Rolling up to a corner house in North Hollywood we happen upon a scene that barely gets a second glance in this neck of the woods. A severed head lay carefully wrapped in burlap at the base of a tree. A team of people surround said body part carefully studying it, touching it up with extra jellied blood, angling the lighting just so. The writer/director team, Brian Conley and Nathan Ives discuss just how to point the camera at the horrific discovery for maximum effect. Welcome to the set of the upcoming horror thriller The Basement, which will be enjoying its world premiere this Saturday at the 17th annual Shriekfest Film Festival in Hollywood.
Seeing the army of people surrounding this make believe crime scene that involves just one actor and a dog and a bloody appendage, you realize the amount of time and effort it takes to create a feature length film. And yet, this was just a pick up shot. Meaning the majority of the film was well along in the editing process, even scored, and the production went back out to shoot just a little bit more that would add to the scene.
HorrorBuzz was invited to stop by the grisly set of The Basement to chat with Conley and Ives on their new thriller Starring Mischa Barton (The Sixth Sense), Jackson Davis (“Lonelygirl15”), Cayleb Long, Tracie Thoms (Death Proof), Bailey Anne Borders (The Fifth Wave), and Sarah Nicklin, and has been described as a mix between Split, and Silence of the Lambs.
The film is about a Los Angeles serial killer known as The Gemini (Davis), who tortures and ultimately murders his victims in the dungeon-like basement of his San Fernando Valley home. By the time the movie opens, Gemini has already claimed seven victims, all of whom he has horrifyingly maimed and decapitated with a blowtorch; but Craig Owen (Long), the famed musician whom Gemini has chosen for his eighth victim, and Craig’s beautiful wife, Kelly (Barton), prove every bit the killer’s equal in the art of psychological warfare.
We got a chance to sit down with the film’s cowriter/codirector team, Brian Conley and Nathan Ives between cuts to get a better sense of what we would be in for this when the film debuts Saturday.
HorrorBuzz: So we know from the severed head, that this is a horror film/crime thriller. What can you tell us about this stab at the genre and the characters in it? How is it different from what we have seen before?
Brian Conley: The killer plays several different characters. You never find out if he truly has a split personality syndrome or if he’s just playing these characters. We had many discussions on the topic – but the premise of the movie is that he plays these characters he has – he’s actually killed seven people to date and the eight victim is somewhat different, from the standpoint he’s not his typical victim. He is very torn about the reasons that he is killing this particular victim and so he has put him in a chair, in a basement, tied him to the desk – like a schoolroom desk – and has transferred his own self into the chair, where he is actually interrogating himself, as if he – he keeps calling the person in the chair by his own name. He goes through a series of characters from his own life and it turns out that a lot of these characters are characters that he has killed. Part of the fun of the movie is that as you go along, you start to figure all this out – there’s more going on in the movies psychologically – that you don’t know at first but then you start to figure it out as you go. I think he goes through 12 different characters.
Nathan Ives: I think really the crux of it is the guy whose captured his victim, he’s playing out his own capture, execution and torture. Transference, if you will, into this guy in the chair and meanwhile mixing in and play (a) characters from his own life but also play characters of people he has killed and creating this story. Does he have a split personality or is he just playing these characters – we find out later he is an actor – that’s what he does – there’s a grey area, how much of this is he’s crazy or how much he’s just succinctly, very much an actor, and very much takes time with each role.
HB: Hannibal Lecter ate victims, The killer in Seven killed based on the deadly sins, what is the Gemini Killer’s trademark?
BC: He’s a Gemini. Part of his MO is he carves the Gemini sign into people’s foreheads before he decapitates them and scars their heads. You find out what that means at the end. Gemini is the third astrological sign, and it makes the twins, and that’s the symbol for a Gemini. Also, while the movie plays out, you wonder the question is basically, are there two people coming down, is there more than one killer basically – that’s coming down? Of course, I don’t want to give away the ending – the whole theme of the Gemini comes together at the very end – it’s twist at the very end that nobody sees coming.
NI: It feels kind of like a Split and Seven murder shot.
HB: So the comparison to Split and Seven are on accurate?
BC: That’s a very fair assessment – it’s kind of a Split/Seven – it’s got the gore but definitely falls on the side of psychological thriller as much as it does the gore. We like to think there’s a lot going on psychologically throughout the film that gives the audience – why is he doing this and who is this and why is this and it’s all brought together at the end. And we like to think that it’s a little smarter than just a gore film.
HB: Who is the actor brave enough to have taken the role of this killer?
NI: Jackson Davis. We auditioned hundreds of actors for both roles and the victim – as most of the movie is just these two guys in a basement. The guy that played the victim as well had to be Jackson’s equal. And they were both terrific. Jackson Davis and Cayleb Long, plays the victim, and they were just both fantastic.
