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Exclusive Interview: YellowBrickRoad Directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton

Posted by LiveFor on January 20, 2010

A few days ago I posted the trailer and poster for a cool looking indie horror film called YellowBrickRoad.

One Morning in New England, 1940, the entire population of Friar New Hampshire – 572 people – walked together up a winding mountain trail and into the wilderness. They left behind their clothes, their money, all of their essentials. Even their dogs were abandoned, tied to posts and left to starve. No One knows why. A search party dispatched by the U.S. Army eventually discovered the remains of nearly 300 of Friar’s evacuees. Many had frozen to death. Others were cruelly and mysteriously slaughtered. The bodies of the remaining citizens are still unaccounted for. Over the years, a quiet cover-up operation managed to weave the story of Friar into the stuff of legends and backwoods fairy tales. The town has slowly repopulated, but the vast wilderness is mostly untracked, with the northern-most stretches off limits to local hunters and loggers. In 2008, the coordinates for the “YELLOWBRICKROAD” trail head were declassified. The first official expedition into a dark and twisted wilderness will attempt to solve the mystery of the lost citizens of Friar…and reach the end of the trail.

The trailer looks excellent and had a good response from viewers to the site. The premiere at Slamdance has also sold out. I was lucky enough to have an interview with the directors of the film, Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton, and a very good interview it was indeed – they mention Into the Wild, King Kong, The Shining and Critters which earns them extra kudos in my book.

Here is what Jesse and Andy had to say:

-The two of you and the actors all come from a stage and TV background. Was this a help or hindrance when making the film?

The main thing we took from our years directing Theatre is a deep respect for the actor. Most everything we did on set and since in post-production has been to serve the performances. Even recently in color correction, I was knocking down the saturation of the trees in order that their color doesn’t dominate the image and take attention away from the actors’ faces. I think this attitude has helped us make a film that is very honest and believable, and thus scarier and more intense. Probably the biggest “hindrance” was that we were thrown a bit at first by how a film set is not really unified – everyone is in their department, be it camera or sound or electric, and it’s rarely your job as director to make a heartfelt speech to get everyone on the same page.

We also come from a post-production background – Jesse is a motion graphics artist and Andy is a composer and sound designer – and having these skills was an incredible help when doing post on such a small budget. We really took advantage of what you can do in this digital age by doing so much ourselves.

As for our actors’ TV experience, this was only helpful. We learned as much as we could from them about the craft side of acting in front of a camera, and they had a lot to teach.

-How long has the idea for YellowBrickRoad been knocking around in your heads? Can you run through how the story evolved?

It’s been two and half years since the film’s idea sparked. Originally, this was going to be a found footage movie like “Blair Witch”, and the characters were videographers instead of authors and cartographers. So we started writing the outline and we realized within about a month that we didn’t really want to make a found footage movie. Creatively we were feeling limited. Also practically. because success to us with this project has always been the chance to make a second film, and we felt we wouldn’t get the chance to showcase our ability and our real nature as directors in the found footage format. We were watching a lot of movies together and we found serious common ground in the slow-burn, character driven horror classics of the 70s. Beautiful horror films like The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, and Carrie. And they’re mainstream movies before they’re horror movies, they’re not slave to the genre. They don’t go for the cheap scare, they go for the truly unsettling, the Uncanny. And we decided that we wanted to tap into the Uncanny as well, and that the best way to do that was the opposite of the found footage aesthetic, and instead to go for elegance and precision. And so we brought a steadi-cam into the woods.

-Your favourite horror films of all time?

Our favorite film of all time is The Exorcist. I suppose it’s our favorite horror film as well but that comes second. We want to make films that aren’t just distractions but that really reach people and affect them. And talk about being “reached”, watching The Exorcist is like having your guts squeezed by a skeletal hand. You’re just not the same after seeing that movie – you look at things differently: hospitals, staircases. Like, you experience nighttime differently after seeing that movie. So we have the deepest respect for it and that’s where we wanted to start our visceral filmmaking journey, through making people afraid.

-What real world events / myths / strange occurrences help inspire the film and which ones do you just find fascinating while doing research?

We came up with the idea before hearing about such real occurances. We were thinking about how everyone has the capacity to be alone, to reject the idea of connecting to other people. Everyone feels that way sometimes, you feel the desire to leave everything behind and go live off the grid, and say goodbye to traffic and credit card companies. But if you think about it this is a pretty scary notion, that everyone can relate to this, like we’re all walking around with self-destruct buttons, and every now and then one of them goes off, like Chris McCandless in Into the Wild.

Later, when doing research, we did come across one account of an abandoned Eskimo village. It affected us deeply and had some pretty disturbing details. All the villiagers were gone, but they’d left all their belongings out like they were just there, and they even left their dogs tied to posts, and the dogs had starved to death. We don’t have any starving dogs in our film, yet that idea of a loved companion being so harshly abandoned definitely stayed with us, informed our writing.

-With regards the horror / thriller elements is there gore or is it mainly left for the imagination to fill in the gaps? Can you hint at what is affecting them?

