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If you’re thinking of going on a pleasant hike through the
woods this weekend, be sure you don’t follow the YELLOWBRICKROAD. The debut
feature by writer/directors Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton opens in AMC theaters
today (see list at the end of this feature) after spooking audiences at
festivals, including the New York City Horror Film Fest, where it took the Best
Feature award and where the filmmakers spoke with Fango.
YELLOWBRICKROAD’s storyline centers on the mystery of Friar,
New Hampshire, a small town whose entire population walked into the surrounding
forest one morning in 1940, never to be seen alive again. The incident has
passed into legend, and in the present day, an expedition heads up the trail to
unravel the mystery—and its members begin to descend into madness, spurred by old
songs and music mysteriously emanating from an unknown source…
FANGORIA: How did this project get off the ground?
ANDY MITTON: We’d been working in theater for a long time,
and we’d always intended to break into film. We also work in
postproduction—Jesse’s a graphics artist, and I’m a sound guy. We were looking
to make that transition, and we knew we wanted to do it in horror; we’ve loved
horror movies for a long time. And we saw an opening; we’ll go see SAW or
HOSTEL, but we also thought there’s an audience who maybe can’t quite stomach
some of what’s out there now, and might be pining, like part of us is, for the
old days of really story- and character-driven mindf**k horror movies. So we took
our sensibilities and thought, “What would scare us?” We felt a woods horror
movie was a great idea, ‘cause we knew we could get out there and do it
ourselves on a small budget.
We’re big fans of the uncanny—the thing that should not be
there but is—so the music-as-ghost scenario became very interesting to us. And
from there, we built an ensemble piece that is largely about the pitfalls of
ambition. It was never something we were going to try and sell to a studio, and
miraculously, we were able to do it without ever getting notes from anyone.
This is a true—
JESSE HOLLAND: Purely independent movie.
MITTON: Yeah. So that was the goal. With many hurdles and
near-deaths and everything else you can imagine along the way [laughs].
FANG: Where was the movie filmed?
HOLLAND: Crazily, it was actually filmed where it’s set, in
northern New Hampshire right on the border, about 15 miles from Canada. We both
went to school at Middlebury College in Vermont, so we were familiar with the
general area, and we used Middlebury as a sort of staging ground; that’s where
we flew the actors into, and where we rehearsed. The idea was that it’s such a
remote area that we would be able to not have a locations manager and be able
to film wherever we wanted to. And that plan almost worked [Mitton laughs]; we
did still end up getting kicked off a location once…
The remoteness added to the commitment level that everyone
ended up bringing to it, because it was like summer camp. Everyone was really
up there, all we had was each other and it ended up working out great. But
there really was no cell reception, there was very little Internet. That was
great for us as directors—because we never had, like, a shot blown by a cell
phone going off—but it was probably a little harder on the line producer and
the first AD, people whose job it was to organize and get people to set. We
wanted to make a movie like those from the ’70s, and we actually got to.
MITTON: It was a strange combination of 1975 and 2010,
because we didn’t have cell phones or Internet, but we had the RED camera [laughs].
FANG: How about casting? Were they all people you knew from
school, or did you have auditions?
HOLLAND: For the most part, they were that we knew from
school and working in theater. Anessa Ramsey we saw in THE SIGNAL, and we
sought her out because of that, and Laura Heisler we auditioned separately. But
everyone else was someone who we’d worked with in one capacity or another.
MITTON: We got lucky that Cassidy Freeman was a good friend
of ours—everyone’s looking for some name, something to sell, and Cassidy had
already done SMALLVILLE for a couple of years. I’m in a band with Cassidy and
[her brother] Clark, and we went to school with her. So that was fortunate,
that they could come in—and not only act, but Clark and Cassidy both were
executive producers and really guided this process.
FANG: Why did you call the movie, and the trail,
YELLOWBRICKROAD—why the WIZARD OF OZ connection?
HOLLAND: Well, we saw a parallel between the America of
1939, and the America of today that we thought was interesting. 1939 was sort
of a golden year in American cinema, when all Americans were desperately
escaping into the movies—coming out of the Depression, with war impending. And
both the economic side of that situation in America and the idea of escape,
kind of going off the grid, was at the center of this. We were interested in
that parallel, and it also seemed like Yellow Brick Road squished into one word
was kind of cool [laughs].
FANG: Was the backstory of the town and the population
disappearing based on any local legends you’d heard?
HOLLAND: That was something we came up with on our own, but
then in doing research, we found there were actual occurrences of this
happening. So it was a happy thing.
MITTON: There was an Eskimo village—not in New
Hampshire—that we read about, where everyone disappeared. No one ever resolved
why or where any of those people went.
HOLLAND: We also looked at Jonestown and other examples of
communal insanity, where it’s not just one or two people going crazy, but
somehow an entire collective, all together. There are many horrible examples of
that actually happening, and that’s what really got us going.
