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"So Cold the River" author Michael Koryta on bringing West Baden to the big screen

Michael Koryta

The countdown is on! The movie So Cold the River, shot at West Baden Springs Hotel and the surrounding area, debuts March 25. Leading up to the release, we have plenty of behind-the-scenes content to share — including plenty of interviews with the actors and crew who created this movie magic right here in Indiana. 

First up: Let's hear from author Michael Koryta, the Hoosier native who wrote the So Cold the River novel. He used West Baden and French Lick as the setting in his book, and brought it full circle when the movie was filmed here in early 2020.


On first memories of West Baden Springs Hotel:

The first time I saw the hotel I was, I think, 8. I came down with my parents, and back then, it was a ruin. You could go on a tour, but it wasn’t structurally sound enough to allow you access to most of it. At this point in my life, I’d never been any place that had such a bizarre quality and such an immediate sense of the past, just looming in the present.

I was a criminal justice major at Indiana University, and I worked part-time as a PI for Trace Investigation in Bloomington. And then that became my full-time day job in the early years of my writing career. We covered a pretty wide area, and I had some case work that would bring me down here.

The Cook Family began to restore it, and so I was watching the restoration take place. At that point I was writing detective novels and I was trying to think of a way to, to work that out (bringing a movie to life at West Baden). There's something about the property and the town and all the stories that just kind of demands a ghost story. It would seem very odd to me to come in here and walk around this building and look up that atrium and say, “OK, I'm gonna do a casino heist story or something of that nature.” It’s so visually stunning and compelling, but then also has this unique architecture and sense of mystery.

If you are a writer and this hotel restoration is happening in your backyard, you know, someone's going to use it. And I felt very territorial about it. So I had that sense of, “I better get this first because someone will beat me to it.” You know, it felt like my turf — I'd seen it as a ruin, I'd seen it in this various stages of repair.


Book Signing

On finally getting the project off the ground after more than a decade, and the adaptation from book to movie:

Eleven years ago, I thought it was probably going to happen. We actually had interest in the film rights before the book even came out. It seemed as if that was going to get some pretty good traction. And very quickly, I began to hear shooting on location in Indiana was not going to be an appealing approach.

Then in the script process, we were drifting farther and farther away from what I considered the core of the story — which was the supernatural, the sense of the past looming into the present here. That's most book-to-movie situations, you know, the odds are not in your favor of ever having your book made, let alone having it made in a fashion that remotely resembles what you hoped it might. So to have this opportunity and to see what (script writer and director) Paul Shoulberg has done with his story, he is honoring the emotional and thematic core of it, and the sense of place in a way that is remarkable. He has a great eye for distilling the essential parts of the story and making the hotel and the community central players.


so cold the river movie cover

On making a movie filmed entirely in Indiana:

We don't see many films or TV shows that are actually set in Indiana. You know, “Stranger Things,” it's Hawkins, Indiana. Do you see anything from Indiana in that? Of course not. This, people will actually know and be able to say, you know, “Hey, I went there, I know that place. That's the Lost River.” That does matter to me because it's a really rare opportunity.

I love the idea that we're pulling this off. What I had been told repeatedly was it was, if not impossible, certainly implausible by studios with all the resources in the world. By the time it's done, we're going to have something really, really great. And I like the idea that it's a bit of a sneak attack on delivery.


On how West Baden Springs Hotel’s history makes for a perfect movie backdrop, and contrasts with the dark character from the movie:

From a storyteller's perspective, I love how (the hotel) came and went. You know, it burned really hot for (a few decades in the early 1900s), and then when it went cold, it went completely cold. The hotel empties out, sold for a dollar and it, it goes into decay. So the villain in the movie, to me, I think Campbell Bradford represents a couple things. One is a taste of that era, a taste of the bigger world sort of descending on what had originally been viewed as a place of healing and innocence. A restorative place. And then we get our kind of glint of darkness on that. So I want him to represent that. Also he represents the double-edge sword of ambition and how easily we can all begin sort of with clean goals and then become so relentlessly obsessed with achieving something that by the time you understand that the monster is you, it's a little too late.


On seeing the process of shooting a movie up close and in person:

I missed the entire first week of shooting, and when I came back the hotel was shut down and they were filming in the pool; all of the lighting was controlled and coming down in the elevator over that completely empty and beautifully lit set was genuinely eerie, you know? That was a moment where it felt like, “Oh, wow, OK.”

This is an ambitious project. It really is. It's very easy to say, “Well, it's a stunning place.” That's true, but it's also a very demanding space. To shoot in here is a great challenge. To shoot anywhere around here. We’re out shooting the river scenes, it's February, you don't know if you're going to get rain, snow, it's going to be sunny and 65. All of that creates an enormous challenge for the crew. They're trying to light night for day; the cast and crew are living in this hotel and working vampire hours. This has taken a lot of different people sacrificing at different levels and making different efforts to pull it off. And that's really rewarding. That gives you that sense of something bigger than yourself. And those are rare opportunities.

I would certainly hope that it means, means something positive to the area because, to me, this area, it gave me a career. This was the book that allowed me to become a full-time writer. So it’s a special spot to me. It means a lot.

Hear more from Michael: check out our video here. 

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