John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies on Dramatic Environmental Horror ‘Unearth’

A carefully crafted and reflective horror film, Unearth is a multifaceted exploration of living in the modern world. It pays close attention to its primary cast of two farm families, who are already struggling financially and socially when they are approached by a fracking company offering money for their land. When one family decides to accept, not only do tensions between them reach a taut peak, but the repercussions of the damage to the land reach truly monstrous proportions.

Starring Adrienne Barbeau and Marc BlucasUnearth is screening at this year’s Grimmfest. We spoke to directors John C. Lyons and Dorota Swies ahead of the festival.

Kirstie: Tell us about your film Unearth.

John C. Lyons: Our film is Unearth. It is a dramatic family film that slowly descends into chaos and becomes an all-out genre film. It’s the story of two neighbouring farm families who are both struggling to make ends meet. One day, a natural gas company comes knocking on the door with the potential for great opportunity. One family is strongly against leasing the land – the family headed up by Adrienne Barbeau. The other family, headed by Marc Blucas, decides to sign. Things go downhill from there as the water table is contaminated and things start happening unexpectedly.

Kirstie: Your film spends a long time establishing the characters, their relationships and the nuances of their community. What inspired that focus on realism for such an extended length of time?

John C. Lyons: For me, the genre films that always have the longest lasting impression are ones that have strong character development and thematic symbolism. Then I ultimately care about things that happen to those characters. I’m not interested in women in bikinis being slashed and tortured – that’s not my style. It was always important to us to keep everything very character-focused and story-focussed. Our state is very deregulated for industry, so you find a lot of water contamination and cancers, many horrific things that can happen to people in real life. So that was our starting point to keep focused on character.

Dorota Swies: It’s definitely a slow burn. There’s social realism. Reflective drama, as I like to call it. I’m hoping that viewers will watch and slow down a little bit, think about their own lives. Maybe they’ll be able to see themselves in these characters. Maybe not at all, but seeing those problems maybe they’ll appreciate their own life better. There’s a focus on story and feeling compassion for those people. And seeing that nobody is perfect, people make mistakes.

Kirstie: What made you decide to have a broad cast who each get equal focus, rather than narrowing in on one main character?

John C. Lyons: We felt that that was more realistic. A lot of the time, films can fall into a formulaic approach where you know what each character is going to do and some may feel like tokens. We wanted it to give the impression that the character who seems the strongest on the surface might not actually be all that strong. And that weaker or quieter characters may have their own hero moment. We wanted to make all the characters feel complex and lived in and for none of the main cast to feel like they were taking up space. You see it in a lot of movies, and it’s more challenging to write roles for seven people where none of them are 2D or one note. The films that really stick with me are the ones where you give shading to every character. For instance, in Annihilation, Natalie Portman is the main character but all of the women who go out on that mission get their moment. I think that makes for a more enjoyable experience and a more fulfilling story, and it does right by the actors. If you have seven great actors, give them all something to chew on and they will roll with it.

Dorota Swies: I think you don’t see films with that kind of approach very often. Making the film to me felt like breaking the rules, letting things be imperfect and not using steady shots and not having the steadiest lighting. It’s supposed to be imperfect. By having characters like this, that are a bit shaky and intimate, we were breaking the rules. For instance, I didn’t use a lot of establishing shots. I didn’t want to make a movie that felt like I’d just learned the rules in school and we were making the same thing again and again. I wanted it to be imperfect. Some parts might be shaky or under-lit, but that’s life. Our life isn’t perfect either.

John C. Lyons: That approach might not work for everyone because we’re trained, and in our media we do follow templates that have been well established. But some of us can do with trying to break some rules and swing for the fences. Horror movies that get rated on how often you’re scared, like slashers and jump scares – those, to me, are kind of forgettable. Once you’ve had that initial scare, you’re not going to ever revisit that movie again and have the same experience. You’ve lost that. Some movies are perfect and great like that, but it’s just not the film that we sought to make with this one.

Kirstie: The film has a gradual progression from realistic consequences to the more fantastical horror. What made you want to incorporate those very possible horrors into the film?

