A Twisted Family Reunited in Southern Gothic Horror What Josiah Saw

Director Vincent Grashaw discusses the versions that almost were

Twisted Southern Gothic horror What Josiah Saw, streaming now on Shudder (Image Courtesy of Shudder)

There's a darkness hanging over Southern Gothic horror What Josiah Saw. Director Vincent Grashaw called it "the heaviest movie I've ever done. I was having PTSD director dreams for two weeks straight after."

After debuting at Fantasia International Film festival last year (read our review here), the eerie and twisted tale debuted on Shudder this week. It follows three adult siblings (Nick Stahl, Scott Haze, and Kelli Garner), all caught in the orbit of their abusive father, Josiah (Robert Patrick) and a sinister web of secrets that bind them together, no matter how far they run. Grashaw talked with the Chronicle about taking this long road into hell, and the challenges of casting a monster like Josiah.

Austin Chronicle: This is incredibly dark material - I've compared it to Jack Ketchum - that really burns into your soul. What drew you to it?

Vincent Grashaw: (Laughs) I figured people were going to be, "How fucked up is Vincent Grashaw?"

I will say, I had a great childhood. I was raised in a big family, very loved, and with you comes the side of you that is looking for an expression like this. More importantly, I was reading this, because [writer Robert Alan Dilts] was sending it to me 10 pages at a time as he was writing it. ... I'd finish reading 10 pages and go, "What the hell is going on? This is really interesting." Because there's a maturity to it that I really responded to, because I felt that if I was ever going to do a horror movie - which is where I felt this script was going - that I wanted it to be mature, grounded in a reality, not a slasher or torture porn, which isn't the kind of horror that I like.

“Robert really wanted to honor Robert Dilts’ script. All the drawl and the dialect, it’s all written, and Robert Patrick wanted to do it right.”
And this is 2013, by the way, so it's around the time that movies like It Follows and The Witch, and those are the kind of movies that elevated this genre. I don't know what you would call it. Some people say elevated horror, I don't know, but I knew I was on the right track when I was trying to get this movie made and I was seeing these kind of horrors come out, whether it was A24 or Blumhouse. You could just sense this turning with horror, and I really wanted to get ahead of it, but I couldn't get it made for six years.

AC: So how did you end up with Robert sharing his script with you at such an early stage?

VG: I'd known Robert for five, six years, and I'd really liked his scripts. All of them had felt about 80% done, and I think that's something he does as a writer. It's almost like he likes to piss you off. "Oh, this script isn't quite there, but it's interesting." And he's like, "That's all I'm doing with it." Oh, so is this just you, just the kind of way you write.

And it almost went that way with this a couple of times, but he really dove in while he was writing it. I wanted to do a horror and after he sent me 10 pages I went, "Keep writing, man." He basically told me, "I would have stopped after 10 or 20 pages," because I think it was more therapeutic for him. It's a little bit closer to home for him than it would have been for me, and it's stuff he does in his process to get it off his chest.

Robert Patrick as the titular patriarch of a broken family in Southern Gothic horror What Josiah Saw, streaming now on Shudder (Image Courtesy of Shudder)

AC: There's a handful of actors who bring this automatic shorthand with them, who the instant they appear you know, we're in for some shit, and Robert Patrick is one of them.

VG: Initially, when I was casting in 2015 I had Michael Parks cast in the role, and I put he and Scott Haze in a room together to just do some workshopping, and I didn't know if Michael was talking to me or just reading, because it was terrifying. I looked at Scott at one moment, just bug-eyed, like, "What is happening here? Is this a read? This is crazy." He was Josiah in those moments, and I saw a glimpse of something. Scott's a method kind of guy, he's really intense, but in the middle of this he broke a smirk. We were kicked back by what Michael was doing in that room.

Sadly, he ended up passing a little bit after that, so it was like this last moment, to sit with Michael Parks and see him do something that I was unprepared for. He just took something that was on the page and did something with it, and we were in a theatre, and Scott and I were the only ones privy to it.

After that, somebody we talked to was John Travolta, and we said several conversations. We talked a lot about the script and some of the moments that people either run away from or at least go, "What about the scene in the room with Thomas?" They either want it changed or they go, "I can go there, I just don't know if I wanna go there, and I don't think you should change it in the script, though." We would get really close to landing someone specifically like John, and to me I saw something in his eyes, and it would have kept the audience of their bearings a little bit. "What is John, this innocent, sweet guy with those eyes, doing manipulating?" I though thought there was an interesting choice there, but he didn't do it.

Robert, when he was referred to me through Ronnie Blevins (Billy in What Josiah Saw), even he when we hopped on a Skype call was a little reluctant to go there. And I can understand that, because you want to know that you're in good hands with this kind of material. You could have taken this movie in a completely different stylized direction and I think it could have been a disaster. So Robert, he said, "Send me your last movie," and I send him my last film, And Then I Go, which is a drama, a novel adaptation about two kids planning a school shooting. He watched it and called me right away and goes, "OK, let's go. Let's do this."

Robert really wanted to honor Robert Dilts' script. All the drawl and the dialect, it's all written, and Robert Patrick wanted to do it right. He didn't want to cut lines or rearrange. He just really wanted to perfect it, and he worked his ass off to do it. On a really low, low budget film like this, these actors come to Oklahoma in a regular Airbnb without really a great trailer, and Robert would be out on his folding chair in the middle of a field in mud, just memorizing his lines. It was a lot of fun, but it really was trench warfare making this movie.

What Josiah saw is streaming on Shudder now.

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Vincent Grashaw, What Josiah Saw, Shudder, Fantasia, Robert Patrick

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