Chicago-born filmmaker Jenna Mattison is seated in the director’s chair for the first time, bringing viewers down to an ominous and dangerous place in the intensely chilling film, The Sound. We follow Kelly Johansen (Rose McGowan) on her treks to debunk the myth of ghosts and hauntings. This driven author and blogger finds her newest challenge resides in the lower and abandoned subway system in Toronto. Local lore tells the tale of a woman who jumped or was pushed onto the tracks and she now haunts the area. Set to find answers, Kelly delves more deeply into the abyss, discovering, uncovering and questioning much more than she ever imagined.
Mattison sat down to talk with me about her directorial debut, its challenges, being female and the unusual circumstances behind the making of this film. Her casual and familiar manner would make anyone feel at ease as she began talking about her beginnings as an actress. “I always felt a little odd in the whole realm of acting…plus I don’t look like a little Barbie so that didn’t really help matters,” she laughed. Creating stories even as a child was definitely in her wheelhouse and she took a chance with her first screenplay, A Fish Without A Bicycle, which played in the Cannes Marketplace. She stopped acting altogether about 12 years ago, but has numerous writing and producing credits to her name.
After producing a film recently in Canada, Mattison was approached to create another movie with the stipulation that it had to be in the horror genre and set in Toronto. Her reaction was, “I’m not going to write about a bunch of kids in a cabin getting killed one by one.” Thankfully, she did not. After researching hauntings and ghosts in Canada, she came across the lore of the Lower Base Station and the woman who jumped or was pushed to her death on the tracks. The station was shut down and there have been reports of hauntings. The film centers upon a very low-pitched, harmful sound known as “infrasonic sound.” As luck would have it, the station was “…a vessel for that sound, so I was off to the races.”
Mattison was particularly intrigued by the sound concept as she shared that “…in the last 10 years of my life, I actually went deaf on one side and have damaged hearing on the other side.” She became very interested in sound because after losing a portion of her hearing, she said, “It changed my perspective. It changed everything. It changes your sensory, your sights, your smell. Everything becomes amplified.” She then brought on the producer of The Ring and crafted a script. “What you see is what we made on a very tight budget and a very tight timeline. I fought for the movie I wanted to make. If you notice, no one screams in the movie. There’s no blood and guts. There’s no cheap scares and that’s by design…” Mattison didn’t follow the stereotypical formula for horror films which was certainly innovative and very effective in this genre.
Mattison laughed as I suggested that she had broken the mold in this genre and while she was very humble, she recognized that her film truly is different. “I wanted to make an art house film as a horror film and I feel like that’s what I made.” She continued, “I didn’t know if it would fall flat on its face, but I had to do it with my vision…I didn’t want it to be a homogenized version.”
Strength and determination was truly necessary as she explained the barriers she pushed through to complete her film with her vision. Mattison is no stranger to a movie set, but this was her first director’s job and being female, “…there’s a lot of second guessing. There’s a lot of ‘You’re not doing it right’ and ‘You should do it this way instead.’” While she felt that she was open to others’ thoughts and concerns, she quickly understood that, “If I wasn’t clear about what I wanted and if I didn’t follow through with what I wanted, the movie was going to be a mess and it was going to be a potion of 50 different people’s opinions.” She also shared that she wasn’t trying to win a popularity contest and that she had to fight for many of her shots in this film. “I have strong opinions and I expect excellence and I give excellence, [but] that shouldn’t change if you’re a man or a woman.”
Mattison is a voice for women in filmmaking as is evidenced by a discussion with the male producers about Kelly’s (McGowan) character who thought she was a “bitch” and not “smiling enough.” Mattison called them on the carpet for this, pointing out that if it was a male character that “…was very single-minded, very into his work, and sort of dead inside because of his past, and being sort of haunted by his past, you would never ask, ‘Why isn’t he smiling more?’ You would never say this about a man! I don’t want her to be sweet. She has nuanced feelings. Why is that a threat to you as a man if she’s not smiling?” Mattison’s writing has certainly evolved over the years, creating more complex women and breaking yet another mold with expectations for women. “I never make myself less than [in order] to stroke the masculine ego, so to speak. It’s really freeing, but who knows what people say behind my back!” she laughed aloud.
Mattison’s actors, all hand-picked by her, trusted her in this unusual filming style, creating a “slow burn,” “subtle” movie that, as Mattison said, “… is patient [and] gives the audience enough credit for not beating them over the head with sound scores.” It is McGowan’s breakout performance that seemed inspirational to Mattison as she knew she pushed McGowan “…to a place she’s never been before. And I dressed her in a way she’s never been dressed before…The emotion was there. It’s gut-wrenching to watch.” The two have been texting all week and Mattison excitedly shared McGowan’s response about the film: ‘It’s funny because all of these male directors never got it. They never got me [or] where I could go. It was all about the mini skirt. It was all about the boobs.” Mattison never even thought about presenting her that way.
She also cast her talented husband Richard Gunn (who knows and understand her the best) in the role of doting fiance waiting at home and joked, “I really shafted him because I put him in the [typical] girlfriend role!” She went on and praised each of her talented actors and how they contributed to the film, particularly Christopher Lloyd who, as she said, “Needed very little direction,” but guided him by telling him “…don’t push. There’s something off with this guy” and immediately, and not surprisingly, Lloyd ran with it.
Mattison’s Chicago no-nonsense, direct attitude has done her well and it’s evident that she’s a Chicagoan at heart. She longs for the great restaurants here and even shared that she will drive over an hour just to find a Portillo’s in California! She does, however, make her own Italian Beef. She said longingly, “I love Chicago people. When somebody tells you something, it’s the truth. There’s no pretension, it’s direct. I miss that down-to-earth Chicago vibe.” Yes, Mattison is truly a Chicagoan at heart.
© Pam Powell (10/5/17) FF2 Media
Photos: Rose McGowan and Christopher Lloyd in The Sound
Photo Credits: Hackybox Pictures, North Hollywood Films, WeatherVane Productions