, extremely intelligent and that they shouldn’t be underestimated. I think if you speak to your children at a young age about issues like this, they’re ninety percent more likely to avoid situations or at least speak up if they see situations like this. I think kids are obviously the future of our world. I think that goes without saying and I think they are impressionable. The more careful we are in terms of how we talk to them, what images we show them, how we discuss their futures and certainly encouraging the pursuit of their dreams. I think THE GIRL NEXT DOOR has taught me if not supported and pushed in the right direction children are very, very susceptible to being destroyed by evil people. There are evil people out there who are hurting children and doing terrible things. They need to be locked up and put away.
RH - That’s what I hope this movie does, that it at least opens up people’s eyes enough to maybe see that these things do go on and to be aware of it and realize that if you know something’s going on, the people closest to that situation can’t necessarily be counted on to do anything about it.
AV - I think giving a voice to the intelligent yet inarticulate is the responsibility of the adults.
RH - As it turned out as far as the rating of this film goes, Greg said you were lucky enough to get enough votes as to brand an R rating on the label as apposed to the potential NC – 17. What difference would the NC-17 rating have made to this film and the way it could be marketed and presented to an audience?
AV - You wouldn’t see the film in probably nearly as many places and two: it would certainly not be taken as seriously. It would be considered probably inappropriate and deemed something that’s much more pulpy in terms of the ratings. Now it can reach a much wider audience.
RH - Anything else you’d like to add for all the people out there who are wondering what THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is All about and wondering why they should go and see it?
AV - They should go see it because it’s a socially important film and it’s a film that’s going to have an impact on our society and culture and hopefully something that will have an impact on the film and cinema history. Jack Ketchum is one of our American great novelists of the time. He’s someone who’s revered to be a words-smith and a magician when it comes to telling tales that most people think cannot be told. So I would challenge anyone who thinks this isn’t for them to get up and go see if they can get through it and understand why this film is special.
RH - Well I look forward to hearing what everybody else thinks of this amazing movie once they’ve had the chance to check it out and I thank you for all your time today, Andrew.
AV - Great, man, and definitely Moderncine, we’re moving quickly. You’ve heard the announcement about the Jeff Holme movie, you’ve heard of the theoretic directorial debut project that we’re doing with the creator of Final Destination. So we’ve got a lot of things going on so we’re very, very excited this studio’s growing.
RH - Andrew, I look forward to what the future holds for you and Moderncine’ and hope that THE GIRL NEXT DOOR helps to catapult you into a great future for making the kinds of films people need to watch.
AV - Rick, thank-you for everything. You’ve done a great job and I look forward to seeing where this film goes.
For more info about The Girl Next Door film and about Moderncine', please visit their official website.