Fracking has continued to expand ever since its first commercial use in the late 1940s, leaving a trail of contamination in its wake. But, rather than the oil and gas industries bearing the brunt of the adverse effects induced by this process, the true cost of fracking is being borne by the general public. After seeing a number of shocking documentaries on the devastating impact of fracking practices, John C. Lyons and Kelsey Goldberg felt compelled to write Unearth, a genre film that shines a light on just how much harm is being done, the horrifying repercussions sown by shortsighted decisions, and what our children reap from our actions.
Helmed by Lyons and Dorota Swies, and starring Adrienne Barbeau, Marc Blucas, Allison McAtee, P.J. Marshall and Monica Wyche, the film focuses on two neighbouring farm families whose relationships are strained when one of them agrees to relinquish their land to an oil and gas company. In the midst of growing tension, the land is drilled, and a long dormant killer pathogen, deep beneath the earth’s surface is released, resulting in terrifying consequences.
As Unearth releases today, June 28th, SCREAM sat down with Lyons and Swies who revealed the importance of this particular social commentary for them and how they went about juxtaposing the eco-horror and dramatic elements to achieve maximum effect.
What was the genesis behind making a film that focused on fracking?
John C Lyons: Well, from what I’ve seen in other interviews I know you’ve got good taste in music, and that has something to do with it. It was based on a lot of issues of water contamination and things like that. And then it was something that touched close to home in our corner of the world, the State of Pennsylvania, due to industry.
The initial idea started about eight years ago after seeing a couple of fracking documentaries, GasLand and Triple Divide. After that, it was a long journey of writing solo and listening to a lot of Alice In Chains’ “Jar of Flies” and some Nine Inch Nails to set the mood. And then Kelsey Goldberg came on board to help us finish it up. So it really did all start up based on real situations, some really horrific things going on out there with people’s health and, of course, the destruction of the environment.
There is a Lovecraftian vibe to the story, sharing themes with Color out of Space, for example. Was Lovecraft an inspiration at all when it came to the writing or directing style?
JCL: I had read Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” years before, but honestly that’s still the only work of his I have read. It’s funny that the script for Unearth existed years before The Colour out of Space (the film) was released but some have said we borrowed a lot from that film particularly. There are certainly basic similarities, but the approach and tone are miles apart. That said, I really dug the film.
Dorota Swies: The film we were actually most nervous about was Annihilation when we had just started pre-production and saw that trailer (without having yet read the book) and some images that we thought could be similar. But again, thankfully, after seeing it, it’s a completely different approach.
JCL: I think what’s really interesting is that all of these stories and storytellers can exist and compliment one another nicely. The whole “eco horror” sub-genre fascinates me. After finishing Unearth, I have really made it a point to seek out literature, films, etc and have become much more versed now. In a way I’m glad I was so unfamiliar when writing Unearth because anything that may have been seen before, visually, thematically, that I wasn’t personally familiar with, is completely packaged in a unique way in our film, and a fully-original approach because everything in Unearth grew out of the characters and building a world around these isolated farms.
DS: Humanity needs more eco horror. The more the better! There is no bigger story in our lives than the climate crisis.
Did you always set out to create a horror film? What were the key inspirations for the horror elements that we see?
JCL: Unearth was always a horror film. The very first images in my mind, before writing a word, were some of the most horrific in the film. During the outlining process I had seen a BBC video, narrated by David Attenborough, about the cordyceps fungus and ant colonies and was completely fascinated by the everyday horrors of our natural world. These visuals were the inspiration. I created a mini manual for how humans of various ages would be affected.
The film provides a fascinating look at how various generations deal with and are affected by fracking.
JCL: Myself, Marc (Blucas) and Allison (McAtee) are from rural Pennsylvania. And there are a lot of blue collar jobs and a lot of farming community so it was about writing towards the familiar and paying respect to the people that feed us and the stewards for the land.
The film shows the female characters standing up in the film to stick to their roots and keep what has always been in their family going. Was that something that you wanted to highlight when you sat down to write the script?
JCL: That’s a good read, Howard, for sure. I was thinking about the patriarchy and the system we’ve been in for all this time. We were certainly playing to some of that. A lot of it was about looking to the future and I really do feel that the future is female, if we’re going to make it through.
And also, it was all about making sure every character was fully developed and not having any two-dimensional characters. Everybody has their struggles, their secrets, their shortcomings and their strengths and we wanted to make sure that each character had their moments. And, of course, aside from the script, a huge part of that is the cast.
And, in terms of what’s happening in the town in the film, I think it’s something that fits with the whole country. The community here serves as a microcosm for all of the United States. There are definitely those people that are clinging on to the traditional old ways of doing things and then there’s that new energy that’s coming in that wants change and can see what the systemic problems are and we’re seeing that clash and that split. Using Allison’s character as an example, she has aspirations and she isn’t interested in staying on the farm. She has sacrificed a lot to be there and to help out. And then in terms of Marc’s family, you have one daughter that’s in college and she’s the first person in the family who’s actually gone to college to further her education and the film explores the troubles that come with that as far as the financial issues and dealing with the old systems and the like. I think it was a perfect opportunity to portray this clash between the old and the new.
I also read that Chuck Palahniuk (author of the novels Fight Club and Choke were adapted from) was quite the inspiration for you.
JCL: So, we’ve kind of been on his radar for a little while. This film originally started out as a Kickstarter in 2015 and he tweeted about it, which I’m sure helped us a lot. Something he said that really stuck with me was that genre has always been a great storytelling method to get social commentaries and fears of societies across and I think that was something about our story that he appreciated.
With the film going from 60 minutes of drama with an underlying sense of fear to full-out horror, how did you go about creating just the right balance when you switched from one extreme to the other?
JCL: It’s definitely a challenge and a risk because it is classified as a drama horror. As soon as people see the word horror, they come to see the film with their own, subjective definition of what they believe horror is. We wanted to go with dread, which is something I think is such an important part of horror. The score played a pivotal role also. Right out of the gate, you have that ominous presence with earth and nature playing a character so it was always about squeezing those families tighter and tighter and really building that dread and ratcheting up the fear of the unknown and then taking things as far as we could before exploding to all-out Hell. I think that we took it as far as we could in terms of the realities of these characters and then added in the horrific genre elements to really take it to ten… or even eleven.
How did you create the creature/transformation design to both be shocking whilst also tie it into the themes of the film?
JCL: All thanks to Steve Tolin and Kyle Roberts of Tolin FX for the many practical effects. It started with some very crude drawings and conversations about the origins of the transformations, the themes of the film, and then they went off and created. It was a several month process involving photographs and test videos. We had meetings in their studio in Pittsburgh to discuss ideas and to oversee things in the flesh. It’s really about hiring the right people and trusting them to turn these horrific images in your head into real physical elements.
It needed to be believable that these objects could come from the natural world and interact with the cast in a way that felt like organic extensions of themselves. Without getting into spoilers, the placements, progressions, and psychological effects of these transformations all connect back to each individual character, either directly or thematically. That was important as well and fit with the overall design of the story. Tolin FX got all of that and ran with it.
It’s a dream/nightmare come true that the bar we set, with the original visuals I imagined for the film, were fully-realised by our practical and visual effects crews, without compromise.
UNEARTH is yours to own on DVD and Digital HD from today, 28 June.
Words: Howard Gorman