Writer and director Kevin Kopacka joins E.L. King for a chat about his love of horror and his feature gothic horror film Dawn Breaks Behind The Eyes.
In August, we had the opportunity to attend the world premiere of Dawn Breaks Behind The Eyes (2021) virtually at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival. Initially drawn to its Giallo-flare and neon-tinted vibrancy, we couldn't have anticipated what a splendid blend of gothic horror and the psychedelic the viewing experience would be. The film is a seductive dalliance combined with a splash of erotic terror cloaked in the style of a classic 1970s horror film focused on the chilling atmosphere and gothic aesthetic. It's the second feature film directed by Austrian and Sri Lankan director and painter, Kevin Kopacka. Based in Berlin, Kopacka's projects have a strong focus on aesthetics, atmosphere, visual language and unique narrative forms.
His films have screened at numerous international festivals such as Cannes, Raindance and The Artist's Forum. No stranger to horror, his debut feature film HAGER (2020) was also an exploration in fear. Dawn Breaks Behind The Eyes recently had its theatrical world premiere at Arrow Video FrightFest in London. The film is about a couple that spend eternity in a castle until their reality starts to shift, as the unknown moves into their lives. It's a unique viewing experience. We were thrilled to speak with Kopacka for an interview before the film heads to other festivals including Salem Horror Fest for its Northeast Premiere on October 8, 2021, at Cinema Salem. Festival badges are now available. In our interview, we get an exclusive look at the mind, man and horror enthusiast behind the camera.
E.L. King: Kevin, welcome. We are thrilled to have you here to chat with us about horror and Dawn Breaks Behind The Eyes. How did you discover your love of horror?
Kopacka: I actually, think I was kind of born with my interest for horror because when I was three years old, my parents took me on vacation and there was this huge skeleton that I was kind of obsessed with and I just bugged them so much until they bought it for me. I think that was kind of when my obsession with horror started. So, when I was three or four, I started drawing mummies and werewolves and vampires, and yeah, my parents were a bit worried, but I think they kind of thought, at least it's a creative hobby for me. So yeah, it's basically, since I can remember, actually.
E.L. King: How did you initially get into writing horror stories and filmmaking? Horror seems like a consistent theme in a lot of your work.
Kopacka: Yes. Uh, I actually moved to Berlin when I was 19 and I studied fine art. That's actually what I'd been doing with most of my time until I turned 27. During my studies of fine arts, I always used to do short films and directed a few. At some point it just felt a lot more natural to switch to filmmaking full-time. Then I kind of abandoned painting even though I would still like to do it, but, uh, it's kind of hard to focus on two things with the same amount of focus at once.
It's interesting because as I mentioned, I had this big obsession with horror, but when I started studying art, I kind of put it away with the idea of arts and horror, thinking, it's not possible to combine the two. Especially when I was studying art in Berlin and everything's a lot about concept art and really intellectualized. So, I was kind of intimidated by using my horror influences in my work, but after a while, it just kind of gradually slipped through and it kind of became more and more of the things I wanted to work with. So, yeah, I was doing short films and at some point I was just thinking, okay, I enjoy being in the arts world, but I think what would make me the happiest actually would be to direct horror films because it's just kind of my passion. I do like the idea to combine, you know, the artistic elements into the genre of horror. So yeah, it just kind of happened and yeah, I've been a lot more happy actually doing horror films than, uh, trying to hide it while it was painting.
E.L. King: Tell us about Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes, what can audiences who’ve read and seen nothing about it expect when sitting down to screen the film?
Kopacka: I think, it's best to go in as blind as possible. A brief summary would be that it's a Gothic horror story set in the early seventies that tells the story of a relationship in an unexpected way. I think that's about as spoiler-free as it goes, but it's very much influenced of course by Euro-horror from the sixties and seventies.
"When I was young, I was kind of used to the idea that horror was, you know, bloodshed and mo nsters and things like that. So, I was kind of intrigued by [gothic horror]."
E.L. King: Did Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes take long to pen with your writing partner Lili Villányi?
