Travis Stevens’ Girl On The Third Floor takes the classic haunted house framework and weaves an original story that pulls from some of the darkest moments of our past. Written and directed by Travis Stevens, the filmstars Trieste Kelly Dunn, Sarah Brooks, Elissa Dowling, and WWE Champion C.M. Punk. Nightmare on Film Street’s Stephanie Cole called the film “smart, aesthetically unique, and deeply frightening […] a marvelous little ghost story [that] manages to be unique in an oversaturated sub-genre“. Read her full review HERE.
We sat down with Travis Stevens during the 2019 Overlook Film Festival at the Hotel Peter & Paul to discuss transitioning from long-time producer to first time director. He shared with us some of the surprising challenges in this new role and how he and his team out of their way to honor and respect the history of trauma that took place in the very house they were filming.
“[…] sometimes people just want to watch a horror movie and have it be a horror movie from minute one.”
Jonathan Dehaan of Nightmare on Film Street: It was great to see that [Girl On The Third Floor is] a classic “scary movie”. A Lot of films we’re seeing at festivals now are pretty dark genre movies and chilling, but it’s nice to finally see a classic haunted house story. I was reading in Fangoria that you were having trouble coming up with a unique angle for that.
Travis Stevens: I suspect there’ll be a wave of horror movies that really start leaning into the horror again, because I think as over the past, say, five years as filmmakers started exploring outside the genre or genre adjacent, it’s resulted in some great films, but sometimes people just want to watch a horror movie and have it be a horror movie from minute one. So that was a conscious thing that I was trying to do with this one. I think anytime you’re using something that’s been done so many times, it’s sort of like, well, what am I bringing to the table to justify this?
NOFS: I understand your partners purchased the house in the movie. Was it solely purchased for making the film?
TS: No, it was a real estate [investment] and then once- I don’t know if they had heard the local rumors before they bought it, or after they bought it, but then it was like ‘well, we have this and before we do what we’re going to do with it, [we] might as well shoot a movie here’.
NOFS: And then you became the director out of necessity?
TS: Yeah. I think they had a two-year process of taking pitches and at a certain point I was bringing on writers as a producer to sort of work on pitches and nothing really clicked. So then eventually, it was like, “Maybe we’ll just move on,” and I was like, “Well, before we do that, why don’t I just take Christmas break, I’ll write this, and if it sucks then no problem but if anybody likes it, then we’ll salvage this.
NOFS: It’s a really strong debut. And I know you’ve been a producer for quite a while, how was it finally being in the director’s chair? Do you think being a producer for so long made that transition easier?
TS: Yeah, I think. Certainly with the movies have produced, they’re really sort of hands-on collaborations, so I wasn’t scared going into it but it did teach me how important it is to surround the director with a bubble of protection, which I think as a producer, after 10 years, maybe I’d forgotten a little bit. I mean, that’s your number one job is a producer is to create an environment where the filmmaker can do their work free of any sort of toxins or, you know, infections. And on this one I pretty quickly was like, “oh man, yeah, you really need that,” otherwise, it’s really stressful because there’s so many people who are just coming in and out, and it can be challenging keeping your balance creatively where you’re like ‘I have this thing in my head and I am trying to get it the way I see it’.
“[…] if we’re shooting a haunted house movie in an actual haunted house, we have to do our best to at least honor the history of the trauma that took place there.”
NOFS: So do you have any plans to do more directing?
TS: Yeah. I think my hope is to continue writing and directing, but also continue producing and any success I might have, as a writer and director, then I would use that to help other people on their films, because I love producing I love working with people at the beginning of their careers, finding those fresh voices and helping come up with something that maybe wouldn’t have been made otherwise.
NOFS: That sounds like having that experience now and sort of getting a refresher on what it’s like to be a first time director is really going to help going forward. Do you think it would have been easier if you went with something less like a straightforward ghost story? Would it have been easier to maybe do what people like to call an “Elevated Horror”?
TS: I think for me, it was easier having the framework of something so well defined like a haunted house movie, because then it was almost like having training wheels where no matter what, it’s going to be a movie that has certain elements at play, and then I can practice my creativity by weaving between those known quantities that that genre has. So I think for me, it was actually easier to be like, ‘okay, you’re doing a riff,’ and maybe two movies from now we’ll be doing something really original.
NOFS: So let’s talk about the design of ‘The Girl On The Third Floor”, cause she’s pretty goddamn creepy. Did you personally have to write a whole backstory of what happened to her to get that look?
TS: Yeah, but it was primarily for the actor there for the makeup effects [artist] Dan Martin. There’s two ghosts in the movie and the real history of the house has two women dying there.
NOFS: Oh wow. So that’s also tied to the real house?
TS: Yeah so for me it was like, if we’re shooting a haunted house movie in an actual haunted house, we have to do our best to at least honor the history of the trauma that took place there. Otherwise, definitely it’s exploitive, but maybe not as bad as other films, so we tried to base it on as much information as was available. I’m not sure if the local rumors, how much fact they’re based on or if it’s become a fact after years of people telling it so there wasn’t tons of information, but the fact that she was a young girl, and the fact that it was a bordello, the fact that one of the guests there had attacked her seemed like, okay, there’s a potential for some sort of sexual trauma here.
