“I Wanted to Tell a Story Where the Atmosphere Was So Severe That It Literally Consumed the Movie”: Jeffrey A. Brown on the Environmental Horror of The Beach House
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The beach house

In his last book, The Weird and the Eerie, the critic and theorist Mark Fischer differentiates between "the strange" and the supernatural, as occurs in both literature and film. For example, writes the supernatural world of the vampires, writes Fischer, "… recombines elements from the natural world as we already understand them …". These supernatural stories are in contrast to fictions based on suggestions and side productions of natural phenomena such as black holes. “… The bizarre ways in which (a black hole) bends space and time are completely outside of our common experience,” writes Fischer, “and yet a black hole belongs to the natural-material cosmos – a cosmos that can therefore be much stranger must as Our ordinary experience can understand it. “When a portal to unexpected phenomena opens in a work of strange storytelling and the world changes, the place of man in the universe is radically decentered – a change of perspective that has to be appreciated by the narrative itself. As horror author H.P. Lovecraft, quoted by Fisher, wrote to the editor of a magazine titled Weird Tales in 1927: “… all of my stories are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws, interests and emotions have no validity or meaning in the vast cosmos. "

Such an evocation of "The Weird" – complete with a change of perspective in the first and second halves – distinguishes Jeffrey A. Brown's The Beach House, which is currently streamed on Shudder. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah LeGros) arrive at Randall's father & # 39; s beautiful and secluded home on the beach for a weekend where they'll be working on relationship problems. (Emily, who is studying astrobiology, plans to go to school while Randall wants to drop out of college and relax to postpone future plans.) But when they arrive they find another vacationing couple, older retirees Mitch and Jane (Jake Weber and Maryann Nagel), for which – as Jane's frail condition and the prescription medicine cabinet show – time is already running out. For nearly the first half of the film, Brown creates an exquisite tension from the awkwardness within and between these two invading couples. A dinner party ends with everyone sharing food – probably a bad idea for the heavily drugged Jane – so the characters are already destabilized enough not to fully process what will happen when fluorescent microbes light up the beach and an eerie mist pops up to them.

The Beach House is a deeply disturbing, extremely self-conscious first feature from Brown, a veteran New York location manager who uses his own knowledge of weird fiction and cosmic horror to create a story that is eerily resonant for the present moment. He puts his subtle relationship story against a world that experiences unexpected shocks from climate change and where what floats through the air can lead to terrible collapses in civil authority. And he's done all of this on a closed scale that is a model for inventive low budget filmmaking. The latter is no surprise, as Brown began his work in locations on two paintings (Kill the Poor and Pieces of April) produced by the now legendary New York digital production company InDigEnt.

I began my email conversation with Brown by asking about these early jobs and how they shaped his philosophy of film. Also discussed: What he learned from directors on the larger budget films he worked on, J.G. Ballard to Tangerine Dream and why it avoided traditional three point lighting.

Filmmakers: You've worked as a site manager in New York for nearly two decades, and your first recognition for iMDB was Pieces of April 2003, one of the top-rated films from InDigEnt's early ultra-low-budget digital production company. You didn't have any scouting credits before. How did you come to this film and how did this experience shape or influence your work as a location manager, but also as a director?

Brown: After my internship when I was still in film school (Undergrad NYU), I started doing independent roles after graduating. I did PA on one movie, the next one the AD was like "Now you're the background PA". So I did that for a movie and then the AD hired me again and said, "Now you're the Key PA." I was responsible, showed up on time and took it seriously, so I rose quickly.

I was the key PA for an independent feature that had some production issues (which is very common) and they ended up triggering the 1st AD and the line producer became the 1st. As a key, I worked closely with this line producer, and he liked me and made me do the shoot of Kill the Poor (another InDigEnt production) in the fall of 2001 as "Location Management". Most of it had been scouted, so supposedly I was on set rather than scouted. The production designer for Kill the Poor enjoyed working with me at this point too and took me to Pieces of April.

Those InDigEnt drives were very, very small, and the people in the places are a mercenary bunch. It was at this time that they realized that finding a seasoned manager (all InDigEnt shots paid $ 100 a day in exchange for points) would be a futile search to take him to the Wolves. " And man, the wolves bit.

