“The Den” interviews, pt 1: writer-director Zachary Donohue

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The other week I tweeted about how much I enjoyed the The Den (you can read the review here), and almost immediately it was favoured and RT’d by the movie’s director and co-writer, Zachary Donohue. So, ignoring the fact that I have a million other projects on my plate that I’m slowly chipping away at when I’m not at work, I thought it’d be a good idea to ask if he’d be interested in doing a quick interview. He was, and we arranged (fittingly) to meet on Skype, although as you can see it wasn’t quite as quick as either one of us imagined:


Indieground Films: Hi Zach – are you there?

Zachary Donohue: Would you mind if we just text chatted? I’m in a very loud place right now.

IGF: No worries. Congrats on the movie, it was really enjoyable. I’d been tipped off about it a few months back, and unfortunately won’t be able to see it at Fright Fest, so I was glad to find it available on iTunes.

ZD: Thank you! Glad you had a chance to check it out.

IGF: I assume you’re based in LA? How does living in a city that is so much about networking and socialising end up turning into a movie like The Den?

ZD: I’ve been out in LA for 3 1/2 years with Lauren Thompson, who wrote the Den with me when we first moved out here, we did internships at various production companies, but to make money we took a side job for a random chat website…interviewing people and seeing what they thought of the website and we wound up encountering a lot of interesting characters so then we just figured that this would make a great, dynamic setting for a movie and we both have horror instincts, so naturally we took it to a dark place.

IGF: I’m looking at IMDb, and the only other directing credit you have is for a short called The Dance which looks to be a romance – that’s quite a big step away from a feature-length horror. How did the story and writing process for The Den come?

ZD: I‘ll break this answer into a few parts. The Dance is a dark comedy about a woman who goes back to her 20th reunion to make amends for how she treated her prom date… but over the course of the night she winds up repeating history and completely falls apart. So even though it’s a comedy, it does have some very dark elements which I sort of gravitate towards and in The Den, I liked there to be a nice mix of comedy here and there for the story process… Lauren and I wrote a few dark comedies together before moving out to LA but then this idea we got from working for this Random Chat App naturally felt like it needed to be a horror movie.

The writing process is usually three stages – we’ll outline together for a good month or two, just talking out story points and brainstorming and then one of us will write a first draft just to get it on the page, then we trade and the other person rewrites and makes a second draft. The third draft we sit down and write together and this will also involve us acting it out saying the lines out loud etc. The Den script process took about 6 months from conception to a decent draft.

IGF: Do either or both of you have any formal film training? And where were you from before LA?

ZD: I went to NYU film school.

IGF: That certainly counts!

ZD: And I used to make a lot of films with my dad – he gave me a Super 8 camera when I was ten and we would run around my hometown (cemeteries, abandoned buildings, waterfronts) and shoot stuff.

IGF: I can see where the horror influence might’ve come from then.

ZD: Yes he showed me Carnival of Souls when I was really young and that movie really inspired me.

IGF: I’ve never been a huge horror fan but my wife is addicted so over the last couple of years I’ve really come around to the genre. My favorite movies last year were all horror films. I’ll have to run Carnival of Souls by her, and we’ll add it to the To Watch List.

ZD: Carnival of Souls is just super creepy and I’m not sure if you caught Insidious 2 but that movie makes huge references to it. But yeah, I sort of grew up watching scary movies – Texas Chainsaw, Shining, F13.

AC: Since we’re on the topic of influences – The Den will be lumped into the Found Footage genre, but there’s definitely more going on in there, especially with the reveal in the end.

ZD: The biggest influences for me going into it were Halloween and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas – especially because both movies play around with using the killer’s POV in really fascinating ways. Paranormal Activity was also an influence in terms of the movie’s pacing and structure.

AC: I saw wonderful echoes of a wide range of movies, from Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video, to Joe Swanberg’s V/H/S instalment. The ending conjured memories of My Little Eye. So there are a lot of great movies brought to mind.

