SCREAM’s Jessy Williams was lucky enough to speak to Derek Mungor about his feature film You Are Not Alone. Told purely though the eyes of Natalie (Krista Dzialoszynski), the film is shot from a POV perspective as she finds herself trapped in her own home with an intruder during 4th July celebrations.
In the interview Derek speaks about his real-life experiences that helped inspire You Are Not Alone, the challenges he and the crew faced during the film’s shoot, the importance in steering away from typical slasher conventions and finally, he gives us a bit of a tease of what’s to come next from him…
SCREAM: How would you describe the story of You Are Not Alone?
Derek: On the one hand, it’s a story about a girl who’s coming home from college around the 4th July in the US. So, it’s very celebratory and it’s a good time for everybody to reconnect. The other half of the story is a slasher and I had the idea that it was one film being interrupted by another. With a little bit of misdirection, while sprinkling in elements of that second half within the first, it is the story of the final girl told through her eyes, where you get to become familiar with her life before it all goes to hell.
SCREAM: Why did you choose to do the film solely from her perspective?
Derek: This goes back quite a few years where a good friend and creative partner had discussed the idea that you’d never had that experience of a full POV within a horror movie. It wasn’t until my co-writer Chris O’Brien and I really discussed the possibility of doing something in the vein of a home invasion film, that we started discussing what it would be like to see it from that perspective. The fascination I had with it as an experiment was to question whether you could establish a firm grounding for an audience to project their own experiences of a character that you didn’t have a visual familiarity with. So that you can see yourself in that role. To an extent it allows you to forget that it’s a film, so when it does become more of a genre-oriented film, there’s more of an impact without it being too large in scale, abstract or cinematic.
SCREAM: How much time passed between this initial idea and the completion of the film?
Derek: We started the general concept and story structure in the early winter of 2012, we then went in to pre-production in the spring and started the 2-week shoot. Post-production was a little bit unique, because the way we shot the film was more in–line with a documentary production. We just shot footage consistently and realised we were going to have to shape it in post-production. It was a little bit more extensive than a traditional narrative, so we were in post for about 6 months before we had our first test screening in front of 200 people. We got a really good response from that and knew how we needed to finesse the story a little bit more. Then it was another year/year and a half constantly revising it and getting it to where it is now.
SCREAM: What challenges did you face along the way?
Derek: For every film like this which is shot on a micro-budget has the biggest challenge of getting an audience. We had a really tight turnaround time to produce the film, because when we were drafting the film we were in the winter, so we knew that if we didn’t get the film into production by July 4th we would have to wait another whole calendar year. In terms of post-production, it’s really been about trying to find a good home for the film. Sharp Teeth films are releasing it in the UK and it wasn’t until they came along that I really felt like we had a distributive partner that was right and understood what we were attempting. Hopefully, we’ll be announcing something very exciting about our North American release this summer.
SCREAM: Was the budget really only $20,000?
Derek: In very broad terms that is a very close approximation. However, there is so much sweat equity and favours and general kindness that were given to this film. It should probably have cost $200,000 for what ends up on the screen, so I’m very proud of that and thankful. We made the most of very limited resources.
SCREAM: Did a particular film inspire this one?
Derek: It comes from several different influences. First and foremost, I’ve been a huge fan of the thrillers that came out of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Specifically, one of the films that made me want to become a film-maker was John Carpenter’s original Halloween. It was so reminiscent of the area that I grew up in, so I felt a strange sort of kinship with the setting alone. The story itself is simple, interesting and executed really well. The story for You Are Not Alone was based very much off my own experiences. I graduated in the college of 2008 and was coming home to visit family, just like the main character, and there was a killer on the loose. I just thought how surreal it all was. It felt like I was living in a film. I was home alone one day and a friend had text me saying, “There’s a police helicopter chasing the guy that’s on the loose in the cornfields just outside of town!” This is not just another slasher film. It’s a look at, what if, this were to happen to you and you experienced it first-hand.
SCREAM: I would say that the film alludes to slasher tropes. For example, you hear the slasher film happening on the radio…
Derek: Sure. A few reviews have stated that the slasher tropes are sprinkled throughout or that the film is a knowing look at it. I don’t know if this looks at it in the same way as, say, Scream. Our approach was being aware of slasher tropes, but more trying to think about what you would do if it happened to you.
SCREAM: What advice did you give to your leading lady Krista Dzialoszynski?
Derek: Krista had a yeoman’s job to perform, because so much of it was technical. Unlike the other performers, she was expected to give a performance while performing technical duties as a camera operator. A lot of it was making sure that she was interjecting the character that we had built up in pre-production and being able to riff on the spot. A lot of the cast was made up some really great improvisers. Krista isn’t an actress by trade, but it’s something that she became very familiar and comfortable with. With a lot of the actors on the film, it wasn’t so much about giving them a lot of performance notes, but just finessing it. Everybody really found their character and made it their own. With some of their actions I was very indulgent in just letting it all play out and a lot of the first part of the film I didn’t want to end.
SCREAM: Were there any scenes that you had to change entirely when you realised they wouldn’t work with the perspective?
