On the eve of their world premiere at the Boston SCI-FI Film Festival Saturday night, February 18, 2017, HorrorBuzz was invited to meet Writer/Director of The Kaos Brief, JP Mandarino, Producer Randall Walk and the four leads of this new thriller to talk to them about how that chemistry was achieved, where the idea for the film came from and what is in store for the team.
The Kaos Brief is a bit of an anomaly as far as found footage movies go. To begin with it’s highly entertaining, so that’s a major plus. Next, the film feels organic and natural, flying in the face of every other hand-held narrative. The “why are they still recording?” question rarely comes up and everything feels relatively normal for us to still have footage to look at. The plot was constructed in a sort of reverse engineering way, asking why someone would continue to film in the first place.
In this case we have the story of an aspiring YouTube star, Skylar (Drew Lipson) who is compelled to record nearly every waking minute and blog about it. He and his twin sister, Dakota (Charlie Morgan Patton) are home alone for the week. They invite their boyfriends Corey (Marco DelVecchio) and Tren (Akanimo Eyo), respectively, to go on a weekend camping trip. After a quick U.F.O. sighting caught on camera, the quartet returns home and Skylar attracts the attention of nefarious organizations by uploading his video to the vlog.
What ensues is a clever amalgam of suspense and paranoia, laced with a coming of age survival tale. What makes the film work is the natural chemistry that the cast seemed to have with one another. Easy and charming, they feel as if they have known each other for years.
JP Mandarino: Well, I have to first give a shout out to our Executive Producer Jim Rine and Co-Executive Producer Aaron Kuhl. Without them, this project would not have happened. Eddie and I were at Sundance two years ago. One night, Eddie invited me to dinner with some friends and while at dinner, the subject of one of my screenplays came up. I then brought up the script I was in the process of writing called The KAOS Brief and chatted that up a bit. One of the guys at dinner was Aaron Kuhl, who called me like two weeks later and said I should talk to his friend Jim Rine about potential investing. One thing lead to another, and Jim came on board as our angel investor. Jim and Aaron were so amazing to work with. They gave us full creative control and only had some minor, but important, notes in post. It was such a great experience!
HB: We initially thought “Oh another found footage movie.” Without giving away too much, you found some interesting ways to be original. How did you approach reinventing the found footage film?
JP: For the record, I am not a huge fan of found footage films. I’ve seen some that I appreciate but I always felt that there was something missing. There was either bad acting, mediocre storyline, or they were just not that interesting. After Blair Witch, which was revolutionary, then the most notable one after that was Paranormal Activity, which was also impressive, I mean, this dude makes a movie in his house for $12,000, supposedly in his own house, and I thought “Well that’s a way to get a movie done.” I’d been sitting on this idea of like, “What is missing?” There was no gay representation. It’s such a bro-loving genre and I didn’t want to make just another gay Paranormal Activity movie. I wanted it to feel fresh and new so I thought, “Okay, I want some gay characters.” I wanted some different representation in a found footage film. Next, for better or for worse, a found footage film is a little cheaper to make than a traditional film. I was also obsessed with how bad all of the U.F.O. found footage films were. None of them worked for me.
So I thought, “I’m gonna make a movie. It’s about a guy in a room. What do I do?” The idea started with just him Skyping with his girlfriend or boyfriend and something weird happens. The creative drive got involved and I realized I needed to add characters, I needed to add a storyline, etc. The kernel of the idea was that there was a guy in a room talking and telling someone that there were things happening to him and he didn’t know why or what was going on. The audience would see him levitating or there would be static interference, you know. But yeah, that was the beginning of the idea.
HB: You really had no camping story to begin with.
JP: No, not really. I started to find though, that I wanted the characters to go out, to go outside and witness something. I went hiking with my then finance in Hemet at Massacre Canyon. I thought, “That is a fucking amazing name for a hiking trail.” I left there wondering why it was named “Massacre Canyon?” The idea came to me to have the characters go camping and have them see lights in the sky. Yes, that is cliché but that was the genesis of what would get them into the story.
HB: So you get them to see lights, then you toss them in a bag, shake it up, and send them back home.
JP: Yeah, I never wanted them to stay out camping. The other aspect of these films that hadn’t been properly represented in this horror sub genre of First Person Thriller was that it never really fully represented the culture and the technology that we actually live in.
HB: But technology changes so fast.
