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An Interview with Courtney Fathom Sell, Director of Don't Let the Devil in

by Mike Haberfelner

May 2017

Films directed by Courtney Fathom Sell on (re)Search my Trash


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Your new movie Don't Let the Devil in - in a few words, what is it about?


Don't Let the Devil in is follows the story of newlyweds John and Samantha Harris, who after suffering from a miscarriage decide to leave New York City and relocate somewhere quiet to start over again. Their recent marriage is already in turmoil, due to various reasons including John’s alcoholism, PTSD from an unspoken event in his past and their age difference. When John is relocated by the land development firm he works for to oversee the contraction of a casino deep in the heart of Appalachia, it seems like the perfect opportunity. However, once the couple arrives in hopes of living a new, happy life together, things quickly turn sinister and aggressive. Eventually, they find themselves wrapped in a nightmarish tapestry of evil that resides in the underbelly of small town America! Basically a hell-scape in Appalachia!


To what extent could you actually relate to small town life as presented in Don't Let the Devil in, and is any of this (apart from the Satanic cult I hope) based on personal experiences?


I did in fact grow up in a very small town, though not in Appalachia, so I am extremely well acquainted with small town life. The gossip, the small time drama, the territorial personalities and of course, the, how shall we say, inept police departments. The theme of a Satanic cult arrived after I found myself in a bit of trouble, a few summers back, where I was hiding away from New York City for a bit back in my hometown. I began to realize a lot of strange occurrences taking place that would be rather odd to be simply coincidences. I certainly could feel the town, even though I grew up there, look at me with strange eyes - like “who is this stranger?” kind of thing. And I’d hear rumors and gossip down at the bars and post office about everybody and the whole idea of always being surveilled and monitored by a small community both fascinated and scared the shit out of me. I began using the term “beware of small town illuminati” and eventually, the story came from those paranoid feelings. I felt it may be fitting to have the story center around a Satanic cult simply because I also find that entire topic fascinating. There is a lot of cult activity near my hometown - in the Freetown State Forest, in Massachusetts. A lot of bodies have been found mutilated, a lot of satanic worship and paranormal activity. This was inspiring to me in a weird way. To think that maybe whoever committed those murders during a ceremony was living right next door! I rushed back to New York City, crashed on my friend V.P.’s sofa in the West Village and wrote the screenplay in three days.


Other sources of inspiration when writing Don't Let the Devil in?


Certainly giallo films were a huge inspiration. Also films like Morbo and All the Colors of the Dark, to name a few, were of much interest to me as I love slow, heavy builds that don’t erupt in total chaos. At least with films like this. Don’t get me wrong - I fucking love gore and chaos most of the time! Race with the Devil and scenes from Duel had a big influence on me. I am also extremely interested in the occult, the paranormal and Crowley of course. Learning as much as possible about Bohemian Grove certainly helped - and also terrified me. Also  - I was fortunate enough to meet Eli Roth during my writing stages and that was a huge and inspiring moment in my life.


Don't Let the Devil in is at times rather associative when it comes to storytelling and does leave certain parts of the narrative to the imagination - do you at all want to elaborate on this?


Yes! Absolutely! Some people will find it annoying perhaps, but you must remember, my background is primarily in experimental filmmaking. Editing is my favorite part of the entire production - and I love telling stories in an abstract fashion. Now, unlike many of my early experimental works which are very Brakhage-esque, Don't Let the Devil in is a lot more narrative - yet it was pieced together in a dreamlike fashion for a number of reasons: 

One, to keep it interesting and invoke feelings of frustration to the audience. I really want them to dislike Marc’s character very very very much - so tip-toeing around instead of just hitting it over the head, give a feeling of aggravation - where you just wanna jump through the screen and slap some sense into him. So it was a structural purpose. 

Two, our budget was limited - as Marc and I self-financed the entire film, with some extra amazing help from V.P. Walling and Jac Currie. I don’t believe in crowd sourcing most of the time - so just figured we should do it ourselves, like I’ve always done. That said, we didn’t have the money for effects, gore and the rest. However, I very much enjoy leaving things to people's imagination. Who knows, whatever idea an audience member may have about what went on in the castle at the end, would most likely be more disturbing than what I could show on a limited budget without it looking tacky.

