INTERVIEW: Director Daniel Robbins and Writer Zack Weiner on Frat House Horror ‘Pledge’

You can catch Pledge at Grimmfest 2018 in Manchester on Sunday 7th October at 12.25pm at the ODEON Manchester Great Northern.

Get tickets to Grimmfest 2018 here!

At a time when the goings-on in American frat houses are subject to increasing levels of scrutiny, the distrust and suspicion surrounding these institutions makes them an excellent setting for gut-wrenching horror. In Pledge, a trio of college rejects find themselves embroiled in a series of cruel and inhuman challenges as part of a frat house ‘Hell night’. Things get out of hand, and what might be dismissed as ‘harmless fun’ soon becomes something much darker and more bloody.

We caught up with director Daniel Robbins and actor/writer Zack Weiner to talk about Pledge, which will have its European debut at Grimmfest 2018.

Tom: The Greek system in American colleges is something that will be totally unfamiliar to a lot of European audiences. Can you explain what it is, and what you think makes it such a good setting for a horror movie?

Daniel: The Greek system is like if you combined a dormitory and a pub into one structure. An 18 year-old first-year typically joins a fraternity (for women, a sorority) in order to gain friends, a professional network and a place to have crazy parties. Having a place on campus to party and drink is particularly valuable for US students since it takes them a couple years to hit the legal drinking age of 21. The one drawback is fraternities tend to haze incoming members, putting them through a gauntlet of misery and an infamous final week called “Hell week.”

We thought a fraternity would make for a good setting because it has a built-in excuse for suspicious behaviour. Being able to excuse borderline torture with “this is what frats do” gave the story leeway to go pretty nuts while still feeling grounded. A brilliant recent example of this built-in excuse comes from a small horror film called Get Out, where it excuses the suspicious behaviour with racial tension/awkwardness of meeting in-laws.

Tom: We’re familiar with hazing horror stories from the news. To what extent are the events of Pledge inspired by real events or experiences?

Daniel: We did some research by re-watching Todd Philips’ banned documentary Frat House and visiting a friend of mine during pledging season at a college in Arizona. One exchange in the film is directly inspired from a conversation between Todd and an angry frat bro named Blossom.

Zack: Almost all of the hazing you see in the movie really does happen at some colleges. We were shocked but it’s hard to top those guys.

Tom: In Uncaged, you struck an excellent balance of comedy and horror, with some critics likening it to a mix of Superbad and American Werewolf in London. How does Pledge compare, tone-wise?

Daniel: Pledge tries to balance the horror and comedy as well, but it was more difficult with this project. Horror and comedy work together in that they both rely on building and releasing tension (and they’re the only genres that elicit sounds from the audience). But they also work against each other in that horror is more impactful with genuine stakes, and comedy tends to deflate the stakes.

In Uncaged, the stakes are more fantastical (werewolves don’t yet exist) so the comedy had room to be a little more screwball without deflating them.

In Pledge, the stakes are more grounded so it was more of a challenge for our actors and master-editor Nik Voytas to work the comedy in without sacrificing authenticity.

Tom: Were there any lessons that you learned in the production of Uncaged that you were able to apply to Pledge?

Daniel: Mark Rapaport, the producer, and I came up with a bunch of lessons for low-budget filmmaking after Uncaged.

There are a couple lessons we ignored:

– Write most of the film for daytime exteriors to save money. (Pledge is mostly nighttime interiors.)

– Focus scenes to 1-3 characters. (Pledge has 8 characters in most scenes.)

And a couple lessons we heeded:

– Aim to execute a simple story in an intricate manner, rather than try to execute an intricate story in a simple manner.

– The first door you have to walk through to make a good film is to write a great script (Zack opened this door for us). The second door is the cast, so start casting early.

– Find the best crew possible, particularly the AD. (Uncaged had an amazing AD named Adam Werth and we wanted to replicate this.)

– Encourage improv/give actors ownership over their lines. They know the character best and it helps them bring their A-game.

