It’s a bit of a relief upon meeting Tara Anaïse to discover that there’s no hint of the driven-at-all-costs filmmaker that’s at the center of her first feature “Dark Mountain.” This isn’t to say she lacks ambition as an all-too-rare female writer/director making her debut in the found-footage horror film genre (with only a male production designer amongst the key crew, no less). Yet she isn’t blinded by it as is the case of Kate (Sage Howard), a budding documentarian who is convinced her career will be launched by a thorough investigation of the Lost Dutchman Mine in Superstition Mountain in Arizona, a place where UFO sightings are said to be frequent yet cell phone reception is nil.
It isn’t long before Kate finds herself in over her head, already juggling the competition for her attention between her boyfriend Paul (Andrew Simpson) and her friend Ross (Shelby Stehlin), both of whom she brings along, amidst the harsh landscape filled with nothing but dust, cactus, snakes and coyotes. Yet Anaïse has a considerably easier go of it, or at least she makes it look like she does in blending all of the myths surrounding the mountain – some supernatural, others dependent on all too human occurrences of evil such as greed – into something frightening enough to hear audible gasps throughout its premiere this week at the Austin Film Festival. Though she had audiences fidgeting in their seats, Anaïse herself was able to sit still to talk to us about the many different paths she took before finding the right one to “Dark Mountain,” utilizing nearby residents to give the film extra authenticity and why her next film may be a Bollywood production.
How did “Dark Mountain” come about?
The movie is based on an actual legend and if you’re from Arizona, you know about the Lost Dutchman Mine. My producing partner is from Arizona and towards the end of grad school where we met, she mentioned this mine and the legend to me, and that she wanted to make a film about it. I started researching it and I was like, “Oh my god, this is amazing. This is a movie already.”
Her original concept was to do a kids’ movie, something like “Goonies” or “Holes.” We actually wrote that movie, but that’s not either of our sensibilities. Then it went through several other iterations. There is so much around this legend, we were like, “Oh, maybe it could be something like ‘The X-Files’ or maybe it should be a Cold War-era TV show, like CIA government base underneath of it.” Then I just had the thought if we go the found footage route, like horror/thriller, we can combine all of these elements into this one thing and also make it financially possible for us to do it ourselves. Once I started writing it, I don’t know how else I would have been able to combine all of these disparate elements into one cohesive film.
If it was your producer who introduced you to the mountain, how did your own discovery process inform the story of this videographer who is conducting this investigation?
At this point, I feel like know more about the superstitions and the legends than she does because I became so obsessed with it. I have read so much about it. There are so many different stories about this mountain. The Apache considered it sacred ground — it’s like the home of their thunder god. The Pima [Indians’] creation myth takes place out there. There are these old military trails that run through. People see strange lights in the sky all the time. Some think there are energy vortexes. Actually, when we were shooting, we did three days in Arizona with a totally skeleton crew. It was just me, one of my producers, Megan [Peterson], and our DP [Pyongson Yim] and we brought out our two actors, Andy [Simpson] and Shelby [Stehlin].
There’s a ghost town called Goldfield Ghost Town, which now is a tourist attraction, but there’s a saloon there. We were hanging out after doing the interviews [with some locals] with probably like 15 or 20 people outside on the deck and the Superstition Mountains in the background. All of a sudden, someone just looked up into the sky and was like, “What is that?” We look up, there was like a fireball. We all saw it. I said to Pyongson, my DP, “Grab the camera! Shoot that!” She goes to shoot it and every other light source would register, but that just didn’t register. As we’re staring at it, it was just hovering. If it was like a meteor, it would be moving. I’ve never seen anything like that, and then it just dissipated. I think people in Arizona see that kind of stuff all the time and they’re just like, “Huh. There’s another weird thing in the sky.”
Were there any other surprises during production? Besides possibly seeing alien activity, of course?
The whole thing was a lot of fun. But I’m not going to lie. It was really hard because of the schedule. We did six days in the Angeles National Forest, which is probably a 40-minute drive up into the mountains from Los Angeles. Conditions were pretty rustic. [laughs] The days were long. We wanted to make sure everyone had a 12-hour turnaround, and it meant that we had to shoot like really, really, really fast. Physically, it was hard. There were fire ants and during the day, it could be 90 degrees, then at night, we needed winter coats. Then going out to Arizona… It was June, so it was like 120 [degrees]. That was the most challenging.
This may be unrelated, but I saw you were actually working on a documentary called “Borderlands” as well. Both the setting and the format suggested that it might actually be an influence on this film.
I never actually thought about that. I’m very interested in the idea of borders in general because it’s just like a line in the sand. It’s completely meaningless. The land on one side is exactly the same as land on the other. It’s a complete construct. Character-wise, [there’s a connection] because what I did for “Dark Mountain,” those guys that don’t look like actors in the movie, they’re just actual people that I went and I found. I interviewed them. What they say isn’t scripted. Those were their actual thoughts [on the Lost Dutchman Mine]. I like to find people to talk to and get them to tell me their stories.
When you make a documentary, you have to shoot whenever you can and it’s this amorphous thing that evolves. We started [“Borderlands”] in 2010 and would take trips whenever we could. We found this guy named Enrique Morones, who runs this group called the Border Angels, and what they do is they put out food and water in the middle of the desert for people who are crossing [the border]. We also found these minutemen who live in Campo, California, which is out east of San Diego, right along the border. These guys are fascinating characters. My producing partner on that [film] actually had a baby and was going to graduate school too, so things fell a little bit by the wayside, but we actually just had coffee [recently] and we were both like, “Why not instead of trying to shoot more, let’s just take what we have and make it a short? It can be a really great short.” We wanted it to be a feature, at this point, we have some amazing stuff, so [we’re thinking], “Let’s just do it and put it out there now.”
I’ve heard from other filmmakers that you have to be so much more disciplined on a found footage film than you do on a traditional narrative. Is it interesting to tell a story in that way?
The tough thing for me was from the beginning I wanted it to look a little nicer than normal found- footage films. I didn’t want to make it strictly found footage. I wanted to use music and do these other things to set it apart. Originally, I wanted everything to play out in one shot. Have you seen the movie “REC”? Before directing this, I watched like every found-footage film I could get my hands on, just to see what worked and what didn’t. Actually, [“REC”] was really great, just the way that everything plays out in one take, but it’s very, very difficult. As we were shooting [“Dark Mountain”], I had to just shift my expectations. Then when it came time to cut it, I’m really happy with the way we combined the found footage with a little bit of something else.
How did you get interested in filmmaking in the first place?
Honestly, I wanted to make movies since I was a kid. I would take my parents’ video camera and film weird stuff. Then I went to the University of Pennsylvania for undergrad and majored in English with a concentration in film, but it was like film theory. Then after college I applied [to film school] and I got into USC, so I went there. Also, I’m half Indian. My dad’s side of the family, most of them live in Bombay and a lot of them work in Bollywood. Maybe it’s just in my blood. For my next project, I really want to go to India and make a movie.