JIM SONZERO on 'PULSE' Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
July 28, 2006
Technology meets the supernatural in Pulse, a horror film in which the internet and wi-fi serve as conduits for the restless spirits of the dead to encroach upon the world of the living. Propagating wherever a wireless signal can be found, these ghosts spread like a disease, infecting both man and machine.
Based upon the Japanese film Kairo, Pulse stars Kristen Bell (TV's Veronica Mars) as Mattie, a young woman who first encounters the paranormal phenomenon when her boyfriend hangs himself, leaving behind an infected computer system.
In this exclusive interview, director Jim Sonzero (a cool guy with a passion for the horror genre, who rightly names The Exorcist as his all-time favorite scary movie) talks about the evolution of the project, behind-the-scenes filming techniques, and the trials and tribulations endured by Kristen Bell and co-star Christina Milian in the normal course of shooting Pulse.
RadioFree.com: What were some of the things you had to begrudgingly cut in order to get Pulse's rating changed from R to PG-13?
JIM: For the most part, it was a watering down of the sound design, which was really bitchin'. Some of that remains now. They made us cut out the suicide jump from the original film that we had put in, where Mattie looks up over her shoulder while she's on the phone, and this girl dives off of a tower, and actually lands all in one shot, and her body impacts on the ground. One of the characters, Stone, has this very painful-looking soul suck from one of the phantoms that got removed. [Shots] got pulled out of some of the scarier scenes to water it down a little bit, like the laundry room scene. We pulled a couple of the shots out of the monster striking, attacking. And in the [sequence] where Mattie gets sucked into all the hands and it turns into a big face, they cut out some scenes because it was too horrific.
How did you originally get involved with this film? Were you pitching the idea of a remake, or did it come to you?
It came to me. It was an opportunity that presented itself to me as a directing assignment from the Weinstein Company. Wes Craven was scheduled to direct it a couple of years ago, and [executive producer Bob Weinstein] took him off the movie to do Cursed. And then Bob offered it to me. And I saw the original, and I thought it was so cool and dark and atmospheric, I said okay. So we hired a writer to do a draft, and we pretty much just discarded Wes' script because it was a couple years old.
What was wrong with that script?
Structurally, it had some stuff that we liked, but for the most part, its central theme was about artificial intelligence, and that seemed like a concept that had come and gone at that point, especially with A.I. Kind of old hat. So at the time, super wideband and whole cities going wi-fi was the topic that was on everyone's lips. So it became appealing, and an angle into the script: What if wi-fi is the door? What if wherever there's a wi-fi environment, these things can come through? They're spirits and they're energy and they're out there, and we give them a medium in which to come through into our world. So it was kind of an interesting place to take the script. And that's how I really hooked in. And the central theme of Kurosawa's [Kairo], which I loved, was that technology only creates more and more loneliness because we use it as a step to not have to deal with each other. And I found that really appealing. So we kind of kept that as the central theme.
What's your take on this cycle of Japanese horror films being turned into American remakes? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?
I think we're probably at the end of it, you know? Might be a few more. But I think it's been good for the horror genre because it's infused a momentum to make really cool, innovative horror films. And now with technology and where effects are today, you can do anything you want on a G5 and a couple of artists, and you don't need to have a huge facility with overhead and gouging expenses and all that stuff. It frees your mind up. And it's set a precedent up for really creative thinking.
Was Kristen Bell already part of the project when it was brought to you, or were you involved in her casting?
Involved in her casting. At first, I was a little resistant. I thought Kristen was a great actress, but I felt like she was a little too youthful, and too UPN, you know? And it wasn't who I had in mind at first, that type of girl. And then I saw this performance she did in Spartan, and I was like blown away. I thought she was awesome in it--especially the crying scene with Val Kilmer. And I knew at that point that I had a great actress, and Bob [Weinstein] was really pushing for her. So he was absolutely right. I mean, she turned it out, I thought. And I think it's one of her best performances. She gave me a lot in this film. I put her through hell. [laughs]
What were some of those hellish things you put her through?
