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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 12.03.20] thriller mystery

For his feature film debut, writer/director Braden R. Duemmler brings together the light-in-the-sky concept with the drama of a teenage girl crushing on her mother's fiance. On paper it sounds like a strange mix but on screen, the concepts compliment each other and come together to great effect in What Lies Below.

The film stars up-and-comer Ema Horvath as Liberty, a young woman heading home to spend some time with her mom Michelle (Mena Suvari) in the family cabin. But Michelle has been keeping a secret: she has a new man in her life, a handsome, athletic, charismatic scientist named John Smith (Trey Tucker) who is doing research on fresh and saltwater creatures.

The sexual tension is dialed up to 11 at which point, Liberty starts to suspect that something is not quite right with John but her mother will hear none of it. The interesting thing here is that the drama that ensues is more monster-horror than family drama.

We recently had a chance to catch up with Duemmler who shared some insights into where the idea for the film came from, the writing process and what he plans on doing next.

What Lies Below is available on digital and VOD on December 4.

Quiet Earth: I know you're quite the scholar of film. Where did your passion for movies start?

I think I was always into stories. I think there's nothing more fun than to be telling a story and to have the people listening to you, completely engaged and enjoying what you're saying. It's just fun to be able to entertain people in that way but I never thought of it as a career really, or even an academic goal until I went to college. I was actually a big athlete as a kid, I played ice hockey very competitively, and then when I went to the university of Vermont. I took a film theory class just for fun and thinking that perhaps it might've been a little easier than others. My professor Tom McGowan was so charismatic and so passionate about the material that I just fell in love with it. From that point on, I just wanted to watch movies from all different cultures, from all different countries, from all different time periods. Just soak it up.

At the end of my whole experience at the university of Vermont, I went to study abroad in China because I was studying Mandarin. I saw an older gentleman in a park, on a bench reading out of a book. Not reading to anyone in particular and not asking for money, nothing like that. He was just reading, and it made me wonder "who is this guy? What is his story? Who is he reading to? Why is he reading? How often does he do it?" That's when I realized I wanted to tell this story and I wanted to shoot it and make a film out of it. That was actually one of the inspirations for one of my first short films. Ever since then I just love writing and telling stories.

So where did the story for What Lies Below come from? It kind of starts as one thing and then morphs into something else and then the ending is different again!

I love stories like that. I love things that can't be categorized. The film was really a synthesis of two ideas. It began with this image that I had in my head of this beam of light coming down from the sky and hitting a man in the chest, and doing something to them. I'm sure that that image is taken from some poster or some movie or something. That's so deep in my unconscious at this point that I can't even access it anymore, but for whatever reason, I was obsessed with that image. I started to imagine "who is this person? Does anyone see them? What is that? What is their relationship to that person?" And that last question is what made me start thinking about my own past.

When I was five years old, my first ever crush was actually on my stepmother. Her name's Sandy, uh, we're very good friends now, but she always loves to regale strangers about how, when I was a little kid, I used to go into her apartment and she'd be cooking dinner and I tap on her arm and I'd say "you should chase me around and try to tickle me" and so Sandy obliged. She would run around the house and tickle me.

We can look them back on that now and laugh but if you think about it and all of a sudden you switched the roles, if she was a man and I was a little five-year-old girl, it starts to get into this area of perhaps this isn't appropriate, perhaps we shouldn't be doing this. That's what really triggered the drama of the film and then I synthesize it with the horror elements of it which stem from the light from the sky but now it's the light in the lake.

But you reversed the sex roles for the movie. What prompted that switch?

I think that socially we're trained to protect little girls more because they're more innocent and men can be perceived as more of a threat so I think in that way, it functions better.

How long did the writing process take and did the story change as you were writing it?

At the beginning I had those two ideas. What I love to do as a writer is I love to do a ton of research. So I read books. I read a book about what women go through in their teenage years called "Untanled" by Dr. Damour about the stages of development and how they analyze everything and are always thinking five steps ahead of every decision et cetera, et cetera. I watched a lot of reference films as well, and as I'm doing all of that, I'm always writing down ideas and, and kind of prepping things. So when I outline, I have a ton of scenes in my head that I'm just kind of putting together in some sort of linear narrative.