Kopacka: Yeah. Actually we didn't have that much time for the whole thing because we, um, we started writing it in October 2017. At this point, we just had a rough idea for the film and what it could look like and we went up to the castle to inspect it in October and yeah, we just fell in love with the castle Herrenhaus Vogelsang in Lalendorf, Germany.
Basically they said, this is only one moment where we're allowed to be able to shoot because the castle would get sanitized afterwards. So, this was kind of it. So, basically we had half a year to finish the script and do all the casting and the production. It was a bit of a deadline, but I think in this case, sometimes it just works a lot better if you have a deadline. You kind of know you have all this energy that you need to complete it and it kind of brings this certain magic element to it.
E.L. King: How did you find the fantastic castle location? It really sets the tone within the opening of the film.
Kopacka: I was lucky! I actually knew of the castle through my former flatmate 'cause she knows the owners and it's also a young couple quite open to supporting independent projects. So, we went up to inspect it and it was really cool to kind of see all the assets the castle had because it has a lot already with the interior design, which was amazing, and all the props they had. We didn't need to bring much and there were also a lot of animals near the castle, as you can see in the movie there were peacocks, white rabbits, and even pigs, spiders and cats. Once we saw that, we were of course able to incorporate everything into the script. It was quite cool to see the basic layout of the castle. There's a huge hole in one section, which as you know, we could use for a certain scene. With that in mind, we were able to kind of script the whole thing.
E.L. King: You'd said in a previous interview that Dawn Breaks Behind The Eyes is your love letter to Gothic horror films of the 60s and 70s and that you drew inspiration from filmmakers like Mario Bava and his film The Whip and the Body among others. What drew you to the Gothic horror genre?
Kopacka: It's actually funny, I think my, my interest for Gothic horror started in a different way. Not necessarily through the Gothic horror movies, but when I was a kid, I remember that I had this one book, like an anthology of ghost stories and on the cover, it was just this, what I know now was kind of these classic Gothic horror motifs. You had the woman in the nightgown, she was standing outside with candles and in the back, you could see a castle and there was like an old lady staring at the woman.
When I was young, I was kind of used to the idea that horror was, you know, bloodshed and monsters and things like that. So, I was kind of intrigued by this picture that just had this certain atmosphere. Even though nothing bad happens, It still was this unsettling idea of all these things that lurk in the corners. So, actually from this book cover, I kind of became very interested in the Gothic horror genre. Then it kind of went over to literature and then of course, Gothic horror movies as well.
I think in general, I just really like, atmosphere. I think also when I'm painting I enjoy the idea of creating an atmosphere and that the atmosphere is sort of a protagonist in the story as well. It has an equal importance to narrative elements for instance and Gothic horror is one of the horror sub-genres that of course is carried a lot by atmosphere and by mystery and sexuality and desire. Also allegories, of course the castle, it can represent a lot of psychological things. So yeah, that's why I've always been drawn to that certain sub-genre.
E.L. King: What other film influences inspired you in creating Dawn Breaks Behind The Eyes?
Kopacka: I think one of the main inspirations is The Iron Rose (1973) from Jean Rollin. Have you seen that movie? It is quite cool. It's also not quite a horror movie. It's basically about a couple, a man and a woman who meet quite early in the film they are trapped in a cemetery the whole movie and it's basically just the two of them and how the dynamic of the relationship changes over the course of the movie. So that was the main inspiration for the movie actually, because the initial idea for the film was to have a film about a couple who spend eternity in a castle. That was kind of the main starting point and then the rest of the story kind of developed from it and yeah, The Iron Rose was a big inspiration and of course, a lot of other Jean Rollin movies.
He has a great mixture of this very fringe atmosphere and it's not a lot of bloodshed, a lot is implied, but it's also this erotic tension. I like those films a lot and of course, Bava and there's some other movies like The Legend of Hill House (1973). I also quite enjoy it because of the atmosphere. There's also this element with the black cats that's also mirrored in Dawn Breaks Behind The Eyes. So yeah, it's like a mixture of a lot of Euro-horror films from that time.
E.L. King: Growing up, did you also have an interest in creatures from the Gothic horror genre, like vampires for example or was it more ghosts, apparitions and things like that?
