In "The Frozen," a couple vacationing in the snowy woods runs into the kind of trouble that usually inspires a standard slasher story.
Writer/director Andrew Hyatt has more on his mind than just fake blood and mindless kill scenes. Big Hollywood touched base with Hyatt to discuss "The Frozen," available now on DVD, as well as tackling big issues like abortion and religion in independent films.
Was there a single inspiration for the film, or was it a combination of several themes you wanted to bring together in this story?
It's funny you ask, the inspiration for the film actually came from a long drive from Grand Rapids, Michigan to this small town that we were scouting for another film. There were just miles and miles of heavy forest blanketed in snow and I kept thinking to myself, "wow, how bad would it be if you were to get stuck out in the middle of that?"
So I asked if there were any horror stories about stuff like that and the local producer who was driving us said that it is actually a really popular thing if you live in the area to take your snowmobiles out and camp in the middle of the winter. He then went on to say that because of the popularity of it, every year there are always people that get into an accident or a bad storm and are killed.
I'm a huge fan of Rod Serling and the "Twilight Zone" series so I just felt that a story that featured characters stranded in the middle of nowhere trying not only to survive the elements, but also this other addition of their own fears starting to get the best of them, I thought it was a perfect setting for that slow burn type of psychological story that makes so many of those "Twilight Zone" episodes such classics.
Your stars carry an enormous burden here - there are precious few supporting players to engage the audience. Can you share briefly why both Seth David Mitchell and Brit Morgan won your trust for these challenging parts?
We knew going into the film that it would be a total failure without the right actors in the part. Especially in the lead of Emma. We auditioned hundreds of actresses for the role and we kind of felt like we were going to have to settle, which we were extremely nervous about because so much of the film relies on an audience fully engaging with Emma. But literally on the last day of auditions, Brit Morgan came to us through her manager's persistence and what really excited me most about working with her was just how professional and willing to get into the character she was.
We worked together for a few weeks ahead of the shoot, just really making sure we really felt that Emma was as real and believable as could be, but once we were on location and shooting, Brit took over and was really the star of the show.
I'll give you an example, for the fire making scene, that is totally unscripted. I just told Brit, "Your character didn't prepare for the wilderness at all. She didn't take any classes, she's never watched an episode of "Bear" Grylls, she's totally unprepared for this moment in her life. And so are you. So go try and make a fire."
With Seth, I knew it was always going to be challenging to find the right fit for that role. It required a difficult balance of being the "nice guy" without overdoing it. Mike's character was always intended to be a little more on the periphery because the movie is so much about what Emma is dealing with, not only in the relationship, but just as a woman in general with everything that is happening. I didn't want someone in the role that would take over certain scenes or dominate in any way. That's not Mike's character at all and that's not this story.
"The Frozen" touches on horror elements - what are your thoughts on the horror genre today and can you share your approach to these sequences?
The last 10 years have been really interesting as we've seen it bounce around from sub-genre to sub-genre. We went through this awful string of "torture porn" type films that built franchises around this idea of one-upping each other on how disgusting and gory you could be.
We went through this J-Horror phase where everyone took a stab at remaking a Japanese horror film and then of course the Zombie phase, which still seems to be running pretty strong. Then we've spent the last few years in this bizarre "found footage" phase where the studio said, "hey, remember "The Blair Witch Project?" That cost about ten cents to make and it made millions. Let's do that again!"
So I think the genre is really in a unique place because it's really begging for filmmakers to come along and bring something new and fresh that we haven't seen before or we haven't seen in a long time. My hope for the genre is that filmmakers start taking this genre and elevating it. Keep the horror elements, but start taking us into those psychological places that some of the great films go. Films like "The Shining," "Jacob's Ladder," even the more recent "The Sixth Sense." There's a way to be creepy and bring the scares to an audience, but doing it in a more clever and interesting way than just cutting off people's fingers and noses and scaring them with a chainsaw.
Regarding the horror elements in "The Frozen," I think these were the parts of the film we just had fun with. Of course there are some pretty standard jump scares, which are cheap, but that's some of the fun of watching a horror film in my opinion. I like them and I'll use them at least once or twice a film as long as I'm making them in this genre.
We wanted some of those elements in "The Frozen" to keep that classic feel of the genre, but then we wanted to go a step further and try to create some elements that were just atmospherically creepy and eerie.
