In this film, the truism about being careful what you wish for gets a frightening supernatural spin…
In 2010, writer/directors Andy Mitton and Jesse Holland seriously spooked festival audiences with their debut feature YELLOWBRICKROAD, a suggestive, sometimes surreal chiller that saw commercial distribution the following year. Telling of an expedition into the wilderness to solve the decades-old disappearance of an entire town’s worth of people, it revealed Mitton and Holland as a duo possessing a singular vision within the horror genre.
Last year, the pair unveiled their follow-up, WE GO ON (directed by Mitton and Holland from Mitton’s screenplay), which had a similarly well-received fest tour and is now in general release. YELLOWBRICKROAD co-star Clark Freeman takes the lead as Miles Grissom, a man so frightened of the prospect of death that he’s willing to pay $30,000 to anyone who can offer proof that there’s an existence beyond it. Assisted by his skeptical yet loving mother Charlotte (Annette O’Toole), Miles’ search leads him to Nelson (Jay Dunn), an airport worker who seems able to provide the evidence Miles wants. And does he ever: Nelson leads Miles into a supernatural nightmare that may prove impossible to awaken from.
Co-starring Mitton’s wife Laura Heisler as Alice, a young woman crucial to the developing mystery, WE GO ON is a different and very effective brand of ghost story. SCREAM spoke to Mitton and Dunn following the movie’s Canadian premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia festival.
SCREAM: After YELLOWBRICKROAD, which was a freeform story set in the outdoors, WE GO ON is more narrative-based and takes place in the society of Los Angeles. What inspired you to make that change?
ANDY MITTON: We come from theatre, Jesse and I and a lot of us, and although we ended up making horror movies, we love many different kinds of stories. When I look at it in the context of the plays and other things I’ve written, I’ve never wanted to be someone who’s known for telling the same type of story every time. So to move inside from outside, for us, it was even more about taking on a different kind of movie: one that would have a score and a sense that you were in a true narrative, rather than in YELLOWBRICKROAD, which is very spare, and you only ever hear what the characters are hearing. That was more experimental, and we felt like, well, we’d done our experiment, and it made some people very happy and some people very not happy, but it was a good thing for a first feature, to sort of rise above the noise.
Now we wanted to show that we had the chops to tell a more fluid, structured story than that. We followed more rules, because we felt that was important to demonstrate, but we also tried to maintain what I think works about YELLOWBRICKROAD, which is the sense of surprise. Just when you think you know where it’s headed, and that it’s going by the numbers, it invents a new number.
SCREAM: WE GO ON has very specific and interesting rules about who can see ghosts and when and why. How did you come up with the whole supporting mythology for this movie?
AM: We worked on that in the outline quite a bit, because I’d taken my stab at writing ghost stories, and I’d always run up against walls. You know, if you’ve gotten too far and the rules aren’t clear, the third act never works. In WE GO ON, it’s partly based on what I actually believe. I do believe in reincarnation and past lives, so I believe in this idea that’s described in the film, where someone will pass away but sort of ride along with a loved one for a month before they go. Josephina [Giovanna Zacarías] says that there’s someone in every family who can tell that story; that’s probably a bit of an overstatement, but I do see it resonating with audience members, and that people are familiar with the idea. So I tried to get more specific about it and gave it a name, ‘tethering,’ and found a way to integrate it into the plot, and hoped that it held firm.
SCREAM: The idea of a person being specifically haunted, as opposed to a place, has been very popular in Asian horror movies like JU-ON. Were you inspired by those films?
AM: Yeah, all of them. I’ve certainly seen JU-ON and THE GRUDGE—all that stuff was a part of it. And then there were POLTERGEIST and the American ghost stories of the ’80s that I grew up with; those were more house-oriented, but in terms of the way a haunting can manifest, those were big influences on me as well.
SCREAM: You mentioned the lack of music in YELLOWBRICKROAD, and sound is very important in that film as well as in WE GO ON. Can you talk about your overall approach to that element?
AM: Yeah, sound and music are hugely important to me. I’m a sound designer, and I worked on the audioscape of WE GO ON, but the main person there is Dan Brennan, who works at Soundtrack New York. He was my seventh-grade lab partner, and it just so happened that after being buddies in high school, we ended up being able to do these things together. So after I make a movie, I get to sit with one of my best friends in New York and really get creative, and try to find a new movie during that process—the same way when you edit, you throw everything out and see what you can dig up. With YELLOWBRICKROAD, it was about jarring and getting aggressive with the audience, while WE GO ON required a bit more nuance and creative thinking. I believe we grew a little bit with this movie, in being able to create environments that would enhance the fear in what our lead character is going through. I actually did my first full film score for WE GO ON, and it can’t be overstated how much it does for the movie.
