Filmmakers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods have been friends since childhood and shared a interest in cinema for many years. The duo have continued to collaborate through their time in education and they have founded their own production company banner Bluebox Films.
Beck and Woods most recently wrote and directed NIGHTLIGHT, a supernatural thriller focusing on five friends who venture into the woods to play flashlight games, only to disturb a demonic presence. Told from a singular point of view, Nightlight promises to offer audiences a groundbreaking storytelling device that aims to heighten suspense.
The film has recently been acquired by Lionsgate Entertainment for US distribution and we had the opportunity to sit down with Scott Beck and Bryan Woods ahead of the upcoming theatrical release of Nightlight to discuss what it was light to be on-set, was like to come face to face with wild wolves and those inevitable comparisons to The Blair Witch Project.
Scream: Are you a fan of the horror genre?
Scott: Certainly. We could rattle off all our favourite horror movies but definitely one that appropriates itself for Nightlight is Alien. That is such a great horror film where you don’t even have the monster for the first fourty minutes to an hour and it’s all about setting up the characters and getting the suspense building inside that world.
Bryan: Yeah, horror is such a beautiful genre as it explores everything that we go through as humans such as our insecurities and fears and it does so in such an entertaining way. So when we think of horrors our heros are John Carpenter, Roman Polanksi and William Friedkin. Even like some of the smaller subgenres like Mario Bava for example who does these beautiful Giallo films and what’s great about it is that it is such a director’s genre and it really shows off people’s artistry. So yeah, it’s something that we are huge fans of.
Scott: For one, Bryan and I, we grew up in Iowa and we used to play in the woods all the time and play flashlight games and hide and seek. So it kind of came from this early childhood idea of what was terrifying to us and that was from being along in the forrest with the flashlight. Another touchstone for us actually is that we like the Resident Evil games and played them all the time as kids and even to this day. What was scary for us was not necessarily when the zombies would jump out or the attack dogs or the monsters but it was more walking down those long corridors and not knowing what was going to happen next. So for us it was about incorporating those into Nightlight, a kind of suspense and what you don’t see aspect to the film.
Scream: Would you call Nightlight a found footage film?
Bryan: We would not. To us it is not found footage but we are certainly working in that subgenre. We can understand why some people might think it is found footage and Lionsgate has certainly have kept the true nature of the film a secret in their marketing which is a fun reveal for the audience when they realise it is actually a POV film. But when we were getting ready to make the film we studied a lot of found footage film and have probably seen most of the ones that have been made like the classic (the) Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity movies which are also terrific. We also watched found footage movies from outside the genre such as Cloverfield and Chronicle.
Scott: Yeah, I think for us like in writing the story it was never so much envisioned to be found footage which of course it is a flashlight point of view so it is very different. We kind of wanted to try and do the same but different. That’s kind of our philosophy when it comes to movies anyway as the audience wants something that is familiar but you just don’t want to deliver the same thing again and again. So we wanted or at least our aspirations was to make something that lived in that genre but kind of elevated it or was a different version of it. Certainly there are similar tropes such as limited point of view but for us we felt a lot of the issues of found footage movies is that you get to the third act when shit is really hitting the fan and you don’t know why people are still filming it and it felt like with the flashlight device it blends itself to that kind of tension because of course when things are getting scary and darker you need that beacon of light to guide you there so it was always going to be one of those devices that drives those moments.
Bryan: I guess to speak a little further about found footage, one of the things is that it is a great genre and has created a lot of great movies but one of the defecates is that sometimes it feels like a gimmick or a way to make a kind of cheaper movie. The worst found footage movies just don’t justify the point of view or why it is found footage. With Nightlight we really hope to create the point of view a part of the story and help to justify the emotions and what the characters are going through.
Scream: I see where you were coming from. Considering the fact that Nightlight is not a found footage film but borrows tropes from the genre, comparisons will no doubt be made with The Blair Witch Project. What do you think sets your film apart from it?