– If you have a limited budget and can’t lengthen the shooting schedule, just make the film shorter! Pledge is 20 minutes shorter than Uncaged but was shot in the same number of days, giving us more time to execute the scenes.

Tom: Pledge has also been compared to small-setting high-tension claustrophobic thrillers like The Invitation and Green Room. What do you think are the essential elements of films of this type?

Zack: I think it’s especially important for a single location film to humanise its villains. Part of why I love Green Room and The Invitation so much is that they afford a close-up view of the most deranged and despicable kind of villains. You’re so trapped that you get to know the bad intimately.

It’s an opportunity but also something of a necessity because you don’t have much room to look away.

Daniel: That and keeping the rope taut. Green Room was more a model for us because while The Invitation gradually tightens the rope until Act 3, Green Room yanks the rope at minute 30 and maintains that tension through grounded performances and story reveals.

Tom: At some points, Pledge seems to be taking shots at the culture of toxic masculinity on college campuses and in the wider culture. What role do you think the horror genre has or should have in conversations about social issues?

Daniel: I don’t know… Sam Goldwyn famously said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union” and he’s a smart guy; but it feels like most films actually benefit from exploring a social issue. A film could still work without it (and many do) but it won’t resonate as deeply when the audience leaves the theatre/closes their laptop/hits the home button on their iPhone.

The horror genre is uniquely positioned to explore more difficult thematic material because it can maintain its entertainment value without getting weighed down by the social issue. Other genres can pull this off too but the sheer madness of horror gives it the most leeway.

I don’t know it horror should comment on social issues but if handled well it elevates the material.

Zack: I recently read a story on Rod Sterling’s career. How on The Twilight Zone, he was able to get a lot of social commentary past the censors thanks to the horror and fantasy. Just about everyone else was kept on a pretty tight leash. It was inspiring and made me even more excited for Jordan Peele’s reboot of the series.

For Pledge, I actually thought a lot more about brutal coming of age rituals while writing it. Like in Ancient Greece, the Spartans “pledged” an elite group of society called the Krypteia through brutal physical acts. All a little tougher than my Jewish version, which consisted of reading the old testament out loud and awkward conversation with distant relatives.

But I don’t know, maybe a lot of the toxic masculinity issue stem from that basic equation of violence and manhood.

Tom: Are there any sequences that you remember as having been particularly difficult to shoot?

Daniel: The entire ending sequence… we shot 3 days in an industrial basement in the Bronx in the middle of a humid New York summer. Actors immediately sweat through their shirts (and we only had one change of clothes) so you’ll see them dripping throughout. And we had extras who were sweating through heavier clothing… also I’m allergic to cats and there were 10+ cats roaming around so my eyes looked like they underwent 3 hours of SFX makeup. And we were shooting 7pm-7am so people were generally delirious… so… yeah! Good times. Only made it because of our amazing team (led by Mark, Keaton, Clarisa, Jeff, Will, Nichole, Robbie, and of course, Looch) who embraced/laughed through our very own Hell week.

Tom: The film features some very strong performances. When assembling your cast, what made you think that the three leads would be perfect to play a trio of utter losers?

 Zack: I don’t know how I feel about this question.

Daniel: Well, because the leads themselves are such utter losers. Kidding – they’re all much cooler than I am. Except for Zack – we’re pretty much on the same level. Zachery Byrd and Phillip Andre Botello are seriously gifted actors, and without them (and Aaron Dalla Villa, Cameron Cowperthwaite, Jesse Pimental, Jean-Louis Droulers, Joe Gallagher, Erica Boozer and Melanie Rothman), the film doesn’t work half as well. The talent of the cast in this film is ridiculous and with DP William Babcock capturing their faces on camera… I mean, if Trolls 2 had a prequel, this wouldn’t be it.

We’d like to extend a huge thank you to Daniel and Zack for taking the time to talk to us, and congratulate them once again on Pledge‘s success! You can keep up to date with Daniel, Zack and Pledge on Twitter.


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