Black Fawn Films, veterans of such horror films as Anti-Social 1 and 2, The Drownsman and Bite, have a new entry in the world of suspense and horror called Let Her Out. Recently, we had the chance to sit down with director Cody Calahan and lead actress Alanna LeVierge to talk about Let Her Out, working in the film industry and the fans and family atmosphere of the horror genre.
So is directing and acting the careers both of you had in mind or was it more of a happy accident that you ended up where you are today?
Alanna: Yeah, for myself acting has always been a part of my life, ever since I was a little girl. I acted a lot in school plays and community theater growing up so I felt like I knew that it was something I had a passion for. I grew up in the middle of nowhere so I was left to use my imagination for a lot of things, and in high school, my interest in acting just continued. I kind of switched positions for a little while and studied the business side of entertainment in college. I’m from BC originally so I moved up to Toronto to do an internship and I worked for an agent as her assistant for a couple of years and just doing that, sending people out every day to auditions, I thought this is more the side of things that I’d like to be on so I went back to school for acting and kind of committed to it after that.
Cody: I came from a very small town, it took like three buses to get to school, so I literally grew up in a cabin in the middle of the woods so my parents kind of got me into movies when I was younger. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but the idea of directing, of being the storyteller, always fascinated me so I came to Toronto and went to Oakhead and took film there, it was a good school and my ticket to come to Toronto and obviously living in a small town would be hard to make movies. I started like everybody else does, I worked as a PA and I actually production designed a movie and started as an art director/production designer and then it was weird, instead of moving into directing I went to producing and then went back to directing and I’ve always wanted to direct, always been designing ideas and stuff like that.
How difficult has it been to get to this point and did there ever come a time that you thought about doing something else?
Alanna: I think for me, once I went back to school and came back to Toronto I’ve always just set my sights on acting and never wavered from that. There have definitely been hard times and you know, you have days where things just don’t go well but I think ever since I made that commitment to myself and focus on the long-term goal that I have, those day to day setbacks don’t seem so difficult or frustrating. I don’t know what else I would want to do, I just know that every project that I work on, every audition I go to just reaffirms that this is truly what I want to do.
Cody: Being a director and producer, the hardest part is you have to convince somebody to give you money and you have to convince them that the idea is good enough that they’re going to get their money back, that’s indie filmmaking, that’s Canadian filmmaking, you have to make the money back. I almost find directing, that’s the fun stuff, that comes easier but the actual raising of the funds, getting a project together, that’s the hard part, it’s very up and down.
Now the new movie is Let Her Out, once again by Black Fawn Films, and I was curious to what the directing experience was like and Alanna, what are your memories of working for Cody?
Cody: It was cool, I mean I haven’t approached a movie like this before where it’s set in Toronto and it’s supposed to be in Toronto and we didn’t shy away from that but also this movie, we really wanted it to move, kind of like as soon as it sets itself up and starts moving we want it to be like a freight train that doesn’t stop. So to make something like that, where the camera is always moving, she’s always running there’s not much down time. As soon as stuff starts to go bad, it really gets bad and it doesn’t stop. The only time it does stop is when she literally passes out and when she wakes up it’s worse so to make something like that when you are constantly moving, you can’t have many lights so everything is minimal. This is something we hadn’t done before and this was my best experience directing a movie, I’m very happy with how things turned out, from script to screen.
Alanna: Yeah, it was definitely a unique experience for me as well. This is my first feature film but filming commercials and short films, there’s always a lot of setup that goes into it, it’s very staged in a way, it looks like a film set. This wasn’t like that at all, it was a very raw feeling and we had a very small crew so we got to know each other really, really well and just like Cody said, things were always moving, there wasn’t really any down time, it was an amazing experience. I think just having the close knit feel of everybody working together made it, it kind of just felt like something you were immersed in, not just oh we’re filming this scene or making this movie, it’s like this is just happening right now and made the settings feel very natural.
Now you mentioned the small crew and the family like atmosphere. Do you think the horror genre has something special in this regard, the way both the fans and talent involved have a very close knit relationship, not just to the genre itself but each other as well?
Cody: Yeah, definitely. At festivals, especially Fantasia and places like that, we just get so many fans that come up and are like, we love the movie, but then also say they love a movie that we did five years ago, picked up the DVD from Japan or something. I feel like not a lot of genres, at this budget level, have that kind of following. They don’t care if Brad Pitt was in it, they don’t care what the budget was, if it was fun and a good movie they’ll give it to you but for drama and comedy, if it doesn’t have Wil Ferrell in it you’re in trouble. So I think definitely with horror films and thrillers and that sort of drama, it’s a huge family of fans and a huge family of talent who get together to make it.
Alanna: I don’t have a ton of experience in the horror genre but doing this film I’ve learned what a following there is for horror films and it’s great to see that support and see fans who are committed to a certain genre of film and see all the different possibilities that can come of that. It was just great to go to work every day and be around people who love what they’re doing and who you get along with, trading jokes with on set and you can walk away with the memories you have of that experience and those people.
Earlier you talked about not shying away from the Toronto landmarks during filming. Was that a conscious decision to do that this time and if so, why?
