Paul Shoulberg adapts ‘So Cold the River’ with one major change

Paul Shoulberg and Michael Koryta Credit: Ian McSpadden Photography
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From award-winning writer and director Paul Shoulberg, comes So Cold the River, a suspenseful adaptation of a book by the same name, from New York Times bestseller and Indiana author Michael Koryta. So Cold the River is the highest-scale movie made in Indiana since “Rudy” (1993). 

In the film, documentary filmmaker Erica Shaw, played by Bethany Joy Lenz (“Dexter” & “One Tree Hill”) 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. While researching Bradford as a guest of a massive, opulent resort with a dark past, Erica begins to uncover a dark familial curse that unleashes unspeakable evil.

Check out my interview with Paul!

What attracted you to this story to adapt it to film?

Paul: It’s an excellent novel. It’s so rich and what I loved about it is you don’t see- I’ve lived in Indiana since 2011 and I also went to grad school here before then, but you don’t see a lot of ghost story type of stuff set in locations that are very real. There’s always the fictional Indiana like in “Stranger Things,” where it’s just vaguely in Indiana, but it has nothing to do with Indiana. And just having a story that is so well written, and so well known about a specific place, that really drew me in. And I didn’t know about those hotels, I’d heard about them and I knew there was a casino down there, but I’d only heard about these places, I never really knew anything about them. So just in reading the story, it drew me into such a sense of place. And then once I knew that this was an actual project, and I could pitch it to the author, I got really excited. As a filmmaker, that location is… I’m used to making movies in in coffee shops and bars and apartments and houses, you know, like small affordable locations. Then to have a space like this was just, it was too tempting not to at least take a swing at it and see if  I could talk the author into letting me do it.

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Did you get to work with the author quite a bit? 

Paul: He was an executive producer on this and very involved. I pitched him and then every single outline before even a word was written in the script, we would go over. I would write it, go to him, he would give me thoughts, I’d go back…  He oversaw that whole process, every cut of the film, every person we cast, everything. He was involved and in the best kind of way. He was in line with the vision that I had for it and supported that vision all along the way. I don’t think he would have had me do it if he didn’t. And so it was really cool to have the author there at every step to encourage me to veer away from the novel in places where I was holding on because I liked the source material so much and had so much respect for it. He would say, ‘that doesn’t work in a movie, though, and you know it doesn’t. Let’s change that.’ He would just give me that freedom and it’s kind of a rare thing to have a novelist that understands the difference between what works in a book and what works in a film and it was great to have him there.

For fans of the book, how does the story compare?

Paul: It’s a pretty significant change in that the book is over 500 pages, and it’s 500 action packed pages, not two people sitting around talking for 400 pages and then something happens. There’s tornadoes, there are explosions, and there is a lot of time jumping. I mean, you go back in time a lot. And these are all things that, you know, we had the hotels, which gives us a production value, but we were still working on a very, very independent film budget. There were just so many things we couldn’t do from a practical side, but also in 90 minutes. I didn’t want to do a three hour movie. That still wouldn’t satisfy what the book was doing. I first talked to Michael about what was important to him about the novel and what things he wanted to carry over into the film, but then I narrowed it thematically. It’s really a horror film about ambition. The book is about 50 different things, as novels do that really well. I prefer films that streamline every single scene that wasn’t about ambition, every character that didn’t either support that or offer conflict against that, they had to kind of all be modified to fit that singular theme. And the book is way more expansive as, again, as novels are supposed to be and so I’ve narrowed it down drastically.

Obviously, I changed the gender of the two main characters. They’re both men in the book, and they’re both women in the film. That’s the change that everybody that knows the book seems to be talking about the most.When I pitched this, I did not want to make another movie about a tortured madman tormenting everyone in their path and where we have every single woman in the film was a victim, because in this film, our lead is manipulating the world around her and everyone is sort of having to go against or negotiate how to exist in this person’s space. It is Erica’s world and Erica’s movie and you don’t get to see women play that sort of character, especially in genre. They’re often victims for 90% of the movie and then at the end they either overcome or not overcome. I thought it would be way more interesting to just flip the gender of the main character and give the more interesting role to a woman to play. Luckily, Michael agreed that the material was strong enough and that it would work regardless, it wasn’t tied to like, this is what it’s like to be a man in a hotel. It was about the hotel. It was about the lore surrounding it and mythology and supernatural elements and about ambition, and those aren’t gender specific qualities. 

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I had no idea that the main character was supposed to be a man. Has the feedback been mostly positive?

Paul: We all have our favorite books and we’re never happy, but a lot of times they would say like, ‘I enjoyed the movie, it just wasn’t the book and that upsets me,’ which it makes perfect sense. If you’ve lived with a certain version of the story, obviously that change is going to be big. I expected more negative feedback from the fans of the book. Again, it’s strange, but I feel like people are way more locked in on the gender switch than all the other stuff which says a lot about our expectations of film, in general, but storytelling, who can and who can’t occupy certain spaces in certain stories, and that seems to be the biggest thing. I think, in general, the response has been positive for the changes, although again, you can find plenty of diehards that were angry when they saw the trailer.

I’m inspired to read the book now.

Paul: Yeah, you should definitely read it. It’d be really interesting too, because now there’s gonna be people that know the movie first and they’re gonna read the book and be like, ‘what!’ It’s very different for sure.

The hotel is beautiful. Was the entire film shot on location?

Paul: Yeah, there’s a hospital scene that we shot in Paoli, and there’s a couple things like that, but yeah, everything was shot in and around the West Baden area.

What was it like to live in that space, but also to live in like a fictional space within that space?

Paul: It was very meta and very strange to be a filmmaker in the hotel making a movie about a filmmaker in the hotel about ambition. And what’s more ambitious than trying to make a movie in a hotel that size? The layers were always present and for the first couple of weeks, they closed down the hotel, so it was just us. Our DP lit that atrium, because it takes forever to light, so once you get the lighting up there, you leave it that way until you’re done. You can’t break that down every night. Her and her team are amazing and what they did with that space, that kind of ominous light that they threw into that atrium, to walk in at two in the morning and be in there by yourself and not hear a single sound in that building with that kind of lighting, yeah, that messed with me quite a bit. And I just kind of leaned into it.

Is there anything else you would like to say about So Cold the River?

Paul: The movie is on all major digital platforms. And it’s in various theaters at the moment. I hope people go see it.

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So Cold the River is available Digitally and On-Demand