How the Horror Flop 'The Empty Man' Became the Great Cult Movie of 2020
Director David Prior's cosmic thriller got buried in theaters last year, but the film is already on the path to resurrection.
"We transmit. You receive." —The Empty Man
When the twist-filled cosmic horror mind-bender The Empty Man was unceremoniously dumped in theaters last October, its writer and director David Prior wasn't even sent a link to the final version of the film by the studio. More than four years before, he'd pitched the movie to 20th Century Fox, a perhaps unconventional home for such a strange project, and, after the company was acquired by Disney in 2019, Prior's debut feature slipped through the corporate cracks. In the middle of a global pandemic, The Empty Man was released with one misleading trailer, which marketed the two-hour-plus saga as another urban legend-inspired teen thriller, and minimal promotional fanfare. Unsurprisingly, it bombed, grossing just over $4 million worldwide. Prior transmitted and almost no one received.
Adapted from a Boom! Studios comic by the writer Cullen Bunn and artist Vanesa R. Del Rey, The Empty Man was initially sold to Fox in 2016 as a stylish horror mystery infused with thematic ambiguity, existential dread, and a dash of Lovecraftian terror. James Badge Dale plays ex-detective James Lasombra, a grief-stricken widower whose friend Nora (Marin Ireland) enlists him to help find her daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova) after she disappears. Amanda and her teenage friends may or may not have summoned the Empty Man, a mystical entity with an odd connection to a cult-like organization called the Pontifex Institute, led by a charismatic leader played by Stephen Root of Office Space and Barry. (I've been describing it to friends as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets The Ring.) In his early conversations with executives, Prior compared it to Mulholland Drive rather than something in The Conjuring universe or the Blumhouse arsenal. In the writing stage, executives even encouraged him to expand the film's lengthy opening, a snowbound tale of hikers in Bhutan's Ura Valley who stumble upon a sinister cave.
The Empty Man's journey to the big screen quickly unraveled. In some ways, the story has all the hallmarks of classic Hollywood fiasco: a shoot plagued by bad weather, disastrous test screenings, fights over runtime, studio meddling, a breakdown in communication, and an ambitious first-time director threading potentially alienating material into familiar genre fare. (Not many horror movies have a prominent shot of a high school named after a famous French philosopher.) In other ways, it's a uniquely modern tale of mounting corporate neglect, expiring tax rebates, confusing IP mismanagement, and slow-building social media advocacy.
Are audiences hungry for movies like The Empty Man? The movie's box office performance would suggest a definitive no, but, since becoming available as a digital rental in 2021, the film has taken on a second life online, where podcast hosts and viewers on platforms like Twitter and Letterboxd have sung its praises, turning it into the rare 21st century studio project that earns the over-used descriptor of "cult movie."
Prior, who began his career working on a DVD of the 1999 horror movie Ravenous and later directed special features for David Fincher films like Zodiac and The Social Network, has a keen awareness of how his movie plays into certain narratives. Over a Google Hangout, he spoke with the combination of weary cynicism and wounded pride that often accompanies someone who has been through an ordeal. "It’s amazing how trenchant Barton Fink is about the way the Hollywood system really works," he noted early in the conversation.
As the Coen Brothers screenwriter protagonist knows, the "life of the mind" can be painful. While unpacking the jargon-heavy mythology of his debut and the turmoil-packed narrative of its production, Prior repeatedly emphasized how grateful he was that the movie has found an audience and often laughed at the absurdity of its fate. Who can be blamed for what happened to The Empty Man? As one of the movie's grizzled detectives remarks in the film, "We can't indict the cosmos."
Thrillist: The Empty Man has such a density of ideas, particularly everything with Stephen Root's character and Pontifex Institute. What were you drawing from as you began to develop that mythology?
David Prior: If I had an analyst, I’m sure they would have a good guess, but for whatever reason I’ve always been intrigued by stories about cults. It probably has more to do with my lifelong fascination with H.P. Lovecraft than with anything personal. I just find the idea fascinating, the concept of people that have signed up for a violently different reality than the one you are accustomed to. The war over who gets to define what truth is. It’s not only an intriguing theme that’s probably always been relevant but it seems particularly relevant now. That’s not why I was chasing after it, I was just interested in it. But it does feel like it bounces off things in an interesting way now.
So the Pontifex Institute, all I can say in my defense is I like movies that reward deeper analysis. I think they absolutely must—and I’m not saying I achieved this—but the goal is it works on one level as an evening out at the movies, you have a good time, hopefully you like it, and that’s it. But if you want to scratch surface a bit, it rewards that searching in various different ways and at various different levels. For example, having the bridge imagery pop up throughout the movie and reward anyone who decides to look up what the “pontifex” word means and then look up the name of the restaurant at the beginning and see all the bridge imagery and give you something to hang some thinking on. That was a large part of where the idea of the larger mythology came from. Just to try to create a fabric to the movie that would withstand a little prodding.