John C. Lyons: I’m not sure if you’ve seen Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland, but that documentary and also another one, called Triple Divide, were really big influences. That’s where the story really started. I know in the UK you have a fracking ban, but in the US it’s a very different situation – it’s like the wild west. The state that we filmed in, Pennsylvania, is one of the most deregulated states in America. Recently an investigative journalism team uncovered all kinds of state inner workings that were covering up fracking companies that were basically contaminating water supplies. All this stuff just came out in a big grand jury trial. To a point, it is based on real things that working-class families go through every day. You don’t see a lot of gas wells drilled in luxury condo neighbourhoods near people that are financially set. It’s always in places where the communities are struggling already. We wanted to pay respect to farmers who feed all of us, who have a very important job. Even if you don’t work or live on a farm, if the food supply or water is contaminated, it will affect all of us eventually.

Kirstie: What made you want to explore that message through a horror film?

John C. Lyons: The genre works perfectly. It has sophisticated viewers who are used to social commentary and symbolism in their stories. For us, it was the perfect medium to tell a character-based story. When you’re drilling holes miles underground, it’s not like we have cameras down there. Who’s to say we’re not drilling up something unexpected at some point? And there’s the whole fear of the unknown. Man versus nature. We can go through all the tropes and situations in horror that are just perfectly suited. I think the world needs a fracking horror story.

Kirstie: What was your thought process behind which particular horror elements they were going to encounter through fracking?

Dorota Swies: Well the story isn’t 100% fiction. The situation in the film is actually happening right now but in the animal world. The script was based on solid research we did, looking into fungus and anything of that nature. We didn’t really need the fiction to create the horror story. It’s not all about economics and bursting the American bubble, but also what’s happening in the current world of flora and fauna.

Kirstie: How did you go about constructing the horror effects?

John C. Lyons: We have to thank Tolin FX for that, who did the special effects work. We wanted to do as much practically as possible. Even if you watch a $300 million, big studio movie, if it has a lot of CG and visual effects, you can throw as much money on it as you want, but over time the effects don’t hold up. Technology is constantly changing. Films like The Thing were big inspirations. It’s all caught on camera and it never changes. Your actors are interacting with real horrific props and appliances and goo and blood and guts. I think that adds a lot to the performance. Everything from story to character to effects, we wanted it to be as realistic and based in a tangible world as possible. We were working with Tolin FX probably a year and a half ahead of time on the designs. They did everything, even the underground drill. That was actually built. That’s a real working underground drill – it was incredible. They were very excited that they had never seen some of these things in a film before, so they were extremely excited to step up to the challenge.

Kirstie: How do you think horror as a genre can be an effective vehicle for moral messages?

Dorota Swies: I think violence is what speaks to people most. If you don’t have the violence, we may not necessarily care about the message. That was one of the ideas. There are many definitions of art, and currently it’s whatever leaves an impression on you. That’s art. Before that, we had beauty and symmetry and mathematics. Now we are mostly about a long-lasting impression. If it doesn’t impress you, you won’t be noticed, you won’t be heard. I think horror was the right genre for us because we could have that violence. The horror elements lend a really strong accent to the message.

John C. Lyons: Documentary is amazing and documentaries are so important. Unfortunately there’s a limited audience for documentaries sometimes. By utilising the great genre and the hybrid combination of genres that we use, we felt that we could reach a bigger audience and pay respect to families that are really struggling and are so important in our world. Feeding us is such an important thing. We should care what happens to our land and our water.

Kirstie: What do you hope people take away from the film?

John C. Lyons: Writing for seven or eight characters, we wanted to have them all be really well developed and have everybody have a back story. I hope that every character comes through and that people will have someone to relate to. But we are in the middle of the a climate crisis, which is at the forefront of everybody’s thoughts. There’s other things in there as well: teen pregnancy and poverty and healthcare and self harm. Hopefully there’s a lot in there that people will find.

Dorota Swies: I hope people also notice that our film has a lot of strong female roles as the main characters, which isn’t always the case in cinema. I hope people will notice that. We sometimes had people asking who was the main character, but all of them are the main characters. They all make mistakes. Nobody is perfect, and you have to embrace that.

