A horror comedy rooted in one of the most common fears people tackle in relationships, It Cuts Deep follows normal couple Ashley (Quinn Jackson) and Sam (Charles Gould) on a Christmas visit to Sam’s childhood home. After being confronted with his past – most notably in the form of his former best friend Nolan (John Anderson) – Sam’s fear of commitment broils over to a tense peak.
The film blends the very ordinary issues people face in relationships with a tangible sense of paranoia in a way that spins relatable fears into an intense and hilariously dark movie.
We spoke to writer and director Nicholas Santos and actors Quinn Jackson, Charles Gould and John Anderson to find out more about the film.
Kirstie: Tell us about your film It Cuts Deep.
Nicholas Santos: It is a horror comedy about my fear of getting married and having children.
Kirstie: What made you want to explore that fear through this film?
Nicholas Santos: I was about to propose to my now wife and I got this very deep fear that ran through my body. I decided to try to deal with that fear by writing a movie. I had been wanting to make a feature horror for a while, so it all came together quite nicely.
Kirstie: What was your trick to establishing realistic characters and their relationships so quickly?
Nicholas Santos: A lot of it was in the writing, but I think it was really working with John, Quinn and Charles and trying to grab from their personal lives and thinking what they would each bring to their character. I think they really brought them to life.
Charles Gould: I would say it was mostly in the writing. Me, Quinn and Nick talked about this on set a lot, about how in the very first scene with me and Quinn I chastise her for going to the bathroom. We’re on a long road trip and we pull over for lunch and I make this really horrible joke about her going to the bathroom and ruining the good time we were making. And I remember thinking, okay, I knew immediately who this guy was based off in the first scene. The first five lines established the character really, really, really well. I knew that he was an asshole, but who didn’t even realise he was an asshole but thought he was a good guy.
Quinn Jackson: But charming and funny because he has to have some redeeming qualities for her to be staying with him, period – which I also had to convince you of. I think also part of the chemistry between all of us came from the way that we shot it. We shot a lot of the end first, which is when there’s dissonance, at least between me and Charles. And we shot most of the relationship stuff, most of it, for instance the bed scene, towards the end. So we had already established a good chemistry as friends, which I think translated to a really good relationship on screen.
Kirstie: How did you go about balancing out the humour with the horror?
Nicholas Santos: Since high school, I had always been a really big fan of Shaun of the Dead. I always loved how Edgar Wright balanced the rom-com with the zombie movies. I wanted to emulate that and find the perfect fun mixture of laughs and horror. There was the balancing act in the script and then the balancing act while on set. There was a lot of working with the actors to figure out if we’re pushing something too far, or not far enough, and how crazy can we go in certain moments and when to pull back and play things more seriously.
Charles Gould: For every scene that we did, we did one take that was the least far we could go, then we did one take that was kind of in the middle and then we did one where we went way too far. It was really fun. It was fun to know that that was going to happen so you could go as crazy as you wanted. But a lot of the really, really crazy shit didn’t make it into the movie.
Kirstie: Which of the takes most frequently made it into the film?
Nicolas Santos: I think the crazy moments made it heavily into the film. We would have them push it really far and then we’d find a mixture of playing it straight and what happened when he improvised the craziness to find the perfect take.
Kirstie: Throughout the film, there’s a really great sense of paranoia, where it’s not clear what elements of Sam’s story to believe. What techniques did you use to create that sense of confusion and lack of trust in the narrator?
Nicholas Santos: I’m always a big fan of films with unreliable narrators, which is basically what Charles is for the first three quarters of the movie. In the first few drafts, it didn’t really have that twist. It had a version of it. But once I’d found that big revealing moment, where you see the real flashback that has been hidden from you the whole time, I kind of worked backwards through the film and the details and clues that lead you to that.
Kirstie: What was it like playing that unreliable character and having to get inside his head? As well as playing the characters around him, and thinking about how your character is reflected through the lens of the unreliable narrator?
Charles Gould: When you have that information, that you’re the unreliable narrative, it makes it easier actually, to play the rest of the role and to play the funny stuff and the lighter stuff. It makes the job so much easier because you have such a big character trait to pull from. It motivates almost every one of your lines, knowing that you’re lying but that nobody else knows that. To have that from the very beginning, it does the work for you almost.
