Exclusive: The Vault director discusses the film’s unique genre and working with James Franco

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We spoke to director Dan Bush about his latest film The Vault, in which he discussed the film’s unique genre fusion, as well as working with the likes of James Franco and Taryn Manning.

Director Dan Bush with the film’s star Taryn Manning (Orange is the New Black).

I’ll start by asking about The Vault’s unique genre fusion. The film is centred around a bank robbery that goes wrong, and I’m curious to know what motivated you into making a heist movie and uniquely infusing it with the horror genre?

We started writing the movie based on the idea of that these two cards have never been played together. You’ve had, you know, psycho killer meets vampires in Dusk Till Dawn, teenagers meet any sci-fi element you can think of, like anything from Twilight to The Terminator to Stranger Things. But we were watching a documentary about Warner Brothers between late 70s and early 80s and they were talking about Dog Day Afternoon and The Shining immediately after that, and I thought ‘Say that’s interesting, I wonder what would come out if you crossed those streams, what does that mean?’

There’s an image system that quickly came to my mind, which was the idea of hostage and the kind of hostage reports I’ve seen on old news footage, those kind of grainy shots from Munich, and even old images of bank heists, something really haunted about the image of a hostage, especially in hostage situations gone bad where there weren’t any survivors. But for me that image of someone with a bag on their head, being gagged and tied against their will, whether it was for terror or for money, that was an image that struck me and was for me the interception of crime and horror.

So throughout the movie there’s the theme of who is the hostage here? Obviously there’s different people who are each hostages in their own right, by different forces. So yeah that was interesting, and another theme in the movie is… I was very interested in… the movie was originally called The Trust but we changed it as there was a movie that came out last year called The Trust. The Trust has two meanings you know, one of them is obviously banks are called trusts, the others can be sisters who come to trust each other in order to survive. The other thing we were trying to do was make a movie without back story – which was a huge experiment as that kind of back story is spoon fed to the audience quite generously.

The movie was originally called The Trust but we changed it as there was a movie that came out last year [with the same name].

Yes it’s straight into the action here, isn’t it?

Yeah, we had originally written a lot of back story and flashbacks right up to the decision to do this, and all the planning and prep for it, and then it all got cut. Mainly because, you know, we only had 16 or 17 days to shoot the movie.

So ideally you would have included the back story, but it was out of your hands?

Not necessarily, it was a creative decision as well as a logistic decision. I just looked at it very carefully and thought that if something should go, it should be this that goes because do we really need it, and is it not more of a pressure cooker if we just stay in that environment, it’s more claustrophobic, and not cut away, and be in there in real time so that was certainly a creative choice.

Yes that worked really well, and you could almost do it on stage, just having that one setting…

I initially designed it as a play and I wanted to light the entire set as a play for 360 degree angles and have the actors come in a week ahead of time and rehearse it as a play and then bring the cameras in and shoot the movie, but obviously with the budget and the schedule that we had, that was prohibitive, so in fact there were a lot of times throughout the opening heist sequence, I had certain actors on certain days and other actors on other days and so what would normally be a consecutive day of shooting, I had to break it across the entire shoot and I had to do reverse angles with certain actors, you know that weren’t even in the room. It was pretty difficult.

You had a fantastic cast to play with, some really big names like James Franco and Taryn Manning. Did you know the likes of James or Taryn personally before they joined the film, or were they new to you?

I flew out to LA and was meeting with different people we could potentially…originally it was written as an all male cast, and we changed them to sisters because I was meeting with different people, and I’d actually had an acting class I was teaching and I gave some of my students the roles for the movie a few years back, and they were all women and I just loved the energy and the dynamics that it brought, so when we were looking for females who might fit the bill, we thought of Taryn Manning and I thought she would be fantastic, and was very excited to meet her, very interested in her since Hustle and Flow obviously and we got on great, and she was so fun to hang out with and to meet and talk to, and really digging the script and she immediately said yes on the first phone call.

Manning plays Vee (left) & Franco plays Ed (right)

But I got a sense that James, when I met him, the morning he showed up on set. He was pretty hard to track down, he’s pretty busy, but again he was fantastic to work with. I thought he might be harder on me if I didn’t have all my decisions perfectly lined up, but he responded pretty well to what I offered him and we jumped in with both feet and got it in the can. But it was interesting, because when I was talking to different people – actresses – I got the sense that there were no strong roles for women readily available, so I thought that was interesting.

I met [James Franco] the morning he showed up on set. He was pretty hard to track down, he’s pretty busy, but again he was fantastic to work with. 

It was quite refreshing to see very strong female roles and they played it so well. Obviously the two sisters have a very complex relationship and they captured that perfectly, but in terms of the chemistry, was that natural from the start or did you have to force it out of them?

