The horror genre is inhabited by apocalypses of almost every kind; zombies, vampires, rampaging diseases and natural disasters have all brought global filmic populations to their knees over the years. Curiously quiet amongst the genre, however, is the biblical End of Days – the Rapture.
What would it be like to be one of those left behind on Earth after God’s calling of the faithful to Heaven? How do you deal with the rapid disintegration of civilisation, onslaught of plagues and, yes, arrival of fearsome demonic entities that would like nothing more than to tear you apart?
Director Casey La Scala seeks to answer all of this in his new faith-based horror film, The Remaining, which sees a group of friends attending a wedding party have their celebrations rudely interrupted by the arrival of the End Times. We took the chance to sit down with Casey to talk about the trials and tribulations of creating the end of the world on a restricted budget and delivering his message of faith within a genre that is often at odds with such intentions…
Perhaps most well known for his work as a producer on entries such as Richard Kelly’s classic Donnie Darko and Vincenzo Natali’s sci-fi thriller Cypher, La Scala’s only previous directing credit prior to The Remaining is his 2003 sporting comedy Grind. With this in mind, we address the elephant in the room: Why has he left the director’s chair empty for such a long time?
He tells us, “Mostly [I’ve been] writing. I’ve been writing and producing – I’ve been writing for all the studios, doing rewrites and writing TV pilots [while] looking for the right next thing. I wrote ‘The Amityville Horror’ (now titled ‘Amityville: The Awakening’ – Ed), which was going to be the next thing I was going to direct. I was in pre-production, all ready to go – I was doing that with Jason Blum – but then it got stalled because of rights issues with the Amityville ‘brand’, and in the time that it took to work out those issues, I wrote ‘The Remaining’. That then started moving forward faster, and all of a sudden ‘Amityville’ gets back on track, but it’s too late because I’m shooting ‘The Remaining’.”
“All I’m doing right now is writing to direct, but [previously] I’ve been spending a lot of time doing rewrites and things like that. It’s been great, you know… I came into the film business to be a writer. I went to school at USC, studying screenwriting. I [do] like directing, because you get to be the General, have it your way, it’s your vision that ends up on screen – but I love the introverted quality of writing… just sitting in a room, being with these characters and creating. I LOVE that. I mean… I would do that for free,” he laughs.
So it would seem that not being in the director’s chair for such a long period wasn’t through a lack of enthusiasm – or indeed an active dislike – for the responsibilities of the role? Absolutely not, La Scala assures us: “What I love about directing is the idea that when you come on set, it’s [all about] your vision. As a producer, you’re more facilitating, helping the director facilitate his vision as well as balancing what the studio and/or financier wants… so it’s more of a political [role] – you’re working both sides of the coin, and it’s a totally different animal. It was so great to get that adrenaline again and direct. It was really fun.”
His zest for directing shining through, La Scala’s answer to the question of which he prefers – producing or directing – comes as little surprise: Directing it is.
With the screenplay for The Remaining sporting multiple credits alongside La Scala, we ask him about the writing process and the initial concept. Was this something that he came up with himself in its earliest form? “Yeah, I wrote the original draft,” he says. “Basically, the writer that I wrote with was brought to me by the faith-based [consulting] firm. [He] specifically works within the framework of these faith-based films. The idea in bringing him on was making sure that [the material] is as authentic as possible, and so he came in and really helped a lot with that.”
“First and foremost, though it’s a faith-based film, I wanted it to be mainstream. I didn’t want to alienate the faith-based market by doing something that would profoundly weaken the entertainment factor. In the first draft of the script I had, you know, birds falling out of the sky – which was the first sign of everything – and of course that’s not biblical, so [he] really helped me to stay true to what’s in the Bible.”
