Donner Pass is not your typical direct-to-DVD slasher. Using the real story of the Donner Party (a group of settlers moving west in 1846 who get trapped in the mountains and resort to cannibalism to stay alive) as a jumping off point, Donner Pass sees a group of modern-day high school kids spending a ski weekend at a cabin in the Donner Pass, where the history of the deadly region is alive and well. Director Elise Robertson chatted with us about her feature debut.
How did Donner Pass come about?
My husband is a writer, and he was in a writing group with Scott Adams, the screenwriter. He read the script as part of the writing group and when he decided he wanted to produce something, he remembered the script as being a great story. He optioned it from Scott and we developed it from there.
Did having the story couched in a historical setting make it more difficult or more complicated? Were you worried about remaining true to history?
Shooting the historical aspect of it was the real appeal to me. All of my previous films have actually been period pieces. My background is in the art department, so the fact that the story started in 1846 was a real draw. To have the opportunity to do the costuming and create the setting was a great appeal. In terms of the sort of "bastardization" of history, I think we felt that it was so far away from what actually happened in the Donner Party that it was really just a jumping off point to create something else.
Why horror for your feature directorial debut?
[Laughs] Because that was the script that was offered to me! Like I said, my previous films had all been period pieces, and I have done a lot of comedy in the theater - though one of the theatrical pieces I did ended up being quite bloody - but my husband showed me the script and asked if I wanted to direct it. I said, "A horror film? Really?" But I read the script and I thought it was great. The character development was wonderful, there were a lot of unexpected twists and turns, the legends and the "hunger" that was woven into it... As a director, I am always looking for what kind of arcs there are for the characters, how does the story develop, and what can I do with it visually. On my first reading of the script, I thought, "This is going to be fun." Once I got into it, I discovered that I really liked this genre. You are dealing with such high emotions, and there is so much to do, visually. You are always trying to create suspense or do a lot with the camera to create mood and tone.
Are you a fan of horror movies?
I am a fan of some horror movies. It's not my go-to genre, but there are some that I adore. Our inspiration, visually, for Donner Pass was John Carpenter's The Thing, which is probably my favorite horror film of all time. There are a lot of horror movies that I really love, but I am more into the suspense than I am into the slasher. If it feeds the script, then I am all for it.
You have such a varied career: acting, art department, directing. Was directing your ultimate goal or was it a more natural progression?
In college I majored in acting and directing, and minored in fine art. My start in the film industry was in the art department. I was a scenic artist on Nightmare Before Christmas for two years. From there, I actually moved into directing. I directed for PBS, an episode of the series American Storytellers, and a children's show. It wasn't until I moved to LA that I got back into acting. I moved out here to direct and I kind of got "sidetracked" in a way, by acting. I got an agent and I started booking commercials, and all of a sudden I had an acting career. Through that, I found my way back into directing through a different side of things. When I had started directing, it was coming out of the visual side of things. Then I got back into acting and I got really in to working with actors. I started teaching acting. So when I came back to directing after ten years in the acting world, I think I had a new and different perspective about the work.
What surprised you most about directing a feature?
On this particular film, I think the thing that I thought would be really challenging that I actually found I loved was directing the action scenes. I had never worked with a stuntman or stunt coordinator before. I didn't know what to expect. I am usually incredibly meticulous about storyboarding and knowing where I want to put the camera and having it all laid out beforehand. With all the stunt work and fight scenes we did, it wasn't really possible until we got into the space to figure out how to shoot everything. So there was this learning [curve] to work with the stunt coordinators and stuntmen or actors. They'd put together some ideas and pitch them to me, and I'd look at them and figure out where to put the camera. It was a little scary because it all had to happen in the moment, which is not how I operate as a director. But I thought it was really fun. It really flowed, it was really creative, and it turned out really well. It made me think that maybe that was something I wanted to pursue as a director.
Donner Pass avoids those horror archetypes of lots of naked screaming girls running around. Was there more of that in the original script that you toned down or took out?
Yes and no. Kaylee was always written as a strong character. When I came on to direct, I think I sort of steered the guys in the direction of giving Kaylee more strength. Originally, Mike was the hero character, and we shifted it to make Kaylee the one who stands alone at the end. Just simple things, like having Kaylee drive the car. Why is it always the guy who drives the car? To be honest, the chicks were always a strong force in this film, and I liked that. I did find little ways to encourage that.
What was the casting experience like? I know Desiree Hall (Kaylee) was one of your acting students.
She was, but she had to audition. I didn't just give her the part; the she won it. We auditioned a lot of young women for that role. We couldn't really afford to bring any "stars" on to the project. I wanted a casting process where I would get to sit in on all the auditions, where I would get to work with the actors to see if our styles would mesh, and just see how we work together in a rehearsal setting. I like to do a lot of rehearsals.
Was it difficult shooting in the mountains, in the snow, fairly far from "civilization?"
Yes. In a word, yes. It was very cold. The first night we were in Big Bear there was a blizzard. It was March and we were worried there wouldn't be enough snow, but our first night there was a blizzard - the snow was driving horizontally. All of the kids on our crew were from LA and a lot of them didn't wear adequate gear. The first night of shooting was just horrific. The weather got better. We made some last-minute location shifts. We found a cabin that had a few acres behind it so we were able to move a lot of our outdoor locations there so we could base [production] out of this cabin so they had a place to get warm when they weren't shooting. It was very cold, and very difficult. We were very lucky that our crew stuck with us. There was no guarantee that they would! You can see in one of the behind-the-scenes documentaries that some of our crew were wearing Converse!