There were some pretty intense days on the set of “The Dead Center,” although that was to be expected on the spooky tale that takes place inside a sweltering psych ward where Dr. Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth) has been tasked with getting a read on John Doe (Jeremy Childs), who wandered in from another wing of the hospital after initially being brought in as the victim of a suicide. While writer/director Billy Senese had already well established a rapport with Childs, with whom he had first developed the idea of the undead John Doe in the 2010 short “The Suicide Tapes,” he had to think outside the box in order to find the right person to play the puzzled psychiatrist Forrester and came up with the inspired choice of Carruth, who hadn’t taken a significant part in anyone else’s feature but his own in “Primer” and “Upstream Color.” And as it would turn out, it wasn’t only Carruth’s instincts as an actor that would prove valuable to playing Forrester, but being able to decipher what his fellow writer/director wanted when things got nuts on the production.
“[There’s a scene] in the bathroom where I’m having my freakout and I’m washing my face, but I’m still haunted by [my encounter with John Doe], and we’re shooting that and we’re somewhat rushed,” recalled Carruth, a day after the film’s premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. “We’re running out of time with the location and Billy comes in and he said something like, ‘Here’s the thing, you’re seeing this stuff, you don’t know what it is and it’s scaring you to death – but also you’re wowed by it, like it’s some kind of higher power like ooh, what is that? But at the same time, it’s full of dread.’ And I go “Billy, that’s like five things and I can’t even really do one well.’”
“Did I say all that?” responded Senese. “Holy shit, I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I gave you five things to play.”
“You said more than that,” laughs Carruth. “But I knew you were in your own head and you didn’t even hear me.”
This isn’t a complaint on Carruth’s part, clearly enjoying being able to concentrate exclusively on one part of the filmmaking process after usually wearing so many other hats, and Senese can rest easy himself now, having made a chilling paranoid thriller like the ones of the 1970s that first inspired him to make “The Dead Center.” After having a close friend pass away of an overdose that at once felt inevitable but also random, the writer/director set his sights on the void that opens when someone dies, doing considerable research into black holes and death gods in order to understand how people ascribe meaning to it. The notion that death actually has some quantifiable qualities becomes particularly provocative as Doe walks among the living, becoming an enigma to unravel both psychologically for Carruth’s psychiatrist, who already has a complicated relationship with death within his own family, and physically for Michael Clark James (Bill Feehely), a medical examiner who traces John Doe’s footsteps back to some most disturbing places. With the film about to make its New York debut at the What the Fest!? Festival in New York this weekend en route to a release later this year from Arrow Films, we wanted to publish this conversation with Senese, Childs and Carruth from last fall about the genesis of the film, the trickiness of making a thriller involving the spectre of death without attaching an assumption that evil is involved and why no matter how much audiences will sweat while watching “The Dead Center,” it still won’t compare to what went on while making it.
Billy Senese: I started writing the short film called “The Suicide Tapes,” a found footage film that’s completely different than “The Dead Center,” and the psychiatrist is a female played by Jenny Little and she sets up a camera and it’s 25 minutes long and it’s Jeremy talking. It’s one shot of this character that you’ve kind of got in John Doe [in “Dead Center”], and that whole arc happens in 25 minutes, but it really changed dramatically once I started getting into the bigger ideas.
Jeremy Childs: It was a seed.
Since you two know each other, how did Shane get involved?
Billy Senese: I just finished the script and was looking for funding [when] I was watching “Upstream Color” one day at home, which I love, and I just thought Shane just has such a natural quality and he’d be perfect as a psychiatrist. So we went after him and we somehow found him. [laughs] I feel very fortunate.
Shane, do you actually get many offers to act? It’s often overlooked with your other talents.
Shane Carruth: My life doesn’t work with offers. Nothing comes out of the blue, like “Here, do you want this?” It’s like “hey, here’s something that exists” and then the expectation is you chase it. So I don’t get thrown stuff, and this wasn’t thrown to me either, really, but it started a conversation where these guys were cool with me and I was cool with getting involved and seeing what they were going to do with this.
