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The Haunting cast: Liam Neeson, Owen Wilson, Catherine Zeta-Jones stand frightened in a haunted mansion doorway Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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Speed director Jan de Bont on reinventing The Haunting and trying to reinvent Godzilla

It’s time to talk about decapitating Owen Wilson

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Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

When Jan de Bont calls, you pick up. It’s common courtesy. Also, the man directed Speed.

The Dutch filmmaker kicked off is career as a director of photography on films like Die Hard, Black Rain, The Hunt for Red October, Basic Instinct, and the notorious lion adventure Roar, before transitioning to his own blockbuster endeavors. After making his directorial debut with the high-speed, Keanu Reeves-led bus movie, de Bont teamed up with Steven Spielberg to develop a number of projects, including the ’90s-disaster-movie-defining Twister. The partnership also begat 1999’s The Haunting, the horror drama starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, and Lili Taylor. De Bont’s film turned Shirley Jackson’s acclaimed novel into a Hollywood roller-coaster ride, focusing on an insomniac (Taylor) invited to Hill House Manor for a sleep study. A spooky sleep study!

The Haunting was a financial success, but was often mistaken as a remake of Robert Wise’s celebrated 1963 film of the same name, and critically maligned at the time for being inferior to Wise’s movie. The aftermath saw de Bont’s career all but wind down; his last directorial effort was Lara Croft: Tomb Raider — the Cradle of Life in 2003. But in a new interview, de Bont tells Polygon that he’s still proud of the film, and hopes a newly remastered 4K film transfer, supervised by the director and released on Blu-ray, might find a new set of viewers who can divorce the experience from the 1963 feature (although Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House may draw a new set of comparisons).

If anything, the making of The Haunting went a lot better than his attempt to direct a Godzilla remake, which he was also more than happy to discuss.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

After a string of successful action movies, you made The Haunting. Did it feel like a left turn?

Jan de Bont: It was different. I had done Cujo a long time ago — that was actually what I liked — but the reason that I ended up doing the movie [...] It was developed by Steven Spielberg. He was the one who was going to make it, while I was still in post[-production] on Twister. I was going to make Minority Report, but I wasn’t going to make it for several years, because there was no way Twister would go fast. In those days, visual effects took a really long time to get it done right — over a year and a half, almost. And he said, “Well, maybe we could change. Maybe you take The Haunting and I take Minority Report.” I’d worked on Minority Report also for a long time, and I really liked that project, but that needed to have a very big star, so I was a little bit stuck in waiting to find one. Tom Cruise really wanted to do the part, but he could only do it three or four months from then. So [Spielberg] said, “Are you interested in changing?” Which we ended up doing.

I wouldn’t go for [The Haunting] now, but I did think what was interesting is that it wasn’t going to be a real horror movie. It was much more about Lili Taylor’s character and her innocence. She’s the only one who understands that [the house is] not evil. From her arrival to almost to the end, she enjoys being there. She cannot even leave, she really understands it, and has a much better understanding than all those educated people around her. That was interesting, to look at the film more from a character perspective instead of, “Don’t go down the stairs!” “Don’t look behind the door, because there’s something behind it!” Because that’s why a lot of horror movies are bad.

I liked it after it was done. Everybody worked as hard as they could to make it as best as possible, but everybody expected it to be like the original The Haunting, which is a completely different movie. It’s really the opposite, almost. They tried to get some more horror shocks in there, and we filmed some, but it was totally phony. That would have never happened — those people would never have fallen for that! It was really strange. So I kept focusing on Lili’s character, and she did an amazing job.

owen wilson getting decapitated in a fireplace in The Haunting Image: Paramount Pictures

In defense of the tropey horror gags: I will always remember that scene where Owen Wilson gets beheaded in the fireplace.

I liked the kind of nerdy response that he has to things. He’s actually a really good comedian, and if I ever needed a little lighter moment, I always talked to him to help me here or there. Sometimes the smallest things are really the most effective. He came up with a couple of lines here and there that were not in the script.

