Back at the Tribeca Film Festival, I had the absolute honor and pleasure to have a conversation with the creators of "Here Alone", a post apocalyptic film about redemption and forgiveness. My review of the superb film can be found here. We sat in a little coffee shop tucked away in the streets of Tribeca at a big old brown table, quite and removed from the noise of New York City, to go into vicious detail of how they managed to get to one of the world's biggest festivals. This was before they won the Audience Award and before they got distribution through Vertical Entertainment, who has been making it their mission to scoop up major festivals' best of the best. For first time filmmakers, this couldn't be any closer to a dream come true. And no one deserves it more than these guys: director Rod Blackhurst, writer David Ebletoft and producer Noah Lang, a group of DIY filmmakers who fully understood their circumstances and played it to their advantage. The gentleman were incredibly humble and vastly intelligent and I couldn't be happier for them. Additional screenings for the film will happen throughout the year, so be sure to visit their Facebook Page for more information. Without further ado, please enjoy my lengthy yet incredible conversation with the filmmakers of "Here Alone":
John: This film is vastly different from other zombie films, and arguably one of the most original. Why choose the zombie genre of horror, and what were your influences for this particular project?
David: This kind of nice poetic slow-burn hasn’t been seen within the zombie/infected genre space. We’ve seen it within the vampire space, which “Let the Right One In,” was a big influence, we seen it within the sort of werewolf space, “When Animals Dream,” so got these Nordic Twilight films, so the year of feeding films that are attacking it, and even the film that Jim Jarmusch did. They’ve attacked everything, except for “The Infected.”
So creatively, I really wanted to work within something that we would find in the yard house and spin it within the genre. I’ve been influenced by tons of films, even films that have nothing to do with the genre, that I absolutely love: “Swimming Pool” is one of them, and even like “High Plains Drifter” with Clint Eastwood, nobody talks for the first 30 minutes, so I was inspired by so many different films and it’s so great to put them into one sort of cohesive script, and some are genre and some are not, just like our film. So it’s a great narrative with a genre skin holding it all together.
John: It’s a great statement.
Noah: We talked a lot about like the films of Kelly Reichardt, so like looking at “Night Moves” is a movie about eco-terrorism, but it’s very much a methodical slow-burning thriller. “Meeks Cutoff” is a western, but it’s very methodical. Everything that is in the frame is important, it takes its time, it’s foreboding, it creates atmosphere. We never wanted to do anything cheap, we wanted to be very, very respectful genre audiences, because they’re discerning, they’re smart, and they tend to be given material that is not in keeping with respecting their intelligence and how much they care about narratives. So that was always really, really important, and I think Rod has always mentioned that this story could just easily be about a shipwreck or this could be about any sort of disaster. It’s about circumstance how they affect the people. “The Infected” worked within the framework of the film is that they’re there to push, to influence and create context, and that drives a lot of the narrative beats in the film, but it doesn’t inherently define the film; the film’s about these characters. So that was I think was always at the forefront of every creative decision we made whether it was in development and talking about how it was going to be shot, storyboarding it, and also all the way through to post how we scored, how we sound designed, everything, was always with that plan of attack in mind.
Rod: To add to that, globally, we know it’s important to make something that is unique in the space and in the genre, but I think as filmmakers, it’s important for us to make something that can find an audience that hasn’t been serviced before, and we’re trying to find that fine line right between genre film, or elevated genre film, and indie drama. Because if we can do that successfully, we can also prove our business acumen in addition to our creative acumen. And I think it’s important for people to see that we respect the industry side of filmmaking, and we want to be here for a long time making larger and larger budget films, and if we can prove that model with something that we can scale up, it’s just going to put us in a good position.
It’s sometimes like looking at genre as a tool, and I think was it Jeff Nichols when he was making “Take Shelter,” that he was looking at genre as a tool to drive all these other elements of the process. So I think they’re like definitely had in the back of our heads the whole time, of course, while thinking about the creative, like predominantly.
John: So did you guys see “The Witch” yet?
