Everything Zen: David Prior on "The Empty Man"

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

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? 

Freely adapted by Prior, previously a director of DVD documentaries and featurettes, from Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Ray’s 2014 graphic novel—a sci-fi epic set in a destroyed America buckling under government quarantine and beset by a psychic plague causing insanity and violence—The Empty Man streamlines and refines its source material into a highly subjective procedural-slash-weird-tale.  James (James Badge Dale) is a widowed ex-cop whose grief over the death of his wife and son in a car accident compels him to help a friend (Marin Ireland) try to locate her runaway teenage daughter, Amanda (Sasha Frolova); Amanda, according to her pals, has been hanging out with a strange crowd.  The process by which James’ investigation intersects with the aforementioned action in the Himalayas—and both narratives’ connection to the apocalyptic scenario of the comic book— is staged by Prior with an unnerving sense of convergence that recalls the thrillers of his sometime collaborator David Fincher, right down to the participation of a guru-like figure who goes by John Doe.

The quality of the filmmaking here, particularly the swift, crystalline cutting by Prior and Andrew Buckand, is plain as day. And yet The Empty Man was dumped unceremoniously into cinemas by Fox in October of 202o, almost two years after shooting wrapped, a casualty in equal measure of the Fox-Disney merger and the unexpected departure during post-production of its in-house champion Mark Roybal. It didn’t help that Prior’s debut was received, shall we say, inattentively by critics contending with a chaotic release calendar and a collapsing exhibition apparatus, and who either weren’t willing—or able—to concentrate on and connect to its beautifully tooled visual and philosophical motifs. These are most eloquently conjoined in a series of scenes set on bridges,  suspended emblems of connection and conveyance in a parable probing modes of crossover. Nor did these reviewers do much to repudiate the half-cocked, hands-off measures of the film’s distributor, which saw fit to handle their slick but palpably handmade genre product as damaged goods–a $15 million sunk cost as deck chairs kept getting rearranged on the Titanic.

If some movies are critic-proof, others become vulnerable in the absence of advocacy. The swelling social-media reclamation of The Empty Man after it hit streaming platforms has positioned it, happily, as an honest-to-Cthulu cult movie—a deserving fate for a film about the phenomenon of virality. It also indicates that its financiers could have had a niche hit or even a cause celebre on their hands if only they’d packaged their wares as “elevated horror.” Whatever you think of the taxonomical accuracy (or implications of) that dread phrase, a 137-minute movie that conspicuously aims this high—and peaks, if that’s the word, with a throwaway joke about “Jacques Derrida High School”— probably slots nicely alongside the critical catnip of Ari Aster. But while Prior’s purposeful, unabashed play with B (for Blumhouse) movie tropes—beginning with its generic title and extending through a deceptively derivative procession of sequences indebted to giallo, slasher, urban legend and J-horror predecessors—is a brilliant disguise, it’s one that arguably works too well, to the point that these dress-up games were mistaken (including by his own marketing department) for a mere rag-and-bone fashion show. A friend told me that she thought The Empty Man was several different movies in one, which is apt enough and gets at its slightly overstuffed vibe. But there’s also an argument to be made that this spacious and confidently paced film is a wilful shape-shifter, and that the relationship between outer forms and inner life is precisely what its distended but never boring shaggy-tulpa storyline is driving at. 

Cliches are Prior’s lingua franca, but as per Umberto Eco, on his watch the cliches are having a ball. At one point in his self-directed true detectivery, James—whose oddly mechanical mixture of determination and anguish is the deepest-red flag in a script that just keeps brazenly waving them— arrives beneath the cantilevered ceilings of a design-for-life start-up called the Pontifex Institute. (The organization’s quasi-religious name refers to the Latin word for “bridge-builder;” Eco would approve). There, he wins an audience with the group’s high priest Dr. Arthur Parsons (Stephen Root in low-key Lewtonian mode), whose sonorous spiel about “the great binding nothingness of things” and ominous promise to reveal “the true face of the world” leads James—and perhaps the viewer—to tune it all out as just another metaphysical exposition dump. Except that, as the Good Doctor explains, such blasé dismissal misses the forest for the trees. Cliché alert, yes.  But as Parsons asks: what are clichés but profound, collective, enduring truths decontextualized and made impotent by repetition?  And if, by means of some new and sustained contemplation, these hoary old chestnuts were to be reimbued with their original potency—whether under the aegis of an ancient order, their New Age inheritors, or a maybe a mid-budget horror movie designed as a good, hard look at the proverbial abyss—well... wouldn’t that be some scary shit? 