This was both fun and aggravating at times as, being a gore-hound, would love to go all Tom Savini on the film, but I also knew it wouldn’t have been the smart decision. Plus, I very much long suspense and films that never show the “monster” per se. While in post production, I saw Baskin for the first time and I must say, well, the next one may need its fair share of bloodshed!


What can you tell us about Don't Let the Devil in's approach to horror?


I would like to think of it as coming toward the genre gently but with enough power to sustain. It’s tough though because in the modern horror genre, there are certain elements you must hit in order for it to fall into place. With Don't Let the Devil in, my blueprint were films like Dellamorte Dellamore and Morbo, so not to say outdated, but under-appreciated work spoke more to me. That is going to be a very hard sell to the modern horror market - however, I’d like to believe it is a very “old fashion” approach to making a reasonable feature. This was my first budgeted feature and largest production to date, so I certainly drove myself to points of insanity trying to make it work with what I had.

When I was a kid, I used to love hearing my family tell ghosts stories and such. Usually it was after dinner at the kitchen table and when I was listening, I’d stare down the dark hallway and imagine what was in the darkness. It would terrify me, but I’d always do it. Even mirrors, which I am still to this day frightened of at night, I’d stare at my reflection in the darkness and scare myself from nothing. I guess that’s the closest manner I could explain how I hoped the film would feel. You might not see something, but it’s there alright!


Do talk about your overall directorial approach to your story at hand for a bit!


Well, seeing as it was my first “real” feature, I was certainly feeling overwhelmed. The thing is, I knew exactly what I wanted - the images I saw in my head, so trying to convey those thoughts to our cinematographer and such was difficult as I am very particular about what I wanted. What filmmaker isn’t? Some ideas of mine may be unconventional, but it’s what I wanted first and foremost. With a background in documentaries, I rarely “direct”, so this was new to me. However, I composed the entire 48 track score during the writing stages, so I could always refer back to the music to remember the mood I was hoping to achieve with the scene. By the end, I felt a bit more comfortable. Our last shoot on location in Appalachia was a bar scene, where Marc is being threatened and eventually set up by a woman. We had an open bar, as no one in the scene were actors, but actually sitting in that bar when we came in to set up - so we asked them to stay, I drank a fifth of whiskey with them and we began rolling - a lot of ad-libbing and experiments with the performances and such. That was one of my best moments on set. Just allowing life to roll on in front of the camera when they felt the most comfortable with all of our equipment, lights and sound stuff all over the place in their tiny bar. It worked!


Don't Let the Devil in features Ed Wood [Ed Wood bio - click here] regular Conrad Brooks in a supporting role - so what was it like working with him and how did you get him even?


Conrad is an amazing man. A gentleman and extremely inspiring. While in the middle of principle photography, Marc (main actor and co-producer) was asked by a local theater if he’d be interested in hosting an event in honor of Conrad’s career. Conrad lives in Appalachia you see. So he did and we got to meet Conrad. We all hit it off instantly. Conrad has this way about him where he instantly feels like your father or grandfather with his stories, wisdom and loving soul. After that event, we came back to our hotel room suite which was also our production office and I penned in Conrad’s scene without letting him know. The next day, we made a call to him, let him know we wanted him in it and when he agreed, drove out to his home and filmed it. That scene, interestingly enough, was not in the original screenplay, however I believe it is the pinnacle moment in Marc’s character, where we see the evil beginning to take hold of John Harris. Without Conrad’s scene, I can assure you that the film would be very weak. Funny how things like that happen.

After we filmed the sequence, Conrad invited us to have dinner with him and he shared stories about hanging with Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here], Ed Wood, Leo Gorcey, Sam Raimi, Johnny Depp and everyone else in between. Needless to say, I basically had to be dragged away kicking and screaming cause I wanted to stay and hear more and more. Conrad is very proud of that scene as it also stars his daughter (who answers the door) and his late wife Ruth (who is in bed). It even has his cat too!