No we just had a lot of talk about the movie as we were gearing up for it and I flew out to LA and I sat with them and a few times – I’m based in Atlanta but I have an office in LA – so I flew up and met with her and talked about the character quite a bit and it was interesting as there was a big contrast between the two. I wanted Leah to be ex-military and very strategic, meanwhile I wanted Vee to be the sort of wild child who was – if one of them was very military and asexual, and had this OCD strategy, a kind of control freak, and then the other one was the joker, Harley Quinn more, you know a loose cannon who loved to dance, the chaos you know? So there’s two forces, both being strong in different ways, I just thought I’d drive as much contrast between them as possible and I think they really took to it well, and in so doing they really lived in those characters. We really relaxed on the dialogue and let them improvise quite a bit.

Originally it was written as an all male cast, and we changed them to sisters. I just loved the energy and the dynamics that it brought.

They certainly pulled it off and their relationship was very core to the film as the underlying theme of family, of course, was important. Was that something you felt, gave the audience more empathy for the characters? Because as a viewer, you almost find yourself rooting for them even though they’re criminals…

Yeah that’s the thing I was afraid I was going to lose by cutting some of the back story, but you know I thought it was really fresh and nice to have them show the back story by relating within these moments, you feel it anyway. You root for them because they’re kind of hostages too, although Taryn does hurt the bodyguard at the beginning of the movie, she’s a bit wild, but the characters are flawed, they’re not heroes but yeah, at the end of the day they were doing something to help their brother, so hopefully they were in contrast to the big skinhead who wouldn’t let them leave.

Francesca Eastwood plays Vee’s sister Leah.

Speaking of that, there are a fair few gruesome moments in the film. As a filmmaker do you prefer to show the full extent of the gory moment or do you like to keep that in the viewers’ imagination? I notice we didn’t see too much of the supernatural beings, they were kind of more hinted at. Was that intentional?

And necessary, with our resources I think you have to lean into that Jaws aesthetic of less is more, you know Jaws might not have been that great movie if the mechanical shark had worked, so the implication of it, and the dread and the music building that tension and knowing when to celebrate it, when to reveal it, was a big thing that I tried to do, and the rhythm of it. So yes absolutely, the less you see the more terrifying it is. And how to reveal certain entities like the man, like how and when to reveal him. We cut a lot out actually, we’d shot actually more of that, we chopped a lot of it back.

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It’s true, he was used quite a lot in the trailer, so I thought we’d see more of him in the film, but I like the fact that it was more of a tease to the viewer, it definitely built the tension in that sense, and gave it more mystery, which is always good. Horror’s a genre you’re very familiar with, with the likes of The Signal, which you co-directed with David Bruckner & Jacob Gentry, and now The Vault, can you ever see yourself branching out into a different field like comedy or romance?

It’s funny because when I riff with my friends, comedy and sketch comedy is something that I’ve always done in high school, and so I don’t know why I have such dark visions. And I made a movie called The Reconstruction William Zero, it’s on Netflix, and that’s a cerebral sort of sci fi movie about cloning, it’s not horror, it’s more of a sci fi thriller.

But yeah one of the first screenplays I wrote and I still hope to make is about an old man who comes home to make amends with his daughter that he didn’t know he had, till he’s on his death bed, and I’ve got a lot of movies that are basic human straight stories, but it’s hard to get movies financed and I think that The Signal was the challenge for me because, I love certain horror classics, you know I love Alien, The Thing and these are movies that are very close to me heart, they’re fantastic, but I didn’t set out thinking I’m going to make horror movies, it wasn’t my thing, I came to it because I was trying to understand it and challenge myself, so The Signal was how do I make an ultra-violent movie, let’s figure out how to make a movie about violence and comment on it as we do it. I came to realise horror is a really fun challenge. But you know I have all kinds of movies I want to make so it’s story-telling, whether it’s genre based or comedies I’d love to get made as well.

That brings me on to my last question – do you have any projects you’re working on that we can expect to see soon?

Yes so The Dark Red – I’ve actually just finished the cut – so I’m going to submit to festivals here in the next few weeks, I think some answers, festival submission is step number one. I’m working on the movie The Dark Red right now, a movie I’m making in Atlanta. April Billingsley is in it, she’s a wonderful actress. It’s got Kelsey Scott, who was in 12 Years a Slave and Fear of the Walking Dead. It’s a story about a girl – a woman – who shows up in a mental ward and she claims that her baby was taken from her by force caesarean by a cult and so it’s sort of an unreliable narrative and we’re trying to figure out if she’s crazy or if there’s really a cult. And it’s got some supernatural attributes as well, it’s kind of got a Stephen King feel to it, so yeah! That’s what I’m working on right now, and we’re pitching a load of ideas in LA as well.

The Vault arrives in US theaters on September 1st, and UK cinemas on the 8th. See its trailer below in the meantime:

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