An Interview with the They Will Outlive Us All Creative Team: Part I – By Philip Smolen

“They Will Outlive Us All” (TWOLUA) is a wonderful new horror comedy and tells the story of two roommates Daniel (Nat Cassidy) and Margo (Jessi Gotta) who begin to notice strange things going on both in New York City and in their Brooklyn apartment after multiple super storms have devastated the East Coast of the United States. It’s a creepy, funny and superior apocalyptic horror film (for my review, please go here) and I needed to find out more about this little gem. So I tracked down the three individuals most responsible for its creation: director Patrick Shearer, director of photography Phil Shearer (Pat’s brother), and actress/producer and writer Jessi Gotta (who’s no stranger to the readers of Rogue Cinema). We were unable to meet in person due to scheduling conflicts, but the trio still graciously agreed to answer my written questions. Due to the interview’s overall length I thought it best that the first half should run this month while the second half will run in the October issue of the magazine.

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RC: How many projects have the three of you worked on together?

Pat: We’ve all worked together on other projects, but never in these roles. Phil and I grew up doing stage productions together, and a couple of years ago all of us worked together for the first time on a play called “Colorful World.” It was a stage play that was stylized like a comic book (and heavily inspired by “Watchman” and “The Dark Knight Returns”). I was also lucky to help out with Jessi’s last two film projects, “The Big Bad” and “Anniversary Dinner.” Once Jessi and I started talking in earnest about actually doing this film, we both knew we had to get Phil out here.

Phil: We have all collaborated on theatrical endeavors over the years.  Patrick and I have worked together quite a bit, from stage productions to musical recordings to film.  We all get along really well and have much of the same philosophy when we attack a project from all sides – as we did on TWOLUA.

Being in tune with each other is the key – especially when you’re challenged with budgets, time constraints, and location space – being able to foresee where each other is going in their thought process makes communication much more efficient and streamlines the work on set.  We’re lucky that we like each other too!

RC:  What was your original inspiration for TWOLUA?

Jessi: I wrote a sci-fi horror feature about a year ago that my gotta/enk films cohort Bryan Enk and I were really excited about.  But it required a crazy budget, and the challenge of getting the funds together was an insurmountable task, so it had to be put on the back burner.  

But I still wanted to shoot – I couldn’t wait.  So I started tossing around the idea of doing another super low budget horror film.  Then Hurricane Sandy hit NYC.  The city shut down in a way I had not experienced before.  And the media went crazy over climate change and how mega storms like Sandy would become the norm for us.  I couldn’t shake that loose from my brain.  

RC: What were your initial objectives for the film?

Pat: The script was so good, and I liked it so much, that my main personal objective was to avoid getting my dirty fingerprints all over this lovely thing Jessi had carved out of her imagination. Most everything else fell into sub-categories of that for me.

The bigger answer is we wanted to make a movie that was genuinely creepy AND very funny; one that told a personal story but that had a much larger implications. We also needed to accomplish it all in a very quick time frame.

The hope is that we’d get it seen as extensively as possible on the festival circuit, and if we were lucky, get a distribution deal that might get us on Netflix, or VOD.

RC:  Did you have to compromise any of those objectives during the making of the film?

Pat: There are always compromises along the way – that’s just the nature of any collaborative project – but so far we haven’t had to compromise on any of the biggies. We told the story we wanted to tell it, in the way we wanted to tell it, while staying on schedule, and close to our initial budget. We’ll see what the future brings for the film, since we’re just now starting to hear back about festivals.

RC: What makes the film really creepy for me is that it’s so grounded in possibility. You don’t have to take a large leap of faith to get there. How did you keep the film grounded in horror and keep it from spinning off into wild fantasy?

Pat: A lot of that is in Jessi’s script. When she was writing, we talked about our common experiences during Hurricane Sandy, and how they would make for a good convention for a modern horror movie. That kind of situation destabilizes EVERYTHING, which is essential to horror. “The world was THIS way once, but now it’s THIS way and all bets are off.” It creates room for something new and weird to happen and you buy it because it’s a different world than you thought (or maybe it just confirms your darkest suspicions of how things really work.) Plus, it takes care of that pesky and ever-present question: “Why aren’t they just using their cell phones/internet/calling the cops/getting off the island/etc.?” Every modern horror movie has to deal with that up front now. The whole concept of this new “hurricane season” creates all this room for an interesting story to happen. And in the center of this are two people that have inherited a world that’s trying to kill them, and we show how they cope with that together. It doesn’t take a huge leap to see the world that way.

The script also does a really great job of slowly revealing information to the audience, and raising the stakes each time. It leads you along the path so that you don’t have to buy it all at once. You can get comfortable with the fact that the water is bad, which leads to the revelation that people are dying in the building, which eventually leads to finding out what’s really going on. Jessi’s a great storyteller – and she’s evolving with every project – so much of that was inherent in the first drafts.

