In his award-winning Incident on Highway 73, director Brian Thompson takes us to the proverbial middle of nowhere alongside a couple who go missing on Christmas Eve 2005 after taking a road trip through the desert only to encounter some sinister forces on their travels.
Written by Michael Kirk, the Incident on Highway 73 short film stars Ian Alda and Elizabeth Schmidt as the doomed couple. It is still making the festival rounds six months after its premiere at LA’s Screamfest last fall. Dread Central recently caught up with Thompson to discuss his stellar sci-fi/horror short in honor of Indie Horror Month and heard more from the rising filmmaker about what inspired his story, the challenges of shooting in the desert and much more.
Dread Central: Can you tell us about how you came up with the story for Incident on Highway 73 and what inspired some of the horror/sci-fi elements going on in the short?
Brian Thompson: Michael Kirk, the writer, and I had been throwing around quite a few ideas, knowing in our hearts we wanted to do something that had likable characters that we cared about, had a sci-fi/supernatural element and was suspenseful with a payoff. In our story discussions I mentioned to Michael about a trip I took with my wife to the Grand Canyon. It was a spur of the moment trip, and we just drove out there not really knowing what we were doing or even where we were going to stay for that matter. So we woke up our first day there and had breakfast and a local told us about this great lookout point and showed us where it would be on a general map we had, but the road wasn’t listed…
We get to the road and it’s a dirt road that trails off into the hills. So we decided what the hell- let’s do it, figuring it would be a cool drive and some cool scenery along the way and there was probably a million other people there, too. About two or three miles into the drive in a tight passage in the road, there was an old broken down van pushed to the side with its hood up. As we started to pass, a middle-aged, frazzled looking woman ran out and tried flagging us down; then I saw a man standing in the brush just outside of what maybe he thought was my field of vision. Of course I didn’t stop- I’ve seen too many horror movies (laughs). But seriously, I didn’t stop not because I don’t like to help people but because I had an uneasy feeling, something about the situation didn’t feel right… I felt vulnerable out there in the middle of nowhere with no weapons and no one else around, I felt responsible for my wife’s safety. I knew once we stopped and gave these guys the upper hand, anything could happen to us out there; I mean maybe this guy was going to pop out and hack us up and wear our skin on his face… I’ll add we had no cell reception either.
So I sped past the frazzled woman and kept going. I felt bad if they really needed help, but I’d rather let them sit on the roadside for a while longer than have my wife and I end up dead. A few miles further we made it to the lookout point and it was EMPTY- nobody around and DEAD silent so we decided not to really take much time because we were spooked about the creepy people. I felt like maybe they would be waiting for us at our car when we got back from the hike and I knew we would have to pass them again on the way back regardless. On our way back down the road as soon as I reached that point where they were, I sped past them without stopping or looking around.
When we reached the bottom of the hill, I went to the closest ranger station and let him know there was a van broken down and the people might need help. So if they truly weren’t maniacs, at least help was on the way. And after recounting that story to Michael, we took that idea and ran with it. Of course we added a sci-fi element and it’s different story altogether, but we wanted to capture that feeling of vulnerability and isolation and fear of keeping the person you love safe. A common reaction to a situation I think we all can relate to, unless you’re the homicidal maniac waiting for somebody to drive by so you can kill them.
The inspiration for the sci-fi elements (without giving too much away) is that we are both fans of subtlety and mystery. We both loved the idea of keeping the audience guessing and anticipating what could be happening because we knew we didn’t want to show our cards right away. We wanted the story to build and build and build until our final climax and then hopefully surprise the audience and exceed their expectations.
Dread Central: I thought your leads were great; can you discuss your casting process? Were you able to give them a lot of rehearsal time before shooting to get that chemistry right?
Brian Thompson: We had an amazing casting director, Lindsey Samilian, who really went to bat for us and spent a lot of time casting the film. She gave up many a weekends for us, while she working all week at her full-time job. We couldn’t have done it without her and it was a few months of casting if I remember correctly. We saw many talented actors, but we knew when we saw Elizabeth Schmidt and Ian Alda they were great, and when they came and read together, we knew we had our leads. I know they are what makes the film worth watching. They gave such great and natural performances I can’t imagine anyone else in these roles.
We really had only one big day of rehearsals before we shot. We rented out a small theatre space in Hollywood and went through each scene and the storyboards; we made adjustments here and there and even changed a few things on the fly as we worked through it, but really there wasn’t a whole lot of time for rehearsals before the filming. We did send Elizabeth and Ian out for a day together to hang out and take pictures of each other as if they were a couple, have some fun together and get to know each other before we began shooting because I thought it was important that they have some time to get to know each other and feel comfortable together. On set, once they were in the car together, they definitely felt like a couple and they complemented each other perfectly.
