In the last decade, filmmaker Ryan M. Andrews is continuing to pump out compelling genre cinema north of the border. In Save Yourself, five women are on a road trip to a film festival in Los Angeles. All are involved with the next terrifying visions of horror. The fans are rabid at the screening, the crew and cast are at different stages of their careers. As they decide to hit the road for the west coast instead of hanging with the fans, their road trip to macabre fame becomes a spiral into a nightmare as they confront a family with dark secrets and inhumane results. Ryan took some time out while he works on his next film the Art of Obsession to talk with Jay Kay here on the Horror News Network.
Horror News Network: Ryan, thank you for taking the time out to speak about your latest horror feature Save Yourself. First, talk about where the story came from? This narrative reflects something we are very familiar with in the deep and dark corners of the indie horror film industry. How much of what we see on screen is based around your experiences, observations, fears and angsts?
Ryan M. Andrews: Thanks for the opportunity to chat about the film. The story was first conceived by myself and Chris Cull (co producer/editor). Chris and I have written a lot of stories together and we always work together bringing these stories to life. We were actually on a road trip through the USA to a film festival where we were screening a previous feature. We were driving through the night somewhere around the I70 / I44 area and we stopped in a quiet desolate place and the idea just kind of came to me. ‘Road trip gone wrong with filmmakers traveling to a festival.’ We then spent the rest of the trip bouncing ideas around as to what would make the right villains for the story.
Horror News Network: There was definitely a lot of observations and shared fears and angsts from the indie film world addressed in the film. Nothing was really based on anyone specific or specific experiences, just stuff that I believed was generally relatable. That said, I did put a lot of myself into both, the character of the writer Lizzy, who was played by Caleigh Le Grand and director character played by Tristan Risk. You break the 4th wall and make a movie within a movie. Save Yourself is reflected around the idea of a film being screened, promoted and hitting the film festival circuit as part of the road trip from hell! Why open the film like this? What level of honesty do we hear in the dialogue, see in the characters and reflects in the interactions?
Andrews: When Chris and I were first tossing ideas around, when you think young cast on a road trip, you think a couple boyfriends and girlfriends out for a fun time, so I didn’t want to rehash that formula and since I mainly write with female leads, I thought, okay let’s have a group of women on a road trip, but I don’t want them to be like best friends or a sorority or something. So, the idea of them being filmmakers on a road trip to screen their film, I thought would give it a great angle and a chance to make it more than just a road trip gone wrong story.
It’s also a big commentary on the industry, specifically how women are looked at in film, which is where that level of honesty comes into the dialogue. It’s not specifically about me, but about the struggles of this business. One of the main thoughts in my head for this came from Rob Zombie actually. I saw the world premiere of his film The Lords Of Salem at the Toronto International Film Festival and one of the things I loved about the film was, here was a horror film where all of the main cast is over 40 years old (Same with his new film 31) and during the Q&A he talked about how with women specifically, Hollywood horror doesn’t care about you once you’re like over 21. Obviously, it’s an exaggeration, but it’s true and so I wanted that to be a theme throughout the film. The director is a woman in her 30’s who feels she’s too old and is surrounded by younger women and all that.
The other aspect of honesty in the characters is played in a more comical way and that is playing up the stereotypes of women in horror. The Bitch character, the slut character, etc. Since we have five women, let’s have each one represent a stereotype of women in horror. In horror, everyone knows the slut and the bitch always die while the loner or the virgin character is the hero, so let’s turn it around. Let’s make people cheer for the slut.
Horror News Network: Can you talk about the casting that ranges from genre favorites like Tristan Risk and Jessica Cameron to Toronto talent like Ry Barrett, Tianna Nori and Elma Begovic to less known names?
Andrews: Since it’s a big ensemble cast I knew casting was important but I never wanted to bring anyone in because of who they were. I just wanted the right people for the right job. Ry Barrett (the mad scientist), Jessica Cameron (Kim) and Caleigh Le Grand (Lizzy) were all actors I knew personally and always saw them in the film from the early writing stage. So, I brought them in early. With Caleigh, I had auditioned her in the past and I knew she was really talented and I knew she was also a writer herself, so I felt she could bring a lot of herself to the character. And with Barrett, he’s such a strong presence on camera, he can play the leading man and he can play the villain. And I didn’t want a stereotype mad scientist in the film, I wanted him to be realistic and scary. A real threat and I knew it was a role Barrett could sink his teeth into.
