A Sick Society: Sean Stone on Greystone Park

Oliver Stone's son describes the spooky real-life incidents that befell his found footage horror film, now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

In the days just before the film’s October 16th release on DVD, I was fortunate enough to get a chance to have a conversation with Sean Stone, the director, star and co-writer of the ghostly horror film Greystone Park. While the last name might give the reader reason to pause and ask, “Is it…?” I’ll save you the trouble and tell you right now that yes, his father is Oliver. However, Sean is his own man, creating what he sees as new sub-genres and arenas underneath the overarching horror umbrella. While some may seek to label Greystone Park as a “found footage” film, we both agreed on the fact that it does not fall into that category and we discussed the meaning of this and the ethics of involving mental asylums and mental illness as a main composite of a horror film that did not always go by the script.

CraveOnline: Hi Sean, nice to talk to you. So I was really curious about the genesis of this project. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Sean Stone: Yeah. It really begins where we begin the film, at the table with a discussion between me and Alex Wraith, my father and a couple friends. I met Alex that night, October 12th, 2009. He was a friend of my father’s from a few months before, he was shooting Wall Street 2 at the time, in New York, and Alex had grown up in that area – New Jersey, New York – and he had a lot of ideas as a filmmaker and one of the things he had always explored as a kid were haunted places, because, you know, NJ is notorious for different locations of haunted places. So he came across Greystone about 3 years before I met him and he’d gone back about 10 times, taken friends there, always taken a little camera with him to try to document the experiences, so he had this footage. So when he was talking about the location, it seemed like a great place to make a movie but I said, “I’ll go check it out with you.” And the next night, sure enough, we broke in and started having the real experiences with the paranormal that led to the script that we wrote so when I first went there it wasn’t with an expectation of a story to tell it was just that we lived it, and it was based on our experiences with shadows and possessions or whatnot. So we clarified our experience as it went along and turned it into a script.

Your previous short film Singularity (2008) deals a little bit with illness in a way as it handles issues of virus and plague while Greystone centers on the exploration of a former mental asylum and the sicknesses that might be left in that building. You seem to have a fascination with this. Is there a connection between the two films or would you care to expand on this?

That’s interesting. You know, it’s funny. You know the opening quote of Singularity is “who guards the guardians” right? And when we went to Greystone the first time, on the chalkboard there were a lot of things that were written and left behind and one thing that was written was “Who guards the guards?” […] I was never really interested in the world of mental illness per se but there is truth to things like the Edgar Allan Poe story saying, “What makes us think that the inmates aren’t running the asylum?” And in our society as well. We have a sick society so to be mentally ill is to be crazy and sometimes you’re just seeing things that other people are just not aware of. So they’re the ones where we think, hey, we’re normal, but yet we’re not necessarily interacting with another level of reality which they may be interacting with. So that was something that we came across hypothetically without knowing it in advance. The hypothesis that I came up with was “What if these people are experiencing shadows, and we’re calling them mentally ill? They’re being put together in a mental hospital, they’re bringing the shadows with them, and all of a sudden you have a tremendous negative charge in this place full of entities and spirits, and people dying […] I mean, in Greystone you have something like 3,000 people who died there, so what kind of energy are you creating?” So I’m sure that there’s some kind of thing about the fact that society itself has an illness, but I never really saw the comparison before between Singularity and Greystone.

Towards the end of Greystone we see the visuals get disrupted and begin to change into a more psychedelic construction than what had been previously shown. Can you expand on why you made this choice within the visual narrative?

Yeah, yeah. It’s funny, because the style of cutting came organically out of what we were trying to tell as we went along, because we had all these experiences with the shadows and the paranormal. But it was very difficult to know where to end it. The easy thing with found footage movies is “well, you kill everybody.” It’s a very simple way to end the movie and satisfactory and no lesson learned and whatnot. But in our story we didn’t die, so the question was, “Where do we go with it?” We realized and like you said it’s psychedelic because when you start to interact with shadows and things that not everybody can see necessarily – like Alex will see a ghost and Sean doesn’t, in the movie, so how do I trust Alex? And paranoia set in. And then, by the end, we have what I think is what I think is one of the most unique moments which is where the camera starts to see when Sean is getting possessed, and the camera is actually seeing what Sean is seeing, and all of a sudden it’s a very subjective take on being possessed, which is similar to madness. So then there’s a constant parallel between the two, of the experience of going crazy and that we are, essentially in a place with the ghosts of mental patients and then the fact that there are energies that are manifesting through our fear and paranoia that is being generated by being in this place. So, ultimately, we wanted to marry these concepts- the feeling of paranormal reality is very similar to a mental patient  (what we would call a mental patient) is going through.

