Monday, February 8, 2010

Interview: Gregg Holtgrewe, Writer/Director Dawning

Last week I reviewed a film that was high on praise from our friends over at All Things Horror. Kindly, the director mailed us a screener copy after we sent a request. Other than what had been briefly discussed at the aforementioned site, I had little clue as to the true terror that I was about to witness.

If there is enough space in the horror universe for a tiny no budget, straight forward, and wholly original picture like 'Paranormal Activity', then 'Dawning' is definitely deserving of the same attention and recognition. Thats not to say the films are one in the same. On the contrary, the way they evoke nervousness and anxiety in the viewer is similar, but its in their own distinctive ways in which they get the viewer to react to an offscreen and unseen 'presence' that is truly remarkable. I really can't say enough about this film other than its one of the most original horror films I've ever seen.

I recently interviewed writer/director Gregg Holtgrewe. Here is what he had to say about the idea for 'Dawning', his decision for employing the complete mind screw of an offscreen antagonist, and how he got his actors to believably react to this unseen force.

Cortez the Killer: Where did the idea for 'Dawning' come from? Overall, I was amazed at how much could be accomplished from such a stripped down approach.

Gregg Holtgrewe: The idea for a film called 'Dawning' originally came from my brother, sister and I in 2003. We brainstormed some story elements but mostly discussed what worked and didn’t work for us when it came to horror films. After that we attempted to make the film numerous times but it never seemed to gel and there were probably too many 'cooks in the kitchen.' In 2007, I went off on my own and partnered with Producer/Actor Danny Salmen. When we finally went into production on 'Dawning' in 2007, the script had changed dramatically from 2003, leaving very little in place other than a family, a cabin and a crazy person. But up until 2007, the story was more about an actual creature you never saw and I didn’t like that. I didn’t even want the antagonist to be that 'real.' Real antagonists can ruin movies for me more often than not. Like 'Jeepers Creepers'. I loved the first half-hour or forty-five minutes but when the winged-thing showed up, it threw me off. I think part of it is that after so many films and so much media saturation, I just felt like nothing is scarier than what we can come up with in our own minds. The way our mind plays tricks on us is incredible and it’s the ultimate loss of control and trust (a trust of the world and those around you who are closest). I didn’t want to have the characters figure out they should put a stake in the vampire or shoot the zombie in the head or wait until day. I wanted to throw this family (and the audience) into a place of 'What is real?' 'What can I believe?' 'Is someone who his seemingly threatening me actually helping?' Like the divorce of the family, this unseen 'evil' or 'darkness' or 'presence' is something they can’t really talk about because there is too much emotion and too many things unanswered and not enough logic or rationale.

And I’m glad you liked the stripped down approach, it is something which I’ve been trying to work on for years, probably since my first 16mm short film called 'The Party Gnome'. I have purposefully tried to train myself to be as resourceful as possible so I would know how to bend but not break when it came to what I was trying to accomplish. I see too many directors break-down when things aren’t 'perfect.' It also helps when you have an incredible cast and crew and the 2007 (and beyond) the cast and crew were fantastic. They helped me become a better director and I hope I’ve made their work look as good as it should because they all did an amazing job. I don’t know how it happened, almost magically I guess. It was a very special shoot.

CTK: Many times during the film I felt like I was actually there in the house with the characters and experiencing everything that they were going through. From the way certain angles were shot, to the narrow corridors in the house that bring you closer to the characters, to the feeling that they were almost looking right at me. I definitely felt like the fourth wall came close to being broken on more than one occasion. Was that feeling a conscious effort on your part?

GH: I’m really glad you noticed those things because they were definitely purposeful. One thing I kept asking myself was 'What would Ingmar Bergman do if he was shooting a more modern horror film?' So I think a lot of the close shots on the faces, which almost seem to be looking at you, comes from a lot of his films, especially 'Winter Light' and 'The Silence'. As far as horror movies, three or four other films were very essential in the way I wanted to shoot and craft the film and those were 'Silence of the Lambs' and 'Signs' - both shot by Tak Fujimoto. The way faces are framed in those films was important to me. The use of the corridors was to create areas of the cabin, almost like a '12 Angry Men' kind of thing but not as strict. I also looked at 'Halloween' because, to this day, there has been no better horror film in creating mood and atmosphere and revealing very little violence or gore. It’s quite brilliant in so many ways. Lastly would have to be 'Night of the Living Dead' due to the lack of resources, the focus on the characters and their relationships, the use of darkness and claustrophobia. I suppose there are hundreds of other films and filmmakers who have influenced me but those were on my mind more often than anything else.

CTK: What is your favorite decade of horror and why?