Cody: Well, we knew we wanted to shoot it in Toronto, with budget limitations we really couldn’t go too far, some of it was shot in Hamilton, the motel stuff, but ninety percent of it was shot in Toronto. We’re all from Toronto so it kind of made sense but usually when we shoot here we kind of make it a not descript city but the whole kind of idea behind this movie was that this insane story that is happening is literally happening right now, right over there and that was sort of the idea of it, we wanted to have pedestrians in the background to show this crazy and insane story is not isolated like most horror films are, it’s happening in this giant city. No matter what is happening in this story, as soon as this story ends a new story is going to start so that idea is what we needed to show.
You mentioned the frantic and frenzied pace of this movie. Did that work to your advantage, in terms of the budget and time constraints that indie movies always have to deal with?
Cody: It’s weird because you’d almost think that a slower paced movie would cost less but sometimes it’s not necessarily the location or the actor that costs the money, obviously unit moves cost a lot, it kind of depends how you’re going to do it. We had all our lighting and cameras in one vehicle, everybody else crammed into a minivan and just sort of follow each other around so we were able to save money that way. Making an independent movie sometimes feels like there’s a lot of room for guessing, we figure out a lot of stuff on the fly. We do something and say well, that needs to be scary and it wasn’t so let’s go rethink this, is it the camera angle, the lighting, I mean the story was always the same but how we approached it every day kind of changed.
Alanna: I honestly didn’t know what to expect, being new to the whole process. I was just so excited, Black Fawn was a company I wanted to get involved with for some time now, I actually auditioned for a couple of other films by them as well. I felt like during the filming process my life was actually this film, there was nothing really outside of it so it was weird when we had some days off, I didn’t know what to do. I like being hands on, I like being involved as much as I can. Even just watching them set up is a cool experience for me, to see how they are creating the scene and looking at the monitor when they are setting a scene up. It was definitely a lot of adapting and learning on the go but the whole experience was great.
So what is the attraction for the both of you when it comes to the horror genre?
Cody: One of the interesting things with horror is because the fans are so loyal and they have so much fun, it’s kind of like a rollercoaster more than anything else. The fans are there to be entertained and obviously they want to take something away from it but as a director, it also gives me a little bit of leeway to experiment. If we try something and it doesn’t work the fans will go ok, that was weird, but they’ll still stay and watch the rest of the movies instead of walking out. To have an audience do that more times than not is pretty special and I think that’s what drew me to horror.
Alanna: As an actor, a lot of times you are under certain restraints, as in you can’t be too strong here or too weak there, so it was kind of fun to just let the emotions flow and go crazy sometimes and not be worried so much about how it was going to come out in the end and to just have fun with it. It was interesting for me to experiment and see where the scene goes and there were definitely times where I scared myself, watching the playbacks of some of things I did.
Do you think it is becoming harder to scare or surprise a horror fan and as artists do you even worry about that or do you just concentrate on making the best film you can?
Cody: I think you kind of have an idea of what the movie is going to be and for me, even though this does have a few jump scares, I want it to be something that just doesn’t sit well. You know something bad is going to happen, everyone knows it and then just when you think you’ve been through the worst you find out there is still more to come. I think that’s what scares me more, just the idea of things and waiting for it come, because you know it’s coming you just don’t know when. For me, I had an idea of what I wanted to get in each scene and what I wanted out of the movie and you hope that you’re on the same page as the audience. I know I have to separate myself from the film and get it out there because eventually you’ve been looking at it for so long, you know where all the scares are and how they were done, that they don’t faze you anymore and you need to have an audience view it. Then it is out of your hands and really, there is always a chance that the audience won’t get it or not be scared when they should be, or you are simply sitting there second guessing yourself.
Alanna: I don’t think I ever went into a scene thinking about what kind of reaction it was going to get, it was just about making the scene as believable as possible in the context of the story and the situation at the time. You have to try and convince yourself about what you would do in a certain situation or how you would react if this was really happening. Sometimes I was uncertain as to how things were coming across and that was the great thing about working with Cody, I could talk with him and see if he got what he wanted in a scene and we had great communication and the feedback was very helpful.
How was it tapping into the darker and twisted side for the character of Helen?
Alanna: Well, there were more than a few times that, after I had done a particular scene, people started looking at me differently. The character definitely began to seep in my subconscious. It became a running joke that every day I came to set I was having these terrible nightmares, things I was doing in the film were turning into bad dreams every night. Also, there were many times where I was in full make up that it really helped me channel Helen and see how far I could really push the envelope and scare people, even the people you are working with. It’s funny too because there were times I was in full makeup and forgot what I looked like and walked into Tim Hortons, blood all over me, and everyone is staring at me and it’s like oh yeah, the makeup.
Besides film festivals, do you find that it’s getting harder to find a market for films like Let Her Out?
Cody: Well the market is, as you probably know, really flooded these days. Ten years ago, I don’t know how many horror movies would come out but the percentage is a lot smaller than it is now. There are so many being made and it has its good things and it’s bad things but it seems like everybody is making movies. It’s hard when you have a low budget movie, Ryan Gosling is not in it, it’s not directed by somebody famous and so we try to do anything to make it stick out. Usually we try to make our posters catch people’s eyes, the trailer is super important now to separate it from everything else. Even with festivals, they are getting ten times the amount of submissions than they did before which makes it that much harder to get your film seen. We just have to keep pushing and hope that our films are a little bit more memorable than the average movie.
I want to thank Cody and Alanna for taking the time to speak with us.
Let Her Out will have its world premiere screening at London England’s FrightFest this Thursday August 25th: Screen 9: 22:45, Screen 5: 23:00, Screen 12: 23:15