Scott: That’s a great question. We are both huge fans of The Blair Witch Project and it was an influence. I hope in some respects there is a bit of the visual design that we tried to calculate. Like Blair Witch had obviously a specific and intentional aesthetic design with the 16MM and how that incorporated into the story but for us we hope that the point of view is as immersive as a movie like Enter the Void. Wether you like it or hate it, it is something that is unique and different. It brings the viewer into the land of the character so for us I hope that it is doing something different from Blair Witch and other found footage movies is that we incorporate this first person or this flashlight perspective and make it an immersive experience.
Scream: Tell me about the shoot. Was it all on location?
Scott: It was a hundred percent shot on location which was wild for us and we shot for five weeks in Utah. It was all night shoots which was really difficult because we would have to travel out to the middle of the woods and find these weird locations be it the cave or the train tracks or the valley. We would have to bring out all the cast and the crew and we just became vampires for five weeks. It was certainly a weird way to make a movie and because of the nature of the point of view, we shot it all in a series of one takes. In fact there is a version of the film that exists where i think there is only about five cuts in the entire film and it’s very much like Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ in terms of how it is strung along so in terms of the shooting schedule and style was most definitely a more grueling shoot than we had planned for. We had to choreograph everything out in the middle of the woods at all hours of the night.
Scream: I can imagine. I must ask, without giving too much away, the church… was that a set you built or was it found on location?
Bryan: We designed and built it. It was based on a church that we knew about when we were growing up. This church in the middle of the woods that was a purple church and for some reason we thought that was the scariest image to us when we were younger. So yeah, we kinda took that idea and had to put it in the movie.
Scream: So the caves, tell me more about that…
Scott: The caves were great. The funny story about that two weeks after production our production designer was building the church so a lot of concentration was on that and we kept coming back to the conversation about the caves and if it was going to be a soundstage build or if we were going to find a location in Utah that facilitated our production but could also be terrifying and scary. Randomly on a location scout we drove around and kid of saw this great rock facade and we wondered if there was anything over there and we kind of wandered around in the woods and we came across this opening and it was terrifying. It was both terrifying and fun for us as as it felt we were in the movie and this moment were we didn’t know what was inside, it wasn’t like a mapped cave. We built up some courage and some powerful lights and it was this incredible mineshaft so it turns out and i think it was silver mining tunnel, wasn’t it Bryan?
Bryan: Yeah, so we explored it and was like this couldn’t be more perfect. It just had this eerie feel to it and so that’s where we shot.
Scott: Oh man, I think the whole shoot, I mean we picked up on this earlier but we shot a lot in single takes so we tried to and used the first couple of hours of shooting to just rehearse and treat it in some ways almost like a documentary and figure out a natural flow to the performances and kind of the camera movements.
Bryan: Yeah, another thing is that we tried to do as many practical effects as possible and we had live animals. We had the hero dog Kramer played by Dart who was terrific to work with and we had live wolves in some of the scenes and the biggest set-piece that we shot practically was the train game. We had location scouted and we had found these train tracks and our VFX team said we could do a whole train pure CGI but then we had the practical effect guys going ‘let’s shoot this for real’ we can get a real train and we can control it and we were like ‘what would Christopher Nolan do’ so we talked ourselves in to doing practical and doing a real train. We choreographed everything. It was dangerous but we practiced it. We had a great stunt team and a stunt girl and we controlled the train so it was really a crazy battle that was very scary because it was real and it was a real train.
Scott: Yeah, there were a couple of takes where the way we kind of achieved it in order to set the flashlight down on the train tracks were obviously having the cinematographer having set down the $100,000 dollar camera underneath the train to make sure there was enough clearance so it wouldn’t break. There were a couple of takes where the camera nearly got run over and destroyed and Bryan and I had our head in our hands thinking this was so much of our budget, if we destroyed this camera.
Scream: Thankfully all went to plan.
Scream: So tell me about your cast…
Scott: Our cast was a lot of fun. The lead Shelby Young played Robin is actually the very fist actress who came in and read for the movie. We ended up seeing over seven hundred people…
Bryan: Yeah, she came in and she performed. She was so great and we thought the rest of the casting was going to be amazing and our casting directors must have found hundreds of great actresses for us to see and sure enough right after that she set the bar super high and no one else came in and owned the role of Robin like Shelby did.
