The indie scene never fails to disappoint me lately with its ingenuity and innovation and Ian Kessner’s latest film, Lost After Dark is testament to that fact. Written by Bo Ransdell and Kessner, with the latter on directorial duties, this sui generis love letter to ’80s slasher classics is something to get very excited about.
Boasting a stunning cast of both up-and-coming and veteran greats, Lost After Dark follows a group of teenagers who sneak out of their high school dance in a school bus to head out for some fun at a friend’s cabin. The bus breaks down close to a seemingly abandoned farmhouse and it’s not long before they realise they have just become the latest targets for a cannibalistic killer.
As Lost After Dark is all set to screen at this year’s Nocturnafest on Monday 25 May (21:45) we caught up with both Ian Kessner and Bo Ransdell to find out all about their love of everything ’80s, how they designed such inventive kills and how they managed to create such believable characters, something we aren’t so familiar with when it comes to the slasher genre…
SCREAM: Can you tell me what it was about the ’80s that made you decide to shoot a love letter to those kinds of slasher movies?
Ian Kessner: What attracted me to the material was my own experience growing up in ’80s suburbia. I lived in a pretty safe neighborhood and had loving parents, which was wonderful, but boring. From an early age I had a wild imagination and became obsessed with horror, fantasy and sci-fi. I think it was a way for me to experience the fear and danger lacking from my everyday existence. With the ’80s being the golden age of the slasher there was no lack of films to be terrified by. My earliest memories of movies are all slasher films like Friday The 13th, Halloween, Happy Birthday to Me, My Bloody Valentine, and The Burning. With Lost After Dark I was excited to revisit my youth by crafting a film inspired by the ones that inspired me.
Bo Ransdell: For me, it was having grown up on those films. Due to some poor parenting, I had seen a lot of slashers and horror films in general at a young age, so there was definitely an element of nostalgia, but also a genuine desire to do a movie like the ones I’d loved so much as a kid, but didn’t really see anymore, at least not in the way I wanted to. I love horror movies to a fault, and I cut my teeth on the ’80s films so, for me, that’s what horror was for a very long time. The energy of Evil Dead 2 and Re-animator, really anything Stuart Gordon did in that decade, and Friday the 13th Pt. 4, which is an amazing slasher… all of those had in common a spirit of fun. They dealt with dark themes, as all good horror movies do, I think, but there was a dark humor underlying it that I miss in a lot of modern horror films, especially modern slashers that lean on fatalism. Not that Lost After Dark isn’t existentially bleak, but we have a good time with existential horror.
How did the idea arise and how was the writing experience between the two of you?
I love working with Bo. This project actually brought us together because he lives out in Tennessee and I primarily live out in LA. I was actually working on another film at the time and had run into a wall on the budget, which was coming in way too high. I was a produced writer looking to direct my first feature, and knew if I was resourceful and lucky I could probably only raise around a million dollars. Our final budget actually came in just north of that, so in hindsight that was a pretty solid assessment. Anyway, over the course of a couple of weeks I must have read over a hundred scripts and a thousand log lines looking for the right script when I came across the first draft of Lost After Dark and fell in love with the tone and the humor and the scares. It really brought me back to the films I grew up loving. After that I contacted Bo and optioned the material off him and we started developing it together. We did so many drafts and dug in so deep over the course of a year that we ended up sharing writing credit on it. I also brought Bo in on another couple of projects I was working on and so we became a writing team. It’s been five years and so far we haven’t killed each other, but there’s still time yet!
I saw a few of the slashers being produced and I didn’t enjoy them. They were grim and joyless. I wanted a movie that was fun, so I wrote the slasher I wanted to see. Ian might add working with me is also grim and joyless. So I had written the first draft years before and posted it online. Ian ran across it and enjoyed it, and we started rewriting to get it to a place where we both felt it was a nice marriage of traditional horror and some things we simply wanted to see. I’d had one film produced prior to this, but this was the first original script I’d done that was personal for me, being so steeped in the genre. The last thing either of us wanted was to make another bad slasher movie. And Ian is the guy who took that mentality and wasn’t afraid to make something that was hard to describe to producers. Yes, it’s an homage, but it’s not a parody and it’s not ironic, which is a tonally tough line to walk. Ian just got it right. I’ve already promised him my first-born for making that work.
Tell me a bit about the cast and how you chose them, not just Robert Patrick but also the teenagers who, for this kind of movie, were more likable than usual which helps you not really expect what is going to happen to each of them.
