In 2015, director Perry Blackshear, along with cast (and crew) Evan Dumouchel, MacLeod Andrews and Margaret Ying Drake, screened their feature debut, They Look Like People. Now five years later, the team are bringing their second film, The Siren, to Frightfest Glasgow.
The story follows Tom, a young mute man whom becomes enchanted by mysterious woman Nina, whilst staying in a cabin on the lake. What Tom (Dumouchel) doesn’t know is that Nina (Ying Drake) is a Rusalka, a sea-dwelling being cursed to destroy all that she comes into contact with. As the pair begin a romance, they cross paths with Al (Andrews), a man mourning the death of his husband, and events begin to unravel.
Ahead of the Frightfest Glasgow screening, we sat down via the medium of a very shaky internet connection to find out more about the project.
The film screens at Frightfest Glasgow, but it isn’t a traditional horror; it has some elements of the genre, but isn’t what you’d typically expect. How does the film fit in for you?
MACLEOD ANDREWS: Generally my feeling in our experience, I think we’ve found the horror community to be far more diverse and open to what horror means than people give them credit for. I think they’re far more intelligent viewers then people assume because people just go, ‘oh horror, blood and guts’, but the amount of insight and the amount of goodwill and embracing that we’ve gotten from the horror community is incredible. For us, we do that the internal struggle of man can manifest outwardly in ghosts, demons, the things you’re seeing in They Look Like People. We feel that is our brand of horror. Those are the things that terrify us. That’s sort of where we start, so we’re really proud and happy to be screening at Frightfest, and to be a part of the horror community, even if we are a little gentler maybe then some other exploits.
PERRY BLACKSHEAR: Here, here MacLeod.
How did the idea for the film come together?
PS: I think at first it was just wanting to work with these guys again, that was a really big part of it. Hearing the myth of the Rusalka and how tragic that state of being was, the fundamental thing where this mythic being that was hurt and so now she’s condemned forever to hurt other people. I felt her pain. I felt like that’s happened to me at some point in my life. I think we all know what it’s like to be burnt, to be betrayed, and to be hurt by others and have it turn you into someone that wants to hurt people back. I think it was just a great place to start to tell a love story. To explore can you change for love? Can love make you into a new person? Can you not change? If you can’t, what do you do then? Do you accept people as they are? Do you not accept it?
All of us making the movie, when you make a movie as personal as we do, you have to be very invested in the theme. It becomes personal no matter what. I think for me it was very personal and it may have become personal for all of us as well in that way. It’s kinda close to home.
What stage did you all get involved, where you there from the inception, or did you [Perry] take the idea to them?
PS: I think very close to the inception.
MARGARET YING DRAKE: Well we were with the treatment from very early on. I was on the whole speaking, not speaking, what that thing came about and we turned it upside down.
MA: If I recall this project originated out of our experience on They Look Like People. The extreme joy we found collaborating and working there. I don’t even think we had sold They Look Like People at that point. We were just ‘we gotta work together again, we gotta make something.’
PS: I think we found out we got into Frightfest whilst we were making it – the first one. We were all out of set together so it was great. You’re just trying to make stuff you love. We couldn’t control whether They Look Like People would succeed or not. We just knew we wanted to make more work and keep doing the same stuff that we did on They Look Like People.
EVAN DUMOUCHEL: Yeah, and keep the same kind of community dynamic that we were feeling. We developed a real kinship in that experience and were like, ‘I don’t want this to end – wait we’re in control of that – we can just not end it.’
MA: I think in truly practical and artistic terms, you can challenge each other when you have a working relationship in ways that you sometimes can’t when you’re stepping into something new. You push each other a lot further which is incredibly gratifying.
PS: We knew this was going to be a little bit of a stretch. It was gutsy to do. It’s a very different film to They Look Like People in many ways. We knew we’d have to have some guts to do it.
So Evan, what was it like playing a character that cannot speak?
ED: Challenging. But also pretty exhilarating. I have to give much of the credit for that experience to people I was playing with. Playing a character that doesn’t speak forced me to listen a lot more closely. They allowed me to listen more closely, I really leaned into what’s going on with them and so whatever they are giving to me is sort of like radiating at a different frequency.
When we were working with the character in the very, very beginning and I’m learning that he won’t speak; I think that it lead to a lot of long conversations with Perry about, ‘well how are we going to make that happen?’ Everybody worked with me to collaborate on how that conversational language and dialogue with everybody would function. Once I was into it, especially when we were through rehearsals, I found it incredibly liberating and gratifying to do that. To get a chance to play with everybody. Particularly with Margaret, with the duality that’s she’s playing. When she’s got both sides of this coin that she’s playing at the exact same time, and a credit to her she’s doing them both at the same time. I’m leaning in, ping-ponging between the two trying to figure out what it is about this entity that’s pulling me in so much. I had a lot of free space to be able to work with that internally. Maybe because I wasn’t thinking about the next thing I’m going to say.
Margaret, you spend a lot of time in the water, how was that to shoot?
MYD: (Laughs) Oh boy. It was interesting. I mean it was… we started in Vermont, and it was the end of summer, so it was very cold. But these guys they made sure I was okay. I had a wet-suit on that I wore that was sleeveless but everything was all about making sure I was safe the whole time. I was actually four or five months pregnant at the time.
MA: That just goes to show what a bad-ass Margaret is.
