SCREAM’s Jessy Williams was lucky enough to catch-up with director Anthony DiBlasi to chat about his supernatural shocker Last Shift, which is filled with plenty of frights and is a truly relentlessly scary 90 minutes. It may be overflowing with stone-cold horror, but there’s also a whole heap of heart in there which makes Last Shift an, at times, touching and heart-felt drama. You’ll just have to wade through the unbearable tension and terror to get to it.
In this interview Anthony discusses the film’s comparisons to Assault on Precinct 13, the reason for having a leading lady and the possibility of a sequel or prequel…
SCREAM: So, what is Last Shift about?
AD: Last Shift is about a rookie police officer called Jessica Loren who is assigned to a transitioning police station to babysit it for the night and while she’s there she discovers why the police really moved out. There’s much more sinister things going on.
SCREAM: From the moment the film starts with the ominous phone call with Jessica’s mum and the intense police officer she first meets, you know she’s in for a tough night. How did you manage to maintain this feeling of fear and dread throughout? Because you did, I was scared the whole time.
AD: *Laughs* Well that’s good! I talked about it with my producing partner Scott who was the co-writer on it. We really wanted to do something small, super contained and something that was based on a lot of sound design. I worked with my sound design team a lot and I wanted to make a movie that they could really sink their teeth into. Sound is such a big part of humans being afraid; if you’re home alone and you hear anything that’s out of the ordinary you’re like, “What!?” and it immediately puts you on edge. I wanted this film to be very experiential in the sense that we’re always in this character’s point of view. Not only is it her first day in this job, but she’s inherently nervous and doesn’t know what she’s stepping in to. Instead of having this cop just walk up to her and say, “Welcome!” I really wanted to do something that would set people up in this tense situation. He’s got his own thing going on and really he knows that this station is haunted. This was definitely something I wanted to maintain throughout the whole film; her point-of-view and never letting the audience settle in to relaxation.
SCREAM: Even though you say the film is from her perspective – it is – but there are certain ways the camera is used to put you in the point-of-view of the ghosts. Was that intentional?
AD: For sure, I think making her the subject of the camera is an accurate description. Definitely. It was really important to have these spaces and long hallways with lots of corners. The place was very labyrinthine, so we could create that sense of “what’s behind the corner?” all the time and have her really small in the frame.
SCREAM: How did you go about finding the police station that you set the film in?
AD: We got really lucky with the situation. We hadn’t started writing the script yet, but knew we were going to write a small movie and knew what we wanted. We actually started scouting the area and found one that was about 20 minutes away. It was an abandoned police station and it hadn’t been open for a few years. It was in Florida and it was perfect. It still had the electricity and water still running and the police left a lot of random shit behind. *Laughs* We wrote the script around that location.
SCREAM: How difficult was it to film in such a small, enclosed space?
AD: I guess with any small space it’s difficult to get the equipment in there, but you just kind of deal with it. We shot every night, overnight and we tried to keep a lot of the movie hand-held to make that easier. Certainly, we have those scenes where we’re in the cabinets and it’s forcing our production designer and art department to constantly move stuff. Luckily, the hallway was quite large and long, so it gave us a lot of space to do a lot of stuff in there with a Steadicam.
SCREAM: Did you ever consider only using hand-held cameras and shooting the film from a found-footage perspective?
AD: I’ve definitely never had the desire to do a found-footage movie, at least not narratively. The last film I did, Missionary, was shot almost entirely hand-held and there is a way to do this that’s not crazy. There is a hand-held feeling that gives you a nice organic documentary-feel. The difference with documentaries is that they’re trying to tell you a completely different story. They may be out on a warzone, but they’re trying their hardest to keep the camera steady. That’s the kind of hand-held that I like to do; the camera feels a little bit alive because it’s on a human, but they aren’t doing this to create tension. I think that has become a filmic trope of found-footage movies like Blair Witch, who think they can get away with anything because they’re running through the woods.
SCREAM: How was the script-writing process?
AD: It was a good process on this film, because when I approached Scott about this dispatch idea we locked ourselves in a room for about a month. I wanted the film to be less about a narrative and more about felling like we’re in her shoes and learning things from her point-of-view constantly. A few people have compared it to a video game which wasn’t intentional on my part, but I can understand how it does feel that way as we’re in her shoes and discovering clues on the way. I wanted it to be tense and scary from the beginning and until the end. I like setting up scares; it’s something I enjoy writing and it’s like a magic trick essentially. If there aren’t enough set pieces then we go back and we tweak more to keep the audience scared.
SCREAM: How did you go about casting Juliana Harkavy as Jessica?
AD: She was luckily easy, because I had met her on Missionary. She came in and auditioned, but she was too young for the part, but I really liked her a lot. We started to do some casting in Los Angeles and my First Assistant Director Mike Finn said, “What about Juliana?” because he’d made another film with her called Renee/To Write Love on Her Arms and I agreed. I thought she’d be perfect for this. We called her and sent her the rough version of the script and she said she’d do it. So then we could cater the rest of the script around her as an actress.
SCREAM: Why did you choose a woman to be the protagonist of the film? What is it about women that work so well in horror films?
AD: It’s true. I think both men and women relate to women in terrifying situations more. Men always put forward this persona of being manly and having to be tough. If a man isn’t being pseudo-manly on camera then I think other men will judge them for it, so there is already that distance. With us, it was more about taking chances with Juliana, because I knew right away that it was interesting to focus on a woman police officer. The audience is going to be thinking that there’s this female; she’ll probably be in her under-shirt by the end of the movie and she’s going to be terrified. I was like, “Well no, she’s a trained cop, she has a gun…” So, how do you still make that scary? That was the challenge that I really liked about her not being a terrified fool. She has a duty and she is going to constantly question that duty and attempt to always keep her cool. This was an interesting way to challenge those kind of tropes associated with having a female protagonist in a horror film and keeping her strong the whole way.