BC: The fact of it is, the audience that goes to see this movie may not like the movie, they may not like the writing may not like the directing but you would be hard pressed to walk away from this film and say that Jackson Davis wasn’t absolutely phenomenal, they both were both amazing but I think Jackson’s particularly challenging to see play eleven different roles and I think one of the things we loved about his performance was – each different character he plays, you don’t see the thread of Oh – it’s the same guy – you feel like it’s a completely different character and I think that’s such a big part of it. When we wrote it, we had to have that person who, you didn’t feel like oh, that’s just the same guy playing different characters. It feels like your watching this character, then this character…
NI: To reference Split again, you knew that was James McAvoy in the next scene. How are you pointing that out for the audience?
BC: You never know it’s the same guy. You figure that out. But part of it is – I’ll give a little bit away – the first scene he comes out as a clown. So he’s in full clown regalia, full clown makeup. The second scene he comes out as a rookie cop – so he’s got the cap, the stuff – so your a little like, something… you don’t know that it’s the same guy. By the third or fourth, you figure it out, but more importantly, as a viewer, even when you know that it’s the same guy, it feels like it’s a completely different person. One thing I felt with Split was, there was some good things about it but you felt like you were watching the same person. And you knew you were obviously.
NI: McAvoy was terrific in that movie. We wrote this before Split came out, obviously then it takes a while to make a movie. It’s funny that Split came out so soon after we shot the film and played on so many of the same things. I thought McAvoy’s performance was fantastic, I think he’s a great actor, but I think that Jackson, while people haven’t heard of him, was phenomenal in this role. When you see it, I think you’ll agree.
HB: How did Mischa Barton get involved?
NI: I won’t tell you who she plays, but I will say that we were just looking for a person to come in, and bring a name if you will, to the film. And she read the script and liked it and we liked her and felt she would be a good fit and talked to her sales agent and they said yeah – good fit for that. Every thing kind of lined up and she came in – she was professional when she came to the set. She did a very good job and we were pleased to have her.
BC: If we can safely say, she plays the victim’s wife. The qualities she possess as an actress were perfect for this role. I can’t really go into the reasons why, without really giving it away, but suffice to say, there’s more there than meets the eye. There are different levels to this story – that if you just watch it on the surface, there’s more to it than just what’s going on, on the surface.
HB: Why did you jump into the horror genre?
BC: We set out to write a horror movie and we watched a LOT to prepare for it (laughs). I’m a horror fan and have been all my life, as I got older, got married, I’ve got five kids – my wife likes romantic comedies – I’m not getting to watch a lot of the more recent horror movies, so took a crash course in watching a lot of recent horror movies. Some of my influences in movies are aren’t like this, or John Carpenter, there are a lot of Hitchcock. This movie is as much a psychological thriller as it is a straight up horror movie.
NI: I think of movies like Seven, I think of the Shining, I think of anything psychological, certainly if I drew from anything, it would be something like that. Not to say this film wasn’t our best, but just as far as being inspired by or being influenced by, I really love those films – they’re dark and psychological and great. And we looked at those and go, how can we incorporate some of that.
HB: You have a movie set in a basement. How did you fight the danger of it becoming a stagnant, claustrophobic movie?
NI: We do come out of the basement a decent amount, which helps, but I also think luckily a film like this relies so heavily on performances that I think the performances are good enough, and also having the killer come down in different outfits – even though you are in the same location with two people – you feel in some ways as though it’s new person, it’s a new visual – so it helps. Certainly it’s no way you’re getting around that you’re in a basement for the entire film, or the majority of it but that said, I think that those things help you to not feel so claustrophobic.
HB: How did you find the right Director of Photography to do that difficult job?
BC: Nathan worked with Ken (Kennith Stipe). I’ve produced a movie before with Nathan, before this one and Ken was the DP on it – we’ve worked with Ken a bunch.
NI: The thing about Ken is he just loves light. We were looking for a DP who was truly passionate about light and lighting and colour, and I’ve worked with Ken on three or four films now and he’s just wonderful to work with, easy to work with, and I think is just a pro at getting what you want. We want this look and he can recreate that. He’d also get great ideas while we were shooting – oh what about this…
BC: It was really important in this film because we were in a basement, you know we’ve got tracking shots, we bought a circle track in, we’ve got steady cam shots and Ken was great at making a lot of great suggestions on using those tricks of the trade and different angles.
NI: Getting back to what you said about the basement and feeling claustrophobic, that helps some as well, one of the vignettes if you will, was all done on a circle track, going around and back and forth.
HB: How gory is the movie? After all, there has to be some. It is a serial killer movie.
BC: That’s going to be tough..there’s quite a bit of gore, I can safely say that..
NI: The killer is playing a detective and he’s got a gun and he goes up to him and he’s got the gun in his face and knocks out two of his teeth with the barrel of the gun. And it’s not like a big huge bloody scene, but it’s just really – teeth are so sensitive….
BC: Then he makes him chew and swallow the teeth….
BC: There’s a big pay off at the end for anybody that’s looking for gore. That’s a huge pay off I think.
NI: I’d say there’s about four or five pretty gory scenes, just cringe worthy, you just go ugh!
HB: Sounds GOOD!
For more information on Shriekfest and to buy tickets visit their site HERE.
Worldwide distribution rights for ‘The Basement’ are currently available.