SCREAM: Jay, you play a very intriguing role in WE GO ON; how much did you derive from the script, and how much of your own ideas did you bring?
JAY DUNN: I would say it was all from the script. I’m a big believer in what’s on the page, and building from what’s there. There are many schools of thought about that; Morgan Freeman, for instance, when he made THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, didn’t read [Stephen King’s] SHAWSHANK, he was just like, “If it’s not in the script, I don’t want to use it.” I like that; some might say it’s overly purist, but I think that’s where you need to start, especially when you really trust the writer, and that what you need is going to be in the screenplay.
When they first talked to me about the role, they were interested in my background. I’m a very physical actor, and they were interested in having me bring some sort of physicality to it. Nelson felt a little off-kilter, and the situation is off-kilter too—meeting this anonymous person in an abandoned, bleak landscape to get proof of life after death is a pretty odd situation. I tried to play him a little bit off-balance, but what was important to me, and I think to the directors, was that I wasn’t playing the menace of Nelson, but that he’s just this very lonely guy.
SCREAM: When we first get to know Nelson, we don’t know how malevolent he is, and it’s also not clear right away what his relationship with Alice is. How did you approach revealing the different sides of his character as the story develops?
JD: That was interesting, because we learn more about him as we flash back to him and Alice. It was interesting to film in a non-linear way, as someone who comes from a more theatre-oriented background where you play it straight through. As long as you’re playing what the character wants, that will anchor the performance. Again, for me it was not about portraying him as dangerous, but about focusing on what Nelson it trying to get, and how he’s going to get it. That could be acting charming or disarming, or being like, “Listen, man, you don’t have to worry about me, I’m totally cool,” but also using fear as well. And as long as you’re playing that narrative track and sticking to the writing, that makes that job of revealing those hidden sides easier.
AM: Yeah, you always play the objective, and not what you think the audience is looking for in that moment. It takes quite an actor to walk that line. Nelson is someone we can be scared of, but he also has a real plight we can get involved in.
SCREAM: Can you talk a bit about that great location out by LAX airport that you used?
AM: Surfridge, in the 1930s, was a beach community for the upper class in Los Angeles. Then LAX opened and jet fuel was raining on their children, so they got the hell out of town. So now it’s just there; no one will build new houses there since LAX is so huge, but the streets remain, the streetlights come on at night, they’ve just built fences around it. We enhanced it a little bit in our description, but it’s as creepy as we say it is. They didn’t let us over that fence—that’s why you never see us climbing it in the movie [laughs], we kind of imply that—but they did let us right by the runways. So all the planes you see are real; we didn’t CG any of that. They were flying over our heads during the whole shoot there, and it was very intense. Which was funny, because usually when you shoot a movie, you avoid airports, because you’re holding for planes the whole time. So Surfridge is a real Los Angeles ghost story that not a lot of people know about, and they crazily let us be there firing guns and things, which I didn’t think they would.
JD: And we could feel the planes, too. When they go overhead that close, those gigantic 747s and Airbuses, you feel it.
SCREAM: Can you talk about the casting of WE GO ON? You have some interesting names in there.
AM: Annette O’Toole felt like the big gift. I met her through Laura, who knows Michael McKean (THIS IS SPINAL TAP), Annette’s husband. We thought Annette was perfect for this role, and we left a note at the stage door for Michael, who was on Broadway with Bryan Cranston [in ALL THE WAY] a few years ago. We basically said, “We have this script, we think there’s a great part for Annette and also a great part for you”; we felt Michael could play the professor that John Glover ended up playing. Once he was finished with the play, we thought they had forgotten about it and that we weren’t going to hear from them, and then all of a sudden, Annette wanted to meet for coffee. She had been getting a lot of gigs where she’d show up on a network TV show just to die or be someone’s mother; she hadn’t been able to do a lot with nuance, dimension and flaws, so she really took a liking to the role of Charlotte.
Michael came on at first to play the professor, but then was called to do BETTER CALL SAUL, so Annette got on the phone and helped us out, and we ended up with John Glover. That was amazing for me, because I grew up watching John, and for the three days we had him for the school scene, he was fantastic. And I can’t say enough about Annette. She was a thorough professional and a complete delight, and one of the best collaborators I’ve ever worked with.
SCREAM: Thanks very much, and congratulations on the movie.
AM: Thank you for your interest!
WE GO ON can be seen on the Shudder streaming service, as well as on North American Blu-ray and DVD from Lightyear Entertainment through Momentum Pictures/Sony Home Entertainment.
Words: Michael Gingold