The Night Sitter had its world premiere at this year’s Arrow Video Frightfest. Directed by first-time feature duo Abiel Bruhn and John Rocco, it’s a Christmas set horror comedy featuring babysitting and witches. Sadly, the pair couldn’t attend the festival, but we were able to catch-up with them in the lead-up, and they were very excited for their film to be shared with one of the best genre audiences in the world.
They also proved that they more than know their stuff as we had an in-depth conversation with them about Christmas on film, supportive parents, and the importance of getting the lighting just right.
The film gets its UK premiere at Frightfest, are you excited?
JOHN ROCCO: Oh, most definitely! We wouldn’t have it any other way. We are thrilled to have Frightfest as our world premiere.
ABIEL BRUHN: Definitely, we want to especially shout-out Paul McEvoy who contacted us at the beginning of the year and was super enthusiastic about the movie, right from the get-go. [He] was really, really dead-set on it having a world premiere at Frightfest. For us that was very flattering.
You guys are a directing duo, how did you guys meet?
AB: We actually met the very first day of film school; I guess that was like over ten years ago. I was actually borrowing a camera. It’s as pretty much as on the nose as you can get. We kept hanging out and started working together, and made a series of shots which kind of all led to The Night Sitter.
JR: Both of us love horror movies, so that’s kind of where our passion came. We both only made horror movies together. Abe also made other stuff as well.
AB: Yeah, I’ve written some other stuff, and shorts, but all of our collaborations have been horror.
Is it easy to work together?
JR: Definitely. Usually I’ll be writing the skeleton, and then once we start fleshing it out, Abe will wind-up taking it into a script format, and he actually ends-up writing almost everything, including the dialogue. That’s where our process is. I don’t necessarily write the script, but I’ll come up with the ideas and the basic story.
AB: Then once we get on set, it’s just intuitive. We’ve crafted in pre-production, all of the shots. We know what every scene is meant to do, what every character is supposed to be doing. So more often than not, we’re just able to just flow back and forth. The only exception is when something doesn’t work and it’s a spur of the moment thing. Then we might have to tell the actors to try it this way and then that way, because each one of us might have a slightly different idea of what would be best. But that’s as big as any schism gets, besides that, it’s pretty simple.
For those that haven’t heard much about The Night Sitter, can you give a brief synopsis of the film?
JR: So The Night Sitter is set at Christmas and it follows Amber, who is a babysitter, who shows-up to take care of this little kid, who has a weird dad. She starts watching him, and both the dad and the kid, and Amber herself, all have hidden secrets and motives. Then it’s a gory, colourful, comedic, horrific thrill-ride from there.
AB: We try to pitch it as Home Alone meets Suspiria. It’s a good Christmas-time film filled with blood and terror.
How did the idea formulate?
JR:Well the idea kinda came out of limitations and restrictions. We were trying to figure out locations and my parents house wound coming-up multiple times. I wound-up asking my parents for several months, and they eventually agreed that we could shoot something there if there was a good story. We came down to figuring out the story of the kid and the baby-sitter is a con-artist, with witches, and my parents liked it so we started getting the story down in script format, and that’s how it came to be.
AB:I think narratively, the movie for us represents a lot of the stylistic things that we love from horror movies. The colouring, the lighting, the supernatural element, the gore, all that. But marrying it to a fun sensibility. It’s a fairly lighthearted movie for something that’s a hard R movie. It’s a pretty fun movie and the scares are always accompanied by moments that make you grow a little closer to the characters. The relationship at the centre of the movie, this relationship between them, has that Christmas heart-warming vibe.
JR: It comes from a place of innocence as well. A lot of these ideas, at least the scary moments, came from when I was a kid, Kevin’s age. Because this is the house I actually grew-up in, we got to film a bunch of scary moments and scenes that used to terrify me as a child. Like our crawl space and my closet. It was just really interesting being able to incorporate all these ideas and have this nostalgic feeling while on set as well.
AB: I’m wondering now if it may have been a form of therapy that we didn’t know about. It’s funny that John mentions coming from a place of innocence because I do think that’s actually one of the things about The Night Sitter that is meaningful to us. Although Amber is the main character for a lot of the movie, you do have a child’s perspective and the types of things that scare him, it starts as things that you were scared of when you were a kid. From there it builds to something that was as bad as you thought. There’s something about that nostalgic, almost innocent perspective, it’s childhood fears…
JR: …that turns into reality.
AB: …that really spoke to us. Especially once we knew the location was going to be somewhere so personal to John.
JR: We also wanted to make a spin on a supernatural home-invasion movie. We love home invasion movies like You’re Next, there’s countless horror movies that are set in one location so we thought that it was a limitation and restriction, but also something that we could achieve and it would be something fun.
Sounds like you have pretty cool parents to let you loose in their house.
JR: Definitely. They actually stayed out of the house for this.
AB: We essentially had free reign of the house for four weeks or so.
JR: That’s our advice for any aspiring filmmakers, just ask your parents.
AB: Then have them move somewhere!
JR: ‘Mom, dad, I need some place to shoot a whole movie, so just get out.’
AB: We couldn’t have done it without a lot of people but especially them. That location was everything for us, so we’re very, very grateful. We actually shot in Nashville. We’re in LA, but obviously having a great location, a house like that in LA would be our entire budget just to shoot in it.