So to come up with a current design of that we wanted to capture that quantity and because there were two ghosts and one ghost was going to present herself in very sort of human terms, I wanted the other guys to go even further into monster. And so the thinking was, ‘well, she died at such a young age that it stunted her growth a bit’ and Dan- I forget the phrase, but when the body sort of consumes itself a little bit, like when they find teeth in tumors and stuff like that, he wanted to apply that to her a bit as if she had sort of swallowed the trauma and it deformed her.
“[…] there was a moment where I was like, ‘Oh, this might have been really foolish,’ like, how are we supposed to perform in this space If this is what we’re dealing with?”
NOFS: I suppose our idea of ghosts already are people that, not necessarily can’t let go of something, but they are very internalized in their trauma. That’s a really interesting angle you took.
TS: And I think the other ghost, Sarah, can present the idealized image she thinks the victim would want to see. So in my mind, I’m like, ‘What was she like in the 50s, in that house? What was she like in the 30s, in that house?’ [because] she’s aware of culture and aware of what’s bee going on. So it was kind of interesting, because a lot of times the ghosts are so, like you said, defined. At the moment that they died, that is what they look like so this was a slightly different take on that physical angle.
NOFS: So, that newspaper that [the lead character’s] wife finds in the wall, was that real?
TS: Yes. Oh, sorry- There were two newspapers. the one that’s in the movie now is a little more overt. [In] the real story, one body was found inside there and then one body was found at the railroad tracks wrapped in rope and a tarp so that sort of informs some of the Saddy design as well.
NOFS: Actually, one other question I did have that was relating back to your Fango piece- You said that you’d left an offering in one of the rooms. I was curious what that offering was.
TS: Maybe 10 years from now I’ll share it. It was really intense, because I had visited the house in the day once, and then went back and wrote. And then at the beginning of on the ground pre-production, the very first night in there, I went across the street to the house and I was like, ‘yeah, I’m going to be in here, I’m going to own this’, and walked in and immediately just felt this sense of dread. I was trying to walk into the kitchen and backed myself up against that big picture window in the living room like, ‘wow, this is really intense’. And so there was a moment where I was like, ‘Oh, this might have been really foolish,’ like, how are we supposed to perform in this space If this is what we’re dealing with? And so the offering, it did seem to make a difference.
NOFS: Anything to help production, I guess.
TS: Yeah, that was it. And I had an out loud conversation with the house where I said, ‘Hey, here’s my intentions. We’re going to honor any trauma that took place here, or, we’re going to do our best to, and blah, blah, blah’. I felt better, and it seemed to make a difference, and I was able to actually get up to the attic. […] It’s weird because I’m pretty pragmatic about these things but when you have that worldview, and then you experience something where you’re like, ‘wow, this is insane’ it just like, well, this is really happening.
NOFS: So nothing else happened during production?
TS: There were a couple. [I was] sitting this far away from my producing partner Greg Newman and we just hear [knock, knock, knock] on the wall that we’re leaning against. And then there was another one where the production designers Courtney & Hillary Andujar and I were looking at a door to see if we could move it to another room because we like the look of the door. We had opened the door and then closed it and we’re looking at the doorknob and the door just opened. And we’re like, ‘well, maybe it didn’t close all the way but it’s like one of those things where as it happens, you just look at each other, and you’re not looking for this stuff but you’re like, ‘that’s really weird’. And then apparently on the post-production, NoiseFloor [the sound department] said throughout all of the audio, there’s anomalies in there.
NOFS: That would make a great special feature on the DVD.
TS: Oh yeah, maybe- because I had not even heard about this, they didn’t tell me. I heard about it second hand and I was like ‘Oh my god’.
“[…] apparently on the post-production, [the sound department] said throughout all of the audio there’s anomalies in there.”
NOFS: You really couldn’t have picked a better house to tell that story in, and the movie is gorgeous. Had you worked with that DP before?
TS: No, he was a Chicago guy, Scott Thiele. I was interviewing a ton and on his website, he just had one line in his bio, where he’s like “I just want to make art” and that’s it. And I was like, ‘that’s my dude’. I think in Chicago there’s so much TV that people can have a really healthy career but maybe it’s not the most creative work always, so it was really nice to find somebody who had the experience to do stuff really well on a technical level but still had that passion to do something creative. […] He’s still working in Chicago. He’s now camera operating on the new Candyman movie which is very exciting. I’m sure we’ll work together again soon.
NOFS: So where else can people expect to see [Girl On The Third Floor] in the next little while? It’s still doing festivals?
TS: I think the release date is set for October, and I believe that’s worldwide, but certainly in the US, and until then, I can’t announce [anything but] it will be at festivals across the US and internationally. So if your [readers] like horror film festivals, keep an eye out for it.
NOFS: It’s probably one of the scariest movies we’ve seen so far at this festival.
TS: That’s really nice to hear, thank you, because it’s really hard to tell if you’ve made something that is working. You can have your intellectual thoughts, but [you’re not sure] ‘is this kicking butt, right now?’
NOFS: Because you can’t really divorce yourself from it, right?
TS: Yeah, exactly. But while I’m in other people’s movies, I’m like ‘Oh, yeah- this is a great sequence’.
NOFS: Oh, so as a producer you can tell when something is scary. That had to be really interesting this time around.
TS: Yeah, because I think as a producer you sort of have a more detached [view]. Almost like a doctor, where you’re diagnosing what’s working, what’s not, and you don’t have as much of an emotional attachment throughout the process. The closer you get to creating everything, the more you’re like, ‘is my kid ugly? I can’t tell’.