Jessi: It was always really just a simple story about 2 friends who were jaded and apathetic, being forced into a situation that required action.  The movie isn’t just bugs or hurricanes…it is about these two people and how they were either going to step up to the plate or remain inert in their apathy.

RC: Were you influenced by any films while you were writing and prepping TWOLUA?

Pat: Always. There are a lot of bits-and-bobs stolen or re-purposed from my favorite movies and movie makers. You could easily chart the influences as you watch – there’s a Kubrick shot, there’s a Lynch slow-push in, there’s a Raimi zoom, etc. It would be difficult for me NOT to do that, no matter what the movie was, although I did use these techniques in ways that were justified by the script. This film in particular lends itself to that because the characters are horror fans, too, and those kind of visual quotations (for lack of a better term) get the audience into the characters’ heads. It lets you see the world through their eyes, and interprets what they’re experiencing through the lens of the horror movies they’ve seen. One of the things Jessi and I discussed when we were going over the script was that these two characters live in a horror movie from the beginning; they just don’t recognize it until things start getting weird. There’s also a hearkening back to the old 50’s radioactive giant-creature genre in the DNA of this film, even though these bugs aren’t tank-sized.

When we were in rehearsals, right before getting ready to start principal photography, Jessi and I both watched “John Dies At The End” (2012) and thought it had a similar tone to what we were aiming for. The tone was something we wanted to make sure we were in agreement about, because it can be a bit tricky to nail when mixing comedy and horror, and that movie helped give us a vocabulary. So, yeah, a lot of influences came together on this one.

Jessi: My main influences while I was writing were Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982) and “The Shining” (1980).  I even inserted quotes from various parts of both into the script to pay homage to both films. Oddly enough they fit in seamlessly.  But as Patrick said, “John Dies at the End” was a big influence on certain style elements and tone.

Phil: I did a little research leading up to the shoot, recapping movies like “Joe’s Apartment” (1996) and “John Dies at the End” in the beginning of pre-production. I also watched “Jaws” (1975) again – knowing we might have limitations with ‘The Bug’ on set. I wanted to refresh my memory on how they built the tension with the presence of the shark without actually seeing it!  The proper camera angles can really help the director tell the story and sell the fear factor if done correctly.  I hope we achieved that.

Honestly though, when we jumped into it on day one (as I do with all of my projects) I try to leave all of those other influences at the door and just do my own thing – with directorial approval of course!

I wanted TWOLUA to take on its own style and feel and ultimately be as organic as possible.  It always amazes me that no matter how many times you read the script, design the storyboards, or try to visualize how it’s all going to go in your head, as soon as the camera ‘speeds’, the whole process takes on a life of its own.  It becomes very fluid and adaptive and sometimes, having to improvise in the moment to work around technical obstacles makes the story even better than you could have foreseen.  That happened quite a lot during the shoot.

RC:  Were you specifically trying to establish a palpable mood? What steps did you all take to try to enhance it?

Pat: Sure, the proper mood is such an important part of any horror movie. One of the tactics we used was to make sure the audience got a sense of the city being really empty, which is always disconcerting and goes a long way toward throwing you off-kilter. We’ve also got a couple of sequences where we’re trying to build tension around things that turn out to be fairly innocuous. By having those kinds of moments, it puts the audience into a state of not being sure where the danger is going to come from. Then, at the same time, we needed to walk that fine line between things being creepy and funny, hopefully simultaneously. After watching the movie recently, our friend Mac Rogers called it a “Lynchian Stoner Comedy”, which just about perfectly sums it all up. David Lynch’s work LIVES in that grey area between creepy and funny, so it’s an apt (and intentional) comparison.

Phil: Well, from my viewpoint behind the lens, I was very aware of transitional moments throughout the script. I really wanted the audience to consciously feel when things were going to get weird! I tried to not only change up the feel of the camera movement and shift angles, but more obviously in the lighting as well.  Anytime ‘The Bug’ was near or going to make an appearance, I always made sure there was a tinge of green in one of the lighting sources in the scene.  If it was in the kitchen, you’ll notice some green around the fridge, in the living room, under or around the sofa, in the bathroom, behind the toilet and so on!

I wanted it to start subtly and then have that ‘glow’ become more dominant as the story progressed – but definitely connect that ‘look’ to the bug throughout the movie. I think it worked.

Jessi: Definitely.  But the apartment itself provided a lot of that atmosphere for us.  The claustrophobia of the small space perfectly seeped into every shot. A lot of how to use that as an element fell on Phil’s head, so mad props to him for making it work.  Also Phil’s lighting really brought it all home… the bug had its own special green light, his use of heavy blues when things got heightened…he knocked it out of the park, once again.