We had a couple strange instances of synchronicity. There was an old book about a Tulpa, [a mystical concept discussed in the movie] called Superstition by David Ambrose, and I had been talking to the company that owns it about adapting it, and for whatever reason it didn’t work out. But I was fascinated by the idea. Partway through the writing process, I was almost through the script when the idea of bringing that into it came to me, and I was excited and thrilled by the possibility of it, but was also like, “Oh no, this is going to make a big mess because if I tell the other producers about it, they’re going to like it, which is going to mean I have to revamp everything that went before.” So it created a ripple effect that took a while to settle down. My touchstone for it was the book Superstition, which was the first time I’d ever heard of the word Tulpa.
And then, when we finished and the movie is almost done, Twin Peaks Season 3 comes out and there are characters that are tulpas in it. The same thing happened with Hereditary. I saw Hereditary after we had locked final picture. It came out and we were already finished, and it was just dispiriting. It’s a very well made movie and everything.
One of the first things that really surprised me in the movie was the fact that the high school was named Jacques Derrida High School. What was the thinking behind that?
For one thing, on a simple base level: The high school has to be named something, you might as well name it something thematically relevant. The other is the idea of hollowing out the objective standards of what's understood to be true is what the project of deconstruction, if not encourages, at least allows for. The narrative was intended to atomize along with the psyche of the main character. The movie and the character are reflecting each other as it goes, and that becomes a feedback loop where no one knows what's really true anymore.
I know what I think is true in the story—nobody's really hit on it—but I think that's fine. The idea was to present people with some possibilities and let them chew over it and hopefully they enjoy chewing over it enough that they want to go see it again. With Derrida, it was just a case of, he's the primary French deconstructionist with the most hold on what that means. There are a lot of other people I could have used there that wouldn't necessarily triggered the same bells. That's really what it was about, just trying to give people fodder for how to think about the movie. Part of what you're trying to do is train an audience to think about it in a way that they might not normally think you'd have when you sat down in the seat. By showing something like that, it's saying, "OK, think about it in this other way."
When you first sold the movie, was that basically how it was presented? "Here's this cool horror movie with some complex ideas that will be there for the people who want to check them out."
That was what I sold, yeah, and everyone involved seemed to be on board with it. There were some healthy creative conversations about how far a modern audience will allow you to engage in ambiguity. The people who were on the opposite side of that argument might have been right. But I felt like what modern audiences will hungrily embrace is being done by everybody else and I figured, let's try something different. Let's try to embrace ambiguity. Ambiguity is not something to be taken lightly. It doesn't just mean "not making a decision."
It's gotta be very surgically deployed and you always run the risk that you're going to be misunderstood, and that's part of the tightrope walk of the whole project. It was more an argument over degrees. But the kinds of movies we were all referencing were either movies that were ambiguous or took some time to find an audience and that weren't four quadrant movies that jumped out of the gate and made $100 million [in the] opening weekend. We knew we weren't making that movie and nobody wanted to make that movie. But it turns out, the people who inherited the movie wanted that kind of movie.
Can you give me a timeline of the movie's shifting release date and its production cycle?
It's got a lot of tributaries that I'll try to avoid boring you with. We started shooting September 11, 2016 in Cape Town after 13 weeks of prep. The movie was intended to have a cold, wintery, gray sky, leafless trees, blue-gray monochrome aesthetic, but, of course, we were below the equator. When we scouted, that's what we had. When we were shooting we had spring. We wrapped in Cape Town whatever it was—50-some odd days later.
We went to Chicago to do the days we were supposed to do to do the exteriors and tie the locations together. It was bone-chilling winter in December. We tried to shoot. We got two feet of snow one day. It was never going to match anything, so we shut down, and the idea was to immediately go back and finish out in April. For various idiotic reasons, that didn't happen, and then in the intervening time period, we started filling in the gaps with some pre-vis I had done and some storyboards and things like that, just trying to make something coherent out of it. Then our executive was let go and we had no executive left on the movie.
That type of person feels essential for a movie like this. Who was that executive?
Mark Roybal, who's got very good taste. But without him as the champion, we were left rudderless in the machinery of the studio, and within a studio that was already at that time—and we didn't know it—feeling the heat from Disney breathing down their necks. So we were abandoned. We couldn't finish—we didn't have a finished movie. But we were still in editorial, so we were cutting and refining and trying to make plans, hoping somebody would eventually see us waving our hands, saying, "Hey, can we finish?"