The sound design and the music play a big part in making those moments. I think James Grundler, our composer, did an excellent job of bringing a great feel to these scares and even the quieter moments of building that feeling of dread.
Your film was shot on a modest budget (although it doesn't show in the finished product) - can you share an anecdote about shooting under such conditions?
Our budget and schedule was extremely modest! I really appreciate you saying that it didn't show because we shot the film in two weeks and with a budget of under half a million and when we started putting the footage together in the editing room we started feeling like, "wow, I don't think people are ever going to guess what we did this with. It looks way more expensive!"
Even with the time constraints and the budget constraints, really the hardest part of the shoot was coping with the weather. We shot in the mountains, in Colorado, in the dead of winter. Cold is an understatement. I think the hardest scenes on everyone were the night shoots. The majority of those tent scenes took place in this ravine that was about half a mile from the ranch house the crew was staying at. It was well below zero in the middle of the night and it would take a good half hour just to get everyone down into the ravine every time because of the ice and snow.
We had these local cowboys (no joke) real ranch hands who in-between takes were chopping wood and keeping these fire drums going to not only keep the cast and crew warm and alive, but also to keep away the coyotes that had curiously moved in to check out the action. We'd find their tracks every morning all around the set and we kept thinking, "hmmm, this doesn't seem like a good situation."
But the cowboys kept reassuring us that if they felt like we were going to be in any real trouble, they'd break out the shotguns. Thankfully we never had to break those out or there might have been a horror movie coming out next year about us trying to make this one.
The subject of abortion enters the story - do you think modern films have tackled the topic in an effective or mature fashion?
I think the most disappointing thing about our modern culture in general is that we seem to have lost the ability to dialogue on these very difficult issues. In our schools, in our workplaces, in our government, it seems like these types of mature and open dialogues are totally off the table. We've become so divided that the line in the sand has been drawn and we seem to look at each other and say "I don't care what you have to say to me, I disagree on all accounts because I disagree. There's no amount of logic or anything you can say to me that will change my mind. End of story."
That stubbornness and refusal to dialogue is a serious sign of immaturity to me. It's more like children on the playground and it's really hurting this country in so many different ways. Regardless of whether we sit down and at the end of the day we decide we couldn't be on more opposite pages, just the idea of being open to hearing someone else's opinion and being open to a change of heart feels like it's no longer an option.
That's the danger of where our American culture is at and where my generation (25-35) is at. We've lost the desire to pound the pavement for truth. We think we are being so individualistic and progressive, but the reality of the situation is we are more influenced by culture and what others tell us than ever before. We think a sound byte from MSNBC is as good of a reason to vote for something because it's easy and, really, who has the time to sort these things out for ourselves? That requires a lot of work and, most times, that requires realizing you might be wrong or just misinformed.
I'd just say, wake up, do the work, get into the debate, get into these giant corporations that claim to be all about women's rights or the poor and the hungry and take a moment to get beyond the two second text on the homepage or the volunteer asking you to donate outside of the supermarket.
The most important thing for me in this particular story was trying to really approach the subject in a realistic way that tries to open the dialogue. I want people of all opinions to be able to see the movie and be able to leave thinking about the outcome in a mature and responsible manner.
Faith plays a part in the film in a way many may not expect. Did you find that perspective made it easier to market the movie ... or more challenging?
I hope what is uniquely different about this film is that while there is a faith element to it, it is grounded in a commercial genre that is not readily known for tackling that particular issue. I think that has actually helped us with marketing the film because it's taking the commercial genre of horror and psychological thrillers that do very well on their own, but on top of it adding this element to it that brings a new spin to what otherwise could just be another ordinary horror story. I've found that the supernatural side of things is fascinating to believers and non-believers alike.
Let's be honest, as long there are humans on this planet, there will never be a shortage of ghost stories or exorcism films. I think dealing with this subject of faith and the supernatural opens this film to a whole new audience who I don't think would otherwise sit down and watch your every day horror film.
We tackle some big issues, at times unapologetically, and while this is just a tiny films and by no means perfect, I'm hoping there is a fan base out there that starts supporting this film in a major way so that we can point to this and say to the studios, "see, these are the types of films that audiences are wanting. They want to be challenged, they want to think, and instead of leaving the theater wondering if the chainsaw wielding cannibal is going to show up at their door tonight, they want to leave the theater with a bit of hope about the world we're living in."