Sister | Interview to Colin Denhart
Interview Questions to Colin Denhart, Director, Writer & Producer of “Sister”
Cult Critic: How old were you when you first began to venture into filmmaking? What was the inspiration behind choosing this career path?
Colin: I have been interested in filmmaking from a young age. When I was a little kid, I would play with my action figures as if I were the director and the toys were my actors. I also played around with my family’s home video camera in my early years. My high school had a radio/TV station and photo studio/dark room, so I took classes where I learned the art of audio-visual production and made my earliest student films in the classes, developing my filmmaking style that has continued to modern times. My skills further developed in college and then in my early career working in television and various short films and music video productions. I see the art of filmmaking as the greatest way to bring one’s imagination to reality in a fixed medium and the perfect combination of story, acting, music, and visuals all in one creative piece.
Cult Critic: Since 2016 you have written and directed several short films and produced music videos. What prompted your decision to make your very first feature-length film?
Colin: I had made several independent short films and music videos and had success with some of my creative works at film festivals, including an animated short titled “Halloween Cat,” a sci-fi thriller called “The Girl in the White Room,” and the drama “Double Cloud Nine.” A few years ago, I determined the next logical step in my film career would be to make a feature-length movie. In case this movie was the only feature-film I ever made, I wanted to make sure it was deeply spiritual and one that I would be proud of for the rest of my life. Thus was the overall goal with the making of Sister.
Cult Critic:The opening ten minutes of “Sister” have a surreal mix of abstract patterns and shapes. What is the symbolism behind this?
Colin: The opening sequence of Sister depicts the beginning of the Universe as depicted in Genesis and the Gospel of John in The Bible and Gnostic texts such as The Secret Book of John, which is contained within the Nag Hammadi Library. In the gnostic texts, the Monad (God) creates the Universe and multiple sub-deities. One of these entities is Sophia (played in the film by pop singer Anza) who embodies pure wisdom, and she disobeyed the orders of the Monad by impregnating herself which resulted in the birth of Yaldabaoth, who is the evil spirit with a lion’s head and snake’s body and represents ignorance and delusion. This opening sequence provides the cosmic backstory for the events that play out in the film with Sister Jowi (award- winning actress Vasudha Krishnamoorthy) avoiding the evil spirit (Yaldabaoth) and trying to find the light (Sophia) within her.
Cult Critic:Can you elaborate on how you have co-related Lynch’s “Eraserhead”, “Twin Peak”, Kubrick’s “The Shining”, and Carpenter’s “Halloween” with your feature film?
Colin: "Sister" makes several references and callbacks to these and other films. The interesting references are subtle in that they make a callback without drawing attention to them being a callback. References to Eraserhead are apparent in the black-and-white cinematography and the dark visions and dream sequences. The apartment scenes were filmed in an old hotel with shots of hallways and rooms calling back to The Shining. Halloween is referenced in the slasher aspects of the film with the Evil Spirit (award-nominee Katie Harbridge) and the use of music and scenes of Sister Jowi walking through streets and dark rooms. Twin Peaks especially has some major callbacks in Sister with the music and themes of spirits targeting a female character and the journey into spiritual realms, also with the priests and nuns being agents of the church investigating supernatural occurrences much like the FBI agents in Twin Peaks investigating supernatural occurrences.
Cult Critic:Can you give us any insights into how you’ve highlighted your spiritual and religious beliefs and development through “Sister”?
Colin: I have incorporated concepts and ideas I have learnt over the years in my religious education and involvement in organizations such as The Freemasons, Transcendental Meditation, and The Episcopal Church. I went to Catholic school from preschool through 8th grade and was an altar boy up through graduating high school. My school priest Father Tim and nun Sister Lenore profoundly affected my religious education and inspired a lifelong passion and interest in theology, and my fond memories of them were a partial inspiration for the priest and nun characters in the film. While writing and filming Sister, I was going through a theology education program, which involved the study of sacred scriptures and the history of Christianity, so I saw the film as an action component of my education and incorporated this knowledge into the production. I also have read religious texts such as The Bible, The Quran, The Bhagavad Gita, and even The Book of Mormon that all have a subtle influence on Sister and my other creative works. As my film career continues, I plan to incorporate spiritual concepts and ideas even in films that do not have direct religious themes.
Cult Critic: I read that the scenes have been shot in the actual locations of some of Indianapolis’ ghastly murders. How did you and the film crew feel about filming a horror movie in those exact locations?