Noah: I – so I loved it, I want to be scared more. I grew up on horror movies, I’ve a very high threshold, you know. But I really loved it. I thought the visual atmosphere and a lot of what I saw in it that reminded me of what I loved about script for “Here Alone” is the idea of location being it’s a nemesis too, the idea in “Witch” that they’re going to homestead. Homesteading at that time is I think one of the most horrifying things you can think to do. So go out into the woods alone away from your support system and start fresh. And so the way that the witch is used in that is similar to how we use “The Infected.”
Obviously, we didn’t know this when we made “Here Alone,” we had the film and “The Witch” hadn’t come out, but it was really refreshing to see that the approach being that “The Witch” is sort of just like almost dues ex machine influence that is the unraveling of this family, “The Infected” or “The Unraveling,” you know, in society in our film, but also of these character circumstances. I admired the film greatly for sure. I think I see why you bring it up in relation to this film, like thoughtful, poetic.
Rod: And it’s unique in the space and “The Witch” is like one of its kind. We haven’t seen any horror films about settlers in America. So, already right from the start, they were looking at it from like how can we make a very unique property that is very creatively unique and visually unique.
Noah: And to speak to what Rod was talking about – before about, you know, I think in approaching the business of filming– what he really was talking about is trying to connect with audience, right. Obviously, people need to make money so you can keep making films, but really what you’re talking about is making stuff that audiences want to see. And “The Witch” is this amazing example of a thoughtful smart film that hasn’t been done before that deals with the horror genre and, you know, you vote with your dollar, right, and the movie has been wildly successful. And that to me is proof of concept that people are hungry for this sort of thing. It doesn’t need to be the churned out usual woman tied upon on the railroad sort of like misogyny like approach to filmmaking, it can be much more thoughtful and atmospheric. It’s really refreshing to see it succeed in that way because that speaks to what we’ve always thought, that genre films can do – can do just the same amount, be just as powerful as any other genre. And obviously genre is almost like a misnomer anyway, right, like its possible use, yeah.
John: People bend genres all the time, but the reason I brought up “The Witch” in the specific example is because of how financially successful it was, and that too was a very slow-burning genre film. Do you think that you guys could also capitalize on the success of what could potentially be a new wave of American indie horror, something that’s just vastly intelligent and doesn’t just take its audience for granted?
Noah: I mean, I think – like it’s definitely not a horror film per se, but like have you seen “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night?”
Rod: There is a perfectly good example of like something is unsettling and mysterious and dark and thrilling and captivating and alluring, you kind of can’t take your eyes away from it, but it’s not distinctly a genre film. So I think Dave was saying these Nordic Twilight films or even these Kelly Reichardt films that we love, or like David Michod’s “The Rover,” there is room for these very simple narratives to exist because we’re so used to “The Walking Dead.” I don’t know if that’s where the industry is headed, but I do know that us as a group of filmmakers would love to make more films in this space. Because there is complete freedom, there is no precedent, we can do whatever we’d like really, and audiences haven’t seen a lot of this yet. So it’s not a saturated on iTunes or Netflix.
David: I think that what you mentioned about having a very, very popular genre space, the zombie films, as a writer and as a creative person, and one of the kick starters to the film process, I was able to work with an idea that everybody sort of knew about. You can say the “Z” word even though within our film, they’re just infected, you know, they’re sort of – and it’s not true, the mystery is never truly revealed, but you can say the “Z” word and people automatically know the rules within that. You can say vampire, people automatically know the rules within that. And I think it took quite a long time for people to sort of get that into the brain and knowing. With “The Walking Dead,” it’s mainstream now. So, going back to your question, I think we’re able to work with it, because I didn’t have to explain and we didn’t have to explain the rules of the zombie genre.
In other films, you kind of take 15, 20 minutes to explain how it happened, why it happened, and so we were able to sort of come in at a great time. I don’t know if this would have happened, you know, 10, 15 years ago, probably not. Same with “Let the Right One In,” that was 2008-2009, they had 20, 30 years of – and even farther going back to Nosferatu of vampire rules that they were able to just coast on. And – so, it was really, really great to just sort of to be able to work with an idea that we didn’t have to just continually explain ourselves why we’re doing it. We can work within that great sort of elevation you’re talking about.
