Amanda Seyfried and James Norton stir a sinister marriage in Netflix thriller Things Heard and Seen
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Instead, writer-directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman (American Splendor) want to emphasize that the Netflix offering is a supernatural thriller, where the real horror of the story lies in a marriage.
Based on Elizabeth Brundage's 2016 novel All Things Cease to Appear, the film follows a Manhattan couple (Seyfried and Norton) who move to a historic hamlet in the Hudson Valley and come to discover that their marriage has a sinister darkness, one that rivals their new home's history. The film also stars Natalia Dyer, Rhea Seehorn, Alex Neustaedter, and F. Murray Abraham.
Here, Pulcini and Springer Berman preview their new film, which hits Netflix April 29.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: As a married couple yourselves, why did you want to take on this story of a marriage gone wrong?
ROBERT PULCINI: Well, it's interesting. The desire to film this landscape up in the Hudson Valley was really what brought me to the book. We've spent a lot of time up here. I read about the book, and that it was sort of getting national attention and great reviews, and I decided to buy it. It kind of captured for me this area. This landscape here and the seasons are very filled with drama, and there's kind of a spirituality to the backdrop of the Hudson River painters; they saw a lot of spirituality in nature. And there's always been a spooky element to the Hudson Valley with the Washington Irving stories that, you know, you really feel when you're up here with the clinging fog, and I just thought it brought together so many wonderful things. I also felt like there was something oddly timely about it. So I had Shari read it, and she absolutely loved it.
SHARI SPRINGER BERMAN: And on the marriage, it's funny that you would say that because I actually really like movies that are sort of supernatural or psychological thrillers that are based on some kind of real subconscious fear. I think the most successful ones are based in something real. One of my favorite movies is Rosemary's Baby, which is this fear of giving birth and having to bring life into the world. And I think one of the most frightening things in the world is a marriage. It can be incredibly wonderful, and it can be incredibly frightening and scary, both at the same time. So to me, there was something very truthful about that being sort of the underlying or underpinning of this story that both brought a lot of fear to the reader, and then the viewer. Although, you know, Bob and I are still married, and it's been 21 years, 22 — we've been married for a long time. So in spite of all the fear, we seemed to have overcome it. [Laughs]
Early reports called the film a horror thriller, but I wouldn't characterize the book that way at all. Did that change for the film?
SPRINGER BERMAN: It's not a horror.
PULCINI: I find it more of a literary ghost story, in the tradition of Turn of the Screw and things like that. And there's a gothic kind of quality to it, with the heroine kind of searching for her freedoms and with the supernatural element. So I think it's more of a supernatural thriller if you're going to give it a genre. For me, I love spooky movies more than I like jump-scare movies.
SPRINGER BERMAN: Like the Nicolas Roeg movie Don't Look Now. It was set in the art world in Venice and is about grief, but there's scares in it. There's supernatural elements to it. For us, this was a blending of those things, but I would not say horror. I think that's been a misrepresentation. We tried to honor the tone of the book, I would say. So it has ghosts, and it has murder, but it also has a real emotional drama.
PULCINI: I mean, the real horror of the story is the marriage, you know?
Did you make a lot of changes from the book?
SPRINGER BERMAN: The movie is set in 1980. So I think we set it pretty close to when it was set [in the book], like '79 into '80. We definitely kept that. In the book, there are three brothers, and we made two brothers. It was not enough time to really develop the characters of three individual brothers.
PULCINI: Obviously, Franny [the couple's daughter] grows up in the book.
SPRINGER BERMAN: Yeah, we had to lower the time stretch because it was quite epic in the book, and unless we did [the film] over multiple parts, we couldn't tell that much of the story.
Can you tell us a bit about casting Amanda and James, and Rhea Seehorn as the outspoken best friend, Justine?
PULCINI: He was the first person we met with and we fell in love with him, but he wasn't available. So we went on this kind of long casting journey, like exploring other options. And then we got an email out of the blue saying he was available.
SPRINGER BERMAN: His show got pushed that he was working on. So he suddenly had a window and we were like, "Yes!" So that worked out really well. And I just am a huge fan of his work. I think he's just an incredible actor.
PULCINI: And we were just thrilled to land Amanda. I mean, she was so right for this role, because she has this delicate side and this strength simultaneously. People are really starting to see what she's capable of, but she can do anything you ask of her as an actor, and she has great instincts. And it's funny, when we told the the novelist that we were casting Amanda, she said she imagined her when she wrote this character. She said she really had to sit down when we told her that, because she didn't expect it. But that was the face that was in her mind.
SPRINGER BERMAN: It's funny, because to me, Amanda is so relatable. I mean, she's beautiful, and she's a remarkable person, but yet she's someone that you can see yourself in, and I felt that was very important for this role.
PULCINI: And Rhea reached out to us — she plays Justine in the movie. She is, I think, a standout in the movie. And she just reached out to us — in true Justine fashion — and was like, "I want to play this role." We were really struggling with who would be right, and it just clicked.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
PULCINI: One of the things that I loved about the book is that I was so engaged in second-guessing all of the obvious stuff. And it just took me on this journey that I didn't expect. It started off spooky, and then I started slowly really getting engaged with these characters and with this world, and I thought there were lots of surprises with how the supernatural played an element in the story. And my hope is that people go in with certain expectations and come out with a different experience than what they anticipated.
SPRINGER BERMAN: Well, if you read the book, you're aware of all the [Swedish theologian Emanuel] Swedenborg in it, and kind of the metaphysical aspects to it. And I think one of the things that I really love and I think is very timely, considering all the hell that we've all been through this last year, is the metaphysical nature and sort of the idea of karma, and the afterlife, and what is on the other side of life? The big questions.
PULCINI: How long can you get away with wrongdoing on earth? What kind of forces bring that around? And I think a lot of people grapple with those questions now, seeing all the stuff in the news. People have gotten away with things for so long, it really makes you wonder, how does the comeuppance play in the scheme of the universe?
SPRINGER BERMAN: So I would hope that people could watch a movie and get caught up in the drama and the scares and the relationships, but also come away thinking about some of the bigger questions about karma, about the nature of life and death. It is in the book, and we definitely addressed it. And also, as a woman, as a female director, I was very interested in the sort of idea of a woman finding her voice, and struggling to find her voice in a marriage and in the world.