The Empty Man is indeed scary (sometimes in junky ways, sometimes not) and also in a fashion, Nietzcheian, insofar as the episode with the backpacker explicitly visualizes the philosopher’s mesmeric mirror-image aphorism and other scenes wring pulpy variations on the theme of will to power. “Thought + concentration + time = flesh” reads a piece of Pontifex-approved literature, and if the narrative’s strict adherence to that formula tows a  line between grandeur and goofiness—both of which, it should be said, are authentically Lovecraftian virtues and welcome as such— Prior’s focused direction embodies it, in ways that viewers who prize formal control and high-decibel declarations of intentionality will surely find irresistible.

“Repetition” is not only a watchword for Dr. Parsons and his deconstructionist brigade, but the film as a whole. In addition to its repertory of lonely bridges and silent asana-sitting initiates, The Empty Man offers up recursive images of bottles, sinister whispered conversations (ASMR enthusiasts will be enthralled) and bodies clustered and moving in all sorts of conspiratorial configurations. James keeps compulsively circling back to certain factoids and phrases even as his ominously date-stamped trajectory propels him forward; Prior films his protagonist in a constant state of arrival, striding in silhouette through backlit corridors and portals that give the film some of the same liminal momentum as David Lynch. One key scene even replays the ouroboros-like moment in Inland Empire where Laura Dern eavesdrops on her own rehearsal, recasting a ticking-clock quest for secret, sinister knowledge as a confrontation with the self. 

That we’ve seen a lot of what’s in The Empty Man before doesn’t mean we’ve necessarily seen it done much better, any more than it means a movie that’s at once skeptical and earnestly precious about the nature and solidity of meaning doesn’t mean anything in and of itself.  The big trend these days in contemporary horror cinema (and the discourse around it) is trauma, and Prior’s entry distinguishes itself by identifying sadness as the crack exposing reality’s façade (shades of John Carpenter and In the Mouth of Madness, with its cheap surfaces belieing bottomless terror). Just as sharply—and maybe also satirically—it imagines a character whose experience of loss is the only thing keeping him from being a cipher, before boomeranging this condition back on him—and us—as a proof of existential emptiness. Desolation becomes fulfillment, and vice versa; “we were all one once,” Dr. Parsons reassures us, and “we will all be one again.”  To end with a cliché, it’s been said many times that the most frightening horror movies are the ones that seem to stare back at us—the ones that not only hold our gaze, but meet it. At the end of The Empty Man, I was left wondering what it saw.  

DAVID PRIOR: Is that the poster for Philip Kauffman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers back there behind you?

NOTEBOOK: One of my favorite movies ever.

PRIOR: The photography is dodgy but it's such a good movie that it doesn't matter.

NOTEBOOK: You don't like the way that movie looks?

PRIOR: It's all that kind of hard front light you know? But it doesn't matter, it's beautiful, it’s such a great movie.

NOTEBOOK: To say I grew up on that movie is an understatement! My Mom loved it, and for a nine or ten year old it was so wonderfully lurid, there's lots of nudity in it and it's just so rapt and intense. I showed my Mom The Empty Man, by the way. She told me that she really loved how it looked, but felt like she should probably watch it again in order to understand it all, which I said was fair enough. I watched The Empty Man three times in four weeks, and the fact that I kept getting drawn back into it made me think it might be a genuine cult movie—which is rare now for a lot of reasons. In my circles, at least, it's a movie people are talking about a lot. It’s something interesting that flew under the radar.

