Wrecking Mansions and Perfecting Accents With Abigail’s Directors

Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin take a bite out of vampires

Alisha Weir as Abigail, the not-so-helpless kidnapping victim in Abigail, the new horror-comedy directed by Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin (Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

If you missed vampires that fear stakes and sunlight, then Abigail is the movie for you. Director Tyler Gillett credited that retro feel as coming from “the desire to make an old-school vampire movie ... while simultaneously taking the piss out of all the romanticization of it.”

It's his latest project co-directed with Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and produced by Chad Villella, better known as the founders of Radio Silence Productions. The trio exploded in horror circles with their segment in 2012 horror anthology V/H/S before moving into features with Devil's Due. They had their first smash with supernatural cult horror-action-comedy Ready or Not and then revamped a classic franchise with Scream and Scream VI.

Now they're taking on the creatures of the night in Abigail. Written by Guy Busick (who also penned their last three movies) and Stephen Shields (The Hole in the Ground), it follows a group of kidnappers, including Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire), Kevin Durand (Fruitvale Station), Scream star Melissa Barrera, and Angus Cloud in his final role. They think it's an easy snatch-and-grab, but soon find that Abigail (Alisha Weir) is more than capable of taking care of herself, and the mansion house in which they're hiding out could soon become their tomb.

A still from the "10/31/98" chapter of anthology horror V/H/S, the found footage breakout for Radio Silence (Image Courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

Austin Chronicle: So you do it here and you did it in Ready or Not: When did you decide that you like destroying mansion houses?

Tyler Gillett: V/H/S, honestly.

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin: Yeah, V/H/S. Maybe we watched House on Haunted Hill too much as kids, but there's something in our DNA that always attracts us to these contained environments.

TG: Alien is another. It's a mansion in space. You're in a space that evolves as the movie evolves. I think it's actually indie sensibility, in a lot of ways.

MBO: Yeah, because it's based on "Let's find one place that we can take over and shoot for a weekend, a week, whatever your budget allows." It's never left our sensibilities.

TG: For us, the other thing that felt really familiar to us that was really location specific was allowing the location to dictate and design what the movements of the story are, what the action sequences are – to not go in with such a rigid idea of what those things would be that we're not willing to be inspired by the location itself.

That was true for V/H/S, and so many of our shorts were based on "what if we wrote a story or a moment in a story that could exist here because it's such a cool location." It felt like a real return to that with more resources, more crew, smarter people around us.

Tyler Gillett (l) and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin on the set of Abigail (Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures)
AC: So where exactly was it?

MBO: It's a house called Glenmaroon in Dublin in Ireland. It used to be a party house for the Guinness family, and it went through a lot of iterations since then – some of them somewhat spooky – but it's been abandoned and we could just take it over.

AC: The Irish film industry is very amenable to horror films.

TG: They certainly showed us that side of themselves out there when we were shooting!

AC: And you got to work with Dan Stevens. One thing that I've heard is that he's insane on accents, and he does an absurd amount of research to get them right.

TG: “What does a former detective from Queens sound like?”

MBO We cast Dan a few weeks before we went into production, and Dan was like, “So, this character is a 70-year-old grizzled cop, and that is not me.” We were straight up: “Listen, we want you to make this character in your own,” and Dan surprised us in the best way with what he brought to the table. The glasses, which are such a big part of that character, those were Dan's idea, and the accent, he really nailed. Our editor, Mike, is from the same area where Dan's character is supposed to be from, and he went, “That accent's flawless. It's incredible.” And our sound designer, John, was working on Godzilla x Kong ...

AC: From Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, two more V/H/S veterans.

MBO: Exactly! He was working on that while he was doing our rough sound mixes. He went, “I was days into doing the mix on this when I went, ‘Oh! That's Dan Stevens!’”

TG: It wasn't until he took his glasses off that he went, “Hey, wait a minute!”

MBO: He didn't even realize it. That's how much of a chameleon Dan is. And I don't know if you noticed this, but Dan's character's real name is a nod to Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett.

TG: I don't think we've ever met somebody and had so many inside jokes quite as quickly as we have with Dan.

MBO: I feel like we only have inside jokes with Dan.

TG: He is one of the funniest, loveliest people we've ever worked with.

MBO: As soon as we saw The Guest 10 years ago we were like, “Holy shit, who is this?”

"I don't know what this movie is without these exact actors." Abigail director Matt Bettinelli-Olpin on the criminal crew in his vampire flick: (l to r) Angus Cloud, Kathryn Newton, Kevin Durand (with Alisha Weir), Dan Stevens, Melissa Barrera, and William Catlett (Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

AC: Changing Dan's character from an old cop to a younger man changes the dynamics and the power play within the crew. How much did you change that around?

MBO Everybody in this movie came in, saw what was on the page, and then we had a conversation with them where they threw out ideas to make it really personal, make it their own. We always love that, and it means a lot to us, and it allows us and the cast to be a little more free and have a little more fun with it.

I think every single person in the gang, the character tweaked. I think that's a testament to the great writing, that there's these archetypes and they have room to grow, and room to bounce each other and play off each other. For example, when we cast Angus, it instantly guided a pass on the script that was aimed at, well, now Angus Cloud is in this movie, and that's really exciting, so let's tweak this character to fit Angus better.

On some level, we did that with everybody, but even more importantly all of the actors brought something that they did on the day that made it special. The thing Tyler and I always say, and this is our fifth ensemble in a row, is that we feel like we've achieved something we can be proud of when we can't imagine anybody else in it, and at the end of day Abigail is a great example of that. I don't know what this movie is without these exact actors.

AC: And thanks for casting Kevin Durand. There are such wonderful character beats with him as the muscle but with a little bit of sympathy to him.

TG: He's such a nice guy!

MBO: Our first conversation when he got to Dublin was about infusing Peter with a little more of that softness. It was certainly a conversation, but Kevin is just naturally that. He's a gentle giant. You look at him and know he's capable of a scary amount of strength, but he is the softest and sweetest and most gentle guy we've ever met. That was such a fun dynamic to find in that archetype. You have this guy who is going to be pointed to do the worst thing because of his size, but at the end of the day he's the quickest to form friendships and connections within the group.

Abigail is in cinemas now.

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Abigail, Tyler Gillett, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Dan Stevens, Angus Cloud, Kevin Durand, Melissa Barrera, Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, Radio Silence Productions

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