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It’s about events some people might want to describe as supernatural. But The Mothman Prophecies is definitely not a sci-fi movie, insists director Mark Pellington. Eleanor Singer finds out more.

Ever since John Keel’s book, The Mothman Prophecies, first appeared in 1975, writers and producers have been trying to figure out a way of bringing it to the screen. What made it difficult wasn’t the fact that the events in Keel’s book were too fanciful. Quite the contrary, they were true, even if no one was too sure where truth stopped and dread began. No, it was because they were about an entire community - the small West Virginia town of Point Pleasant - and the events that led up to a tragic accident which put it in the headlines a few days before Christmas 1967.

That event itself was frightening enough: the sudden collapse of a bridge during evening rush hour. Forty-six people were killed, trapped in their cars beneath the remains of the Silver Bridge in the freezing waters of the Ohio River. Two bodies were never found, and the town took decades to recover.

But Point Pleasant had been making news of a different kind in the months preceding the tragedy. Local people - perfectly ordinary people, without a spiritualist or a UFOlogist amongst them - had reported seeing a strange, dark, winged figure on the banks of the river.

The sightings became so frequent that the local sheriff, George Johnson, called a press conference and introduced the various witnesses to local reporters. On November 17, Mary Hyre, editor of the Point Pleasant Register, put the story on the Associated Press wire. It was an anonymous copy editor at AP who came up with the name that has been associated with the story ever since: the ‘mothman’.

"a psychological mystery with naturally surreal overtones"

It’s worth spelling all this out in some detail because the director of The Mothman Prophecies is insistent about one thing above all others: this is not a sci-fi/horror film. “I wasn’t interested in making a ‘creature’ movie,” says Mark Pellington, whose background is in the not exactly ‘real’ but definitely not sci-fi world of music video (among other things, he created the giant TV screens for U2’s Zoo tour). “It’s a psychological mystery with naturally surreal overtones. We - all of us involved in this film - believe in the possibility of believing, of feeling and seeing… This is not sci-fi.”

The reason it has taken 25 years to bring the Point Pleasant saga to the screen is that no writer could find a focus for the film. There were lots of stories that could have been told about the people who died on the bridge, but few of them directly involved the figure that became known as the mothman. And the stories of those who had seen, sensed or heard him didn’t really have a natural resolution.

It was screenwriter Richard Hatem who finally found the way in, creating two fictional characters at the centre of the story: a Washington Post reporter called John Klein and a local cop called Connie Parker.

Klein (Richard Gere) begins the film in Washington at a moment of happiness that he will never recapture. He and his wife, Mary (Debra Messing - Grace from TV series Will and Grace), have found the perfect house and decided to buy it. On the way home, however, Mary sees something in front of the car, crashes and is hospitalised with what turns out to be a fatal brain condition. One of the last things she says to Klein is “You didn’t see it, did you?” What ‘it’ might be is never explained, but Mary also leaves behind her a series of disturbing drawings of a dark, winged figure with burning red eyes.

Two years pass (Hatem sets the story in the present day), and Klein is sent on assignment to interview the Governor of Virginia, who may be about to declare his presidential ambitions. En route to Richmond, the reporter becomes lost and ends up in Point Pleasant, which is 400 miles off course, even if he has only been driving for two hours. Even more disturbing is the fact that the guy on whose door he knocks, Gordon Smallwood (Will Patton), threatens him with a shotgun because, he says, this is the third night in a row Klein has woken him in the middle of the night.

Klein becomes obsessed with understanding what is happening, especially when the local police sergeant (Linney) - who rescues him from Gordon - tells him of some of the strange events and sightings that have occurred in Point Pleasant over the preceding months.

Before long, Klein himself is receiving strange calls from a non-human voice that identifies itself as ‘Indrid Cold’, and discovers more about the ‘mothman’ from former university professor Alexander Leek (a cameo from acclaimed British actor Alan Bates), whose career had been ruined by an earlier brush with the legend.

"to a metaphysical, naturally surreal, enigmatic, mysterious emotional place"

“Richard Hatem did a fantastic job taking this book and putting it into a movie form,” says Pellington. “By creating the character of John Klein as the pole which all of these events revolve around, he established a hero for the story. This is difficult territory, and it’s easy to veer into melodrama or wackiness. It’s really kind of unbelievable, so you have to go deeper - to a metaphysical, naturally surreal, enigmatic, mysterious emotional place to make it work.”

Obviously Hatem’s screenplay had the same effect on other people, too, given the quality of the cast Lakeshore, the film’s producers, were able to attract to a project which, in different hands, could have become a low-budget TV movie in which a bunch of small-town hicks gradually fall prey to a tall guy in a latex suit.

Treating Point Pleasant and its real-life inhabitants in a dignified manner was, reckons Linney, crucial to the film - and crucial to her decision to take the part of Connie. “No one in this town is a hick,” she says. “This is a community; all these people grew up together. All the histories are intertwined, so there’s an ease and a respect that they all have. My character is a responsible person - she’s a law enforcement officer and she’s responsible for the town. It’s scary, but she is secure enough in herself that she knows what her own world is. I think she feels like she has control over that. And she does - up to a point.”

“You have two very logical, practical characters: a police officer, Laura’s character; and a journalist, played by Richard Gere,” adds Lakeshore’s Gary Lucchesi. “She watched Meet the Press [a TV show on which Gere’s character appears] and she recognises him. She’s not a country bumpkin.”

Even less of a stereotype is Gere’s reporter, whose approach to the aura of fear that pervades Point Pleasant could never be described as ‘crusading’. He is affected by the mothman phenomenon as much as they are, and is every bit as afraid of it as well.

“Richard’s a great choice,” says Pellington. “You’ve got to have a guy that you’re going to believe when people tell him that they saw these things or when he says, ‘I got a call from an entity named Indrid Cold,’ otherwise you’d have to laugh.”

For all its sense of place, The Mothman Prophecies wasn’t filmed in Point Pleasant because the new bridge - opened by President Johnson on February 8, 1968 - no longer connects with the centre of the town. In fact, it wasn’t even filmed in Virginia: the film-makers scoured the eastern states until they came up with Kittanning, not far from Pittsburgh. The surrounding countryside was very similar to West Virginia, and there was a bridge very like Point Pleasant’s Silver Bridge (not exactly the same, because that design - for obvious reasons - isn’t used any more). And the town itself could easily have been Point Pleasant.

“These towns just haven’t changed much in the last 100 years,” says Gere. “You see the old architecture - some of it not well kept up, but a minimum of new things - and it still has a downtown. The strip malls and the malls outside have not really taken over yet.”

“It feels strangely out of place but never obviously or overtly weird or spooky,” adds Pellington. “It’s just simple and sad.” And that, he explains, was what the film really needed to anchor it in reality without smothering it in realism.

"Perception is a trick thing"

“Perception is a trick thing,” says the director. “Everybody has their own experiences and everybody has little mind tricks or things that say, ‘Was that real?’ from simple deja-vus to blackouts.

“My goal is to make it believable to the people sitting in the theatre and for them to feel something, even if they have no clue what is going on. As the puzzle builds, everybody wants to know why John is where he is and what’s going to happen. Those are the two questions that need to be answered. If they are answered and the audience leaves the theatre feeling something - and, I hope, feeling a range of emotions - then we’ve done OK.”

Published May 23, 2002

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