Scott: Yeah, and Carter Jenkins who played the role of Chris was a lot of fun because typically that character is written so it comes across as really loud, really brash and what Carter kind of brought what we call a kind of Casey Affleck energy where it is low key and subtle. He was just one of those guys who always brought new ideas to the table like in the church scene in the end where he is trying to console Amelia and she’s asking about prayers and he comes up with a Hebrew prayer which in our test screenings played through the roof and we have to give all credit to Carter who has this natural timing. So it was one of these collaborations where it was really satisfying to bring something great to the table.
Scream: So where there any moments during the shoot where the cast members found themselves disturbed with what was going on? Did anyone crack under pressure?
Bryan: Great question. They were all pretty game. I don’t remember any moments where…
Scott: Yeah, I think the train game for instance was where everyone was a little bit on edge working with a real train but there was always a safety protocol there.
Bryan: The wolves…
Scott: Yeah, the wolves were hairy. We had money in the budget to get a dog from LA but we were not able to get the top notch wolves so the wolves were sketchy. Even our stunt man, a guy called Don Shanks who actually played Mike Myers in Halloween 5, he was out stunt guy and he had so many stories. We found out that he came from a history of wrestling bears and he once did a stunt where he jumped off a waterfall which was nearly 200 feet whilst wrestling a cougar, he did just these crazy things so on the day that these wolves arrived on set he said ‘You gotta watch out for those wolves guys like they can kill ya, nothing personal but they can kill ya’. He had this fear in his eyes and we thought that if he was terrified then what the hell are we going to do. So you can guess that the wolves sort of put us all on edge but luckily no one lost any arms or something like that.
Scream: That must’ve been scary for you.
Bryan: Yeah, they were scarier than we thought. We did write the wolves into the script but when you see them in person they are so tall which perhaps sounds obvious…
Scott: Yeah. Like the day we had them on set obviously we were shooting all these oners and required a lot of direction from the wolves but they are wild creatures so we asked the handlers how we can get them from point A to point B…
Bryan: How to get a close-up of the Wolves…
Scott: Yeah. They were like what we do is throw a piece of steak right in front of the camera and let them go and that is like five feet away from where our camera is and where we are so it seemed hairy at times but yeah… no one got hurt. (laughs)
Scream: Thankfully. So were there any scenes that you shot that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film that you wish you could have left in?
Scott: There actually is and there is a couple of them on the DVD but i’m not sure when that will be coming out in England but it will feature a couple of things. Once scene that was hard for us to lose and it goes back to character moments. There is the scene currently in the movie where Robin tells her embarrassing dance story where she talks about Ethan and what she did to him and this is set up earlier in the movie where Nia tells her moment about her embarrassing dance story when they are lost in the woods together and commiserate. Nia instead of being the cold hearted character that is sort of set-up to be like a queen bee of highschool sort of character, she shows her vulnerability. This was one of those scenes that got cut out because there was a consensus between ourselves and the producers that it was just slowing the film down but at the same time was heartbreaking to lose as it shed this new light on the character that i felt made her a little more three dimensional.
Bryan: It was interesting because the script was very heavy on character but there is something about the point of view on the flashlight, we found it very challenging to convey character and emotion. You don’t have the normal tools that you would have to make a movie, you don’t have a score, you don’t have cut aways or editing in any traditional sense and you don’t even have lighting. So the point of view was really cool when doing suspense and horror but doing character it was a bit of a handicap in some ways so unfortunately most of the stuff that got cut out was character nuance.
Scream: There is a point that I would like to touch on at this moment. Now, Nightlight briefly tackles the more serious issue of teen suicide. Were you every worried or concerned about how you handled this subject matter?
Scott: In many ways yeah. It is such a delicate subject and kinda one of the inspirations for the movie and the forrest and the set piece is this place in Japan called the Sea of Trees which is this hundred percent place where people go to commit suicide and there are so many bodies found that the police only do a sweep through there like once a year and it is becuase it has become this mass tomb for people to off themselves so it comes from this fascination, which might be the wrong word, but this interest in what was going on there and we wanted to tie it in to an American context so for us it is definitely a subject matter which is on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
Bryan: Absolutely. Especially with like, and this is not related to the Sea of Trees or our personal lives but cyber bullying and depression is a big issue in American and I imagine it is in the UK as well. When we were writing the film and again in post production we would research a lot and find a lot of people who post videos on You Tube and wether they are a cry for help or discussing their issues or talking about suicide. It’s something that people are talking about and it is important to talk about for sure and it is really sad.
