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Interview: Director Richard Schenkman talks ‘Mischief Night’

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Imagine being blind, and someone decides to break into your house and terrorize you. That’s what happens to young Emily (Noell Coet) in the thriller, “Mischief Night,” which releases to DVD on Dec. 17.

Emily suffers from psychosomatic blindness after a car accident that also claimed the life of her mother nine years earlier. Emily and her father, David (Daniel Hugh Kelly), relocate to start a new life. On the night before Halloween, which some call Mischief Night, David is out on a date, and Emily is left home alone. Suddenly, a masked intruder enters the house and begins to terrorize her.

The Chico Movie Examiner recently conducted an over-the-phone interview with director Richard Schenkman about the film. Warning: There are many spoilers about “Mischief Night” throughout. Read at your own discretion.

David Wangberg: There are many films that show the revelation of a serial killer, and it’s usually the mother; the brother; somebody else; or somebody completely random. Here, the only explanation we get is when the killer says, “It’s Mischief Night.” What made you want to make it super secret instead of going into this explanation as to why he’s killing these people?

Richard Schenkman: This was certainly something that was discussed quite a bit during the development of the script and pre-production. Indeed, I think we did do the conventional step of trying to create some red herrings, where you think maybe it’s the boyfriend; maybe it’s the dad; maybe it’s somebody else. But a very big discussion of [the script] was, “Do we reveal what the intruder’s motive is? Or, does the intruder have a motive beyond just violent shenanigans? Is he just a twisted person trying to get his jollies by terrorizing a young girl and by terrorizing and possibly murdering other people as well?” We looked at the world around us, and we thought, “There’s so much senseless crime that happens every single day.” I mean, even now, there’s this thing where people are playing a game, where they go up to strangers and punch them in the head. There’s so much senseless violence every day that it did not seem outside the bounds of reality at all; to have a person who [sees] this as just his idea of having a good time – finding an innocent person and terrorizing them.

DW: Now, when were you in your younger years, did you participate in Mischief Night? Not to this extreme, but did you do anything on Oct. 30?

RS: No. If anything, I was a victim. I once got egged really badly. One Halloween, I was out trick or treating with a young friend, and these older kids came along and just smashed eggs and ruined our clothes and our costumes. But when I grew up, I didn’t know anything about Mischief Night; I only knew about Halloween. I didn’t know people did anything the night before, even though I grew up on the East Coast. I think it’s a really localized thing in parts of New Jersey; Pennsylvania; upstate New York; etc. It just didn’t happen to have any notoriety where I grew up, which was in Westchester County, N.Y.

DW: Yeah, and I grew up in Durham, Calif., which is just outside of Chico, and I had never heard of it until this movie.

RS: But it is funny. When you go to the Wikipedia page, and you read about it, you can see that there are parts of the Dakotas that have it. A lot of places called it something different, like we had in the movie “Cabbage Night.” People call it all sorts of things – not always Mischief Night. But the idea of going out the night before Halloween and causing mischief does seem to be a fairly widespread and growing idea. Hopefully, people are doing it less murderously than they are doing it in our film.

DW: Yeah, and like you mentioned earlier, they’re not just doing it on that specific night; they’re doing it various days of the week with the Knockout game and whatever else is trending.

RS: Exactly.

DW: With Noell’s character [Emily], she’s blind throughout the film until the end. Do you think that it would be harder for her character if she was deaf instead of blind, or do you think it would be on the same level?

RS: Well, that’s interesting. That’s another way to go. Would it be harder? It would just be different; it would just be a different movie, where a guy could creep around and potentially be right behind her, and she wouldn’t know it. Yeah, that’s definitely an interesting way to go; we just didn’t.

Where the story came from was Eric Wilkinson and Jesse Baget, who are lifelong fans of horror movies; thrillers; and all that, they got together and felt the story, and they pitched it to Image Entertainment, and Image said, “Yeah, we want to do that movie.” So, Jesse went ahead and wrote kind of a rough first draft, and then he got busy with another project, so I came on, plus they asked me if I wanted to direct it. They handed me what they had, and I worked on the draft, and then I directed the film. But a lot of the most crucial elements – really most of the most crucial elements – including Emily’s blindness, the nature of the intruder, and most the action, was all in Jesse’s first draft. I inherited it.

DW: OK. So, this was his idea, at first, and then you came along?

RS: Right. Eric and Jesse cooked up the story, including Emily’s blindness, and they sort of handed the project to me and said, “Hey, do you want to make this film?” And I said, “Sure.” So, I worked on the script – mostly, I worked on the first act, which was beefing up the characters a bit, and their back stories and their relationships and their motivations. But a lot of the basic story elements and the action, Jesse already had in there.

DW: Throughout the film, she’s blind, and then, at the end, she sees. And I kept on thinking of that one lyric from “Amazing Grace.” Do you think if her name was changed to Grace that it would be too tacky, or would it be perfectly fitting?

RS: It would be pretty heavy-handed symbolism – certainly not leaving any question of intention to the imagination. But I personally don’t think there’s anything divine about what happens to Emily. I think we established pretty well the nature of conversion disorder, and there are all kinds of symptoms that could happen with conversion disorder – numbness in your extremities; tingling in your arms and fingers; hearing loss; asthma; [and] blindness. There are many, many symptoms of conversion disorder. The only cure, really, is talk therapy. Maybe they can give people pills to fight depression or anxiety, but, mostly, it’s talk therapy that’s the cure for this.

DW: Yeah, and I kept thinking not just of the whole blindness part, but also the “I once was lost but now I’m found” lyric, because growing up, she thinks she’s at fault for her mother’s death, but then she realizes she wasn’t, after going through the film’s final act.

RS: She definitely is in a state of grace; I totally see your point, and, again, it’s a fine idea calling her Grace – just like having her be deaf instead of blind would’ve been a fine idea. You’re full of great ideas; that’s just not the movie we made. [laughs]

DW: [laughs] I’m not saying you had to do it this way; I’m just seeing how you would take it if it was that way.

RS: [laughs]

DW: Now, are you working on anything at the moment?

RS: I’m working on a western. The script is written. We actually put an offer out to a lead actor on Monday night and, hopefully, within the next week or so, we’ll hear back from him. If he signs on, that would be spectacular. Then I could shoot, hopefully, as early as February. And, if he doesn’t sign on, we’ll keep going; we have a second choice and a third choice. And it’s my goal to shoot this as early in 2014 as possible. I’ve always wanted to do a western; I’ve never done one. I’ve always wanted to, so I’m very excited.

DW: Cool. What’s this going to be along the lines of – like a more old-school western or a modern one?

RS: No, it’s very old-school. I would say along the lines of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “Stagecoach,” and that sort of thing.

This concludes the interview, but the Chico Movie Examiner would like to thank Richard Schenkman for taking the time to talk about “Mischief Night.”

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