There are so many exciting new voices in horror right now, and so many of them who are friends, that it’s only made sense that there has been a proliferation of anthology films designed to showcase them. Yet despite distinctive individual segments in many of these films, few have attempted, let alone succeeded in doing something new and exciting with the form. So after producers Brad Miska and Roxanne Benjamin first partnered on “V/H/S,” and its sequel “V/H/S 2,” both a forward-thinking reinvention of found-footage flicks and a clever reference to the way in which its filmmakers discovered their love of the horror genre during the ’80s, it was only a matter of time before the two would rethink the anthology film even more.
“Southbound,” which brings together Benjamin (in her feature directorial debut), “Devil’s Due” directing collective Radio Silence, “The Signal” co-helmer David Bruckner and “Entrance” director Patrick Horvath, doesn’t lack for energy – a torrid 88-minute trip through the personal (and quite possibly shared) hell of some poor city folk who find themselves in the middle of nowhere for reasons that become clearer as the film wears on. But the additional charge that makes it so gripping is how the four different sets of filmmaking teams build an almost seamless flow between their segments, throwing off sparks of their own specific personality and the thrill of trying wackadoodle stuff that might be out of place in one of their features while creating a cohesive experience that keeps upping the ante and paying it off as it unfurls.
Part of that is surely the scenarios the filmmakers create for themselves – a pair of bloodied and bruised men who find themselves at the mercy of their surroundings when they believe they’ve become stuck in time (Radio Silence’s “The Way In” and “The Way Out”), an all-girl rock group who unwisely accept help from a family of eccentrics (Benjamin’s “Siren”), a car crash victim who looks in vain for help when he hits someone, necessitating a surgery he is definitely unqualified to perform (Bruckner’s “The Accident”), and a guy looking for his sister in all the wrong places (Horvath’s “Jailbreak”). However, collaboration was constantly raising the stakes of what the “Southbound” team was up to, and shortly after a triumphant bow at the Toronto Film Festival, and before the film’s stateside debut at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Benjamin, Bruckner, Horvath and Tyler Gillett of Radio Silence spoke about making a sum that was greater than its parts, the desert conditions that made art imitate life in a way and pushing past the logistical challenges of making the film work as well as it does.
How did this first come together?
Tyler Gillett: Brad Miska got in touch with us really early on, which was really was how “V/H/S” happened. He was like, “Hey, I want to make a movie, you guys have anything?” He had a loose pitch about an anthology that would explore multiple subgenres. Radio Silence started digging into what that was and got back to him a couple days later with the pitch for how we would transition from one segment to the next.
Roxanne Benjamin: Yeah, they were kicking around some ideas, and then came to me and I grabbed Bruckner and we got Pat [Horvath] involved who is are new bandmate.
David Bruckner: We all had such a great experience with “V/H/S” that when the opportunity to do another anthology came up, it became a really fun conversation for us to explore what could we do different? And how can we address some of the normal pitfalls that you have with an anthology? Mainly, the fact that you can get invested in one story and then you have to drop it, leave it behind and start another one. We were trying to find a way around that. Radio Silence had this idea of zipper transitions — that’s what they called them — where you’re tracking one element in the story and it leads in to another story. You’re not really sure when one ends and the next one begins. That was a really compelling idea and we started there. From there, I think the mythology of the whole movie started to work.
Tyler Gillett: It’s the first act problem.
Patrick Horvath: Yeah, we didn’t want to make a movie of first acts. That mantra was really in play at the top, and then it just [each of the filmmakers] essentially shifting where’s the start going to be for us rather what’s the start of the story. That ambiguity is a really big function of the energy.
David Bruckner: We wanted to make sure that the ebb and flow of the movie stayed in motion. Every time you found yourself in a new section of the movie, you had some equipment from the previous story that you’re carrying into the next.
Roxanne Benjamin: And that it’s bringing more knowledge of the world that we’re in in each section, the same that you would in a normal three-act structure. There’s the overarching three-act structure in the movie as well as the structure within each narrative.
Was the desert always the setting that informed the rest of it?
Roxanne Benjamin: It was always a desert road movie. We did a lot of drives out into the middle of nowhere during the day and night.