GH: My favorite decade of horror would have to be the 70’s when horror films weren’t about being chased the whole time. Like a reviewer said in the Minneapolis City Pages, 'Action films merged with horror films in the 80’s' and it’s true. Look at the difference between a slasher film like 'Halloween' versus 'Friday the 13th'. Don’t get me wrong, I love Friday and I love a lot of 80’s horror ('Evil Dead', 'Day of the Dead', a lot of Cronenberg stuff) but I think the 70’s had the right balance of horror, drama and suspense. Films like 'Halloween' and the 'Exorcist' have so much mood and atmosphere it’s a thing of beauty to watch. Even 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' isn’t nearly as violent as people think. It’s shot in such a way that it creates uneasiness and tension. Those films are brilliant in my mind. I could name so many more but I just think once that blockbuster mentality took over things became too confined and that resulted in horror films being more action than anything and I think that’s a disservice to the genre. The horror genre has so much potential, I often wonder why there can’t be a horror film where the audience cries for the characters like in a drama versus just wanting to see them get killed in new and terrific ways.

CTK: For a film that had no real onscreen monster or focal point in terms of antagonist, how did you ensure that you got the most out of your actors and that they conveyed a true sense of fear and dread?

GH: Well, for me and I think I can speak for the actors as well, the film was never really about the antagonist (like the man or the 'presence'). The far greater issues are the things going on within the characters. The hurt, the lies, the resentment, the inability to forgive. And those things keep them from working together which could be their greatest undoing, far greater than what the 'presence' could do.

They are no longer a family but a fractured unit and when people are fractured anything is possible: communication breaks down, people don’t listen and decisions are made out of emotion and fear. I think because of this the actors were able to hold on to those fears and the 'thing' was just a second-thought, if that makes sense.

The other thing I tried to do was shoot the film in a certain order where I could take advantage of the actor’s natural emotions. For instance, I shot all of their last times onscreen as the last scene they were in so there was a natural build to their 'loss' when it came to the film and to the actors. For example, when Christine Kellogg-Darrin (Laura) goes out to look for Richard, that was her last shot, she was getting ready to take a car to the airport and this was it for her. There was a lot of emotion in her scene because there were a lot of thoughts going through her head, both film-related and based in reality. She was going to miss us as much as we were going to miss her. It had been a fun shoot. That emotion translated in a magical way in my opinion.

Lastly, due to shooting on HD and having a cabin which was almost like a stage, I was able to let the actors run the scene over and over again, picking up the moments I wanted the most yet still letting them play beyond those moments, keeping them in the scene and letting them, and myself, continue to come up with new questions and creative answers.

CTK: Describe for me the decision to set this film in the middle of the woods. What is it about the woods and being in them that makes it inherently creepy?

GH: For me the decision was an easy one. If anyone has ever been to the woods of Northern Minnesota or Wisconsin you know darkness, if you haven’t, you probably have never truly seen blackness/darkness. You can walk outside and not see an inch in front of your face. When tree branches crack or an acorn falls, those sounds become amplified and take on a life of their own based on the imagination of the individual person. This was important for 'Dawning' in that it needed to be in a world where noises can be misconstrued and the darkness creates caution and tension.

CTK: That feeling of not knowing what was stalking the onscreen characters that pretty much spanned the entire running time was really unnerving to me. I wanted so badly to know what it was. So when things turned out a little bit differently than expected, I definitely felt like you were messing with me. But not in a bad way. Ultimately, I came to my own conclusion about the film which may vary from someone else’s. Were you worried at all about taking a risk like this in that you were challenging conventions a bit?

GH: Oh man, YES! The conventions (mixing drama and horror, keeping the 'antagonist' off-screen and unknown, etc.), have been the single greatest struggle for me over the six years I’ve been involved with variations of this film. Every other version there was some real thing, whether it was a creature or a spirit or whatever. And this bothered me because I felt like I wasn’t being true to what I really wanted to do - which was ultimately make a movie where there could or could not be anything going on but if the characters are acting on something then it becomes real to them - so it inevitably becomes real for the audience. This was, unfortunately, a more monumental task for someone in my position with very little money, time or resources. You should have seen the cut before this one, there were less 'answers' in that version! If you have a chance to see 'The White Ribbon' check it out because I think he succeeded far greater than I could ever do with a similar concept (very different films I'd like to add). But anyway, I digress.

I think people have grown too attached to the conventions because it’s safe, like a sitcom; it’s ultimately predictable, you know how it’s going to make you feel. Even when people watch a horror film, where they should want to be on the edge and get their mind twisted, there’s a certain aspect where the audience still wants to play it 'safe.'

I wanted 'Dawning' to shake the typical conventions out of the viewer. I wanted to make the viewer put as much of themselves as they can into the film since that’s what everyone did who was involved in making the film. It should be that kind of collaboration between director and viewer. I think this challenge to convention is amplified by the last shot in the film. Does that answer your question? I guess as long as the end of the film feels complete in that the characters have 'come and gone', then as long as that happened then I’m ok with people coming up with their own ideas. I think we try so hard in life to answer everything, to figure things out, but in the end, no matter what we think we know or don’t know, there is only one truth, and that one truth is expressed in the last line of the film. It may be the only truthful line the movie.

CTK: That definitely answers my question. And ultimately not having all the answers, to me, made the film that much more engrossing. So mission accomplished good sir.