PRIOR: I don't tweet, and I don't read Twitter, but I have gone to Letterboxd and it's been encouraging to see more people embracing the movie for what it was trying to do instead of being dismissed by critics for having the temerity to be more than ninety minutes long.

NOTEBOOK: Or because it's a studio horror movie being released in the middle of a pandemic.

PRIOR: We always knew that it wasn’t a four-quadrant movie and that it was made for a select audience, but it was still pretty disheartening to see the shallower reactions to it.

NOTEBOOK: Like most people I know I didn't see it on its initial release but if I had the first thing I would have wanted to write about was the sense of scale in the prologue in Bhutan, and how it reminded me of what William Friedkin did in The Exorcist and Sorcerer—these exotic, far-flung overtures that feel almost like miniaturized movies in and of themselves. When the backpackers pass by that truckload of Tibetan monks, it felt like a pretty deliberate nod to the cart that barrels by Merrin in The Exorcist...

PRIOR: Guilty as charged. While we were doing research I found a photo of some monks being driven around in the jungle and as soon as I saw that picture I thought of Friedkin. I handed the photo to everybody in the art department and the vehicle department and told them to go find me some monks and a truck and recreate it.  Turns out finding Bhutanese monks in Cape Town, where we shot, is not easy to do.  But I did want something that would remind people of The Exorcist, and also Sorcerer, which is an all-time favorite. Anytime you’re doing a modern horror story with an extended opening in an exotic land I imagine The Exorcist will come to mind, but I’m so steeped in those movies anyway, they pour out of my ears.

NOTEBOOK: Beyond the visual reference, though, it made me think of how The Exorcist begins with the discovery of a presence—or a spirit—that belongs to another time and place and gets transported through a totem (or a true believer) to the contemporary West. The Exorcist is often described as timeless, but as in Rosemary's Baby, its period signifiers are right up top; it's trying to re-contextualize an ancient idea of evil in a present tense which has become uniquely vulnerable to it. So in The Empty Man, this migration we see from East to West—from a Buddhist milieu towards the spiritually drained, exhausted millennial version of America you put onscreen— is extremely suggestive and specific at the same time.

PRIOR: Well, I'm cautious when I talk about this stuff because when you're setting out to tell a story that trades in ambiguity... let's just say ambiguity is not an excuse to not make up your mind, it has to be pretty surgically deployed. But at the same time it would betray the intent to try to collapse the entire movie into one interpretation. If you're trying to create a situation where people are invited to wrestle with some ideas, then you're robbing them of the experience that you tried to give them in the first place, provided you're lucky enough to find people who are even interested in such a thing. So I want to tread a little bit carefully on that, but I do agree with what you're saying. Anybody who doesn't see certain portents right now of a kind of civilizational collapse—or evidence of cultural rot—just isn't looking very hard. I think it's pretty plain that we're living in a time where things seem to be accelerating towards some kind of a reckoning, and perhaps an apocalyptic one. I don't think it's apropos of nothing that George Romero-levels of grue and gore in zombie movies have become mainstream things that people sit around the TV and watch with their families. The Walking Dead is just as gruesome as anything that got George Romero an X-rating in 1985, and yet it's now in everybody's living room and there's something about that apocalyptic tenor that is resonating with people, like a signal they are responding to. Leonard Cohen called it the Devil’s riding crop, you know. “I’ve seen the future, baby, it is murder.”  You can feel it, something's coming. As you say, there's a perspective from which civilization has progressed westward, and the West is at the leading edge, and also where the decay is happening. There's a reason why the architecture of the Pontifex Institute is classical Greco-Roman. I wanted it to feel like the cuckoos had taken over the nest.

NOTEBOOK: There are so many recurring motifs in the movie that I want to ask you about, but my favorite might be all the images of people sitting cross-legged—these lotus poses that have become very culturally cliched now through associations with yoga and mindfulness. It's like this Eastern idea of equilibrium has become something that can be commodified and sold, but in The Empty Man, the receptivity of that pose is made ecstatic and sinister at the same time.

