A little while back I spoke with THE DEN writer-director Zachary Donohue (which you can read here), and the other week I had the pleasure of chatting with lead actress Melanie Papalia where we covered a nice range of topics including how she got her acting break, her influences and love of horror films, and of course her new horror movie THE DEN, which had it’s UK premiere at FrightFest last Friday.
Warning: spoilers ahead!
Indieground Films: Is this a good time?
Melanie Papalia: Yeah, sorry about the confusion – got stuck in traffic.
IGF: That’s one thing I don’t miss about LA.
MP: I like LA enough, but coming from Vancouver, it gets too hot some days. It’s always so hot and sunny every day here, but you get kind of sick of it.
There are so many factors that can turn a movie into something not great.
IGF: My coworkers think I’m insane, but I feel the exact same way. How long have you been in LA?
MP: September will mark the 3 year point but before that I was coming back and forth for about a year or so, trying to get a job that could get me a work visa. You know, being Canadian you kind of need to get someone to hire you and so I would come down for like 2 weeks at a time and then try to make it 3 weeks, and then one time I tried to come down for a month, and that was the time that I actually got a job that offered to get me a work visa. But I ended up getting a job my first week here, which was funny because normally the whole thing was like, make sure I come with enough time to audition for enough things. So I was very lucky. And now I’ve just got my second work visa approved. I can’t believe it’s already been 3 years, it’s crazy!
IGF: So, congratulations on the movie.
MP: Thank you! I’m so glad you liked the film. I never get sick of hearing that. It’s really like the little movie that could. We were there, just hoping it’d come together. I think all of us kind of thought while we were doing it, if we all did our jobs right then this could be something interesting, but how many times do you make something and it turns out to be crap or no one sees it or it doesn’t get distribution? There are so many factors that can turn a movie into something not great. I feel like I had a little feeling, because I’ve watched horror movies my entire life and I had this feeling that if I could actually pull this off the way I wanted to then you know, maybe it could actually be good.
IGF: It’s been on my radar for a while now, and then we saw that it was screening at FrightFest in a couple of weeks.*
“[T]here are so many shitty [horror films] that come along that aren’t good, that are really all about the blood and the gore and girls being stupid, and I’m so sick of seeing those movies.”
MP: And I’m not coming! I wish I was but no, that decision is really up to the producers and I don’t think anyone’s going. Not that I’m aware. Is that going to be a big fest?
IGF: It is. You should get a decent amount of exposure with it, and the atmosphere is great.
MP: I would absolutely love to come but I think, you know, that’s up to the production team.
IGF: You touched on a question I was going to ask – horror is a genre you naturally gravitate towards?
MP: Um… OK, now I would say no. Now I enjoy all different types of movies, but when I was little, my favorite movies were horror films. I used to go to the movie store every weekend with my dad, and I was young and he used to let me watch anything I ever wanted. A lot of them I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to watch but now I’m thankful for it, and I just wanted – I mean, I’ve seen every Jason, every Freddie, all the Sleepaway Camps. You name it, and I’ve seen it, all those from the ’80s and ’90s. They really were my favorites, but no one else wanted to watch them with me, they’d terrify my family, but I was like this cute little girl who was interested in horror movies all the time. So I feel like I kind of grew up with them, I’ve seen so many, and I’ve always wanted to make one that would scare the shit out of people, but it’s hard because there are so many shitty ones that come along that aren’t good, that are really all about the blood and the gore and girls being stupid, and I’m so sick of seeing those movies. So when this came along, you know, and I had the script, I had auditioned for it, and I was like, OK, I know how I could make this something totally different. Because I’ve seen it, I feel like I’ve watched these scary movies and what actually scare people as opposed to all the mistakes that people make and the mistakes in the acting in the portrayal of the lead characters. So now I wouldn’t say I seek out every horror movie, but if there’s a good one, yeah, I love a good scare. But I definitely go and see all the ones that I feel are worth seeing.
IGF: My favorite films last year were all horror films.
MP: Oh really? Which ones.
“[W]hat I was actually acting to was a blank screen or a wooden board, which is insane.”
IGF: 2 of them are straight-up horror films – CHEAP THRILLS and YOU’RE NEXT.
MP: I haven’t seen YOU’RE NEXT yet but I hear it’s good.
IGF: There’s a lot going on in it that elevates it above similar films. I particularly liked the interaction between Joe Swanberg and Ti West, two really interesting filmmakers who poke fun at themselves in the movie. So as a film fan and filmmaker, there was a lot to enjoy in it.
MP: What was the other?
IGF: It’s a a Belgium film called THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS, which was absolutely surreal and stylistically one of the most stunning films I’ve seen in my life, but it’s really just a horror film about people getting killed in a housing block. You definitely have to watch it at night with a bottle of wine and a big screen and loud speakers. It’s really an event, it’s wacky. But last year was the first time I’ve put 3 horror films in my top 10 list, let alone be my top 3 favorites.
