Feeding on the Mind of Stephen Cognetti
Stephen Cognetti is a director and filmmaker. His horror films Hell House LLC. 1 – 3 and the influences that inspired him are the topic of discussion, let’s crack him open!
First and foremost, I want to thank Stephen Cognetti for his participation and willingness to have his head cracked open for us at Readers Digested. For some of you who may not yet be familiar, Stephen Cognetti is a horror filmmaker and director. His film Hellhouse LLC premiered at the 2015 Telluride Horror Show in time for the Halloween season. What was the development like for this film and how did it feel when the film finally arrived in-front of an audience?
The film took a long time to develop. I was working at a tv production company in NYC in 2012/2013 while I was writing the film. So I would wake up at 5am, write for an hour or two then hop on the subway and repeat that every day for over a year. From the time I began writing to when an audience finally saw the film was about 3 to 4 years.
When it was accepted to Telluride Horror, my wife and I were super excited because this would be my first festival with a feature and we had always wanted to take a trip to Telluride. The festival was an amazing experience. It’s a great destination for fans of horror. I remember seeing so many great horror films there and I was honored they included Hell House in their lineup. The film got a very great reaction from the audience there which gave us hope that the film would be accepted by the horror community at large.
Hellhouse LLC was subsequently acquired by Terror Films and released for a home-video audience in November 2016, and, as the credits rolled on the film, I couldn’t help but notice an apparent aspect about it. The last name “Cognetti” appears very often (Craig, David, Joseph, Kevin, Mark, and, of course, yourself), would you say that film has always been an important component in your family?
I’m very close with my family, not only my siblings but all my cousins too. I have a very large family. Making Hell House could not have happened without family support.
It was probably in 2011 when a cousin of mine said to me (at a Thanksgiving dinner) “You know, why haven’t you tried horror yet?” And he was right. I loved the genre but hadn’t tried it out myself. He said he was just in a Halloween haunted house in NYC and he thought it was the perfect setting for a horror film. I loved it. I began writing and then came back to him and a few others with my idea. I asked them for a small investment, very small as the film was going to be done super cheap.
It was great to share this experience with family that I had grown up with. They and their wives, friends etc all came to a small, private screening of my original cut of the film in November of 2014. It was like a mini family reunion but the purpose was to see the final product of a small idea discussed briefly over turkey a few years prior.
Hell House LLC is a found footage film, shot as a documentary, and follows a group of Halloween haunted house creators in the opening of their latest attraction. As we are very much in the land of horror, everything goes awry and tragedy strikes, resulting in the death of staff and tour-goers alike. Did you have a reason in-particular that influenced you to shoot the film as a found-footage “documentary” as opposed to a more linear format?
I originally wanted it to be a traditional narrative, but I soon realized it was more fun to approach it as something I love to watch myself, a Dateline or 60 Minutes documentary. But instead of investigating a murder we’re investigating an unexplained tragedy that has a paranormal background to it.
So I wanted to start by presenting the mystery, the opening night tragedy shown by the perspective of a tour-goer who happened to get the whole incident on his camera. Then, the documentary is used to try and piece together the mystery through interviews and, most importantly, recovered footage from the company that created the tour itself. I love a good mystery mixed with subtle scares.
The film Lake Mungo, one of my favorites was definitely an early inspiration for Hell House because it showed how truly terrifying a fake documentary could be. So, what I wanted to do was instead of showing raw “found footage” that has no explanation of why or how the audience is seeing it, I rather wanted to show a completed, edited documentary. How would a documentary team edit these interviews and footage together? If we know how and why we’re seeing this footage, I think it works better.
The found-footage genre has always received a mixed-response from critics and moviegoers alike. Some love them, some don’t. As a filmmaker, what influences of the found-footage did you try to implement, and, in turn, what mistakes of the genre did you try to keep from replicating?
The biggest thing I wanted to do different, as I mentioned earlier, was to show how and why this footage was being presented to the audience. A completed doc was the best way to do that. Found footage gets a mixed response because it’s an over-saturated sub genre. Anybody can make one so you have a lot of good ones and a lot of bad and hards to sift through plethora of them to find one that you’ll enjoy. I personally love the genre and so many people are doing great things with it, finding new ways to scare people. I think found footage is one of the best ways to scare an audience because, if done well, it can feel so real.
In late-2018, Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel premiered exclusively on the Shudder subscription service with a third sequel Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire following a year after. How did your relationship with the Shudder subscription servicecome to fruition?
Shudder is the best streaming service out there for horror fans and I’ve always been a big fan of their content. When they brought the original Hell House onto their site and introduced it to the die hard fans of the horror genre, a new audience for us, I was so honored for our little film to be among some of the great content that Shudder curates. I had always wanted to tell the entire Hell House story that I originally laid out. When I went into production on them, Shudder was kind enough to allow the sequels to premier on their platform. For me, that was a dream come true because it meant that the films would go direct to the horror community when they were completed.
What other films and directors on the Shudder subscription service would you recommend?
Oh man, there are so many good movies on there. It depends on what kind of horror you like. That’s the best thing about Shudder. The horror is broken down by the sub genre so you can easily find horror that fits your interests. I always click on the supernatural features which are my favorite kind of horror films. If you liked Hell House then you’ll love films like Lake Mungo, VHS or The Taking of Debrah Logan.
As I watched The Abaddon Hotel, it was very easy to see the connective tissues between each films. I also believe the series comes together for a narrative that feels best watched in an episode (or even binge) fashion. Did you always intend it as a Trilogy of films or was it later you found further exploration was warranted?