What can you tell us about the rest of Don't Let the Devil in's key cast, and why exactly these people?


Marc Slanger has been a close friend and collaborator for a while now. We made a lot of short films together and fake giallo trailers. We made a short called House on the Edge of Hell which was the precursor to Don't Let the Devil in on a flip cam for 27 bucks. Jordan Lewis, who plays Samantha, has been a friend of mine for a long long time, as we used to work at the same restaurants in New York City when I was a chef, so we have a very long history of partying and going insane together. We were two weeks away from principle photography and we didn’t have anybody for Samantha yet. I heard she wanted to get into acting, so I called her up and cast her then and there. Mostly everybody in the film were close friends, family members or locals from the town. My childhood best friend Andrew gets a snippet cameo unveiling himself from a cloak during the last scene which I shot and edited in the film LONG after it was completed cause I just thought it would be cool to have him in the film no matter what. Kind of a Sam Raimi/Renaissance Pictures type of thing.


You of course also have to talk about your locations for a bit, and what was it like filming there?


Appalachia in the winter. Fucking cold to put it bluntly. I love Frostburg, where we filmed - western Maryland, where Marc actually grew up. I wrote the screenplay with all locations in mind. However, when we lost Jordan to another project mid-way through, we had to take a break and do pick ups in my hometown - which is where the church scenes and general store scenes were shot. In Frostburg, we all holed up in a very historic hotel and soon, the entire town knew we were there.

Funny anecdote: One morning at breakfast at the local diner, Marc and I were discussing the scenes for the day and I was stared at by everyone in the diner in the most menacing way. It was extremely intense. On that same day, we shot Marc in the restaurant being stared at! It was my own taste of what I wrote my characters to feel. I guess I just looked a lot different than most people there who they knew. I also was extremely hungover, so probably looked like I was going to die.


A few words about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?


Tense. Very, very tense. Really only lighthearted when we called wrap for the day or night and found ourselves at the local bars. Jordan and I, though we are extremely close and dear friends, would go at it A LOT. I think it had to do something with me being a first time director and her being a first time actress, so we didn’t really know how to meet in the middle. But it is what it is and after the screaming and yelling and tantrums ended, we were back to normal, laughing and joking. She’s very familiar with my tantrums as she’s known me throughout my chef career, so it really wasn’t anything too new or frightening. Probably just more of a spectacle than anything. Ha!


The $64-question of course, where can your movie be seen?


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The film is going to be widely released very, very soon - it is in the process of getting prepared for release (though I can’t yet discuss the details as we are still working out the papers with the distribution company). However, on a really cool side note - the awesome label Weird Life Films LTR will be releasing super amazing director’s cut, limited edition VHS copies of Don't Let the Devil in which will be due out mid to late summer which will also include a lot of surprises within! In the meantime, just hold on, cause we have a lot about to happen!


Anything you can tell us about critical and audience reception of Don't Let the Devil in yet?


So far it’s received pretty favorable responses which obviously makes me super happy. This was a passion project and a film of extremely ambitious ideas, so I’m thrilled that audiences enjoy it. I’ve seen it a few times during theatrical premieres with the audience and it’s always gone over great. I understand it’s not for everyone, but I’m overall just happy I made it.


Any future projects you'd like to share?


Heading over to Europe in a few months to complete my newest screenplay. Other than that, I’ll probably have some new short films, whether they be documentary or experimental, out all throughout the summer. I’m constantly creating, so I guess just check back!


Your/your movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?

Instagram: @courtneyfathomsell


Anything else you're dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?


Beware of Small Town Illuminati!


Thanks for the interview!


© by Mike Haberfelner

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Thanks for watching !!!



On the same day
a Burglar wants to kill you
and your Ex wants
to make up ...
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you can't decide


A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
Melanie Denholme
directed by
David V.G. Davies
written by
Michael Haberfelner
Ryan Hunter and
Rudy Barrow

out now on DVD



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