This points to a film that intends to generate a more horrifically authentic presentation of the biblical apocalypse than we’ve ever seen before, and we’d like to know if Casey himself is a religious individual, and whether his own faith proved the driving force behind his desire to bring it to life. “I was raised a Christian,” he explains. “I was confirmed in a Lutheran church and went to church camp, and that’s actually where I first started hearing about the tribulation, [the book of] Revelations and the end of the world, which used to scare me when I was a kid. But the whole idea of the movie really came more out of a death in the family – my father died, and it really kind of came from that. That experience, and my father reaching for some kind of faith, called me back to when I was younger, and that’s kind of how it all came together.”
Whilst some of the most successful horror films of all time have dealt with themes of religion and faith (take Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist – widely considered to be two of the greatest horror films of all time – for example), it can be a challenging line to tread between successfully delivering your message and alienating audiences that may not be entirely accommodating to an abundance of gospel. La Scala agrees, telling us “… it was definitely a hard line to walk. You’re doing a faith-based horror film; it’s almost like an oxymoron. You can’t talk about two audiences that are so far from each other, right? So, [the priority is] making sure that there’s enough in there that the mainstream audiences can take away, but they’re not being preached to. That’s one of the most off-putting things for mainstream audiences – being preached to by a specific religion – and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t preachy. So a lot of the themes presented are universal themes.”
“You know, they’re all like finding redemption, facing death, what is your faith and connection to God – I really, really, really worked hard on walking that line so that there was enough in there that the faith-based audience felt that this was a movie that was for them – authentic to them – but there was enough in there that the mainstream audiences could take away without being pushed away by the preachiness of it. That was probably the hardest line to walk in the writing of the script and also the making of the movie.”
The cast of The Remaining features a number of young, up-and-coming talent including Alexa Vega – an actress who has been steadily making waves amongst cult audiences since her appearance in 2008’s musical Repo! The Genetic Opera – and they share a palpable camaraderie throughout. On finding the right actors for his film, Casey explains, “Alexa and I had randomly met years ago. We hung out for a little bit and I really loved her energy, so when I wrote the role of Skylar, I really saw her in my head. I sent her the script directly, and she wanted to do it, so that was easy. I really had a very specific idea as to who I wanted, and the beauty of doing a film in this budget range is that you’re not going after actors who have marquee names – you can actually go after actors that fit the role. It really opened up the universe to me, so I was able to bring in a lot of actors and find exactly who my characters were.”
Animated, he continues, “It was funny when Italia Ricci came in – she had done nothing! She literally hadn’t done anything, and now she’s doing Chasing Life… her career has just taken off. I wrote the part of Allison [based on] my wife, because I kind of had a similar triangle love story happen in my own life, so I envisioned my wife in that part – and [Italia] looks a LOT like my wife! (laughs) Italia will tell you… when she walked in and I went, ‘There’s my wi—oh my gosh, that’s her, that’s her!’ (laughs) She’ll tell you, ‘I got cast in the role because I look like Casey’s wife’ – that’s exactly what she’ll tell you!”
“All of the actors – like Shaun Sipos, Johnny Pacar and Bryan Dechart – were exactly who I pictured in my head. It worked out really well for me because they all became really good friends, and we’re still friends to this day. We all share a group text and we text each other every day… we bonded a lot over this movie; it was a really great experience. There’s a serious chemistry between them [in the film] and it’s not manufactured; it’s actually totally real.”
On a budget of less than five million dollars (US), manufacturing a convincing end of the world is no mean feat – but La Scala gives it plenty of effort with sequences including a dramatic plane crash and a dash through devastated streets as giant hailstones plummet from the skies. We want to know how he approached the challenges therein and how much the budget impacted on what he wanted to do.
“Originally, I wrote the film as a single-shooter all through Tommy’s POV, “ he reveals, “like a found footage film. Sequences like the plane crash and the hail were all designed to [be seen] from one perspective, and I was going to try and do it practically. I had a really great visual effects team – they did ‘Ted’ and ‘Twilight’… they’re really talented – and the effects supervisor became a really good buddy of mine. He really believed in how practical and visual effects can complement each other.”