I think Pieces of April showed me how complex all film productions really are, regardless of budget. April was supposed to be a simple shoot – the story played out over a day, and basically it was a road trip interrupted with the action in several apartments in the same building. Very easy on the side. We ended up using three buildings in two counties for the building in April, and the road trip was in New Jersey, Long Island, Rockland County, and New York Bear Mountain. And the shoot itself only lasted 15 days! Then we were shooting in the spring of 2002 when it was supposed to be November, so we avoided budding trees, that sort of thing. This super low budget movie was actually extremely complicated.

The Beach House was designed in such a way that it can be flexibly adapted to the weather and what not. The shoot lasted 18 days. We needed sunny days and got three or maybe four. Then there really has to be less than 3 miles per hour of wind for any outside fog. So if we had windless days, we would be shooting the outside fog scenes. And the tides in Cape Cod are severe, so our site team did photo studies of the tidal depths. We had to schedule the scene where Jake Weber's character goes into the ocean as we had a very short window in which the water depth would work for this. Then we had to shoot completely out of order due to some casting problems, which I wanted to avoid. In the second half of the film there are some coherent scenes that were actually shot weeks apart! But I think when you watch the movie it feels very seamless and simple, which is what was intended.

Filmmakers: How did you get out of physical production to do The Beach House? You have a number of independent producers behind your film. Who came first and how did you move the script from development to production?

Brown: Locations is actually not a good springboard for directing. If you want to direct, you have to direct. Shorts, everything. However, the more autonomous you can be in the low budget world, the better. Therefore, having more than one production-related skill can be helpful. I think we prepared much faster in terms of scouting than if I had no experience with locations, but locations are more parallel to directing, more on the right track than line producers or UPM. Over the years, I've had The Beach House in the back of my mind and took mental notes on other production gigs.

Actually, I never got out of physical production. I was very fortunate to have some understanding friends who gave me scouting work on preparing / cutting beach house. I had to keep working because you don't make a lot of money from low budget movies, even as a writer / director! I think like all the other Marvel shows (Luke Cage, Defenders, DareDevil etc) I was checking out when we were editing Beach House. Managing is a lot more stressful for you than scouting, especially on episodic television where you're essentially on call 24/7. I didn't manage to prepare and shoot Beach House for a whole year.

Our post process at Beach House took a little over a year and a half – we had more CG than we ever intended so we literally had to approach these one at a time. And it was very detailed, subtle work. When we participated in these final improvements in 2018, I started managing again. I got Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don & # 39; t Die in the Catskills by that time – we were supposed to shoot 12-14 hours, then I went to the hotel, had dinner and checked the VFX footage for The Beach House for another two to four three hours every night.

Sophia Lin was the first producer involved. She may be making another indie movie in 2011 and having an uncomfortable time. I think we went out for a drink and I said, "We should try to make one of my scripts," and that was the beginning of it. At that point, of course, Beach House was really a collection of ideas and images and everything within the four characters, a place, horror (and in a) super-low-budget world. I wrote a few drafts of the script and we passed it on to some financiers. Trying to get funding from the script alone is next to impossible – you really need a short film or a little more than a script as a proof of concept.

So it was really a long process – after a few years of trying to get funding based on the script, I made the short Sulphuric in 2013, which was played at Fantastic Fest, and then we got to IFP with Beach House. That got the process off to a serious start – Andrew Corkin came on board in the summer of 2016 and we had the funding secured by the fall. I would also write drafts – every few months I'd pump out two or three drafts.

Sophia thought if we do this for a million dollars, keep it weird. Both Andrew Corkin and our other producer Tyler Davidson (who also came on board in 2016) were very supportive of the scientific concepts in the script and didn't follow the traditional three-act structure. It was truly an experimental film in many ways, and I was very fortunate that all the producers believed it. Corkin has a background in horror, and while Tyler and Sophia's joint projects – Compliance and Take Shelter – aren't horror per se, with a slight change they could easily be horror. This really became our pitch – applying the aesthetic sensitivity and intensity of these two films to a more traditional horror narrative.

Filmmakers: What location selection mistakes directors made influenced the way you wrote and then did The Beach House?