Noah: Specifically to your question about if there is a new wave, is there a new thing happening, I would say it’s – I think everyone always has a bit of healthy skepticism declaring something of a new wave but I think there is a watershed happening. Elijah Wood and his production partners at SpectreVision gave an amazing interview with Forbes Magazine, where they were talking about their main mandate is to get a horror film the Academy Awards, and that’s a completely valid goal in my mind.
So, whether or not it’s like a proper wave or not, there is certainly a lot of trend, I think, of people having more inherent respect, being more open-minded about horror films, programming them more at top-tier festivals, reviewing them thoughtfully. So I think it’s as cool a time as ever existed to make genre films. And it’s as cool a time as ever to bend those genres into whether it’s adhering to the rules or to use them so that you can – your world building can be much more show instead of tell, which I love, and I think that’s what we aim for in this film, or it’s something that just allows you the freedom to tell a story more clearly or more cogently. Yeah, so I think there is something really, really cool going on, and I think a lot of people would agree with that. I’d be really curious to see what the films that play Toronto, Fantastic Fest, and Sundance in the next 10 to 12 months are going to be.
John: So I am going to move right along, we’re going to go a little bit analytical in terms of my questions. So, traditionally, a main theme of zombie films, will be how the masses are all brain dead and all this other stuff; because if you’ve never seen “The Walking Dead,” “The Walking Dead” is more geared towards about how far you can go as a human being before you finally cross a line, and then it questions your humanity; the whole man is really evil kind of a thing. You guys don’t fall into either one of them with this film. So what would you consider to be the main theme of this film?
David: I really think the main theme is redemption. How do you say sorry within a post-apocalyptic world, and how do you say sorry to the people, the survivors around you, how do you say sorry to yourself for the things that you have done that you’re not proud of, even prior to, you know, the virus hitting and even during and after? Within the characters, I sort of feel that it’s the idea of forgiveness and how, we as human beings, would we have the same emotional space that we have now, sitting at a coffee shop having great coffee talking to great people, would we feel that happiness within this horrible time, if you’re sitting around a campfire, you know, having your sterilized water, and would you be able to say you’re sorry. And the main character Ann, played by Lucy Walters, she needs to forgive herself for something that she did, and then Chris, played by Adam David Thompson, he forgave himself for what he did, and then Gina, Olivia, the character Olivia, she does something that she now needs to forgive herself for, so sort of this past, present, and future ideas of forgiveness within a post-apocalyptic landscape.
John: So did you write the script keeping in mind that you’re not going to have a big budget?
David: Yes, and we wanted to keep it contained, and we loved the idea of putting a magnifying glass on characters within the post-apocalyptic landscape. “The Walking Dead” can get super broad; it can get crazy cities, people running around and the buildings burning and stuff like that. And, you know, the stories that are going on, that’s what we wanted to focus in on. So, it was very important for us this first time filmmakers to understand that we should limit our locations, that we should limit our cast, that we should limit our extras, that we should do things that we can achieve, and that we can show that whether our creativity can go throughout everything from the start. So I recently set out to do only two characters. It’s like let’s do two characters, let’s do two locations, let’s figure this out, but, you know, we ended up with four and a few more locations just on the basis that we wanted the story best to fit. We wanted to put ourselves within that box, create wonderfully within that box, and it’s so fun because when you’re in that box, you just bounce off each other a lot, and more tension can be created when you try to work within that creatively and production wise.
Rod: I think it’s important for us to – well, I think most filmmakers, should play to their strengths, like when they’re trying to make this big of a statement. The film might have a small cast and might have very few locations, but we worked really hard to make sure that everything was deliberate, but also doesn’t call attention to itself. So the film is actually much more highly constructed than it feels.
So while we’re outside or we’re in the middle of nowhere, there’s a lot of control over what we’re doing, and there’s a lot of restrained exercise too, because I think that across the board whether it’s from casting choices to cinematography to lighting to sound design score, color, you know, all these things ,we do not call attention to anything specifically, because it’s such a simple story and such a simple place. But at the same time if we can do that still tell a great story, like we’ve done our jobs.
And I like to tell people that there are a lot of VFX effect shots in the film, and you’ve seen the film, but most people who we told that you don’t know what those are, don’t know where those are, because we’re trying to find this balance that exists between making something that we know, that we can achieve, and making something that looks like a big, bold, and beautiful film, inside of a simple narrative.
