Sonoma County has a history with ghost-hunting and poltergeists.
Michael Grais, co-writer of the Steven Spielberg–produced blockbuster Poltergeist, makes his home in wine country, and Amy Bruni of Ghost Hunters fame was raised in Petaluma. Given this provenance, it’s apropos that filmmakers Aaron Heck and Tedi Sarafian would alight upon the notion of shooting their new horror flick at Heck’s family winery in Guerneville—not least of which because it’s haunted.
Or so they say. The canny gents might be ghostwriting their own backstory for the sake of PR, in which case, if the sold-out local premiere of Altergeist is any indication, it’s working.
Written and directed by Sarafian and produced by Heck’s production company Heckart Studios, Altergeist follows a gaggle of ghost hunters as they explore the histories and mysteries behind several bizarre suicides whose spirits haunt a stately winery (Korbel, owned by the Heck family since 1954, in its first starring role). When the paranormal investigators do encounter ghosts, it’s certainly scary, but not as scary as why the apparitions themselves are frightened out of their ghostly gourds. What unfurls is a genre-bending chiller that might constitute a new genre entirely, given its blend of the supernatural and ostensibly sci-fi. Spoiler alert: I’m not saying it’s aliens—but it’s aliens.
“It’s interesting. I’m a skeptic, but what changed me was the anecdotal data from the people who worked at the winery,” says Sarafian of the film’s otherworldly origins. “As I spent more time there, people started telling me stories, and things would happen with our crew. Lights would turn off and on, doors were opening and closing.”
Many of the on-location incidents mirrored those recounted to Heck over the years—glass breaking inexplicably and sundry bumps in the night. “I told Tedi about so many things that have gone on here,” says Heck, an affable and perceptive presence, who questions the credulity of some of his sources.
“Some of the inspiration has come from what are probably straight-up lies from people, maybe drunken experiences,” he says with a laugh. Other material was gleaned from sightings by security guards and winery employees who’ve said that things have touched them. “A lot of people from Guerneville might say, ‘That’s not cool—that happened to me!'”
The decision to premiere the film in Sonoma County was the result of an online crowd-sourcing campaign. “So we came home—it’s awesome,” says Heck, the film’s producer. Altergeist opened Nov. 17 at Santa Rosa’s Roxy Stadium 14, replete with red carpet and cast and crew. Among them were Kristina Anapau, aka Maurella from True Blood, and a smattering of other recognizable TV talents, including Alexis Cruz, Mark Hapka, Sarah Oh and Jessica Spotts.
“Putting this together with Tedi and having all these wonderful actors come up and interpret it and put their own spin on it was quite amazing to watch,” says Heck, who also served as the film’s director of photography, not to mention the model for one of the film’s characters.
Actor David Weidoff plays a wine-family scion named Ashton Till, though he’s comically cagey about where he drew his inspiration. “You know, I may or may not be Aaron Heck. Or something,” Weidoff says drolly. Also adding verisimilitude, or at least a whiff of self-satire, is the depiction of the film’s winery as King’s Ransom, which happens to be one of Korbel’s real-life premium brands—a brand launched by Heck himself.
“David had come in for another role but, as Tedi said, ‘This guy’s right, there’s a depth to him; he creeps you out,'” Heck wryly recounts, the irony not lost on him that his putative doppelganger makes audiences’ skin crawl. “He’s an amazing actor. They’re all incredible actors, the performances are all there.”
One would hope. The filmmakers screen-tested, by Heck’s count, “thousands of people” before assembling their principal cast. All told, the process took four months, revealing something of a perfectionist bent in Sarafian as he crossed from being a writer (with credits as diverse as Tank Girl and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) to writer-director.
Despite the long work that went into casting the film, one “name” attachment dropped out a week before the shoot was to start, even after rescheduling twice to accommodate her. Moreover, the production paid for her first-class ticket back from Ibiza for a costume fitting. Alas, such are the vicissitudes of filmmaking and all the more reason to bring it home to the winery, which has been ready for its close-up for 132 years.
“Korbel is a beautifully dangerous place. When you get there, you feel a sense of wonder, but if you stay too long, it might harm you,” Heck says with a smile, though one might assume what harm may come is little more than a hangover. What else can happen when one lets the genre out of the bottle?