For the filmmakers behind the horror film Tarot, seeing a mother and daughter walk out of the theater during a recent screening was the highest form of compliment.

The feature debut from writers and directors Spenser Cohen and Anna Halberg, Tarot follows a group of friends (including Spider-Man's Jacob Batalon and Mean Girls’ Avantika) who commit the cardinal sin of Tarot: Using someone else's deck of cards. In this case, the cards also just so happen to be cursed. One by one, the friends face the deadly futures foretold in their readings.

Friends and collaborators since film school, Cohen and Halberg made a big impression in the horror space with 2022's Blink, the inaugural short film produced through Sony and Screen Gems' Scream Gems Horror Lab. In brainstorming their follow-up, the filmmakers searched for what felt impossible: a fresh idea in a familiar genre.

"When you look at the horror landscape, it's like, 'There's a vampire movie, and then there's a slasher movie, and then there's a zombie movie,'" Cohen tells A.frame. "Some of them are really well done, but they're still playing with the same tropes and treading the same waters. This was like, 'Wait a second, Tarot cards coming to life — have we seen that?' And the answer was no."

A.frame: I need to start off by thanking you for teaching me how to properly pronounce "Tarot [teh-row]" — and you did it very early in the film! Was it always important for you to take care of that right off the bat?

Spenser Cohen: Hey, look, we taught you something! [Laughs] It's so funny, because people will say "Tarot [tear-it].” I'm so glad that we put that in the movie, because it's a word that I always knew how to say but most of the people I talked to were like, "Can't wait to see Tarot [tear-it]." And I'm like, "It's Tarot [teh-row]." People get it wrong all the time, so I'm glad we thought of that.


I always assume that filmmakers have to be pretty passionate about the subject of their first film, so what made Tarot the perfect project for your feature directorial debut?

Anna Halberg: Spenser and I started writing this movie at the height of COVID, which was obviously a very uncertain time, and we saw a lot of our friends and colleagues turning to astrology, to the stars, to Tarot readings for answers — or to find any kind of clarity about the future, because there really wasn't any! I think the message of the movie is something that was really important to us at the time — this idea of fate versus free will — and it was just a concept that we were really interested in exploring. So, when it came time to talk about directing, we were really excited to get behind the camera.

Cohen: We're always looking for a way into a new world, and it's so hard to come up with something that feels fresh. When we had that, we were like, "Okay, this is something..." But the thing that we got really passionate about was, "Can we make a movie that's scary and fun at the same time?" And when those two things clicked for us, we were like, "We have to make this."

I'll admit that for a long time I didn't know much about astrology, and then there are people who know everything about it. A friend of mine is so dialed in that the first thing she asks somebody when she meets them is their birthday, because she believes that will allow her to know them immediately. For you, was astrology something you were always knowledgeable about or fascinated with, or did you become a student of it once you dove into the film?

Halberg: We had a base knowledge of it, but we definitely learned a lot more about it in researching this movie. For us, I think there's always been something that's inherently scary about Tarot cards and Tarot readings, and this idea that somebody could possibly know the future or tell you something about what your future holds.

Cohen: It's so prominent in the zeitgeist. It's really interesting that astrology's been around for thousands of years, and Tarot has been around for hundreds of years, and yet people today who are 13 years old are finding these ancient practices to make sense of the world.

I got a kick out of your meta use of true crime podcasts within Tarot. As important as it was to find a fresh way into the genre, did it also feel important to have that winking or knowing approach to making a horror movie?

Cohen: For sure. COVD, when we wrote this, was a bleak time. And we've come out of COVID and times still seem very bleak. We want to have fun with the things that we work on. I know I'm butchering the quote, but Taika Waititi basically said something like, "The world is pretty bleak; just make fun s**t." We've taken that to heart. We want the stuff that we make to have levity, to be an experience, and to be fun to watch, even if you're scared. I think [Steven] Spielberg does that so well. When you look at Jurassic Park, you're laughing, you're having fun. It's emotional, it's scary, it's suspenseful. We didn't want to just play in one tone — we wanted to do it all. So yes, I think that aspect of maybe not necessarily winking but being self-aware that we're allowed to have fun and be scary is something that we set out to do right from the beginning.


Looking back, what was something that you learned making your short film Blink that you brought to Tarot?

Cohen: Blink was basically one set piece, and we really milked that whole sequence as much as possible. We took our time with it. I think a lot of horror today feels rushed; people try to get to the scare. For us, it's all about the buildup, it's all about the suspense, and it's all about how long can that play out? So, the big lesson on Blink was like, "We can do eight minutes in a room and just milk it and have it be tense. We don't have to cut. We can just be there."