Tyler Gillett: The desert was the first thing that came to mind. Radio Silence had shot in Lone Pine, California a few times and we knew there was this small town in this valley- accessible but [with] this eery quality to it. We did an early scout up there.
Roxanne Benjamin: They shot “Tremors” there. On these long road trips, where you’re just on your own, there’s a lot of silence in car and you just get really reflective. Personal demons come out and it was like, “Oh, what if there actually were personal demons out here?”
Patrick Horvath: It became pretty evident, though we’d base it out of Los Angeles, which [had to do with] budgetary constraints. We could go here and put everybody up all the time, or we could try and get the most bang for our buck based out of LA and hoard our resources. Once you’re out [in the desert] and you’ve got really tenuous lifelines back to LA, that’s a little dicey, especially when you get curve balls, which we had plenty of. So we basically ran [it like a feature] movie [as opposed to individual shoots]. We all plugged in, [different] filmmaker groups.
Tyler Gillett: Basically, we had a [camera] equipment package that was essentially rented for the duration of the shoot. Our department heads had blocked out this very specific chunk of time in their lives and their schedules to make this movie. We had to make it logistically possible to even make the movie at all. The idea originally was all about one town. But when we were in Lone Pine and as we were exploring the geography, what was interesting about a road movie is that there’s this sense of distance being traveled and these stops along the way. Each of these stops are specific to what the characters are going through and what their stories are. Really, each stop just belongs to these characters and to this story, so we abandoned the idea of one town and decided instead to stretch this concept out over the geography of this weird valley in the middle of nowhere.
David Bruckner: From here on out, it’d be an interesting thing to always be writing your movie while you’re location scouting. You’re out in the environments, and you’re just compelled to photograph it. You’re going, “What could we do with this?” I’d just moved to California about a year ago, so the desert was this magnificent new place. We would all end up out there in these vast open spaces and the film came from that exploration. Half the reason we make horror movies it to go into creepy places and make believe.
Tyler Gillett: For the Radio Silence segments, we actually slept all of the crew and cast at that same house which was the location in the final segment. We had a lot of discussion about the logistics of shooting, and does it make sense to travel people to and from LA? The decision we made was to really hold people captive, to a certain extent, at the location, and that that had such a dramatic affect on what we ended up shooting. People were just out there, immersed in the weirdness of Wonder Valley and that house, and I think it was impossible to be out there and not be affected by how strange and desolate and quiet and lonely that location is. I love that we ended up sticking it out. But it was a long haul. There were a lot of weird days out there, but we had a blast.
David Bruckner: It absolutely infects the audience, too. You hear about these people do stuff like green screen and it loses the essence of something, whether it’s the creepy house [in “Sirens”] or the creepy hospital that we’re in in certain scenes [in “The Accident”] or in the car ride-alongs when the guys are driving, all that stuff is environmental. When you’re standing out there in the middle of the desert highway staging something terrifying, you get the sensation of what this is like and it absolutely gets up there on the screen.
There are obvious allusions to this being hell. Did the idea of the time loop that’s introduced in the first Radio Silence sequence come from the idea of the nine circles of hell?
Tyler Gillett: Generally, in an anthology, you want each segment to be satisfying in and of itself to have a beginning, middle, and end. As we all were developing this together, we were on board for the risk of, hey let’s start this out by asking a ton of questions about the world of the film and where and why it exists. Then over the course of it, each segment gives you another piece of that puzzle and it starts to make more sense. Narratively, creatively, collaboratively, the challenge was how do you design a mythology that is specific enough to be satisfying and that you can actually speak to over the course of the movie and it’s cohesive, but that isn’t so specific that it becomes restraining and reins people in to the degree that you’re not allowed to explore in each individual segment what makes them ultimately fun individual stories.
Patrick Horvath: It wasn’t until we brought all our first drafts to the first read-through that we started realizing that it was going to be really getting into this purgatory-ish idea of these characters having this “Twilight Zone” comeuppance.
Roxanne Benjamin: Yeah, it’s like once you’re here, you’re already here. You’re living in that circle of sorrow, reliving your regrets and your mistakes. You have the opportunity to change. You have the opportunity to make the right decision. Can you ever get out of your own way enough to do so?
