Set Visit: Brian Conley and Nathan Ives Talk The Basement
It’s a pleasant, sunny afternoon in North Hollywood, California. It’s the perfect August day for a jog with the dog. There’s someone now – a slim, athletic blonde with her scruffy mutt on a leash, just enjoying the peace… until… she spots something lying in the grass, under a tree. She stops, bends down to see what it is, and – oh, gawd! It’s a dismembered human head! The woman screams.
Now repeat that several times from many different angles, and you’ve got an idea of what a “pick up” day is like on a horror movie location. This one is called The Basement, and it’s due for release on the festival circuit this fall. The movie is essentially shot, edited and done, except for a few small scenes that were shot while Dread Central observed – those will be blended in, and voila! The Basement will be signed, sealed and delivered.
The Basement’s names include Mischa Barton and Traci Thoms, but it’s mostly a tete-a-tete between the killer (Jackson Davis) and a very reluctant victim (Cayleb Long). The story line is pretty intriguing: A notorious serial killer, known as Gemini, forces his victims to switch roles with him so that he can enact his own capture, torture and murder.
We got a chance to sit down with the film’s cowriter/codirector team, Brian Conley and Nathan Ives between takes.
Dread Central: Since the movie isn’t out yet, and we only know what we’ve seen here today on set, can you fill everyone in on… is this murderer a split personality, or what?
Brian Conley: The killer plays several different characters. You never find out if he truly has a split personality syndrome or if he’s just playing these characters. We had many discussions on the topic – but the premise of the movie is that he plays these characters he has – he’s actually killed seven people to date and the eight victim is somewhat different, from the standpoint he’s not his typical victim. He is very torn about the reasons that he is killing this particular victim and so he has put him in a chair, in a basement, tied him to the desk – like a schoolroom desk – and has transferred his own self into the chair, where he is actually interrogating himself, as if he – he keeps calling the person in the chair by his own name. He goes through a series of characters from his own life and it turns out that a lot of these characters are characters that he has killed. Part of the fun of the movie is that as you go along, you start to figure all this out – there’s more going on in the movies psychologically – that you don’t know at first but then you start to figure it out as you go. I think he goes through 12 different characters.
Nathan Ives: I think really the crux of it is the guy who has captured his victim, now he’s playing out his own capture, execution and torture. Transference, if you will, into this guy in the chair and meanwhile mixing in and play (a) characters from his own life but also (b) play characters of people he has killed and creating this story. Does he have a split personality or is he just playing these characters – we find out later if he is an actor and that’s what he does. There’s a gray area, as to how much of this is, he’s crazy or how much he’s just succinctly, very much an actor, and very much takes time with each role.
DC: What’s with the marking of the victims? There’s a live (playing dead) actress on the lawn now, with a carving on her forehead. Can you tell us about that?
Conley: He’s a Gemini. Part of his MO is he carves the Gemini sign into people’s foreheads before he decapitates them and discards their heads. You find out what that means at the end. Gemini is the third astrological sign, and it makes the twins, and that’s the symbol for a Gemini. Also, while the movie plays out, you wonder the question is basically, are there two people coming down, is there more than one killer basically – that’s coming down? Of course, I don’t want to give away the ending – the whole theme of the Gemini comes together at the very end – it’s twist at the very end that nobody sees coming.
DC: It feels kind of like a Split/Seven mash up, then?
Conley: That’s a very fair assessment – it’s kind of a Split/Seven – it’s got the gore but definitely falls on the side of psychological thriller as much as it does the gore. We like to think there’s a lot going on psychologically throughout the film that gives the audience – why is he doing this and who is this and why is this and it’s all brought together at the end. And we like to think that it’s a little smarter than just a gore film.
DC: So, the key is having believable actors portray these characters. Who plays Gemini, and the main victim?
Ives: Jackson Davis is amazing as Gemini. We auditioned hundreds of actors for both roles, as most of the movie is just these two guys in a basement. The guy that played the victim as well had to be Jackson’s equal. And they were both terrific. Cayleb Long, plays the victim. They were both fantastic.
