FrightFest 2023 - Interview with Nick Psinakis co-director and co-writer of Cheat

James Whittington
August 24, 2023

FrightFest 2023 is underway and so is our series of interviews with creatives involved in some of the movies being shown. We start with a chat with Nick Psinakis who is the co-writer and co-director of CHEAT which is receiving its world premiere today.

NYX: Where did the idea for Cheat come from?

NP: A lot of our inspiration for Cheat derives from our nostalgic film experiences from childhood. Movies that were fun, terrifying but also had a moral dilemma at its core. We were definitely inspired by John Carpenter’s Halloween, as well the The Ring and more recently It Follows. We knew we wanted the film to have a supernatural element pretty early on but we weren’t exactly sure what that was going to be. Kevin and I started the process by brainstorming,trying to come up with some type of a “universal hook”, if you will. What was something that everyone could relate to on a deeper level? We landed on the complexities of relationships and more specifically cheating on a partner.While there is an inherent moral obligation we all have, it isn’t always just black and white. Our hope was to tap into people’s thoughts, fantasies and ultimately fears on the subject matter. Eventually, we felt like that was a good place to start when crafting the film.

NYX: Did the script change much as you wrote it?

NP: The script was always changing and evolving. When we first start out, on any script, Kevin and I attempt to hit the major story beats in a treatment. But most of the time you really start making headway once you are in the thick of writing the actual script. I think the Duplass Brothers coined the phrase“vomit draft” as to say “just get it out of your head”. It’s another term for1st draft, I assume, but vomit draft makes more sense to us. We just throw every and any idea in our head out there. Eventually, we can look at it more objectively and starting shaping it. In terms of flexibility with the script, Kevin and I are very open, especially once we start shooting. We want the actors to make the words their own. We are never precious with it. Finding some truth along with the essence of what the scene is conveying is much more important than any specific dialogue we have written.  

NYX: What is your process when writing and directing as a team?

NP: Kevin and I have been working together for so long at this point that all ego has gone out the door. We finish each others sentences which certainly annoys our significant others but ultimately we both just want what’s best for the film. I think we are lucky in that regard. Our process, from the outside looking in,probably appears to be quite schizophrenic but it makes perfect sense to us. In general terms, one of us usually comes up with a broad idea, whether that be a world, characters or theme. Then once we agree that we want to commit to writing it, we’ll split up scenes. Each one of us usually has a strong idea for certain moments or scenes and we’ll start there. That is usually followed by a lot of printing and hanging images for inspiration, whether it’s character or movie references or locations. Kevin will also put on some music that is relevant to the film’s tone while we write. As far as directing goes, on set we always deliberate with one another before relaying that information to actors or crew. If someone has a note after a take, we discuss it amongst ourselves then let that person who had the note deliver the information. We try hard to be efficient and not waste time. We’ll often look to each other and be like “you got anything?” And if the answer is no, we’re moving on. A lot of what makes that possible is that we have a lot of the same tastes in movies. We can quote a scene from an old movie and know exactly what the other is talking about. At the end of the day it’s all about openness and communication.    

NYX: The movie has a wonderful touch of the 80s to it, was that your intention from the start?

NP: Oh,most definitely and it’s good to hear you say that. Kevin and I are 80’sbabies, so we grew up on films from that decade and often reference them constantly. We did make a conscious effort for Cheat to look and feel like those older films. We are fans of Richard Vreeland aka Disaster peace and his work—and taking the approach of scoring our own films as Carpenter has, we tend to utilize modular synthesis quite a bit to meld both soft and aggressive tones within particular scenes we are working with. To create the visual sense of those older films that inspired us, we used 1970’s anamorphic lenses. This helped to create the feeling and mood we had associated with those films. The wide lenses, paired with longer Steadicam shots, help to achieve the feeling of being isolated, uneasy and that danger can come from anywhere. This was a common practice of that time period made popular by Carpenter, creating the feeling that someone or something is always watching.

NYX: Was it all shot on location and if so, what challenges did this bring?

NP: We shot everything on location in Warren, Pennsylvania which is actually Kevin’s home town. We definitely prefer to shoot everything on location whenever possible and find that it actually brings more positives than challenges.There’s something about shooting in actual locations that genuinely makes them feel lived in, because they are, and that definitely transfers over to the screen. There’s nothing worse than seeing a film where they are clearly shooting on a constructed set. It just takes the audience out of it and it can dilute the illusion that these people are real and living in this moment, int his environment. We are very fortunate to have the community support us filming there. It really makes a world of difference.

NYX: The movie asks a lot of questions such as morality, is it ever right to cheat etc,would you agree this lifts the movie above other horror movies as its not just a straight forward horror movie experience?

NP: We hope that it lifts it above or makes it stand out as something different and original. While we love the fun and scares that horror movies traditionally provide,we believe good movies, in any genre, always come back to story. None of the jump scares, killing scenes or chase sequences mean as much if you don’t care about the characters. Audiences are getting smarter. If the movie doesn’t have a backbone based in story, no one is going to care. Kevin and I really prefer some ambiguity in our story telling as well. We like to present a lot of questions to the audience but we never want to tell them how to feel about any certain thing. If the film provokes some thought and people have their own interpretations of what it all means, then that’s a huge win for us. We much rather have people come up with their own conclusions then wrap everything up in a neat little bow.