SCREAM: She’s a strong woman who refuses to give up and goes all the way to the end. She’s the final girl, but she always was from the beginning.
AD: That’s an interesting way to put it; she’s the final girl, but she always was from the start.
SCREAM: Last Shift is definitely more than just a basic horror film. The story is very deep and concerns a woman’s fragile mental state as well as grief and coming to terms with death. How intentional was that?
AD: Very intentional. My other films are categorised as horror, but if you watch films like Dread and Missionary they are very dramatically driven movies and I really like exploring the psychology of people and why they do certain things. For a movie like that, there is no reason to not have a really strong thread of her motivation. For me, it’s not just her thinking, “This is a really scary place and I’m going to leave”. For her, she’s dealing with such a strong sense of duty because of her father and, like you said, she’s dealing with all this grief and the evil that’s in the station is using this against her which is tragic. I feel like there is no reason to not get emotional in any kind of movie. I think the best kinds of comedies have true, dramatic emotion and it’s the same with horror. Hopefully when people get to those moments where she is having breakthroughs with her father that it touches people who didn’t expect that in this movie, but feel like it makes total sense.
SCREAM: The film has obviously been compared to John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, how conscious of this were you when you were writing and shooting the film?
AD: I knew people would draw comparisons just because it’s an abandoned police station. John Carpenter is probably my favourite horror director and movies like The Thing and They Live are movies I watch all the time. I hadn’t seen Assault on Precinct 13 in a long time and I didn’t watch it right before I shot the movie. So, I didn’t really think about it that much during the process of making Last Shift. I think his films influence me in general so it’s in my DNA, but it wasn’t a direct comparison as I was making the movie.
SCREAM: Are there any other films or directors that influenced Last Shift?
AD: Maybe Christopher Nolan. I love his style of film-making and how he directs and works with actors. That’s what I like about directing most. I really enjoy working with actors and seeing what they can bring to any situation, because it’s always a surprise. I like to embrace a certain amount of chaos when I make a movie. I don’t want everything to be perfect all the time. It’s like getting on a train that’s always shaking, but just making sure that it gets to the end. That amount of chaos creates a certain amount of magic and actors bring the most to that when you throw them in to situations that they may not be expecting. Certainly when you’re making a horror movie you can play with psyche of an actor and that adds an air of authenticity.
*POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOLLOW*
SCREAM: I’m really asking this question for my own sake and I don’t want to ruin the film for anybody, but there’s a homeless guy who poses a lot of trouble for Jessica and I was wondering what the story was behind him, was he a ghost or was he real?
AD: *Laughs* He was totally real. I knew that people would be like, “Well what about that homeless guy?!” and there were definitely things in there that we didn’t answer along the way, but if we do a prequel movie I think he’ll be an integral part of it. For me, the backstory that I gave him was that he was a father whose daughter was pulled in to this cult and she was killed. He was coming to the police station on that anniversary, because he was looking for an item of hers that he wanted. The reason why she was drawn to this cult was that he had molested her as a child. So, there was this darkness and great guilt about raising his daughter and pushing her away in to this other man’s hands and leading to her death. So he was dealing with his own story which was my intention. I imagine that when he’s locked in that cell he’s being tormented by his own child. So that’s where he comes from and that’s why he was there that night!
SCREAM: How likely is it that you’ll be able to make that film?
AD: I think it’s pretty good. The movie is doing very well and Magnolia and Anchor Bay are happy with it. It’s something that we’ll still keep on a lower budget, but maybe put a bit more in to it. It’s definitely something we can do in the next year or so, so we’ll see!
*END OF SPOILERS*
SCREAM: How involved were you in the design of the villains in the film? The guy with the pentagram face is particularly scary.
AD: Yeah! I worked with designer Lee Grimes on Cassadega and he’s so experienced, so on this film we knew we had to approach him early and get him on-board. I’d done some sketches about what I thought this guy would look like and we had an artist that I gave some ideas to and he put some stuff together for the girls and “Bash Face Betty” as we like to call her *laughs*. We gave him the designs and he started to mould them with the bags and the masks and the facial designs. He did a great job. At first we had some concepts to make his demonic form a lot more elaborate, but we all gravitated towards this pentagram design.
SCREAM: What 3 words would you use to describe Last Shift to encourage people to see it?
AD: Oh my god! Visceral.. Viscera..and… Scary?
SCREAM: Perfect! So, what is next for you?
AD: I had a movie that played FrightFest called Most Likely to Die with Heather Morris from Glee and Perez Hilton. That’s a slasher film due out in May or June. I just finished a thriller that’s in post-production now. It’s a sort of Hitchcockian-style thriller. My editor is actually in the next room working away on it right now *Laughs*.
SCREAM: Oh, amazing! So what’s your favourite horror film and why?
AD: I guess it’s a bit of a cliché, but I guess The Shining. I think I saw it at such a young age that I’ll always feel like it’s the only movie that scared me in a real way. The movies I watch the most are movies like Fright Night and An American Werewolf in London. I love movies that have a lot of special make-up effects, because that’s what drew me to horror; the notion of working with and creating monsters.
SCREAM: Well that’s all I have for you this morning, so I’ll let you go. Thank you for your time and have a great day!
AD: Thank you, I’ll get back to editing!
Last Shift is out now on DVD in the UK and USA and available to stream on Netflix in the USA. You can read our 4-star review of the film here and check out our interview with Anthony DiBlasi for Most Likely to Die here.
Words: Jessy Williams (@JessyCritical)