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Q&A: Filmmaker Oren Shai talks “THE FRONTIER”

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Suspense. Paranoia. Bloody Revenge.  Believe it or not, but horror and noir are surprisingly similar bedfellows, with both genres unafraid to explore the dark side of humanity. That is as true for classic noir as it is for contemporary pulp mysteries, such as Oren Shai’s THE FRONTIER. Starring THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL’s Jocelin Donahue, CRIMSON PEAK’s Jim Beaver, ROAD HOUSE’s Kelly Lynch, and YOU’RE NEXT’s AJ Bowen, THE FRONTIER is an intense, captivating neo-noir offering, and with the film about to hit select VOD outlets, FANGORIA spoke to Shai about how his haunting trip to THE FRONTIER came to be…

FANGORIA: How did THE FRONTIER first come together?

OREN SHAI: Well it started when I first met my co-writer, Webb Wilcoxen. We worked on the script together and we were introduced to each other at a screening of FRANKENHOOKER, the Frank Henenlotter film, that was organized by a mutual friend of ours, who used to be our professor as well, Roy Frumkes. Roy is a very good friend with both me and Webb separately and he introduced us when he realized that we have a lot in common. Webb and I met up for coffee a couple of times and we’re naturally decided to start writing. It wasn’t even like a conscious thing; we just started working on something.

That’s where THE FRONTIER originated from; we both had an idea and it kind of grew into this story. We knew it was going to be a Noir. I’m a big, big Noir fan, and I love not just the cinematic genre but the literary genre as well; I collect vintage, pulp paperbacks, like the books of James Cain and William Campbell Gault. So we started with the genre and a few beats of plot, and from there, we naturally wrote it. Once we had a script, it was a matter of getting it made. But you can say that it all started with FRANKENHOOKER!

FANG: THE FRONTIER feels like a stage play in a lot of ways; there’s a limited location, a limited cast, and the story has some great, dialogue-driven sequences. Was this a conscious narrative decision?

SHAI: I don’t know if I would necessarily say that it was. I understand the theatrical aspect of it, since it is mostly on one location, but I really tried to make the film as visual as I could. The idea was to use the location in the most interesting way that we could, visually, but the reason it may seem theatrical were from choices we made to do the movie on a budget. So we thought, innocently perhaps, that we could contain everything and write THE FRONTIER so it would take place in a diner/motel, in one location, really simple, and on a budget. Then, the reality of the production hit us and made us realize that we’re going to do something very complicated.

There were so many expenses around that, including having to leave that location for short scenes. Plus, filming scenes with six people in a room, moving around, is such a complicated

process. So we wrote a pretty complicated script, but our plan was always to write something really simple. We wanted to something that was about people gathering in one place, similar to KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, which was very influential to us, or KEY LARGO, or THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, which mostly takes place in one diner. So there was a tradition to that as well.

FANG: The film really captures the modern noir sensibility, and is very evocative of RED ROCK WEST.

SHAI: I love RED ROCK WEST, and I think John Dahl is a great director, and he’s one of the best neo-noir directors out there. I wish he would get more credit for that.

FANG: THE FRONTIER also has a pretty heavy focus on duality, with almost all the characters really hiding hidden motives, save for Jim Beaver’s Lee. Was it important to draw up a film where every character isn’t quite trustworthy to the audience?

SHAI: See, it’s interesting because very little is revealed about  about the characters in the film. However, we did have very detailed biographies for each character. Lee, who is inspired by Lee Marvin, definitely has an intricate inner life as well as a history with Luanne, Kelly Lynch’s character, that we wrote down. It’s not in the movie but it was there so the actors could use it as subtext.

Lee was definitely set up to be the tough guy of that era of cinema, like Lee Marvin in POINT BLANK. But he does need that money, and he is trying to get away from something. They’re all trying to get away from something, but all of the characters are layered in their own ways. The two characters who are the most secretive are Laine and Luanne, but they all have their own backstories, and they know where they’re going and what they want.

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FANG: How did casting come together? Everyone really seems to fit the bill with their particular character.

SHAI: I think it was a fairly standard casting process where you know you make offers and you wait to get answers to see if an actor wants to do your film or not. We worked with a casting director, although in the case of Jocelin [Donahue], we wrote that part thinking about her. THE FRONTIER was written for Jocelin, and it goes back as far as when I watched THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL at the Tribeca Film Festival. I responded so strongly to that movie and I loved Jocelin’s performance so much that I basically said to myself, “I don’t know what my first feature is going to be, but she’s going to be in it.”

I’m very happy that actually happened, and there were some people we were really aiming for from the get-go. But everybody really came together in the casting process and really made the roles their own. I think the role on the page is one thing, and on the screen, they’re another. The actors really brought a lot of color into the characters that might have been different from the script, and it’s almost like the rewrite the character on-screen. For example, Jim Beaver has such a presence that he completely changed the character’s physicality; he can just sit there and he’ll dominate the frame.

FANG: Did AJ Bowen also get cast based on his work in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL?

SHAI: That was a bit plus because he and Jocelin could work on developing the relationship between the characters before they filmed. But THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL wasn’t why AJ got cast; I actually was introduced to AJ by [SHOCK WAVES host] Elric Kane, and as soon as I saw him, I was like, “That’s the character.” There’s a sense of danger to him in the sense that, when you see him on-screen, even playing a nice guy, there’s a sense that he can explode at any moment. AJ is the nicest guy, but he’s got that quality where there’s something unsettling about him when he’s on-screen.

AJ also had the same references for the film as I did, and I tell a story on the Blu-ray for THE FRONTIER where he had referenced BUS STOP, a Marilyn Monroe picture from the ‘50s, and then he saw my visual board, which had photos from BUS STOP all over it. So he really, really, really got what THE FRONTIER was about.

FANG: What would you say was the most challenging and most rewarding aspect of THE FRONTIER?

SHAI: That’s a good question. I think the whole thing was challenging; making a film is a very challenging undertaking. If I had to isolate something that was challenging for me as a director, I would say that figuring out a way to creatively film and cover scenes with five or six people in one space, moving around, in a way that’s visually interesting.

In terms of what was rewarding, the whole thing was a very rewarding experience. It’s like a series of fights and wins, where you really struggle to get something but then things will happen during the shoot, like all of the sudden, your generator breaks down. Now you need to get more gas for the generator, in the middle of the night, in the freezing desert of Lancaster, California, waiting for an hour and not being able to shoot. But when you’re back up and running and you shoot something, it looks absolutely beautiful; that’s the reward.

Editing the film and putting everything together was really rewarding for me as well. Shaping the film in that way was extremely satisfying from a creative standpoint, especially since we shot the film in 18 days and the production was really racing against the clock.

FANG: What’s next on your slate? Might you try more stories in the Noir genre?

SHAI: Absolutely. I love Noir, and I think Noir has a lot of potential as a genre because you can really explore a lot of different themes and a lot of different subject in an allegorical way rather than a metaphorical way, much like Westerns. Westerns and Noir are the two most expressive genres next to horror. I love genre filmmaking in general because I like genres that have conventions you can play around with and subvert.

As for what’s next, I’m currently working on something that’s more of a Hitchcockian suspense film. That’s as much as I can say about that film, but fingers crossed!

THE FRONTIER hits iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, and Hulu from Kino Lorber tomorrow, November 8th and on DVD/Blu-ray on December 6th. Stay tuned for more on THE FRONTIER, including select theatrical screenings, on Facebook.

About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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