Brown: As important as locations are, 90% of the time in narrative filmmaking, location is the actor's dog's tail – you create an environment in which the actors are comfortable and able to learn the truth about the scene. And the "comfort" is both aesthetic and pragmatic: The place doesn't want to be so fake that it distracts from the story and then you don't want to find a spot next to a construction site for a quiet, intimate scene.

When a director is stuck in a $ 50,000 location with all sorts of restrictions (a hard-out, restrictions, etc.), the location manager's job is to figure out how that location works, and then the producer comes along Veto. Sometimes inexperienced producers put that on the site manager – to drop the ball. This dynamic sucks for everyone – the passive aggressive pointing of the finger. And the more time is wasted not making decisions, the worse last-minute decisions can be. As a director, I would wonder if this is worth the headache. What will this difficult place bring to the story?

This is the production aspect with the square pin and the round hole. The director has a script that he / she wrote without thinking about logistics, and in fact the script could easily be $ 10-20 million, but then they get $ 1 million in funding and aren't willing to take a page of the " Precious "to switch" script. It's not a million dollar story so you end up involuntarily compromising.

In situations like this, your hand has five fingers, the glove you want to wear only has room for three. These two fingers will either be surgically removed or we will tear them off. And then you don't even need to protect the script, you need to protect the idea of ​​the script – what is that movie under the script you want to create? The better low budget films I've worked on defend that core of the idea. Circumstances or budget could turn the Met Museum into an art gallery. If the core is strong, history will not suffer from this change. The scars on the hand are not noticed. You might even be beautiful.

The structure of low budget filmmaking needs to be flexible – the schedule is made of toffee or gum, not crystal. If the director makes decisions that jeopardize the entire production (and no producer supports those decisions), your little movie can get into trouble. In the low-budget world there is no studio in which you can fight Brazil a la Terry Gilliam. I've worked on so many films that never come out – they run out of money and then they go away. The producers of low-budget films really do play without a network – they read stories about financing with credit cards, second mortgages and the like. Going broke your movie is really romantic – until you go broke your movie.

Filmmakers: You have said in other interviews that the script has been in development for almost a decade, with science advancing around some of its topics like climate change, existential threats to humanity, etc. Could you discuss how you worked on the script during that time to include this science or maybe not?

Brown: I want to see things in movies that I haven't seen before. I started thinking of Beach House as a science fiction film – exploring concepts like astrobiology and the behavior of microbes and bacteria, and life at the subatomic level. How could I try to fit these scientific ideas into a coherent narrative? And what would it look like? The early earth – panspermia, extremophiles. Things like viruses and algae that exist, but in some cases not exactly live. How is this existence?

I had to kill time in New Orleans in the early stages of writing, so I went to an aquarium and watched jellyfish for an hour. How about being a jellyfish? It would suck if you step on a jellyfish. Or go for a swim in the sea and see a man of war soaring nearby – the aversion and adrenaline that is close to me. Something completely alien and dangerous, but still from our planet.

And that was really when Emily went from being a tropical woman in need to an independent student who focused on scientific method. The events in the script are their fears. I wanted the film to introduce these scientific ideas as the narrative progressed without relying on a government agency in act three to explain everything. The apocalyptic visions of climate change and new pandemics are affecting the vacation home discomfort and relationship – one of those dreams where people and places are familiar but re-contextualized to make you restless.

The approach is like surrealism when it comes to combining two different elements: Bioluminescence is found in water, let's get it into the air. Water flows like slime from a faucet. And if, for example, the horrors of the exorcist are rooted in Catholicism, The Beach House is based on evolutionary science, which combines well with cosmic horror, examining the issues of insignificance given the massive scale of the universe.

When I started reading about evolution and astrobiology and the early earth (books like Robert Hazen's The History of the Earth, Richard Dawkins' The Ancestral Story, Christian DeDuves Vital Dust, Peter Ward's A New Life Story, Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction etc)) I found out that these pop science books answer all questions from different scientific fields – biology, geology, genetics, chemistry, climatology, even astrophysics. Astrobiology is a relatively new field that combines all of these – it is new because until a few decades ago we could not study life on the ocean floor or these different life scenarios on our planet. We didn't have the technological means to do this.