ZD: Yep! Although it’s funny that we wrote this script 3 years ago before VHS came out. Webcam stuff is just in the zeitgeist. When we were filming, a trailer for PA 4 came out and we were like “Oh no! It’s webcams!” But yeah the process of making the movie took a while just because there was a lot that went into post.

IGF: I remember the paranoia about meeting strangers on the internet a decade ago, I don’t think that’s going away any time soon.

ZD: Yeah haha. Also another thing worth noting is that when we wrote it Chatroulette was a hair more relevant, we didn’t realize that movies took so long and since the movie came out there’s this new app called Omegle and I have no idea what the hell that is but everyone constantly says “The Den is Omegle”.

AC: Someone should make a movie about Snapchat – you see a scene, and then it deletes itself after a few seconds.

ZD: Yeah although fair warning – in three years Snapchat might be as irrelevant as Chatroulette. But for now, it’s really fun.

IGF: That’s the wonderful thing about technology; it’s always evolving so it keeps you on your toes.

ZD: Yeah and some people have made comments that in twenty years The Den will be super dated and hilarious.

IGF: Can I ask a little bit about the casting process? The movie is largely a series of scenes in which one person is alone in a room talking to a screen. First part of the question is – how did you pitch this idea to the cast? And secondly, how did you go about the filming process? And finally, did this solitude come across as liberating to the cast, or was it intimidating to them?

ZD: Cool question. First part – everyone who auditioned seemed very on board with being a part of a filming experience that was unique, the movie largely rests on Melanie’s shoulders to carry it and I think she really rose to the occasion and left everything on the screen.

The filming process was challenging, frustrating, and fun all at the same time. At first we tried to use Skype to film some of the early chats and we would divide the crew between two locations in LA and we would record their performance using two crews. This worked sometimes but we ironically ran into a lot of connectivity issues and it was very difficult giving directions to the other actors over the phone and through Skype and it was just almost impossible to gauge their performance because we didn’t have a monitor to see what that other person was doing (if that makes sense), so we gave up on that approach and our second approach was filming the other actor and taking their best performance and playing that back on a computer for Melanie.

This worked for the most part but it locks the timing so Melanie could improv to a certain degree but if she waited just a hair longer to deliver a line she would overlap with the pre-recorded footage. It’s also a unique acting experience because for the most part, all of the four leads were rarely in the same room and rarely worked together. We did a lot of rehearsals in prep to work out the scenes and change lines etc. but once we started shooting it became sort of an isolated experience which definitely added to the atmosphere and when we did do scenes with two actors in the same room, it was always a little jarring. I think the challenges of the roles were both intimidating and liberating at the same time because they were pioneering this, so to speak.

IGF: I can’t recall another movie that relied so heavily on that style, although I suppose Hollywood has been asking actors to play against blue tennis balls for decades, so there’s a bit of a history to it.

ZD: Yeah that’s true – but in those instances they still have a person with them like in Guardians of the Galaxy with the raccoon, there’s still a guy in a suit saying all the lines.

IGF: *spoilers* Did you know Melanie before this, or did you go through a typical casting call?

ZD: We met her through Casting, she was literally the last person to read for it and we almost thought we were going to have to push production but then she came in and it just felt right. It’s also funny – that we had no idea she was in Smiley, which is another internet related movie.

IGF: I was going to ask about that!

ZD: So I guess she’s really making a name in the Internet horror market, but yes, we had no idea what Smiley was until after The Den was shot and then I checked it out and was like “Oh that’s random, Melanie’s in another internet movie” which is also funny to note – Melanie won’t mind if I say this, but she is not an internet person so it’s funny that both of her characters are super tech savvy.

IGF: Sorry, I have to step out for a second, my wife’s just informed me we have a crazy neighbor experience happening…

ZD: No worries!

[7 MINUTES LATER*]

IGF: I’m set to email interview Melanie tomorrow, I was going to ask her about that, whether the internet is a big part of her life.

