They've survived the horrors of World War II, but five American soldiers discover a new kind of terror when they encounter a sinister supernatural force at a French Chateau in the new horror film Ghosts of War. Following its June release on DirecTV, Ghosts of War is coming to VOD and Digital on July 17th from Vertical Entertainment, and we caught up with writer/director Eric Bress in our latest Q&A feature to discuss the importance of keeping his period piece historically accurate, filming in Bulgaria, exploring the effects of PTSD among Veterans, and he also reflected on what he learned from co-directing and co-writing The Butterfly Effect back in the early 2000s.

Thanks for taking the time to catch up with us, and congratulations on Ghosts of War! How and when did you first come up with the idea for this film?

Eric Bress: Back in 2015, there was lot of news about the high suicide rate of Veterans. There was not nearly enough funding to help out the Americans who had given the most to our country. And there were unfair stigmas relating to PTSD. I decided it would be cool if someone made a movie that put you in the skin of someone suffering with PTSD. And that a horror film would be a far better means than a drama to achieve it. I figured if I could put the audience through the same constant dread and terror that someone suffering from PTSD suffers from while walking through a supermarket, the goal would have been achieved.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the screenplay, and many drafts did you go through before you were ready to film?

Eric Bress: Writing a screenplay is an endless fluid task. While the first gut draft might have been done in a month or two, I spent years on and off doing revisions and rewrites. There’s a twist in this movie that I had originally placed in the middle of the film, but it simply didn’t work there. I didn’t know whether to lose the twist altogether or to put it further into the film. It took months and months to get the basic structure in place. Then, when you start working with producers, everything changes again. Shelley Madison, one of the producers, was invaluable in helping shape and streamline the script into what it is. I had too many misdirects, vortexes, and a lack of clear, consistent rules by which the sinister forces were adhering to. She broke down the script endlessly, coming up with graphs and lists, deciding what elements were needed and what were expendable so that even if there was ambiguity, there would be little confusion. Ambiguity can work fine at the end of the film for an audience, but confusion? Never. I was leaning too far into the artistic, and she did her job well in the push-pull process that is producing to rein me in when needed.

Where did filming take place, and how many days did you have in your shooting schedule?

Eric Bress: Ghosts of War was shot in Bulgaria, which has an amazing film studio in Sofia. On the first day of preproduction at Millenium Films studio, I was shown the arsenal that had all the actual rifles and pistols from World War II, the cars and jeeps of the era we could use, the props they had on hand, etc. It was like half the work and research had already been done. There was a local crew of amazing Costume Designers, Art Directors, Production Designers, Stunt Coordinators, etc., and we were one of the only films shooting there at the time, so I had my pick of the litter of the sound stages and street sets, too. We had roughly 31 days to shoot the film, which feels like a lot to some and very little to others. For a director, it never feels like enough days, but only two scenes were dropped on account of not having room for them in the schedule, and I’ve never once missed them in the editing room, so I guess it was meant to be.

You work with an amazing cast in Ghosts of War, including Brenton Thwaites, Theo Rossi, Kyle Gallner, Skylar Astin, and Alan Ritchson. Did they go through any combat training to bond together as a military unit?

Eric Bress: You hear the stories of the Saving Private Ryan cast all bonding together except for Matt Damon, or that the cast of Fury all had to fist fight each other before shooting as a bonding mechanism. Even the cast of Animal House were separated by designated fraternities to keep them enemies even when the cameras weren’t rolling. I didn’t have the cast long enough in Bulgaria to accomplish that and don’t think I would have. These actors are all pros who did a great job and I’m not sure beating the shit out of each other would have impacted their performances in any way that would make a difference to me. Maybe if we had a much bigger budget and could house actors for six weeks during preproduction, I’d have played these types of summer camp games with them, but in small budget land, there’s no time for that.

What was essential was the weapons training, though. I wanted them intimately familiar with their weapons. Rifle chargers, slings, mag release buttons, etc. I am a bit of a gun nut in my private life and I can’t stand seeing actors on screen who hold their weapons wrong or hearing a hammer cocking back on a striker-fired pistol—a made up sound done in the editing room that announces, “I’ve done something to the gun so now I’m really ready to shoot you.” I always encouraged the guys to play with their weapons between takes just so that everything was second nature to them. We also had a consultant who taught them how to carry their weapons, move, clear a room, etc., in the way it would have been done in 1944. So much has changed since then as far as combat tactics, and I wanted it to feel authentic.

Were you influenced or inspired by Wolfenstein, Overlord, The Keep, or any other stories that blend World War II with the horror genre?

