Donald Sutherland, Rachel Hurd-Wood, James D’Arcy and Courtney Solomon – A Haunting Tale
by Jay S. Jacobs
Originally posted on May 4, 2006.
An American Haunting is a new film version of a classic supernatural mystery, the Bell Witch of Tennessee in the early 1800s. This true story looks at the Bell family, which was bedeviled by a poltergeist for years, eventually leading to the only case of a human dying because of a haunting.
A few days before the film was set to open, film stars Donald Sutherland, Rachel Hurd-Wood, James D’Arcy and writer/director Courtney Solomon sat down with us in the Regency Hotel in New York to discuss the film.
Have you ever had personal experiences with the supernatural?
Donald Sutherland: Until about six years ago I lived with a ghost in the house we had in Quebec. When they sold it to us they said “there is a ghost in the house” and we said okay. We’re kind of ghost friendly, the idea didn’t terrify us. It was a little annoying because he was angry and he stomped around. He played the piano, and it got to the point of locking doors and taking the keys away. I don’t know how the ghost did it but the ghost opened the damn doors. We had two people who worked on the property – the wife of the guy who lived downstairs; the ghost would come and sit on her bed because she had that kind of a personality. She had been damaged in the same way the child in American Haunting had been damaged. Each of the sisters had been abused in the same way. She was a terrific woman and the ghost used to come sit on the side of the bed and talk to her. Not in an angry way, decently.
We were drilling a well; they used to bring water up from a lake, but Laidlaw came and they brought waste up from the United States to a dumping ground in Canada. Despite all our protests and their promises it leached into the lake and contaminated it with mercury, and you could no longer drink the water or eat the fish from the lake. It’s kind of like WashingtonState where the Atomic Energy Commission promised that the waste from bombs from Nagasaki until today wouldn’t leak out, and of course it leaked out and it’s leaching day by day towards the Columbia River. We have destroyed our universe. Anyway, the dowser came to do the well because it was difficult to find water on the property. He came into the house and he was sitting there, he had a cup of tea, and he went, there’s a ghost. I said yeah. He said you want me to get rid of it? And we said no, no, no. The people who work in the house; whenever they carry plates into that room, [the spirits] break them. Can you do anything about it? He said, absolutely. He said now its okay. And it was true. Nobody ever broke a plate in that room again. [However] In that room… somebody would go into another room and bang! We lost cutlery but then when the owner of the house died six years ago, the ghost moved.
Whose ghost was it?
Donald Sutherland: His widow says it was his uncle. He was with the Air Force.
How about you?
Courtney Solomon: I believe I have. I’m not making this up so you guys have a good story, by the way. The Bell Witch was known for pulling the covers off the bed, one of the most famous things right to the end of the bed. We have two guestrooms in our house in LA and I come home when I got off four nights ago and my wife’s already been telling me, “The guestroom door flew open about a week ago and the alarm went off,” and whatever else. We have our deck outside the guestroom door completely under construction because it got flooded. It’s not open. It’s bolt locked shut and on the outside of it is actually sheet wood covering it up. So, there isn’t anybody getting into it opening it up, and it flew open. The front door flew open a different day; the dogs started barking at something. This was a couple of weeks ago. She brings it up a couple of days ago and in the guestroom, which the bed’s always made because nobody’s been staying there. The sheets, the cover, the duvet is at the bottom of the bed. She just freaked the hell out of me, I was speaking to her on the phone last night, she’s like “there’s noises coming from upstairs.” I don’t know, I went into the room and I did get the chills around the neck but I think just because I was psyching me out. I mean, you know, there’s been nobody there. I know – you’re looking at me “yeah right.”
I think your wife is pulling one on you.
Courtney Solomon: She might be. She’s really not the type to do something like that. You could be right.
What about you two, any ghostly occurrences?
Rachel Hurd-Wood: Over to you, James.
James D’Arcy: Well, kind of. My grandmother died about five years ago. She had had cancer for a long time and was in hospital. One night, I woke up in the middle of the night – I mean really, I got one of those wide-awake moments. It wasn’t like there was a person in the room, but there was a feeling in the room, I would say. It wasn’t even a voice, but if it would have had a voice, the feeling was saying, “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine. It’s all going to work out.” I went straight back to sleep. That’s the thing that I always now think is the weirdest thing about all of that. Instead of sitting up, wondering about what had happened; I literally just rolled over and went straight back to sleep. The next thing that happened was my mother came and woke me up and told me that my grandmother had passed on.
Rachel Hurd-Wood: I have never had any supernatural experiences. I don’t really believe in ghosts. But if anything were to happen, then I guess I’d be more open with it.
James D’Arcy: You’d have to be…
Rachel Hurd-Wood: Yeah…
James D’Arcy: Because it had happened. (They both laugh.)
You seem to like the horror genre, huh?