PRIOR: Ecstasy can have its own connotations as well. There's certainly not a lot of thinking happening when you're ecstatic. No cult would ever really be successful and no ideas, even negative ones, would ever be able to take root if the negativity was right there on the surface. It has to kind of seduce, or have a germ of truth to it, or have something that you can hang your hat on and even agree with. There's an old quote, I think it was GK Chesterton; he said “the danger of atheism isn't that people will believe in nothing, it’s that they’ll believe in anything,” and that leaves you open to influences from other things that don't necessarily have the same kind of bedrock. There's something fundamentally destructive about the post-modern project—something that’s intentionally destructive. The purpose is to take social norms and cultural institutions and break them down, redefine them and hollow them out, and sometimes that needs to happen, but if you're not replacing it with something else that's equally persuasive or fundamental or important or valuable or humane or true, then it's highly dangerous. Those are some of the ideas that I was wrestling with in the film; that what I see going on around me is a lot of destruction but not a lot of refortification with anything substantial.

NOTEBOOK: From my understanding, your source material here is a very pulpy, grand, graphic novel that is set media res and mid-apocalypse, and you opted to strip almost all of that away. The potential end of the world is imminent in your movie, but it's not shown. But again, to return to the idea of scale, that doesn't mean that The Empty Man is small, exactly: it's weirdly stripped down and inflated at the same time.

PRIOR: It's definitely not the kind of scale that has teams of FBI agents with red laser sights breaking into buildings and finding tortured victims spread against walls, it's not that kind of thing.

NOTEBOOK: Sure, but it's also even less than Jeff Nichols did in Take Shelter, which has CGI storms and apocalyptic visions. I guess you have some of that too but it's pretty quick.

PRIOR: The idea was to have the world of the movie be a reflection of the character’s internal state and atomize along with him.  You know, there are some effects that I got a little too subtle with, even for my own good. There's a shot after Amanda's first visit to Badge, when he's in the backyard and they have their first tête-à-tête. He’s sitting alone on the bench and it cuts to a flock of starlings: those were CG. We went through twenty or thirty iterations of the idea, and the idea was that when they flock together they momentarily form the Pontifex logo. It's there if you're looking for it, but so far nobody has seen it. As for scale, if we're going to delineate the inner world of our main character—if we're going to get down to a subatomic level with him—we have to get into the celestial spheres on the other side of it, too.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of that main character, James Badge Dale is terrific in this movie.

PRIOR: He hangs it together.

NOTEBOOK: One thing I noticed on a rewatch is how physical his performance is, very solid and strong but also weirdly halting and very wary of each new environment. One way to look at the movie—which makes a lot of sense in light of the twist at the end—is that the character is always in a state of arrival.

PRIOR: I cast Badge based on his unique ability to sit still and be interesting. He's interesting when he's by himself alone in a room, and I think it’s the result of a peculiar quality he has that seems to indicate a degree to which he is divided against himself.  There’s a sense of inner conflict that just oozes out of him if you encourage it, and it makes him so intriguing to watch.  He’s got real courage as an actor, and if you trust him and he trusts you, he goes to some deep and vulnerable places. But yes, his natural physicality is a big part of it as well. On his second day of shooting, we were doing the birthday scene at the restaurant, and I saw him before and he was jumping rope, which he did everyday. I went off on a location scout, we drove somewhere else, did the thing, came back and he was still jumping rope. I don't know if I was consciously deploying that side of him, but to go back to The Exorcist, I've always remembered that the first time you see Father Karras he's running towards the camera and he rises up into frame in front of a long lens and the strength and emotion of that composition tells you a lot about the character.

NOTEBOOK: You see him jogging around the track too, and he also has that moment where he's pummeling the heavy bag in the boxing gym.

