Michael Koryta’s ‘So Cold The River’ comes full circle with film adaptation

Writer Michael Koryta Credit: Ian McSpadden Photography
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Michael Koryta’s “The New York Times” bestseller, “So Cold The River,” has been adapted for the screen by Paul Shoulberg

In this chilling, suspenseful adaptation, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Erica Shaw (Bethany Joy Lenz, “Dexter”) is hired by Alyssa Bradford-Cohen (Alysia Reiner, “Orange is the New Black”) to profile her dying father-in-law, the enigmatic millionaire Campbell Bradford. Erica is presented with a substantial sum of money and a relic, an antique bottle filled with water from a local spring, one of the few clues connecting Bradford to the town he once dominated. While researching Bradford as a guest of a massive, opulent resort with a dark past, Erica meets unofficial town historian Anne McKinney (Tony Award-winner Deanna Dunagan), fanatical intern Kellyn (Katie Sarife, Annabelle Comes Home) and hotel maintenance worker Josiah (Andrew J. West, “The Walking Dead”), a descendant of Bradford’s who reveals the familial curse of mysterious deaths and suicides. Seemingly possessed by the relic, Erica begins drinking from the antique bottle, experiencing terrifying visions and, ultimately, unleashing unspeakable evil. Can Erica make her way through the darkness or is Campbell’s evil undercurrent too strong?

Check out my interview with Michael!

How did you come up with the story?

Michael: You know, it’s the rare book where I actually have an answer to that question, usually I would struggle with it. But So Cold The River is a story that comes almost entirely from the place itself, which is this incredible resort. It’s a surreal and fundamentally creepy structure in the middle of nowhere in rural Indiana. It was once the largest freestanding dome in the world and so it was built in, like 190, 1902 and it had less than 30 years as sort of a heyday run and when the 29 market crash happened, it just emptied out. And the first time I saw it, I was about eight years old. I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, so about a little over an hour away and I went down there with my parents. At that point in time, the place was just this gutted, crazy ruin and it’s a strangely vivid memory from childhood because it just didn’t fit the landscape at all. And then you also have that ruined component of it. So there are immediately these questions, you know, how did this thing ever come to exist and then just what happened to it? I was probably in my late teens, early 20s when they began the restoration process that the Cook family undertook. I think it was like $500 million, maybe $600 million to complete the restoration and seeing that bridge between the present and the past was just so intriguing to me as a storyteller that I thought I have to write about this place. And once you’re down there a little bit, you realize that it just seems to demand a ghost story. It has that quality of the past right there living in the present. So, it was my first attempt at a ghost story and probably the most authentic book in terms of research that I’ve ever done, because I cared very much about getting all of the details right of the place and the community. So, I was just down in the weeds of research there for a few years and really enjoyed it.

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How much time did you actually spend with the hotel while you were in this process?

Michael: I was down there on a regular basis.The one great thing, there are many great things about that community, but for a writer, it has such a rich history and mythology and all these bizarre things happened there, FDR announcing his run for the presidency or Al Capone coming down. I mean, there are all these great stories and people in that area they’ve called the area Springs Valley. The locals have an excellent knowledge of their history and they like to talk to people and they like to talk to writers about it. So I spent a lot of time down there. The hotel was a central component of the book but the region was sort of a wider setting in the book than in the film. We needed to have the hotel as the dominant set piece to the point where it really needs to feel like a character unto itself. And I think Paul Shoulberg, our writer director, did an amazing job of capturing that it’s always present as a character.

That’s one thing that I noticed is that it did seem like its own character because it was so prominent in every single scene. I guess my question with that is like what does it take to make a location a character? 

Michael: From the film standpoint, I don’t have the ideal answer, because there was so much on a technical level that Paul and Madeline, our Director of Photography, achieved that I don’t even understand. But from a story level, it’s allowing the structure to kind of exist in a way that emotionally affects the other characters. Anne McKinney (Deanna Dunagan) is deeply tied to that place and its rebirth is very symbolic to her of the way she feels about the resilience of her own town, and really of her own family. To other characters like Josiah (Andrew J. West), it kind of looms as a symbol of this great thing that was right within reach, it was right there at your fingertips. I think that’s Andy West’s line, and he just nails that line in his sort of monologue. So it’s making the building feel emotionally significant to many different characters.