Billy said something interesting at the premiere about how evil and the inevitable are often confused in relation to mortality. Was that a fine line to walk here?
Billy Senese: It was really fine. And in genre film, I think there’s this fine line that does exist and you’ve just got to be really careful and how do you keep it elevated and how do you keep it interesting. Usually, it’s about taking away and not showing as much, but then you’ve got to show something, so there’s there’s fine line between how do I get at this thing that’s objective, but it’s inevitable. Because of the tropes of genre world [suggest] here is this monster creature and I’ve already had people after watching the film, go “Oh yeah, the demon thing…” or whatever. You can’t help it. But hopefully, it comes through a little bit that it’s not evil.
Shane Carruth: But I have a question about that. As I started to have more and more of these questions beyond our first conversations, we were already in shooting and it never felt like something my character needed to know, so I just dropped it, but what is the different between evil and the infinite?
Billy Senese: For me, it’s about not caring one way or the other. Usually, when you talk about evil and you talk about good, you’re living in that world of opposites. We live in that world of life and death and God or whatever you might call that [higher power] doesn’t have that conflict. You look at life without that burden of one side or the other. I see this thing like a black hole. It doesn’t have those emotions or it doesn’t live in that world. It just is. That’s what I was trying to get at.
Billy, did you always have that bifurcated structure with the medical examiner and the doctor in mind?
Billy Senese: Yeah, I wrote my last film, “Closer to God,” one way and then when the rough cut got assembled [according to the script], it was exactly the script and it was awful. And it was my first film, and a really bad night, so I started getting all the note cards on the table and being like how can I reedit this, how can I rethink this?” And my editor really realize the tension points were off, but I had these two stories going on there already, so we figured out a way to really make it work [because] you know it’s coming and that comes back to the inevitability that I talked about last night and it helps you feel that because you see the two stories about to connect. So I found it luckily in my last film in the edit and I loved that idea so much that I said on this film, let’s do it right from the beginning. I want to carry that same structure. I don’t know that I’ll do it again, but I really wanted to get it right this time.
There’s the moment where the supervisor of Shane’s character Daniel says his mother committed suicide in the past. Is that something you had to think about? Are there details that unlocked the character for you?
Shane Carruth: Yeah, Billy and I had talked a lot and he informed me of that backstory and we had gotten into such a good conversation, he was letting me play a bit with some stuff. I think there was some time where [Billy] felt we didn’t even need to spend time talking about Daniel’s mom, like that was [just] going to be evident. And in my understanding in my relationship with Sarah [played by Poorna Jagannathan], I had imagined that instead of maybe my mom committing suicide, maybe it was my sister and that her and Sarah were like good college friends, so that was my connection to Sarah. If there was any sort of emotional connection with her, it wasn’t anything romantic. She was always my connection to this woman and since we didn’t really get into it again after that, I just figured if it gets to the same spot, that’s the way I’m going to think about what I was carrying around.
Billy Senese: And I always encourage my actors if they’ve got something that plays, I don’t care what pre- thing is in there.
Shane Carruth: It just needed to be trauma. It needed to be something from the past that’s recognizable in what you’re seeing, but talked a lot about who’s Daniel. Like if it’s shot in Nashville, does he have a Southern accent? And Billy just said, “No, screw all that. Focus on what’s important.”
Jeremy, you were back on board with getting in this headspace?
Jeremy Childs: Like [Billy] said, that short was really the seed for it, so the rest of it we built up [by] talking a lot about the three different characters, differentiating between John Doe, who was the guy with amnesia, Michael Clark, who is John Doe with his memory back and this abstract thing that we talked so much about, which is death, the chaotic embodiment of death, whatever that is and however you play that. We probably talked the most about that.
Billy Senese: Yeah, it’s a difficult one because what’s the playable choice there?
