Everything Zen: David Prior on “The Empty Man”

James Badge Dale and Sasha Frolova

David Prior’s creepy and impeccably crafted directorial debut was abandoned by the studio but has since been embraced by now devoted fans.

Adam Nayman
May 3, 2021
Notebook (MUBI)

Over and again throughout The Empty Man, we see characters sitting in the lotus position, cross-legged and attentive,  a pose connoting receptivity. It is in the migration of this mindset from snowy Bhutan to small-town Missouri, muled from East to West by the unlucky occidental tourist who doubles as its title character,  that David Prior’s film locates both its celestial sense of scale and a fine-grained gestural specificity. After literally stumbling into a cliffside cavern—the first unexpected plunge in a movie whose characters constantly find themselves either on shaky ground or descending into a darkness of their own volition—Paul (Aaron Poole) becomes transfixed by a skeletal figure whose meditative posture he adopts, seemingly permanently and much to the bewilderment of his fellow backpackers. Dragged back to the surface, he has become a husk, limbs locked and rapidly atrophying, staring out at the world with eyes wide shut. It would seem that he’s been hollowed out. Or is he suddenly full up?

The old Zen proverb about the philosopher who tells his overzealous visitor to return to him with an empty cup—the better to receive the flow of wisdom—comes eerily to mind in the image of a hiker mutated into a hapless Buddha. The story lying beyond The Empty Man’s gorgeous anamorphic frames is also akin to a kind of koan: if a great cosmic horror movie gets (barely) released in the middle of a global pandemic, and nobody sees it, does it really exist? 

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Interview: David Prior, The Empty Man’s Director

March 25, 2021
ELDERFANFILMS

Today, I’ve got the honor to post the interview I did to David Prior; who After being in charge of production video documentaries and have worked alongside nothing other than David Fincher, arrives with his horror film The Empty Man, making his directorial debut. The Empty Man is based on the Boom Graphic Novel called the same way. David, Tells us the unfortunate fate his movie went through all due bad management and bad luck to be in the middle of a transition between companies, addition to that, the company launched a misleading trailer, transforming the movie in another weird horror teenage movie, totally opposite of twist-thrilling horror film. The Empty Man is a top notch production with a great cast and crew team. The film got to us on October 23, 2020 in theaters and on Digital on January 12, 2021.

The director also shared with us the film creation process, the rocks he had to apart away from his path to get the film off the ground, his insights and learnings from all this exhausting but comforting filmmaking labor.

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BETA (WPR): Writer, Director David Prior On The Horrors of Making ‘The Empty Man’

Stephen Root and James Badge Dale

Despite Trials And Tribulations, The Film Has Earned Great Reviews.

Doug Gordon
May 29, 2021
BETA (WPR)

David Prior got his break directing DVD special features for such David Fincher films as “Zodiac” and “The Social Network.” He obviously drew on that work experience in writing and directing his debut horror feature film, “The Empty Man.”

“Any time you spent hanging around the set with David Fincher or Peter Weir or any number of the other people that I’ve been able to hang around the set with, it’s always going to be valuable,” Prior said.

The Empty Man” focuses on an ex-detective named James Lasombra. James is grieving the deaths of his wife and son. He helps his friend Nora whose daughter has gone missing.

James’s investigation leads him to a sinister organization called The Pontifex Institute, which turns out to be a cult. The film stars James Badge Dale, and chameleon-like actor Stephen Root who delivers a great performance as the cult’s leader. 

The movie also became embroiled in a mega media merger that delayed and botched its release. “The Empty Man” features an impending sense of dread and doom and themes of guilt, grief, the meaning of existence and mind control. Prior explains to WPR‘s “BETA” why he wanted to include such big ideas in his film.

Read and listen to the full interview

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The Nick Taylor Horror Show: The Empty Man, Writer/Director David Prior

Nick Taylor (Twitter)
April 1, 2021
The Nick Taylor Horror Show

David Prior is an American writer and director who made his feature directorial debut with The Empty Man, an epic in the world of horror, one of the most criminally overlooked horror movies of 2020, and one of the most ambitious horror movies of recent years . It has the scope and execution of a Chris Nolan movie while mixing elements of cults, quantum horror, and creepypastas into an extremely unique mythology that is all its own.

