Brandon Christensen has enjoyed critical success on the genre festival circuit with his debut feature Still/Born, which tells the tale of a woman haunted by the spectre of her dead child. It’s a visceral and emotionally gruelling piece, but how does that compare to the experience of a first-time director touring his latest film?
The Squid granted Brandon an audience in his undersea fortress to talk directing, festivals and the many sins of cinema-goers.
Tom: How did you find the transition from directing largely short projects to taking on a feature-length production?
Brandon: Still/Born is the first feature that I’ve directed, but I produced a film the year before. Colin Minihan brought me on to produce IT STAINS THE SANDS RED, which gave me my first real taste for feature-length world. I’ve always leaned more into TV but I was instantly attracted to the 20-day shoot cycle that we did on the feature. It was crazy just how much preparation you need, especially with the micro budget we had, since once production starts – you’re kind of in a time vortex where you need to have done a good job in pre-production or you’ll be screwed. It definitely proved to me that I could handle it and made me want to try it myself, so when we were writing Still/Born and Colin raised the money for it, I felt pretty ready.
Coming from shorts and commercials, it’s definitely a different experience. Those are just one or two day sprints where you can focus all of your energy into this burst of production, whereas as feature is like sprinting a marathon. I think it really just comes down to who you surround yourself with, and I had great producers who made sure that all of the problems that they could control were pretty much handled before I even knew about them. So really, your focus is just on whatever scene you’re shooting that particular moment, and it helps having the confidence that the next scene will have everything needed.
T: Postpartum depression and fears around pregnancy have long been established horror tropes. How would you explain the fascination that keeps us returning to this theme?
B: I think it’s a number of things. One, you gain immediate empathy from the audience when you put a baby on the screen. And that’s good, the audience’s nurturing side comes out right off the bat and you have this instinctual desire for the child and mother to make it out okay.
Personally, being a father of two kids, and a sibling of sisters who have multiple kids, I have watched the strength that comes out of nowhere by these women when having children. My oldest son had skull surgery when he was 8 months and when under that kind of pressure, my wife buckled down like I’ve never seen and carried through the experience with an insane amount of poise. Looking at her, you wouldn’t think she would be capable of that, and I think that definitely influences the amount of pressure you can put on some of these mother characters in these films.
You see something like The Babadook where it’s a single mom who works and takes care of her kid, and that’s a tremendous amount of work for someone. So when you put the added stress of your child being haunted by this supernatural thing, it’s exciting to see them rise up to the challenge.
T: Still/Born has been doing the rounds on the festival circuit for a while now, have there been any audience reactions that have surprised or interested you?
B: When we first played at Overlook, I was completely terrified. I’d never played a festival with my work before, so having this big audience in this cramped room, about to watch a film that we had just finished 5 days earlier, I had no idea how it was going to go. Having done a number of screenings now, you can almost set your watch to certain reactions to certain scenes. I know X is going to get a laugh, and Y will be dead silence.
The first screening at Overlook, there was a scream out loud at the first major scare in the film and it kind of reverberated through the crowd. I’d never really heard anything like that before in a screening and you could tell that their scream affected the audience and it put everyone in a good mood. Considering the crowd that was all horror fans, it’s pretty rad to have that effect on people who have seen so many different things.
There’s one thing that I’ve noticed both in my screenings and screenings for other films, there’s a type of person who is too afraid to be afraid and they tend to talk over the movie and kind of take a dump on it to diffuse any tension that they would otherwise feel. When I saw IT on opening night, there was a couple beside us and through every scene that is supposed to be quiet, all you hear is them talking down on the film and it ruined some scenes for me because all I can hear is this murmur followed by a laugh. I’ve seen it at some Still/Born screenings and it’s a bummer. Horror can be so fun because it can give you a visceral response to something that I don’t think you get in most genres. I think you’re sacrificing your experience if you’re trying to be tougher than the movie.
When I saw Arrival, I sobbed through that ending. I don’t care, just let it get you, that’s what it’s there for.
T: Mary is an enormously challenging role. How did you go about casting Christie Burke?
B: We did a casting call out of Vancouver and Christie was at the top of the group that submitted. She has this innocent softness that we felt would look great on camera getting totally broken down. The shoot was interesting because we had Christie for all 20 days, but Jesse Moss (plays the husband Jack) was only there for the last 2 weeks of the 4 week shoot. The first six days of production was all Christie looking scared, Christie looking beaten, Christie sobbing and falling apart, and then when Jack comes in to shoot, the scenes were much more subdued for the most part. So we definitely threw Christie to the lions den. Her, a baby, and a demon. Have fun! Luckily she did a great job and I think there’s some really iconic scenes where her eyes are wide-eyed with fright and I couldn’t be more pleased with how she handled it.
T: What role does ambiguity play in the film? How important is it for you to keep an audience guessing?
B: This entire film is built around ambiguity, it was directly put into the script on purpose. Colin and I were wrestling with if it were all in her head or if it were real during the writing process and every decision for one direction had to have an opposite counterpoint. We never wanted to lean to heavily any way because we want the audience to be right there with Mary and since she didn’t know, we shouldn’t know. When she thinks she knows something, we throw a curve ball and bring her back around to the other side. I think the film only works if you’re guessing so it was hugely important for us.
T: Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to talk about?
B: My wife and I have been writing a new script that I’m going to shoot next year. It’s definitely falls into the same category as Still/Born. Contained, family horror. I think my imagination doesn’t extend too far outside of my life, but as my children are ageing I’m learning more things about them to be scared of. Being a parent is a really tough job, and I’m married to someone who is afraid of virtually everything and can immediately identify what the worst possible outcome for any scenario… so it’s been fun to pick her brain on horrible ways to put a family through the ringer.
I don’t want to say too much, but I think it’s really cool and scary. In the end, I’d like to have three films about moms being scared to put on a shelf for $2.99 at Walmart. Call it the MOMMA TRAUMA TRILOGY. It will probably have really bad box art, too.