You decapitated Owen’s character, and you also decapitated Dennis Hopper’s character in Speed. Do you love a good cinematic decapitation?

They are their own victims! They caused it themselves. I always find that interesting. There’s no other human being involved. It’s always like an outside thing. And I always hit my head so many times myself by not looking up when there’s a huge thing above my head. And I cannot blame anybody apart from myself. So if you lay on top of a train, there’s really little space. If you make one little mistake, your head is gone!

How did you want to visualize the psychological elements in The Haunting? How did set creation play into that? The film’s set is lavish in a way we never see in horror movies today.

I really wanted the house to become a character, but not a scary-looking character. I wanted there to be grandeur to it, an ostentatious grandeur. But if you look at it with different eyes, there’s a possibility that you could see it another way. It’s basically like a big opera set. You could see half this had been built on stage, and people start singing in front of it while horrible things happen in the background. In a way, it works like that — the heavy drama in the house is not immediately obvious. You go down the stairs, up the stairs, “Wow, looks impressive.” It was amazing art by all the set-builders and construction guys.

And then suddenly, it starts working against you. It’s really quite amazing: A lot of the effects are really built into the set. To have a bedroom where it was made to be completely collapsible, and things could fall down, it’s really quite amazing. When you film the scene, you cannot see the effect already [because it’s entirely built]. You can really see the scary part of the building responding in somebody’s mind. And I really felt the stage, all the hydraulics — it looks scary being in that set, because when you push a button, a floor comes down or halfway down. It scared the crew, too. If you can scare the crew as well, it works.

Director Jan de Bont looks through a camera eyepiece on the set of The Haunting
Jan de Bont on the set of The Haunting
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Did you have any frustrations about how the movie went over in 1999? Do you think perception has changed?

People were thinking I was going to do a remake of the old one, which was a really good movie, but that was never the plan. Not only that: We did not have the rights for the movie, nor could we take a single sentence of the dialogue from that movie, so it wasn’t even an option! So the expectations were much more directed toward the the older version, and not toward a different interpretation of Jackson’s story. So that was the really difficult thing to deal with — I was so surprised by it, that they took it so literally. If you see this as a remake, you have to tell the same story, and obviously, that wasn’t the case. That wasn’t very well-presented in publicity.

But now, in several countries where I’ve talked about movies and with film students who didn’t have the knowledge that it had to be the same as the old one, they saw it as a different movie. So they didn’t have that that comparison level. And if you read general reactions now, they’re much higher than when the movie came out, which is kind of nice to see

The point where you spoke to Spielberg about The Haunting must have been around the time you were trying to mount an American take on Godzilla. The rumors were that the movie was just too big, which is why you left the project, and Roland Emmerich eventually made his version, released in 1998. What happened there?

It wasn’t too big. I went to Japan, I met with the people at the studio, and they loved my version. It was basically that the visual effects at the time, and also special effects — like the way they did in the [original] Godzilla movies, which, I had copies of all of them — it became a battle about the budget. So the person who ended up doing the movie said that he could do it for like $40-50 million less than my budget. Mine was, I think, around $100 million or so. Of course, that never happens — and his film ended up costing almost twice as much as my budget. Unfortunately, they believed him.

But the writers I had were fantastic, the script was so good. It stayed true to the old Godzilla movies, but then taking place in the United States, which [the other movie] kept. But then they started by changing Godzilla! You cannot do that! After so many years, and everybody loving Godzilla, why would you want to change it? That was a big mistake. And then it became all about special effects, and that is never a good thing. I met some of the directors who did the earlier Godzilla movies — they were nice people, and the studio loved the take on it. We were really far into pre-production: set designs, locations, and then they saw the budget. “Oh no, we don’t spend that much money on the Godzilla movie.” Then they end up spending twice as much money.