Horror, Horror, Horror: Director Todd Lincoln on The Apparition

Recreating 'The Philip Experiment,' casting Ashley Green from Twilight and working with Whitley Strieber on ‘The Nye Incidents.’

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


This weekend, the horror film The Apparition opens starring Ashley Greene of the Twilight films. It’s her first headlining starring vehicle, and also the director’s first feature film. We got to speak with writer/director Todd Lincoln earlier this summer and he was very enthusiastic to share all his knowledge and research about the paranormal.


CraveOnline: I’ve been hearing about The Apparition since Ashley Greene booked it. Has this been a really long journey?

Todd Lincoln: Yeah, it is a long winding journey but it’s exciting and a great opportunity. It’s awesome to have my first feature film and first studio feature finally hitting here.


What surprised you about your first feature film?

One surprise in some ways that I surprised myself, I really found it rewarding to work with and collaborate with the actors. Also the early days of rehearsing with them and walking through the locations and the scenes and asking ourselves the right questions and keeping things honest and authentic and logical. Obviously, I’d directed and worked with actors in my short film, commercial, music video work, but I never worked with them to this great of an extent or for this kind of feature length piece. I found that I ended up being an even more collaborative filmmaker and actor-friendly filmmaker than I even thought. You’re a fan of filmmakers and certain auteurs and you hear stories about how directors deal with actors and crew and this and that. I think a great idea is a great idea. If it comes from an actor or a PA or a craft service guy or a grip and I happen to hear it or it gets passed on to me or I ask for it, if it’s a great idea I’m always going to take that and incorporate it in some way, or maybe it inspires something else.


Joel Silver is sort of an auteur producer. Also someone you’ve probably been watching his films as long as I have. What does he do for you?

Look, Joel is such a character. I grew up on Predator, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, The Matrix so he’s produced some of the most iconic stuff out there. On the horror side and Dark Castle side, I’ve been entertained and gotten a kick out of all those things. I’d say this is a completely new type of film for him or Dark Castle and it’s really going in a new direction. Joel, when I first pitched this to him and his guys over there, he was excited about doing something more grounded and serious and authentic and cinematic. When you’re working with Joel and Warner Bros. and it’s your first major studio film, there’s no denying you’re definitely in the machine. You’re in the machine. Joel was very supportive of my cast and crew selections and the vision for the film and gave me a great opportunity. At some point later in the process, he gets in there and starts asking, “Where the hell are the explosions? Where’s the big gunfight?” or something and then you just remind him, “Joel, this is a simple, focused, scary, haunted kind of film.” He is such a cinefile and such a fan of the movies. His knowledge of movies really blew me away. He had lots of smart suggestions and other ways to elevate the design of the film. In fact, not many people would expect this from the films he produces, but I found out that one of his favorite films of all time is Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. We would talk about all kinds of films but he was really excited about this.


What is your take on the supernatural genre or the ghost story?

A few years back, just on some Saturday night, for my own entertainment, I wasn’t researching any film or anything, but just going to sites online that I go to, different paranormal/conspiracy sites, I stumbled upon this story about this thing called “The Philip Experiment” which was a real thing. A group of parapsychology students or teachers had gotten together to create a ghost. From their research and studies they’d found that people only experience paranormal events or saw ghosts or apparitions simply because they believed enough and they were scared enough already. So to test this idea, they came up with this fictional person that had never existed named Philip. They came up with his name and his life story. They had an artist paint this portrait of him and they meet up a couple of times a week in this house, in this living room and focus on this story and focus on this picture of Philip and call out his name. For months nothing happened but then slowly over time, things began to happen. They would hear a rap on the table or some loud pounding sound on the wall and the table would move a little. They’d get a little bit more all the time. Since then, other people had heard about the Philip Experiment and done their own versions of it and given their own new names to it in the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s, added on new ideas, new tests and gear and amped things up. It was the early seed of our idea, our jumping off point.

We’ve seen so many ghost stories and haunted house movies, so many of the clichéd trappings of the old Victorian house or the Indian burial ground. The idea of people setting out to create a ghost and create a full body apparition was a movie I’d go and see. Part Flatliners, part Poltergeist kind of thing but they were actively doing this. Then the main focus of our story is this young couple, Ben and Kelly, Sebastian Stan and Ashley Greene. It was really important for me to capture America today and really capture how everything works, and not go into this horror world, horror bubble. Just treat things in a very real, grounded, honest, authentic way. That goes for seeing where these people work and eat and shop, big box stores and chain restaurants and new construction, the kind of places we all drive by every day. It was important to make this look like life. When you do that, it only makes the suspense and scare moments that much more impactful and scary when you get to them. Everything hasn’t been overdesigned or over art directed. So many horror films, even if you go to a dry cleaners in scene, the dry cleaners has to have cobwebs and rust. Every single thing has to be so horror, horror, horror to remind you you’re watching a horror movie. I just think that’s not that effective.


What do you think of the Paranormal Activity approach to ghost stories?

Hey, I love the Paranormal Activity films, the found footage take on it. I respect a lot of stuff about the way those films were done, especially the way Oren Peli just went out and made the first one and made it in that house. I just think it’s a great story. We’ve seen a certain recent crop of some stuff in this subgenre, but when you think back on it, every single decade of horror had several of its own iconic ghost films or haunted house films. None of this is new. People do all their own takes on it. With The Apparition, we weren’t so much setting out to reinvent the wheel, but just come at this in a new interesting way. Always asking ourselves and the actors, “Okay, let’s not just do what you would do in a horror film, but let’s do what you would really do in this situation. If you hear the sound, what would you really do? If you saw this, a brief glimpse of this, something standing in the corner of some room, not what would you do to benefit a horror film but what would you really do?” And now where does that take us and what kind of new interesting scenes or types of scares would that lead us to.