ZD: You should! Don’t get me wrong though – she did a lot of work to research and get into the character but before the movie, she had never gone on Chatroulette so it was fun to show it to her and to see someone’s reaction to it for the first time is pretty genuinely amusing.

IGF: So many penises, so little time. I believe that’s their motto.

ZD: Haha exactly. We had a core debate too about whether we were going to have a penis in the movie but in the end, it was a must. Just adds to the authenticity.

IGF: You got that out of the way early, as well.

ZD: Yeah one of my favorite moments in the movie – it usually wakes people up.

IGF: I found the cinematography in The Den interesting – there seemed to be a combination of looseness in terms of natural light, and movement and placement of the camera, but many of the shots were obviously deliberately framed for maximum creepy impact. But in the end, especially the scenes of Elizabeth tied up in the basement, the lighting was very deliberate. The chase scene and the car accident were obviously very well choreographed as well. How did you decide where to flex your cinematic muscle, and when to just let things be?

ZD: The DP is actually a very close friend of mine from college – Bernard Hunt, and he has very cinematic, colorful tastes. In the dungeon he blasted smoky shafts of light into Damien’s cell as well as the Boiler Room. The whole movie was sort of a delicate balance between making things look visually cool and also playing into realism. At the very beginning of prep, we made the choice not to shoot on a webcam because we wanted control of the image.

IGF: The silhouette shot with the light on her head was fantastic.

ZD: That’s a favorite of mine and we colored that so that the light has a little bit of blue but the whole Dungeon area is where we were allowed to let our cinematic tastes run wild because it’s just a playground of evil where anything can happen, there’s a fantastical element to the whole last twenty minutes and for me personally, it isn’t reality. It’s just a fun sequence that is the embodiment of the internet. It’s not meant to be “real”, it’s just big and fun. “Fun” if you like dark stuff I guess.

IGF: The deep, dark scary innards of the internet. The Borderlands did something similar, except they *literally* crawled into the belly of the beast.

ZD: We also wanted to have a lot of Daytime scares, we just wanted a dynamic mix of light and dark. I think a lot of movies over-rely on dark and it just gets too hard to understand what’s happening.

IGF: Speaking of, I think you did an excellent job switching perspectives throughout the movie without losing us to what’s happening. A tough balancing act, but you guys pulled it off.

ZD: Thank you! Yeah we sort of District 9’d the approach where we’re very heavy with the website for the first 20 minutes and then we pulled away from it as the movie gets deeper mainly because you sort of get what’s happening and you don’t need constant reminders of the website.

IGF: You had some neat tricks in there – for example, the second time Elizabeth’s computer is hacked, it gets up and moves away from the desk by itself, so we’re now thinking this is a shift into a supernatural horror film. The reveal of the BF in her apartment was good. There were several moments in the movie where you were a step ahead of the audience.

ZD: Yeah we wanted to keep the audience on their toes as much as possible without ever trying to come off as “too clever”.

IGF: What was the shooting schedule like?

ZD: It was jam-packed – we had a lot of locations for the many “random chatters” so we had to do several company moves in a day. Sometimes 4-6 moves, which can be sluggish if there’s a lot of set-up and breakdown at each location. A lot of the scenes that you see in the movie have two different images on screen at the same time (Elizabeth and another character), which essentially means that we had to shoot double the amount of scenes than your average movie. And many times it felt like we were filming 2 movies at once. Not having to do traditional multi-angle coverage did save us some time, but on the other hand, it put a lot of emphasis on getting it right in the one-take. Which meant we had to run some of these scenes 10-15 times… which is a little nuts.

IGF: How many crew on a typical day?

ZD: On our small days we’d have about 20. On our big stunt heavy/gore FX heavy days we’d have up to 30. This was a great crew and in many ways, it felt like I was making a movie with my friends. The producers, DP, editor, VFX artist are all friends from NYU… so it was like we were just filming a slightly bigger student film.