Derek: Oh, yeah! The whole film is an experiment and it’s one that we had done tests for in pre-production, but until you’re in the midst of shooting it’s hard to tell if it’s working. We were editing on set and revising as we went along, but there are so many instances where we were like, “oh, there’s nothing to cut to!” The ending that you see in the film was not the original ending. The ending that you see is a re-shoot that we did in the winter, because we realised the original didn’t work. That was one of the hardest things you can arrive at; when one of the most crucial parts of the film doesn’t work. Overall, as a film, the ending works infinitely better than what we had initially.
*Potential Spoilers Follow*
SCREAM: What was the original ending?
Derek: We wanted to leave it very open-ended as a homage to the original Halloween; having the killer escape the situation at the moment of the final confrontation with Natalie. It was, in no small part, due to the perspective. It felt unnatural. We had a very blocked out camera movement where we spun from the first-person perspective to revealing Natalie at the very end of the film. A lot of people spoke about how we never get to see her in a mirror or a reflection, so we were going to have this big reveal. That was another thing that just didn’t work. We thought that the punctuation that eventually happens in the final version is a release for the audience.
SCREAM: I agree with that decision. I think ending the film like that would have been a bit of a gimmick.
Derek: Yes and on top of that, Enter The Void pulled it off so successfully, so it would have been us replicating something that had been done.
*End of Spoilers*
SCREAM: Is there a particular scene or sequence that you are most proud of? Probably all of it!
Derek: *Laughs* I have to say that I am the biggest critic of my own work and having watched this film no less than 85 times, I can still safely say that I am happy with the way that it turned out. I am extremely pleased with everybody’s contribution to it. The one scene that I am particularly proud of is something very small, but it is the montage that happens in the woods with Katie, Miles and Natalie. Simply, because it’s a very free-flowing approach to a feeling and trying to communicate that visually. It’s not very plot-driven; it’s not terribly important to the film as a whole, but it was so important in terms of a mood and an emotion to convey.
SCREAM: My favourite sequence is when Natalie is walking home from the party. You can sense that something bad is about going to happen through the contrast of the fireworks and the silence. It’s very well-constructed and very tense.
Derek: The interesting thing about that is it might have been one of the best moments on set. We were a consolidated crew by that point on the shoot and everybody who wasn’t even needed during that bit, just came out to join the walk around town for a couple of hours at night. It was fun and is completely out of context from the rest of the film; it was very eerie, menacing and ominous, but we had a great time doing it.
SCREAM: It’s a great moment because it’s so different. It’s like a line being drawn between what’s come before and what’s about to happen.
Derek: Absolutely. When we test screened the film you could actually physically sense people in their seats a bit when that moment came. It was interesting to see that play out and see that was actually conveying. Something that every film-maker should experience once in their life is seeing a film of theirs in a packed house on a big screen.
SCREAM: Definitely. On to your killer, why did you choose to have him unmasked?
Derek: Again, I think it ties in to not wanting to be overtly tied down by genre conventions. I always felt like it was more important to convey a character and, to me, that was definitely in the facial expressions and having this person interact in a way that was fairly uncommon with what you’d expect of a slasher or a killer. I was in a Halloween costume store months before we began production and I’d seen the mask that we ended up using for a small portion of the film and I thought it was inherently creepy. But, the more that I looked at it the more I felt that the performance would be lost behind that. Specifically, when we got to the kitchen scene. I think it worked out for the greater good for the film, so that you could see that performance.
SCREAM: So, what’s your favourite scary movie?
Derek: I think this changes every few months. I mean, there are the solid bunch that I always revert to. I think that it’s really hard to beat the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I hold that film in high regard, just because I think that it transcends the traditional slasher. I think what people mis-remember about the film is that it’s very strange in terms of its execution. There’s no original score to it, there’s these original sounds that are very warped. A lot of the visualisation of the things are very bizarre. I think seeing that film in its particular time period would have been a very different experience and there’s just nothing like it. The films that try to pull very heavily from it don’t seem to understand what makes it work. That’s not to be a presumptuous to say that I understand what makes it great, but it’s just such an interesting piece of film-making. I think people associate it with being a very gruesome and gory horror movie about a bunch of kids getting killed. Some of those things happen, but it’s a very bloodless film. It’s just so atmospheric and experimental, but accessible to a general audience. It’s the perfect formula for a horror movie. What’s your favourite scary movie?
SCREAM: The original A Nightmare on Elm Street. I watched it when I was young and it terrified me, so I will always carry that initial fear that I felt when I first watched it. I also love Freddy Krueger as a character and think he’s the ultimate horror villain! So, what’s next for you?
Derek: I’m currently starting a film studio in Austin, Texas which we’re going to be announcing very shortly. We’re going to be producing a lot more feature films and they’re all going to be genre-oriented. I can’t say it now, but I will be producing and directing my third feature film within the next year. I think that anybody who is a fan of the genre is going to be interested. I wish I could say more, but I’ll have to hold off.
SCREAM: Go on, give us a title or synopsis…
Derek: Not a solid title, but I’ll say this: It’s a love letter to VHS culture and is it tonally similar to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Hopefully I’ll be able to share a bit more in the coming months.
SCREAM: Well, keep us posted. I’ll leave you to get on with your day. Thank you for a great conversation!
Derek: It’s been a pleasure, thank you for the interview and your kind words about You Are Not Alone. I’m excited for the UK to see it. I’ll keep you guys posted.