MP: I hear you. I find it more rare, because if you see how horror movies have evolved since the 80s and 90s when movies like Friday the 13th were the shit – they’ve evolved so much, that now if someone came out with a movie like that it wouldn’t do very well.
IGF: Filmmakers borrow so much from those movies, but sometimes it can still be really effective. YOU’RE NEXT is a great example of how it works even though we know the set up. Or, for example, THE DEN is an interesting movie to me, because it’s found footage, or at least it gets classified as found footage even though it’s a bit of a different beast, but it’s a movie that you think you know where it’s going and it hits all the regular horror film marks yet it remains unpredictable. It takes a few minutes to get into the movie because of the editing style, and you’re stuck basically with one person speaking to a computer screen, but once you get over those humps, the rest of the movie was enjoyable, and you guys as a group did a really good job at giving us something that we weren’t expecting within the confines of a genre that is pretty limited. And the other thing that was really interesting is the fact that 80% of the movie is you in a room by yourself talking to a camera.
MP: Yeah, that was a very, “Oh fuck, are they going to get bored of me?” type of feeling that I had before we started doing it. I thought, is this going to be interesting in any way? I had to try to make every little conversation different and try to engage you guys still. I had to try to wrap my head around that, because that’s not something that people normally want to watch and that’s not something I normally do.
IGF: I tried to picture that from an actor’s perspective, is that isolation something I’d find intimidating or liberating, not having someone there to bounce off of.
MP: I think in the beginning, I think [being intimidated] is what it was, but then I think it turned into something more liberating, but even then there are still parameters. It can’t be that liberating because essentially what I’m doing is, we kind of shot 50/50, we shot a lot of it with pre-recorded footage, they’d go and shoot the other person’s side first so really what I had to do was fill in the gaps. So essentially I’m doing a session of ADR, so I’d have to watch it and you know I’d probably watch it 2-3 times before I start doing it, and then I’m trying to fit my sentences in between what they’d done, so I was confined but trying to find freedom in the little moments that I had. You know, like I had started doing that after I got the hang of it, but it’s definitely constricting. But the other 50% of the conversations, they hadn’t recorded them yet, so I was the first person who got to do it, so I basically was a little freer although what I was actually acting to was a blank screen or a wooden board, which is insane. That’s actually what I was looking at, and Zack would be right off camera going, “OK, now look right. Look left. Act like you’re going into the computer to go into some files.” That’s literally how we shot it, and I was like, fuck, I hope that they’re happy with the footage. I’ve never done anything like this before, does this look ridiculous? Do I look like I know what I’m doing?
“[I]t doesn’t matter how tired you are, you look around and every single person there has one goal: to make a good movie. We all woke up this morning to come here and kick some ass, and that’s what we’re going to do! And I feel like we kind of did.”
IGF: It came across really well, and there’s really only one moment where I was like, “Why don’t you put down the goddamn camera and run?”
MP: Yeah, I’m sure there are a few actually!
IGF: Usually in these type of movies it’s the entire time, like, why are we even watching this, this shouldn’t exist! But you held it together, and there was really only one of those moments for me so you kept us in it.
MP: With every scene, I tried to approach it from a place – like I said, from watching so many horror movies and having those lead females, you know, I just want to punch them in their faces. Don’t go up the stairs! Don’t do this! You’re going to die! And by the end of the movie, we want them to die because they’re so weak and pathetic and they do the dumbest things. And also, it’s not real, of course, but we were going for something authentic and real, so before filming I’d ask myself, OK, how would this actually go? If this was real life – I’m trying to wrap my head around it, what would I actually do? And I tried to do it that way so people wouldn’t be yelling at the screen, like “What the fuck, kill this chick!”
IGF: I spoke with Zachary about this, but it reminded me of mumblecore films a lot with the natural lighting and dialogue. It was very loose, which you don’t get much in horror films. Both my features were semi-scripted, and I like to be able to throw a script out the window and turn to the actors and say, OK, now give me something.
MP: Yeah, I think especially for a scary film, I feel that people get drawn in more when the situation seems real. You know, like, this whole plugging into a scary movie and suspending your disbelief, like if you watch any of the SAW movies or any of the ones that are even more farfetched, where the acting is like very grandiose. It’s harder to believe, no matter what when you’re watching it, you’re like, that’s fake. Look at all the blood everywhere! That’d never happen. It’s these movies that I think, you know, you don’t know what you’re watching and it draws you in more and they’re more real – that’s what scares me more. One of my favorite scary movies is THE STRANGERS, with Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman. I love that movie. I found that it was so well done and the fact that it was such a simple concept but it scared the fuck out of me! It’s any of those ones that could really happen that I find really scary.
“[The Den has] one of those endings that doesn’t leave you happy, that not all prevails, which I feel made it a little more realistic because in these situations people do not get out alive all the time.”
IGF : In THE DEN, I like how 2/3 of the movie it’s you guys in different room talking to each other and crazy shit is happening behind the scenes, it’s suspenseful, but at some point it slips into an action film, you’re getting chased and getting stabbed at. The gore effects were very well done, very effective. How involved were you with the fight scenes? Did you do all your own stunts?