Noah: I think the contained settings for films tend to be incredible. I’ve been obsessed with the idea of a “Cube” reboot happening. I don’t know if you have ever seen “Cube,” film directed by Vincenzo Natali.
There was a Lionsgate release in ’98, and they shot the whole film, they built one Cube set on the soundstage, and they relit it, and they created this massive world in this by doing so. I think they designed from the start knowing they were going to have so little in terms of space, and then it’s like what you do with that space. I think that was always sort of the aim with this was that while these are big wide open spaces, it brings its own series of problems.For example, no control of weather, relying on lot of natural light, et cetera, et cetera. It does offer you a certain amount of freedom in dealing with your actors and dealing with your emotions and the narrative part. It also helps makes very deliberate choices, they can have the time and attention they need, because you’re not worried about having 10 double bangers and honey wagon, and five grip trucks, et cetera, et cetera. Everyone can feel like they have creative agency, and a semblance of control of the narrative we’re trying to tell, and that was I think pretty crucial with the film working.
John: It’s your only film being placed in the Adirondacks, so will this be a recurring place for you in future films or for your next film you want to explore?
Rod: I grew up in the Adirondacks, and of course that mean a lot to me. Dave and I had made a short film called “Alone Time,” that did really well on the internet, it’s big in Russia, we have no idea why. Like it’s been seen more so in Russia, maybe Kyrgyzstan or some other eastern former Soviet countries, we have no idea how or why. But I think that we made “Alone Time” as sort of as a proof of concept, but also a team proof of concept to figure out how we would work as a unit and as collaborators. In “Alone Time,” of course, nature is an escape. It’s like this beautiful place that someone can go away to, and I don’t want to spoil it if anyone hasn’t seen it, but maybe that’s not what nature actually is for or that experience actually is for that character in that film, but I think we realized that we could do a lot of – we could put a production into this landscape, and have it really shine.
So I don’t know if we’re going to do any other films in the Adirondacks. Of course, I love it there, that’s where I grew up, but this film, it’s a little ambiguous as to where “Here Alone” takes place. You know, there is a radio broadcast that nobody can understand that takes place in the film and that’s on purpose, right. They don’t know if it’s a recording, or how old it is, or what these people are saying, but it’s somewhere in New York, and they’re somewhere in the north where they’re speaking in other language. And for the geeks in us, there is actually a subtle reference to the next film that we want to make, which is called “North,” but no one would see that unless we told you, but now we’ve let the cat out of the bag.
Noah: To coat tail a little bit on what Rod was saying about, I would think maybe at some point we head back to the Adirondacks to make something 10, 15 years now who knows, but the idea of location as characters in the films that we want to make, you know, we’re American filmmakers. I think that motif is going to be recurring, this idea of the space that you’re in is integral both to the visual storytelling and the narrative storytelling. I think that’s going to be recurring. I would be surprised if it didn’t.
Rod: Yeah, I think it’s part of what made making this film so fun; taking this crew and cast of people to the small town, and basically creating your own summer camp. You go there and you live together. We all lived in a motel for one month, we ate our meals together every day, we played in the woods, we were running around like outside, like when do you get to spend a month straight outside, and we had that experience for a couple of days on the short film. But to add onto what Noah was saying, I think it’s really a place in an environment not only has the ability to change and effect your characters, but the same can be said for you as well. The experience itself was making it through the first two days of rain where it rains sideways on set just strengthens you as a team and as a unit. And after that anything that happened at summer camp, you’re going to be able to handle it.
I think that there’s a transformative experience that happens to you as a unit, and as a, you know, a tribe of creative people when you can go somewhere together and hide away from the rest of the world, put your phones aside, and just focus on making art. I think that’s like a – I look forward to being able to do that with everything we do. Granted, maybe someday we’ll make a 100-million-dollar movie on the soundstage, but for the time being, I’d like to keep go into the sort of the edges of the earth.