Colin: It definitely was an eerie experience being in these locations. There is an underlying feeling of dread and darkness like some negative energy still remains. It was the feeling of being in a real haunted space and we tried to film the scenes in these areas as quickly as possible. It was quite frightening when we were at the old church where mass murderer Jim Jones once was a preacher, knowing that there was a spiritual connection to this place. When we examined the footage later, we noticed the curtains in the windows were moving even though there was no one present inside. It was like having seen a ghost! I also was particularly uneasy with being in the location where Sylvia Likens was murdered because even though the house where she was killed had been bulldozed, the space still feels dreary and dark like one can sense that something terrible happened there. You can erase the material presence but the spiritual presence always remains!
Cult Critic:Father Matthew, played by Matthew Davis in “Sister” seems to believe in God, but not the Devil. What is your ideology behind writing this character?
Colin: My ideology behind his character is to depict those religious leaders who refuse to believe in theological ideas and concepts that challenge the official stance of their denomination or are skeptical of them. There seem to be several preachers, priests, etc. in real life who, albeit wise and good, are close-minded in their faith and not open to evolving their beliefs. This characteristic is an issue I see that needs to be addressed in real life if religious institutions are to thrive and bring in new believers and build better societies.
Cult Critic: What made you choose monochrome as the film color?
Colin: I chose monochrome to emphasize the contrast of black and white since the film’s major theme is the battle between darkness and light. I also shot in monochrome as a reference to the classic horror films of the 1930s-1960s. In some ways, the black-and-white look mixed with the spiritual and cosmic themes gives the feeling that the film could take place in the same universe as it’s a Wonderful Life, arguably the greatest American film of all time. Also, black-and-white cinematography creates an otherworldly feeling in viewers wherein the film feels like it takes place in our reality and another realm at the same time.
Cult Critic: How did you come up with the concept of “Sister”?
Colin: I had been going through a deep spiritual evolution in the years leading up to the making of Sister. In the summer of 2019, I was in Fairfield, Iowa on the Transcendental Meditation Sidhi program which involved me undergoing the greatest level of consciousness expansion I ever had, similar to The Beatles when they were with Maharishi in Rishikesh before they produced The White Album. I developed several ideas from this deep level of being, and the origins of the idea for Sister came from there. I saw a nun as the perfect character to represent a spiritual seeker and started to draw the character and story ideas from there. Lots of the main story ideas and characters also came about while I would listen to a playlist of songs I put together as an idealized soundtrack. These songs include “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles, “St. Matthew” by The Monkees, and “She’s Lost Control” by Joy Division. At the time, I was working the evening shift at a TV station, so I would stay up late into the early morning hours, and I would listen to these songs while jogging in the middle of the night so I would be in the “nightmare” mindset to better capture the feeling of fear of the unknown and being lost and alone in the darkness. I also was researching the dark history of Indianapolis (where I live) and realized there are all these locations that have haunted history or involve some evil people such as mass murder-cult leader Jim Jones’ original church, Charles Manson’s childhood home, the house with the brutal murder of Sylvia Likens in the 1960s, the 1920s headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, and the home of serial killer HH Holmes. Some of these real-life locations were featured in the film and explore the origins of dark energy in these locations. Overall, I saw the film as a tangible encapsulation of all these ideas and concepts I was exploring at the time!
Cult Critic: What is your favorite science fiction horror movie and why?
Colin: My favorite film specifically of the science fiction horror genre is the original 1979 Alien movie directed by Ridley Scott. The film perfectly blends sci-fi and horror and has so much symbolism and deeper esoteric meanings beyond the surface story of the film. I also admire the feeling of fear and unknown the film creates and how real the alien creature appears to be in the film.
Cult Critic: Are there any contemporary filmmakers or writers you take inspiration from?
Colin: My favorite contemporary filmmakers include Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, The Master), Darren Aronofsky (Mother, The Whale), and Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, Dahmer). I like how these filmmakers incorporate spiritual and religious themes and characters into their works and how their films/series seem to provide new interpretations and deeper insights with each viewing. For example, Darren Aronofsky’s film Mother starring Jennifer Lawrence has so many religious references, and I discover new ones with each viewing and as I advance in my knowledge of religion.
Cult Critic: What tips would you give to aspiring writers pursuing the horror genre?
Colin: My key advice to an aspiring writer pursuing the horror genre is to write films with ideas and concepts to explore that actually frighten you. If one is not scared of the horror story he or she is trying to tell, how can he or she expect others to be scared too? The feeling of fear and dread that make a good horror story will come through in your writing if you yourself are scared by the subject or fascinated with exploring the dark unknown. It also is wise to look at all your scenes and see how each scene can be made more frightening or intense without resorting to cheap thrills or jump scares. Take your audience to a dark place so they will want to seek light in themselves!