So, having the three of them on board before I even got funding, I went into casting based on who would fit into this ensemble cast, like who would help compliment and elevate each other. Elma nailed the audition to play Barrett’s wife and at the time, this was before she did the film Bite so she known like she is now, so I never looked at anyone as, ‘oh they’re known in the genre or around the city for horror for let’s get them,’ like I didn’t care how many films they did, I just wanted people that fit the characters. It was the same with Tianna Nori, this was before she shot The Demolisher and The Sublet. She came in to the auditions to help out and read with the actors. I thought she was so perfect so I made her come in and audition during callbacks.
Tristan Risk was someone I knew of because of American Mary but I didn’t know her either. When her name was suggested, I thought she would be perfect because she was known for playing crazy characters and saw a lot of natural talent in her. I thought it would be great to have her play a stripped down, vulnerable person in this film. Really showcase something different. But most importantly with her and everyone else, whether it was their first feature or they were known with a following, none of that mattered, I wanted the people that would play right off each other.
There was also a last minute addition of Bobbie Phillips in the film. I knew who she was because of her roles in the 90’s in The X Files, Carnival Of Souls, Showgirls, and Murder One. I had originally written the role for a man, but I kept thinking I could see it being more interesting having her play the part. It would definitely give a whole different feel to that part of the film. And she was totally into doing it so it worked out great.
Horror News Network: Can you talk about casting the deeply unsettling Sauter clan? Each holds their own as the story develops, why such a contrast on the siblings?
Andrews: Like any horror fan, I love the villains. And great villains come from a great backstory. So, it was really important to make sure that everyone helped elevate the story. And just like the whole film is an ensemble piece, the villains were also an ensemble. It’s not just about the mad scientist. It’s about the whole group, just like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Characters like The Hitchhiker or the dad at the gas station which all who have played their part.
Regarding having siblings involved in the film, I wanted to do that so I could subtly insert the age old discussion of ‘nature vs nurture.’ It’s not obvious, but it’s in there. If there are these two people who are grow up in the same environment will they turn out the same way? What makes them different?
Horror News Network: What went into writing so many empowering female characters?
Andrews: I think that is just who I am as a filmmaker. I grew up on horror. And yes, all genres of film have exploited women from time to time, but I grew up see strong women. While lots of 70’s and 80’s action films and comedies would just use women as props to forward a story, I got to see strong women like Ripley in Alien or Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist. They weren’t just cannon fodder. And even in slasher films, women were almost always the ones that could kill the monster. The boyfriends either died or were useless. Nancy fought Freddy, Alice fought Mrs. Voorhees, Kirsty fought Pinhead. And yeah, there are always exceptions to this, but generally speaking I grew up seeing that a woman was the survivor, a woman was the one to stop evil. So, I’ve always written about women.
Horror News Network: Save Yourself has a twisted historical plot line which reflects a 1970’s exploitation style. What were some of the films and influences for this film as well as are you a fan of the dark side of history?
Andrews: The big influences for this film were Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Scream. The big thing about Scream was it was a self-referential movie and I knew this would have similar elements. So, the big thing was wanting the movie not to be too serious. I mean it is a serious film but I wanted it to be fun still. Yeah, I appreciate every style of horror from the art house horror to exploitation, so I think there was definitely influence from all of them. I don’t thin there is any direct connection between Save Yourself and something like Love Camp 7 or Ilsa or whatever.
I’ve also always been fascinated with the dark side of history. From a psychological standpoint, what motivates people to believe and say and do certain things. I believe what makes a crazy horror story really scary is some element of truth to it. So, let’s do some research and take something from real life as the seed for something.
Horror News Network: Can you talk about the practical FX and makeup as a part of the experimentation and torture scenes? What does Ry Barrett bring to these sequences? He is so intense, powerful and dedicated in his role as the father Chris Sauter. Both him and Elma have such expressive eyes!
