Director David Prior Talks 'The Empty Man,' 'Voir' & Netflix Becoming "Custodians To The Cinematic Experience" [Interview]

There’s a specificity of intention to David Prior’s “The Empty Man” that eludes most studio horror projects. Inspired by the Boom Studios! comic (created by writer Cullen Bunn and artist Vanessa del Rey), Prior’s debut could have been a success story were the movie released under different circumstances. Inherited by Disney following the Fox merger, and dumped into theaters mid-pandemic, “The Empty Man” certainly wasn’t given the A24 Ari Aster treatment, which is a shame, as Prior’s film would make an outstanding, grief-tinged double feature with “Midsommar” or “Hereditary,” though its shape is far more chimerically hypnotic. 

READ MORE: ‘Voir’: David Fincher’s New Netflix Project Is A Cinema Appreciation DocuSeries That Debuts At AFI

Laying somewhere in the cosmic ether between David Fincher’s serial killer films, “Se7en” and “Zodiac,” Prior’s sepulchral vision slithers like a paranormal odyssey in the guise of a J-horror procedural a la Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s “Cure,” veteran character actor James Badge Dale aiding in making detective work look effortless through a mesmerizing lead performance. “We go looking for things we have lost… More than that, there is no such thing as loss,” a mysterious cult leader, played by Stephen Root, preaches

Audiences missed out on “The Empty Man,” but it’s deservedly found a devoted following. “If the price of making the movie I wanted to make meant getting abandoned by the studio and left to be picked up by passionate people who saw it on their own, that’s not a bad outcome.” Prior told us, “At least it’s the movie I wanted to make. It wasn’t some highly compromised, shortened, messed up version of that probably would have gotten more support from the studio but it would have vanished from everybody’s mind as soon as they saw it.”

READ MORE: Guillermo del Toro’s Netflix Horror Anthology Series ‘Cabinet Of Curiosities’ Adds Cast & Writing/Directing Team

Prior was later approached by David Fincher (for whom he used to direct documentaries) about a new film appreciation series, titled “Voir.” Scheduled to debut at AFI Fest this month, Netflix’s video essay project spotlights “passionate voices that love movies… highlighting the elements that get people excited about cinema.”

In a time when streaming services threaten to swallow up the theatrical experience, “Voir” is an essential look back at what makes film uniquely hypnotic. “Movies cornered the cultural conversation throughout the 20th century.” Prior told us. “It was the art form of the 20th century… [movies] don’t hold the same place in cultural thinking they used to and there’s a lot that’s important being lost.”

No great film deserves to be forgotten, and Prior is keenly aware platforms like Netflix now hold the keys to Hollywood’s kingdom, as “custodians to the cinematic experience.” “The Empty Man,” may not have mopped up box office dollars but revealed its director to be as impassioned and skilled a filmmaking scholar as David Fincher. We were fortunate to sit down for an extensive chat with him ahead of “Voir’s” upcoming premiere. Eerily, both his debut film and new Netflix series stemming from an obsession with “Jaws,” the legendary Steven Spielberg, a fervent supporter of his film appreciation project. 

One of the things that makes your movie stand out is how intricately layered it is, cinematically and narratively; When you started writing did you set out to create something of such… sprawling ambition?

That kind of density is a trait among most of the movies I love and always loved growing up. But I also love simple. I love “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” it’s one of my all-time favorites, or even movies like “Jaws.” But then I also love Scorsese’s “Cape Fear,” “Chinatown,” “The Big Sleep”—narratively dense movies are some of my favorites. The goal is always to entertain while you’re leaving breadcrumbs to entice further and deeper exploration, should someone in the audience be inclined. That’s always the goal, to serve those 2 masters. Be entertaining on the surface, if that’s all somebody wants, and also indicate some things going on a deeper level that certain audience members can chew over. That’s what I’m always trying to do.

You mentioned in your Mubi interview how you got a kernel of inspiration when you were on a bridge with your son—a bridge you described as “flat out scary.” How did that mesh with the graphic novel’s influence?

The bridge experience was years before I was sent the graphic novel. 2012, maybe?

It’s a pilgrimage that John Carpenter fans make, if they happen to be in the area, and I knew that bridge was the one used at the end of “Escape from New York.” It’s sort of a legendary film location. We drove out to the bridge, 9’oclock at night. It was pitch black, completely deserted, and utterly terrifying. It’s a large bridge; over a mile long: a huge behemoth.

I used to have nightmares about the mechanical shark at Universal Studios, but not in action. I had this vivid nightmare of being there alone at night, falling into the black inky water, and knowing that it was down there, which freaked the hell out of me. There was this feeling of that; a big, dark, huge hulking mass in the night. There was something so utterly spooky about it that I remember thinking, “I’m going to make a movie out of this.”

There isn’t a bridge component to the graphic novel, so when the book came to me that was something lurking in my brain trying to find expression.