JP: It does change fast but we had never seen someone, a vlogger, in a movie like this. It felt like an organic way to go. I wanted to capitalize on the variety of ways that we are recording our lives now. You know? I mean, we have security cameras, we have our phones and the apps on them, we have the way we are doing this interview (JP motions to actor Marco DelVecchio who is in on the interview via FaceTime), and keeping them camping just didn’t lend itself to that. Then introducing how the men in black and those technologies weren’t necessarily used against them but they didn’t really help them, you couldn’t do that in the woods.
HB: Was it hard to continually give the characters a reason to keep filming?
JP: Yeah, like every scene. (Laughs) It was like ‘what do I have motivating this scene and why are they still filming, why are they still recording?’ For me, it was the vlogging aspect and the Skylar character saying, “Hey I need to record this for my channel” then it became, “Oh my god, this weird stuff is happening and I have to document it.”
Charlie Morgan Patton: I think that was one of my favorite things as an actor, seeing the way we would be setting up to motivate the cameras. That definitely helped form me as my character. We would play off of each other and there were these passive aggressive emotions towards Drew’s character because he wanted to keep going and filming and we were all like, “No! Stop!” I’ll be sitting there on my Facebook and a video will come up of something awful like people fighting or a car wreck that they catch and you wonder “Why is somebody filming that?” but that is the sort of culture we are in where the camera provides power. I think that the way JP was able to motivate this film was fascinating. People our age have grown up with cameras as a way to document and show, “No No, this is what happened.”
JP: Yeah, back in the day it was a Polaroid and today it is so easy now for even my 3-year-old nephew to turn on a phone and record stuff. It’s just an organic human evolution. My niece was born when the first iPhone came out and in 9[nine]months she was already scrolling and moving things around. It’s just such an interesting evolution. It’s funny just to acknowledge how much technology is part of our lives now for better or for worse. There is always a camera running, there is always an app to explore.
CMP: Yeah ,I mean living in LA, we have a lot of friends that are huge Viners and they live their life with “Oh great here’s an opportunity to get something and pay my rent for a month!” I mean it’s absurd.
JP: I imagined this Skylar character is recording his life as a vanity thing. He wants to start raking in those views and raking in that money.
CMP: It’s funny now when you watch movies, it’s weird not to see the characters on their phones in almost every scene. You look around now and people have their phones out all of the time. Even on the set we were making videos with each other between takes.
HB: The cast had this instant chemistry that came off as very real. How did casting go?
JP: Eddie, our other producer, has a casting background. He took on that role and with Randall and Eddie helping put together the casting call we just sent a blast out. We had everyone submit a video.
Randall Walk: We went through all of the submissions and then we requested a video from the people we were interested in for each character. Then we sent them sides and we asked them to do video submissions. They’ve been doing it for a while, but it’s amazing that you can skip that whole part where you have to sit in a room and cattle call all of these people through. I’m sure it’s a totally different experience for these guys as well but it just shows you how technology is influencing our lives.
We had asked the guys do do a little moment where they seemed frightened by something off camera. We wanted to see if they were believable. Because as you said, if you see that they are acting, in a found footage movie, then the whole conceit is blown because the whole point is that it’s actually happening. In narrative movies it happens where there is a moment that you don’t quite believe and you just move past it. Theoretically your suspension of disbelief is much lower because you are supposed to be watching something that is actually happening. The minute you don’t believe it, it’s all over. We wanted to see if they could be believable with an unscripted moment that was undefined. There were a lot of people that were like “(Fake gasp)” and we crossed them off the list.
HB: Yeah and after that they thought “I NAILED IT!”
RW: Yeah, and actually Marco was a great example of this. Basically Marco sent in an audition tape for Skylar, which he was totally wrong for (the group laughs). But he did this thing where he had a friend in the background, hiding behind the couch. Instead of doing some big freak out thing, his friend made this little noise and Marco just did a very subtle, to the camera, “Did you hear that?” We thought “We need to hire that guy.”
We then thought he might be good for Skylar’s boyfriend, Corey. Side note: I love that Corey is the only one in the movie that freaks out and runs away. It’s funny because he’s the big football dude and you think he’d be all, “Oh, I’ll take care of these bad guys.”
HB: It’s hilarious that Corey just is like, “Yeah, I’m out.” and leaves his boyfriend.
RW: A couple of times!
DL: I remember one of the casting comments, they said they saw this photo, I can’t remember if it was on mine or on Marco’s but it was a provocative thing and they were like, yeah that’s the reason why we cast you. It was great!
Marco DelVecchio: It was on Drew’s, it wasn’t on mine.