Conley: The fact of it is, the audience that goes to see this movie may not like the movie, they may not like the writing, may not like the directing, but you would be hard pressed to walk away from this film and say that Jackson Davis wasn’t absolutely phenomenal. They both were both amazing but I think Jackson’s particularly challenging to see play 12 different roles and I think one of the things we loved about his performance was – each different character he plays, you don’t see the thread of ‘Oh, it’s the same guy’ – you feel like it’s a completely different character and I think that’s such a big part of it. When we wrote it, we had to have that person who, you didn’t feel like ‘Oh, that’s just the same guy playing different characters.’ It feels like you’re watching this character, then this character…
Ives: To reference Split again, you knew that was James McAvoy in the next scene.
Conley: You never know it’s the same guy. You figure that out. But part of it is – I’ll give a little bit away – the first scene he comes out as a clown. So he’s in full clown regalia, full clown makeup. The second scene he comes out as a rookie cop – so he’s got the cap, the stuff – so you’re a little like, something… you don’t know that it’s the same guy. By the third or fourth, you figure it out, but more importantly, as a viewer, even when you know that it’s the same guy, it feels like it’s a completely different person. One thing I felt with Split was, there was some good things about it but you felt like you were watching the same person.
Ives: McAvoy was terrific in that movie. We wrote this before Split came out, by the way. Obviously, it takes a while to make a movie. It’s funny that Split came out so soon after we shot the film and played on so many of the same things. I thought McAvoy’s performance was fantastic, I think he’s a great actor, but I think that Jackson, while people haven’t heard of him, was phenomenal in this role. When you see it, I think you’ll agree.
DC: One of your ‘names’ in the movie is Mischa Barton, who’s been in a lot of great genre TV and film. How’d she come on board here?
Ives: We were just looking for a person to come in, and bring a name if you will, to the film. And she read the script and liked it and we liked her and felt she would be a good fit and talked to her sales agent and they said, ‘Yeah – good fit for that.’ Everything kind of lined up and she came in. She was professional when she came to the set. She did a very good job and we were pleased to have her.
Conley: We can safely say, she plays the victim’s wife. The qualities she possesses as an actress were perfect for this role. I can’t really go into the reasons why, without really giving it away, but suffice to say, there’s more there than meets the eye. There are different levels to this story – that if you just watch it on the surface, there’s more to it than just what’s going on, on the surface.
DC: Since you guys don’t have a horror background – why did you decide to step into the genre?
Conley: We set out to write a horror movie and we watched a lot of them to prepare (laughs). I’m a horror fan and have been all my life, as I got older, got married, I’ve got five kids. My wife likes romantic comedies, so I’m not getting to watch a lot of the more recent horror movies. I took a crash course in watching a lot of recent horror movies. Some of my influences in movies are aren’t like this, or John Carpenter, there are a lot of Hitchcock influences. This movie is as much a psychological thriller as it is a straight up horror movie.
Ives: I think of movies like Seven, I think of the Shining, I think of anything psychological, certainly if I drew from anything, it would be something like that. Not to say this film wasn’t our best, but just as far as being inspired by or being influenced by, I really love those films – they’re dark and psychological and great. And we looked at those and go, ‘How can we incorporate some of that?’
DC: Cinematography is key, in keeping an inherently static situation (killer and victim in a basement) alive and moving. Can you tell us about that challenge?
Ives: We do come out of the basement a decent amount, which helps, but I also think luckily a film like this relies so heavily on performances that if they are good enough, [that helps.] And also having the killer come down in different outfits – even though you are in the same location with two people – you feel in some ways as though it’s new person, it’s a new visual – so it helps. Certainly, it’s no way you’re getting around that you’re in a basement for the entire film, or the majority of it but that said, I think that those things help you to not feel so claustrophobic.
DC: How’d your director of photography come on board?
