The tale of the Donner Party is a gruesome footnote in the history of America. In the 1800s, a group of settlers headed west towards California. The trip was only supposed to take a few months, but severe weather caused the group of 80+ settlers to become trapped in the Sierra Nevada. Many turned to cannibalizing the dead in order to survive. Donner Pass is set in modern times, where the dark history of the Donner Party ruins a weekend getaway for a handful of high school students. We chatted with Donner Pass star Desiree Hall about her feature debut.
How did you get involved in Donner Pass?
Actually, my acting teacher, Elise Robertson, directed it. I was in her class and she brought in some material from the movie and asked me to read it with another girl. Elise and her husband, who is her producing partner, were doing rewrites maybe three months before casting started. We were working on scenes from the script. I think she was thinking of me as a possibility for a cast member so she just wanted to see what I could do with [the material]. She asked me to audition and I did. It was a pretty lengthy process.
Did having a close relationship with your director change the work dynamic?
It really did, because it was very easy. I've found that a lot of times, when you are working with a director, you have to go through this process of trying to understand what they want from you. Elise is also an actress, so she knows how to talk to actors, which makes it very easy to understand. We have this language that we have developed over the course of working together that is so easy. She would tell me to do something and a take later, she would say it was perfect, exactly what she wanted. I probably got a little spoiled because of how easy it was to work with her. Especially during really hard scenes like the cellar scene where I had to cry. She said one little thing to me and we were rolling. I did two or three takes of that and it was great. It was a lot of fun to work with her.
Female directors are still not very prevalent, especially in horror films. Did you notice a difference in the way she worked compared to a male director?
I've actually worked with a few female directors. I don't really see a difference. Maybe I'm just lucky for having worked with really amazing directors!
How did you avoid being the typical "scream queen?"
That was really, in large part, due to Elise. The character of Kaylee was written in a way that she was a strong female character, but it was really the direction that Elise decided to take the character in. We had some discussions about it and that's just how she evolved. For me personally, I have a hard time playing the typical "damsel in distress." That's not really who I am. I'm a take-charge kind of person. Elise knows that about me. We really did try to work in my strengths as an actress. Kaylee isn't just going to lay down and die; she will do the best she can to save herself and save her friends.
Do you enjoy horror movies?
I do enjoy horror movies as a fan. I remember being a kid and always wanted to go see whatever scary was playing in the theaters. I have really enjoyed the sort of thriller scary movie that has been coming out lately, like Paranormal Activity. I remember sitting there, my heart beating in my throat!
It was fun filming this horror movie. There were some "hardships" that came up that I wasn't really expecting in shooting a horror movie. It has been quite difficult to maintain being afraid for an extended period of time. It requires so much energy. Your heart is racing, your mind is racing, you're breathing heavy, you're running through the woods and snow... it's a lot more physical than I thought it would be. It was fun.
I never really thought about that. I guess being afraid for weeks on end really would be exhausting.
Yeah! And you want to make sure that any kind of acting that you are doing comes across as believable. Many people have this idea of what being scared looks like, but if you really think about what happens to you when you are really afraid, there is a lot of internal stuff.
Horror is a beloved genre but it often gets a bad rap as a somehow "lesser" genre. Many actresses I speak to are worried about being pigeonholed as a horror actress. Do you have that worry?
That's an interesting question, because I don't think any actress wants to be pigeonholed into anything, but it is interesting how work comes at you and how this industry is built. People want to make sure the money they are investing into a movie is ultimately going to be worth it, they want to make sure whoever is acting in it can do the job and has fans. That is how pigeonholing happens, and nobody wants that. No one wants to just do drama, where all they do is cry on screen, or all they do is comedy. Actors love a challenge. I'm not really afraid of being pigeonholed as a horror actress. I would do another horror movie in a heartbeat. It was fun and challenging. I doubt that I would get pigeonholed as a horror actress because there are only so many horror films that people would want to see me in.
Do you have any good stories or anecdotes from the set?
There is a lot of driving at the beginning of the movie, and it all happened on one day. I was actually driving the car - we only put the car up on the process trailer when the DP had to be in the driver's seat. I was very anxious that day, trying to drive a car, in the snow, on an unfamiliar road, with no sunglasses, with three other actors in the car. I was in charge of their safety! That was a wild experience. When we were shooting the night driving scenes, it is supposed to be snowing, but it wasn't snowing, so we had to fake it. We really didn't have any way of faking it - we couldn't just attach a snow machine to the top of the car. So our props guy said he would just sit on the roof of the car and throw snow at [the window]. We were in a station wagon, and our director and DP were in that trunk area, but they couldn't shut it because there were too many people in it. So he's on the roof, I'm trying to drive, and act, at night, on a curvy road in Big Bear, and the director and DP don't have seat belts. I finally said, "Guys? I can't do this!" What if I wrecked? What if something happened? Thankfully we ended up not having the props guy on the roof. But I was thinking, "Now this is indie filmmaking at its best!"