JR: So we took the necessary steps to get a lot of the cast, and some of the crew also came from Atlanta and Nashville and all these other surrounding areas. We cast semi-locally where the cast could drive. We slept actually at our parents house, so that saved exponentially on our costs as well.
AB: It was like an adult summer camp. Everyone stayed there, and then when everyone woke up in the morning… well not in the movie actually because we did three weeks of night shoots. So it would be that you would wake-up in the afternoon and say hi to everyone, and then start making a movie.
JR: It was pretty incredible. Definitely some of the best times we’ll ever have.
The film is set at Christmas what was the reasoning for this?
JR: Well Christmas is usually the best time to set any horror movie in my opinion because it’s a time of joy, and usually there’s family surrounding…
AB: Hold on, I just want to pause Rocco’s answer to inform you that he has a fully decorated Christmas tree in his house right now. It’s been there for…
JR: Like five years.
JR: I love Christmas. All of our other shorts stem from Christmas too. It’s always used to elaborate on our colour scheme of having the Suspiria. It’s all motivated through Christmas lights.
AB: It’s almost cinematic shorthand in a way. Something being at Christmas just makes people warm-up to it instantly. People think it’s a retro and nostalgic movie, even though it’s set in the present day.
JR: It’s also just keeping-up with tradition. There are so many Christmas horror movies that I grew-up watching, like Silent Night, Deadly Night, Black Christmas, even Black X-Mas from 2006, Better Watch Out, Christmas Evil. There’s just countless numbers of horror Christmas movies, so it’s just awesome that we get to add to that collection. I know there is a fan-base for it.
They say never work with children or animals, yet one of your main cast members is a child, did that cause many issues for filming?
JR: It wasn’t issues necessarily, as much as restrictions. Essentially, we weren’t able to film with the children past midnight. The parents gave us certain liberties which was awesome. Pretty much past ten pm or so, we were finding it semi-difficult to get the best performances out of the kids. Just because they’re tired, it’s past their bed time. That was the main difficulty. Besides that, they were amazing and so fun to work with. Jack Champion, our lead, is going to be in Avatar 2, 3 and 4, so we’re excited and super proud of him.
AB: It’s funny that you also mention never work with kids and animals because we actually had a scene in the script that we locked-out and were gonna shoot. It was two kids eating food, and an animal comes through and knocks a cup over. You write that down in the script and you’re like easy. Then you get to set and start shooting a dog, children who have to remember when they took bites of a pizza, and a cup that needs to get knocked over, and suddenly it’s like you’re shooting mission impossible or something.
One of the things that really stood-out to me when watching The Night Sitter, was the colour palate for the lighting. What was the thinking behind all the tinted lighting and filters?
AB: All of the colours were very deliberately chosen. We essentially had two main colours that we worked with, which were green and red.
JR: For Christmas.
AB:Yeah for Christmas, but green also symbolised the witches and red symbolised a warning / don’t enter this place. We have stairs leading down to the basement, which are red. We also painted the hallway to Ted’s office red as well to mimic that eerie vibe of do not enter this space. Those were two colours that we definitely played with a lot throughout the movie.
JR: Even down to the wardrobe of some of the characters. Amber and Evan, our two leads, both wear blue. The same with Kevin’s dad. We made all these conscious choices during pre-production, which took some time, but I think we figured out the balance for the madness of dripping colours that we have in almost every shot.
AB:I think for us, in a broader sense, the overall palette comes predominantly from Suspiria, Italian film, Blood and Black Lace, Re-Animator, a lot of films from the 80’s.
JR: The seventies and eighties just had some of the best, most colourful and vibrant movies.
AB: It’s a great way to build a world in a single location. The house doesn’t look like a regular house when you’re inside of it. There are just little touches everywhere that make it feel a little bit surreal, a little bit stylised, a little bit heightened. I think that really plays both into the supernatural element and the sense of humour which is a little bit absurd and heightened sometimes.
JR: The beginning of the film is slightly more muted. It is very colourful still, but it transitions throughout. Once the witches are introduced, we are very aware that we are using different colours in different rooms. We’re trying to create more of a mood than anything with these lights.
AB: And you don’t want to go back to the same room again and again and again,
JR: And the same colour.
AB: Keep seeing it the same way.
JR: We definitely consciously made these decisions to make these rooms look different and cast in different shadows. It made it visually more appealing for us, and hopefully to the audience.
AB: Something that I think has always appealed to us, is the ‘watched on mute test’. If you can take a movie and put it on mute, and just put it up while you play a record or something, which John does all of the time at his house, then that’s something that is cinematic.
What do you hope that people will get by choosing to watch The Night Sitter?
AB: They’re gonna get a good and entertaining and shocking time. That was our goal throughout making this movie. To just make sure that the audience is having a good time.
JR: I think they’re going to see something that really shows a love for the genre, and for gore effects, and for film-making, that they know they have as well. There’s nothing cynical or opportunistic or anything like that about The Night Sitter. It really is a passion project, and an independent film in the truest sense. It’s something that we poured our blood, sweat and tears into, and I think when you watch it you can feel that.
What’s next for you both?
JR: We have a film, a project called Killers Vanilla which is set in Los Angeles, and is a horror film – thriller – that is sort of our LA film. It’s sort of a tradition that filmmakers, especially those that live in LA, want to do a movie about their love of LA. It’s our version of that, with obviously a very, very mean spirit and a lot of violence.
AB: And involving a serial killer.
The Night Sitter debuted at Arrow Video Frightfest, read our review here.