Scott: One thing that we found very resonant when we did a few test screenings where we recruited teenagers from around Los Angeles and one of the things that they tapped into was the idea of suicide and it felt like at least a starting point for this conversation…
Bryan: I think we all know someone who have committed suicide whether it’s family members, friends or friends of friends, it is something that touches our lives. So it was important for us with Nightlight to tap into something serious and something resonant as well as being a spooky movie so hopefully it is a fun ride.
Scott: It is like any horror film such as the Exorcist, as much as it is a horror film, it really speaks about religion and certain beliefs so I think that is a great thing about the horror genre is that while you are scaring audiences you can aspire to say something.
Bryan: Exactly, when you think about Eli Roth’s work you think about films like Hostel and his upcoming film The Green Inferno like all these horror films are talking about something else. Just like Invasion of the Body Snatchers is like communism so there are people like George A Romero who is the master of that with Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Living Dead and films like that and so forth.
Scream: Any thoughts on the possibility of a sequel?
Scott: I think there is definitely ideas that we have thrown around. The quick and easy comparison that we found is in the Alien franchise. You have Alien and then you have Aliens, so for us it seems kind of fortuitous that you would have Nightlight and then the sequel would be Nightlights that would offer a few different perspectives in a single movie. It is certainly something that we have come together to rough up a few ideas but you kind of have to see how the first film does in this industry before you really know that the sequels are going to happen but we have certainly set it up if Ethan possessed the flashlight that Robyn holds then we have a possible continuation of these characters.
Scream: Speaking of performance. Nightlight is scheduled for a release in the US later this month both theatrically and on VOD on March 27th. Considering the fact that this is so close what three words would describe your feelings right now?
Bryan: We are nervous.
Bryan: You know, we put in a lot of hard work and time into the movie and you never know how any movie is going to be received. This movie for us is very unusual for us right through production from writing the script to our crew, we all felt the sense that we are experimenting and this is very experimental film so fingers crossed that it finds people that will respond and appreciate that we took some risks because it was a weird movie for us to make. We didn’t know what we were doing and it was very scary making it and releasing it will be equally as scary.
Scott: Yeah, like we had mentioned we worked on the film for so long that for us what was gratifying was testing the audience with the intended demographic. You know, you can show it to certain people who have certain tastes who are a bit older and maybe don’t go to horror films or found footage films and it is necessarily not going to play well but you can play to others and find the sweet spot which we were able to do at least during our test screenings that you kinda felt the energy of it. So we’re kind of hoping that we can mimic on that success so like Bryan said we want the film to find its audience.
Scream: Did you ever consider taking the film on the festival route?
Bryan: It’s weird. We never really considered the movie to be a festival film. It was made completely independently without a studio and I don’t know if our ambition came from taking a page out of Eli Roth’s playbook with The Last Exorcism but we knew that we just really wanted to make the movie independently, finish it and then screen it for distributors all at once without going to festivals. It was just what the process kinda was. Thankfully Lionsgate stepped up but we would love to do festivals as they are so amazing and a great opportunity to meet likeminded film buffs and share that experience so that is desirable to us. It’s just that this this movie just took a different path.
Scream: So what’s next?
Scott: Well we have a couple of things right now. We’re attached to direct this film called XOXO which is a great script written by Mark Heyman who wrote Black Swan. Darren Aronofsky is Producer on it…
Bryan: Who is a hero of us…
Bryan: He made some of our favourite movies like The Fountain and Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler. This movie (XOXO) is a modern Fatal Attraction that exists that is set in a modern context. It’s Twitter, it’s Facebook, it’s Snapchat, it’s a really cool character piece and we’re honored to be involved with it.
Scream: Great. Well I am looking forward to it. In the meantime I would like to wish you luck with the upcoming release of NIGHTLIGHT. Thanks again for taking time to speak with SCREAM and we look forward to seeing the film here in the UK.
Scott: That will be great. Thank you so much we really appreciate it.
Bryan: Yeah, we are big fans of you guys’ work.
Words: Jon Dickinson (@marvelguy)