I always wanted it to be a trilogy of films but I never thought I’d get to make the subsequent two. I had written out this whole history of the Abaddon Hotel, the town of Abaddon, how it connects with Alex Taylor from the original and into the future. I chopped it all down and just shot the Hell House tragedy part of the story. When Hell House started to get some recognition and it seemed people were enjoying it, I started thinking about finishing the story. We still had all the problems of a super low-budget indie, we were tight on money and time shooting all three films.
If there was one thing I could do over again if I had a magic wand would be to give our production more shooting time and more resources. We were always making films with one arm tied behind our backs, and that is a testament to the amazing people I had the pleasure of working with both in front of the camera and behind. They were all the best at what they did and worked their butts off every day.
It isn’t often that a filmmaker is able to develop their own feature-length film in their own unique vision, right out of the (hell’s) gate, were you nervous directing your first film, and what changes did you go through as a director and writer thereafter with The Abaddon Hotel and Lake of Fire?
I had directed short films in school and after school as well, so I knew what to do and how to do it.
The difference was that this time there was a lot more on the line. Even though our budget was small, I was still dealing with other people’s money, out in the middle of nowhere with a big group of actors and crew who, for the most part, had all just met each other.
We had 10 days to shoot 95 pages of script and nobody really knew how it would turn out. It was a new style of filmmaking that none of us had tried before. I don’t think I changed my personal style of directing or writing throughout the process. However, I would direct a found footage scene much different than I would a traditional narrative scene. Coverage is kind in a traditional narrative. How we can cover a scene, a scare, etc., we can be more liberal with if it were a traditionally shot film. In found footage, your hands are tied in the sense of how you can shoot and cover a scare. That’s what I’m most excited about with our new feature 825 Forest Road and hopefully in the future The Abaddon Tapes which we’re developing now. I’m excited to shoot some non-found footage horror stories.
One of the main-appeals of the film is no doubt the spooky décor and props that find themselves in the background, offering an environment and setting that is always drawn into question. In what ways did you think to incorporate environment in the film, and how did you strike the balance on when to strike and when to build suspense?
I knew that our location had to have three distinct looks.
First, it had to look like a hotel abandoned since the 80’s. Then, it had to look like a functioning haunted house Hell House turned it into in 2009, then it had to look like an abandoned haunt for 5 years when Diane Graves comes upon it in 2014. My favorite was the last. Walking through a haunt when it’s closed is creepy on its own, but imagine walking through an abandoned haunt where people died five years ago.
You have Diane who is excited about the prospect, she’s like me because I love the opportunity to explore abandoned structures no matter how creepy. And then you have her reluctant cameraman, Jonathan. There is supposed to be two distinct tones to Hell House finding the abandoned hotel to make their haunt, then years after the tragedy Diane finding the ruins of that haunt, and the film is everything that happened in between.
Our set designer, Angie Moyer and her team, did a wonderful job of building and transforming the hotel into what it needed to be for each period. Most of the scares are suspense building, or more specifically, the subtle building of uncomfortableness. I always said on set, “less is more, subtlety is everything”. Use the natural creepiness of the hotel to set the tone of unease then subtly drop in something that wasn’t supposed to be there. The clown standing at the bottom of the steps when they wake up in the middle of the night is the first scare I conceived of way back when the story wasn’t even fully fleshed out yet and that remained throughout every draft unchanged because it was exactly the kind of scare that I like and perfect for the subtlety I wanted the whole film to have.
I remember how The Exorcist film would implant subliminal or hidden images in its film, but it feels like this series takes it to another level in-terms of blink-and-you-miss-it imagery. Some of it is pointed out in the film, whereas some of it isn’t, how much of a deliberate effort was this, and how deep does the rabbit-hole go?
I’m glad that you mentioned The Exorcist because it is hands down my favorite horror film of all time. I’m so in love with that film.
The use of hidden, or subtle easter eggs, background images etc were all deliberate and it mostly came from the idea that there was more story to tell that isn’t part of the film, there is more background to the hotel, to Abaddon, the cult and to Alex Taylor’s decision to bring Hell House out there. Since I was thinking I’d never be able to tell more of the story I might as well leave subtle hints to all of that throughout the film.
We have since been able to pick up on some of those threads in the subsequent two films, but, there are many mysteries and images from the first film, and in the sequels, that we still haven’t told and are part of our Abaddon Tapes story.
In my opinion, what intrigued me most about the Hell House series was how elaborate and fleshed-out the lore felt in-terms of its backstory and attention-to-detail. Obviously, one of the most found-footage horror films in history is the Blair Witch series, and, in some ways, this film builds on a similar ideology (in its own distinct ways). How did you approach developing the series as a whole?
Developing the series as a whole was easier since I already had most of the story fleshed out even before the original film was released. I knew the concept of the biblical “Lake of Fire” was big with Tully and his cult and I wanted that as the title of the third and final film. If we’re ever able to create the Abaddon Tapes we have so many great interweaving story lines and scares that are before, after and parallel to everything you saw in the HH trilogy.
How do you foresee yourself applying it on a grander scale, a Cognetti underworld, so-to-speak whether it be a sequel or a film of a similar wavelength?
With 825 Forest Road and The Church, two films I’ve written since Hell House, they all have similar themes that I love exploring. Haunted mysteries that we’re trying to solve. Abandoned structures holding secrets that need to be told and a plethora of the scares that I love the most, the subtle and creepy versions instead of a jump scare. I’ve been waiting to be able to make these films because they’re both traditional narrative, not found footage, so it would take more of a budget to bring these scripts to life.
Thanks again for sitting down with us on Readers Digested!
Thanks for the opportunity!