I also think it was important to have the narrator of the story, it was Eric Shaw in the book, Erica Shaw in the film, played really well by Bethany Joy Lenz, be an outsider. You can bounce their reaction to, sort of what I was explaining earlier, when the first time you see there’s a bizarre quality with a lot of questions and just make sure that all of those things are tied so you’re knocking over emotional dominoes, essentially. And then visually, it looms in very unique ways, beyond the beauty and the grandeur of it. Everything is a circle, everything’s always curving, you never get a straight visual line in that place. To me, it’s creepy, but it’s also just something that we don’t encounter on the day to day. To just exist on a circle at all times, is so symbolically rich for a writer, but the camera also loves it. Once you figure out how to shoot it, it’s very difficult to shoot, but it creates that sense of there’s always something in front of you and behind you at the same point in time. And I think that they did a beautiful job of layering that in and just letting the camera speak for itself.

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What was it like getting to shoot in the location that the story is also set in?

Michael: For me, that was one of the more special experiences I’ve had in my professional life. We were able to have the premiere screened in the atrium of that hotel, and it’s funny, in answering your last question, I’m talking about circles and the things ahead of you and the things behind you and that’s one of the qualities that the building brings and for me, that premiere and the opportunity to shoot anything down there had that quality. It’s where the story originated and it was a book that in some ways ended up changing my career, thus changing my life. And a lot of places, you know, a lot of studios are not going to come out to shoot in a place like West Baden Springs, Indiana, they’re just not going to do it. So, they’ll try to find a way to take sort of the heart of your story and prop it up on a set that maybe looks cool, maybe they’ll get some on location shots, maybe they’ll CGI it and try to paint some things so it feels like it has a quality of the place. But it’s never going to actually be the place. To have the entire production basically shot there, it touches on all those elements that I mentioned earlier about the resilience of the community and that sense of loss. That hotel was a symbol of hard times and lost dreams, I don’t think that’s too much hyperbole, it was a symbol of lost dreams for decade, and now it’s back. And to see the way it has rejuvenated a community and injected money and jobs and hope back into this place, it really was incredibly special for me to have the opportunity to not only shoot down there but to also have the premiere there.

In turning your book into a movie, how did the conversation of ‘let’s make this a movie’ kind of start?

Michael: Actually, it was Pete Yonkman, who’s one of our executive producers. Pete’s a dear friend of mine and he was aware of a group called Pegasus Pictures that was in Bloomington trying to make feature films in Indiana. They made a movie called The Good Catholic and they were working on one called Ms. White Light. Paul Shoulberg wrote and directed those, so he did become familiar with these guys and he suggested I take a look at their stuff. Pete was obviously aware of the book and he’s the president of Cook Group, which ultimately owns the resorts and there’s a lot of overlap there. It kind of started as this crazy conversation about, ‘I wonder if we could make it happen down there,’ and as I got deeper into talking about key scenes in the book and realizing how much of the set, beyond the hotel, was just kind of sitting down there. The train, the tunnel, that gray creepy Pluto Water boxcar with the devil painted on the side of it, and anyone watching the movie would probably think, ‘Okay, this is a neat paint job that they did as a prop.’ No, that boxcar is actually just sitting down there on the track, and the casino… I mean, all of those things were kind of waiting to be used, which allowed us to think bigger on a small budget. I got to meet Zachary Spicer, who’s the Pegasus founder, and we all kind of agreed to go off to the races and try it. But I have to admit there were many times early on when I was thinking, I don’t know if it can work. You hear so many horror stories about independent films. And not only did we pull it off, but we got really, really lucky. I think the wrap party happened, I think it was a matter of days before the first pandemic lockdown. If that had rolled along, you know, five weeks earlier than the whole shoot is just  blown up and I have no idea what would have happened then. So we were very fortunate with regard to timing.

That is a close call.

Michael: Yes, it was! And it was far enough along that people were talking about it. There was the sense that, you know, it was not going to be just like a SARS type scare, but certainly no one could have imagined the level of shutdown. I remember at the wrap party, we were all you know, in great moods and going off to our separate corners of the world and it was with the plan that people would get back together in a couple months to do some reshoots of different scenes down in areas like the river where shooting in February in Indiana in water was not ideal. The unions get really paranoid about hypothermia, I don’t understand it. But everybody just left with this sense of, ‘yeah, we’ll see each other soon,’ and obviously that didn’t happen. So the post production team scrambled to figure out how to do things remotely, which was a challenge but compared to what it might have been had it rolled along, it really was pretty fortunate.

