For this very special edition of Bonus Features, Jacob and Marten talk to David Prior, the writer/director behind last year’s criminally underseen horror picture The Empty Man. Over the course of our lengthy chat, David dives into his career as a special features pioneer during the the early days of DVD, and just what happened to his future cult classic at Disney/Fox.
When the twist-filled cosmic horror mind-bender The Empty Manwas unceremoniously dumped in theaters last October, its writer and director David Prior wasn’t even sent a link to the final version of the film by the studio. More than four years before, he’d pitched the movie to 20th Century Fox, a perhaps unconventional home for such a strange project, and, after the company was acquired by Disney in 2019, Prior’s debut feature slipped through the corporate cracks. In the middle of a global pandemic, The Empty Man was released with one misleading trailer, which marketed the two-hour-plus saga as another urban legend-inspired teen thriller, and minimal promotional fanfare. Unsurprisingly, it bombed, grossing just over $4 million worldwide. Prior transmitted and almost no one received.
Adapted from a Boom! Studios comic by the writer Cullen Bunn and artist Vanesa R. Del Rey, The Empty Man was initially sold to Fox in 2016 as a stylish horror mystery infused with thematic ambiguity, existential dread, and a dash of Lovecraftian terror. James Badge Dale plays ex-detective James Lasombra, a grief-stricken widower whose friend Nora (Marin Ireland) enlists him to help find her daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova) after she disappears. Amanda and her teenage friends may or may not have summoned the Empty Man, a mystical entity with an odd connection to a cult-like organization called the Pontifex Institute, led by a charismatic leader played by Stephen Root of Office Space and Barry. (I’ve been describing it to friends as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets The Ring.) In his early conversations with executives, Prior compared it to Mulholland Drive rather than something in The Conjuring universe or the Blumhouse arsenal. In the writing stage, executives even encouraged him to expand the film’s lengthy opening, a snowbound tale of hikers in Bhutan’s Ura Valley who stumble upon a sinister cave.
The Empty Man‘s journey to the big screen quickly unraveled. In some ways, the story has all the hallmarks of classic Hollywood fiasco: a shoot plagued by bad weather, disastrous test screenings, fights over runtime, studio meddling, a breakdown in communication, and an ambitious first-time director threading potentially alienating material into familiar genre fare. (Not many horror movies have a prominent shot of a high school named after a famous French philosopher.) In other ways, it’s a uniquely modern tale of mounting corporate neglect, expiring tax rebates, confusing IP mismanagement, and slow-building social media advocacy.
Are audiences hungry for movies like The Empty Man? The movie’s box office performance would suggest a definitive no, but, since becoming available as a digital rental in 2021, the film has taken on a second life online, where podcast hosts and viewers on platforms like Twitter and Letterboxd have sung its praises, turning it into the rare 21st century studio project that earns the over-used descriptor of “cult movie.”
Prior, who began his career working on a DVD of the 1999 horror movie Ravenous and later directed special features for David Fincher films like Zodiac and The Social Network, has a keen awareness of how his movie plays into certain narratives. Over a Google Hangout, he spoke with the combination of weary cynicism and wounded pride that often accompanies someone who has been through an ordeal. “It’s amazing how trenchant Barton Fink is about the way the Hollywood system really works,” he noted early in the conversation.
As the Coen Brothers screenwriter protagonist knows, the “life of the mind” can be painful. While unpacking the jargon-heavy mythology of his debut and the turmoil-packed narrative of its production, Prior repeatedly emphasized how grateful he was that the movie has found an audience and often laughed at the absurdity of its fate. Who can be blamed for what happened to The Empty Man? As one of the movie’s grizzled detectives remarks in the film, “We can’t indict the cosmos.”
Last October, a horror movie came and went. It wasn’t the first time a Hollywood studio dumped a horror movie in the middle of Halloween; given the ongoing pandemic, few films with a theatrical release could have moved the needle in 2020. But in the case of David Prior’s The Empty Man, this release was just the tip of the iceberg, the near-final act in a first-time filmmaker’s multi-year struggle to bring his vision to the screen.
In this conversation, Prior explains how he went from being David Fincher’s protégé to the director of 2020’s most ambitious — and most abandoned — horror film. We also explore how a perfect storm of production problems and studio politics nearly killed the film, and how a passionate audience has already started to turn The Empty Man into a future cult classic.
From DVDs to David Fincher
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. If The Empty Man survives its troubled production and halfhearted theatrical release to become a household name for genre fans, then perhaps this story will serve as a fitting beginning to Prior’s career as a feature filmmaker. For years, Prior worked as a production documentarian for filmmakers such as David Fincher and Peter Weir, but one of his big breaks came with Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, itself a studio disaster that took years to find a passionate audience.
In the years before Ravenous’s theatrical release, Prior had built relationships in 20th Century Fox’s home video department thanks to his contributions to the isolated score track on the Alien DVD release. So when Prior stumbled across Ravenous in theaters — despite a trailer that he describes as a “piss-poor representation of the movie” — he saw an opportunity to build on those connections and bring some much-deserved love to Bird’s film.
His gamble worked. According to Prior, the special-edition release of Ravenous sold three times its initial projections, forcing 20th Century Fox to rush extra copies of the film into production. With his credentials established, Prior was given his pick of future home video releases, and his decision resulted in one of the most influential relationships of Prior’s professional career. “I said, ‘I don’t know what Fight Club is, but I really want to meet David Fincher, so I’ll do that one. And that led to a relationship with Fincher that goes on to this day.”