Dread Central: The cinematography was also just wonderful- can you talk about working with your DP and your approach to the look of the film and making these often vast and barren landscapes pop as vividly as you guys did?
Brian Thompson: The DP, Jason Hafer, and I have been working together for years; we have a good back and forth. We discussed the film having a very realistic and somber tone, not feeling overly lit and really just capturing the atmosphere and environments in a kind of creepy way. We wanted the film to pop and look vivid, but we didn’t want to go crazy on the coloring or use of filters; we actually picked specific times in the day when each scene would be shot to give it the natural tones and feel that we were going for.
We also wanted to show the isolation of the surroundings and how vast they were while also showing how as the couple move further into the desert, the environment begins to close in on them. Early on we knew that we had to shoot this on anamorphic lenses. There’s a look they give and a feeling they give right away that we knew was important for this type of film. It’s hard to describe, but when you see what you’re shooting through the eye of the anamorphic lenses, it gives it a look that we couldn’t have achieved with any other lenses. They weren’t too sharp and they softened the image just enough.
Dread Central: Where did you guys shoot this, and how long did production go for? Any hiccups along the way?
Brian Thompson: We shot in Desert Hot Springs, California, for eight days; and as far as hiccups go, well (laughs)… the whole production was a hiccup! We had wind so strong every day most of the crew became human sandbags to hold down lights and gear. And as far as using any flags, silks or green screens- not a chance because the wind was so strong and powerful every day it even bent a few combo stands over that were staked to the ground. I had never experienced anything like it in my life. Not to mention shooting in it for 12-13 hours a day straight through with everything being pretty much exteriors. Aside from the wind we had rattlesnakes on set, some desert people stole a bunch of our cables to the generator so we had to move the generator closer to set, there were people shooting guns off all the time… We were shooting on what must be the go-to place in Desert Hot Springs to go get wasted and blast guns off because there were bullet casings all around us all over the ground.
I think every day we had a major hiccup. Generator running out of gas in the middle of the night, trucks breaking down, the grip crew actually had ropes hanging down the mountainside and were climbing robes, basically rock climbing up and down to get to the lights in darkness. But honestly, nobody was hurt and other than a grip truck being crashed on the way home after shooting (again nobody was hurt), we made it through and shot the film. I look back on it now and think the wind adds great production value, but while we were shooting, it was pretty intense. I was lucky to have such a solid crew and cast who didn’t quit on me- I pretty much subjected them to torture for 8 days straight so I feel like the luckiest guy on earth to have had such a great cast and crew that believed in me and stuck around so we could make the film.
Dread Central: I want to hear more about your VFX because you guys did a fantastic job with them- they really sell the story.
Brian Thompson: We had a great team of VFX people work on this film, from the computer VFX to the practical effects. I was really lucky to have so many people believe in the film and bring it to life. Mike Warren, the Visual Effects Supervisor, really took the VFX to the next level; without him we really wouldn’t have been in too good of shape. Lee Meza, my cousin, designed some of the 3D objects used in the film, and they were composited into Mike Warren’s VFX, and then it was all wrapped around a handful of stunt people’s work. Kurt Lott, Casey Adams, BJ Davis and Rich Minga all really made the practical effect possible.
There were a few F/X I will say that I really didn’t know if they would work or not and we just went for it, and then by a miracle we got into post and they did. I knew going into this film it was very ambitious, especially for the amount of money we had to work with, which wasn’t much. But I can’t not mention the many, many days our storyboard artist, Clark Kohanek, spent working through all the scenes with me and really putting the film together; it was all the pre-production that really had us all ready when shooting started, and there wasn’t much guesswork to what was happening or where the camera was going, other than working around the hurricane winds, rattlesnakes and other problems.
Dread Central: What’s coming up next forIncident on Highway 73? Any plans on developing this story into a feature down the road at all?
Brian Thompson: We really just started to submit the film to festivals in October and are just getting it into the festival circuit; it even won a Screamfest award for Best Short a few months back, and that was our first festival. Writer and co-producer Michael Kirk and I have developed a feature script we are just putting the finishing touches on, which we plan to shop around with the film very soon, and we also have a few other feature scripts we have developed in the sci-fi/paranormal/thriller realm. The plan is to make a feature or at least start a feature in 2013- especially since the world didn’t end last December (laughs).
Incident on Highway 73 is also screening at the Little Rock Horror Picture Show, which runs March 22nd-24th. Any horror fans in the area can stop by and check it out there later this month.
For more info visit the official Incident on Highway 73 website, “like” Incident on Highway 73 on Facebook, and follow Incident on Highway 73 on Twitter. You can also learn more about Brian Thompson on his official page at thevaultla.com.
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