Any fan of horror literature has likely come across a story by H.P. Lovecraft. This is the man who invented the terrifying Cthulhu mythos and crafted his own style of cosmic dread, hinting at the monsters lurking behind our thin veil of reality. For all his importance in literature, though, Lovecraft has rarely been brought to the screen. I was lucky enough to sit down with Julien Jauniaux, the creator of the short film “An Eldritch Place.” This cinematic evocation of Lovecraft’s themes has revealed its deadly secrets at film festivals around the world, including Boston Underground, the Overlook and Razor Reel. Here Jauniaux discusses his process, and the unique challenge of tackling Lovecraft’s nebulous prose in a visual medium.
First of all, congratulations on this film’s impressive festival run – it’s travelled to some of the weirdest places in the world. Can you talk a bit about how the film came to be, what inspired it and what got it off the ground?
Thank you. This festival run helped be build more self confidence for my next film. Everything started when I took part in a sleep deprivation experiment. It was conducted by a friend of mine, a neuropsychology student. It sounded simple, but things got more difficult around 3 am. To stay awake, I came up with a few short story ideas. To be fair, they were just concepts at this point. “An Eldritch Place” was one of them.
I decided to develop that one specifically for two reasons. Firstly, I needed something to do after film school. I wanted to create a contained film with good production value. I studied film editing and had shot music videos before, but I’ve always wanted to focus on storytelling. Secondly, the concept allowed me to film almost everything in a single location. That was a crucial factor when I started writing the screenplay: I knew I’d have to figure out the pre-production aspects myself, including visual effects, props and location scouting. I pitched the idea to the actors and the film crew, mostly from the same film school as me. Everyone got on board quickly, and I’m thankful to them for that.
Adapting cosmic themes to cinema is difficult, but this short film communicates that unique dread successfully. How did you tap into that aspect of Lovecraft’s works for a visual medium?
For a long time, I’ve had this obsession with Lovecraft’s short story “Dagon,” and always wanted to adapt it in some form. Before film school, I tried getting into graphic novels, but I never had the patience to finish a piece. Adapting “Dagon” was the closet I got to finishing a 10 page comic. Since then, storyboards are the only illustrations I do. Even if they’re rough, they always help improve my visual storytelling.
In the short story, you can find the basic elements that define Lovecraft’s universe: an ancient world and an uneasy feeling of vertigo. We can only see a small portion of a daunting cosmos. The trick to get there, I think, is to restrict the point of view and give just enough hints to the reader or viewer. Now, the hard part is to choose what you give away.
I’m sure someone thought of this before me, but here is an analogy: writing a Lovecraftian story is like illuminating a huge and terrifying painting with a very small flashlight. You can’t show the whole painting at once because, once that happens, the character would lose his sanity instantly. You have to tread carefully as the writer. That’s what I tried to do, at least – I’m still experimenting with it.
What was the biggest challenge in writing this screenplay?
When writing a short screenplay that you know you’ll have to make with almost no budget, you become your worst enemy. There was some personal pressure, to say the least. Every page, every scene, is a compromise between the feasibility, your artistic vision and your skill as a director. You start writing as a hopeful storyteller and finish it as an anxious production assistant. The biggest challenge was to focus only on the story, not the aspects of everything from pre- to post-production.
It was difficult, but everything clicked before the crowdfunding campaign became successful. But right when I finished my second draft, two weeks before the shoot, the owner of the initial location bailed. Having a completed script helped me stay sane. The main story could function – I just had to find a new location.
This film features an impressive array of effects, from practical to digital – how did you craft the screenplay to communicate those, and how did the film’s limited scope affect your incorporation of them?
Spoiler alert – there is a Lovecraftian abomination in the film. When I finished the first draft, I got in touch with a special effects artist. I knew it couldn’t look cheap, so we discussed the issue. The artist sent me two conceptual pieces, one of which was perfect. That’s how I knew it was time to make the film happen. I handled the digital effects myself, and knowing my limits helped me frame the shots accordingly.
I got lucky with the main location, too, which had a Lovecraftian-giallo vibe to it. Looking back, there are common visual themes in the film – dead branches around the location paired with the shipwreck and the [monster’s] tentacles. Some of those lucky accidents you can’t control in a script. At the end of the day, it’s extremely rewarding to see what you wrote brought to life on screen.
What draws you to cosmic horror in particular as a storyteller?
I guess it’s all about pushing your creative limits. I love horror movies, but you can easily trap yourself in the genre’s tropes. When they’re too visible, it becomes problematic. Some day I’d love to make a classic giallo or slasher – but cosmic horror is so much fun because it’s a challenge to write. Like I said before, [you have to] slowly reveal a darker mystery. I’m trying to experiment with this idea further in my next project, by mixing genres and writing more realistic characters.
Do you have plans to continue this story in another film?
I’m currently writing a feature. It’s a slow process, because important story elements require a lot of research. Writing a longer story isn’t an easy task – The Script Lab is a good resource for that. I’m taking my time on this one. It’s a different beast.
Of course, I’ll keep the visual atmosphere and Lovecraftian themes from “An Eldritch Place,” but there are more literary influences I’d like to explore. Robert Chambers, Dashiell Hammett and Thomas Ligotti are just a few. Because it’s a heist movie on a small scale, it will be more violent and character-driven. For now, I’m focusing on crafting an engaging screenplay before anything else.
And, of course, what’s your favorite cosmic horror story?
This is a tricky question. My respect for Prometheus has grown a lot since it came out. I think it will be the best Lovecraftian feature film we’ll ever get, even with its flaws. Being stranded on a hostile planet while discovering a mind-shattering truth about your own species from an ancient civilization, that’s true cosmic horror for me.I’m sorry I can’t answer you much on the other hand, but it’s good news for filmmakers and screenwriters out there. We have an infinite eldritch world to discover.
You can view the trailer for “An Eldritch Place” here.