Halberg: It was also great because we made the short film with Sony, Screen Gems, our same producer, Scott Glassgold, and our same cinematographer, Elie Smolkin, so we had a great working relationship with all of them already. When we dove into making this movie, there was a shorthand and a real creative understanding of making sure we were on the same page.

Cohen: It was a lot of the same family. We kind of went from the feeling of making a student film to obviously something much bigger with all the same people. And then also working with great actors. Sophie Thatcher is absolutely incredible, and we knew going into this movie that we needed actors who were on her level to be able to pull this off.

How did you approach the casting process on Tarot? You managed to create a nice mix here of young actors that people will recognize and others who will be welcomed fresh faces.

Halberg: In order for the scares to really land and work, I think it's so important for you to care about the characters. Because if you don't care what happens to them, then it doesn't matter what kind of jeopardy their lives are in. So, we knew going in that we needed to cast a group of actors that were incredibly talented but also that you would believe were a real group of friends. It didn't matter to us if they were name actors or if they had done anything before; what really mattered was that they all had chemistry together and that they were really talented and believable from the get-go.

Anna Halberg and Spenser Cohen (center) with Harriet Slater and Jacob Batalon on the set of 'Tarot.'

What was the process like of creating the look for the Astrologer? In the same way that you know you need the audience to connect to the characters in order for the scares to land, you know you need to deliver when you finally reveal the terrorizing being you've been building up to.

Cohen: We found this amazing actress in Serbia, Suncica [Milanovic], who plays the Astrologer. We lucked out, because she is incredible. She immersed herself in this role, and on set, she was terrifying! We worked with [illustrator] Trevor Henderson for several months designing what the Astrologer would look like, and we went through dozens of iterations of what she could possibly look like. We landed on this design that felt really iconic, because we knew we needed to incorporate the symbols and everything. And then Dan Martin, who's done all Brandon Cronenberg's stuff, did the physical effects part, and he brought her to life with his amazing prosthetics team.

Halberg: We knew that we wanted the creatures to be practical, including the Astrologer. It really gave the actors something to react off of in the space. We wanted to get genuine reactions from them, but I also think that it just looks better. It's scarier when something feels believable and actually tangible, and doesn't feel like it's visual effects or augmented and created in post.

With a film like this, I’m fascinated by the exercise of plotting out the various kills. How amusing was it to sit in a room together and brainstorm these wild scenarios to kill off your characters?

Cohen: You're 100 percent right: it's so fun. We would sit in a room and go, "What's the craziest thing that could happen with the Fool?" And we would just start pitching ideas. The process actually involved bringing in our DP, Elie, and a storyboard artist, and we were able to take what we had in the script and we would storyboard out the whole sequence and put it all over the walls, so we were basically watching the movie in pictures. We could all go, "This should be scarier," and we would start changing things and go back into the script to rework it. But every day was a blast.

Halberg: And we knew going into this that it was going to be a theatrical experience, so it was really important for us to have these big set pieces and a lot of scope and scale. Part of what sets this movie apart from other horror movies is that so many horror movies take place in one location, and we really wanted to get out into the real world, and have the opportunity to create unique scares and set pieces that you hadn't seen in horror films before.

Cohen: Again, with horror movies, you have slashers or exorcism films and there are things you just expect from those. We didn't have any of that, so everything was invented. We had to completely build the mythology and the rules from the ground up, which was super fun.

No spoilers, but the first kill is the one that especially spooked me, so you definitely came out swinging!

Cohen: When we were testing the movie, after that scene, a mom got up with her 14-year-old daughter and walked out, and we were like, "Okay, cool. We did it." [Laughs]


Have you started to think about what might be next for you? And whether or not there are more stories to tell within the universe of Tarot?

Halberg: We do know what's next! We're super excited about our next movie, which we just set up with Blumhouse and Atomic Monster at Universal. There's no one better. And it's something that we will write and direct and is also in the horror space.

Between Blink, Tarot and that next movie, people might assume horror is your go-to genre. Yet, you've worked in the action space with Moonfall and The Expendables 4 [which Cohen wrote and both executive produced]. Spenser, you also wrote Distant, which is an upcoming sci-fi comedy [being directed by Speck and Gordon]. Are you hoping to keep moving from one genre to the next?

Cohen: I think we move where we get excited. Horror is a great genre to play in, and we love it and we'll always be invested in it. But we're also interested in other worlds. Looking at Spielberg's career, he did Duel and Jaws, and at that point you're like, "Wow, he's a really good thriller, suspense and horror director!" And then he goes and does Close Encounters and E.T., and you're like, "There's this other part of him, too!" Hopefully, in success, we'd love that career. It's a little ambitious, but that's what we're aiming for.

Halberg: [Laughs] It's very ambitious!

By Derek Lawrence


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