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You also have another book that was adapted for film, Those Who Wish Me Dead. That came out last year. 

Michael: Yeah, that came out last May and it was when most states were technically reopened for theaters. I don’t think California was yet. I don’t know about New York. But that was a kind of fun experience where it’s like, okay, it’s in theaters but no one wants to go back yet. So, timing, again, less than ideal, but it was at least out into the world.

You were executive producer on this film, but you are credited as a writer for that film, so how does your experience working on these films compare?

Michael: Oh, I would say So Cold The River was a lot more fun because, you know, as an EP, if people don’t like things I can just point at Paul and blame him for everything. It’s a great stress reliever. In seriousness, this was more fun. Because I was so involved with every aspect of the process and, you know, we’re propping it up from this kind of flyover state where you don’t see a lot of projects like this made. I think there was just really good energy around it. Those Who Wish Me Dead was a very exciting experience and it meant a lot to me to see it realized in the form that it was. But as you mentioned, I did have the writing experience on that, where I’m seeing part of my personal vision for it realized, but not the whole thing. So there were those extra frustrations where, whether you’re right or wrong, doesn’t matter, emotionally you’re kind of reacting to like, ‘dammit. I wish I’d seen this choice realized or why didn’t they have that?’ So this project was much easier to just kind of sit back and enjoy. And also working with Paul, he’s such a confident writer that he allowed great access. He was always willing to have a conversation with me to explain his choices to allow me to have some input. With that back and forth, I learned a lot from Paul and as I said, it takes a unique level of confidence as a writer to let someone peer over your shoulder, let alone someone who wrote the book that you’re adapting. I wouldn’t have blamed him at all if he had said, ‘I need to do this with the door shut.’ I would understand that but he really let me in close and I think because of that I just have an extra level of fondness for the project.

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How did you come up with the title So Cold The River?

Michael: I’m trying to think… even with the book, if anyone ever asked me, you’ll get a more long winded answer than probably you would expect. It was the planned title of my second book, which was going to be a private detective novel set in Cleveland. I had a scene in mind where a guy would be found, a dying person would be pulled out of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, the one that famously burned, and there would be no identification, no clue who he was but he would have my private detective’s business card on him. And I was just thinking about the scene and thinking about what he would say is they’re trying to get a talk. And in my mind, I was picturing winter in Cleveland, and I just wanted him to say something that was nonsense. And so I got that phrase, ‘so cold,’ and I’m picturing like, he’s, you know, teeth chattering and he’s saying, ‘the river,’ and, ‘so cold,’ and he can’t make any sense, he can’t answer any questions. Then he dies. So, I kind of pitched a book with that idea, but I never wrote it.

To come back to “So Cold The River,” the book that was published years later and I titled it, “The Lost River.” Part one was called “So Cold The River” and I have a guy in the hospital saying that line. And my publisher, my editor, it was the first time I’d worked with him, we were about to go to press on the galleys and he said, ‘I really liked the title of part one. Would you be willing to consider that for the book?’ That just cracked me up because I’d always thought it was a really good title for a book. So I said, ‘Absolutely!’ And meanwhile, there are, I think, three copies out in the world of this bound manuscript titled “The Lost River.” I have one, I know my old college roommate has one, and then I believe Stephen King, of all people. I doubt he still has it, but the third was sent to him. So yeah, it was a last minute title change, but that’s my long, rambling answer. It all came from Cleveland. It’s all Ohio born in the end.

Why was a copy sent to Stephen King?

Michael: Publishers will send out books to people that they hope will read it and offer a quote. So Michael Connelly, actually Connelly has one, I know has one because I’ve seen it. There were just a handful of very early readers that they put the book out to and he was on that list. If it ever reached him, I don’t know. But he’s ended up being a huge supporter and he’s a genuinely good guy. He’s a humble, down to earth person, but he’s been a nice champion of my work for sure which has been, you know, you talk about special things you experience professionally, that’s up there at the top.

Do you think that you two would ever collaborate on something?

Michael: I’ve never collaborated with another writer except on scripts. But if my phone rang today and it was Stephen King with an idea, I would probably say yes. I would take that call. I mean, it’d be a no brainer. I have some friends who actually have collaborated with him and he’s apparently, by all reputation that I’ve heard, he’s actually a pretty easy guy to work with.

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So Cold The River is available Digitally and On-Demand