Filmmaker Larry Brand interviews newcomer Rod Blackhurst before his Tribeca premiere.
From L-R: Gina Piersanti, Rod Blackhurst, and Lucy Walters. (Photo by Trevor Eiler)
Here, veteran writer-director Larry Brand interviews up and coming indie filmmaker Rod Blackhurst. Blackhurst’s first feature, the post apocalyptic thriller, Here Alone, premieres in the Midnight section at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.
Larry Brand: The zombie movie has become its own sub-genre. How do you make what has become a familiar format fresh and original?
Rod Blackhurst: One of the things we wanted to do was make a film that straddles the line between being a genre film and a more traditional indie drama. We tried to keep our film contained to four individuals and their simple human emotions in dealing with all of these situations. We’ve got this infectious disease that’s caused the collapse of society, but you’ve got people who are trying to figure out what to do moment to moment. The situations that our characters find themselves in and the questions that they’re pondering could be applied to almost any number of circumstances, whether it’s a plague or being shipwrecked: what do I do, where do I go, what do I eat, how do I find shelter? I don’t want to be alone, how do I trust somebody else around me? There’re all these things that relate to human existence, and connection and love and comfort and not wanting to be alone.
LB: By using an infectious agent rather than supernatural event, you situate the themes of the movie in the universe that we share. These are not dead people rising from the grave but victims of an infection. The zombie infection is just a device to get at these human realities.
Blackhurst: A lot of genre films aren’t treating their audiences as first class film audiences. Just because you’re in a crazy setting, whether it’s a slasher film, or earthquake or disaster film, the humanity of our characters should be just as important. If you can successfully combine the two of them, you can make a film that exists in rare air, and treat the people who would naturally like this film ― as a post-apocalypse or zombie film ― as an intelligent film audience.
LB: I think an audience will buy any element, whether it’s horror, or supernatural, or aliens from space, if the human beings are acting the way human beings are expected to act.
Blackhurst: The characters are trying to understand their place in these circumstances, in the world we’ve created. What does it feel like to be alone, what does it feel like to regret something you’ve done. You’ve suffered loss, how do you deal with that when you’re all alone and you can’t talk about it? What would you do? I think that was probably the number one thing I tried to talk about with everybody before we made the film: in every situation, think about what would you do. And then everything we unfold is seen through that lens. Then you can imagine yourself in that character’s shoes, and you’re thinking, “Oh, my God, what would I do, right now?”
LB: When dealing with a familiar genre, how do you avoid clichés?
Blackhurst: I actually don’t watch a lot of genres films, not because I don’t like them but maybe because I’m a picky filmmaker, so I tend to watch films that I can imagine myself being in. I don’t know if I know a lot of the tropes. With our infection, David Ebeltoft, who wrote the script, spent a lot of time researching and combining elements of infectious disease that could feel like an infection that could take hold of someone’s body. He tried to ground the infection in very real things, like rabies. Dave doing that research, to define the characteristics of the infection in very real ideas and the film in the real world, we stayed away from the tropes.
LB: The idea of a virus that spreads quickly, that’s something like rabies…it’s not likely but it’s not supernatural. It’s something that could happen.
Blackhurst: If you consider for a second, our lead character has been reduced to almost the same existence. Everything she’s doing is trying to survive, trying to find food, so if you were to look at the infected in our film, while they might not have cognitive human reasoning, they exist to feed and conserve energy and find another meal, and that is truly where we find our lead character at the beginning of the film. She is doing the exact same thing.
LB: Everything you’re describing is there without it being oversold. We get that when she’s smearing herself with crap she’s masking her scent, or that she’s using her own blood to distract the infected, without it being verbalized.
Blackhurst: At times we’ve had test audiences, and questions come up. They already think they know the answer, they just aren’t sure because people are so used to having things laid out for them, right on the nose, by simplifying everything,
LB: You probably couldn’t get away with that in a studio movie. You’d have some executive tell you, “Well, are they going to know what’s going on? Maybe she should talk about what she’s doing.” Rather than just letting us figure it out.
Blackhurst: Everything in the film is there, all the information is there. You have to be an active and engaged viewer. If you were paying attention to the film, devoting the time to watching the film, not checking Instagram or Twitter, all the answers are there.
LB: Assume your audience is as smart as you are.
Blackhurst: There are too many inserts in films, it’s like, “Show me a close-up of the thing I’m supposed to notice,” instead of it being there in a wider frame.
LB: There are no inserts in life.
Blackhurst: It was really important for me as a director to respect the audience and ask them to follow along. Put all your devices aside and watch this film. The clues are there, you need to piece it together, because things don’t need to be simple. Life is messy, complicated and nuanced. When you get to the end of the film, I would hope that you’re left thinking about, “What would I have done, and why would I have done that, and what do I do now?”
LB: You shot your movie in a widescreen format. A lot of filmmakers seem to use the aspect ratio simply because they can ― it looks pretty ― but maybe the narrative calls for a more intimate feel. You’re using it here with purpose.
Blackhurst: Everything you do should have a narrative implication – there should be a reason behind it. Here it’s presenting people in an isolated environment, you’ve got a lot of nature around all these intimate things happening, and you’re constantly reminding people of the scope of the isolation.
LB: And plans for the future?
Blackhurst: Noah [Lang, Here Alone producer] likes to talk about us being these kids that nobody invited to this raging house party in Hollywood, but we found a way to sneak in through the window and our plan is to put the best mix on the PA system. And then once people hear our music playing, they invite us to stay at the party.
Editor’s Note: On April 23, 2016 Tribeca announced that Here Alone won the audience award for narrative films. Congratulations Rod Blackhurst and crew!