IGF: What was the budget and where did you come up with the funding?

ZD: $300k – it was put together by financiers who believed in the movie from Day One. I had to do a lot to prove that I was worth taking a bet on, but I’m very grateful that they gave me this opportunity and it’s still unreal to me that it happened and that I actually have a finished movie. Thinking back on what is actually on screen, I think we managed to do a lot with that money and I’m proud of this scrappy little movie.

IGF: How much of the movie was storyboarded?

ZD: None of it. Because a lot of the movie is just one angle, it didn’t make sense to storyboard. Instead I shot a lot of reference videos in my apt for how the camera should move and what the blocking should be and referred to those videos on set.

IGF: Where was the bunker located and how long did you have to prep and light?

ZD: This is the Linda Vista Hospital. Ever since we shot there I’ve noticed it in tons of movies. Namely Sx_Tape and Insidious 2. Prep was about a day or two. It’s a big abandoned hospital, so we had to go through and pick all the rooms we wanted to feature. I love Melanie’s dungeon cell because it’s quite deep and the walls are so vividly gross. All of the halls that she runs through are from different floors of the building, so it took awhile to figure out the “map” of where she would go. At one point in the chase scene, a guy also throws a cinderblock through a window at her – and that took awhile to prep for safety.

The lighting didn’t take too long I believe. For her dungeon, we just set up a work-light and it’s actually in the background for the majority of the scene. For the halls, we hid a few bulbs here and there. And then when she pops into the Boiler Room right before breaking out, there’s a bunch of HMI lights blasting through the windows creating those great shafts of light.

IGF: I’m pretty sure I saw Silverlake in one scene. What was your process for filming in such a popular area?

ZD: We had permits, but a scene like that is hard to do because you don’t want some random person in the background to ruin the shot by looking at the camera. So we just had to wait for people to pass and then run the scene really quickly. This was not one of those big-budget sized movies where we could control the park, so this was one of those scenes that we were at the mercy of our location. Just takes an extra amount of patience, which is definitely hard when you’re trying to stick to the schedule.

IGF: The creepy kid from the beginning was brought back in the end. Who was the woman Elizabeth strangled? I suspect it was the woman from the Russian Roulette scene earlier?

ZD: I actually address this in the DVD commentary – but NONE of the random chatters bear any significance to the evil plot at the end. Each one of them just represents an archetype of the people you come across on these sites. The boy in the beginning is just a prankster. The teens in the Russian Roulette scene are also pranksters, but have a way darker sense of humor. Aside from the woman who Elizabeth attacks in the hall, the killers are never really unmasked – they are meant to represent the anonymous nature of the internet, and they are the physical embodiment of internet trolls. This woman is just a random Masked Villain and has no other connection to Elizabeth besides the fact she wants to kill her.

IGF: Final question: what’s next for you?

ZD: I really have my heart set on doing a small, contained monster movie in the vein of The Thing. But really, if a cool project comes my way, I’m open to anything! Thanks for the interview Alex, it was great speaking with you and these were fun questions.

IGF: Thanks. I’ll give you a heads up when the interview goes up, although I work a day job so it might be a week or so. Good chatting with you.


 

As you can see, Zachary is a really nice guy who loves movies, and I’m really excited to see what he gets up to next. Next up: interview with The Den star Melanie Papalia.

* true story time: my neighbour slipped a cryptic note in our front door stating whatever is happening in our house is having a dangerous effect on her life. Which is strange, since my wife and I are pretty quiet and boring. Catching her before she slipped into her house, I asked if she could clarify what she meant. We had a pleasant chat for about 5 minutes, in which she slid in this sentence: “You know that sound when someone breaks into your computer? Like when they’re stealing your tax documents? That’s what it sounds like. Only, the thing is – I don’t even own a computer!” Anyway, that’s about the point I thought I’d best let it drop and get back to the interview…

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