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Joseph O’Brien Talks Walking the Devil’s Mile

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Joseph O'Brien Talks Walking the Devil's MileForget Route 666. The Devil’s Mile is an even more evil stretch of road in this new horror thriller starring David Hayter and directed by Joseph O’Brien, with whom we recently had a chance to chat about the film.

Devil’s Mile follows a trio of kidnappers who take an ill-advised detour (is there any other kind?) en route to deliver their hostages – a pair of teenage girls – to their mysterious employer. When one of the girls dies along the way, the trio’s slowly-boiling mistrust explodes into chaos.

But what they thought was their worst day ever is only beginning as they are engulfed by the hellish forces that haunt the road – a road they may never escape.

Dread Central: This is one of the few indie horror movies that really lives up to the promo material. I’m curious to know how much the story evolved from your initial idea to script to shooting and final edit. Did different aspects of the story come to the fore more as it progressed?

Joseph O’Brien: That’s very nice of you to say; thank you. It’s greatly appreciated. The basic spine of the story – a group of people become trapped on a road haunted by supernatural forces – was always there. Originally the characters were just regular folks on a road trip, but that felt mundane and done to death. I’d seen it before. You’d seen it before. And I was writing a moment where one of characters opens the trunk and thought, ‘What if there were two girls tied up inside?’ And it clicked. This isn’t a horror movie; it’s a crime thriller that evolves into a horror movie! They’re two of my favorite genres, and the idea of combining them really appealed to me. It energized the story and opened up a lot of narrative possibilities. Once I started exploring the idea of a hybrid genre, it became very important to make sure that I didn’t just swap one for another. The crime thriller had to inform the horror movie and the horror movie had to transform the crime thriller. Tonally they had to feel like a single story, not two stories bashed together.

The movie did change and develop in the making of it, all of it positively I think, but it was more in terms of the feel of the movie than the content. I had originally envisioned Devil’s Mile as more of a straight-up exploitation film, a bit more hyperbolic. It changed a bit once we were cast. The dramatic scenes played straighter and more intensely than I had expected – all credit due to the actors for taking the material as seriously as they did. But it also a got a bit funnier and a lot stranger.

I think the biggest tonal shift came when I dropped two scenes – partly for scheduling reasons, but also because the film was coming together and I realized they weren’t essential. They were arguably the two most overtly stock “horror” scenes in the script, in the sense that they were there to be scary for their own sake, but they didn’t push the story forward, and while I don’t miss them narratively, it definitely tilted the balance. And then of course Chris Alexander created this fantastic, evocative score that unified all the elements into a single entity.

DC: When did David Hayter come on board? It’s almost as though this part was written with him in mind.

DOB: We first talked to David while the script was being finalized. I had been a fan of his work for many years, and we had been recently introduced by a mutual friend. David had started out as an actor, but that career was kind of sidelined when he became a writer of Hollywood blockbusters, the poor guy. By complete coincidence, he was also childhood friends with my producing partner, Mark Opausky, and when we were thinking about actors who could play Toby, I suggested David. I knew he still had the acting bug, and I thought his intensity and personality could really lend something to the part – and I was right. Mark sent him the script and he responded very strongly to the character of Toby. He arrived on set with a very clear idea of what he wanted to do with the character, and he very much made Toby his own. On the page Toby was a slightly more thuggish character, and David brought a charm and humor and nuance to him that I really liked. It created an interesting contrast to his more violent moments and made them even more shocking, I think.

DC: How’d the rest of your cast come together? The female leads are particularly good, and they all mesh so well.

DOB: Maria Del Mar and I worked together on a miniseries I had written a number of years ago, and I had always wanted to do another project with her. When we were in the early stages of putting the movie together, she had mentioned – on Facebook of all places – that she was looking for something different to do. So I messaged her about Devil’s Mile – not really expecting her to respond – and to my surprise and delight she asked to see the script. She read it and committed a full year before we rolled cameras on the movie, for which I am eternally in her debt.

Casey Hudecki, what a discovery she turned out to be. I knew her a little bit through a group of actors and writers and creative people that we both hung out with. She was brimming with potential – a terrific stage actor, fight director, and stuntperson – but she had never been in a movie before. We screen tested her with Maria – they had immediate chemistry – and she just lit up the screen. After that we didn’t even consider anyone else. It was Casey all the way. And Casey being Casey, she exceeded our very high expectations at every turn. She was there every day of the shoot, not just acting but also choreographing the fights and getting yanked through the air on a jerk harness. She kicks ass.

Samantha Wan and Amanda Joy Lim came to us through the audition process. Casting Suki and Kanako was the scariest and most challenging part of putting the movie together. They’re smaller parts but they’re pivotal to the story and they have unique very specific requirements; we looked at a lot of people and couldn’t quite nail it down. Then Sam and Amy walked through the door, and it was like the characters had come to life in front of me. The first day makeup effects designer Allan Cooke came to set and saw them in costume, he walked over to me and said, ‘They look exactly the way I pictured them when I read the script!’

Frank Moore and Craig Porritt, who play Mr. Arkadi and The Caretaker, respectively, also auditioned. In contrast to Amy and Sam, they were very different from the characters as I had envisioned them, but their interpretations were so much stronger and nuanced than what I had in mind, I literally couldn’t see the characters the same way again.

DC: When it comes to adding CGI to the supernatural aspects of the film, would you describe how you decided how much to use, and how much is practical?