When you were making Greystone, did you visit other mental institutions or watch any other films about mental institutions?

Yeah, we explored a lot. We went to about a dozen different locations, either breaking in illegally or just finding our way in. We just explored. We were looking for locations to shoot. And along the way, you know, in a sense we were kicking the beehive. And Alex has amazing energy to him. In a way he just attracts spirits, he attracts entities. I’ve never been to a location with him where something didn’t happen. A rock would come flying at my head or a plate would fly across the room by itself. I remember at Creedmoor, Alex, myself and Antonella, we were by ourselves and we heard what sounded like a gunshot and what sounded like an explosion sound and we look up and we see what looks like a burst of blood just appear on the wall in front of us, so you have all these different phenomenon taking place and then how do we pair it down, keep the narrative of the film and make the story make sense. In the Alex version of reality there is something happening in every minute, things flying around, shadow men occurring, so we had to taper it down so that by the end there’s an escalation where all the fears of the kids have now themselves manifested…

The characters in your film seem to continue to refer to the fact that terrible things happened in this institution and how horrible the building’s past was. I wonder if you would talk for a minute about the concept that you made a film that was essentially for horror entertainment and yet was based upon real historical fact. Films like Titicut Follies [Frederick Wiseman, 1967] ripped open the mental institutional abuse scandals and yet that was a documentary and not played for entertainment value.

It’s a delicate balance, you know? Very rarely do people talk about mentally ill people and say, “They’re right.” Rarely do people have the guts to say, “Hey, he is seeing something up there, he’s not crazy, he’s not just having a neurological disorder that’s causing him to see a shadow standing over there- there is a shadow standing over there. But psychics are better able to deal with it, better able to grapple with it and have mastered it, whereas the mental patient has just given up and tried to isolate himself from society. So I think that we do a fair job, the patients aren’t like ghosts, we try to keep them in the background, like a presence that pervades the hospital, but it’s the journey into madness is what the kids are going through, but one person would call it madness, another would call it a paranormal or supernatural event, and beyond that, the [hospital] experimentation stuff, we could have gone with that version, but […]that’s one version of the story but that’s not the one we chose.

There seems to be a whole new genre of films coming out under the label of “found footage” cinema and since your film is created footage, I would have to ask you whether or not you would place Greystone Park in that genre and if not, where would it go?

Yeah, I think it’s more like End of Watch than Paranormal Activity because it’s documentary-style, hand-held retelling of factual events. I call it meta-reality.

So not all of this film was scripted?

No, not at all. A lot of the things in the film were very spontaneous. I think you can kind of feel it. There’s a sense of urgency, a genuine reaction in a lot of cases.

What percentage would you say is scripted?

Ultimately, 80% of the film is based in real events, now that is the script itself. Then, beyond that, within the film, everything from the lights turning on and off by themselves in the corridor and our reactions, that was real, when Antonella and Alex saw a shadow and Antonella was crying afterwards, that was real, so there were easily like 5-6 incidents that take place within the film that were completely unscripted.

What do you think of the “found footage genre” on the whole? It seems to me that sometimes people are stretching that definition quite a bit.

Exactly. That’s what’s frustrating a lot of times, because people don’t get it.  When you come up with something new, a lot of times, people don’t know how to class it. In our case, I have never been a fan of found footage because Blair Witch Project, to me, was an amazing concept. As a kid, I was watching the History Channel documentary on the Blair Witch, I was stoked to see the movie, I thought there was a real Blair Witch, and then… not only is it fake, but there’s not even a Blair Witch! And then I boycotted the film, I didn’t see it for 10 years. […] I didn’t see it again until we were into making this. It’s not novel to take a hand-held camera and make a movie, The Kingdom is a hand-held movie, Cloverfield is found-footage, so-called, but we all know there was no monster in New York. End of Watch recently is an all hand-held movie that goes out of third-person to first-person shooter […] so to me it’s really about what kind of story are you trying to tell.