Kopacka: Oh, I think I was into vampires, of course and werewolves. Werewolves, they are not as often associated with the Gothic horror genre, but yeah, I think all the tropes I enjoy and the genre uses vampires a lot as a metaphor and I'm a big fan of all the creatures.
E.L. King: The film includes some stunning body horror scenes, a very cerebral psychedelic trip and dual narratives that somehow blend together perfectly. Once the final cut of the film came together, did it meet your expectations and fulfill the vision you had in mind?
Kopacha: I think the film changed quite a lot. The scripts we originally wrote and shot, I did the edit for it and the first cut was actually twice as long as the finished cut. It was two-hours and 20-minutes long and yeah, it didn't work at all. It was back to the drawing board and basically from that, I just kept editing and having test screenings and then waiting a few months. So, it took three years to finish, but it was kind of a thing that was alive, the editing process. I kind of had to rewrite the script while editing. So, it was a long process, but I'm kind of happy that I took the time to do it in a way that I'm really pleased with now. Even though the story has changed a bit from the initial script, I'm quite happy how it developed.
That's kind of a theme with all of my films. I write a script and I shoot it and I edit and notice, okay, it doesn't work the way I wrote it. So, I kind of need to get really creative in the editing phase. I like the process because at the end, the end result is something I would never be able to write. It kind of has these coincidental moments in between and yeah, it's a very different way to make films. It takes a lot longer and it's a bit more frustrating, but I think it makes for some interesting end results.
"My favorite horror movie is Della Morte: The Cemetery Man (1994) with Rupert Everett. He plays a person working in the graveyard who every time someone gets buried there, the people get raised from the dead again. So, he has to kill them twice basically. It's loosely based on this Italian comic called Dylan Dog, which is about a nightmare investigator and it's, you know, very European."
E.L. King: You made a lot of bold choices with this film, were you at all nervous to take chances that might only appeal to niche audiences?
Kopacka: I think of course, um, I didn't think about it as much at the time because I had this urge to do the film and I financed it myself. Then in the process, of course it kept costing a lot more. It kept getting bigger and bigger. So the initial idea, I didn't really think that it would have as much of an impact. So, now at the end, that's why I took a lot of risks. At the end I was like, okay, now I've invested so much time and effort, I need to see that it's also something that's not too much of a niche film, but also, um, a film that's for a niche audience. Yeah, it's kind of hard to say.
I'm curious also for people who are not interested in Gothic horror or horror in general, if it's a film that could be of interest to them. I always kept envisioning it as a film for couples to watch because you know, sometimes you have a couple where one person is more into horror and the other is not. Maybe it's a good combination especially for couples where only one of the two people are into horror movies.
E.L. King: Visually, the film has beautiful locations, breathtaking cinematography and evokes both glee and melancholy while blanketed in wonderful colors. How much planning went into setting the visual mood and tone of the film?
Kopacka: I think because the film is set into three or four stages, you could say. So, we had an initial, um, kind of a color palette. The first part is more in these dark blue colors and the second part is of course more in lighter and more vibrant colors. Then the third part, the more dreamy one gets back into this mixture of cold colors with a bit of warmth in them. So we had this visual concept and of course while shooting it some unforeseen things happened and we kind of change things around, but I was really lucky to work with a great crew.
Frederic Adam, who at some point I just trusted so much that I was just really looking forward to how he set up the lighting for each shot, because it felt like each day the shots became more and more beautiful. So, it was really exciting.
E.L. King: Do you have a favorite horror film and if so, what is it?
Kopacka: Oh yes. I actually have a list of my favorite horror movies. I think it's around 500 movies, but I have the first 20, kind of my top 20 and the rest are chronological. My favorite horror movie is Della Morte: The Cemetery Man (1994) with Rupert Everett. He plays a person working in the graveyard who every time someone gets buried there, the people get raised from the dead again. So, he has to kill them twice basically. It's loosely based on this Italian comic called Dylan Dog, which is about a nightmare investigator and it's, you know, very European. There's a lot of sex and gore and splatter, but it's also really artistic and poetic and Tiziano Sclavi the person who wrote Dylan Dog, actually wrote Cemetery Man and what's funny is that the character Dylan, he's based on Rupert Everett. So, for this film, he actually got Rupert Everett to play a different character, but he's kind of still in the same vein as Dylan Dog. The film has a very artistic, surreal quality to it, but it also has this really dark humor and splatter as well. It's this really interesting mixture that I quite like.