Donald Sutherland: Nothing to do with genre. The genre has to be with the director. It’s the reality of the character. Nick Roeg changed my life. I’ve got a son named after him. He called me up and said do you have any experience with the paranormal. I spent a lot of time, because I lived right next door to the spiritualists association, I used to go in and sit, I’d go upstairs and listen to séances, a bunch of people sitting in chairs like a lecture, except the lecture was talking to somebody from somewhere else. It was extraordinary, and they told me a bunch of things that made a difference in my life. Nick Roeg sent me the script of Don’t Look Now and I liked it a lot. I liked the two films he’d made, Walkabout and the one he made with Donald Cammell [Performance, starring Mick Jagger]. I liked them tremendously. I had this conversation with him – he was in England and I was in Florida. He said, “Did you like the script?” And I said I like it a lot, I just think it’s incorrect to take extra sensory perception and use it as a vehicle for horror. If that man experiences extra sensory perception they should react to it positively. I think that I should recognize what his fate is and save his life as a result of it. He shouldn’t be punished because he has extra sensory perception. And Nick said, quite succinctly, “Do you want to do the film or not?” It was the first time I really came to terms with the fact that directors make movies. You go onstage; once you go out onstage it’s just you and the audience. The director can be waving his hands saying “don’t say that, you piece of shit!” But you can say it. There’s a certain autonomy you don’t have.
James, I heard that you don’t like horror movies.
James D’Arcy: Well, only because I do exactly what I’m supposed to do in a horror film. Which is…
Rachel Hurd-Wood: Cry like a little girl. (chuckles)
James D’Arcy: She’s been doing this all day. (laughs) You know, I jump up in the air. I scream. And then I can’t sleep for four days afterwards. Ever since I saw The Shining, I’m not very good at horror films.
But you keep making them…
James D’Arcy: That’s true. (laughs) Well, they’re a different thing to make than to actually go and watch. I don’t have anything against horror films. They’re just not the kind of thing that I would go and watch. You know, certainly, with this film, I think it’s – it is a PG-13, it’s not a straight up slasher gorefest. It’s kind of hopefully got something slightly more of the thriller in it. It’s asking the audience to do a little bit of work. As well as having all of these jumps and scary moments.
Do you like horror films, Rachel?
Rachel Hurd-Wood: I love them. That’s my favorite genre of movie.
Is that what made you want to do this film?
Rachel Hurd-Wood: No, not so much. It’s more just the story that I found intriguing. And the character… I was really drawn to the whole project. It was really, really cool doing a horror movie as well.
Were you familiar with the Bell Witch legend?
Donald Sutherland: No. I don’t know much about American history. It’s interesting. I’m educated in Canada. I spent most of my theatrical life in England. I try to catch up but there’s so much out [there].
The Bell Witch is sort of a classic supernatural story. I remember reading about it when I was a little kid. As a filmmaker how much did you feel that you had to stay close to the story as it’s been told over the years and how much did you take license for a movie?
Courtney Solomon: I thought I was actually pretty good in putting a card up at the end that said this was just one version of how it ended and not the only version. Because I thought that it was my responsibility to say that as a filmmaker. Thank God I did too because I screened it in Tennessee in Nashville, and we’re doing a Q & A in front of five hundred people and this guy stands up. I guess he’s about sixty-five and he says, “I’m Carney Bell, the great-great grandson of John Bell.” I’m thinking “oh shit.” You know, like five hundred people, everybody claps for him, a big standing ovation and this big pall of silence and then he announces he loves the film. I think to myself, “What are the chances?” Based on what my film said about his [forefather] – and he wasn’t the only one there was like twenty of them. Right there as far away from me as you are. And there’s a CBS, NBC, ABC, Local Tennessee filming this live. This is a national film festival opening film just a week and a half ago. And he said he loved it. It was how he imagined it, with his having grown up with this legend. And he thanked me for putting that card on there.
I stayed true to what I saw consistent in the books I read. Not just Monahan’s book, not just the ending, but what happens to Betsy, what happens to John, the things that they saw on the farm; the voices. I didn’t go as deep into the speaking of the Bell Witch and I didn’t touch on Andrew Jackson just because it didn’t fit into the screenplay I created. [Legend claims the future President had been John Bell, Jr.’s commander in the Battle of New Orleans and visited the home when he heard of the spirit, where he experienced the supernatural occurrences firsthand.] It would have seemed like I was trying to validate how true this story really is if I’d put the Andrew Jackson scene in there because it just didn’t fit. I had a draft of the script I tried to put it into. It sort of wound away from where the whole story was going. It didn’t seem natural anymore. So I said to myself although its cool, sometimes if it doesn’t fit, you shouldn’t put it in. Instead I did a little internet episode that we have out there that talks about Andrew Jackson and the legend. I stayed true to the basic things that happened that were consistent in all the stories, whether it was told in Ingram’s original version or in one of the versions done just as [recently] as two or three years ago.