The process starts with a great casting director. I have somebody who I really trust named Liz Lang who I worked with on my AFI thesis film Pack of Dogs. Actually, the two teen leads in that short film, Elden Henson and Stark Sands, are now leads in the TV series Daredevil and Minority Report, so clearly we make a good team. With Lost After Dark Liz and I had to cast from within Canada as we were working under a Canadian content mandate. The teens we found are all very special. Every one of them was my first choice, which is almost unheard of. We were only allowed one actor from outside Canada. That was our star, Robert Patrick, who we cast in the role of Mr. C., an ex-Vietnam vet turned high school vice principle. Robert got to have a lot of fun with Mr. C. and I think that’s why he wanted to take the role on. I’d also like to add that when Robert came down he was just a blast to work with. He elevated everyones game on set. Every day he would have a cigar in his mouth and a smile for the crew. He is also a pro with a flashlight because of his work on the X-Files. That guy is lethal with a flashlight! I never had to ask him once to aim it into the camera lens for those sexy flares directors love, he just did it instinctively.
You have said that writing and casting believable actors that the audience will care for and root for is very difficult on a low budget, so how did you go about that?
In a slasher film like ours there’s a steep body count. We have 8 teen leads rather than the traditional 4 to 6, and we have a lot of kills, so it really was a chore to make them relatable/likable before the killing got started. Ultimately, being successful at it takes insightful writing, sharp casting, talented actors, and a great editor. An editor is crucial in helping to shape the final performances. Being an indie film on a tight schedule, the kids didn’t really have a lot of time to prepare with each other, and that is why part of the trick was casting the right ones. You’re not only casting for talent, you’re also casting for the essence of your characters. A funny thing I remember was when we all went for a dinner together just before we started shooting. I was walking behind all the actors and it was crazy because I could tell who every one of them were, in terms of their character in my movie, just by looking at them from behind in their own street clothes. That was pretty cool.
As for the cast, I would only add that I thought they were great. I watched the audition reels, and Ian and I discussed the casting, which was wonderful of him to include me in those discussions, but we had been through the script so thoroughly together, it made some sense, and I was really impressed with the cast early on. Writing the characters was surprisingly easy for me. Ian helped a lot with sharpening the relationships between them, but the root of the characters came from people I knew or know. Even the character of Johnny, who is not a likable guy really, is given moments of humanity to, hopefully, lift him above a common stereotype. It was important to us to spend time with the characters, to give them all their moments, and it’s intensely gratifying to hear comments from viewers who have spoken so highly of these characters. I love ’em all, of course.
It’s brimming with inventive kills. What ’80s slashers did you take inspirations from and where did you base your ideas for these inventive deaths? Were they hard to bring to fruition on set?
Ah, the kills! Obviously Bay of Blood/Twitch of the Death Nerve (the superior title) is the touchstone for all slashers, but the kills came from disparate places. One is a fairly direct homage to Fulci’s Zombie (or Zombi 2, if you’re feeling European), and there’s a scene largely inspired by the final episode of M*A*S*H. They were the things that had stayed with me as being particularly horrible ways to go, and isn’t that the point of a slasher? You store up all these terrible images and then pay it forward to an audience and hope it bothers them just as much. I look forward to the day when someone tells me they were genuinely disturbed by some of the imagery in the film. That would make me a very happy guy.
Bo got the ball rolling with the sick kills he dreamed up in the original draft of the film. I have a pretty twisted imagination so I added some fresh bloody ideas to the mix. Other kills came into focus when we got on location. One example is that we were planned to use a filet knife for one of the kills. Then, during pre-production, I was in an antique farmhouse shop with my equally demented production designer, Peter Mihaichuk, and we were looking for props for the set when we came across this old ice auger, and damn did it look mean! Once I saw this giant drill thing I called up Bo to tell him to forget the little filet knife, let’s have some real fun and screw the actor to death. I texted him a picture of the auger and he just started howling with glee. So yeah, sometimes you just get lucky.
Another thing we really wanted was to use as many practical special effects as possible because we really wanted the film to feel like it was shot in 1984. I’d planned to shoot on film stock from back then but because there were no more film labs in Canada we had to go digital. So while the special effects are almost 100% in camera, we used a new process in the post that made the overall film look like it was a 35mm work print from back then. Things like grain, light leaks, and bad splices. Those details really make the film feel authentic.
Something you have said about current horror movies is that there is like a prevailing dark, cynical, know-it-all tone to a lot of them. Do you not like those kinds of movies or will you do one eventually? Why did you opt for a more fun ride with more comedy? Did the budget have a lot to do with your decision?
