As someone who grew up with extremely fond memories of seeing Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers on the big screen, it's both surreal and intriguing to see that film's lead child actor all grown up and sitting behind the monitor, evaluating the latest take of a scene from her directorial debut. Genre fave actor AJ Bowen, along with several other cast members, are confined to their chairs at the dinner table. Bowen begins to vomit on himself (for the scene, of course) just before he pleads with Kamala Jones to look at him as she is about to have something terrible happen to her at the hands of one of the other party guests. Danielle Harris calls "cut" and the entire cast and crew take a quick break on the second to last day of shooting on Among Friends, Harris's first feature length film as a director.
And a mere three months before this day on set, this project didn't even exist. "It did come together really fast," confirms screenwriter and actress Alyssa Lobit, who plays Bernadette in the movie. "It was an idea that I initially had for a script, but I've never tried to write in this genre before and once I started, I didn't want to continue spending too much time writing something so dark and messed up because I suddenly found myself uncomfortable tapping into the dark side of my brain! So I had to put it aside. But then Jennifer Blanc came to me and talked about wanting to produce something down and dirty and fast that took place in one location."
"I had such a great time putting together The Victim, which was a fairly low budget project, that I thought we could definitely put something else together that's micro-budget and do it really, really well," explains producer and actress Blanc, who plays Melanie. "Alyssa wrote & starred in a drama called The Things We Carry that I had a small part in. She did a phenomenal job on that movie and Michael [Biehn] and I were super impressed with her abilities as a writer, and then to be able to act in it and have her sister produce it as well. We got to talking and she gave me a brief synopsis of the concept for this movie and she went off to write it. I called Chris Backus pretty early on while we were writing it to get him involved. Initially it was me, Alyssa and Chris that said ‘yeah, let's do something.' She got me the script and we took it to Danielle, who has always wanted to direct, so we wanted to give her that opportunity with this feature."
"I did a western with Michael Biehn last summer called Yellow Rock and I stayed in touch with them," says Christopher Backus, regarding his initial involvement in the project. "When Jen was producing this, she called and asked if I would do it and I blindly said yes. I loved them and I said I'd work with either one of them anytime, so they took advantage of that," he laughs. While Backus plays Marcus in the film, he suggested his good friend Christopher Meyer for the role of Blane. "I live in New York but I was doing ADR on another movie here in Los Angeles. Chris had gotten an email of the cast list and contacted Jennifer and suggested me. They saw some of my stuff, invited me to the read through and offered me the role, thanks to Chris. It was just funny timing how it all worked out."
In regards to the collaborative process, Lobit says, "When Danielle came on board as the director, she had read the first draft and we talked about it and we were both on the same page in terms of taking it away from being a ‘serious' thriller and turning it into something that could be a lot more fun." Judging from the few scenes I saw shot on set earlier in the day, I couldn't help but draw a mild comparison to the 80s slasher pic April Fool's Day as a potential influence, which Lobit confirms. "Yes, definitely April Fool's Day. But also movies like Clue. Danielle has those sensibilities. We already had this 80s theme going, but it was heavily influenced by Danielle coming on and saying, ‘This is what I want to do.' She's great with story and story editing and helping to narrow down the characters. The plot was always there, but we had to figure out all the in-betweens. So she was great with that."
An 80s vibe and theme? Comparisons aside, we asked the writer what Among Friends is really about. "It's about a group of friends who get together for an 80s-themed whodunit murder mystery party. As the night goes on, it turns out that one of the friends is out to expose everyone else in the group. There are secrets revealed and cross alliances made. The person who turns out to be doing the exposing gets a little bit wicked and becomes judge and jury about the whole thing for what they think is for the good of the friends."
"One of their friends is truly crazy. Torture and mayhem ensues," adds Blanc with a smirk. Backus affirms, "It's sort of an absurd, twisted view of morals and morality and how you treat the people in your life. For most of us, there are no repercussions for us in real life. You can sort of do whatever you want and very rarely are you called out on it. And in this film, on whatever scale of trouble you've caused, you're forced to deal with it and someone (without giving away who) is going to make you pay for those things."