You managed to capture this universal, awful feeling of uncertainty that we’ve all been feeling for close to 2 years now, which is one of the reasons it’s such a powerful, specifically, American, horror movie. 

Improper grieving. There’s a narcissistic aspect to a certain kind of grief. The refusal to accept the lot that you’ve got. There’s a wallowing that’s unhealthy and leaves you open to outside influences. It unmoors your psyche to such an extent that it leaves you persuadable to bad actors and bad ideas. Unresolved grief is a chewy idea. At the risk of coming down too hard on one interpretation of the movie, I think that is a fundamental component I was chasing, without trying to be too maudlin about it. The tragedy porn kind of stuff doesn’t move me much but I think it’s an interesting idea to wrestle with in a genre movie.

I caught “Cure” in 35mm recently, and the way the screen cracked made me feel the physical connection between cinema and hypnotism. Your movie also an exceptional example of artistic mesmerism; you’re hypnotizing the audience alongside James Badge Dale.

That’s interesting. I was asked for a very simple definition for what the movie was, and there isn’t one, but being a little glib, I said: “What if it’s about the guy who wants to be a movie character so bad that he actually becomes a movie character.” There is something about genre that’s in the story—about the nature of cinema: sitting in a dark room, your eyes focused on a false image. It does create a kind of waking hypnosis, if you’re doing it right; if the movie is good. “Cure” is a good example.

Somebody reminded me there was a similarity—of feeling, I suppose—to “The Empty Man.” I watched [“Cure”] again, a few months ago, and yeah… it’s a potent piece of work. It’s got a great atmosphere and really strong vibe.

Programming is essential to the film’s language. People are so used to instant gratification now that they don’t realize learning how to watch movies is also a form of conditioning. Some people insist they can’t sit down and watch a 137 minute movie like “The Empty Man.”

Very much so. And some people think that means their movies must be structured and executed in such a way which accounts for the fact that people will always be multi-tasking, looking at their phones, looking away from the screen, and only half paying attention. You’re not doing 2 things at the same time, you’re doing neither thing well. Nothing can cast a spell that way, and there is a kind of lack of that now. The process of how to watch movies in a culture that’s no longer trained to focus their attention on one thing at a time, is maybe something that “Voir,” my new Netflix project, is trying to tackle, or at least address.  It’s hypnosis by a different device, right? People are now hypnotized by their phones and no longer hypnotized by the movies.

To me, “The Empty Man” is a far greater achievement than you being hired to direct a Marvel movie. It would not have been a David Prior film.

No, it certainly wouldn’t have been. Anything at that sort of budget level, or if it’s an IP. The childhood part of me is dying to make a “Star Wars” movie but the part of me that knows how the business works wouldn’t go anywhere near it. It’s not a director’s medium, those movies. Not anymore. You can imagine what David Lynch must have thought when being offered “Return of the Jedi.” [laughs] It might be fun but it’s not going to be a good fit. I don’t think I’m as outré as David Lynch, by any stretch. I think I could make a pretty great “Star Wars” movie, but I don’t think [Disney] would be interested in the one I want to make.”

I’d love to talk about your new project “Voir,” a film appreciation series David Fincher teased a little while back. How did it first come about?

It started years ago. We had just wrapped on “The Empty Man. Probably 2017… 2018. Fincher had been putting together this thing with a group of essayists he handpicked. There was a level of conversation and development going on before I’d heard about it. Then he asked me to be part of it, which I was thrilled about.

He sent me all of the essays they were thinking of doing and I started helping develop the scripts, shaping them and finding where the best theses were. Some of the early essays tackled subjects so broad [we had to] figure out how to hone it in and focus it on one aspect of cinema. I love the intention, which is to remind people that movies and cinema still have value in a culture that, by some estimates, has moved on.

Movies cornered the cultural conversation throughout the 20th century. It was the art form of the 20th century, in a time when media wasn’t so saturated with all these different things to distract people by or serve their entertainment needs. Movies have been sidelined a little. At least, they don’t hold the same place in cultural thinking they used to and there’s a lot that’s important being lost. And it’s not just about the latest art film from France, or whatever. It doesn’t have to be about guys like Bergman; there’s also audience movies. Movies used to get the same viewership Tik Tok videos get now. But there’s something more nourishing about a well-told cinematic story. It’s good to be reminded that that still has value.

A lot of the media we’re saturated with now is created by people brought up on these kinds of cinematic experiences. Apart from reminding people that movies still matter and are still worth thinking about, it’s also about introducing younger people to stuff they might have missed because it hasn’t been passed down.

“Voir” highlights passionate voices that love movies, trying to hone in on either one particular movie, or an idea that crosses genres—highlighting the elements that get people excited about cinema.

Sounds fantastic. I don’t know if “showrunner” is an applicable term, but were you kind of like the editorial curator of the project?

