It’s Saturday, March 13, 2010, when Dread arrives to the snowy set of director Elise Robertson’s horror feature Donner Pass. Penned by Scott Adams and executive produced by Mouncey Ferguson, who financed the film, the independent feature tells the story of an unlucky group of teens who, while on a ski trip in the mountains around Lake Tahoe, encounter George Donner, an entity with a taste for human flesh, and unfortunately for the group, it’s for their own.
Setting foot into the remote mountain cabin that production has secured, and at present is being utilized as base-camp, I meet associate producer Duncan Ferguson, who fills us in on the status of Donner Pass, starring John (the voice of the Crypt Keeper) Kassir as ‘Epstein’, Adelaide (Power Rangers R.P.M.) Kane as ‘Nicole’, Desiree Hall as ‘Kayley’, and Antonio Trischitta as ‘Brody’, with the cast rounded out by up-and-comers Erik Stocklin and Colley Bailey and seasoned vets Thomas Kopache, Eric Pierpoint, Joel Stoffer, Russ Russo, and Kevin Kearns. Jude Walko is line producer.
“The first night out here was rough, man!” says Ferguson of the start of Donner Pass‘ fifteen days of principal photography, a film being surprisingly shot on Super 16mm – when most indie projects have gone the digital route. “Fifteen-degree weather and sideways snow is a difficult beginning to any shoot, but it really registered on camera, which is the most important thing. Today we are going to shoot the discovery of Brody’s body, which is filleted open and frozen in the snow.” (FX man Ralis Kahn is on-hand to provide the gore — more on that later.)
“A friend of (producer) Mouncey and (director) Elise’s, Scott Adams, had this screenplay that was floating around,” says Ferguson of the inception of Donner Pass. “Mouncey read it and thought it had a great plot that would work well as an independent film. He kept coming back to it because a) the story is great and b) he thought it could be shot for a reasonable budget. The thing about horror is that it’s really a director’s genre. Horror aficionados don’t care as much about who your star is or how large your budget may be. What they care about are authentic scares, so in that regard we think we’re making a film that people will want to see.”
Director Robertson, who previously helmed the documentary Ralph Ellison: An American Journey and who as an actress has tallied an impressive television resume (in addition to her credit as a character fabricator on Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas) joins the conversation.
“This is the first horror film I’ve ever directed,” she tells Dread, “but I really liked the dramatic arc (of the script) and the character development and story-telling, and I love the fact that this horror film is a character film. There’s a horror that happens within the group of teenagers that parallels the horror that is happening outside, so there is danger from within and danger from without. I feel like the characters are very well-drawn, more so than what you see in a lot of horror movies.”
“We are trying to create a movie that has plenty of gore and kills and blood, but it also has characterization,” she continues. “My favorite horror film is John Carpenter’s The Thing, where all of the characters are so incredibly well-drawn, and you set up this world where you really care about them, and then the horror comes in,” she pauses. “I’m very much of the classic 70’s and 80’s horror films. I like to care about the people who die.”
As for those who are set to die in Donner Pass, actor Antonio Trischitta emerges from the cabin, made-up by Kahn to look as if he’s been frozen solid by the elements (a mixture of Elmer’s Glue and Chrysal flower preservative mimics frozen eyelids and drool, we are told), and this scribe questions Robertson as to what unpleasant demise she’s gearing up to shoot. Several, we learn.
“The shed at the bottom of the hill is what we are shooting tonight,” says the director, pointing to a rag-tag set-piece that looks authentically straight out of 1849. “It’s the period opening of our movie that takes place with the Donner party, which will be the bloodiest. We’ve got five gallons of blood for that scene. It’s going to be a big night, because ‘George Donner’ is going to return to camp!”
“And that area they are digging,” she gestures to a large pit currently being excavated in the snow by several bundled crew-members, “is where we are going to stage today the ‘Brody corpse’ scene.”