Rounding out the cast is actress Brianne Davis, who some savvy genre fans might recognize from the post-credit sequence in Chromeskull: Laid To Rest 2 or the Prom Night remake. She'll also be appearing on screen again with AJ Bowen in Jacob Gentry's new sci-fi feature Synchronicity. "I'm good friends with Danielle. We actually went to Iraq together and visited 15 bases as part of the USO tour, which was the best thing I've ever done. So we became really good friends. Danielle and I have been writing a script together for a very long time within this same genre. But when this script came along and Danielle got involved as the director, she said she had a part for me that was perfect. I play a character named Jules and she's a drug-addicted lesbian. So there is a scene where I have a lot of hallucinations and I get a love scene and I get to go really out there and play some stuff over the top. I get to have a lot more fun than anybody else in this and they'd all agree!"
Up until right before shooting, it was unclear exactly who would be playing which roles, as Lobit explains. "I didn't know which role I was going to take. Normally, I usually play the role that Jennifer Blanc plays which is kind of the tough chick, but I didn't want to play that. I thought maybe I'd play Jules, but then I met Brianne and she's the perfect actress for that role; she's just phenomenal in this movie. It was like musical chairs, I ended up with Bernadette because that was all that was left, but it's a great part to play. Maybe subconsciously I thought I would play it, but I was never thinking about that as I was writing. It's really cool to see people take what was in my head and look around and it's happening in front of me."
Because the majority of the movie takes place in one location and all the principle cast members are tied down at the same dinner table, it made for a unique acting experience. The actors had to work together as an ensemble to make it all work. "I think the ensemble aspect of this is really interesting because we share all the scenes together and we all have to emote together," elaborates Meyer. "That's something I've never really experienced before. Everybody's experiencing the same challenges along the way. Chris and I are good friends and have acted together before, so we already have a short hand and a rapport. But it's been really easy to click into that rhythm with everybody else here and I think that the pages inform the reality in between the scenes and the reality that's happening is informing what's happening in front of the camera and all of that will be seen on screen. It's been amazing to meet great actors and get to see their process. I'm just inches away from Kamala, watching her prepare for a particularly difficult scene, or sitting across from AJ where he's got to get set to deal with his character's particular challenge. So you get to really watch everybody's process and we're all sharing in that, which I've found to be a really rare, rewarding experience. I'm just taking in a lot."
"I haven't had to do that before, where you're stationary and you can't move," Davis tells us. "So it's been fascinating to see everybody's internal thought process and how they work being limited like that. It's difficult but it's really great at the same time." Backus agrees: "This has been a really generous cast. You have certain challenges with six people sitting at a table but you have to cover a lot. Every single person on this set has given it their all, both on and off camera and that's the highlight for me: you work these long days, but none of the principle people at the table have backed down and we've all been there for each other. It's been a strong bond."
And at the forefront of that strong bond is an equally strong director, who not only benefits by being friends with the majority of the cast, but also from her experience in front of the camera for nearly three decades. "Danielle is very confident," asserts Meyer. "I have acted in a number of films that were directed by actors and I really enjoy that because when the director is an actor, they share with you the language and understanding of what you're doing and going through." "She's really good at explaining the internalization of her characters to get the best out of you," continues Davis. "She's also good at demonstrating what she needs from you, which some directors don't know how to do. She's been in the business for so long and she knows actors minds. And I just love that she's so tiny and cute and in charge! She holds her own. She holds her shit. I just love her."
I ask Jennifer what her favorite part of the shoot has been thus far, considering they're one day away from wrapping principle photography. As if on cue, AJ Bowen walks up behind her, fake vomit still in his beard as she says, "Honestly, the funniest thing on set has been watching AJ before each take. AJ's the most fun. It's like having a comedian on set with you, but then once cameras roll, he can really bring it." Davis gives us a similar response: "AJ – right before we do a take he'll always do this thing to crack me up. We each have little things we do to mock each other. We've all laughed a lot on this shoot." Backus conveys the same sentiment. "AJ has highly moved up the ranks as one of my favorite people on the planet and is an absolute delight both on and off set. A terrific actor and a smart, caring person. The girls – Kamala, Brianne and Jen - they're all fantastic people. We've laughed a lot at the circumstances and we all have a good rapport off set as well as on."
Lobit's favorite day on set was, ironically enough, the one we were there for. "No seriously, today's been a lot of fun! Earlier today was when Brianne had a hallucinogenic scene and there may or may not be a few cameos in that scene. She's tripping pretty hardcore and her character is an aspiring actress, so that gave us a lot of freedom to do some really wacky, fun shit."
Among Friends recently wrapped post-production and screened in Los Angeles earlier this month, so expect a release later in 2012. Stay tuned for our exclusive interview with actor AJ Bowen on Among Friends!