SO COLD THE RIVER will be available in select theaters Friday, and to anyone with either a smart TV or on-demand cable or satellite on Tuesday, and I hope some of you have a chance to give it a look. This one is a passion project for me – the idea for the book came wholly from the place itself. The West Baden Springs Hotel is a surreal, eerie, and beautiful place in rural Indiana. Once the largest freestanding dome in the world, it was an unprecedented feat of engineering and architecture. An international destination, known for its reputedly healing spring waters, it survived as a resort for less than three decades before being killed off by the stock market crash of 1929.
The building was a ruin when I was a child, a decaying monument to a forgotten but glorious past. Years later, when I was working as a newspaper reporter and then private investigator in the area, restoration work began. The phrase “restoration” doesn’t do it justice; this work cost hundreds of millions of dollars and was then (and may still be) the most expensive privately funded historical restoration in the nation’s history. Bill and Gayle Cook brought the resort back from the brink, salvaging the original grandeur from devastation, and it is as special a place as I’ve ever been, a building that makes your heart beat a little faster at first sight. To a storyteller, the bridge between past and present cried out for a ghost story, which is what I offered in a novel that changed my life in some ways.
I have exactly one regret about the movie, and that is that Bill Cook didn’t live to see it. I don’t know if he’d have liked it, but I wish he had seen it.
The film is the realization of a goal I’ve always had: to see something filmed on location in that bizarre and beautiful place. This wasn’t easily achieved. To see it happen was special. Paul Shoulberg, who both wrote and directed, managed to find the emotional core of a rambling, 500-page novel that featured ghost trains, subterranean rivers, stacked subplots, several timelines, multiple murders, and even more tornadoes…and somehow distill all of that into a story that could be told within the space of the hotel, and executed within the space of an indie film budget. (Spoiler: there will be no tornadoes!) I don’t think the average viewer will grasp the unique challenge that Paul had, but I hope they appreciate the remarkable achievement.
I think art is most satisfying when it evolves. Maybe a by-the-numbers, absolutely faithful adaptation would be fun…but I’m not sure. The book is the book, it has already been done, and you want to see the story change, even if it doesn’t necessarily have to. (And on this project, I assure you, it had to!) When the seed that is the source material gives life to something different, it’s an exciting experience, a broader one. A perfect example is the haunting score by Ariel Marx. Beyond the hotel, the story had two origin points for me: the image of a ghostly train barreling into the present with something sinister from the past, and a haunting violin piece.
To hear the score, created by someone who had presumably never read the novel, was uniquely satisfying. There’s the sense of fading away but leaving a fingerprint, which in this case is the emotional heartbeat of unsettling ambition and defiant endurance that exists in West Baden Springs. That’s what I sought to capture in the book; now others have captured it in different mediums. What a treat.
I am eternally in love with that building and its surroundings, and now eternally grateful to the people who listened to my desire to see something filmed down there and actually made it happen – Pete Yonkman tops that list; cheers to 1804 – and none of it would have been possible without Carl Cook. Hats off to Zachary Spicer, who somehow decided that one could make movies in Indiana, and then doubled down on his insanity by making several of them, each better than the last, and all of them good.
A wildly talented cast – Bethany Joy Lenz, Katie Sarife, Andrew J. West, Alysia Reiner, Deanna Dunagan, Michael Rogers, Kevin Cahoon, and Kingston Vernes, among others – agreed to forsake California for Indiana in February. This is not a common choice, and I’m most grateful.
The novel featured a woman named Claire who has no role in the start of the ominous events but then plays a crucial one in the salvation of undeserving souls. She is not a character in this movie, and yet she exists in it! Claire Tuft, producer extraordinaire, arrived in West Baden when she surely should have known better, and shepherded the movie along with grace and humor and one hell of a lot of hard work. Everyone from the cast and crew to the resort employees, Cook Group employees, and many helpful locals pitched in to shut the place down, turn it upside down, work nights for days, and pull off a unique feat. Principal photography beat the pandemic lockdown by a matter of days, and then the post-production team set off to learn how to work remotely. All things told, it was a heavy boulder to push up the mountain, and I got the fun part, sitting back to wait and see if it could be done.
It was a privilege.
As always, with much gratitude,