Over the next decade, Prior became a powerhouse in behind-the-scenes documentaries, shooting features for such films as Master and Commander, Zodiac, and The Social Network. It proved to be a successful and stable career, just not the one that Prior had in mind when he went to Hollywood. “I remember at the time thinking, ‘This is gonna be something where if I’m not careful, ten, fifteen years of my life is going to go by doing this instead of what I’d rather be doing,’” the director says. So Prior took another gamble, this time using some of his own money to produce the short film that would eventually land him his role with The Empty Man.
“In 40 short minutes, David Prior shows why he is one of the most promising directors I’ve ever seen. People always ask me what to do for a ‘calling card’ in Hollywood. Well do something like this, and try to do it half as well.”
David Fincher and Ren Klyce came of age during a seminal time for Hollywood: when the pair were just kids, a group of ’70s filmmakers was reshaping what it meant to make movies, right from the pair’s native Bay Area. In a biographical detail almost too perfect to be true, George Lucas rented a house in Marin County to edit his “THX 1138,” that just so happened to be located right next door to the Klyce family’s home. A single suburban lawn is all that separated a then-9-year-old Ren from the great Walter Murch, just as he was starting to change modern movie sound forever, work he’d continue throughout the decade with another NorCal auteur, Francis Ford Coppola. And it would be on a Lucas-produced animated feature, “Twice Upon a Time,” that future sound designer Klyce would meet his Coppola, a then-19-year-old Fincher.
Over the last 25 years, as Hollywood has utilized the multi-channel surround technology pioneered by Murch to create bombastic soundtracks that all too often mask a lack of craft, Klyce has helped Fincher explore the subconscious underbelly of his own films, constantly refining how sound can be used to shape a viewer’s emotional response.
“To me, sound design is not about 96 channels all at 11, and two side cars giving you this sound pressure-gasm; to me, it’s very much about the detail and the nuance and maybe things that you wouldn’t even be aware that you heard until the second or third time you saw it,” said Fincher in an interview about his collaboration with Klyce. “I can’t talk more enthusiastically about someone [Klyce] I feel has very subtly pushed what sound designers do.”
“I was fortunate enough to meet David Fincher on Panic Room in 2001 when I was working as a sound editor and the relationship I developed with him and his No. 13 production company has carried through until today with Mindhunter. He’s someone I can bounce ideas off and he’s constantly challenging us. For the second season of Mindhunter he asked to design a real-time telestration solution that would enable him to communicate the thoughts and ideas he came up with during production via annotations attached to the image captured by the camera. We came up with PIX RT it immediately creates clips of the take and presents this clip to the director and certain other approved crew members via a tablet, so he or she can make annotations and notes on the image. This media, metadata and the notes are then securely synchronized with the PIX cloud to all the approved members of the production who can review them. And of course, it is completely secure and integrated with all of our other services. And now we’re working with the CODEX team on the next evolution of these tools.”
“Sometimes it takes working with the most demanding and yet most exceptionally talented people to push you to design the best products. That’s certainly the case with cinematographers like Bob Richardson and Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. On Gravity we worked with Chivo and his crew along with our services company to design an efficient, color critical, ARRIRAW workflow that would support this complex, multi-camera shoot which involved “The Cage”. The Cage was a lightbox consisting of 196 2’x2′ LED panels which simulated the light coming from stars and the sun and reflected light from Earth, but could also project images of Earth, distant stars, or, images of Sandra Bullock‘s child character, as the actor was suspended within. It was ground-breaking. And funnily enough, I recall that Chivo talked to David Fincher before the shoot and he thought that it was a couple of years too early to pull it off. Projects like Gravity inspire us to push the boundaries of what is possible.”
Read the full interview (part one) on the X2X magazine app (App Store & Google Play). You’ll find interviews and Q&A’s with some of the world’s leading DITs, directors, and cinematographers. Best of all, it’s free!
In a new episode of Comic Book Shopping, we’re joined by Deadpool director and Blur Studios co-founder Tim Miller to talk comics, his career, leaving Deadpool 2, an encouraging update on The Goon movie, and his next project. If you like comics and celebrity interviews, this is your show. Each week we’re joined by a new guest, who hits up a local comic book shop with host Jon Schnepp and peruses the wares while also discussing their career, upcoming projects, and of course their favorite comic books.
In this week’s episode, Schnepp and Tim Miller venture to Miller’s local shop Comic Bug in Culver City, where they discuss how Miller got his career started, how he founded the visual effects, animation, and design company Blur Studios, and his early work creating unforgettable cut scenes for video games like DC Universe Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Miller also reveals how he landed the job of directing Deadpool, the long road to finally getting the movie made, and briefly touches on his exit from Deadpool 2.
During the conversation, Miller also gives a tantalizing update on The Goon movie that he’s been developing for years, saying there’s going to be an announcement soon and teasing their take on the movie (hint: it’s Goodfellas meets Army of Darkness). Miller also says he hopes to be shooting a new “big movie” next year, which may or may not be a new Terminator film.
Check out the full conversation in the video above, where Miller’s love for comics shines bright as he explains how he gets a pull list from Comic Bug each week. If you missed our previous episodes, check out the link: Comic Book Shopping (YouTube)