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FrightFest 2023: CHEAT Interview With Co-writer/Director Nick Psinakis

One of the most unshakable concepts I read about while looking through the FrightFest lineup was a new film from Nick Psinakis and Kevin Ignatius, the team behind last year’s The Long Dark Trail, about a killer apparition that hunts the unfaithful. The film, Cheat, took the writer-director duo out of the woods and into a more suburban setting, offering the inescapable horror of It Follows with the hurried investigation qualities of The Ring.

In Cheat, a small town is haunted by an abnormally large suicide rate stemming from the urban legend of a decades-old curse where infidelity is reckoned with a deadly fate. When college student Maeve (Corin Clay) sleeps with the man hosting her for the semester (Michael Thyer), they begin seeing a ghostly woman following them everywhere. Their only choice is to investigate the apparition or suffer the consequences.

Nick Psinakis joined me via Zoom to discuss his new film prior to its World Premiere at FrightFest on August 24. You can watch the entire interview or read snippets from the discussion below.

I began simply, asking Psinakis where the idea for Cheat came from:

“We were looking for something relatable and universal. We knew we wanted to explore this kind of supernatural ghost antagonist. So it kind of started there, and we were kind of toying with ideas of what could get people thinking maybe, or press on some, like, guilt button in certain people, where there’s not only the physical but the psychological kind of horror if you will. So that’s kind of where it started. And then Kevin and I were tossing around some ideas. The idea of—well, it’s not really infidelity, you know, because you don’t have to be married—but this idea of what that means and is that ever justified and what kind of different situations could we put people in that would make them think about it,  where it’s not so cut and dry […] We threw around a couple ideas. Then we were like, ‘we think this could work, and hopefully this will connect with some people, and we can have some fun kinda doing it.”

Based on a HuffPost article from 2012, about 65 to 75% of college students admitted to cheating. So I wanted to know what the directors were expecting from the college crowd going to see their film.

“Kevin and I are always kind of like…Obviously, we want people to enjoy it, we want people to have fun, we want to scare people at moments, you know? We want people to think about things and hopefully feel uncomfortable. We always kind of talk about being careful to not tell people how we want them to feel about certain movies. You know, we kind of like to leave a little ambiguity. we like to leave some open-ended kind of endings and stuff. But I’d like them to be intrigued and kind of think, and maybe the thoughts haunt them more than the being, in a way. I hope they have fun with it, I hope there’s some good scares, but also maybe just a little deeper resonating on the psychological. And you know, just have people in general, not just the younger crowd, but people in general [asking], ‘what does that mean?’ And all that fun stuff without telling them how to feel.”

The banner image from Cheat shows a woman entering a small town
Image Courtesy of Four Eighteen Films

Since Cheat deals with moral consequences, I then asked Nick Psinakis if he believes in the severity of Clara’s ghostly actions in the film.

“There maybe isn’t a right answer. In a weird way, We kind of talked about our antagonist. You know, is there a moral code she’s adhering to? Is she an anti-hero in a way? Is there some justified actions? I don’t know, I hate to say one way or another. But I think, and I hope a lot of people kind of deal with the morality of their decisions. Especially when it comes to relationships, some people think you can cheat emotionally, and other people think it’s just physical. […] That’s a tough one for me to give like a black or white kind of answer. Yes, I do think I have a moral compass, and think everyone does to a certain degree. And, hopefully, that plays with people’s emotions on what that means and where they line up with themselves even a little bit.”

In one of Cheat’s key scenes, Maeve, Charlie (Michael Thyer), and Elijah (Kyle Corbin) have to brainstorm a way to kill the ghost before it kills them first. I asked Psinakis, how he and co-writer Kevin Ignatius came up with the rules of how to kill a ghost.

