Isolated Events: Director Aaron Bartuska on Cabin-in-the-Woods Horror Drama ‘For Roger’

Micro-budget filmmaking is fraught with technical limitations and frustrations. However, it’s often these challenges and restrictions that inspire dedicated filmmakers, fueling their determination. One such example is For Roger, a 5000-dollar hybrid of found footage, relationship drama and isolated slasher movie, which tells a story with depth and poignancy in spite of its minimal budget.

We caught up with director Aaron Bartuska to talk about the film ahead of its screening at this year’s Grimmfest.

Tom: Firstly, could you briefly summarise For Roger?

Aaron: Sure. I’m so bad at the elevator pitch for this film so let’s see! Basically, it’s about this guy, our lead character Roger. He goes to his family vacation home, a very desolate cabin, after his partner passes. He used to vacation there with her so he starts to watch through their home videos, reminiscing and stuff, basically as a coping mechanism. Over the course of watching those videos, he starts to firstly realise a couple of things about the relationship that he might not have known to start off, and secondly he realises that there’s been someone watching them from outside for years.

Tom: I understand that this was your senior project for college. I’m curious then if this was an idea that you had been mulling over for some time or did inspiration strike quite quickly?

Aaron: Well, it’s funny because now it seems like it’s been a super long time that I’ve been sitting with this idea. I think I came up with it probably late 2018, and that was probably only a few months before we started shooting. Now there’s a been a whole pandemic since we made the film, so it seems like a while! In those initial beginning stages, I’d say inspiration struck pretty quickly. I knew that I wanted to make a horror movie and I knew I didn’t want to make it super conventionally. I’m much more into relationship drama, improvisation – that’s where my interests lie, but I also love horror. So it was interesting to see if those things would clash or mix.

Also, a lot of inspiration just struck right as I walked into that location for the first time. It was actually a location that we had easy access to. One of my good friends had it as a family retreat, sort of a hunting lodge. The first time I walked in, I said “Oh, we’ve got to make a horror movie here”. Then I kind of found ways to reverse-engineer it.

We basically used anything we had access to to keep it low-budget. A friend told me he had a mini DV camera, and I was like “That’s awesome, can we use that?”. Mikey and Jenna are my friends from high school, and they were like “Yeah, we’ll act in it”, and I was like “Cool, maybe we can make this for cheap”.

Tom: It sounds like you managed that! Is it true that the budget was $5000?

Aaron: Yeah – well, now that’s gone up a little with festivals and merch and stuff – but yeah, four or five grand is what the actual production cost. And to clarify, we did have access to some of the equipment. For example, we didn’t rent the ALEXA – that was included with our college tuition and stuff, so we were fortunate with that.

Tom: Were there any particular film influences that you can point to?

Aaron: Definitely. I remember me and my two co-writers Derek (Pinchot) and Guin (Cutler), in the two months leading up to the first shoot. We actually shot parts of this in July and parts in October – all the found footage stuff was in July, and all the overarching narrative stuff was in October. So, I kind of had a list of movies, and I was like “Guys, we’ve got to watch these, we’ve got to get the vibe right!”. So for the found footage stuff I showed them Blair Witch and Lake Mungo. I really love found footage, so we probably watched a bunch of random stuff, probably watched The Gallows, and any found footage we could find.

Leading up to the other shoot, it was like Evil Dead or Halloween. Derek and I watched American Movie together. It’s the best ‘how to make a movie’ movie to watch in my opinion, because it’s so endearing to watch them trying to get that movie made in the face of everything going wrong. The cards are stacked against them but they end up making it.

So just stuff like that, stuff that really captured the vibe we wanted to go for but also the lo-fi independent spirit that we knew we wanted to get across.

Tom: Speaking of Micheal Andrusiewicz and Jenna Gibilisco, those were really fantastic performances that you get out of them, especially given their relative lack of experience. There’s some really naturalistic dialogue between them, and the chemistry feels real. How easily did they fall into those roles?

Aaron: It was interesting because I’d worked with both of them. Mikey a lot more, in my actual film school projects. So, Mikey was used to the fact that I’m into improv, so he knew we’d be shooting scenes where I’m not going to tell him exactly what to say and it’s going to get frustrating and we’re going to hate each other! But we’re going to figure it out. Jenna was completely new to that. But the fact that we all grew up together to some extent – we had all known each other since we were about 14 – the fact that it was a small set and we were all comfortable with each other contributed to that.

That’s not to take away from the fact that they were incredible with what I asked them to do. Jenna is on-camera for all of those takes. About 95% of those takes are just her face. That’s a weird thing to ask someone, and you’ve got to ask Mikey to be a dick the whole time [laughs]. I think they really stepped up to the plate, and those parts were especially fun because we weren’t stressing about making the shot look good or getting all the lighting perfect. We could just be like “OK, you guys are filming this, you can hold the camera, get whatever feels right. The camera is a third character in this scene and we can do it a few times, we’ll get there”.

