The Girl with the Photographs was the last film Wes Craven produced before his death from brain cancer on August 30, 2015. The disturbing movie tells the story of a young girl named Colleen, who receives photo after photo that depict violent scenes of the murder of young women. The police struggle to prove whether the photographs are genuine. As it turns out, they are. The grisly snapshots are the work of serial murderer Tom, played by Luke Baines—who in real life is as passionate about photography as he is about horror movies.
We spoke to Luke about what it’s like to play such a demented role and what his experience was like working with horror master Wes Craven on his last film.
The documenting of a crime seems to go against the idea of avoiding evidence, but many serial killers kept mementos or prizes from their kills. Were there any notorious real life serial killers that you studied in preparing for this role?
I was lucky enough to interview a brilliant professor of criminal psychology from John Jay College, Dr. Louis Schlesinger, and I also read a book called Whoever Fights Monsters by Robert K. Ressler. Ressler was the FBI’s first criminal profiler and was responsible for coining the term “serial killer.” One of the things I picked up was that these types of serial murders are most frequently based on a fantasy of some kind, usually a sexual one, so keeping a souvenir from the kill is commonplace because it helps the killer relive the act. I was really shocked to discover that when incarcerated, inmates are entitled to review the evidence in their crime as part of their defense, and they often use crime scene photos to gratify themselves. Disturbing as it is, for me, that spoke to the power a memento holds, so I made sure to treat the photos as such when playing Tom. Each picture was a work of art for him, and the aesthetic was important because it helped him tap into his own personal fantasy.
What was it like to work with Wes Craven?
Wes was involved every step of the way—from the initial script, right through to the picture lock—however he wasn’t able to make it to set as we shot in Canada and he was unwell at the time. So he’d watch dailies and give notes, and was a true mentor in every sense to our director, Nick Simon. The first time I met him was at our table read, and my impression was that he was much gentler than the image I’d created in my mind of a horror icon. He was sweet, and attentive. He apparently started out as a teacher, and I could definitely see that in him.
Are you a horror fan? What’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?
I think the “scariest movie” I’ve ever seen depends on when you ask me. Growing up, movies like IT and Poltergeist scared the living shit out of me. Then Scream when I was a little older—I didn’t sleep for days after that, so my mum banned me from watching anymore horrors. Also probably because I kept taunting my sister with “candyman, candyman, candyman, candyman, CANDYMAN” in the bathroom. Nowadays, I do love watching a good slasher for the jump scares, but it’s movies like The Silence of The Lambs and The Last House on the Left that really frighten me. It’s the creep factor that gets under my skin.
We don’t see your face until 30 minutes into the film. As an actor, what’s it like to work behind a mask?
It was interesting. You can’t really see much so it’s challenging, especially when you’re trying to hit a mark or pick something up. Initially I thought it would be great because I wouldn’t have to have hair and make up done, and a stunt guy would do most of the “heavy lifting,” but Nick wanted it to always be me under the mask because it felt more authentic, and I’m glad he did because when I took off the mask, it felt very different performance-wise, and that was an extra little something I could play with.
Did you spend much time with the rest of the cast or were you (and the actor that played Gerry) isolated for effect?
No, absolutely not. We were the tightest of casts. From the first table read, we all swapped numbers and would text each other all the time. Dubsmash had just come out so we were annoying each other constantly with it. Then when we got to location, we all stayed in the same hotel, so it was like summer camp. We’d shoot together almost every day and then have dinners at night, go dancing, hiking, karaoke … all of the things. It was unlike any working experience I’ve ever had, and I’m seriously considering tattooing all of their names on my forehead!
Did this part get under your skin? How were you effected by it?
At times, yes, and that was something I hadn’t really prepared myself for. It’s one thing to act creepy and lurk in the shadows, but when there’s another human being opposite you crying and screaming, it goes against everything in your body not to try and help them. There was one night where we had to pull Katharine Isabelle’s stunt person (Maja Aro) out the backseat of a car, and they couldn’t use pads because it was an overhead shot. Every time she came out, she would hit the pavement and the sound of her bones against it sent me into a spin. Apparently I audibly gasped the first time and the director had to pull me aside and tell me to pull it together. Maja was so lovely, she kept laughing and telling me to relax, trying to placate me, meanwhile she’s the one bleeding.
As a model, I’m sure you’ve experienced your fair share of creepy photographers. What was the weirdest encounter you’ve ever had?
Ha, yes. They’re pretty much as common as cameras. I once had a shoot request that came directly to me, rather than through my agency. The photographer had a great concept and cool portfolio so I thought why not. She wanted to shoot in the abandoned zoo in Griffith Park (LA) at night … and it only became worrying to me when I was there … Alone. Just me and her. In a cage. With no way out. Luckily for me, she was a legend and the shoot turned out great. But there was definitely a few minutes where I thought it was all over.
How did it feel to be on the other end of the camera for this film?
It was great. I did photography fairly intensively in high school and university, so it’s always been a passion. It was nice to be able to apply what I learned, but also have something that’s so connected to the character. The photographs are very important to Tom, so it was important to me that the camera wasn’t just a prop and our director agreed, so we used a real camera. Some of the photos I took actually ended up in the film.
The film opens with a William Burroughs quote about the obscene nature of photography. And Kal Penn seems to be playing a version of Terry Richardson in this film, and there’s discussion of “dead looking models.” What kind of message do you think that kind of fashion photography sends to women? Is there indeed something innately obscene about photography?
I think photography is a tool, and just like any other tool—knife, pen, paintbrush—there’s a chance for it to be used obscenely or exploitatively. I don’t think it’s the medium though, it’s the people behind it. It’s human kind. We’re the ones who take it to a dark place, or a good place, or somewhere in between.
All Stills from "The Girl in the Photographs" via Vertical Entertainment