PRIOR: Absolutely. When Karras beats the shit out of that bag, it's pure escape; he's trying to do anything but think about what's going on and what frightens him.  To escape the metaphysical by clinging to the physical, as it were.

NOTEBOOK: Father Karras is part of a long line of horror movie protagonists who are defined by trauma, although that way of reading genre cinema—in real time, or in retrospect— is much more in vogue now than in 1973. One of the things I found most interesting about The Empty Man, and also funny in a way, was that the protagonist's trauma is both his defining trait and a complete fabrication; it's part of his programming, and it's there to make him more open as a vessel for this other presence. He's haunted and tortured because he's been made to order, and that's a pretty suggestive and borderline-satirical concept for a horror movie, especially in 2021.

PRIOR:  I like that you caught the satirical side of it.  There’s certainly an element of taking the piss out of that trope that was front-of-mind. Trauma has been a genre staple for a long time, even if it's a bit more up on its hind legs than it used to be. But beyond the humor of it, I think if you're dealing with some chaotic force that symbolizes the end of meaning, the fact that it can only enter a damaged vessel is interesting and resonates in a few ways. If you follow that trail, what does it say about where we are as a civilization? How are we, collectively, dealing with trauma? What does it leave us susceptible to? Is there a level at which grief opens you up to the unexpected? If grief isn't dealt with it can open you up to some pretty pernicious things. But I wanted all that to exist side by side with another reading of the story—that perhaps this guy's grief is so poorly processed that all the stuff she's telling him in that hospital room at the end of the movie is only what he desperately wants to hear, to reinforce his denial.  But of course I did find the idea that confronting your trauma only to find it resembling something from a bad pulp novel very amusing. 

NOTEBOOK: You mentioned the end of meaning, which is pretty explicitly discussed in the script but also seemed to be a kind of organizing principle: the question of clichés and whether they're ultimately harmless or harmful. Some people who I've talked to about the movie say it feels like four or five different horror movies in one, which I think is true but it also seems like you're aware of this. Cosmic horror, urban legend, Giallo slasher, cult conspiracy. Each segment is like a container for the same idea, and I feel like the idea becomes more potent each time it sheds its skin.

PRIOR: That notion of there being a kind of generic Balkanization to the structure of the movie—I hear what you’re saying.  All I was consciously doing was chasing the kinds of cinematic experiences that make the hairs on my arms stand up.  It all seemed unified to me, but obviously I missed something a lot of people see.  As a kid, I knew that my neighborhood had its local bogeyman, and I was terrified and fascinated and wanted to tell stories about that. There's a liminal space that teenagers live in where you're discovering the world and figuring out what's what and what you don't understand, and that's where horror sneaks in. It's fertile ground for the genre, but also for genuinely scary things, and cliché is part of that, where clichés gain a certain power because they are clichés.  So is repetition. Think about “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary...”

NOTEBOOK: Or “Candyman, Candyman, Candyman.”

PRIOR: Exactly. Looking in the mirror, saying something over and over again like a mantra; you bring the thing onto yourself and give it its own power. You forget that it's a cliché, and that's the role of clichés in the movie. It was also my attempt at a Trojan Horse—all the generic stuff was also supposed to give the studio something they could market. Of course it turned out that's all they marketed.

NOTEBOOK: The title is incredibly generic, and some of the scares are pretty junky too. That's a good thing, but it also struck me as doing due diligence in the service of something else.

PRIOR: The version of this movie that I would have made when I was twenty-five would have a lot more of that stuff: the kids on the bridge and the murder in the spa. Now I feel more like having my cake and eating it too.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of the bridges, that's a motif that really got under my skin, of characters suspended between two places—caught in the middle of some larger dialectic. Also, bridges are just creepy.

