Triggered draws its influences from a range of classic horror concepts, twisting a little bit of Scream into a base of Battle Royale and flavouring the whole story with a pinch of I Know What You Did Last Summer. As well as being completely action-packed, the film takes you on a journey through the lives of a group of friends forced to confront tragedy in their past and the secrets it has left them with.
The film balances brutal fight scenes with tight character revelations that draw you into the story for a tense ninety minutes.
We spoke to producer Ariye Mahdeb, director Alastair Orr and screenwriter David Jones ahead of the film’s showing at this year’s Grimmfest.
Kirstie: Tell us about your film Triggered.
Ariye Mahdeb: Triggered is an action-horror-thriller about nine friends who find themselves in an unlikely situation where they’ve gone camping and their pasts come back to haunt them. They wake up with suicide bombs strapped to their chests. I don’t know if they’re really suicide vests, because they don’t have the intention of committing suicide, but rather the idea of them not being able to control whether or not they will die. The only way they can do that is if they steal somebody else’s time. It’s a fun film and we all felt very passionate about it.
Kirstie: What inspired you to make a battle-royale-style film?
Alastair Orr: We had made a previous film called House On Willow Street, and it was very difficult to deal with financiers and investors. They would come in with their own demands about how the money was spent. Just because they were providing the money meant that we had to listen to them, and it ended up not turning out the way we wanted to. So we decided we wanted to make our own film and succeed or fail on our own terms, but at least we’d take the bull by the horns. That wasn’t as easy as we wanted it to be in terms of finding the money. We were putting in our own money, and we’re just poor South Africans. We didn’t want to sit around waiting five years trying to raise money for this film. So we approached David, who came up with this concept. We said, we’ve got some woods and some young actors, and this is what he turned out.
Kirstie: The film plays with quite a few different horror tropes – teens in the woods, battle royale, etc. – and does so effectively and uniquely. What made you want to mash these tropes together?
Alastair Orr: This type of movie, like you say, has been done many times before. I mean, there are ten Saw movies. And they’re all basically “strangers wake up in a room and are forced to kill each other”. We thought it would be so much more interesting with this device around you, where you’ve got to kill a family member or a friend. That was the spark of something a little bit different. It was really David who managed to bring the humour to it and not take it so seriously. We know we’re riffing on Battle Royale and The Hunger Games and The Belko Experiment here. We’re not pretending to be the most original movie around, but we’re trying to put a bit of a spin on it. That was David’s unique take on it. He’s got a very messed up American sense of humour.
David Jones: That was something that Alastair said from the very get-go. He didn’t want to make anything too depressing or dour and he didn’t want it to just be a Saw movie, even though the concept was very Saw. I was 13 when Scream came out and that was my favourite movie for a long time, so it was fun to put that angle twenty years later into a Saw-style movie.
Kirstie: What is your method to balancing the brutal violence with the story and the development of the relationships?
Ariye Mahdeb: From the very beginning, we said we didn’t want this to a drawn-out film, with things revealed too slowly. We wanted to get right into it. When I watched it, I felt that from start to finish, the movie was seamless, it was non-stop action and then you can’t believe it when it’s over.
Alastair Orr: We didn’t want to have flashbacks, like the Saw movies and even Battle Royale has. We didn’t want to have the situation in the woods and then you flashback to why it happened. We wanted to keep it present and in the moment. David was convinced he’d be able to tie it all up and give enough backstory without them. It’s also just an interesting narrative device to consider how well you really know your friends, and revealing things to the audience as other characters find it out as well.
David Jones: I think part of it was down to sheer necessity. The first draft of the script was 100 pages and we cut it down to 85, so it comes off lean because we were very economical even in the very early stages.
Alastair Orr: Not too much ended up on the cutting room floor. We did change some stuff while we were shooting, because of weather and budget. But everything we shot ended up in the movie. There were maybe one or two lines of dialogue that were cut.
Kirstie: How much time did you have to spend constructing each character?
David Jones: I don’t remember having too much trouble with that on my end. I had trouble with the damn vest times. If you change one person’s time early on and someone steals it, it changes everything.
Alastair Orr: Oh here we go again with vest times!
David Jones: I had a spreadsheet that auto-updated with everybody’s times, and I had to change it constantly! It was the only script I’ve ever written where I had to have that type of spreadsheet. The personalities, I don’t remember writing too much about.
Ariye Mahdeb: The characterisation came off quite naturally.
Alastair Orr: There are also some tropes of the ‘80s movies in there. You have the dickhead jock and the quiet girl and the smart-ass. It’s got some archetypes you recognise.
David Jones: Yeah, we started with that foundation and they proved to be much more than that.
Kirstie: What was the process behind choreographing the fight scenes like?