Jeremy Childs: That you’ve not seen before and that’s unique. I don’t know if we accomplished that, but we tried real hard.
Shane Carruth: And the local [actors] were so good. I was amazed. [Typically] you get the feeling like you’re going to have to bring somebody into a moment [when they’re only on set for a day]. Like “I’ve been on set a few days, you don’t know what you’re doing here.” But I remember a couple of them, I came out and did a scene and I was like, “Wow, I’ve got to meet your level now. What’s going on?” These guys were so good.
Billy Senese: Yeah, they’re really talented. We were able to do this on our last film “Closer to God” too [because] Jeremy has been in the Nashville acting scene for a very long time and he knows the cream of the crop, so we were able to tap into that and then when we had like 40 characters, these day-player characters that had to be good, we went to the best we could get in a small town like Nashville.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
Shane Carruth: We shot it in June with no AC.
Billy Senese: Oh yeah, I forgot about that. [laughs] Thank you. That was awful. And we basically found an abandoned hospital that we renovated just this section, but of course, it didn’t have any AC and we were an independent film, so bringing AC in was a thing. Our line producer started going, “Well, we just need to bring in these smaller units.” And that did not work. [laughs] And finally our AD said, “No, no, no, let’s get this guy to bring in the big blower,” and that helped more, but…
Shane Carruth: And you made the mistake of casting the one guy that sweats anything above 75 degrees. [laughs] And Poorna just used to come and make fun of me because I’d been sweating droplets. She’d just point to her face like “Not a drop.”
Billy Senese: Yeah, she was wonderfully composed and graceful.
Jeremy Childs: Our first rehearsal before a camera crew and all that, Billy and I were concerned [about Shane], like “Is he alright? Is he alright?” [laughs] Because you were soaked.
Billy Senese: But it really was extraordinarily hot.
Jeremy Childs: I mean I had a ton of fun on this shoot, but it was a hard shoot.
Billy Senese: The heat did not help.
Billy Senese: We got lucky. My producers were looking, either through the firehouses or through the news coverage [for] anybody who recently had a tragedy and we found this, and they were going to let us shoot there. It was our first day of shooting and I remember it was on a Monday and all of a sudden, we found out on that Saturday, oh they’re going to demolish [it] and that was going to be on Wednesday and we were going to shoot on a Monday and the house would be gone after that, but then they said, “Actually, it’s going to be on Monday.” We’re like, “Oh shit, do we have to move the shoot up?” We were scrambling, but we were able to keep it on that Monday and it was such a great find.
Jeremy Childs: Yeah, instant production value.
Between Billy and Shane, are there things you can pick up from each other as fellow writer/directors?
Shane Carruth: I will definitely take away more than it went the other way, for sure. I loved focusing on one thing and just watching the machinery happen.
Billy Senese: Jeremy and I have worked together so long we feel like we have a language already, but with Shane, I feel like it went beyond a regular actor/director relationship where he would question me and make me defend my choices sometimes in a way that would make me a better filmmaker.
Shane Carruth: Yeah, we had such good conversations early on and I think there was so much respect. I definitely bit my tongue a few times, but that’s just my own internal…
Billy Senese: How could you not?
Shane Carruth: But you were always open if there was something that was objectively something to talk about, you were always open for it. And I would trust that if you told me to do something, and I don’t quite get it, I’m like, “I trust him enough now that I can just go for it.”
Billy Senese: But the two writer/directors on set thing became incredible for me. There were times where [Shane] didn’t say it quite like this, but it was almost like “Defend that choice. Why are we doing this?” And sometimes that led to [realizing] a flaw, like “He’s actually right. There’s something wrong here and I need to think about it harder.” Those sorts of things made me a better filmmaker.
“The Dead Center” will screen at the What The Fest!? Festival at IFC Center in New York on March 23rd at 2:30 pm, preceded with a talk from Brian D. Robinson, Chief of Surgical Pathology at Weill Cornell Medicine. It will be released later this year by Arrow Films.