PRIOR: I agree.  In fact to a large degree this movie was born on a bridge.  I took a late night visit to the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge in St Louis sometime in 2009 or so, the same bridge in the movie.  It was used in Escape From New York, so I just took a pilgrimage with my family one night, listening to the Lacrimosa from Zbigniew Presiner’s Requiem For My Friend in my headphones.  And to say that bridge is spooky at night is to embarrass the word “spooky.”  It was flat out scary.  My son refused to follow me after the first thirty feet or so.  The whole notion of that part of the movie came to me then, and I knew someday I’d make a film of it.  In fact Lacrimosa Bridge was my operating title for a while.  For the prologue, I wanted a suspension bridge, because that image really says Bhutan, or Tibet. So it was practical, but it was also a way of having some connective tissue; the bridge as a means of connection but also the way that bridges can have a dual meaning of function. I remember trying really hard to think of a name for the cult in the movie, and I eventually hit on Pontifex, meaning bridge builder, in addition to the religious connotation. The overtly Catholic connotation gave me pause for a while, it’s not meant to be that specific. But I just never thought of anything better.

NOTEBOOK: I was beaten to the punch on this by an interview that's already been published but I had a pretty good laugh over Jacques Derrida High School, not just for the reference but imagining the hypothetical vibe and curriculum of that place.

PRIOR: I had to get extra clearance for that. In the script it was just “Derrida High,” and when I decided to add Jacques, Fox was concerned because they hadn't cleared the name. The fact that the lawyers thought there might be another “Derrida” struck me as hilarious. 

NOTEBOOK: In Carrie, “Bates High” sort of tells you how to watch the movie and I figure it's a similar deal here.

PRIOR: Originally, the ICU room at the end of The Empty Man was number 237. I couldn't help myself at first, but then I got embarrassed and cut around it. At least Jacques Derrida has some kind of thematic underpinning rather than just being a fetish of my taste.

NOTEBOOK: All the Pontfiex promotional materials we see in the movie are wonderful. Did you send out for that stuff?

PRIOR: I designed the initial batch, and I wrote the questionnaire. The inserts of the questionnaire were done entirely by me in After Effects because the props were full of typos.  But the promo materials you see in the film were all executed by a talented group of designers headed by Craig Lathrop.

NOTEBOOK: One of the best texts I got about The Empty Man was that it has one of the only good Wikipedia-search scenes in any movie.

PRIOR: That’s great, I took a lot of pride in that.  In the end we couldn't have the Wikipedia logo, but I hate movies with fake search engines in them. It had to be Wikipedia because people recognize that font and that layout, and it's funny to think that this crazy thing that's happening is waiting there on the mainstream Internet to be searched and discovered.

NOTEBOOK: We talked about James Badge Dale earlier but I'm very taken by the actress who plays Amanda. It's such a strange performance.

PRIOR: Sasha Frolova! I originally had this concept of the character as a Dairy Queen/middle America, blonde, apple-cheeked, hottest girl on the swim team type. And then underneath there was this other thing growing that didn't show on the surface. It seemed like a concept to run with, but then Sasha's tape showed up and she was the complete opposite: skinny, odd, sensual, with this little bowl cut and giant eyes and a slightly prepubescent Audrey Hepburn/Isabella Rossellini quality about her. Her tape was fascinating. She didn't have the lines down at all. She was making up dialogue almost, going up on lines and adding her own words. It was very undisciplined, but she had just had this quality about her, and I knew the moment I saw that tape, I was like “that's it, she's the one.” The studio wouldn't let me commit right away so I had to fly to New York and meet her. We read with her there and I didn't learn anything in that room that I didn't already know from the tape. As she was leaving, I pulled her into a dark closet for a second, just the nearest room I could find and said, “just so you know, don't make any plans, you've got the part, I can't tell you that officially right now but you're coming along.” So yeah, she was a really happy accident for me, she was not the one I was looking for, but she just announced herself. You pray for those moments.

NOTEBOOK: Again it's her physicality that's so interesting. The characters in the prologue have this magazine-quality attractiveness to them, and that proves very disposable. Even in her own group of friends—which mirrors the first group—Amanda seems to belong and not belong at the same time.

