First-time feature filmmakers Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton are set to make a splash at this year's Sundance with YellowBrickRoad. The tale of a group of researchers investigating the seventy-year-old case of New England town's population vanishing in the woods, the film looks to offer a smart alternative to the standard pretty-teens-die-tragically-in-backwoods film. We chatted with Holland and Mitton about their movie's genesis and inspiration, and why cockroaches are so damn scarier than spiders. Read the full interview after the jump.
Can you talk a bit about how much of YellowBrickRoad is based on any folk tales you may have heard and how much is a product of your imagination?
Holland: We did not come up with the idea based on an actual story, but in doing research after coming up with the idea we found lots of examples of this actually happening. It is I think a universal idea. It's sort of like Into the Wild. This idea that a person would leave society behind and just walk off into the woods. I mean, who hasn't been in traffic and felt that thought, y'know? It really comes from there. It comes from that impulse to reject the idea of connecting to anyone and walking off.
Did coming across these other examples you mention change the story or affect the project's direction?
Holland: It gave us some juicy details.
Mitton: That's true. We stole some details. There was this one story about an Eskimo village, where a whole town was found completely abandoned, and the dogs were tied to posts, left to starve. Everything – the money and the essentials, things that would have seemed important to people – was left behind. I still don't think they solved that one. Really we're just drawing on people's connection to that desire and that mystery, and our curiosity about these things. But our story pretty quickly becomes a focus on our present-day expedition in exploring the psychology of our characters and what's brought out of them.
Lately we've had a spate of films in which young people on vacation stumble into a nightmare scenario. Your protagonists are kind of unique in this regard, because they're not vacationing, they're on a mission.
Mitton: That's a great point. That was very important to us. We wanted them first and foremost to be professionals. Because there's something exciting about that. Rather than following the college kids who are off to get drunk in the woods. It's nice to have an end of the trail or a potential end of the trail, a direction that they're moving in. So it's not necessarily a getting-lost-in-the-woods movie, which I think gave it more of a spine.
Holland: Yeah, we were inspired more by Alien and The Thing. In the sense that they were professional people breaking down, and how much more exciting it is that they were real professionals breaking down rather than scared teenagers.
The film's poster is pretty clever. But is the poster and title the extent of the film's Oz allusions, or is there more than that?
Holland: That's the base of it. There is a parallel. If anything, we're talking about the time period. The time that this town disappeared was right around the time that The Wizard of Oz, the movie The Wizard of Oz, was released. So there is a little bit of a parallel that we're drawing between the two time periods and what's going on in America. Other than that, in terms of literal, we don't venture into plucking things from the actual story very much. We're doing our own thing.
Some significant horror films in recent years have employed co-directors. Could you talk about your method of collaborating, as both writers and directors?
Holland: The co-directing system that we had was to divvy up the scenes ahead of time. So that one person was always on point for a scene. One person was the voice, then one person would be back at the monitors whispering into that person's ear. We found this to be useful, because even though Andy and I can connect on anything, it sometimes takes time to talk it out, and when you're on set there isn't always time. You have to go on instinct. I think the system worked very, very well for us. Because we were always in sync and we were never slowed down by the fact that there were two of us. No one ever had to hear one direction coming out of one director's mouth and another direction coming out of another's. We just completely circumvented that.
Mitton: And in the writing process I would say that… We've both done some writing on our own. And it was a real joy. Because if you're doing it right and you're vetting your script… And we did a lot of meetings and got a lot of feedback, wrote a lot of drafts. That can be a lonely process for one person. Sometimes you don't know, until it's so far down the line, if you've made a mistake or you've made a bad choice, because you get tunnel vision. We share a taste and a sensibility about things, and we're very old friends. There's a great trust that we have in each other to be passing scenes back and forth. We can stop a bad idea right in its tracks, just by being there for each other. For me it was a real boost to the process to have a writing partner.
Can you talk a little about your cast and what they brought to the roles? There's some faces that are familiar to genre fans.
Mitton: Yeah. Our cast is a mix of people that we know, that we've worked with in theater. Our backgrounds are in theater, so we wanted to take advantage of some of the great actors that we've met in professional theater, that we knew would make a nice transition into this movie. We wouldn't necessarily have to have any A-list stars, we thought, to fly. It's always exiting to see some fresh faces. Plus we had a previous relationship with Cassidy Freeman, who's on Smallville. I'm in a band with her and her brother Clark, who's also in the movie. And they were executive producers. So that was a really excellent relationship to get to use, because they're brother and sister in the movie too. So it's exciting to see a real sibling relationship come to life on screen. It's fun to capture that. And there are a few examples of actors we hadn't known before. Anessa Ramsey we saw in The Signal, and we loved her and we were lucky enough to get her. She just fit in so nicely with our dynamic. Likewise with Laura Heisler and Lee Wilkof, who are great New York theater actors who auditioned. We were lucky enough that they came on board.
