Right about now, we could probably all use a relaxing vacation. But after watching writer-director Jeffrey A. Brown’s debut feature The Beach House, you might think twice before seeking out sun, sea, and sand.
The film’s premise is deceptively simple. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros), two troubled college sweethearts, head to Randall’s family beach house during the off season to try and reconnect. There, they run into an older couple and wind up hanging out and having dinner together. But something strange seems to be happening around the beach—and before viewers know what’s hit us, Brown plunges us into a terrifying fight for survival that evokes deep cosmic dread while shocking us with squeamish body horror.
To celebrate The Beach House’s release on Shudder, we caught up with Brown to talk low-budget filmmaking, grisly practical effects, and existential anxieties. This interview does contain a few spoilers, so be sure to check out the film before diving in!
SCREAM: Congrats on your feature film debut! I know that you’d wanted to make this particular film for some time. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey bringing it to the screen?
JEFFREY A. BROWN: It was a necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention situation. I’ve worked in independent movies and all sorts of productions for about a decade or so, but something that comes up a lot in dealing with low-budget films is a square peg, round hole sort of thing where the script is not like a low-budget script—it’s like a big-budget movie, and unfortunately, they didn’t get the $10 million, they got one. And then you’re kind of reverse inventing the process, which I always felt compromised the movie in the end because the money gap is too wide.
So with this one, I went in with a “four characters, one location” idea, with the intention that it was going to be a low-budget movie, and then it just accumulated ideas. Originally, it was more about two families and a beach house—kind of how the movie begins, more of a psychological thing. And then over time, as my interests evolved with it, what I was reading and what I was researching started seeping into the narrative.
One of the earliest things came when I was at a wedding with my wife in New Orleans. I had to kill some time, so I went to the aquarium. This was a long time ago, like 2011. And I just watched the jellyfish in this aquarium for a while and I was trying to think, well, what is a jellyfish? What is their process, and how does that connect to humans in a weird way? It was a broad, abstract idea that came in, and then I started thinking about encountering jellyfish in real life and how I wouldn’t like that. [Laughs]
I was also accumulating things from other movies. I have a very long list of influences—of films, of books, of music even. But I don’t think that you need to be aware of all the influences to enjoy the movie. In fact, I think the opposite of that—you shouldn’t be like, well, here he’s referencing Cronenberg or whatever. Anybody should be able to watch the movie and hopefully enjoy it.
The film draws from a lot of different genres, but it’s clearly rooted in the ecological horror sub-genre. And as an audience, we get to see this ecological threat through the eyes of Emily, who’s uniquely positioned to understand that this is all just part of the cycle of life and extinction. But do you think that audiences are going to look at the film differently now that we’re in the middle of our own brush with a threat that’s beyond our control?
Of course. But the process of making it has been going on for almost 10 years, so I don’t think it’s exploitative of the current situation—it was going to come out around this time even before this happened. And it’s horrible what’s happening, but to me, one of the bigger things in the film is the metaphor for climate change.
Emily states a lot of my feelings about science. I read a lot of nonfiction books that helped formulate the script as I was doing my research, not just fiction. To me, it’s a science fiction film with horrific elements, as opposed to a horror film with science, so I wanted the science aspect of it to make sense, and it was about climate change. If a young person is interested in science, no matter what you study, even if it’s something as ubiquitous as the weather, climate change is going to weigh into it at some point. It’s not a debatable thing, really, amongst the scientific community. And pandemics are definitely a subset of climate change on a broader scale.
So I would read books, not about climate change, per se, but more about the origins of life on Earth—basically what Emily is talking about—and the last chapter is always about climate change and what’s going on in the world right now. The movie is the anxieties of a 20-something young woman, not just about climate change, which is an overarching thing throughout, but also about her relationship and her future and what she’s going to grow into. I wanted to condense all of these anxieties into this hour-and-a-half experience that’s supposed to make the viewer uncomfortable or create a sense of dread.
In this time, we need to change how we perceive ourselves in terms of individuals and as a collective—not just as a community or as a country, but as a world. It’s a global world, and resistance to accepting that, putting up walls, is not what we are capable of as people. And that was something else I wanted to do—to give an astrobiological perspective of humanity. If you read about astrobiology in terms of nonfiction books, and then think about cosmic horror—not just Lovecraft, but the people who influenced him—their perspective lines up with more of a psychological fear of climate change. They were afraid of the big. And it’s terrifying to think about how small we are in the scope of the universe—it’s just insane. But to ground that fear into a horror story is what Lovecraft is famous for. He’s a very problematic writer, but he’s a scared little man and his stories reflect his fears.
You mentioned Emily and her anxieties, and one thing I loved about the film was how much history you managed to convey between her and her partner Randall in a very short span of time, particularly during the dinner scene. What was the process like of bringing all that nuance to their characters?