Like the scene with all the hands just grabbing her and pulling at her. And the scene in the truck where she gets attacked.
The "sea of hands" image makes for a cool poster. Was that your brainchild?
Yeah, that was my concept. I came up with the sequence for when Mattie goes to the other world and she gets sucked into the sea of hands. And when it pulls out, it reveals a giant face of a phantom formed by all these roiling hands that are tormented and stuck in hell.
That visual wasn't in Kairo. Where did the idea come from?
Bong. [laughs] No, I'm kidding! No, just imagination.
How did you shoot that sequence?
She's standing in front of a greenscreen, and there's holes cut in the greenscreen, and there's people sticking their hands through the holes, and they're grabbing her. And a lot of times, they're grabbing her boobs. And plus, they're poking her in the eye. And she has to sell it, so she has to act really scared, but no one knows where the hands are actually going to land. So it's kind of like, "Let's do another take! That one was screwed up, let's do another take!" And you have to keep doing it. Because you can't give the actors a monitor, because then they'll be looking, and they'll still miss and hit her. So it was kind of one of those things that just requires takes till you get it right.
Was the bathtub scene embarrassing for her?
No, she had a tube top on that we removed digitally. She wasn't naked.
It sounds like she didn't really have any reservations about anything...
She was pretty cool. She's a trooper, yeah.
And what about Christina Milian? How did she get involved?
Christina's great. She became interested in the project, and I had a little knowledge of her performance in Be Cool, and that she's a rising hip hop star. I thought it was excellent because she would bring a lot to the party. And she ended up being a perfect counterpart to Mattie. I thought that she was really fun to work with. And there's a girl who will take chances and go to the edge and give you whatever you want. Fearless. A fearless actress. And in the laundry room scene, she really gave it up. She conveys pure terror. When she's against the wall in that profile shot and she's screaming, you're really scared for her.
Do you think special effects can often detract from the tension and credibility of a horror film?
Yeah, absolutely. I think there's nothing more boring than looking at a CG monster. It couldn't be worse. I think if you look at great filmmakers like Ridley Scott and what he did with Alien, it's what's in the dark that's scarier. Have you ever read Danse Macabre, Stephen King's essay on horror? If you show the monster too much, then you kind of blow it. You have to keep it always changing and morphing, or never show enough. Hide it. Don't leave it on the screen too long, so that you don't give it all away.
There's a decidedly different look during the dream sequences, when the landscapes are very surreal and washed out. How did you shoot those scenes?
We just had [the actors] in front of a greenscreen, and then we created all those environments digitally. Like there's one where Mattie's walking in front of these three ominous looking towers. Those towers were a location that I saw in Romania that I photographed on the location scout and gave to the artist who was designing the other world sequence. And he took it and replicated it and made three of them, and then created the environment out of just digital images that I took on the location scout. It's pretty cool.
Most of your work as a director to this point has been for TV commercials. What are a few that we might know of?
There's this commercial for Chevy, where there's two cars, and they're in a mash up contest, the guys versus the girls. L'Oreal with Milla Jovovich, L'Oreal with Heather Locklear. The one with Beyonce for Feria hair color. I do a lot of beauty and I do a lot of cars. Those are my two areas.
Any chance on working with these actresses on a film project?
I'd love to. I'd love to work with Milla, I think she's awesome.
Kristen joked earlier that Pulse's refrigerator scene featured some pretty foul smelling stuff, as if they dumped food in there and let it rot for real. Were you guys really that method about it?
Yeah. It wasn't intentional. It was the Romanian art department. [laughs] It never occurred to them to put fake food in there, or fake rotten food. They just put real food and it rotted. And it was like 120 degrees on the set, and when they opened the door, it smelled so bad! So that's what she's talking about. We were all like, [choking] "Oh, God!" People just started heaving. It was terrible.
I trust, however, that they did not get similarly method with the dying cat...