“Obviously we didn’t have the budget to facilitate [too much]. I mean, in the original script I had two planes colliding. Working with the budget, [we decided] to do it with the shaky-cam, through Tommy’s POV… you don’t see everything, more the crash in the backdrop, the smoke coming down. All that stuff was a way of tricking the audience into imagining [what’s happening]. That was done with a very limited amount of money.”
“For the hail sequence, we actually dropped real practical hail. We had like 50-foot Condors that were above the actors – three of them – and the actors had to run through this kind of gauntlet, and [the hailstones] were dropped on top of them in the street. They’re about the size of your [torso], they’re huge, and that really added this very real element. We added the visual elements on top of it… everything was treated in the most cost-effective way to pull it off. By storyboarding it the way that we did, we were able to do it for not a lot of money – we just had to be smart about what angles the visual effects were in. Literally, you get charged per frame, so you have to be very specific about how many frames you’re shooting. I had the benefit of having a top-notch visual effects supervisor helping me out with a lot of the stuff.”
Speaking of the found footage/POV style influence, The Remaining starts off looking like it’s going to be a fully-fledged found footage experience, but soon begins introducing a mix of traditional narrative filmmaking and first-person hand-held footage. What prompted Casey to take this approach, we wonder – especially when it must have proven more difficult to blend these styles as cohesively as he does, rather than just running with one or the other? “I think it just came from the limitations of doing it from the single shooter perspective,” he admits. “It’s very limiting in terms of character – I think a lot of times you have to contrive why you’re shooting a moment, like why is the camera rolling? You don’t have a lot of opportunity to justify your camera position in emotional or character-driven moments.”
“I felt that the traditional narrative offers that style – you can set up the camera and tell a story – and what I think is good about the single shooter perspective is that it gives you that visceral, real connection to the audience. Everyone has an iPhone, everyone shoots video, so it feels like it’s real and that’s great. So I [felt] that if I shoot this as a traditional narrative… I can capture the story, I can give it scope and really develop the characters in an interesting and smart way – but I can also just punch in to my protagonist’s camera whenever I want to achieve that visceral reality. So that’s kind of how it came together – just the limitation of the characters… I wanted to really tell a story and get deep into who these characters were, and it’s hard to do that with the single shooter style.”
“The benefit of [found footage] is that you can create so much tension with what you don’t see. The dirtiness of it creates so much fear – the off-camera stuff, the running, the camera falling, and you’re going, ‘What is happening?’ That creates this sense of drama that you don’t have in a traditional [film] because you should see what’s going on. There’s a positive aspect to it, but I think you can have both.”
“I’ve never had anyone who has seen ‘The Remaining’ say, ‘I didn’t understand the camera positions.’ No one’s said that. They’re along for the ride, and they get when we punch in and show YouTube footage or someone shooting from his video camera. There’s no off-putting quality to it.”
Leading from the film’s narrative construction, we decide to delve into La Scala’s influences on the visuals found within The Remaining – starting with something that all horror fans will be excited about: the creatures. Casey tells us, “I actually designed the creatures. I had an idea of what I wanted them to look like. I was exploring a lot of creatures for ‘The Amityville Horror’ – a lot of demons – and I had met this really great comic book artist. I started working with him on sketching, and then we did a 3D model of what it would look like and then I gave those renderings to the visual effects team.”
“It’s funny, because I always intended the movie to have this sense of never seeing the demons in all of their glory. Once you see that, it [lessens the impact]. It’s like in ‘Insidious’… once you see the demon with the red face, it kind of takes you out of it a little bit. The rendering that we came up with for the demon is so scary, but you never see it in the film. You see the face, but you never really see everything that we created, [and it’s] such a creepy thing.”
This sense of restraint seems to have become key to La Scala’s approach to the film, as he expands on its further impact on the presentation, saying, “I actually had a little bit more in my mind for when Skylar is lifted up and attacked. I created an entire visual effects sequence where she is basically being ripped and pulled all around the sky and then dropped. What ultimately happened is we ended up cutting all of that out it, so she’s just ripped, pulled and falls – but we have a whole sequence of her being dragged and pulled in the air, and you actually see shadows of the demon behind her. We took that out just because it felt like a little bit less would be more.”