DOB: I’m an 80s guy; I love prosthetics and special makeup effects. I’ve got my well-worn copy of Grande Illusions signed by Tom Savini on my bookshelf. And I knew when we were making this that I wanted to have a real, physical monster. The Kanako demon is a full-body prosthetic, sculpted and built by Allan Cooke and worn by Shara Kim, that we photographed live on set. But I also needed her to have an unreal, unsettling quality, so I treated that footage with digital effects to take it out of the strictly physical realm and into something more ghost-like. So it’s more of a computer-enhanced image than a computer-generated one. On balance I would say it’s actually about 95% practical – what you see on screen in mostly real.

I love visual effects, both practical and digital, and every technique has its virtues and its drawbacks. But audiences – and particularly genre audiences – are so savvy about these things that they sometimes experience and appreciate the technique over the dramatic effect that technique is trying to convey. I know because I do it myself. So I definitely wanted to disguise the technique and do something unexpected, and like the story, I chose to deploy a hybrid approach that would blur the lines a bit. It’s scarier that way, too, because you don’t quite know precisely what you’re seeing happen.

DC: Since you’d only directed one short (according to that pillar of accuracy, IMDb.com) before this feature, can you talk a little bit about some of the unexpected things that came up making a full-length film?

DOB: Well, I’ve worked in various capacities – credited and uncredited – in feature films for close to twenty years. I’ve been a production assistant and I’ve been a development executive and I’ve had jobs at all points in between, which turned out to be ideal preparation for directing because even if I haven’t specifically done someone’s job, I’m familiar enough with it to be able to effectively communicate with the person who is doing it. Just being able to do that gives you a much greater awareness of the set and a more granular control of delegation to the crew.

The one thing I still haven’t figured out how to control is the weather. We shot on a tight budget and a tight schedule, and we got rained out of a location before we could finish a key scene in the movie – the moment where we first reveal the demon, which happened to be the only scene I had actually storyboarded. And when we got back together to pick it up – months later, in a completely different location – we got rained out again. The scene was fucking cursed, but there was no way we could do without it, and this was absolutely our last chance to get it. We wound up shooting this critical night exterior inside a parking garage with an eight-foot ceiling, which meant all my storyboards went out the window and I had to rethink the entire scene on the spot. It was a nightmare. It took every scrap of learning I had had up to that point, an incredibly dedicated crew, and a couple of very resourceful and clever producers to pull it together and make that scene happen.

DC: Who are some of your favorite independent horror filmmakers, and which movies of your peers inspire you the most?

DOB: The two biggest influences on Devil’s Mile were my two favorite directors, Mario Bava and John Carpenter. They’re both thought of as horror filmmakers, but they actually have quite diverse filmographies. I definitely had Bava’s Rabid Dogs (a.k.a. Kidnapped) in mind when I was writing the early scenes when everyone’s in the car, and his use of vivid color to convey the supernatural in Kill Baby Kill and Black Sabbath consciously informed the palette of the night scenes. A lot of my love of Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness bled through here, consciously and unconsciously. And PoD is itself Carpenter’s tribute to one of my favorite writers, Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale (who is essentially the godfather of genre-smashing). When I was writing the script, my imaginary version of the cast was Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne Barbeau, and Kurt Russell, all circa 1981.

In terms of people making movies currently, I really dug Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact and Mike Flanagan’s Absentia. Both of those guys took tiny budgets and made strong, character-driven, genuinely frightening movies that both satisfied the expectations of the genre while at the same time delivering something fresh – I haven’t yet seen their respective followups, Home/At The Devil’s Door and Oculus yet, but I’m really looking forward to them. And I loved the way Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard made You’re Next funny without being self-congratulatory or self-referential, in a way that it enhanced the scares instead of undermining them, and that’s really, really hard to get right. When I see guys that young and that talented knocking it out of the park like that, I don’t if I’m so much ‘inspired’ as I am ‘terrified that I’m late to the party,’ but it certainly motivates me.

DC: What is your favorite “road horror” movie?

DOB: It’s a great little subgenre, with some interesting films to show for it… one that speaks to me, obviously. John Dahl’s Joy Ride is a personal favorite and quite underrated. Ditto Richard Franklin’s Road Games. And The Hitcher, the original, is a genuinely nightmarish thriller with a mean streak a mile wide. But for me it all goes back to seeing Duel on TV as a kid (and many, many time subsequently). A script by Richard Matheson at the peak of his powers, directed by Steven Spielberg at his hungriest moment – an unbeatable combination. There’s an elegant simplicity to that movie that I don’t think has ever been matched. Just Dennis Weaver on an endless stretch of highway being chased by a giant truck, stripped-down, terrifying, and pure. Doesn’t get better.

Look for the indie thriller Devil’s Mile on August 12th on both DVD and VOD outlets!

Joining David Hayter and Casey Hudecki on this terrifying journey are Maria Del Mar (“24″, Terminal City, Jekyll + Hyde) and Frank Moore (best known to genre fans for his lead role in David Cronenberg’s Rabid, opposite the late Marilyn Chambers) as crime lord Mr. Arkadi, whose machinations set the sinister events of Devil’s Mile in motion.

Synopsis
A gang of psychotic convicts take a dangerous and ill-advised detour after brutally kidnapping two young girls. As the captors speed away, events quickly turn out to be much more dangerous and gruesome than they had planned for. While driving down a long and dark stretch of deserted highway, the car becomes surrounded by mysterious sinister spirits, forcing the captors and young girls to work together in hopes of surviving the deadly evil force.

Devil's Mile

Devil's Mile

Devil's Mile

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Staci Layne Wilson