Finally, they brought in a new executive who let us go set it up so we could finish shooting—I think it was in July. So we finally got that shoot finished. Suddenly, someone had fired a gun in the air. We'd spent all these months fallow and then it was like, "Things have to go now." So we were rushed into a test screening that I didn't feel ready for. I objected to it, I didn't want to do it. I sent clips from The Hamster Factor [a documentary about the troubled production of Terry Gilliam's science-fiction hit 12 Monkeys] to the executives going, "This is what happens at test screenings when you're not ready to screen it. I don't want to do this." We had just gotten back from Chicago and hadn't had a chance to really feel the movie out. It was still way too long. It was like two hours and 40 minutes, or whatever it was.
But I was overruled and we had to screen it. And then we had this weird experience where it felt good in the room: We all came out thinking, "That went well, they were laughing when we wanted them to." I was encouraged. I was expecting a disaster and I felt like, "We've got a good, attentive audience." But the scores did not reflect that. The scores were terrible. It was confusing. That resulted in a bunch of idiocy that's probably best left for a book that I'll write when I stop caring what anybody thinks.
So all of that happened around 2018? We're still two years out from the movie actually getting released.
Yeah, that was late 2018—in the late summer or fall, I don't remember exactly. Another version of the movie was prepared without my participation and it was a disaster. It was Alan Smithee bad. I was gobsmacked. The only good news was that when they test screened that, it must be famous for how low the score was.
But plans kept changing and finally they said, "Fine, just finish it your way, but you have to finish it within a set number of days because the tax rebates from South Africa were set to expire." Suddenly, someone figured that out. So we got a panicked call saying, "Fine, have it your way. But we're not giving you any more money and you have to finish it by this date or there will be hell to pay." So we rushed and I basically had to lock the picture that day, and scrambled to finish it, and we did. Then it sat on the shelf, waiting to see what would happen.
Right in that time was when the Disney news broke. We didn't know who we were working with was going to survive, and we couldn't get anybody on the phone anymore. People were preparing their resumes and sending them out. It was a very weird, tumultuous time. We knew from that moment, whatever happens with the movie, it's going to be another year because the acquisition itself is going to take X number of years and they're not releasing anything in the meantime. So we just sat on our hands and waited and hoped it would come out eventually.
I'm not privy to the brilliant minds in the hallowed halls of the Disney company about why they did what they did. I assume it has something to do with contractual obligations or triggering payments for overseas sales or pay-television sales that can only occur if there is a theatrical release. I'm guessing it was something like that, but I don't really know.
When you're in that gray area of not knowing when your movie is going to come out, what's the experience like? What type of communication are you getting from the studio?
Rumors started going around that we had a release date. Then I did get a call from Fox saying that it was coming out in August 2019. I think that was our first official announced date. When I saw it on the websites, I knew it was real. Then it got pushed to December, then it was pushed to April. The reason I was given was they had decided they wanted to get it out ahead of the James Bond movie, and I was like, "That seems very strange, I don't think there's much crossover there but OK."
Then the pandemic hit and all that other nonsense happened, and they pushed it to the following October. So occasionally I did get calls saying, "Hey, we're actually releasing it." I was like, "Boy, that's great. Let me know if there's anything to do." I didn't even believe it was actually coming out. I was like, "You're going to release one trailer a week before it comes out and it's a trailer that's not reflective of the movie?" It was peculiar, man, I'll tell you.
And at that point, are you pretty much entirely cut off from the process?
There are certain things contractually that they're supposed to do that they didn't do. There's what's called meaningful consultation in contracts. It's part of the [Directors Guild of America] agreement and the language is in your contract. You're supposed to have meaningful consultation on the release date, the ad campaign, the trailer, and the posters. Anybody with any sense knows that "meaningful consultation" really means "meaningless consultation." If you disagree with what they're going to do, they're going to do what they do anyway unless you're David Fincher or James Cameron.
In this case, it meant no consultation because I wasn't shown the trailer or the poster until they were released—or the day before it was released. If I had my druthers, the ad campaign would have been entirely different. Early on, we had prepared a bunch of other ancillary materials. Initially, the plan was to have people in the Czech Republic writing "Who is the Empty Man?" on the side of building walls eight months before the movie came out and getting people talking about it and releasing little web videos. I had an extended version of the Manifestation 13 video that [James Badge Dale's character] watches in the cabin that was set to be released on the internet, and we had this whole plan worked out. All that went out the window. You take the good, you take the bad, and there you have it, the facts of life.
I've read that The Empty Man was the last movie with the 20th Century Fox logo in front of it. Do you know if that's true?
It is as far as I know. [It's] the actual last Fox movie with the original logo, which is both sad and a point of pride. We're at least a footnote in the history of 20th Century Fox. My great-grandfather was a silent film star; he got his start at 20th Century Fox. I got my start as a DVD producer at Fox, and Fox was the home of so many of my favorite movies when I was a kid.