Eric Bress: Fuck Overlord! Haha, just kidding. I’ve seen Overlord and enjoyed it, but they were still casting that movie when we were halfway through the shoot in Bulgaria and when I read the premise I wanted to puke. You try to do something as off-the-beaten-path as you can and not be derivative, and along comes J.J. Abrams with a film on the fast track which gets released a year before yours and you end up looking like you ripped him off. I’ve seen The Keep and there are several cool Korean films that have blended the genres, but if anything I was trying hard to not be influenced by them. I wanted Ghosts of War to have its own unique vision as it evolved through different genres. There were many influences of this film, mainly to make the audience feel a certain way because they were already familiar with a genre. I wanted the visual styles and tropes to lure them down a path they were comfortable with, so I could pull the rug out from under them later. So, Saving Private Ryan meets The Shining meets The Wire meets 2001?

Looking back at your time on set, is there a favorite or memorable moment that stands out?

Eric Bress: There was a scene on the last days of the shoot where we needed actors to be separately taken to a stunt rig to get “blown up” next to a blue screen. So they couldn’t simultaneously be on set during a scene with everyone else. The scene was all of them camping out under the stars, debating what their next move should be. I lied down on the ground beside them and read the lines of whichever actor wasn’t there. It wasn’t acting, and normally a script supervisor would sit off screen somewhere and recite the lines to cue the other actors. But I really enjoyed lying on that cold ground, and “acting” out the parts of the various characters. There’s a reason I’m not an actor, but I did my best and felt the intimacy of being in this particular band of brothers far better than sitting in video village watching the monitor all hunched over.

You’re no stranger to the horror genre. In addition to writing The Final Destination and co-writing Final Destination 2, you also co-wrote and co-directed The Butterfly Effect, which continues to be referenced more than 15 years after its release. Did you learn any lessons from working on The Butterfly Effect that you applied to Ghosts of War?

Eric Bress: The lessons I learn the best are from making mistakes. I was greener than green going into Butterfly and there were countless things I would have done differently that smack you in the face once you’re in the editing room realizing you don’t have a certain shot, or wishing that you’d given a different adjustment to your more-than-capable actor. So I took a million painful lessons with me into Ghosts of War. But I still found myself in unfamiliar territory because the scenes in this movie and the overall tone is so different. I recently watched Butterfly and was constantly thinking, “Oh, I wish I’d done that differently…” but I haven’t had that experience yet with Ghosts of War. Who knows, maybe in 15 years I’ll feel differently about this film, too. You never know. As far as writing goes, Butterfly had very little subtext in the dialog. Characters said exactly what they were thinking, and maybe that simplicity better served a complex story. But I can’t imagine writing a film now with the dialog being so on-the-nose.

Ultimately, what do you hope viewers take away from Ghosts of War?

Eric Bress: 90% of what I’m hoping for is an entertaining ride. If people sit down and stream a movie for an hour and a half, they won’t be disappointed in the time they’ve spent. It’s solid entertainment. The other 10% I’m always hoping for is what hits the audience more on a subconscious level. Things they watch the characters experience and then incorporate into their own lives. The way our actions not only define us (to use a Batman Begins sentiment), but they truly and permanently can haunt us as well. That we live with the residue of the mistakes we’ve made and that every choice we make can come back to bite us, spiritually and psychologically speaking.

What has it been like to partner with Vertical Entertainment to bring Ghosts of War to the masses?

Eric Bress: Vertical Entertainment has been the ideal partner for this film. The one thing nobody could have predicted is a global epidemic which shut down movie theaters. Once we realized we were living in a different world where this film would never be shown on a big screen the way it was meant to be seen, perhaps ever, they pivoted quickly into the streaming platform. Many of my friends in the industry have made feature films in the last year and I’m now seeing them on Netflix and Amazon Prime. The truth is, I might not have ventured out to the theater and shelled out $40 to see some of these films, but I’m definitely watching them now. Maybe it’s best for Ghosts of War to come out this way, so that at the end of the day, as an artist, I know that more people will see this film in its first months of release than ever saw Butterfly Effect. It’s unfortunate that I’ll never know how this film would have done at the box office, but it’s more important to me that it’s out there in the world, ready to be seen by millions in the comfort of their own home.

With Ghosts of War coming to VOD and Digital platforms on July 17th, what other projects do you have coming up that you’re excited about, and where can our readers follow your work online?

Eric Bress: I’m always working on several projects at once. Different ones are lined up with different producers. Right now, one is being cast with hopes that we shoot this fall in Serbia, but I can’t give away any details about it until the casting is locked down. That’s a sucky answer to give, and one that nobody likes to read, but I find it’s really unlucky to announce or humble-brag or even say with any certainty at all what you’re working on next, especially during an epidemic, because I’m superstitious enough to think I’ll be jinxing it the minute I mention the title! So be safe, wear your masks, and wash your hands. I want the world COVID-19 free and ready for more filmmaking or it’s gonna be rerun city for five years!

[Photo Credit: Above photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.]

  • Derek Anderson
    About the Author - Derek Anderson

    Raised on a steady diet of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Derek has been fascinated with fear since he first saw ForeverWare being used on an episode of Eerie, Indiana.

    When he’s not writing about horror as the Senior News Reporter for Daily Dead, Derek can be found daydreaming about the Santa Carla Boardwalk from The Lost Boys or reading Stephen King and Brian Keene novels.