Quinn Jackson: I guess you could kind of call me the straight man of this film. I think I’m most grounded in the reality of a person who has an underlying circumstance that makes her have to take everything going on with her partner as “maybe he’s just nervous about taking me to his parents’ house” and “maybe he’s acting weird because he’s nervous about introducing me to his old friends”. She’s constantly trying to make the situation okay and normalise it. For my character, I think he is reliable. There’s never really been a moment where I’ve not thought about that until this moment in our relationship. That’s how I played it.
John Anderson: My character is at best completely oblivious, and at worst just insane. Playing a character without boundaries felt like I was free to annoy Charles as much as possible. It was a lot of fun.
Charles Gould: He did that off camera, too. John went method.
Kirstie: How do you plan out laying the clues throughout the film that build up to the big twists and revelations at the end?
Nicholas Santos: The most interesting thing was doing the flashbacks and trying to hide the reveal the whole time. There was something the Safdie Brothers did in Good Time, where they had a different character playing another character and you didn’t really know it. We had one actor in every flashback up until the reveal. So the whole time you are actually seeing one thing, but in the movie’s reality, it’s not really them.
Kirstie: In the climactic scenes, the extreme violence and fear is spliced in with a really normal argument. How did you go about constructing that? And what was it like playing through that normal argument that built to such an extreme conclusion?
Nicholas Santos: If you stripped away all the horror elements, I really wanted you to have a regular relationship drama comedy. It felt very tense at times shooting this, even though they’re having quite mundane conversations. Charles brought some really good thirties, millennial conversation points, like getting a dog.
Charles Gould: I’m glad you’ve noticed what you have because I think that’s what we were trying to do with the whole movie. We were trying to make it relatable, but what if you in your everyday life just went off one day? At least, that’s what I was trying to do with Sam. I wanted Sam to be relatable, I wanted Sam to deal with my issues – with Charles’s fear of commitment in real life – but then one day we all just snapped. So it was always important to keep it grounded in the sense that this is something that every couple goes through.
Quinn Jackson: Once the snap happens and the movie really accelerates in those last twelve minutes or whatever, I think that conversation for my character becomes something she tries to use as an offensive tactic to try to leave her alone. Giving into having it is her way to save herself, but by that time she’s already done with it. It’s more of a farce being played out to protect herself. Living through it was very intense. Charles chasing me into the car – I hated that. He almost got me every time!
Charles Gould: And like you mentioned, we shot that on like the second day. And it was super intense. I also think that Sam uses the normality of the relationship as a tactic as well, to get people to drop their guard.
Kirstie: What do you hope people take away from your film?
Nicholas Santos: First of all, I hope people have fun. Secondly, maybe for them to see a little bit of themselves in it, like their insecurities about commitment and making big decisions, and how we can all act a little crazy.
Kirstie: What are your hopes and plans for the film post Grimmfest?
Nicholas Santos: Grimmfest will be our international premiere, which is exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing the film start playing outside of the US. The film will be released in North America this winter, possibly December, possibly January by Dark Sky Films. We were supposed to start doing festivals in March, but obviously because of COVID, we eventually basically got paused for six months. We’re excited for people to see finally it.
Kirstie: Do you have any advice for anyone looking to get into the kind of work you do?
Nicholas Santos: If you really love it, just keep going at it. Keep writing. Keep trying.
John Anderson: I would say invest in community. I got this audition because I knew Charles. We’ve all become friends and it’s so important to find like-minded people who are interested in working on the same stuff and who are committed. It’s a big deal.
Charles Gould: That’s actually really good advice. I would second that big time. Invest in community and, I don’t know, start a TikTok. Start it now and commit to it for like five years.
Quinn Jackson: Another way of saying that is just create, create, create. Find your voice. Use tools like that to find out what kind of stuff you’re interested in and what you want to make, and dive into that and find people that are like-minded.
John Anderson: This movie was really fun to make. I love watching the movie more and more every time I see it. Nick did a really great job of creating something special, but also creating an environment where we could have the most fun possible. It was awesome.
Quinn Jackson: Can I shout out to our crew? And to Nick’s parents for being amazing and letting us shoot at their home? We had the best crew and we became a little family. Little indie films become great because of the people that work on them.
Charles Gould: I was very sad when we wrapped. I had blocked out three extra days for reshoots and I kept asking when we were doing them and Nick said, “No, I think we got everything”. And I was disappointed. It was like summer camp.
Revenge Ride is screening at Grimmfest 2020 from 7-11 October.