PRIOR: There are two close-ups of her on the bridge when she is talking about imagining every possible way she could get killed before she gets into a car—which is taken from something I used to do as a kid. It's an ineffable thing: she looks totally different in both of them even though one is right after the other.

NOTEBOOK: In addition to the bridges as a motif, I was unnerved by the framing and blocking of some scenes that could have been just simple exposition dumps, but you make them scary. When James goes to Pontifex and Arthur Parsons is explaining the whole thing about “repetition repetition” there are all these young initiates clustered around them, listening, and those rapt, silent clusters of people keep popping up in other locations as well.

PRIOR: I'm very fond of those shots. I tried to hide Amanda in a few of them if you look carefully. In terms of the framing and the lighting, I guess I was thinking of some of the encounter group sessions in Fight Club. Not beforehand, but on the day, shooting them, those came to mind.  The top light and a certain vacuousness in the extras.

NOTEBOOK: I'm sure people mention the Fincher connection to you all the time since you've worked with him for twenty years; what reminded me in The Empty Man of Fincher was what I said about the constant state of arrival and convergence, which is crucial in a procedural but also has a metaphysical dimension. The closer you get, the more something recedes, which happens in your movie in the scene with the cult by the bridge but is also the main theme in a movie like Zodiac.

PRIOR: I think you could make a case that Zodiac is David's best movie. I aspire to one day make something that's as unified and diligent and crystalline as that film, and at the risk of sounding like I'm making a comparison, I did console myself at times with how similar an experience he went through with his studio on that one. He delivered a serial killer movie about the impossibility of knowing anything; I made a horror flick about a crisis of identity. The studio hated Zodiac and they hated my movie. Again, not to compare my first film with his what, fifth or sixth, but I was privy to certain conversations around that film between the people who were releasing it, and it was brutal. They were outraged at him, “how dare you take a Friday night genre flick and turn it into something strange and woolly and artful and intellectual?”

NOTEBOOK: I've always thought that Se7en is a perfect movie but considerably less than Zodiac, which is imperfect but repudiates it in a very serious way.

PRIOR: : I've watched Se7en a lot—a lot.  Like I can’t count how many times a lot. I’ll always love it. But more recently I find myself getting a bit impatient with it, some of the ways it’s obligated to serve up the genre, as if you can feel David straining against the margins of it. The unease with the way the words coming out of the characters' mouths decry what the movie itself wallows in.  That’s always been obvious of course, I just rode along with the bifurcation of it more easily in years past.

NOTEBOOK: In Zodiac, there's no monster at the end of the movie, or Kevin Spacey speaking truth to power, there's just this heavyset guy in a hardware store and it's hard to say if it's scarier to think he could be the Zodiac or to wonder if he isn't and there's actually some weirder specimen out there. The existential dread is out there, and it's also inside.

PRIOR: The call is coming from inside the house. I've always been intrigued by movies where you're in subjective lockstep with a character who's unraveling. Zodiac has that. With The Empty Man, the executive who originally shepherded the project was very in sync with that sort of storytelling: he loves Don't Look Now and Mulholland Drive and The Swimmer. I was very upfront that I didn't want to make something in The Conjuring universe. The response was “neither do we.” And then personnel changes happened. One day he showed up in the edit bay and was giving us notes and the next day I read in The Hollywood Reporter that he was gone.

NOTEBOOK: There was always a 2020 theatrical release date, right? Before the pandemic hit, did you think the movie would be supported and released properly?

PRIOR: The original release date was August 2019, then December, then April 2020, then August again, and finally October 2020. As for support, I doubt it because the only people left were not the people who greenlit us. And of course we’d seen the power of a bad test screening.

NOTEBOOK: Tell me about the bad test screening.