Andrews: I also knew Barrett had such expressive eyes and so the woman playing his wife needed the same. It was one of the things about Elma Begovic that I really fell for in the audition. She can say so much with her eyes alone. It didn’t matter whether she was speaking English or not, you knew what was going on because her eyes told you. And I thought they both did that so well.
Barrett’s intensity in the lab scenes was beyond reproach. Like, there is always a line to tread with a character like a mad scientist because just hearing a character is a mad scientist, you think this could be cheesy or silly but Barrett’s intensity made it serious. That is what it was supposed to be. No joke, People like him existed and we weren’t here to make fun of it. There was definitely a lot of assistance to making those scenes scary, like Ashley Hrvinak, our production designer. She made all those sets come to life. She did a lot with a little and her talent can be scene in every shot of the film. Of course, the practical FX, which were provided by The Butcher Shop, were on point. The film is littered with blood and gore, but when it was called for, I wanted it to get really bloody and really gory. And maybe it’s my age but, I would always prefer to see practical FX to any CGI gore. There is an art form to it and in the horror world the special FX make up artist is just as popular as any other member of the crew. There’s Tom Savini, there’s Wayne Toth, Rick Baker, Greg Nicotero. When an audience member sees these names, they get excited. Ryan and Carlos from The Butcher Shop are names people should be excited about too.
Horror News Network: There is humor primarily in the first act. I cannot tell you how many directors won’t watch their work in a theater and occupy themselves other ways… Is this a personal fear or just experience with filmmakers over the years?
Andrews: I’m guilty of it for sure. Many times, after a film starts I’ll take off and go grab a drink or something, but to be honest I think the filmmaker is missing out on something. We make art not to be ignored but to be seen and appreciated. There is no better feeling than watching your art with an audience and seeing how and why they react to certain things certain ways. One of my favorite screenings of Save Yourself was in San Francisco for the Another Hole In the Head Film Festival. It was a Monday or Tuesday night after the festival had already been going on for a week or so, so the turn out wasn’t huge, but it was still a good turn out of a lot of hardcore genre fans. And watching the film with them and seeing their reactions was really rewarding.
Of course, when making the film, wanting to play up stereotypes, I wanted to make sure the director was walking out of their film, because I knew people would get it.
Horror News Network: What part or the production did this film come together? Why two editors?
Andrews: It’s really a scheduling thing. Despite always wanting to rush things and keep moving forward, I take my time creating my art. I am very methodical with it. I’ll complain and go the opposite way and say ‘we need to move faster’ but we really only have one chance to make a first impression so I’ll take my time. The executive producers brought on Daisy MacLean and we worked together for many months and she is really skilled and comes with a lot of experience. Like prior to cutting Save Yourself, she was working on the film The Witch. But after a few months, because of a scheduling issue, I brought Chris Cull in to continue editing.
And it’s like they say, a story is written three times. Once by the writer in pre-production, once by the director during production and then again by the editor when everything is laid out and the story is really formed. As a director, my two favorite things are working with actors in creating the scenes and also, separately, working with the cinematographer creating the scenes. When those two sides come together, that is when we really have something.
Horror News Network: What was more of a factor budget, schedule or resources?
Andrews: Scheduling is always the factor in indie filmmaking. Always. You can get inventive when you have a lack of resources and you can get inventive when you have a lack of budget. But you can’t get creative with time and you always could benefit from having more.
Horror News Network: Speaking of which, talk the locations for this film and authentic feel to match the backstory of the Sauter family? What did you DP Michael Jari Davidson bring in experience and technical understanding? Was lighting a challenge?
Andrews: If the lighting was a challenge, Michael and his team sure didn’t make it look that way. We spent a lot of time during prep sourcing out the right locations. And I think every location was perfect for what we needed. And it was like the canvas for Michael Davidson and production designer Ashley Hrvinak to work their magic. That’s where the real authenticity came from.
And working with Davidson as my cinematographer is always a great experience. We have made three feature films together now and we know exactly what each other is thinking. We share the same love for horror and Davidson’s love and passion for lensing and lighting is just such a joy to watch. Like he paints with light and creates art with every shot.
Horror News Network: How crucial was sound and the score by the uber talented Steph Copeland?
