Interview: Paul Soter Talks ‘Dark Circles’

Paul Soter is mostly known for his slapstick comedy with Broken Lizard, so it was a surprise to see the comedian turn to horror for his latest movie Dark Circles. Soter stepped behind the director’s chair for a second time with a movie that follows the struggles of sleep-deprived new parents. Soter spoke with me about his personal story that inspired the film, whether or not his association with Broken Lizard has hindered his horror career, and his future with the genre.
You’re known mostly for your comedy with Broken Lizard. Were you nervous that horror fans would be hesitant toward Dark Circles because of that factor?
Our fans have a pretty definitive sense of what they like to see us do. I know that people kind of have the things that they like to see us do; they don’t like us to stray from that. I also figured, well since it’s just  me, on my own, that people wouldn’t get too hung up on me doing something very different than what I’ve done [with Broken Lizard]. Certainly there’s going to be a portion of people who are inevitably gonna be like “Come on, what the fuck? Why don’t you just do Super Troopers, and that’s just inevitable; that’s just how it is. But I also know that a genre audience is its own separate audience, and I felt like as long as I can get some of those people to see the movie , that’s really what this was all about.
How long had you been working on the script for Dark Circles before everything came into fruition?
 It was a while. Every stage of the process ended up being much longer than I would have liked. I shot the movie two years ago and so, I would say it was probably a good two years of working on the script before I got the ability to get it made. It all started from …having a baby. So, once I got out of the shit-storm that was sleep deprivation, it started to sort of formulate.
You’ve come from working on things with a large ensemble cast. Did you find it harder or feel more pressure to get things across the screen knowing you had to rely mainly on two actors?
No, it really was the opposite. The two movies that I’ve done—I directed a comedy before Dark Circles—I very deliberately wanted to have a small ensemble. The really hard thing actually about making a Broken Lizard movie that people don’t really think about is that coverage-wise there’s always at least 5 people in every scene and you know, even when we’ve done movies with Fox Searchlight and Warner Brothers, there’s never been a big enough budget where you could really shoot at a leisurely pace and make sure that everybody got proper coverage. So, it’s hard. It’s a pain in the ass trying to cover at least 5 people, sometimes 7 people in a scene; it eats up your day. So, when I decided to start directing it was actually a fairly deliberate decision making process to keep it small. 
Obviously with Dark Circles it’s a two-man show and frankly it’s still stressful, but it allows you to really concentrate on getting the composition just the way you want, getting things done just the way you want, as opposed to like in a Broken Lizard movie fuck, you get like 2 takes and you got to move on because you’ve got all these takes to get done and you don’t have money, and you gotta cover a ton of people. It actually was a great thing. That’s why I like the process of directing on my own. Shooting the movie is a lot less of a pain in the ass than shooting with an ensemble piece.
Pell James’ performance really carries the film. Was she the only actress you auditioned or wanted for the part of Penny?
Yeah, she came on before the movie was greenlit. I got to a point where I was like, “I’m just gonna pretend I’m making this movie.” I started this exercise where I was like well, let’s get into casting. What if I pretend that I’m making the movie and it will start happening? So, I decided what I would do was kind of go through and make a list of actresses I really liked, who I maybe had some contact with or connection to, or I thought they still hadn’t broken out and would be interested in doing a super low-budget movie. And I made this list, and I kept coming back to Pell’s name because I had seen her in a bunch of things. 
Everything I saw her in, she had great likeability. And I kept going back to Zodiac. She’s in (David) Fincher’s Zodiac; she’s in that scene where the couple gets killed. That scene, what I took away from it, was how horrible it must be to be a perfectly nice person doing nothing wrong, trying to have a picnic, and have someone show up and just murder you. For me, that’s kind of what I wanted to do with Dark Circles. I wanted to have that sense of “these poor fucking people have done nothing wrong; they don’t deserve this ordeal.” And so, basically I called up Pell’s agent and said “Look I got a script, I haven’t put the money together yet but I’m getting close, and I was wondering if she would want to get involved. She read the script and liked it, and we got together and it turned out actually that she had some contact in producing through her husband, and they put us in touch with After Dark. It was sort of a happy accident just because I decided to move forward with finding an actress, even though I didn’t have money. It was the process of finding her that was the last piece of getting financing for the film.