PRIOR: We were forced to screen it before it was ready. The short version is we showed up in Chicago to finish the shoot after fifty-two or so days shooting in South Africa. It was December. Two feet of snow on the ground, so were shut down. The plan was to start up again in April, which got kiboshed for no good reason, and then our guy got fired and we had to literally wait around for months for somebody to let us finish. We had four-fifthss of a movie. We eventually wrapped up shooting late in the summer and we were forced into a test screening almost the minute we finished. We had a week with the new footage, rushing to get temp effects and a temp sound mix. I protested really hard. I sent a clip from The Hamster Factor to our new executive and said “this is what's going to happen.” And it's exactly what happened. Instead of being a constructive process, they just read the scores and abandoned the movie.

NOTEBOOK: I'm guessing there was some talk about excising the prologue.

PRIOR: That got brought up a lot. There were also some versions where the opening was cleaved down to almost nothing, in which case it would have been better to not have it at all. I didn't know how to tell the story without it. I always get excited when a title card comes up late into a movie's running time, or some other structural sacred cow gets gored.  But it makes some people angry.  As if they've made a fetish of their own expectations. “I want the experience that I expected, goddamn it! You better give it to me, or I'm going to get upset and Tweet about it.”

NOTEBOOK: What you're talking about is fascinating, though I'm sure for you it's not fascinating: for you, it sucks. It's not fun to be a case study in failing a mass audience's taste or a casualty of a wishy-washy studio, or to be told that if A24—who are a brand name in “elevated horror,” for better or for worse— had somehow been the ones releasing your movie it probably would have at least been shown to critics and given a chance to succeed on those terms.

PRIOR: I've said those very words myself.

NOTEBOOK: Of course you also got to write and direct a big, relatively expensive studio horror movie your first time out. And edit it, too.

PRIOR: Right, absolutely and every time I catch myself whining, I remember that and I'm grateful.

NOTEBOOK: It's a weird paradox, like if you had made the movie smaller it could have been bigger.  

PRIOR: And I got final cut, too. The producers made a ninety-minute cut on their own which was an unmitigated catastrophe. It was Alan Smithee bad. If they didn't like the scores on my cut, they really didn't like the scores on the other one, which were in the single digits. So yeah, final cut on my first movie: wrote it, directed it, edited it, and did some of the visual effects myself too. That’s a huge win, no matter what happened later.  I’m really truly grateful, it could have been so much worse.

The budget was south of sixteen million net, but when we finished in South Africa we had only spent something like eleven. When studios greenlight a movie it's never really a specific number, it's more like a range. Remember that we were in post for seventy-five weeks because of the delay. But we were cheap enough that nobody was paying attention.

NOTEBOOK: The world was not waiting for The Empty Man on Memorial Day Weekend.

PRIOR: No it was not.

NOTEBOOK: Are there plans for an Empty Man Blu-ray?

PRIOR: Anything that anybody can do to encourage it would be great. I'm all for it. Right now I don't think there's much interest.

NOTEBOOK: You could rope in Fincher to do one of his very funny commentaries, except about a movie he didn't make.

PRIOR:  Or get him and Robert Towne to do it together.  With Lem Dobbs.

NOTEBOOK: I do think The Empty Man has a shot at being a real cult movie in a moment when it's getting harder to quantify what that means, especially when so many “cult” movies are made very self-consciously instead of defined by surrounding conditions and context, and when perceived failures get “reclaimed” almost instantly.

PRIOR: Every debutante that comes to the ball hopes to glide smoothly down the stairs to cheers and applause and be welcomed into society. But sometimes you trip on your dress and fall face first into the avocado dip. If that's what happens and somebody with real passion and feeling, of their own accord, comes over and helps you up and wipes the dip off your face and takes you to the cool party out back to salve your wounds, that's a really good outcome. Cults don't arise around movies that people don't feel passionately about. So if it is a genuine cult, and it is actually growing, then it's coming from a real genuine place. It's not coming from having been marketed, it's not coming from having been pushed down people's throats, and that's very encouraging.

NOTEBOOK: It's got a self-allegorizing aspect to it: an idea whose time has come. There's such a feeling of immanence in this movie, of people with their heads down, waiting around, biding their time until something happens.

PRIOR: Like Leonard Cohen said, Waiting for the miracle to come.

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