I've become a lot more cynical about the value of corporate branding in the meantime, but when I was a kid seeing that Fox logo and hearing that fanfare meant a lot to me. So I still get a little bit of that childlike glee when that logo comes up, and to know that my film has the last iteration of that logo is sorta bittersweet.
When the film finally came out, did you get to go see it in theaters?
My mother and I drove to Laguna Hills to see it, it was playing in Orange County. It played in, I think, 2,200 theaters across the country, but Orange County was the only one [in the area] that was open for theatrical at the time. It was interesting. I had absorbed so much negativity around it in the previous two years. I had never even seen the final movie at that point. I had approved the final picture, but only to temp audio, and I had approved the final sound mix, but only to temp picture. I had never seen them married together until October 23.
The studio's attitude towards the movie was so debilitating and so dismissive that I had almost been half-convinced to not be proud of the movie. Then I saw it for the first time in that theater and I walked out of there with a new spring in my step. It's not perfect. There are things that I wish were better funded. There are things that I would have done differently. There always will be, I assume. If you get to a point where you feel like it's perfect, you might as well quit. There are things that I can see where it's a little rough around the edges in certain spots and where it could've been more concise here and there.
But, all in all, I walked out feeling very proud of the movie and relieved that it had managed to survive the abattoir that was lying in wait for it at the studio level. Because it could have gone so many other ways and, in the end, despite all the trouble and the negative aspects, the movie as I wanted to make it survived, and that's something to be really grateful for and it doesn't always happen.
Did you read the initial reviews of the movie? And then did you track the online reception to it as more people started to see it as a digital rental?
At first, it was very depressing. One thing that it clarified to me was: Everyone knows how important marketing is because we're told how important marketing is by nobody other than marketing people. Marketing people's entire existence seems more oriented towards convincing other people of their own necessity other than actually marketing movies. But the importance of it is not just to attract the right audience, it's also to repel the wrong audience. It's to frame the movie in a certain way.
It's staggering to me what passes for entertainment journalism is really just regurgitation of talking points that have been sent out by the studio, so if the studio is not sending out those talking points and telling people, "Think about this in a certain kind of way, not as this type of thing," then you're just throwing it to the wolves. When you have a marketing campaign that's designed to attract the wrong audience and repel the right audience, you're going to get all those people on opening night going, "What the fuck is this? This is not what the trailer promised me it was going to be." So there was a lot of discombobulation. In the opening weeks in theaters, some friends sent me some reviews and things where people were pleasantly surprised instead of unpleasantly surprised, which was nice. But the deluge of bad reviews was rough.
And then once the digital release happened, things started to turn around. There were some people on Letterboxd and some reviews on other podcasts. People started getting in touch and the audience started to find it. My assumption is that when something is dropped and left in the dirt and you pick it up and shine it off and go, "Hey, this is kinda good," you take possession of it in a way that's different than if someone had been saying, "Take this, take this, take this."
There are always going to be people who hate the movie and that's fine. We knew that going in. But the people who like it really like it, and maybe like it to a degree they wouldn't have if it had been shoved down their throats. It's like they got to find it for themselves. Those are just [my] ruminations. But I've been very, very gratified to see a little bit of a turn around.
It was a long road to get the movie out there. What are you working on now?
Nothing I can announce. I was supposed to be shooting right now. I sold a movie with a writer friend of mine at the end of last year and the idea was to be in prep in January and shooting in the spring, and it might still happen but the whole plan got shifted towards the end of the year. In the meantime, I'm working on a show with David Fincher for Netflix and trying to get some other things going. There are a couple other projects I'd like to do in similar worlds or at least genre. Adult genre thrillers. Horror movies that aren't aimed at tweens. There are a couple of those I'm aiming at, but nothing concrete yet.
I've gotta ask: Has David Fincher seen The Empty Man?
Yes, he sent me a very nice email about it. There was a possibility that he would have produced it. He read the script and gave me a really good, concise note about it. He's very good with story and character. He's good with everything, but he was very helpful. But when it came to being involved as a producer, David's got his own needs and the studios… Part of David's philosophy is pricing himself out of their ability to afford him. And it's not about money at all, he's not that way. It's more about a level of control that studios just don't want to give people, and I understand it. It's just one of those things.
But he did see the film when it was finished and sent a very kind, supportive, and encouraging email. When the first review that wasn't outright hostile or the first reassessment of the movie—I think it was on Roger Ebert or one of the sites—he forwarded it to me and said, "The reassessment has begun," or something like that.
I'm sure there's a lot about it he would have done differently, but he's very supportive of other directors and very protective of what it means to be an artist trying to survive in an industry that seems diametrically opposed to being an artist. So, I was grateful.
This interview has been edited and condensed.