Any horror films that you are looking forward to in 2010? A lot to do has been made about the new/rebooted 'A Nightmare on Elm Street'. But I’m anxious to see Jackie Earle Haley’s take on everyone’s favorite cheeseburger faced slasher. Also, 'Frozen' comes out within the next week and someone made the tag of ‘It will do for you for ski lifts, what 'Jaws' did for being in the water.’ That’s a pretty bold proclamation if I do say so myself.

GH: You know, to be honest, I’ve kind of stayed away from a lot of horror films as I’ve been involved in making 'Dawning'. I think once 'Dawning' is fully put to bed I can start watching horror films again. As for re-makes, I don’t think I can get too excited about these films because, to me, there’s not an issue with the original Nightmare, it doesn’t need to be 'fixed.' I mean, all they’re going to do is ramp up the F/X, the blood and the action and update the hair and music and clothing. I don’t really understand that mentality but I guess they own the rights to the original so it’s cheaper and safer than taking a gamble on something new and interesting like many of the films playing at the various festivals 'Dawning' has screened at. As for 'Frozen', only time will tell but I have a feeling that might be a bit tongue-in-cheek (let’s hope).

CTK: Where can folks catch screenings of 'Dawning'? Any festival showings or small theater runs planned?

GH: We had a screening this past Wednesday, February 3rd in Somerville, MA as part of a monthly film series by All Things Horror. We also have two screenings in Durham, North Carolina on February 20th and 21st as part of the 2010 Nevermore Film Festival. In March we’ll be screening in Mankato, MN but we’re still confirming an exact date. And I just recently found out we’ll be screening overseas toward the end of April in an international horror festival but I can not make any official announcements yet. Hopefully there will be continued screenings and we also plan on doing a limited DVD sale after March of 2010.

CTK: I'll definitely be on the lookout for the proper DVD release. Any upcoming film projects that we should be aware of or check out?

GH: As with most filmmakers, I’m trying to figure out how to get another film going. I have around 15 feature ideas/scripts which we’ve put together into a package and there are varied degrees of interest but it’s a long process so I’m not even sure. If it was up to me I would be moving on to a post-apocalyptic western I want to do tentatively titled 'Elephant Burial' - like 'Dawning' it’s focused on very limited locations, characters, etc. but it takes on a very large concept. But it’s quite different in tone than say, 'Book of Eli' or even 'The Road'. It centers on the character of Johnny who lives by himself on a self-sustainable farm where he is completely by himself, surviving (thriving even). Eventually humans begin to show again and with those humans both the positive and negative aspects (hate, love, laughter, deceit, companionship, loss, etc,). Anyway, it is similar to 'Dawning' in that some things are never explained (like how people died) and that it focuses more on the characters than some arbitrary plot-line like a guy who has been walking with a book.

CTK: Wow, that sounds really interesting. I love the concept. I'll be keeping tabs on you. Thank you so much for your time and I really wish the best of luck to you. And I really hope this incredible film becomes a success.

GH: I wish you the best of luck as well and thanks for giving 'Dawning' and myself some publicity, I appreciate it more than you know. I think what you and many of the other bloggers are doing is the future of filmmaking and film criticism.

For more information about 'Dawning', check out the film's site.

Cortez the Killer

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Chris Hallock said...

This is a remarkable film and definitely deserves to be seen by a large number of people.

Great interview!

Cortez The Killer said...

Thanks Chris. And many thanks to you and Mike for alerting me to the existence of this amazing film. Your tastes in horror films is impeccable!

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Andre said...

Awesome review! I saw this at the All Things Horror event- but this interview really gave me a better appreciation and re-peaked my interest! So many things were going on- I still find myself questioning things during random parts of my day. Really great job!

Cortez The Killer said...

Thanks Andre! The interview definitely helped fill in a few gaps for me. But overall, its a very powerful film, one in which places you front and center to all the madness that is occurring onscreen. Can you tell how much I love it? :)

Carl (ILHM) said...

Thanks for stopping in with such a detailed and thoughtful interview Gregg, and Cortez excellent batch of questions. Looking forward to checking the film out myself!

Tad said...

Saw this at Nevermore in Durham NC last night. Very well done indeed! Holtgrewe and company definitely have something here. It definitely caters to an older way of making horror films, more abstract and cerebral, and less spoon fed. This tact had to have been a gamble and make no mistake, it definitely led to some meatheads complaining about "nothing happened!" while leaving the theater. But I took that to be a compliment to the film and it's goals. Definitely got under my skin for sure. Still thinking about it in fact! Oh and the one-sheets for this film are outstanding! Great acting, great direction, good story telling and, put simply, a great idea! Highly recommended!

Cortez The Killer said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting Tad. Glad you enjoyed the film. I do see a potential for the ADD, action all the time, mainstream film watching type to react in the same fashion. But its definitely evidence enough of an effective film and a testament to the work that it got under your skin and you are still thinking about it after the credits rolled.

Spread the word good friend!