“Oh, it was terrible!” Nick responded, laughing. “It was so hard. Well, first, you want to kind of have the rules of this ghost, or this being, or this creature. Right? What are its strengths? What are its weaknesses? You know, what do you know about it? What don’t you know about it? But it was hard. We tried to watch a lot of movies to see how other people sort of handled it. I remember watching The Ring and even IT, where it’s like when you have a ghost or a supernatural thing where it’s like you only see and nobody else sees. Is it real? is it not real? Can you touch it? Can you kill it? Does it bleed? All of these kinds of things where Kevin and I were like, ‘F*ck!’ Kind of beating our heads a little bit about what to do. But going back and watching those, I guess, did kind of make us feel a little bit better. […]

We tried to keep it grounded, where they knew it was ridiculous a little bit, you know. I think Charlie has a thing where he’s like, ‘Great, I’ll just do this now, that just seems easy!’ Versus them really being like, “Okay, we’re gonna win!” You know? So to answer your question, yeah, it was hard. We definitely brainstormed a lot, we went back and forth. Like I said, watching other movies made us feel better about our decision and hopefully grounding it. We tried as hard as possible to ground as much as we could.”

Maeve and Charlie look around in the darkness
Image Courtesy of Four Eighteen Films

Reteaming with Michael Thyer, who plays Charlie in Cheat and Duane in The Long Dark Trail, I asked Nick Psinakis the burning question. Is Thyer going to be Four Eighteen Films’ Bruce Campbell?

“He might be! He’s one of our really good friends, We all met out in Los Angeles, he’s also a director and a playwright. We’re trying to kind of find our team, our little indie team. We think highly of him as an actor, and we like working with him, so why not? You know?”

Posed as the last question but ending up as the penultimate, I asked Psinakis about Four Eighteen’s scene in rural Pennsylvania and if the studio would continue to develop films there. After telling me that his directing partner, Kevin Ignatius, is from the area, he discussed his love for shooting on location and the wonderful community they found that was supporting their movie-making in the area.

“I think our plan is to go back and explore more of that area. We really like shooting on location, we don’t like necessarily shooting in Los Angeles or even on any kind of stages if we can help it. You know, it’s funny, it started out of necessity because Kevin had moved back home… We did The Long Dark Trail really as a response to Covid where, to be quite frank, I was losing my mind in my apartment in LA, like, I’m sure, so many people. And it was basically no script, no plan, small crew. Go out there, figure it out. Prep for two weeks, shoot for two weeks, and just be creative during Covid. And then, from that, it was like, ‘oh, there’s something kind of here that’s cool.’

So yeah, fingers crossed, we’re gonna try to do two next year. Two more features, still in the horror-thriller kind of vein. That’s probably all I can say right now, but hopefully, we’ll be shooting the first one early spring 2024. But yeah, we’re trying to have our own little indie studio, I guess.”

A woman under a red light screaming
Image Courtesy of Four Eighteen Films

Finally, I asked what it was about the genre that appealed to Nick Psinakis and Kevin Ignatius. Why were they drawn to continue making horror films?

“To be honest, I never thought we would be making horror movies. It’s funny because I watched an interview with John Carpenter, and he said he wanted to make comedies. Like, before Halloween, he was like, ‘I thought I was going to make big broad comedies.’ So, I was like, ‘Oh man, that’s interesting.’ Like I said, the first one with The Long Dark Trail was kind of out of necessity, you know? Because it was Covid, it’s like, what’s going on? What’s safe? Like, outdoor in the woods; like limited. Small town. It made sense. And then, to be honest with you, it got somewhat embraced, and we got to know the horror community a little more. And I think there’s ways to mesh what we do [well] in that space and still grow with combining genres a little bit more. I think it’s actually a cool time in horror where there’s kind of these hybrid genre mashups. Ari Aster is one of the more famous ones on a bigger scale, even Ti West has been doing it forever. I think, maybe we kind of started enjoying it more than we thought or knew we would, you know?”

I wish Nick Psinakis and Kevin Ignatius luck at FrightFest, where Cheat premieres at 10:55 PM on the Main Screen tonight.

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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