JP: Yeah it was on yours (Drew). What was it? I think it had something to do with self pleasuring.
RW: The funny thing is that before we officially cast Charlie, she had done this Coppertone commercial. It was the one where the family goes camping. She only had one line, she said “Dad.”
CMP: Yeah and that was improv.
RW: But her timing was so incredible, like the looks, the shooting of the looks.
CMP: Yeah it was like “How to survive your family vacation”
HB: Did you guys have to audition together? How did you develop the chemistry that you all have?
CMP: I had a call back with Drew and I remember walking in the room and I took one look at him and thought “Oh yeah.” I knew we looked alike, and I knew I was one of the last pieces of the puzzle. I was thinking, “Okay, just don’t fuck it up.” I had to wait a really long time to get into that call back, it was probably my most unprofessional callback because I had been running errands with my friend and she was with me, which I never do…
HB: Because they’ll take your part.
CMP: So I got a big head, I got a little excited when I took one look at him because I thought we looked alike. He and I read it through once, I had some questions, we clarified some things, then I was out the door. It was one of those things where I thought, “Okay, onto the next one.” Then I got a call later that night and it was Eddie (Producer) and he said, “How do you think you did today?”
JP: Oh Eddie
CMP: I said I had a great time, that I’d love to read the script. I played it safe. Then, that’s when he told me I was their choice.
JP: With the casting it was never like it was between Charlie and someone else or Akanimo and someone else. When we honed in on each of these guys, it was a foregone conclusion.
HB: What was it like when you all first met.
Akanimo Eyo: It was at the table reading right?
DL: I was gonna say the beach.
MD: Yeah, we were all just sitting around that day and we were bullshitting and chatting and we just instantly connected as friends more than anything else and that made it easier for us to get the gist of our characters while we were reading it. We also hung out a lot too and that just made it so easy.
DL: I remember at the first read Marco and I did photos like boyfriend and boyfriend, and brother and sister, and you guys like boyfriend and girlfriend. At one point I was even sitting on his lap and I think we kissed. Did we even kiss?
MD: I think I snuck one in, yeah.
DL: Once you have that connection it’s awesome.
AE: Yeah and in between takes we were always joking around.
DL: And we chicken fought.
AE: When JP said ‘action’ it wasn’t like “Oh okay.” we just kind of slipped into it.
CMP: The three of us (CMP, AKANIMO, MARCO), actually lived together for the month that we filmed it because we were filming in Long Beach but Drew had to drive back and forth from LA. So the three of us were living together and we’d wake up and have breakfast. After set we would decompress together and it felt like we were going to college. I know what it’s like to be in a frat.
HB: That’s right! You are the only girl in the movie.
CMP: But it never felt like “Three boys and a Girl.”. At one point I was speaking with JP and said to him “Ya know I wanted to point out that you have written this horror feature and I’m the only girl in it and my character is very real and grounded.” At one point you see my boyfriend and I kissing, at one point you see us trying to sneak off to the bedroom, but there is never this mentality of “Oh she should die because she’s a whore.” or “She should stay alive because she’s a virgin.” I mentioned that to JP and I asked him, “Since I’m the only girl in the movie which one am I?” and he just said “Honey, you’re both.” That’s when I knew JP and I would get along just fine.
HB: You were the first girl and the final girl.
JP: With the casting it was a combination of the stars aligning, happy accidents, etc. I mean they’re all very close in age but when you apply the experiences of life and who younger people are today, growing up today with this technology and different things like that it worked.
HB: Are you guys INTO horror films?
MD: I recently saw Don’t Breathe which I kinda liked, but I am more a comedy guy. I’ve done acting in a few. I love the process of making them, but even after knowing everything, where the surprises are, I still jump.
AE: I love The Conjuring (JP darts a look) then The Kaos Brief. I LOVE the Kaos Brief!
CMP: I love Dramedies, those are my one love. I love binge watching things. As far as horror I am such a scaredy cat. It was so funny because when we had a screening I was afraid thinking “What if I can’t watch my own movie? I gotta keep my eyes open” When we were doing ADR, I was getting nervous for myself in a few scenes and I thought, “Oh man, this movie’s gonna fuck me up.”
DL: I LOVE horror films but nothing has ever really scared me. The jumpy ones do get me though. I just saw Don’t Breathe and that was probably one of the only ones that like, I had major anxiety in that film.
I like more of the twisty horror films like Saw…
JP: Torture porn?