FANG: The idea of, as you said, “music as ghosts” is very
intriguing? How did you arrive at that? Were the songs all public-domain, or
did you come up with some of your own?
MITTON: In my dreams they were public domain—before we shot
the movie, being a little bit green. We gave our cast these CDs and had a whole
plan mapped out for where the songs would go.
HOLLAND: When we sent out the script out originally, we
would send the CD with all the songs to listen to while reading it.
MITTON: Then we found out how hard it is, that it takes 100
years for something to be in the public domain, and that most of these songs
were written by two, three different people who were impossible for our music
supervisor to track down. Universal has definitely been good to us—we have
authentic Bing Crosby in the movie, we have authentic Andrews Sisters—but
beyond that, we had to start writing original music. Thankfully, I have a good
friend, Brad Swanson, who’s a composer, and I’m one myself. We wrote four, five
songs between us that we recorded, specifically to sound like authentic 1930s
music. We just tried to fill in the blanks and keep a very consistent tone. The
real magic came in post when our sound designer, Dan Brennan, put the music
through this crazy processing. It really made it sound like it’s coming from
FANG: Did you play any of the songs on set while you were
shooting, or did the cast have to imagine it when doing their scenes?
MITTON: Most of the time, to get clean dialogue, we couldn’t
play it. But there are a few scenes—like when Teddy’s dancing, and you see his
shadow cast on the trees behind him—the song we played, we didn’t end up
getting, so now there’s a different song in there that he’s dancing to [laughs].
FANG: Did you shoot in chronological order?
HOLLAND: As much as we could, though there were exceptions.
But that was something we knew we wanted early on, to get the feeling of people
degenerating, and the best way to do that would be to film chronologically. But
the first scene, we shot last…there were things we had to do out of order.
MITTON: The actors became very good at that. I think they
came in thinking we would be pretty strict about it, and then when the reality
set in, they were great about being able to jump forward and play a later stage
of their breakdown earlier than they expected.
FANG: Were you inspired at all by BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and
other recent films of this type?
HOLLAND: Sure, yeah—we love all those movies. We were
actually going to do this as a found-footage movie before we wrote it, when we
just had the outline. Then we realized, this was going to be our first movie as
directors, and as auteurs, we should have an omniscient eye, because then we
could move the camera the way we wanted. We were feeling very confined. But we
certainly drew from what works about those movies.
MITTON: And then we subverted it in places. We knew people—a
lot of people—who couldn’t watch BLAIR WITCH PROJECT just because of
motion-sickness issues. Everyone expects the handheld in independent movies, so
we found an amazing cinematographer, Michael Hardwick, who’s also a Steadicam
operator, and he really understood what we were going for, to kind of subvert
that expectation, like, “Hey, let’s float through these woods, the way you
float through the hallways in THE SHINING. Let’s try for something where we can
show our style, and introduce ourselves and this environment and this story
properly to the audience.”
FANG: Do you have any other horror films in the works right
HOLLAND: We have a draft of a new horror screenplay. What
can we say about it?
MITTON: We can say that it’s called FOREVER NIGHT. And
whereas we drew on the 1970s style when we wrote YELLOWBRICKROAD, we’re looking
for this one at the early-’80s horror of wonderment—you know, POLTERGEIST and
early Spielberg—and drawing on those sensibilities. It’s about a family, and
instead of our twist on the woods horror movie, it’s gonna be our twist on the
HOLLAND: We’re also looking at a more recent, modern horror
films, like THE SIXTH SENSE—not in terms of ghosts or having a twist, but in
the sense of how the people in SIXTH SENSE are so noble. The mother, Toni
Collette, in that movie—she’s a mother, she’s not curing cancer, yet she is
such a noble person. We’re trying to create a horror movie that treats human
beings with that kind of reverence, and the family as an honorable thing. Just
being human, being alive, trying to save the people that you love. That’s a big
influence for us.
Catch YELLOWBRICKROAD at the following AMC theaters:
• Barton Creek, Austin, TX
• White Marsh, Baltimore, MD
• Boston Common, Boston, MA
• Concord Mills, NC
• River East 21, Chicago, IL
• Barrington, Chicago, IL
• Newport Levee, Newport, KY
• Easton Town Center, Columbus, OH
• Fairlane, Detroit, MI
• Orange Park, FL
• Ind. Commons, Independence, MO
• AMC 30 Block, West Orange, CA
• Burbank 16, Los Angeles, CA
• Sunset Place, Miami, FL
• Rosedale, Roseville, MN
• Elmwood Palace, New Orleans, LA
• Empire, New York, NY
• Clifton Commons, Clifton, NJ
• Quail Springs Mall, Oklahoma City, OK
• AMC Downtown Disney 24, Lake Buena Vista, CA
• Westgate, Phoenix, AZ
• Waterfront, Pittsburgh, PA
• Mission Valley, San Diego, CA
• Mercado, San Jose, CA
• Metreon, San Francisco, CA
• Pacific Place, Seattle, WA
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