John: So, now, to get away from the creative side to go a little bit on the business side, because this is your first feature, you are entering into the market now in one of the biggest film festivals on earth, Tribeca. So, my question for you is, where do you think the direction of indie film is going, and will you embrace VOD as the go to source for indie films, and will you make films for the VOD platform in the future, or do you hope to get regular theatrical distribution?
Rod: I think we would be happy if people watched the movie. I don’t think it really matters where it comes from. I mean, yeah, it would be great to have a movie shown in a bunch of cinemas; That’s why being at Tribeca is like a dream come true, but I think for us it’s about trying to make movies that are creatively successful and financially successful. To have a strategy for the development, you know, production and distribution that allows you to take care of the people that made that dream come true for you. And so whether or not that’s showing your movies exclusively on VOD, or whether or not that involves being able to show your movies theatrically, if we can respect both sides of the aisle here, it doesn’t really bother me where they get seen. If that’s on YouTube, if that becomes the most like the best place to have your movie be seen, and you can be creative and take care of your investors and your executive producers, then let’s show a movie on YouTube.
Noah: There is certainly a lot of antagonism between theatrical and VOD and digital streaming, especially with the Screening Room controversy and all that. I think there is a shared communal experience going to the movies that has never gone away, and we’re obviously planning to play further festivals with “Here Alone,” and keep sharing with audiences that way, because then you can provide context and you can discuss the film, you can dive deeper, and that sort of a really interesting aspect to the whole process. It reminds me a lot of live music, right, like hearing a record on Spotify is not the same as going to live or getting vinyl record that you’re buying directly from an artist is a lot different than listening to it on Sound Cloud
So, in terms of like the future of the industry to me, I think the more personal and territorial filmmakers can get with their audiences, the better. And even with hardcopies, you know, like look at the kind of quality hardcopies and disks like Scream Factory puts out or like what Film Rise is doing. They are taking a smart, curated approach to distributing content that people want, and they’re not losing a ton of money printing off a billion copies that they then have to dump in a landfill or whatever.
I think we’ve always been driven by wanting to make “Here Alone.” We were very, very humble and grateful by the ability to make it at all for people to give us their money, which to us means so much. We’re very, very driven to make that money back for them. I mean now that’sa tall order in film, no matter what. But we’ve always had that in mind and part of why I got involved was that there was multiple approaches to how we would distribute this thing if push came to shove. If that’s us in a Winnebago going to community colleges and doing screenings and we’re talking, doing workshops, things like that, that’s cool. There is a million different ways to cut things up these days. And I think anyone that says that there is going to be one way that the industry is going to iterate is fooling themselves, or they’re trying to hold on to the way that they most like to do it.
A lot of the ways we did this film in general was just sort of like, okay, well, it’s usually not done this way, that’s cool that you guys do it that way, we’re going to figure out how to do it this way because that’s the way it has to happen for us. And fully understanding that might not be the case for our next films. It’s the approach we had to take for this one, and I think we’re taking that sort of flexible approach as we head toward sales and distribution.
John: Would you rather have your film be selected for regular distribution and be eligible for awards or go straight to VOD for a larger audience? For example with “The Birth of a Nation,” Fox Searchlight didn’t bid the highest, Amazon did. And I think the reason why they went with Fox Searchlight is because they want a shot at the Academy Awards, but Amazon would reach the larger audience.
Noah: Let’s also keep in mind that the film will end up on Amazon’s platform in one way or the other. And I also think that they looked at that and I obviously can’t speak for those filmmakers, like what Fox Searchlight was being able to do with past films, in platform releasing. The theatrical market for indie is still vibrant in its own way, just there are so many things that are being – the weekends are so crowed, not everybody can see everything, and far too many filmmakers might be too predicated on theatrical when they’re not being egoless enough about it.
But your point about VOD, I think it’s awesome. It’s obviously super cluttered right now, it’s a bit of a mess in that regard. But, like any industry, I think it’s going to keep reorienting, and it’s going to keep shifting and changing. I think part of that is going to be curation driven. What that looks like, I have no idea. I am not a developer, so I wouldn’t even begin to know. But I do know that if I were to go on to Amazon and be able to look at a folder of where I, for a week. rent all of these films that Jeff Nichols recommended, because these are the films that influenced him growing up, I’d do it. It’s an interesting approach. There is ways for us to be able to get beyond the front page of Netflix to let the little guys have a little bit more market share, things like that.