So my research tends to be like two months sometimes, but then my writing could be like four weeks. Once I'm finally done with my script, because I've made so many mistakes in the outlining phase, the film you see is actually very close to a rough draft. I think we did one more draft after the rough draft. And I think that's because I spent so much time with all my mistakes on the front end that once I actually get into the writing part of it, it I've kind of figured out the problems already and tried to fix them as best I can.

What was the biggest hurdle for you to overcome working through some of those early ideas and early concepts?

There was quite a few. For instance I always hated in a film when nobody calls the police. They don't call for help. So that was something that we had to handle. I also needed her [Liberty] to reach out to somebody for help and so that's when Marley's introduction comes in, but of course we had to deal with Marley. Once she showed up you can't just have her in the picture.

One great example is that once Marley comes, she goes upstairs and talk to Michelle and John, but after that she needs to be out of the picture. So that's where the egg salad in the refrigerator comes in because John knows that's Liberty's favorite and so he uses that so that they'll sleep and night so that he can go and incubate in the lake.

Emma Horvath has this amazing face that pulls you in and Trey Tucker is so cold and detached. It's absolutely perfect. Can you talk about the casting process and finding the two people?

As a young filmmaker, you're always looking for approval or validation so when Mena [Suvari] came on board, that was a great feeling. Also our casting director on Katrina Wandel George, who was pounding the pavement, she believed in the script, she was trying to find the best cast possible and she was not going to take no for an answer. She was just so committed. Katrina really felt a connection to the story. So when we landed Mena, that really gave us this kind of seal of approval that allows us to attract a lot of great auditions. I still remember one of Trey's early auditions. The thing that I loved about him was he had this incredible ability to expand the material.

He could take something that was very innocent and completely twisted into something sinister. And he could take an action that I felt was rudimentary and make it extremely dynamic, or odd, or awkward, and the ability to do that, to stretch it, and then to bring it back down, was so fantastic and fundamental.

So as a result Trey and I created a creep barometer on set where we would literally dial up the creepiness during a series of takes so that the first take would be at a 10 creep, then the second take would been an eight and a six and a four, then a three and two. Having those options in the edit allowed us to dial it up or dial it back depending on what people's reactions were at that point.

I have to go to Emma too, of course, because like you said, she's so fantastic. She's actually going to be doing the "Lord of the Rings" series for Amazon coming up. I'm so excited for it but we found her through a casting call as well, and an audition tape. I remember being really curious by her and I couldn't put my finger on what it was.

So I sent the audition tape to a friend and the friend writes back and goes, yes, she has a real Jack Nicholson quality to her. And I go "What does that mean?" And he goes "she's either completely crazy or genius." And I laughed but then one day on set I realized which one at once. I mean, she's such a genius. She is so conceptual and cerebral and in her head and composed and so focused on it. But then when you say action, everything that she's been thinking about and focusing on just explodes in front of your face. It's just so there, and it's so subtle too. Like there's just a fireworks display in her eyes and you just have to watch her.

I'm so thankful that we had all three of them, as well as Haskiri Velazquez. She was only able to come in for two days cause that's how tight our shoot schedule was and she did an incredible job just coming in and nailing it in one day.

The ending of the movie is really quite a moment. I'm wondering if there are any plans to go back to this universe? What's next for you?

Thank you for saying that. The end of the movie is, in my mind, the end of a clue game where all the pieces come together and then you can go back and watch it and try to fill in the blanks. So my goal for that last scene is that people go "Oh, wait" and then they go back and figure it all out. I think the pieces are all there. Water is very important and I'll leave that as a hint.

As far as if there's a second half... my girlfriend actually yelled at me that I have to make a sequel so we do have an idea for a sequel or a television series that could stem off of this. I would love to continue it because I've worked so hard on the ethos of John Smith that I think that there's light there so to speak.

What Lies Below is available on digital and VOD on December 4.

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