In Blumhouse‘s Evil Eye, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, a woman in Delhi (Sarita Choudhury) worries that her daughter in New Orleans (Sunita Mani) is trapped in an abusive relationship. The distance isn’t the only factor fueling her paranoia, however — she suspects that her daughter’s boyfriend might be the reincarnation of a stalker who harassed her 30 years ago. Based on the Audible play by Madhuri Shekar, who also wrote the film, Evil Eye has been co-produced by Priyanka Chopra‘s Purple Pebble Pictures.
“She read the script, she had notes. She was involved with casting. She would look at edits and assess ideas. She even looked at costumes — Like, are the saris tied correctly?” says Rajeev Dassani, who co-directed the film with his brother Elan. The two of them, along with Shekar, spoke about the most freeing parts of working on a Blumhouse film and why it’s taken so long for horror to become inclusive:
Madhuri, you wrote the play entirely as a series of phone calls. What were the challenges in converting that into a cinematic adaptation and still retaining that drama?
Madhuri Shekar: It was tricky. I conceived of the idea specifically for the audio format and I knew that just listening to the characters and not being able to see what was happening could be scary. The film gave me the opportunity to let go of that limitation. This was going to be a film that actually let us go into Pallavi’s life and see her fall in love with Sandeep. There are all of these tiny character moments and nuances that you could not possibly get in an audio format. Another fun thing is that if you’re watching the film, you hear the characters talking on the phone, but you also see what they’re thinking and feeling and how they’re behaving. It’s a great opportunity to add in character complexity.
For me, the concept of being a parent and realizing that your child might be in an abusive relationship is a whole horror movie in itself. It’s scary. What was the thought process behind adding in layers of reincarnation and karma?
Madhuri Shekar: You’re right, that’s the scariest thing that could happen. And that’s where a lot of the emotion of the story came from for me. But tropes and supernatural elements are part of the fun of the genre. It was nice to have a ghost monster with supernatural powers to defeat, as opposed to an everyday bad man who’s extremely real and very common. I wanted to go someplace where I could defeat a monster, where I could ramp it up. My thought process was: Let’s go to the extreme. Let’s just go nuts.
Rajeev Dassani: The best horror movies tackle very primal, very real fears. But we also wanted to connect that to something fun and genre-y. We like to say that in the film, we hide our peas in our mashed potatoes. We take something very real like domestic abuse and violence and fearing for your child as a mother, and hide that inside the supernatural. So you’re enjoying that because on one level, it’s real, but also no, it’s not real.
It must be such a tightrope to walk when you’re mining horror out of a religious concept like reincarnation because you run the risk of offending people. How wary were you of that and what kind of research went into getting it right?
Rajeev Dassani: We did a massive amount of research and were very aware, especially when it came to culture or religion, that we had to be authentic. There was a Hindu priest in New Orleans who was on set for any scene involving a prayer. We read a lot of different texts about reincarnation and the reality is that a lot of people have different interpretations. Every family has their own particular way of looking at it. So we talked to many of our parents’ friends in India to get a sense of what they believed and that was helpful. We even pitched them the story to get a sense of how they felt about it. We find that it’s about people more than books. There have been other criticisms of the film, but no one has written to us and said they were offended by our portrayal of reincarnation.
Elan Dassani: We did research and had lots of information, but decided not to go too deep into anything, because the idea was to tell a mother-daughter story about trauma and abuse and how the past can affect the present. We used religion as a way to tell this character-based story.
I love that the film has an all-Indian cast. Why do you think it’s taken so long for horror representation to be more inclusive?
Madhuri Shekar: I don’t know. It’s a big systemic problem. I write my stuff with the audacious assumption that everybody wants to see it. We’re artists, we’re not the people who fund or greenlight projects. We’re making stuff that feels real and honest and authentic for people who we believe would really love to see it. That’s all we have in our control. I would love for more studio executives to be asked this question. I would love for more people who actually write the cheques to answer that question because that’s their job. It’s not ours.
Rajeev Dassani: It’s so hard to make any movie. A common saying in Hollywood is that no one wants to make any movie ever. The safest job is to not create anything. And so you push and push and push. Thankfully, more creators are pushing forward. The barriers to entry are getting lower, even with regard to criteria like the ability to make films with new technology. The new iPhone that just came out is better than film cameras that were available four years ago. That’s changing the game in terms of who can make movies. I give a lot of credit to streaming services because there’s a much greater diversity of stories being funded by companies like Amazon and Blumhouse. The pool of money available to make like these films is higher than it used to be. This is purely because of the audience, who want things that are unique and interesting. So streaming platforms go: Okay, if Indians are the flavor right now, great, we’ll ride that way. They’re desperate to beat the other guys, to tell more diverse stories and thus appeal to a larger audience.
Blumhouse films are famous for being shot on tight-budgets. At the same time, Jason Blum in an interview said that the studio’s streaming releases have more leeway than its theatrical ones —they don’t have to have a certain number of jumpscares, which frees them up to be unsettling or unnerving instead. What are the most freeing and the most restrictive parts of working on a Blumhouse film?
Rajeev Dassani: They’re efficient with their budgets. Something they really impressed upon us was: We don’t like to waste money. But when we wanted a water unit or to shoot in India, they were concerned about how much that would cost, but never told us we couldn’t do it. They helped us figure out things that were important to us, like telling us to shoot for fewer days at another location so we could use that money here instead.
Elan Dassani: One thing that’s nice about them is their approach to scrappy filmmaking. They don’t assume that there’s any one way to do anything and that’s what differentiates them from a lot of studios. Some places are like: We do it this way, with two cameras and sets that we built. Blumhouse approaches every project like it’s its own thing. They could decide to shoot one entirely on iPhones, for another, get all their actors from a certain place. Their first film that was a big hit was Paranormal Activity, which is shot nothing like a normal film. And so they’re used to changing their model. You can approach them with something outlandish and they’ll start figuring out how much it costs. That’s great.