A criticism of horror films is always that the characters are kind of archetypal, they’re very basic, because you want to identify with the character in a short period of time so we can start killing them right away. A huge influence for me was the movie Alien, and how strong they draw those characters on top of having a phenomenal cast. There is class in that movie, between the captain, and [Harry Dean Stanton’s] Brett and Yaphet Kotto [as Parker] who are the grunts, the engineers, and then you have the science officer who’s a little bit aloof. For me, that was part of what I wanted to accomplish in the movie. Horror films are traditionally plot-driven and indie films, especially mumblecore, kind of shoot people talking without a plot. The pace of those movies goes out the window because it’s not about what happens to them, it’s about them. And so I wanted to try to graft that non-narrative sense onto the movie, so that when the horror comes, it’s more shocking and more jarring to the viewer.
I always want to be caught off guard as a viewer. And I wanted to catch the audience off guard so that, in the dinner scene, maybe the viewer would be like, “Am I watching the wrong movie? Is this the movie that I’ve signed up for? Because they’ve been talking about science and their lives for five minutes now—when is the killing going to start?”
As a viewer, I want something more interesting than just here they are, they’re in love, maybe they’re miscommunicating or whatever. To me, love is a much more complicated, difficult, and much more beautiful thing than I think can be encapsulated in an hour and a half. And I think when people are 20, in America at least, there’s this inclination that you meet your love early in life, marry or start a family, and that’s it. I think there’s a lot of unhappy marriages that come out of it. There’s a lot of great marriages that can come out of it, but in this case, I wanted romantic love and their attraction to not be the be-all and end-all. Emily has goals that Randall is not on board with, and should she give up?
There’s also a dreamlike aspect to the movie. It’s almost like an anxiety dream about their relationship—like she could wake up, still in college with Randall, and say she’s had this really weird dream they were at his family’s beach house.
Those anxieties definitely come through, and when the film does take a turn around the midway point, it certainly caught me off guard. We have to talk about those wonderful practical effects. When we first start seeing signs of the infection, they feel really rooted in nature, with the worm and the jellyfish-like slime on the beach, and then things spiral from there. Was it a conscious choice to start with something more familiar to the viewer and become increasingly otherworldly as the film progresses?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, the movie is a metaphor for change. I wanted things to become less and less familiar as we go and then to just take away things from our protagonists—so at the very end, it’s like the world outside of the house is unknown. It’s like an alien world. That was very much what I was hoping to convey.
It’s funny too, because when you deal with practical effects, it’s like there are two brains. Dealing with actors is one brain, the practical effects is another brain. And we discovered that the hard way. When you’re shooting and you have nine hours with the actor, you’re like, oh, we’re gonna do this other practical effect and it’ll be fine. But really, shooting with practical effects is a much slower process. That’s why digital effects have really come into play, especially on bigger movies, because I think directors are impatient. They’re just like, I don’t want to spend 12 hours doing one shot—if we do seven or eight now we can fix it in post and deal with the CGI later. I see the benefit of that because it gives the energy of dealing with actors, which is very kinetic—you’re capturing lightning in a glass and you’re looking for accidents. [Noah Le Gros as] Randall has a couple of great ones in the movie where it’s just a little glance he gives, and Liana [Liberato as Emily] has tons of them where she’s very in the moment and little things she does just amplify things.
But yes, surrealism is the juxtaposition of two known things in a context that makes them unknown or mysterious, and so I wanted it to start with something kind of innocuous—even though stepping on a jellyfish is definitely not innocuous—and then go further and further away until the concept of our planet and our familiarity is just out the window. Where the film ends up is completely alien. The landscape is completely unknown—the defences of the natural world are gone, and what Emily experiences is something other.
Even early in the film, there are a few effects that really made me squirm. The worm in the foot in particular made me want to look away!
That was one of our favourite days on set. It was very gross what we were doing, but the producers were just like, this is looking good, this is why we’re here! It was also a very hard day and one of our busiest. We shot the film in 18 days; it was three six-day weeks with two days off in between because (and this is one for aspiring filmmakers) that sixth day is not gonna be great. [Laughs] Liana and Noah are exhausted—Liana is in almost every scene. They’re great actors and they’re very physically fit, but making horror movies is a very physical thing for actors, and by that sixth day, they’re wiped.
But on foot day, we just shot and shot. Our editor Aaron Crozier was great, but even from the get-go, that scene worked. Some other ones, you kind of have to find them. But that one was he was like, oh, here we go.
You talked a little bit about that otherworldly feeling of the film, and the cinematography is a big part of that too. You go from the naturalistic lighting of the house and the beach to those very stark blues and oranges toward the end. Was there a particular thought process behind that colour scheme or did it just feel right?