You said at the post-screening Q & A in Toronto that the dialogue for Larry Fessenden, whose voice can be heard as a Wolfman Jack-esque DJ in between segments, was actually written by all of you. How did that work?
Roxanne Benjamin: A lot of our stuff was on Google docs that we all shared, so for [Fessenden’s narration], we wanted that to be hitting you over the head with what the world was so much that you’re not really paying attention to it because you’re watching the visual over the sound. Then you realize if you watch it a second time, he’s literally telling you the entire story and every moral of the movie in the broadest terms possible. That was actually really fun to write and we would all add in pieces and move them around. After we recorded it, [it became a question of] what chunks would fit where because everyone just had the full dialogue. It was just like, “What piece fits for this moment for you?”
Do you feel like these anthologies give you a chance to do something that you might not have the chance to do otherwise?
Roxanne Benjamin: I would say so because you may not have enough time to do a full feature, but you can grab someone to come in and do a part in a movie like this. That was more true in the “V/H/S” movies where it was less of a time commitment, whereas this was more structured like a full feature. Everyone involved from the get go [was there] through development all the way through the post process. It’s almost like working in TV. You have a working writers’ room and you’re creating a world together. You’re bouncing ideas off each other throughout the process and then through production and into post. We’re all very interconnected in the entire process. I don’t think you get to do that very often.
David Bruckner: Yeah, and like any variety show-type of thing, you’re pushed to do something a little bit more outlandish or weirder because you don’t have to support three acts for every single idea, so you get in and get out quick. You have a lot of freedom to experiment and it would be a shame if we were making anthology and play it safe, so with this one, we wanted to get weird.
Tyler Gillett: Yeah. The experiment lives in when do you get into your story and when do you get out? And how much do you need to set something up for it to be satisfying to an audience? That was so creatively fertile to play with.
Patrick Horvath: There’s just a lot more that you can play with. That being said, we couldn’t be just so crazy because it did have to connect up somewhat.
Were there crazy days on set?
David Bruckner: We were locked into 12-hour days and production on that level’s like science. There’s not a minute wasted on set. You’ve got to get to the end every single day and try to get as much to happen in front of the camera as humanly possible.
Tyler Gillett: Having to handle two segments with really just an extra day-and-a-half, we knew that we were going to have to move incredibly fast. I think that first day we did over 60 set-ups which sounds crazy to say, and there’s a lot of stunt stuff — [to portray the] physical and visual violence — that was just really exhausting. To make it feel like it had the production value that we wanted, it was a matter of moving fast enough to get coverage and make sure that there was some fun continuity in those sequences where the action is really up.
Roxanne Benjamin: There was a night we were out in the middle of the desert and the generator blew. The closest generator was five hours away, so it was like, “What are we going to shoot now, guys?” Stuff like that would happen. The van [in “Sirens”] actually did blow a tire and then we were stuck at the hotel with no van, and we’re like, “Okay, so shoot the train.” It’s the same production problems you have with anything, but we were definitely dealing with extremes of temperature and we were really just lost out on the road.
Patrick Horvath: Our first day was going to be at this one location in Antelope Valley — the tattoo parlor scene. We had rain that was going to start the second day of shooting after the tattoo parlor, but the same location and it was like 30, 40 degrees and we needed all our “Lost Soul” guys painted up white and then just completely naked. It was four in the morning, and these poor guys are shivering. They’ve got their space blankets on, and we ended up getting out there, pulling their blankets and then were like, “Alright, action!” We got through that and people were still smiling by the end of it, so it definitely set the tone for it.
David Bruckner: Driving through the dummy that we built in the middle of the desert highway in the middle of the night [for “The Accident”] was a particularly exciting element of filmmaking for me. We’d actually rigged my Honda as the impact car and we strung up a dummy of [a character who gets run over] in the middle of the road and just had our stunt guy drive through it at about 50 miles per hour. That was cheer-worthy for the crew. You do all this story work, then you get to cut loose when you’re doing horror with these gags [on the set]. There’s just this group payoff.