MYD: It was one of those things where I had to kind of – and I’m terrified of water – I can swim horribly. It was just one of those things where I was, ‘why did I agree to do this?’ I love these guys so much so that’s why. We had very strict rules about how long I could be in the water. It was just one of those things that I had to face my own fears as I was doing this film. It was interesting because I’m controlling this inner need to run screaming out of a pool of dark water in the middle of the night, and I can’t. It’s that same restrictive sensation that I feel like the character is going through as well.
They Look Like People is mainly indoors, this one is mainly outdoors, did this switch cause any new challenges?
PS: I think when you shoot the way that we do, which is to use available light, there are challenges. There was a cinematographer that I gaffed for once when I was quite young called Bradford Young, whom I think shoots some of the Star Wars movies now. He started with a neo-realist way of shooting. He would just find light and then sort of move characters around until it worked so that he wouldn’t force his will on a location. He would act like a documentarian, find what worked with the location and help build scenes around it. I really liked that.
I think there were definitely some challenges. The outside is a lot more unpredictable. It could be pouring rain, or bright sun when it’s meant to be a very moody, intense scene. We had sort of prepared for that and I think found excitement, almost like each day was going over a hill of a mountain. You were like, ‘what’s today going to be like?’ you kind of make it work with what you have and find some exciting things along the way. It’s definitely a mindset. You have to give up some control which is scary.
How long was the shoot?
PS: I think it was about seventeen days. It was nice. We stayed in a little house next to the location so we could just dive right in everyday. We didn’t have to set up the stage for two hours, the stage was sort of set, as long as it wasn’t raining, in which case we were in trouble.
MA: As long as the lake was full of water.
ED: Check, check, check.
I talk to a lot of Frightfest filmmakers and it seems that shoot times just get smaller and smaller, so with seventeen days it seems like you guys had a reasonable amount of time. I’ve spoken to filmmakers that had six or seven days which is nuts, but I guess that’s indie filmmaking.
PS: I think especially when you want to bring equipment in. If you’re shooting on a Helium and it’s a thousand a day, and then your DP is several thousand a day, I think you can kind of go wide or deep. I think we were able to, we were a very small crew, and I think it has disadvantages and advantages both ways. I really value rehearsal, getting a lot of takes, being able to experiment a little bit and I’d much rather have more time that more equipment. But that’s certainly not every filmmaker. I think everybody has the things that they like to do and the way that they like to run sets.
Comparisons could be made to films such as Spring and The Shape of Water, were there any films that you looked to for inspiration?
PS: I think Let the Right One in definitely was a huge inspiration, even during They Look Like People. It proved that you could have a movie that was both a great love story, and a horror film and instead of cancelling each other out they could be woven together and make it even better. The horror gave the love story teeth, and the love story gave the horror a heart. I didn’t know that you could do that until I saw that movie. That, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. I love that movie because the vampire in that wasn’t really ashamed of being a vampire. She was just, ‘this is what you get. This is who I am’. I think she did feel conflict about it. I think the work that Margaret did really made the same character that does want love and to be a person but also isn’t ashamed of what and who she is.
What I love about movies like that ,and I think MacLeod was speaking of this, the sort of new horror, exploring the edges of what it means to be a horror movie. It’s taking an old story like a fairy-tale and taking the great stuff from it and then updating it and changing it. Flipping some of it on its head to be something very new, and movies like that are what I look to.
This is the second film that Frightfest have supported, this film releases via their Frightfest Presents label, what has your relationship been like?
PS: Evan, do you want to talk about Alan [Jones]?
MA: What’s there to say except he’s a magical human being?
ED: Truly one of my favourite people. Everyone is aware that he is a titan in that world, but I also really love people who can speak with kindness and directness at the same time. He doesn’t reserve his opinion. He doesn’t make you wonder what he is thinking. It’s the best and fastest route from where you are and where you want to go. I just admire that so much. It’s the kind of way I try to communicate and to see it matured in him to the degree that it has, I’m just like, ‘everything you said to me was true, and direct, and my feelings aren’t hurt, but I know what needs to change. You are great.’ So that’s my relationship to Alan specifically.
PS: Different festivals have a certain vibe, you get a sense of the value system of the programmers and the people that started it. I think a lot of filmmakers don’t realise that so many people are working for cheaper without pay and it’s so much a passion project for so many people. I just think through Fantasia, once we went over to Frightfest, it just felt like this big extended family and everyone was sort of friends with everybody else. Over time, the longer you’re in this world, you get to stay friends, or at least connections with people you share the same values with. So Todd [Brown]from XYZ and all these people, everybody knows each other and like-minded people find each other, Alan’s part of that. It feels really great. It feels like you can make these connections and decades later you still know each other and you’re still all working in the space together.
Frightfest is twenty this year so they must be doing something right.
MA: I think they walk the walk. Alan for example, but all of the guys, you can always trust their inherent desire to see you do well and support the filmmakers because they show up for you.
You guys have all worked together twice now, will there be a third?
PS: Yes, we shot a third film. We’re editing it right now. It’s very dark. I was telling someone I think it was the only film we’ve made – I guess this happened a little bit on They Look Like People – where we just had to stop whilst shooting because we were all so upset. Not because we were upset at each other, but because the material is very dark. It’s exciting, we’re very excited about it. It’s all happening at once.
The Siren screens at Frightfest Glasgow. The film will be released under Frightfest Presents on DVD and Digital HD on May 20th.