RC: What was the most serious obstacle that each of you had to overcome?

Pat: I don’t know about the others, but my biggest obstacle to overcome was my inexperience. This is my first feature as a director, while Jessi’s had films out touring the festival circuit the last two years, and Phil’s been on big budget movie sets since he was nineteen.

Phil: Never enough time, money, equipment, crew, etc.…  And that’s not a negative reflection on the production team by any means; it’s just the way it is in this particular creative environment!

I would say for me personally the biggest obstacle was not enough lighting gear.  We did our absolute best to stretch the budget to its breaking point and make sure we had a decent lighting package on set, but as a DP with my entire history and background spent as a theatrical lighting designer – it’s never enough.  Thankfully our camera was hypersensitive to lower exposure levels, and Patrick, Jessi and I had the discussion in the very beginning about the fact that the genre can be somewhat under-lit and still be effective.

We rented some mid-sized LED fixtures locally, and I shipped a bunch of smaller battery operated LEDs from my shop in L.A. along with 500 additional pounds of camera, grip and support gear as well, but ultimately we only had a TOTAL of 7 lighting fixtures to shoot the entire project with. This meant that I would pretty much have to re-light every setup.  That’s a hell of a thing to have to keep track of, at least from a continuity standpoint.  I didn’t have a Gaffer and did all the work myself, so keeping color temp., key and fill sources in the right positions and every exposure in my head was a bitch. Thank the Tech Gods for color balancing and leveling in post production.

We really tried to shoot out locations and rooms as best we could before moving on to the next setup, but there were certain scheduling issues with both actors and crew that prohibited us from being as efficient as we would have liked.  Combine that with major power restrictions in the apartment location, as well as very small, confined spaces in which to work, and we were lucky we didn’t kill each other before the movie wrapped!

Jessi:  Budget, time, money, location. But within those limitations (any limitation) comes creativity.  Some of the best shit in the film is because there had to be a creative way to figure out how we could pull something off.  So I really can’t complain.  Limitations suck, but that is when you really are forced to be truly creative.

RC:  How did you find the apartment building that Daniel and Margo lived in? The building looks like something weird could be going on there.

Pat: It’s the apartment of a good friend of ours – playwright James Comtois. I’m sure there are weird things going on in there, but you’d have to ask him for details.

Jessi: HAHAHAHAHA – I mean no comment.

RC: How long did it take to cast the roles of Daniel and Margot?

Pat: We knew Jessi would play Margot, and there were a few options for Daniel.  It took much longer to figure out Nat Cassidy’s schedule, than it did to actually cast him. He’s a busy guy – understandably so, he’s multi-talented and is working on a lot of projects at one time.  Luckily it all worked out for us in the end.

RC: How long did principal photography take? How long were you all in post-production?

Pat: We wrapped principal photography in two weeks, and postproduction took about nine weeks (am I right about that, Jessi?) which is nuts! It’s still hard to believe. A lot of that was luck – things fell into place quickly, like being able to take over the apartment location for two weeks in April. But most of it is on account of Jessi being an amazing producer, and having such a dedicated cast and crew who went above and beyond. It wouldn’t have been possible to do what we did without two things, though: an extensive pre-production process, and being able to have our editor log and review footage every night. Since we knew we wouldn’t be able to do any re-shoots after wrapping principal photography, it was essential to make sure we’d gotten the footage we thought we had each day. And there were several instances where we’d missed something – a line, or connective tissue, or an important action point – so we were able to adjust our shooting schedule and do re-shoots during those two weeks in the apartment. It just goes to prove: NEVER doubt Jessi’s deadlines.

Jessi:  NEVER doubt my deadlines.  You were close Patrick, but we were a bit quicker then that – Two weeks of shooting, right into 3 weeks of editing, then right into 7 weeks for color and sound and then print to tape.  BAM.

We actually lost our first sound team the day of picture lock…we didn’t seem to be on their calendar and had to scramble to find another one.  No one seemed to believe our timeline for completion and that was silly of them. We had to crank this bad boy out fast to make all the horror fests deadlines that were quickly approaching.  Also we weren’t making a Malick film; this is a fun horror comedy and we didn’t need to beat it to death. The entire process, including writing the full script and pre-production was less than 7 months – December to the end of June 2013.

Next month in Rogue Cinema – More tales of indie weirdness and mayhem from the creators of “They Will Outlive Us All”! Stay Tuned!

For more information on “They Will Outlive Us All”, please visit these sites:

http://www.theywilloutliveusall.com and https://www.facebook.com/TheyWillOutliveUsAll