Cassidy to me talked about the film a little at Comic-Con. She seemed quite proud.
Mitton: That's cool. She's an awesome girl. We haven't really had a chance since she's been so busy on Smallville to work together in a while. It was a real, real pleasure to get out there with those guys.
Holland: Yeah, the only thing I'd add to everything you just said, Andy – which I agree with – is that our actors are not yet A-list stars.
Mitton: Ah, yes, exactly. A little time, a little time. [Laughs.]
You guys mentioned Alien and The Thing as inspirations. Your film differs a little from those in that it takes place in a more open, much less confined environment. There would seem to be a lot of freedom that comes with that, but also a lot of choices that need to be made. Can you talk about how you approached this environment on film? There are so many horror films that take place in backwoods, rural areas that it must be a challenge to come up with ground rules for how to tell your story, and to figure out how to avoid the clichés.
Holland: Our movie is very character driven, so I think we approached it by always being very focused on capturing the performance and boosting the performance and making sure that we were meticulously guiding the audience to understand what our characters are feeling. In that way, I think we do our own thing. So the movie that I would say was a good influence in reference to that… Deliverance is a really excellent example of a character-driven movie in the woods where things are going awful. There is a plot happening. But really what's going on is you understand who these people are more and more deeply as these things are going on. The Shining I think is a pretty good example. It's woodsy kind of, it's a lot of open space certainly, but it's kind of a labyrinth too I would say.
Mitton: I would add that as much as we both have a love for The Blair Witch Project, these handheld-in-the-woods indie movies, we knew that we would have a shot at standing out by not… There's some handheld in the movie, but for the most part we brought the Steadicam out there, which very likely broke the back of our DP some nights, running around. It was rough terrain with the Steadicam rig on, but the look you get is I think more polished than what you're used to seeing in an indie film in the woods. And it's not going to give you motion sickness. We got a chance to sort of introduce a style and a way of moving the narrative eye in a way that you don't always get to do when you're running around in the woods.
From the trailer it looks like you've found a way to capture this environment and give it a somewhat distinct look.
Mitton: We hope so. We also had the advantage of shooting in a place, geographically, that's never been shot in before for a feature. So it really is a unique environment. And we really were living inside this kind of crazy… Really the main character of our movie, we were living in it, much like they did on The Thing or The Blair Witch Project. There's something that just comes across in the movie, we hope, that's a result of us actually being inside this really extreme environment and not having cell phone reception and barely having internet connections, being three and a half hours away from an airport.
How long were you in that situation?
Mitton: We were there for seven or eight weeks. We shot for three and a half weeks. Twenty shooting days.
Can you talk about what's next for you?
Mitton: We're definitely writing. We're starting the writing process. Hopefully things will go well enough that there's a momentum to grab and a wave to catch here, and we want to be ready with the next thing. We'd like to return to horror, but we also think our second outing is a chance to show that we can tell different kinds of stories. But I think, as Jesse said recently, that even outside of the horror genre, anything that he and I explore will have elements of the thriller and the gruesome and the extreme. But right now we're starting a story that's a thriller/coming-of-age story that's set in high school. I guess we'll leave it at that, because it's just a baby right now.
One last question… In real life what are your greatest fears?
Mitton: Cockroaches. It's partly because, for anyone who knows the movie Creepshow –which I think is being redone this year – I saw the fifth story on Creepshow when I was a kid and it changed everything. I look for them around every corner.
Holland: Yeah. I wish I had a one-word answer for that. I think regret is a really scary thing. I think regret is the worst emotion. I don't ever want to regret anything. I'm scared of regretting things… But spiders are really bad. I have a visceral reaction to them. I think about spiders the way cavemen felt about them.
Mitton: Spiders cannot compare to cockroaches. Spiders are all leg, cockroaches are all body. I'll take the legs over the body.
You've really thought about this, haven't you?
Mitton: Yeah. A lot, clearly. [Laughs.]
Thanks for your time, guys.
Holland: Thank you.
Mitton: It was a pleasure to talk to you.