Conley: Nathan worked with Ken (Kenneth Stipe). I’ve produced a movie before with Nathan, before this one and Ken was the DP on it – we’ve worked with Ken a bunch.
Ives: The thing about Ken is he just loves light. We were looking for a DP who was truly passionate about light and lighting and colour, and I’ve worked with Ken on three or four films now and he’s just wonderful to work with, easy to work with, and I think is just a pro at getting what you want. We want this look and he can recreate that. He’d also get great ideas while we were shooting – ‘Oh, what about this…’
Conley: It was really important in this film because we were in a basement, you know we’ve got tracking shots, we bought a circle track in, we’ve got steady cam shots and Ken was great at making a lot of great suggestions on using those tricks of the trade and different angles.
Ives: Getting back to what you said about the basement and feeling claustrophobic, that helps some as well, one of the vignettes if you will, was all done on a circle track, going around and back and forth.
DC: OK, let’s get down to the gore factor.
Conley: There’s quite a bit of gore, I can safely say that.
Ives: At one point, the killer is playing a detective and he’s got a gun and he goes up to [the victim] and he’s got the gun in his face. He knocks out two of his teeth with the barrel of the gun. And it’s not like a big huge bloody scene, but it’s just really intense. Teeth are so sensitive…
Conley: Then he makes him chew and swallow the teeth. There’s a big pay off at the end for anybody that’s looking for gore.
Ives: I’d say there’s about four or five pretty gory scenes, just cringe worthy, you just go, ‘Ugh!’
From the Press Release:
Pasadena, California-based production company Conley Entertainment Group is proud to announce the World Premiere of its independent horror/thriller feature The Basement, to be held at the venerable Shriekfest Film Festival on Saturday, October 7th, at 8:15 PM at Raleigh Studios (5300 Melrose Avenue) in Hollywood, CA. Tickets to the premiere can be purchased here: brownpapertickets.com/event/3087128.
Starring Mischa Barton (The Sixth Sense), Jackson Davis (“Lonelygirl15”), Cayleb Long, Tracie Thoms (Death Proof), Bailey Anne Borders (The Fifth Wave), and Sarah Nicklin, The Basement, which Sam Santiago of TrulyDisturbing.com likens to a cross between Silence of the Lambs and Split, is about a Los Angeles serial killer known as The Gemini (Davis), who tortures and ultimately murders his victims in the dungeon-like basement of his San Fernando Valley home.
By the time the movie opens, Gemini has already claimed seven victims, all of whom he has horrifyingly maimed and decapitated with a blowtorch; but Craig Owen (Long), the famed musician whom Gemini has chosen for his eighth victim, and Craig’s beautiful wife, Kelly (Barton), prove every bit the killer’s equal in the art of psychological warfare, giving rise to one of the more diabolical plot twists in recent memory.
Brian Conley, who co-wrote and co-directed with Nathan Ives, stated of the premiere, “It is truly thrilling to be premiering our film at a festival as revered and respected as Shriekfest.”
Ives, who, along with Conley and Mark Heidelberger, also co-produced, said of the film, “Neither Brian nor I had any interest in making a mindless horror movie. There is a lot going on beneath the surface in this film, and I think audiences will be intrigued.”
Stated Shriekfest Founder Denise Gossett of the film’s selection, “I am a huge fan and supporter of independent films, and The Basement is a great example of a well-made, beautifully shot film with some terrific performances!”
Nevertheless, Santiago has a word of warning for potential premiere goers, “There is a fair amount of gore, and this film does not shy away from showing the extreme physical and psychological trauma you’d find present under such circumstances. It’s not for everyone.”
Producer Heidelberger seems to concur, adding with a wink. “The performances in this movie are so true to life, it’s frankly disturbing. But the directors keep telling me that’s a good thing.”
Worldwide distribution rights for The Basement are currently available so we’ll see what happens after the premiere! In the meantime, the film can be found on Facebook, on Twitter @Basement_Movie, and on Instagram at @basementhorrormovie.