It was a bit of both. There are a lot of happy accidents, but I find more and more when I watch horror movies that I’m very critical of how they’re shot—primarily the lighting. I don’t like artificial lighting, especially in interiors, when it’s on a set; I’m immediately brought out of it even if the movie has a big budget. And on a low-budget scale, you can’t really emulate traditional three-point lighting, which is what we’re trained to look at. You try to, and then you don’t have the time or the manpower or the lighting on a sub-million dollar movie to really capture what the big boys are doing, and you wind up with this half-assed lighting scheme that doesn’t look like what you want it to look like, and it doesn’t look good either.
Our director of photography, Owen Levelle, has a documentary background. And so that was another conscious decision we made: we weren’t going to have the money or the time to do a big lighting scene, so I’d rather do a lot of practical lighting, a lot of naturalistic lighting. Cameras now are much more sensitive—even my own personal camera can shoot like 40,000 ISO, which is basically seeing in the dark—and film cameras from 15 years ago could not do that. You don’t need to have tons of lighting to make something look good: you can make a Tangerine, a movie that was shot on the iPhone, and it is as professional as any big-budget movie that uses tons and tons of lights. It’s an unspoken thing, but I’d heard from filmmakers shooting completely naturalistically that it gives them time, and by not necessarily spending a lot of time doing lighting setups or putting in a grid in the house, it gave me more time to shoot with the actors and shoot long takes.
It all goes back to necessities. Necessity is the mother of invention; we knew the film was going to be low budget and I wanted the film to look low budget—not bad, but there’s no mistaking that our film was small, and I wanted it to be what it was. It’s a small film, it’s an intimate film. So taking advantage of the bumps in the road and knowing that if I hit them hard, I’m going to shoot way up in the sky—that was in the DNA of the film.
With the colours, I definitely had a sense that the exteriors of the second night were going to be oranges and yellows. Those are sick colours to me—I can’t handle a room that’s painted orange or yellow. In speaking with Roly [Porter] who did the music, there are moments where his score is soothing, and the blue is a soothing colour—there’s a respite when that hits.
The final colour of the night is red. We wind up in a red situation. All colours give you weird sensibilities and that was definitely a part of it.
Let’s talk about that ending. On the one hand, it’s hopeless and sad and scary. But on the other hand, there’s something kind of beautiful about Emily’s acceptance—that this is just part of the cycle, and she’s part of it now. I’m curious how you felt about it, both when you were writing and shooting it, and now looking back on the film as it goes out into the world.
I love the ending. I’ve seen it hundreds of times, and I think there’s a moment where the spell is being cast, and the spell works, and you’re on board with it. That was one of the many things where I was fortunate our producers were on board with the weird and the abstract from the get-go. Any discussions or debates we had were primarily about the first half of the movie. Anything abstract—lighting, weird sensibilities, or weird imagery—they were like, “yes, do that.”
To me, the ending is something I had not seen in a movie. We see so many movies now, as opposed to when I was coming of age; there are just so many movies, and as a viewer, you’re kind of filtering out noise. I wanted to make a movie that I hadn’t seen before. I also kind of wanted to sneak it in there—because I think, as a viewer, there are moments where you’re like, “I’ve seen this movie, I know where this is going.” I can predict the ends of movies; I’ve seen so many movies now that 15 minutes in, I’m like “this is what’s going to happen.” And if any viewer can do that with our movie, they win. Maybe if they’ve read some of the same books that I was reading, they can be more predictive of it, but I really doubt it. I think that there are very few ways to predict what the ending of the movie will be.
The ending is one of my favourite things. I think we pulled it off. I think Liana was great. She had questions about what the last line means and how to say it. And I said, “Just say it. Just say it and say it.” That’s the point of it. With all these things that are weighing against us on a global and on an even cosmic scale, the only response is where we wind up in the film. What I see in this country specifically is a lot of the opposite in terms of how people are reacting to things. I think that to take a deep breath and look for the bigger scheme is a way to go and to not be afraid of what’s coming. Because it is scary. We know it’s scary, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to be afraid of it. You can die at any time. The miracle that we’re here—that you and I are talking—the math getting into that is crazy. So, embrace the miracle that we have or the fortune that we have in front of us. We are literally speaking to the audience at the end.
It was a beautiful way to end. And of course, there’s so much uncertainty ahead of us all right now, but what’s next for you, or what would you like to be next for you?
I would like to just be making movies. I’d like to just go into another one. In my day job, I’m a scouting manager. That’s been my profession for 20 years, which is a dream job—I mean, I drive around and look for locations for movies, which is pretty awesome. But I want to be writing and making movies for the next 15 years—just keep going from one to another to another—and hopefully audiences want to come with me. That was what I was trying to throw down with this one: this is the journey that I can take you on with very little money, taking four people in a house and being able to convey the deep expanse of time. So, if you can get that from our movie on a low budget, guess what we can do with a lot of money. That’s where I hope we’re going.
I hope so too. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us!
Thanks for watching the movie and thanks for having me!
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)