No idea what it will look like, but I am curious to see what happens, and whether that’s new players, or it’s just the existing mega players really realizing like, okay, we have to put our money where our mouth is in and do a little bit of tweaking to really service all of these titles. Maybe that’s part of it. I am thrilled with VOD and digital. I’ve just covered so much amazing stuff; I know Dave has. It’s really, really cool to see AMC-Shudder launch, and they’re doing amazing stuff, that’s a curated VOD platform. I think like it’s only when you get more interesting even though it’s scary, it’s like can you get more interested. And there is a lot of smart people that we haven’t heard from yet who have ideas that will hopefully be stepping forward in distribution and beyond.
David: I think what’s interesting with your first idea with the question sort of VOD versus theatrical, this is my first feature film and this is my first feature film that I produced as well, and so this is the first time I’ve been on set. I’ve written a lot, but it’s the first time I’ve been able to see words translated to the screen. And on set so many times, I would whisper to somebody, I’d be like, whoa, I don’t think we saw this information and experienced people like Rod and DP Adam McDavid know if you get that up on 30 feet, you’ll be able to see it. And same with our sound designer, people still design films for theatrical, and they still design films for this grand experience. And I really hope that never goes away.
But what I am very curious of what’s going to happen with this next wave of filmmakers that probably primarily watch on iPhones, on iPads, on smaller units. I am curious to see how it’s going to shift and how it’s going to change, but I sure hope it doesn’t change from production, because you always want to create for the biggest and best, and obviously you create for the biggest and best, it’s going to trickle down very lovely to your nine-inch iPad screen. I was really excited to not only see that people still want to create for the theatrical whether we did or not, we love both options, but it was, yeah, it was interesting to see that.
Rod: David and I have created so much for the small screen before we met Noah. One thing we really talked about every single day on set, especially with our camera department, our cinematographer was framing for the big screen. And our whole camera department was complementary, even without knowing what our like motivations were from moment to moment that we were trying to be respectful of that experience, and instead of just like making things big enough so that like someone can watch on an iPhone. We’re trying to do that to be respectful of the craft and processing the people that have come before us, and the wonderful byproduct of that is that when your movie plays in Tribeca and is 40 feet tall, it actually feels like it was designed to be there. It wasn’t just created to exist on a tablet or a smartphone.
John: So, to wrap this wonderful conversation up, what can we expect next from you guys?
Rod: We like to think that we’re crafty filmmakers or at least like that we’re playing chess as filmmakers. And long before we started “Here Alone,” we actually had another project just sitting in the hopper, and “Here Alone” was meant to build a team and to prove that we could work as filmmakers in the feature format, and also to show that we can make quiet landscape-driven dark character films. We have a film called “North,” that’s about a man who gets out of prison in Southern California and decides to break parole, buy a bicycle and go up the California coast to figure out what it means to be free. It’s a very different film than “Here Alone,” but actually script wise it mimics – it’s actually a very similar format to the structure of “Here Alone.” Dave and I wrote that with a guy named Elgin James, who wrote a film called “Little Birds,” that was at Sundance a bunch of years ago, and we’re making it as a team again. So, we’ve come out of the stronger and more resolved, and that project is literally ready, like I mean it’s literally sitting on the back end of our website right now, so if someone were to come up to us at the film festival and say what are you guys doing next or what do you want to do next, we can say, well, we’ve got this, we’ve also got this like short comedy series, we’ve got two other features we’re developing. And to have something, it’s a turnkey operation is very important because we have a couple of days right now where we can have peoples’ ears in the industry, and we don’t get that opportunity often, so we have to be able to like mobilize and take action right now. So, yeah, we have a project that we’re literally just looking for the right people to hop on the train with us.
David: We found a tribe that we really like working with, we’re going to keep doing it. We have “North,” we have two other projects we’re working on. We’ll exhaust every option to be able to make a movie a year or every year-and-a-half. That’s my goal, and I think they’re of the same mind.
John: All right. Thank you so much for your time!
"Here Alone" will be coming to theaters and VOD in 2017.