The story behind the making of The Empty Man is very harrowing. In the middle of shooting in South Africa, it was temporarily shut down due to weather conditions, during which a key studio executive who greenlit the film left the studio, essentially leaving the movie abandoned. If that wasn’t enough, once the movie finally got finished, David had to endure a series of calamities, including negative test screenings and studio interference which kept the movie in limbo for years. If that wasn’t enough, once the movie was finally released, it was in theatres during the height of the pandemic only to get largely negative Rotten Tomato reviews (which were very unjust) and thus be completely buried.

However, as of the past few weeks, The Empty Man has been seeing a major resurgence as a number of outspoken critics have been singing the praises of the movie and thus causing it to get the attention it deserves. The story behind The Empty Man brings to light the many issues that can befall a movie but also shows the power of the internet to champion a movie when it belongs in the spotlight. I’m personally thrilled that The Empty Man is getting the viewership that it has been; it’s a must-see, and I’m convinced it will be considered a horror epic for years to come.

In this conversation with David, we got into the whole story behind The Empty Man, his directorial processes, and what he learned observing directors like David Fincher, Tim Burton, and Peter Weir when he visited them on set while producing special features for multiple DVD titles. All of this and so much more on today’s episode of The Nick Taylor Horror Show.

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The Nick Taylor Horror Show
Apple Podcasts
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The Empty Man Is the Next Great Cult Horror Film

Vulture Recommends

Tres Dean
April 6, 2021
Vulture

Between the global pandemic, studio mergers, and the overwhelming onslaught of content flooding streaming services, it has never been easier for a movie to slip through the cracks. Years from now, we will no doubt look back on an entire generation of great films that were lost to the ever-shifting chaos of the industry over these past few years. What does feel safe to say is that when we are discussing the great works lost to this strange time, 2020’s The Empty Man will be in the conversation.

If you’re interested in the details of its tumultuous production, director David Prior has been remarkably candid about the process in recent interviews: 1, 2, 3. Long story short: The film, a very loose adaptation of Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey’s comic series of the same name, was marred by reshoots, recuts, the FoxDisney merger, a constantly shifting release date, and losing its original producer in the middle of production. After sitting on a shelf for years, it was tossed into theaters in the middle of the pandemic, grossed a paltry $4 million worldwide, and was quickly forgotten. It is currently only available to rent via Amazon, and as of the writing of this story, there are no plans for a DVD/Blu-ray release.

To be fair, even if theaters were open for business as usual, one could be forgiven for chalking The Empty Man up as skippable after its first trailer, which, in one of the more damning marketing moves in recent memory, dropped about a week before the film hit theaters. The film’s borderline nonexistent marketing paints the James Badge Dale vehicle as a sort of Slender Man–adjacent creepypasta horror, the sort of bland Blumhouse rip-off designed to come and go with as little noise as possible. Its initial critical reception was middling at best, though it even went underseen in that respect — its current 50 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes is based on 14 official reviews. It’s the sort of perfect storm that renders a film nonexistent in the cultural consciousness.

And that’s a shame, because The Empty Man very much warrants a place there.

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Secret Handshake Podcast: Bonus Features. Writer/Director David Prior (The Empty Man)

Jacob Knight and Marten Carlson
March 4, 2021
Secret Handshake

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.

Listen to the podcast

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How the Horror Flop ‘The Empty Man’ Became the Great Cult Movie of 2020

Director David Prior’s cosmic thriller got buried in theaters last year, but the film is already on the path to resurrection.

Dan Jackson
March 23, 2021
Thrillist

“We transmit. You receive.” —The Empty Man

When the twist-filled cosmic horror mind-bender The Empty Man was 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 ReyThe 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.”

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The Pontifex Society

The Hamster Factor Segment

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How David Prior’s ‘The Empty Man’ Survived the Perfect Hollywood Storm

We talk to the filmmaker about the unfortunate fate of his ambitious horror fIlm.

Matthew Monagle
March 2, 2021
Film School Rejects

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.

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“The Empty Man” Clip

Watch The Empty Man

Watch AM1200 (2008)

David Fincher:

“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.”

Cinematographer Interview: Shooting Darkness for “The Empty Man”

PremiumBeat chats with director of photography Anastas Michos about shooting with the RED Monstro 8K on his latest feature. Dive in.

Jourdan Aldredge
November 13, 2020
The Beat (PremiumBeat by shutterstock)