What site was that where you found The Philip Experiment?

Oh gosh, I couldn’t tell you that. A simple Google search will turn up tons of results from all kinds of different paranormal websites. A while after that I found these old Time Life Mysteries of the Unknown books that I had had since I was a kid and was flipping through one of their spiritual books or haunting books and I actually saw The Philip Experiment also mentioned in one of these Time Life Mysteries of the Unknown books. For The Apparition, it was important to me I tracked down this paranormal expert and investigator, Joshua P. Warren. I brought Joshua P. Warren on as a consultant, and was also looking into some other guys and doing my own research, but constantly would talk with and check in with Joshua and even have the actors talk with Joshua, especially Tom Felton who plays Patrick in the film who’s more of an expert on paranormal stuff. It was important for me to ghost experts and hunters and fans of the paranormal and horror fans and myself that everything be as accurate and authentic as possible. That’s down to what hauntings are like and what’s a full body apparition like and what is the gear and tech involved in creating a ghost. Joshua would even send us photos. He’s got a setup in his basement of his house where he has actually been attempting to create a ghost and get a full body apparition.

We were very serious about this. My prop guys tracked all this military grade equipment and science and medical equipment, some stuff that has been handmade or reworked by people in the paranormal field. We actually have it down to where we pretty much could’ve created a ghost. We have these EEG headsets that the characters wear. It basically boosts your brainwaves or amplifies your brainwaves. These wires go from the headset to these amplifiers that are set up on these stands and it amplifies and projects your brainwaves and thoughts or belief or fear. There’s also this whole idea of a fear cage that you can set up and a haunted cage. Believe me, I was being so authentic, part of me wanted, I was pushing for let’s not get the effects guys to create our apparition, let’s really get something here. The Warner Brothers and our financiers and insurance people were concerned or scared to create a real apparition so they ruled that out. Perhaps in the future.


Did you audition Ashley Greene, and were you concerned or did you like her connection to the genre?

We were auditioning all kinds of actresses and top actresses in town. Everybody was coming out for this. I knew of Ashley but I had not seen the Twilight films at that time. I didn’t have a certain actress in mind. We were really leaving it open to the character finding us and leaving it open. Ashley came to the room and she just really nailed the audition. She really was this character. I pushed really hard for her and she fought really hard for the part. She came in a couple more times. Of course we did some chemistry reads and auditions with her and Sebastian Stan to see how they worked as a couple and they were great.

But the thing that I responded to about Ashley was she was so likeable and relatable and just normal. She just felt really fresh and effortless. She did a great audition. At some point in the audition we did another version of an audition where we closed the blinds, turned down the lights and she had a flashlight. We were trying to have her walk around the room and act like she was catching sight of something in different places in the room, or being stalked by something. She’s especially good at the suspense moments and the scare moments, and is a great physical performer. She’s the kind of actress and young woman that women love and men love and the camera loves. I took great pleasure in really terrorizing Ashley with this film and really putting her through the ringer, but I was a good boyfriend and sat and watched all the Twilight films with my girlfriend. Also Ashley is so prepared and no nonsense. She asked the right questions and makes interesting choices. She’s got all these notes and character notes. Her script is covered with all these notes and it’s usually more notes than I have on my script and I start wondering what’s wrong with me. Did I do my homework?


What are you doing next?

I’ve got two things that I’m developing now and getting ready to go out with and start to meet with actors. We’ve been budgeting out. I’ve got Twittering from the Circus of the Dead that’s over at Mandalay Pictures, which is based on a short story by Joe Hill, who wrote Horns and Locke and Key and 20th Century Ghosts. That one I don’t want to describe but it’s a really unique horror film that has a nice mix of ingredients. The other project is The Nye Incidents which is based on this graphic novel by Whitley Strieber and Craig Spector. Whitley Strieber’s become a friend and he’s also a very close consultant on this as I wrote the script. The Nye Incidents is basically a new grounded terrifying take on aliens and alien abductions and mutilations. It’s not the type of aliens you’ve ever seen or type of abductions you’ve ever seen. It’s a whole new way into it. That one is based on these true stories and incidents, people that came to Whitley Strieber seeking help or refuge and came to him with these stories he documented. I’ve been going through all these transcripts and interviews and video footage. Whitley’s been slipping me crazy stuff from out in the field, from people working within the abductee community. We are getting really serious and really deep into this stuff. I feel like nobody’s really completely totally knocked it out of the park with a take on aliens that felt real and possible, like they can really take you out of your bedroom.


Meaning alien abductions. Obviously, there’s Alien.

Right, that’s the thing. Usually Hollywood’s take on aliens is either Alien or Aliens or it’s Independence Day. You’re either out in space or it’s this big invasion of earth, invasion of a big city, New York or Los Angeles and the big mothership hovering over the thing. This, there’s no spaceships, there’s no UFOs, there’s no bright lights, there’s no shiny metallic instruments. This is something very different but it’s actually more accurate. Now people have trouble getting scared by aliens because it’s all over stickers on people’s doors and notebooks or a skateboard. It’s all been ruined by pop culture post “X-Files.” Even Whitley Strieber and all these people say, “No, Hollywood got it wrong. The movies are getting it wrong.” Even that iconic grey alien with the big black eyes, all this stuff is jokey, inaccurate stuff most of the time. The real stuff that’s going on is so different, so strange and surreal. We’ll see which one goes first but it looks like The Nye Incidents will be the first to go next.