All these explorations of deep time in which they begin to contemplate the broadest areas of life on earth, the geological epochs. This final chapter reads: "What is wrong with the earth right now is not good for people." I wanted to include climate change in the narrative, and it not only reflects the larger story, but also the intra-personal relationships within the narrative. What would climate change look like for a body? It is ultimately a form of death, so we get into horror. Our own fears are carried by climate change, which is making the planet uninhabitable.

I read studies of the surface of the planet Venus, hit by a runaway greenhouse effect and covered in clouds of sulfuric acid. What would this strange landscape look like and how could characters literally walk through it?

Filmmakers: Your film has a razor-sharp visual style – closed camerawork, clean compositions, lots of apparent, natural light, and then it switches to a more expressionistic mode as it progresses. Could you discuss how you worked with your DP on the visual schema of the film, what the budget is and how you envisioned how you would make the film?

Brown: I directed Jean-Marc Vallees Film Demolition. He'd had a one-two at Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, like an insane amount of major Oscar nominations between those two films. On one of our first days of production at Demolition, our 1st AD, Urs Hirschbiegel, took me aside and pointed to the electric truck. He said, "We won't be using lights on this truck during the entire shoot." I didn't believe him, but of course he was right! Jean-Marc had developed his naturalistic aesthetic with his DP Yves Belanger to encourage performance. He literally shot 20 minute takes – the actors' energy was really his focus, and the convenient lighting gave him the freedom to turn 360. I loved the way his films looked.

I'm a huge Michael Winterbottom fan (especially A Summer in Genoa and 24 Hour Party People) and responded really well to Drake Doremus' Like Crazy – those very naturalistic films. (I've seen Like Crazy, Cronenberg's The Brood, and Antonioni's Red Desert with the sound off in preparation for Beach House.) Some of the smaller films I'd worked on tried to emulate traditional three-point lighting on a big budget and they didn't have the time, crew, or lighting package to really pull this off, so you get this mid-level apartment lighting, that overlaps – especially night indoor and outdoor areas. I am still sensitive to it! It's like nails on a blackboard.

I felt that the audience's eyes could accept this naturalistic lighting and really wanted to resist over-lighting. Even consumer digital cameras can literally see in the dark. It goes back to the design of the film – I wanted to shoot and shoot. It's my first film, so I didn't want to be in a position where we're always running out of time and having to rip our fingers off with a band saw.

Our cameraman Owen Levelle has a documentary background. It was recommended to me by our producer Andrew Corkin. His role had a sequence of a blue twilight that was super saturated and natural – I felt like if he did that he could do a lot of what I wanted. Then we met and hit it off – I had put together a "recipe" from films, books and photography and sent him a few things. He brought up Mizoguchi's Ugetsu and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's uncle Boonmee, who can remember his previous lives. then we went to see Julia Ducournau's Raw and Dennis Hoppers Out of the Blue – it was great to discuss these films in the context of The Beach House. We even saw the drone metal band Sunn O))) in Queens – they use up a lot of fog!

We learned that when you tell producers that you want to shoot "naturally" you have to be careful because they immediately think, "Well then we don't need a light. Savings!" I would be careful with that. I'm not a purist (and didn't take the Dogme 95 vow of chastity) but you need a few lights to improve continuity and what not. But it was more like, look, you can do that with practical lighting, we can do that too, but instead of making domestic dramas, let's apply that to this strange horror story. It was a combination of aesthetics and economy in my head, to which I had always reacted as a film visitor.

Filmmakers: In many reviews, H.P. Lovecraft was cited as a comparison, particularly with regard to the decentering of human characters by the changes on earth. I also thought a bit about J.G. Ballard's disaster novels in which characters find their psychology adapts to and succumbs to the disasters around them. What specific points of reference did you have in the conception of the film and why was it important that the couple at the center of the film was one whose relationship was stuck in such an uncertain place?

