Ahead of the VOD and home entertainment release of The Frozen Ground, we had the opportunity to speak with the first time feature filmmaker Scott Walker. After a successful career in advertising and marketing, Walker decided to pursue his ambition of telling stories on a larger canvas, and if film was not already a big enough canvas, he expanded it by merging film and the real life events of Alaska’s most notorious serial predator.
Reflecting on his feature debut, Scott spoke to us about reality as the source of ideas, our ongoing fascination with the dark side and serial killers, working with Nicolas Cage and John Cusack, whilst creating an entertaining story out of the horrors of real life, and the impact it had on him both personally and professionally, when tackling the events at the heart of this chilling production.
You previously worked in advertising and the marketing industry. Why the transition to filmmaking?
I got into advertising back in New Zealand where I grew up. It is obviously a creative industry in which you get to communicate ideas to audiences, to tell stories on a very small scale if you are doing a good advertising campaign. In New Zealand there was no film industry, and earning a living making films was practically impossible. This was before the Peter Jackson-Lord of the Rings days. I had moved to London and I had done very well, but my dream was always to tell stories on a bigger scale in film, and I thought if I don’t try it now I never will. So I did, and I had to teach myself how to write scripts, direct, and I had to teach myself how to go and make a film.
The genesis of The Frozen Ground saw the merging of real events with a story of your own you were constructing. Is this not a testament to how all narratives derive from reality in some way or another and therein everyday life is the genesis for ideas?
Yeah, totally! This was one of those challenges with doing the serial killer genre, which in the film world has been covered rather extensively. Now on television with all the series’ that follow these types of gruesome cases; they are all lifted from reality. So my original idea was that I just wanted to do one that was as close to what really happened as possible. But it’s ironic that the limitation I had then was that I wasn’t prepared to twist it even more, and almost hyper the real events and make it even more macabre and more commercial. I think that’s really interesting, and people look at it and say “I could have gone much further with – he hunted women”, and we had an appalling idea. In this genre especially, a lot of people draw from reality as the kernel of an idea, and then they make a fictional aspect of it. Even Silence of the Lambs was based on actual events, and then it was taken and twisted in a new direction. It’s a great film, but they are both intertwined.
This exploration of evil in the human form goes back to 1960, to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It seems that we never grow tired of exploring the evil within humanity. Why do you think it is that we find this exploration of evil such a compelling subject?
When the Quantico unit at the FBI started studying the captured serial killers, there was a desire to understand why is this person who is to all intent and purposes the same physical human being as me capable; or rather what psychologically makes them want to do that. I think we are all capable of incredible things. People have thoughts, and most people thank God don’t act on those thoughts, but others do. They don’t have to be incredibly heinous and horrific actions or thoughts, but small thoughts lead to other thoughts that lead to other thoughts, and that’s the evolution of a serial killers mind. I think that is why it fascinates a lot of people. Most serial killers are successful, and because they live amongst us without being noticed, and people see them as supposedly normal they therefore relate to them. When what they have really been doing is revealed, people are, “But he was the nicest guy; he was just like me. We were out drinking all the time; we were mates, and we went to church together.” I think it’s that so close and yet so different that captures people’s imagination about the dark side.
When you first see the poster for the film which features Nicolas Cage and John Cusack, you immediately expect what you think will be an entertaining film. Of course then you discover that it is based on real events, the real suffering of actual people. There is an interesting conflict in cinema where you depict real events and actual suffering, whilst simultaneously creating a compelling, entertaining and immersive experience. It remains an intriguing conflict within cinema.
The biggest challenge with anything is to tell a story that isn’t going to be a documentary. The budget is going to be substantial with any true story that is being turned into a film. The first thing that has to happen is like with Black Hawk Down , 110 something soldiers were involved in that event, and only 11 characters in the film are followed. Many of those characters have emerged as copulations of three or four very different soldiers. That’s the challenge in constructing a film version of those events. Also if you take something like this which spanned thirteen years, there is no way in less than two hours to cover thirteen years and still have it be interesting. So you start off with the intention that this is going to be as true as possible, and for me it was to have as much integrity towards the real people involved as possible. Then looking at the real events, trying to find a way into it that I found compelling enough to want to tell it. For me that was the relationship between Vanessa Hudgens’ Cindy Paulson and Nicholas Cage’s Jack Halcombe. Following their relationship is the key to the case, but on another level, on much more of a dramatic level, it is really a story about trust, and the girl who has been abused by everybody since the day she was born, lied to and left to fend for herself on the streets. How is she going to trust this one man who needs her trust in order to stop this killer?
The biggest challenge is then taking in all of the facts so that you actually retain the logic of events, of how something happened, and then how you can also structure it in a way which is true to those events, but which also then fills the film structure. You also discover things along the way. There were a lot of things I discovered in interviewing Cindy Paulson, the real woman that the police didn’t know at the time. So there are elements of that in the film, and people will never know which are true other than her. It’s what she did when she wasn’t with the police, and so you become a journalist in your own way.
I once spoke to a filmmaker who believes in discovering the truth through fiction and creative licence. Having dealt with real events in The Frozen Ground, what are your thoughts on what may at first seem an unconventional line of thought?