Don’t get me wrong, I love horror movies that are bleak and disturbing. What I don’t like are the recent spate of slashers with really slick teenagers that look like they’ve stepped out of a Gap commercial and speak in this really snarky pseudo-intellectual patter. That whole thing just feels so fake and over-stylized to me. The movies that I grew up on just felt more raw and more honest and they had an innocence about them that I think was really appealing, and that’s what I want to recreate for the new generation. As for the budget, it had no bearing on the tone of the film. It did force us to cut some moments I would have liked to save, but that’s always the case no matter what the budget I imagine. You also get a lot of happy accidents on set that translate to amazing moments you never planned for, so in the end it all balances out. Quentin Tarantino told me that in an elevator once.
I like meta horror, but it’s so prevalent at the moment. At some point the snake will eat itself and there will be meta horror about meta horror. For Lost After Dark, it was about the simplicity of the formula and how to use it without being completely rote. I don’t recall anything big being taken out for budgetary reasons really. We were shooting for a movie that was recognizable to fans of horror, but still held a lot of surprises. All slashers are essentially about the fear of death, especially unreasonable, unexpected death. I don’t believe you get very far being too cynical or ironic about that. It’s natively scary. Ian and I both enjoyed the comedic aspects of the film, but there’s some fairly dark things being said about the Reagan-era slasher values in this movie if you want to go hunting for it.
Given the fact you were very conscious of all previous slashers like Scream and the like, did you find yourself often second guessing your choices so as to not repeat the same commentary that other movies had made.
I think part of it was that Bo and I grew up loving the original slashers. A film like Scream pokes fun at those movies in a equally loving, but very self-reflexive way. Lost After Dark is blissfully unaware by comparison. We wanted to celebrate the style of those movies, not poke fun at them. At the same time, we knew we needed to get really inventive, because people have seen zillions of teen slashers. So we started with the standard formula of a group of kids in the woods getting stalked and killed, but we wanted to keep people on their toes by turning the genre formula inside out, and I think we accomplished that.
In the writing, once it was at a place where this was the movie I wanted to see, I was done with thematic worries and the like. At a certain point, the movie is a train that gathers a heavy momentum, and any changes you make are cosmetic. The thing is in motion, and the time to worry about what’s right or wrong is going to come in the editing and post. But even in the darkest moments of self-doubt for me, I would think of a scene or two that I thought would play no matter what and we’d always have those beats, if nothing else. Fortunately, the cast was great and things really came together to make it better than a couple of worthwhile scenes. Thematically, Scream was completely deconstructionist, a post-modern commentary on horror. With Lost After Dark, it feels more like a celebration of the things Scream reacts against. You do have to be aware of the influence of meta-horror, but loving the genre often shines through. There are some things worth being genuine about, and, for me, a good horror movie is one of those. I don’t enjoy Return of the Living Dead ironically. I enjoy it because it is insanely entertaining.
How much of the movie was also improvised as I believe that Robert Patrick was particularly improvisational?
With Robert there was definitely some improvisation, because there were certain moments were it was fun to just let him go. I mean he’s Robert Patrick, the T-1000! But for the most part, there wasn’t really a lot of improvisation overall on set. Robert is a consummate pro and came in knowing his lines. There’s really not a lot of room for improv on any indie film because the schedule is so damn tight. That is particularly true when filming with eight teens at the same time. Just trying to figure out how to try to block them all effectively in front of the camera is tricky enough, if everybody starts improvising they start stepping all over each others’ lines and it quickly devolves into a disaster. But Robert did get off some real zingers which are hilarious and made the final cut. And a couple of the teens got a few original lines in there as well.
I am so grateful for Robert Patrick and his additions. He has my favorite line in the movie, and it was all him.
Apart from improvisation how much freedom were you given by your producer Eric Gozlan and Goldrush Entertainment?
While we didn’t have a lot of money, I did have an enormous amount of creative control. Like 100%. I really can’t remember a time where Eric vetoed any of my creative decisions, though he was very involved throughout the process, and I took all his opinions and suggestions to heart. But the final decisions he left to me. He really let me do my thing, within the constraints of a pretty tight budget and schedule of course. That comes with its own set of limitations and you have to find a way to be creative within them. I think together we did that.
This was certainly more Ian’s department because I got to stay mostly detached from all of that, but Eric and Goldrush were great allies. Every production has its ups and downs, but I can’t recall a scenario where we were debating something fundamental to the heart of the film. Once Ian, who is the best guy you can have in a room with producers, got them on board, my view of it was that it was tough, as all movies in this budgetary range are, but manageable. Of course Ian took the brunt of the stress when it came to dealing with the suits. He gets my second-born for that.
We’d like to thank both Ian and Bo for sparing time to talk about Lost After Dark and I can’t encourage you enough to catch this unique slasher. In the meantime, don’t forget that Lost After Dark will be screening as part of Nocturnafest and we’ll leave you with the trailer for the film.
Words: Howard Gorman (@howardgorman)