MP: 70% of that was me. I really fought to do everything I was allowed to do. I come from a dance background, I’ve been a dancer forever so I’m good when you give me a sequence, and I worked with the stunt coordinator [Paul Lacovara], and we had a stunt double [Dana Reed] there, but if I could do it, we’d work it out. The stunt doubles would work out the choreography of the fights and then if it wasn’t harmful to me, I was allowed to do it. And we’d do a couple runs with me doing it and some with them doing it, but 70% of it was me. All the hanging stuff was me, and we originally did a bigger hanging scene but we switched it out. I mean, here I was hung from very, very high up with rigs and cables, and it was cool. I did a lot of the fight stuff, a lot of the stuff where I was knocking guys out and hitting people and hurting them. I did a lot of that. I didn’t do, you know when I’m in that dungeon room and the big lady comes in with the machete and I get on her back and she’s smashing me up against the wall and I end up choking her out with the chain? That is not me. That’s probably the only thing really that’s not me.
IGF: That was my favorite scene in terms of lighting. It was very cinematic, but I guess they did it in a very clever way to mask the fact that it wasn’t you.
MP: I had a stunt double who was so perfect. They were great, and they’d watch the way I moved and incorporated it.
IGF: So the dancing background came in handy with the stunt work then?
MP: Yeah, and anything that I’m allowed to do, I’ll do.
“[Y]ou become an actor to get in the trenches… [to] be exhausted and work things to the bone. When you believe in what you’re doing, it makes it all the more worthwhile.”
IGF: How shocked were you when you read the script and saw that you die at the end?
MP: Um. Yeah, it was pretty shocking – I had to get the guys to explain it to me, what’s happening here. I thought it was shocking but I also thought it was real and it showed that – it’s one of those endings that doesn’t leave you happy, that not all prevails, which I feel made it a little more realistic because in these situations people do not get out alive all the time. It was definitely shocking but I think in some weird, sadistic horror movie loving way I liked it.
IGF: I appreciate the fact that they stuck with it. We cared about your character enough that we want her to pull through but in the situation she was in, if she survived it would have been a cop out.
MP: Exactly. They didn’t wrap it up with a bow. I had one girlfriend who was like, it’s too much! She’s freaking out when I get in the car, she’s like, “You’re going to get away, you’re going to get away!” And then there’s the car crash, and she’s like, “And then you’re hung! And then you’re shot in the head!” She’s like, “We think you’re dead like three times!” So that just really freaked her out. That’s just the shock, you know – you think you know, but you don’t know, and then you don’t know again.
IGF: Do you have any particularly fond memories of the filming that you’d like to share?
MP: I loved every second of it. It was exhausting and I feel like it was the first thing where I’d been in like every scene of the movie, so it was a big thing to take on for me because it was really on my shoulders, I thought if I couldn’t do this then the movie’s not going to do anything. I was either going to make it or break it, you know. I thought about that aspect a little bit before we started but I didn’t let that pressure get to me, and I really had a lot of fun. Everyone was so cool while making it. Really from the production side to directing, everyone involved on that side, and the actors – we all just kind of banded together to make the best thing that could. And yes, the hours were insane, and of course, it’s a low budget movie so you have to work your butt off. It’s exhausting but there’s nothing about making it that I didn’t love. You know, you become an actor to get in the trenches and get down there, and you know, be exhausted and work things to the bone. When you believe in what you’re doing and it makes it all the more worthwhile, and I do believe we all believed in what we were doing.
IGF: It’s great when we realise we are sharing a common goal.
MP: That’s the thing. You look around and it doesn’t matter how tired you are, you look around and every single person there has one goal: to make a good movie. And it’s cool, because we’re here to do this. We all woke up this morning to come here and kick some ass, and that’s what we’re going to do! And I feel like we kind of did, and it was very gratifying and that’s why on Twitter when people say, I love this movie – someone Tweeted me, they said, “You know, I’ve watched this three times now.” And I’m just like, god, that’s so cool to hear that. I’ll never get sick of hearing that because I feel one of the reasons I do this in the first place is to make people feel things, it’s so cool when I look at that and go, I’ve actually taken an hour and a half of someone’s life, and they actually kind of went somewhere else with us, which is really awesome.
IGF: What’s the next project?
MP: I’ve been doing that show SUITS for USA. I’ve got another movie coming out called EXTRATERRESTRIAL, it’s an alien invasion movie. It’s the Vicious Brothers, who did GRAVE ENCOUNTERS. It’s coming out in October or November. But SUITS is airing now.
IGF: Great, thanks for your time!
* And I totally meant to have this up on the blog before the FrightFest premiere, but that whole working-a-regular-job-by-day, building-a-filmmaking-empire-by-night thing doesn’t equal quick turnarounds. But regardless, if you had a chance to get to FrightFest, I hope you had a chance to check out the movie.