Tom: What are your thoughts on found footage generally and how mixed media works with horror?

Aaron: As I said, I love found footage. I think it’s such a conflicted genre. I think it got such a bad rap in the 2010’s after Paranormal Activity. Everyone was making them for cheap, and there’s a lot of gems in there but the general public were just like “We don’t need these any more”. Now I think there’s a resurgence happening where people are more willing to try and reclaim it and make it a cool thing. I think adding the camera in as another character just makes it so interesting.

I have such a love for that craft, and also there’s so many things from a filmmaking perspective that you have to think of when you’re making a found footage film, because automatically the audience is thinking “If you mess this up, I’m going to know immediately. If there’s any sort of error, if you take me out of the fact that this is supposed to be real for any second, then you’re done, you lost me”. I think that’s such a challenge for filmmakers.

Tom: Well, it definitely works with the plot. The format feels so intrusive, and there’s this element of voyeurism where you have front-row seats for the breakdown of this relationship. It feels like you shouldn’t be watching, like it’s too personal.

Aaron: That’s my favourite thing to hear – thank you so much! That was the whole goal, we really wanted it to feel voyeuristic, and eventually it does become voyeuristic in a lot of different ways. Even just walking into that cabin and having all the deer on the wall, you’re like “Oh, I’m being watched right now” – so, thank you.

Tom: No problem! In the film, you’ve got these horror tropes: cabin in the wood, masked antagonist etc. On the other hand, it doesn’t sit comfortably as a horror film, as it mixes these generic elements. So was that something that you were aiming for, were you being wary of being pigeon-holed, or was that something that emerged organically as part of the story you wanted to tell?

Aaron: In making it, we all kind of knew it wasn’t going to be a conventional horror movie. We were all just kind of keeping our fingers crossed that what we had would work. Really, the way I pitched it to some of my friends was like “I want to make a found footage horror movie.” And they were like “Alright… Okay…” But then I was like “No, but it’s going to be awesome! We’re going to set it in a cabin in the woods, and there’s going to be a masked guy, but the final girl’s already dead, and the killer and the protagonist are going to be kind of buddies at the end”.

So my friends were wondering “What are you talking about?”. Even just sitting with the edit afterwards, I was thinking “Oh god, I have no idea what we have here.” For a good year, before the score was put in, we watched the film and we were like “Well, this is going to be interesting.” But, I think that now that the whole thing is together, it’s a concise thing. Everyone came together and put their efforts into it, and I’m really proud. I think it works in a way that I never could have predicted.

Even if I had stepped back for one second and thought that we were going in a weird direction and we should put it more in line with the genre, I think that would have done the film a disservice. As much of a subversion as it is, it’s what makes it stand out a little bit. In terms of going into it knowing that I wanted to subvert it, I wouldn’t say that I was necessarily aiming for that. I just knew what I liked, and I knew the kind of stuff that I wanted to see. I love dead formats, I love relationship dramas, I love conventional horror, I love found footage… I just wanted to throw everything at the wall and hope it all stuck.

Tom: That’s something I particularly enjoyed. It sort of skirts the boundaries of the horror genres. In some ways, it’s a haunting, it’s a ghost story, even though it’s not supernatural. It’s got this sort of absent presence throughout the whole thing, dogging the characters. You mentioned the score – particularly in the opening scene, it was very unsettling and it set the tone – I was wondering where that came from and how much input you had?

Aaron: Right, so my buddy Will heard that I was making this horror movie and really wanted to get into scoring stuff, he wanted to take a shot at it, and I agreed. He’s in a really good band that I like. So he said “Yeah, if you just send me a couple of scenes, I’m just going to play around with them”. The first scene I sent him was the opening. He sent that back, and I had to watch it a couple of times thinking “What is this?”.

I had told him a couple of things about what I wanted. Halloween is a big influence for me, and I love the idea of a repetitive theme that gets more and more haunting throughout. What he sent back, it starts so dreamy and melancholy and reflective, and then on that three-minute drive sequence (I know it’s kind of controversial but I love it!), it just fades to the same progression but eerier. It’s like you’re driving down that road and getting closer to something that you don’t want to be close to, and that really comes across in the music. I watched it a couple of times and I was like “Yo Will, I don’t know what this is, but let’s go with it!”. So we used it as a motif throughout. It’s an awesome sound, and then he just kept sending hit after hit.

It was collaborative on things that I knew had to play a certain way. For example, the whole chase scene was very much a back and forth between us. I gave him some more direction on where we’d need musical stings and where the music needed to be heavier or more subtle. That was the one we probably spent the most time on. Also, I’m a big Spielberg guy, so I’m all about the reflective piano version of the opening song at the end of the movie to wrap everything up – so that was a collaborative thing too. 