DL: If it was in there sure, but I do Like horror films. I think Saw is my favorite. The original, but after that they fell off for me.
HB: The movie ends on an ambiguous note. Will there be a sequel?
JP: (Hesitates) I would like to make a sequel, yes.
HB: Will it involve the Kaos Organization?
HB: Is it an animal vegetable or mineral?
HB: I guess we’re gonna have to wait for that one. One of our favorite bits of gore in the movie was very subtle but it had the best effect. The nosebleed scene.
JP: Oh yes!
AE: Oh that was the most painful scene. It took about six takes.
HB: How did you do it?
AE: Well they would squirt the blood into my nose and I would have to hold my breath and breathe out at a specific time.
JP: Yeah, because it filled your sinus cavity right?
AE: It tasted like cough syrup.
RW: Yeah, that had to happen at a very specific time. The thing is they didn’t always know what camera was on them. We were shooting a lot but we also had the cameras in the corners and they were filming each other, there was a camera on in the laptop on the island in the kitchen, so the possibilities of what would be used later were endless. So I think what you touched on earlier, you know, the camaraderie, there was a certain naturalism that comes from the fact that we weren’t saying “We’re coming in for your close up.” With that moment we just said, “Okay [OK,] we are gonna do the blood shot now.” and it was pretty much happening in real time and he had to get it right for it to work.
HB: I think it was the most effective gag. It looks so natural.
RW: It was simple but surprising. Which is funny because the taking that thing out of your back was this whole extravaganza.
JP: One thing I want to say about the acting, the improv, the chemistry; The way we filmed allowed the cast to settle in and it was to their credit that they were able to improv in such a way that it felt natural. If I had to put a percentage on how much was what I wrote vs improv it was probably 30% improv. I really have to give props to my cast for being able to do that.
RW: I think the problem is that when people hear there are things improv in a movie they immediately think of a Christoper Guest movie. They think it’s like an Upright Citizens Brigade show where we throw them a topic. The script was really tight. It’s a script. Every word was written down. Then it became “okay, let’s have some fun with it.” And the relationships developed very quickly.
The brother sister dynamic was always there and that is a very specific thing where they loved each other but got on each others nerves, then there was the boyfriend girlfriend relationship going on with both of the couples. There was a lot of subtext to play into and that’s what I think was improv more than anything.
JP: It’s the subtlety of the improv that works, that’s what you are connecting with.
RW: Yes, it’s playing the scenes as they are written and then coming up with your own little thing.
JP: Allowing the actors to interpret the scene and then letting them go with how the character would react.
DL: That really helped with the acting and made it real.
JP: Because you went with your instinct.
RW: Yeah, it was Akanimo’s first movie.
DL: It was mine as well. I had only done a few commercials and a SIA video.
HB: You were in a SIA video?
RW: He wasn’t in the video, he WAS the video. Yeah you can watch it. It was Deja Vu with Georgio Moroder and basically it was Drew wandering around this hotel and there’s a bunch of SIA’s. He’s the star of the video. It’s a great song and he’s great in it. We cyber-stalked the hell out of these guys before we cast them but it worked well on some level. Eddie and I went through Instagrams and wanted to get to know them. We wanted to know we really liked them.
HB: How long did it take you guys to shoot?
JP: The bulk of the main shoot was fourteen days and we had a couple of pick ups later. We shot it chronologically. I wanted to tell the story in the most natural way. I didn’t want to have to bounce around. And that’s one thing that people have said consistently is that the acting is top notch.
HB: What’s next for you guys?
DL: Well, I just shot a commercial for Zales and I have a producer meeting with Criminal Minds tomorrow.
AE: I shot an ESPN commercial a couple of weeks ago.
CMP: I have a new show called Dated. It was cool, we actually had the premiere on the Sony lot. You can watch it now on YouTube HERE. It’s a cool show. The show is about a young lady fresh out of a six-year relationship, suddenly thrown into this world of dating. It’s a whole different world now where you are looking at someone’s Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook as well as Twitter before you’ve even met them. I play the fashion blogger, millennial younger sister. I play the straight man who is always like, “You’re embarrassing me.” because her sister is making every mistake she can make. It was written by two incredibly talented female writers.
MD: It’s tough to do stuff when you are across the country but when I get back I have a few huge agency meetings for representation. But my movie that is finally coming out is called Crazy Lake. It’s coming to Netflix in February.
HB: How close are you to the sequel and when do you start shooting?
JP: We gotta get this one out first, then we will worry about the next one!