Kirstie: How did you go about exploring so many different themes so effectively in such a short space of time?

John C. Lyons: It always came back to character for us. I started outlining the story in January 2013. It was a long process. It started off as a very small Kickstarter film that got funded and got a lot of attention and grew from there. But the scope was always the same, as far as making complex characters and telling a grounded story that was reflective of our times, not just America – but I hope people will find something in it even if you’re not living in a deregulated situation. I’m sure there are industries all over that aren’t behaving in the interests of the people. It helped that we had an incredible cast that was very willing to dive in. We shot this film over eighteen days. It was a three-week shoot. It was long, intense hours. Having a cast and crew that supports you makes all the difference with pulling it off at every level.

Kirstie: A lot has happened environmentally since you first outlined the story in 2013. How much has how you envision the film changed over that time?

John C. Lyons: We actually finished filming it exactly two years ago and then there were about two years of post-production. We did not imagine that the film would be releasing during a pandemic. Interestingly enough, at first, we were kind of bummed out because we were excited to see the film with people and see the reactions of people at the festival. We would love nothing more to be at Grimmfest, experiencing the film and hearing from everybody. It’s a bit of a mixed bag from that point of view. But having it open during a pandemic, I think, some of the themes may be even more relatable. Even before then, the writing process took a while. I brought in a writing partner, Kelsey Goldberg, to make sure that the female voices were ringing true. Every year is the next hottest year on record, every month in the next hottest month on record. These problems aren’t going away. They seem to be in a pressure cooker, a lot like these families, and I’m a little worried about when or if it’s going to explode.

Kirstie: How are you finding Grimmfest 2020 so far?

Dorota Swies: We are very excited and very happy to be a part of it. Even if it’s virtual, we can still feel the vibes and the warmth coming from the organiser. It’s been a great experience so far. We could not be any happier.

Kirstie: What are your hopes for the film going forward?

John C. Lyons: We just signed international sales with a company called Real Suspects based out of Paris. They do arthouse genre films with challenging material, and they felt that we fit perfectly in their catalogue, and we do as well. We’ll be working to get the film in front of as many people as we can outside the States. We’re excited for that partnership. We want it to play in front of as many people as possible. Hopefully it’ll get a conversation going. Hopefully it has a lasting impression for the viewer. We’re still working on our plans for the film in the States. We’re still in a bit of a strange lockdown situation. In the meantime, I’ve been working on a sequel. I’m on about the third act of the script, and developing a couple of other projects. Being in a pandemic is awful, but it’s not too bad for being able to write and develop new projects for the other side.

Kirstie: Do you have any advice for people who are interested in getting into film?

John C. Lyons: Filmmaking is difficult. It’s a very expensive, time-consuming art form, probably more than any other. But everyone has the tools – it’s just about finding the right story. Our film started off as a $10,000 Kickstarter. We started trying to see if we could raise some amount of money and shoot this thing and people noticed it. Kickstarter noticed it, Indiewire noticed it, Chuck Palahniuk noticed it. If you have a cool idea, an interesting concept, now we all have the tools, through social media and crowdfunding platforms, it’s really just taking the time to prepare and execute. Obviously we took our time making this film, trying to make it the best we could. You’re going to be your biggest champion and you’re going to have to persevere through all the roadblocks in your way. But if you feel passionate enough and strong enough about getting your story out there, you really just have to be patient. Unless you have a rich uncle, which we did not, or you know someone in the industry personally, which most of us do not. It’s really just using the tools that you do have and developing as strong a script as possible. That’s how people like Adrienne Barbeau and Marc Blucas and P.J. Marshall and Allison McAtee come on board. That’s something that no one can take away from you. You can keep working on your craft in your own time. It’s a very intimate, personal thing. Make it as good as possible so you can put your best foot forward and hopefully the stars will align and you’ll get your shot.

Revenge Ride is screening at Grimmfest 2020 from 7-11 October.

Book your tickets here.


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