“When you are out here shooting on location, you realize why Alfred Hitchcock always shot in a studio,” says Ferguson (jokingly) of the elemental challenges, “but on the other hand you really can’t replace the look of a real sugar pine forest covered in snow, and I think it also helps the actors because they’re able to see their breath in frigid air and realize the isolation. Hopefully, that should impact their performance in a meaningful way.”
As it turns out, though, in addition to the challenges of shooting on location, finding the right location was equally as daunting for the production team.
“One of the funny things that had happened was that we had found a perfect one in December where we could physically shoot everything on one property,” says Robertson, “and in late February two weeks before our shoot started, we went to discuss the price and logistics with the owner, and he stopped returning our phone calls. So finally we went and knocked on his door, and he invited us in. We sat down, and he said, ‘I’m having some hesitation about having you shoot your film on our property because there are presences that might be disturbed by the content of your movie.’ I was looking at Jude (Walko) thinking, ‘What does he mean by this?’ The owner went on to say that he had ‘visitors’ and ‘other people here aside from us,’ and finally I asked him, ‘Do you mean ghosts?’ and he said, ‘We don’t use that word.’”
“It was very funny, but he was dead serious about it,” Robertson continues, “and he said he didn’t want to be responsible for anything that might happen to the crew or to the film (stock) if it was to be developed and we were to find that there was nothing on it. So then we had to really scramble to find alternate locations, and we got this cabin three days before production started.”
The trials and tribulations of location scouting aside, the director tells us that she’s “blessed to have these incredible craftsmen working with me, particularly Ralis (Kahn), who’s very experienced in the genre. I’m bringing what I have as a character director, and he’s really helping me to understand what the horror fans want. We also have a great stunt coordinator with tons of experience in Don (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) Lee, who’s helping us with the action sequences, so I’m deferring to him in that regard, and already some of the stunts we’ve done have been super-cool.”
At that FX-man Kahn emerges from the cabin, toting an eviscerated prosthetic corpse as well as a bucket of silicone entrails, and Dread joins the splatter-artist as he sets up the ‘Brody corpse’ scene (effectively a bit of old-school movie magic: a false bottom platform which will allow actor Trischitta’s exposed head and arms to mesh up with the mutilated dummy corpse, while his own body remains hidden beneath the platform and snow). We ask Kahn, who’s previously provided the effects for such films as The Collector and Resident Evil: Extinction, what particular hurdles the wintry environs have provided him.
“We can’t use FX blood to dress the snow,” he says. “It just turns pink! So I’ve been using red candle wax.”
With the crew prepping the shot (Trischitta’s covered with snow while Kahn dresses the corpse with the previously mentioned entrails and a jug of blood), Dread suggests Donner Pass‘ content’s similarity to the 2009 horror/black comedy Ravenous (which stars actor Robert Carlyle as a ‘Wendigo’ who consumes his fellow snowed-in travelers) to director Robertson. She replies, “I myself found that film a little kitschy, but the subject matter is a little similar. For a while there we were calling the ‘Curse of Donner Country’ the ‘Wendigo’, but now we aren’t using that term. We see a possibility here for a whole kind of new monster that’s not quite a vampire and not quite a zombie, but somewhere in-between.”
This being a horror film, we bet there’s been some discussion regarding a possible franchise as well, as sequelization is a tried-and-true component of genre filmmaking.
“We’ve got parts two and three sort of outlined,” winks Robertson, who directs her DP Bobby Scott in preparation of the shot in which a trio of actors stumble across the frozen corpse of Brody, “and we’ll go from there.”
“The thing, though, that I think is going to set our horror film apart from others,” injects producer Ferguson, “is that Elise’s toe-hold is in drama and she understands the way actors work together. She’s relentless in that regard. So I think our character development will be above par, and as a result the film should be absolutely terrifying because you’ll actually care about the characters of Donner Pass and, consequently, what happens to them.”
Donner Pass – Teaser Trailer
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Our thanks to the cast and crew of Donner Pass for taking the time to chat with Dread Central on-set, and for more be sure to visit our Donner Pass photo gallery, which is full of lots more behind-the-scenes images.
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