Starting today, horror fans can check into The Institute at theaters and on VOD via Momentum Pictures, and we caught up with co-director Pamela Romanowsky to discuss collaborating with co-director James Franco, the movie's unique filming location, and much more.
Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for us, Pamela. What attracted you to telling this story by Adam and Matt Rager?
Pamela Romanowsky: Well, the first question for me was “why a horror film?” I like films across lots of genres, but I’m not a horror buff, so this was a first for me. The horror films I do love are genre blending, movies that are character-based and explore things that are dark but still based in reality, and in the dark corners of human psychology. I’ve never really been scared of the supernatural, but people are certainly capable of terrifying and very dark things.
The Institute is based on a true story: there really was an asylum outside of Baltimore called Rosewood, and a visiting physician blew up a massive human trafficking scandal that had been going on for fifty years. My undergrad degree is in psychology, so a look into the dark corners of psychological history appealed to me. Understanding the mind is a thrilling and noble pursuit, but there have been some terrible things done in the name of psychological understanding. Especially for women, the turn of the century was a dangerous time to be curious, strong-willed, anxious, melancholy, or a host of totally normal human things that were medicalized and “treated” brutally.
There’s a catharsis to be had in watching horror films about the things you’re most afraid of, and for me that’s being the one sane person in a crazy world (asylum stories, but also zombies), and being helpless to a person who betrays your trust. And, of course, there’s some fun to be had as a director figuring out how to achieve gore effects, and how to ride the line between drama and tension, and moments of Gothic campiness.
What were the challenges and rewards of filming a period piece set in the 19th century?
Pamela Romanowsky: Shooting turn of the century on a shoestring budget is… challenging. I have never fully appreciated the number of doorstops in the world until trying to frame them out of every shot on this film. The Victorian setting allows for a fun elevation of design, costumes, and behavior into the surreal, which was helpful for trying to ride the tricky tone of the writing (which is sometimes dramatic, sometimes camp and gore, always very literary). We clearly had fun with facial hair. The setting also allowed us to pay homage to Victorian literature in a way that felt organic—several of the big set piece scenes are adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne stories.
Where did filming take place and what did that environment add aesthetically and atmospherically to the movie?
Pamela Romanowsky: We shot in an extremely creepy turn-of-the-century building… in the middle of downtown LA. The building was made to house young professional women and students, and in the present, it’s still a weird adult dormitory. And people live there. We would be in the middle of shooting a crazy cult torture scene, and a dude would flip-flop past with his shower stuff. There was definitely a strange atmosphere to the place. We knew we were going to be limited by the production schedule and budget to LA, so we hunted for a place with the right period architecture and feeling.
What was the shooting schedule like for The Institute?
Pamela Romanowsky: Brutally fast. We shot the film in two weeks, from 5:00pm to 5:00am, entirely in one location except for the woods scenes. It made everyone feel pretty crazy, which is probably appropriate for the material.
You co-directed The Institute with James Franco (who also plays Dr. Cairn in the film). What was it like having Franco—whom you’ve worked with before—both in front of and behind the camera on this film?
Pamela Romanowsky: James is one of my closest friends, and a frequent collaborator, which is why I agreed to try co-directing. It’s tricky to have two people sharing one vision, and when you disagree you have to work it out. At the same time, it’s cool to have access to another director’s way of seeing things and solving problems. Directors don’t really get to see each other work, so it’s a bit mysterious how other people approach the job. That’s where I think director-actors have a real advantage—they get to see other directors’ processes up close and frequently.
I really like working with actor-directors (James, of course, but also Tim Blake Nelson, Ed Harris, Cynthia Nixon, Robert Redford) because they have a keen understanding of what you’re working out and often have great ideas. I’m not sure whether I’d co-direct again, but I do think the experience of having multiple creatives working out story and vision together is applicable to television. We actually began The Institute as a television pilot (which is why characters were cut out in the editing room), so our approach to it was always very collaborative with each other and with the producers. The ride to making it was pretty chaotic, but I always saw it as an experiment and tried to stay flexible.
The Institute has an incredible cast, including Franco, Lori Singer, Pamela Anderson, Josh Duhamel, Tim Blake Nelson, Topher Grace, Eric Roberts, and Allie Gallerani, to name a few. What was it like collaborating with such a wide range of artists to tell this story?
Pamela Romanowsky: The casting on this film was really James’ arena. He had begun to develop the project before I came on, and had much of the cast in mind, as well as a particular schedule and way of making films that I just had to jump on board with and do my best to ride. I really wanted to ask Tim Blake Nelson to work with us, because I’m a huge fan of his and we’d met at the Sundance Directors’ lab. I’m so glad he agreed to work with us on this weird little horror film. I had also wanted to work with Scott Haze for a long time, because I loved what he did with James’ film Child of God, and think he’s a fantastic actor.
I didn’t know Allie when we started (she just reminded me that she got cast four days before we began shooting), but we became good friends quickly, and I am a huge admirer of her talent, work ethic, and intelligence. She did a really great job. My favorite scene is the one where she gets completely naked and is carried around by a human throne, Khaleesi-style. It was a very cold (like 35 degrees) and long night shooting, and she led that crazy scene with real command and presence. I also particularly love the score cue there, by our brilliant composer, Adam Crystal.
Do you have any favorite psychological thriller or mental institution movies that inspired you while making The Institute?
Pamela Romanowsky: My favorite horror films are The Shining, Misery, Silence of the Lambs, and Rosemary’s Baby. We were of course very limited in scope and budget, but I tried to keep that formal and very intentional camerawork in mind with the tools we had. Our approach to the lighting and design was to keep historical accuracy in mind, but to really root the choices in psychology and in atmosphere. Since we began the project as a television pilot, we also had some key episodic references: The Knick, of course, and I always thought of the ideal version of this film/pilot as a kind of American Horror Story meets Downton Abbey.
With The Institute out now in theaters and on VOD from Momentum Pictures, what projects do you have on deck that you can tease?
Pamela Romanowsky: The upcoming project I’m most excited about is a short film that I wrote and directed for Refinery29, called Khethiwe and the Leopard. We spent a wonderful and thrilling month in South Africa prepping and shooting it, the highlight of which was getting to work with a real and awesome pair of leopards. I also loved working with my teen cast, who were so hard-working, sincere, and positive, getting to know the communities we were shooting in, and shooting a film in Zulu. It’s one of my favorite projects ever. It’ll be released at the end of April on R29’s site.
In case you missed it, check out our Q&A with The Institute actress Allie Gallerani, and check out the trailer below.