E.L. King: What horror filmmakers most influence your work?
Kopacka: Yeah, it's definitely a lot of the Italian horror directors. I would say for instance, Michele Soavi. Soavi who did Cemetery Man, he also directed four horror movies, which I really like a lot. Of course, you know, directors like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. Uh and Pupi Avati, he did a film called The House With The Laughing Windows (1976), which is also great, but I also really like eighties horror and, you know, Stuart Gordon, and also David Cronenberg. I think it's quite a lot of different, horror directors that inspire me, but yeah, I've always been drawn more towards the European and the atmospheric horror films.
E.L. King: Can we expect to see Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes making the rounds at any other festivals this year?
Kopacka: Yes, it's been accepted, I think to 12 film festivals so far. The next one is there's one in Germany which will actually be the German premiere. I'm kind of curious what that would be like because, uh, the film is of course, a German film, but I think Germans are maybe a bit more critical when it comes to films from their own country. The next one is Bloody Weekend in France, then Blodig Weekend in Copenhagen Denmark. It's an annual genre festival where they show scary, intense, fantastic, crazy and surprising genre films. We're also able to fly there actually. So I'll be able to be there in person, which is cool. Then afterwards at the Salem Horror Fest it's going to be shown.
E.L. King: So, you got the opportunity to attend the Arrow Video FrightFest in London in person?
Kopacka: Oh yes. It was cool. We were eight people. A lot from the cast and crew, we went there and it was always uncertain if we would be able to travel to London because the rules kept changing. Luckily everything worked out and yeah, it was really cool just to be five or six days in London and of course, to see the film on the IMAX screen, which is exciting and to meet a lot of horror fans. I think it was the first live film festival in the UK since the lockdown. So people were really excited. It wasn't as packed as it usually would be because a few people were still nervous of course of going to the cinema, but they had a digital event afterwards. So a lot of people still got to see the film. It was just cool also in front, like waiting in front of the cinema and you see all these people wearing these really cool horror shirts and you just kind of know, you know, their fellow horror fans.
E.L. King: Do you currently have anything else in the works that horror fans should be on the lookout for?
Kopacka: I'm currently writing two scripts and I'm not sure which one I prefer. It always keeps switching and one is a bit more similar to Dawn Breaks Behind The Eyes in the sense that it's also set in a mansion and, uh, yeah, I can't give too much away, but this would be more in my comfort zone. The other one is set in Mexico and it's kind of a paranormal road trip. It's a bit less typical of what I would usually do. So, I think I'm leaning more towards the second one to do something outside of my comfort zone, but yeah, these are still in the writing process. There have been some offers to produce the next feature film of mine, so that's exciting. So, yeah, that's why I'm kind of taking my time and trying to get the script right.
E.L. King: Of all the festivals you've attended, what's been your favorite festival film that you've seen so far?
Kopacka: Yes. My favorite was actually The Sadness (2021), from director Rob Jabbaz which is this really extreme Taiwanese horror film. Yeah, it was quite intense. I was really looking forward to that and I kind of spoke with Rob before we met at festivals, so it was cool to get to talk to him after the screening and ask him some questions. It's a really intense from, um, it's definitely an experience and yeah, it made me feel really uneasy watching it, which is actually a rare thing that happens to me because, I enjoy watching horror films, but it's kind of rare that I'm really emotionally invested in it in the sense that I feel this sense of dread.
E.L. King: Kevin, thank you so much for stopping by Slay Away, it was a pleasure. We look forward to having you back in the future, seeing Dawn Breaks Behind The Eyes again at Salem Horror Fest and seeing what comes next from you.
Kopacka: Thank you so much for the kind review and for giving me the chance to talk about the film and these nice questions. Thank you for having me.
We look forward to following Kevin Kopacka on his horror filmmaking journey as Dawn Breaks Behind The Eyes continues it's tour at festivals this year. Stay up-to-date with his work at kevinkopacka.com.