Roxanne Benjamin: One of my favorite moments on [David’s] set was the prosthetics that’s used on [Fabienne Therese’s stomach]. When she came out, we were like, “Oh, man. Wait, weren’t we supposed to have the prosthetic on her?” Our awesome effects team was like, “No, that’s it.” We were like, “Holy shit. That looks so real.” It tricked us so much that we felt like, “Oh, no, we messed up the schedule. She’s supposed to be in this stage.”
It’s one of the most effective prosthetics I can remember seeing in some time.
David Bruckner: Josh and Sierra Russell, the husband and wife team, just killed it. We have a lot of great effects throughout the entire movie, but they really showed up.
One of my other favorite scenes in the film may be one of its most mundane – there’s a creepy dinner table sequence in “Sirens” where Dana Gould of all people leads an extremely uncomfortable family dinner, complete with identical twins. How did that scene and Gould in particular come about?
Roxanne Benjamin: My co-writer Susan Burke comes from the comedy world. She does stand-up, as well as a drama and horror writer, and she knew Dana, so we dragged him into it. Then our twins were Max and Nick Folkman, who came to one of her shows and were like, “We’d love to work with you.” So we put them in the script and they’re also huge fans of Dana. They had had his video game from when they were kids, so they forced him to sign their copy of “Gex.” It was so great because Davey [Johnson], as well, I had worked with him on “Faults,” another movie I was co-producer on and Anessa [Ramsey], who was in “The Signal,” Dave [Bruckner]’s movie, so everyone knows everyone in our world. It’s like a puddle of kittens.
David Bruckner: Puddle of kittens? Is that what you call a bunch of kittens when they’re together?
Roxanne Benjamin: Yeah. They’re a puddle, right? Like a pride of lions.
David Bruckner: I’ve never heard that. It should be, if it’s not.
Roxanne Benjamin: Like a pride of lions, a puddle of kittens. [laughs] It was great because it was getting to work with people who are so used to improv and comedy, in that weird world was one of my favorite nights. I was under the table for most of that.
It seemed to get the uncomfortable pauses just right.
Roxanne Benjamin: That’s Jason Eisener. my editor [and director of “Hobo With a Shotgun”], who got conned into editing my movie.
Was editing a more collaborative effort than other anthologies you’ve worked on, just as the writing process was?
Roxanne Benjamin: Absolutely. Everyone edited their own piece, but since we’d been working on it together from the development stage, everyone had the bird’s eye view. From first rough cuts, we were all giving notes on each other’s stuff. We probably watched the movie like over 50 times together as a group and gave notes on each other’s.
Tyler Gillett: Really by design, everyone from the beginning was invested to the same degree. It wasn’t any more someone’s movie than anyone else’s movie. It was so equitable throughout, including the way the time and the schedule was allotted to each short, that everyone was coming from a place of wanting it to be as best as it could be. Once the clay started to take shape, it became really easy to see specifically what was working and what wasn’t, both in our own segments and in the movie as a whole.
David Bruckner: We’re all friends. We talk about movies day and night anyway, so to have your own project up there on screen, you look to each other constantly for indicators. You lose your way when you’re making a movie. One of the weirdest things about making a movie is that you can’t really see the forest through the trees. Once you’ve looked at an idea several times over, you lose that initial sense of what the impact was like, or what it’s like to learn that piece of information for the first time. If you have a reveal built into your movie, you completely lose every sense of that in the process of making it. It no longer makes sense to you, so having your friends there to help keep you honest on whether those moments are landing or if they make sense [is crucial]. We’re all there to coach each other through it and also to push it into a leaner, meaner state.
Tyler Gillett: [Seeing the first rough cut] was the moment where the magic of what the idea was was finally apparent. [During the production], it was this bastard Frankenstein monster that was like, what the fuck is this thing? But when it was done, there was something so exciting and so real and realized that at the beginning of it, we never thought was going to work. When it actually started to work, even though it was in it’s rawest form, it was cool to see that there was potential for it to be interesting and we just had to keep steering into that curve.
“Southbound” will be released on February 5th in limited release and available on iTunes on February 9th.