My version of that would be that in a film you are trying to create an experience of someone’s life, and so you are picking moments from their life which expresses their life. That’s what you are doing in any biographic or any true work. You don’t pick all the boring moments, but everyone has good moods and bad moods; good days and bad days. You are trying to pick which ones capture that, so that within two hours you actually get to understand not just the character in these particular moments, but if you can their overall life. I don’t know whether that is finding the truth in fiction, or not. I’m a big believer in just write the truth. That’s kind of an old adage, but it’s a good one. If you follow the truth in your heart or in the scenario then you create something which is more dramatic, and which will resonate with more people because we will intrinsically feel those similar emotions at a deeper level. So maybe that is what he was talking about, but I would definitely agree with that.
For your directorial debut, you have found yourself working with John Cusack and Nicolas Cage. How did the experience of working with them and collaborating on the creation of their individual characters compare?
This is my first film, and it was a huge privilege and opportunity to get to work with these guys. Also the rest of the cast: Kevin Dunn, Radha Mitchell, Katherine LaNassa and Vanessa Hudgens are all great actors. I was very clear on why every line in the script was there. Certain lines were actually a scene at one stage, and through the process of reducing, but in wanting to keep that idea, there might be a line of dialogue which represents a whole scene from a previous draft of the script. I met Nic first, and he was just terrific. I gave him an enormous amount of reading to do about the case and we talked a lot about the character. He is based predominantly on Glenn Flothe, but Glenn never wanted to become a hero, and he didn’t want to become famous. He enjoys his privacy so one of his stipulations was, “Please don’t use my real name.” So that gave Nic a degree of latitude because he was no longer just trying to recreate the real person, but he could actually create a character. So he came on board and then I met with John, who had the same reservations about how to portray Robert Hansen, because he could have easily been over the top where he would have become more of a Hollywood monster. I had given John a lot of the original FBI training manuals on how to group the serial rapist, saying this is exactly the sub-category that Robert Hansen is, and he’s not in these four sub-categories. So what we want to do is interpret the character within this understanding of the sub-category so that you understand their psychology and their motivations a lot more clearly. A lot of the script for Robert Hansen is taken from the transcripts of his interviews, and other stuff which we knew from the case of what he was doing and his attitudes to things. So when I said to John that I wanted to be really careful that we didn’t go over the top, his concern was that I would want to go over the top. So we had a real meeting of visions for his character.
One of the things that I asked of them both was if they would not see each other before we got to the half way stage in the shoot where Robert Hansen is arrested and interviewed for the first time. They were both fantastic about that because there could have been a big reunion. They haven’t seen each other for years, and it could have been well let’s catch-up. So they didn’t, and what was amazing was the shooting of those scenes. They came in in character, sat down in that room and didn’t say a word. There wasn’t even a “Hi John, hi Nic, how are you doing? It’s been ages.” They just sat down and we said “Action.” We shot that sequence in a day which was crazy, and it was just about bringing the intensity up and up and up. It is all about the subtleties, the little things that they were doing. It was amazing to watch, and about only half of it ended up in the film. The entire sequence in itself is incredible. Both of them pretty much stuck to what I had written, but both of them are so phenomenal that they are the best you have seen them in ages. It was an amazing experience.
It is easy to slip into a more simplistic version of the monstrous rather than to explore the complex layers of an ordinary man. Is it about how you marry the two personalities, the dualities together?
As I was saying before, a serial killer is someone who kills on a regular basis, over a period of time, and therefore to do that you have to be able to hide yourself in the normality of life. Some serial killers you wouldn’t even get that they were serial killers, and most of them, nobody does get who they are, and that’s why they get away with it. So that became the kind of well who is Robert Hansen then as a character? He’s not going to be foaming at the mouth; he’s going to have a strong duality with his different personalities, and what’s scary is how normal he can be – a family man with kids. On the DVD there are a lot more scenes that I had to cut, which is about his family life. He’s just this family guy and then in the next scene you see him do horrific things to these young girls, and that’s what’s really scary.
This isn’t a slasher film and I don’t think it’s a horror. Maybe it’s got thriller elements but I always saw it as a drama. I’m more interested in this triangle relationship, and unfortunately what is not in the film but is in some of the deleted scenes is this triangle of the three relationships: a cop, a killer and the girl, and their partners, and how the three relationships are all mirror opposites of each other. That’s what I was more interested in.
How has the film affected you personally? Has it evolved your life perspective?
It’s pretty all consuming, and personally for me it was very hard to do something else. I had agents and other people saying, “You should be working on something else while you are finishing this”, but I found it quite difficult to do that. All my energy was going into this, and when you start out and you go and meet the real people who were involved in these horrific events, whether they are the police or the survivors, or they are the family members of the victims, it is very heavy, very intense, and very real. I suddenly felt this great weight of responsibility, and the people who I was most concerned about what they thought of the film were the real people involved, as opposed to anyone else. So long as they didn’t think it was commercial, kind of hyped up, and they felt that it was done in the right tone, and it didn’t take advantage of the girls, and it didn’t try to leave a positive light on them at the end, then that was good.
True stories are rather consuming because they are stories that involve death. So you are dealing with very fragile memories of people who have been through a lot, who have lost people. It’s very rewarding in exactly the same way because you get to share that side, and how people deal with it as well. It’s much more an experience than just making a film.
The Frozen Ground is available now on VOD and on DVD and Blu-ray from 13th January 2014.