Yeah, kind of. Fincher was deeply involved throughout. I directed 2 of the episodes, 1 takes place in the summer of 1975. It’s about the opening of “Jaws,” what a cultural earthquake that was, and what it meant to be, in this case, a young girl, Sasha Stone—who wrote the original essay—when it came out. I was 6 when “Jaws” came out and I was obsessed.

I’d read The Jaws Log, cover to cover, 3 or 4 times. I wasn’t allowed to see the movie, but I was completely obsessed with it, to the point where I even thought I wanted to be an ichthyologist or oceanographer [laughs], until I realized it wasn’t the sharks so much as the movie. I asked my mother who made “Jaws.” She told me it was the director and I decided this is what I wanted to do.

When I saw [Sasha’s essay], I instantly knew a way into it, because it was a seminal [summer] for me, as well. We melded my memories with hers. She wrote the script, but we amalgamated our youthful passion for the film. Then we set about recreating the summer of ’75 in Southern California—a sort of wistful, Proustian look at what it was like to be a kid when “Jaws” came out. I directed and produced that episode. My friend Keith [Clarke] and I cut it.

The others were more reliant on film clips. There’s one Drew McWeeny did about likeability; the idea that likeability is an essential component to a main character, something that you’ll hear in every production meeting that you’ll ever be in. It doesn’t matter how many counterexamples you bring up. It’s one of those bits of received wisdom but that doesn’t mean it’s very wise. I loved the intention of Drew’s [essay], to remind people that likeability is not the fundamental thing which makes a main character compelling, and why we have to tell stories about unlikeable people and characters.

Somewhere along the line, people started confusing movies with mandates on how to behave. That’s not what movies do. They’re supposed to highlight some aspect of human existence and it’s not all pretty. That used to be generally and broadly understood and now it seems like a harder sell.

The likeability one covers everything from early gangster pictures to “Lawrence of Arabia.” “Taxi Driver,” “Bonfire of the Vanities,” all kinds of things. They all have different flavors. They all have their own distinct execution and style. The only unifying thread being a passionate declamation for movies.

The other 2 original episodes were done in Canada by Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos. Fincher and I helped guide those but they were made by Tony and Taylor, relatively autonomously, up in Canada. Then there was another episode Walter Chaw did that was sort of similar to the “Jaws” essay, but what it was like for him at the age when “48 Hours” came out and the impact it had. Which is interesting because I remember seeing “48 Hours” and it never struck me as anything more than a pretty good, buddy-cop picture. But it had a wealth of meaning to Walter that was missed by a lot of other people. He has this really unique and individual take, and that’s an interesting thing! You take a movie that a lot of people dismiss, for not seeming all that interesting on the surface, but you get someone who saw something in it that you didn’t see and it makes you want to watch “48 Hours” again.

Very cool. So, the whole “first season,” if that’s the right term, is ready to go?

Yeah. We shot the “Jaws” one in 2018, maybe 2019. It’s been a long time since we’ve been trying to get it all together. Some of that’s because of corporate inertia. Licensing all the movie clips in the usual way could have been tricky. 

It was about selling the idea of this show as something we’re inviting people to get on board with, that it would be good for their library. There was a lot of careful thinking about how to present this show to right’s holders and such. You’ll see shows that have done this kind of thing before. I was rewatching “Terror in the Aisles” last night, which was this ridiculous thing Universal released in the ‘80s—basically a clip show hosted by Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen, about horror movies. Very much one of those “Why do we sit in the dark and like to be scared?” kind of series. They would show clips from “An American Werewolf in London,” “Night of the Living Dead,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and obviously didn’t clear the music rights. You’re watching a scene from “Alien” and it’s got some other score. It feels cheap and nobody wanted this show to do things like that. It took some time to position and sell it in such a way that other studios were game to come on board.

One of our earliest, most helpful and fervent supporters was Steven Spielberg. When he gave us his stamp of approval, that opened up a lot of doors. Things like that take time. It’s been a while. Now that it’s finally coming out we’re all so glad about it and hoping there’s enough interest to spur a second season.

Netflix has done a good job developing stuff that falls into this category. They could very easily create a film appreciation row.

Yeah! And one of the things you hope with Netflix—them being the prime example of taking over that space movies used to occupy—the quantity of material they release makes them competitive with the entire studio system of the 20th century; it’s all wrapped up in the Netflix building. Not only is that a privilege, and a great thing for your business model, but it also carries with it a bit of responsibility too, because [Netflix] are now the custodians to the cinematic experience, to a large cultural extent. They were very cognizant of that, and happy to both accept/take on the role of saying: “We’re not just crapping out movies every 20 minutes, we’re also going to take a little ownership and be a kind of storing house many people will go to for a cinematic experience,” and that shows in their willingness to take on projects like “Voir.”

“The Empty Man” is available now on VOD and streaming on HBO Max.