Brown: There was a cool NYRB anthology called "The Color From Space" (I think it was renamed for reprints) that came out between 2002 and 2003 that I read. It had Lovecraft's story, but also Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows" and Arthur Machen's "The White People" (which is totally bizarre and creepy), and described strange stories and cosmic horror. I thought about what modern cosmic horror would be and wanted to write this script. I read some more of it – William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland was a favorite and Jeff Vandermeer's great anthology The Weird – and then began to examine how the strange story unfolded through literature. There is an emphasis on mood and atmosphere. Based on a backdrop that I drove around for days looking for environments to direct movies, I wanted to tell a story where the atmosphere was so severe that it literally consumed the film.

I'm actually very proud of a sequence in the second half of the film where we see our beach house being taken over by the fog – no people. The camera's eye comes from a non-human perspective at this point. Much of the film is about the conflict between internal and external environments, both physical and psychological – external and internal. The interior takes over after a certain point and things become abstract. I like a lot darker ambient music – Tangerine Dreams Time, Main's Hz compilation, Lull's Cold Summer – and they remove the familiar acoustic signposts you have in more soothing ambient music. The spa or relaxing on the beach becomes annoying, the noises are unknown, abstract. I tried to write a movie that felt like these albums, especially in the second half.

I am a great J.G. Ballard Fan and The Drowned World were a huge fan of Beach House. Aside from foresight about climate change / global warming (Ballard wrote in the early 1960s and the science of greenhouse effects existed even earlier!) There were a few places in the novel where the characters' thoughts recede to reflect the changing environment . The characters develop. Ballard and other '60s science fiction writers like Samuel Delany and Philip K. Dick showed me how they used their imaginations to express their biographies – if you look at Empire of the Sun, for example, and see Ballard first experienced the fragility of Western civilization – you can see it in all of his writings – from the environmental cataclysms to the experimental urban novels of the early 1970s. Cronenberg is similar in this regard in that his films are metaphorical or allegorical – I wanted The Beach House to reflect contemporary science and fear, which makes Ballard's fiction all the more remarkable as it can still be part of contemporary conversation 50+ years after it was written.

I felt like writers and filmmakers like Lovecraft, Cronenberg, Stephen King and even John Carpenter were so influential in me that I wanted to look for alternative sources and saw a lot of science fiction from the 1950s. I read John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids, who had a plant-like antagonist that resembled the pods in Invasion of the Body Catcher, and watched all of the Quatermass films. These science fiction films dealt with the fallout of atomic radiation when this science-induced ailment sparked fears of the time. I wanted to do it like I did in the 1950s. The Blob – a group of young people encounters an otherworldly presence, which, however, is dressed in pseudo-Mumblecore trappings: Naturalistic lighting, a lack of action that favors the characters' discussions about narrative mechanisms. And tragedy strikes and turns the worlds of the characters upside down.

I've seen several catastrophic events in the past two decades – September 11th, Hurricane Sandy, the 2003 power outage. It is in these moments that your personal relationships and, consequently, your hopes and dreams are put on hold as you grapple with what is immediately ahead of you. To write this during the pandemic, it feels like these other slow-motion tragedies, even though the speed at which society's everyday life has frozen in 2020 has been alarming. Ballard was right again about the fragility of the structures we have built as food.

In terms of the dynamics of the characters, it goes back to the hermetic adage, "As above, so below." Emily is struggling with changes in her own life before the disaster strikes. Randall's vision of the future is not hers, so it has to adapt to change. And it's difficult because she's not lying when she says she loves Randall, but because her ideas about love and life are changing. Pretty much every line of dialogue in the film is a character that adapts to the flow of the world around them. The characters reflect the larger world.

And then the movie itself changes halfway! The two halves of the film are mirror images of each other – if our overarching metaphor reflected the nature of the change in life, then it made sense to me that the film should literally change before our very eyes. This goes back to being lucky enough to have producers who were there!

Es ist eine andere surrealistische Sache, das Paradox, dass die einzige Konstante im Leben der Wandel ist. Bewusstsein ist wirklich unser Gehirn, das Veränderungen versteht, selbst etwas so Allgegenwärtiges wie das Verb „ist“ – wörtlich „sein“ – das Ausdruck von Veränderung ist. Die Zeit registriert buchstäblich Veränderungen. Der Film, den ich fühle, umfasst Veränderungen, nicht um Veränderungen herbeizuführen, sondern als Akzeptanz der Welt außerhalb von uns.


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