Penny is a very strong female character, yet she’s vulnerable at the same time. How would you compare her to other “final girls” in the genre?
She’s not so far off and that’s one of the things I like about the genre is that you have a female character who is being put through some gauntlet, and she finds a strength that she didn’t know she had. And so, to me I wanted her to not be typical, but a pretty classic character…here’s a woman who’s just being put through the ringer, and is becoming more and more ungrounded in a downward spiral. We have Rosemary’s Baby and we’ve got movies like Grace, [horror movies] that are about maternal issues, but I wanted to have a film about a woman trying to keep her shit together while trying to stay in touch with what’s real and what’s not real.
You’ve said that Dark Circles is based on your struggles as a new parent. Because the film really focuses a lot on a mother’s struggle, did you get any suggestions from your wife when writing the character of Penny?
Yeah, it was an interesting dynamic. I would write the script and show it to my wife. I was touchy about dredging up some things from really sort of an unhappy period of our lives. It was a rough year. So, I wanted her input, but I also wanted to make sure she was ok with me writing things that clearly were what my recollections were, and what she had been like as much as I had been like.  You look at what both of these characters are doing and you can say you don’t want to be seen  as like—like Pell as an actress, or [Katie]my wife as the model for the character—as somebody who did irresponsible things with the baby. I think that was the tricky part. There was some unflattering behavior in the film and that’s part of the point that I had to explain to Pell and I had to explain to Katie also, the movie has to be about how somebody who would otherwise never do something irresponsible with a child because of the extreme circumstance they find themselves in.
The film felt like Japanese horror movies like The Grudge (Ju-on)n and The Ring (Ringu). Did those movies inspire you at all when developing the direction and tone for Dark Circles?
Yeah, the first conversation I had with my DP is he wanted to know the palette for the movie, the colors and the light. It was the American version of the Ring that I told him was my model just because, I mean I’m a fan of Ringu, but I love the look of the Ring. I really like the way that the movie is shot. [Dark Circles]It was very low budget, but I wanted to have people look at it and say wow, this looks like a much more expensive movie. What I like about the Japanese movies and the Spanish movies is the horror stuff is very grounded in storytelling and human emotions; it’s  on an emotional level, things that weren’t just sort of “body-count movies” and horror for the sake of blood and gore, and that stupidity. They’re grounded and try to tell stories about real people going through horrible things.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
I guess the general thing I wanted to get into was to have people appreciate it. The genre is great for telling people’s stories and having it be about more than just a dude in a mask cutting people’s heads off. What I love about the genre is that it’s not just about zombie movies. It’s a terrific avenue for saying other things like social commentary. So, in this case [Dark Circles] isn’t social commentary, but it’s a scary movie about an emotional situation that happens and people find themselves in once they have a child.
The film’s ending wasn’t over-the-top. Why did you choose to keep things simple and subtle all the way throughout the movie?
Without getting into spoilers, my feeling about horror movies, especially haunted house movies, is you don’t have a ton of choices what you’re gonna do in your third act other than to take it up to  another level. To me it’s sort of a frustrating corner that the genre itself has painted itself into. What can you do other than to blow it out, and with haunted house movies you don’t have a ton of options other than black goo starts spilling from the walls, and the toilets start exploding, and house starts rattling. How many times have we seen that ending?
Hopefully the audience asks am I watching a movie about “A” or am I watching a movie about “B”. Is it supernatural or is it psychological? At some point I thought it might be interesting if the answer was “C”. It was a trick I wanted to pull. Did I accomplish it? I don’t know.
Can you tell me anything about your other upcoming horror projects?

MTV is really into getting into teen-oriented horror but with detailed, visceral storytelling. I went in and talked about an idea, and basically they really liked it. We made a deal for me to direct a script for that. So, that will be exciting. I love that TV is now opening up into getting into horror. And I’ve got 2 indie scripts. One is sort of a black comedy in a horror space. The other one is a zombie, kind of an upside down zombie movie that I’ve been shopping around and I seem to be getting some interest. It’s kind of cool. Dark Circles was not sort of put out the certain way that I would have liked to have seen it, but it’s made enough of an impact that I’m starting to get submitted scripts to direct. 
To read my thoughts on Dark Circles click here. Make sure to check out Dark Circles now available on DVD!