There is a great essay by Orson Scott Card where he breaks fear in literature into three categories, “horror”, “terror”, and “dread”. Dread he describes as: it’s nighttime, you’re alone, and you see that your window is open, and you know that earlier you closed it. Terror is the chase, the killer running after the victim with a knife. And horror is the aftermath, the bloody corpse, the gore. Our film is 75% dread, 20% terror, and 5% horror. But it should be said that what we miss for gore in terms of quantity, we make up for with quality – we had very talented people helping us with the practical blood effects. Also worth saying that we prefer the term “Uncanny” to dread.

I think that since we’ve gotten this far without hinting at what is affecting the characters, we might as well keep going and let it be a surprise. When we didn’t let the cat out of the bag in our trailer release, we decided we’d keep the cat in the bag for a little while longer. Don’t worry, we feed her.

-What was the most challenging aspect of the shoot?

Geography. Friar is a fictitious town, but we shot exactly where it would have been set, in the northernmost part of New Hampshire. This is three and a half hours from the airport, no cell phones, limited internet. People don’t like feeling like they can’t reach their loved ones and that’s understandable. But there’s always a silver lining: we didn’t have a single blown take once because of someone’s cell phone ringing.

-How did you celebrate the last day of filming?

We had like no money left so we bought a lot of really cheap beer…and of course refreshing soda pop for our underage crew members. One of our rented houses had a great outdoor hot tub. It was fun. No one got killed, I swear.

-Congratulations on the premiere at Slamdance selling out. How did that make you feel when you heard the news?

There’s a lot of things about Slamdance that we’re looking forward to, but nothing more than getting our film out in front of a full house of excited people. Will we reach them? Ultimately, we realize we’re extremely lucky for the opportunity to have the world premiere of our first film on such a respected stage as Slamdance’s.

-Your favourite films of 2009?

JESSE: We’ve been down such rabbit holes finalizing the film that we haven’t seen enough movies this year. But I would say Adventureland, Humpday, Up in the Air, Deadgirl, District 9, and The Hurt Locker. I haven’t seen The Hurt Locker yet but I know it belongs there.

ANDY: Yes, we’re woefully behind here, haven’t seen very much in the whirlwind. Best I’ve seen has been A Serious Man, and I also loved Adventureland and Where The Wild Things Are. Dying to see The Hurt Locker, The Informant!, District 9, and many others I’ve missed.

-If you were going to be killed by a movie monster or maniac which one would do the deed and what would your final words be?

JESSE: I guess King Kong, because he’d hurtle you or stomp on you and I think it’d be fairly quick and painless. What would suck is if he just decided to sloooowly grind you in his fist. But no, I’d pick King Kong, and my last words would just be a sad, sad look up before dying. But then it would be like – oh look, the monkey’s crying!

ANDY: Definitely the Critterball from Critters 2. You remember all the critters got rolled up in that enormous spiky tooth-chomping ball and they’d roll over people and just leave the bones behind? That’s a pretty quick-but-special way to go, death by Critterball. My last words would probably be something like “Oh My God it’s the F@#$cking Critterb–” (Critter teeth cut me off before I finish, of course).

-What film do you first remember watching?

JESSE: Without a doubt it was 1977’s The Hobbit. On a short-lived video consumer enterprise known as the videodisc player. Watched it about 300 times, then took a sword to nursery school.

ANDY: I don’t even want to say it. Okay, it was Splash, the Daryl Hannah as mermaid movie. I don’t know why, but we had that movie on BETA and we just kept watching it I think. Wow, damage. But I didn’t develop a thing for mermaids; I actually don’t even eat fish.

-Can you give any fledgling film directors or writers reading this any advice?

JESSE: When you go into production you should know what you want backwards and forwards. And then, every day you have to be ready to fight for what you want. That means bigger egos, though, so the flipside is to remember that your ego, your identity, is not this movie. You have a soul and an existence that is completely separate from this movie.

ANDY: Don’t be afraid to tell new stories and tell them in new ways. I think we’re entering a time now where people know all the formulas so well and so much of what’s out there are re-makes, so they’re going to be refreshed by new things, things that surprise and challenge their expectations.

-What will you do differently when making your next feature?

There are so many little details that we didn’t know going in that we’ll look forward to getting right. Like we call it a “movie” while we’re shooting, we’ll call it a “show”. Cause we’ve learned that’s cooler and that’s what you’re supposed to do. And then there’s all the little ways in which we’ll now know exactly how we want to do it. As this was our first movie, we had to learn the rules this time around and go by a kind of pre-existing system. I think next time we’ll know the system going in, so we can tweak it to make it our own, to make it work better for us.

-What are you both working on next?

We’re working on something that is not a horror movie but still has strong thriller elements. The stakes are high and the consequences are grim and it takes place in a high school. We look forward to a lot of dolly shots and jib arms, things we couldn’t do in the last one.

-When and where can we see YellowBrickRoad?

Saturday 1/23 at 10 and Monday 1/25 at 3, in the main screening room at Slamdance. After that? We’ll see but you can follow us at http://www.yellowbrickroadthemovie.com and we’ll let you know.

Jesse and Andy thanks for your time.

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