Andrews: Sound and score has always been very important to me. I grew up learning how to read and play music and as a hardcore horror fan, I came to appreciate how horror films used music to help build tension and create such a striking atmosphere. Like the themes in John Carpenter’s Halloween really elevated that film to such a scary and iconic status. So, sound and score are so crucial to horror.
One of the things I really enjoyed about working with producers Pino Halili and Al Ormerod is they own and run a post sound facility in Toronto with decades of experience. So together we talked about all these ways we could utilize various sonic elements to help tell the story. And with Steph Copeland, Al brought me into the studio one day and showed me clips from a movie he was mixing called The Door which Steph scored. He asked me what I thought of score and I told him, it was great and that’s the composer we should get. When he told me it was Steph, I immediately knew who she was because of all of scores for Black Fawn Films, so I was onboard with her from the start. I knew the score would play a major factor in the film and Steph knows horror and thriller well enough, to know exactly what will help the film.
Horror News Network: What did you want to stay away from with this film? Any pitfalls you moved away from?
Andrews: Well I didn’t want the villains to be your typical horror clan. Be it redneck hillbillies or mutated freaks or whatever. I wanted there to be a sophisticated psychopath. People seem to think that if you are in the middle of nowhere than everyone must be some kind of hillbilly hick or whatever. So, I wanted to stay away from that.
The other thing to stay away from was going too stereotypical with the five ladies. Like we have a slut character and she is very obviously playing the horror slut character, but it’s a commentary, so we don’t need to go all out and have her do all these nude scenes. There doesn’t need to be any nudity in this story and for the bitch character to be the bitch, I didn’t want to make her this arrogant spoiled brat or else no one would ever care for her. When you meet Tristan Risk’s character in the film, she is insecure and stressed and fed up. And that is what makes her the bitch. She tells people off, she’s not interested in partying with everyone else and so while she plays the bitch, she is still a relatable character.
Horror News Network: What has the Ontario film industry and community offered you? How crucial were your producing team?
Andrews: The community here for genre films is amazing. There are so many of us and we are all creating our stories. It’s almost like an incestuous family. We have all worked together somehow. I think together the horror scene here could be a really strong voice. I’ve already mentioned Black Fawn Films, who not only know how to make great horror, but they know how to get it out there. And that is just as important. It’s great if you make a film, but if you don’t get it out to festivals and get it seen and promoted, then what was the point? But it’s not just Black Fawn, Navin Ramaswaran, who was the editor on my zombie film Sick who just premiered his new genre film Poor Agnes at Fantasia. The film stars the extremely talented Lora Burke as well. And there is also Gabriel Carrer who did The Demolisher. He has a new film, Death On A Scenic Drive coming out soon and there is so many more. There is just so much talent here and the community is huge and I believe there is safety in numbers so if we all continue to promote and support each other we will continue to grow.
As far as the Ontario film industry as a whole, we have great tax credits that help us get films made, though it would be nicer to get more support from the government funded facilities here like Telefilm, however, they are not huge fans of horror. But that’s fine, there are so many of us here that say, “fuck it, we’ll do it ourselves.” So, we do.
Horror News Network: What is next for you and where can we grab Save Yourself?
Andrews: Next for me is a film called Art Of Obsession which we shot last year and have already completed. It will be hitting festivals this fall. The movie stars Ry Barrett along with some other amazing Toronto based actors. Winny Clarke (Almost Adults), Jessica Vano (The Demolisher) and Raven Cousens (Late Night Double Feature). It’s definitely outside of the box of what I usually do, but it is still a genre film. It’s a very dark psychological thriller that is like a reverse Stephen King’s Misery. Instead of a fan kidnapping a writer, this film is about a writer who kidnaps, his muse.
I’ve also got a couple new projects I’m working on and also a couple new scripts that I’m writing, but at the moment the big thing is getting Art Of Obsession ready for the festival circuit. We just released a teaser for the film and started a Facebook account. So people can check it out there.
With Save Yourself it got released earlier this year and has been available both digitally and on DVD in Canada. For anyone in Canada or the USA they can order the DVD on Amazon.ca and hopefully we can get it released overseas soon. The best thing for people to do is if they follow Save Yourself on Facebook they can keep updated on releases there.
Horror News Network: Thank you Ryan for the time!
Andrews: Thank you for the opportunity!