Every time he would send me something, I would get so excited. I feel like there’s an easy way to do horror scores. That’s not saying there’s anything wrong with those simple scores, but there’s definitely an easy way to make Carpenter-esque horror scores that everyone has ripped off. I wanted elements of that, but like the film itself, it needed to pay homage to its influences but also do something a little bit different.

Tom: It’s really engaging, especially in that opening drive sequence.

Aaron: It’s so funny to hear people’s reactions to that scene because some people are like “That’s where I turned it off!” and like, I get it man! [Laughs]

Tom: [Laughs] That’s pretty early to turn it off! When you screen it at Grimmfest, it’ll be really exciting to see where the audience comes down on that.

Aaron: I’m so excited to see that stuff. I’m definitely going to be one of those directors that’s constantly refreshing to see what people say!

Tom: One of the things I’ve heard a lot from directors is that the film is something that you ‘discover’ during the editing process. Is that something that chimes with your experience?

Aaron: Yeah, definitely. There were a lot of things that I never would have imagined ending up in the film, and a lot of things that I was sure were going to be in but that we had to cut because they weren’t working. The whole ending was completely different. The whole opening was different too, and there was a whole other location that we cut just because it wasn’t working with everything else. As much as it absolutely sucked, the pandemic did give us the chance to sit with the film and say “Okay, we don’t have to rush this out, people aren’t looking for this kind of thing right now, everyone wants to watch a feel-good movie!” 

We were hoping to get this to film festivals in 2020, so we basically halted for an entire year. Editing the film in that time, a film that is so isolated, and us ourselves being isolated, it kind of put us in a better head-space to convey that desolate feeling. I guess this film, if you think about it, could have taken place during the pandemic, so I think whether we realised it or not, the circumstances probably lent themselves to the project. 

Also, we had a lot more time, I don’t know if Will would have taken as many meetings with me if we weren’t just sitting at home! He had time to play his instruments and try things out.

I think a lot of filmmakers probably had similar experiences throughout this, just thinking “What do we do with this thing that we made, which we now have to put out, but the world is completely different?”

This movie is a movie that, at this point, young me made. I shot this when I was 21 and now I’m about to turn 24, so it’s an odd thing to look back on.

Tom: Micro-budget films always come with their challenges. What would you say was the biggest issue you had to overcome?

Aaron: There were obviously a bunch of challenges throughout. In terms of specific things, there were 20 to 30 of us, and we were all sleeping at this cabin. Basically, first and foremost, the most important thing to me is having a good, fun set. I’m not one of those directors that yells and lays down the law. I feel like if we’re all having a good time then we’re going to make something good. There’s going to be stressful conversations and problems to solve, but at the end of the day, once we wrap, we’re all going to bed there. That bar in the film is actually fully stocked, so we had free alcohol and we could all debrief at the end of the day. Everyone ripped on me because they’d had to listen to me all day!

In terms of challenges, on the very first day of shooting, we realised that we weren’t going to make it through the shot list we had worked out. The goal was to shoot a feature in two weekends, aside from the found footage that we’d already shot, and we thought it was borderline impossible. So that first night after the shoot was spent rewriting the shot list, combining shots. There’s a lot of shots that I really love that were initially three or four shots, and I’m a big fan of long shots as you can probably tell. I think they build tension, and I think they’re cool. But yeah, there were a lot of shots that we combined, and the run-and-gun nature of that could be scary. But I do think that there are a lot of things that wouldn’t have come out as good as they did if we hadn’t been under that pressure.

Tom: What do you hope that audiences will take away from the experience of watching For Roger?

Aaron: I think the film asks a couple of things of the audience: it asks you to be open to the idea of your protagonist becoming an antagonist. I hope that people take away that we put a lot of passion and care into it and made it with the resources available to us. I hope people at least see that and take it for what it is. I think we made a cool thing, all things considered! 

But also, thematically, this film was written personally at a sort of difficult time for me. I was dealing with the loss of a friend, and wondering how my relationships in my life worked. One of my biggest fears is going into a situation and being myself, then hearing later that I’d totally botched it in a social scenario. So I thought the horror of sitting there and watching yourself in the past being a completely awful person was very interesting. I guess what people can take away from it is to try to be more aware of how you’re acting in social scenarios. I just want people to look back on how they’d acted in the past, how they could have been better and more aware of the people around them.

I think the Grimmfest write-up had it down really well when it said “It’ll stick with you especially if you feel bad about any past relationships!”.

We’d like to congratulate Aaron Bartuska on his film For Roger and thank him for taking the time to talk to us!

For Roger is available from October 14th at 1:30 PM to October 17th at 11:30 PM as an online exclusive for the virtual festival only. Find out more and book your tickets here.


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