Alastair Orr: It was tough. We didn’t have any professionals, any fight choreographers or stunt men or anything like that. All the fights were based around dialogue, so we’d plot out where each line needed to happen and figure out how we get from one to the other. The actors really got involved and figured it out. They were all really up for it. If we had a little bit more money, I would’ve liked to have gotten a fight choreographer to sort stuff out, just to take the pressure off. But we always made sure they were very safe. We had a lot of fake weapons, foam knives, that sort of thing. We didn’t take any chances with it.
Ariye Mahdeb: We wanted the actors to feel comfortable. Everyone that came in on this film knew this wasn’t a blockbuster budget with millions of dollars to spend on pre-production. There was a fortunate part that where we were shooting there can be quite heavy torrential rains. We thought we’d passed that phase going into production. Unfortunately we were shooting at night mostly and there were, from the day we arrived on set for about a week, torrential thunderstorms hitting us as soon as we got there. I think that gave us an opportunity. Because we were based in this big farmhouse. There were scenes we had to try to figure out that we could workshop with the actors in the barn, so when we got to set there wasn’t too much back and forth. We could just get the camera rolling and get it done.
Alastair Orr: We never complained about not having the money to make a cool movie. We were aware of our limits and tried to use them to our advantage. We knew we weren’t going to have The Matrix-style fight scenes, but we could have some scrappy realistic stuff. Real fights are boring. People end up on the floor punching each other in the belly. It’s not really cool. So we thought we’d lean into that.
Kirstie: How did you go about creating the very graphic special effects?
Alastair Orr: It was super guerilla-style ‘80s practical stuff. We’ve got exploding bodies and mannequins that we dressed up.
Ariye Mahdeb: We actually found a really talented young mother and son team. We had a make-up artist whose son is a prosthetics artist. He came in all amped and keen. He made us a whole prosthetic version of Bobby we could blow up with bits and guts. It was so cool to see that come together. And when we put it on camera we were shocked. It looked rough!
Alastair Orr: We tried to keep it all practical. There are a few enhancements, but everything is basically there on camera.
Kirstie: What do you hope people take away from your film?
Ariye Mahdeb: Don’t trust your friends, haha.
Alastair Orr: Yeah, check your Facebook list. No – really we’re just happy that people are watching. With COVID and everything, we were worried we were going to miss the festivals. We’re super chuffed that Grimmfest are doing something and it’s getting out there. The response so far has been way better than what we were hoping for. We just made a little scrappy movie with our own money and our own friends, and we love the fact that people are enjoying it.
Kirstie: How are you finding Grimmfest 2020 so far?
Ariye Mahdeb: We’re enjoying it, it’s really cool. We’re finding that support from the UK is awesome. For us to bring another film to the UK and getting the responses we have has been amazing.
Kirstie: What are your post-Grimmfest hopes and plans for the film?
Ariye Mahdeb: Samuel Golden picked it up and they’ll be taking it to North America and Canada. There are a couple of places in Asia that are looking to pick it up. We’re still in that sales phase. People are still hearing about it. Hopefully the reviews that we’re getting will help it get into the other territories.
Kirstie: Do you have any advice for people looking to get into this kind of career?
Alastair Orr: Run away, quickly. We’ve both had kids, and it’s intense doing this and having young kids and a family.
Ariye Mahdeb: You really need to have a passion for it. David, also. He has two kids. You have to have a real passion for doing this.
Alastair Orr: Some people see these sorts of films and they think they could do better. They look down on the horror genre. Especially in South Africa, the commercial directors who get big budgets to do thirty second ads need to put their money where their mouth is. You don’t need distribution, you don’t need anything now. Get your friends together, get your phone and make something if that’s what you want to do.
Ariye Mahdeb: When I watch a film now and I think it’s a bad film, I can still have respect for the people that made it because I know how much it takes to get that to my screen.
Alastair Orr: No one sets out to make a bad movie. The film you want to make and the film you end up making are never the same thing.
Ariye Mahdeb: There always has to be compromise – like with our fight scenes. It would’ve been lovely to have a stunt co-ordinator but our situation didn’t allow for that. You might compromise certain aspects, but at the end of the day, you get to make the film you need to make and get it out to the world.
David Jones: For me, the path towards meeting Ariye and Alastair was really weird and not the way I expected it to go. This is my first movie. My advice to any screenwriter would be to just get your stuff out to anybody and everybody that will read it because you never know what’s going to stick and what kind of professional relationship could come out of sending out your weirdest, strangest script. The reason I met these guys is because I was working on a different project with a different director who bailed out and let me keep the script. Literally, a couple of months later – after having very small successes and not many relationships for about four years – I saw a message from Ariye saying he was looking for a combination of two different genres. I hadn’t even fixed the typos in this script, but I sent it out. We haven’t made that film yet, but three years later, we’ve got a great working relationship.
Ariye Mahdeb: That script is on our ‘To Do’ list. And it definitely inspired part of this film. We loved it and wanted to bring some of that spunk into this script. That script resonated. I remember reading it on a two-hour flight and phoning Alastair about how much I loved it, and he agreed. We got in touch with David – and the rest is history.
Triggered is screening at Grimmfest from 7-11 October.