The scene in question, which sees our lead group of friends harassed and attacked by an unseen demonic entity as they traverse a street shrouded in fog, is a tense one that visually recalls the otherworldly external environments of Christophe Gans’ 2006 videogame adaptation Silent Hill. We ask if this proved a conscious or unconscious influence on La Scala’s approach, and whether any other filmmakers have proven similarly influential to his directorial and visual style. “That’s interesting…,” he muses. “I think that street might have had a little ‘Silent Hill’ feeling, come to think of it. I saw ‘Silent Hill’ so long ago, but I remember there was a lot of fog in that movie, wasn’t there? Fog and ash, right? Yeah! For that sequence specifically I think ‘Silent Hill’ definitely was an influence.”
“That was a tricky scene to pull off,” he continues. “When you’re working with a limited budget, you have almost one or two opportunities to make something work. One of the big issues we had that night was that it was windy, and I was trying to get fog to fill up that whole street. We just couldn’t get it, and we tried and tried, but the wind was blowing the fog [away]. So, I wanted it to be so dark that you can barely make out anything when she’s lifted – so it’s more creepy because of what you don’t see. That’s the only thing that I feel like I wish I’d had a little more time to do… to make it [much] thicker fog because in my mind’s eye that’s what I saw. Like they were just walking in a cloud and could barely see each other even though they’re walking right next to one another. But it is what it is… you can only do what you can do!”
On wider influences, he hearkens back to the classics, revealing, “I go back to Kubrick. ‘The Shining’ is one of my all-time favourite horror films, but you need time and patience to capture those long dolly shots. When you’re working under 5 million dollars in 21 days, you don’t have the opportunity to lay tracks and spend that much time; but one of these days I want to do a horror movie that has aspects of that because I just love ‘The Shining’. The atmosphere and the texture of that movie is just amazing.”
“Randomly, going over to the other side, I’m a huge Spielberg fan. I love ‘Jaws’; it’s one of my favourite movies. Growing up, I really loved his films… I think they’re very mainstream, very entertaining, and I just love the way he shoots. One of my favourite character scenes in any movie is in the Indianapolis scene [in ‘Jaws’], where these three characters – all so different – are stuck up there at night. They’ve been yelling at each other and it’s very conflicted, and Quint tells the story about how he’s never going to put a life jacket on again. John Milius wrote that scene – I love John Milius’s writing – it has so much heart and is so powerful. I love ‘Jaws’; I could talk about it forever.”
So what’s next for Casey La Scala? Will there be more directing work in his future once The Remaining hits theatres? He certainly hopes so: “Right now I’m finishing up the next thing I’m going to direct, which is a remake of ‘Carnival of Souls’. I’m really excited about that,” he reveals. “[The other project] is kind of a departure. I got a book sent to me called ‘Fly a Little Higher’, which is a true story about this kid, Zach Sobiech, who was 17 years old and had a very rare form of cancer. He died when he was 17, but he got to go to the prom, he got to fall in love, and it’s just a tremendously amazing story. It’s a movie about living, but it’s very emotionally challenging. His mom wrote the book about her experience during this… it’s just a really powerful book. I’m in the middle of making a deal for me to write this thing, and it’s one of the most emotionally challenging things I’ve ever worked on. When I read the book, I cried the entire day – and it’s not a downer, either; it’s a very powerful, uplifting book. Zach wrote that song ‘Clouds’; it got ten million hits on YouTube. It was like his farewell song, and they shot a video. Bryan Cranston and a bunch of celebrities did a video… it’s a huge social media thing that took off after Zach died, and there was a documentary about his life that got like 15 million hits on YouTube. That’s a huge imprint in the world. I’m going to be writing that next after finishing up on ‘Carnival of Souls’.”
Many thanks to Casey for taking the time out to speak with us!
The Remaining is scheduled to unleash the End of Days in UK cinemas on Friday, November 7. Will you be left behind?