NYX: Are all the effects practical?

NP: Yes.And no. LOL. We always start with a practical application on every effect on the shoot day, then we will enhance it with VFX in post to help amplify the desired effect. We never want to deny technology as it can provide great tools to help with story telling (especially on an indie budget) but we prefer not to use CGI whenever possible. We grew up on 80’s movies like we mentioned and our job as filmmakers is to suspend disbelief. For us, this is the best way to do that while getting authentic horror moments that feel and look real.  

NYX: Did the budget restrict your vision and thus helped you to be even more creative?

NP: Always. Budget is always a factor. For as long as we have been working together, Kevin and I have had to reverse engineer our story based on budget and resources but it really forces you to be innovative and creative. It’s not always easy, but you do come up with things that you probably would never have even thought of if you were not forced to. So, I think that definitely creeps into our productions and hopefully adds an element of authenticity and originality. An example, without giving too much away, is when Charlie, one of our lead protagonists, is plagued with the job of decapitating someone or something. In no possible way could we afford to create an entire practical head and torso to be able to show that action. So instead, we just hold the shot on Charlie doing the action and never cut as blood splatters all over his face. We never show the head being cut off and by holding the shot on just Charlie, it makes the whole thing very uncomfortable. This also plays into the old adage, what your mind creates on it’s own is much more terrifying than anything we could show you on screen. So hopefully what the audience is imagining is much worse than what’s actually taking place.    

NYX: “If you stray, you pay” is an excellent tagline, who came up with that?

NP: Ha ha. It’s so funny you said that, because it started as somewhat of a joke and then Kevin and I were like “that actually might be good”. So much of creating, is throwing out ideas constantly, no matter how bad they might seem at the time.And through that you’d be amazed how many time you actually find some good ones. But truth be told, I think Kevin was pitching the story to his brother while drinking one night and his brother came up with it, half kidding and then obviously it stuck.

NYX: Corin Clay is definitely going to be a major star in the future, she brings an innocence to her role, did she audition?

NP: That’s so nice of you to say and we definitely agree with you. We lucked out with Corin. Her innocence and vulnerability were a huge reason why we cast her. It was so palpable to us. She did audition by submitting a self tape, like all the actors but it was obvious early on that she was a front runner. It was a tricky performance to navigate. She had to be mature enough to own all of her character’s decisions but still vulnerable enough for the audience to sympathize with her. At the end of the day she’s still only 21 and away from home in a foreign environment for the first time. Corin handled the role beautifully. She also happens to be an amazing person as well, which is always a lovely bonus.

NYX: Do you believe in an afterlife or anything paranormal?

NP: I’ll say that I don’t count anything out. I’m definitely a person that believes anything is possible, truly. There are so many things that just can’t be explained in this world. It’s too big, it’s too infinite, it’s too mysterious.That probably sounds as a cop out but let’s just say if an alien showed up at my front door with a dead relative of mine, I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised.  

NYX: What’s the most memorable urban legend you’ve heard about?

NP: I don’t know if it’s the most memorable, or maybe it is, because obviously I still remember it. And it’s not something I heard about, it’s actually something I watched. As random and not scary as this sounds, The Brady Bunch episode where they go to Hawaii and bring back a piece of sacred ground, or something they are not supposed to have (maybe it was a necklace), and are cursed by it for eternity. I’m sure, I’m butchering this episode’s description.But there was something so off tonally compared to other episodes, it stuck with me and quite frankly scared me as a child. There are a lot of urban legends in this vein and I suppose it has a good moral message to it. “Don’t take things that don’t belong to you”. A close second would probably be “The Jersey Devil”. Way back in 1735, a woman who lived in the expansive woods of Jersey’s secluded Pine Barrens cursed the birth of her thirteenth born child. Born a freak of nature, the bat-winged and cloven-hooved creature has been terrorizing the area ever since. Sightings became so widespread that it’s rumored that the Philadelphia Zoo posted a $10,000 reward for the capture of it. Kevin and I actually wrote a feature film based on this idea a while back but the film never made it into production.

NYX: Will you be nervous when the movie has its world premiere at FrightFest 2023?

NP: I think we are always nervous before a screening. Frightfest is very well known and attended which definitely adds a layer of pressure. You really never knowhow an audience is going to react to the film but that’s part of the excitement, especially with horror. You get so much instant feedback in the communal experience of watching a movie in a theater with a group of people.Fingers crossed, the feedback is positive on this one.

NYX: So, what are you working on at the moment?

NP: Right now a lot of our focus is on “Cheat”. We’re looking forward to a couple more festival screenings and then partnering with a like-minded distributer that will hopefully give the film the best chance at reaching the widest audience possible. As far as future projects, Kevin and I are working on two more horror feature film scripts. Our hope is to shoot them both in 2024. Our company, Four Eighteen Films, is small but growing. The long term goal is to be able to not only direct our own movies but produce and support other filmmakers we believe in.

NYX: Nick Psinakis, thank you very much.