Director Philip Carrer’s suvivalist horror film If A Tree Falls plays the Festival of Fear this weekend, and we caught up with the budding director to talk about why the film is so identifiably Canadian, his villains and the importance of horror film festivals.
Tell us about the origins of the story.
If A Tree Falls literally came from a pent up DIY filmmaking process between myself and the writer, Ryan Barrett and our love for 70′s style horror films. We went to Chad Archibald who operates Black Fawn films to see if he liked the idea; with no doubts, he did. Chad and I directed and produced a film together called Desperate Souls which was released by Lions Gate back in 2005. We got a thing for making low budget horror movies and wanted to make another one, but with this film, we took all the things we loved about our favourite horror films, such as a no-budget approach, a slow build to a final murderous ending. If A Tree Falls is a mashed-up story of various “missing persons” events that happened in Canada throughout the last 30 years. We of course took some of these stories and expanded on them, adding and subtracting ideas, doing our own thing with them. Completely blowing them out of proportion. Nothing in this film actually happened, except maybe some of the earlier beginning character banter that the writer Ryan Barrett included from his personal life.
Tell us about the production, including where and when it occurred and the circumstances.
The production of this film took place in the summer of 2009 in Ontario. We filmed in real nowhere countryside/forest places. The film’s budget was too low to mention. To give you an idea, I was the producer/director/camera/cinematographer/editor and also created the score. Ryan Barrett wrote/produced and operated the sound and took care of the environment on set. We didn’t even have a boom pole; we literally taped the mic to a stick and hid it behind the actors. Some people thought we were nuts for doing this, but we wanted to make things on set as real as possible. It was a real experiment with the actors. We actually rejected a small funding agreement at the beginning. We really wanted to see how far we could get with what we had. The film turned into some sort of experiment. Actors, a camera, a script and the country. No crew, no lights. Everything was naturally lit. It was mostly just myself and Ryan Barrett, with the actors, putting them in real situations. I wanted to try and get close to the actors and get the best performance. Some real intense scenes were created on set, and after doing a take, it was hard for the actors to break out of character because there were no distractions. We were out in a forest or field, alone.
The film’s style evokes 1970s pictures like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. To what extent were you trying to evoke classic survivalist horror films which had come before?
We were trying to evoke the mood and feeling that some of these ’70s survivalist horror movies had. Not the locations, environments or action, because we know our limitations. I grew up as a kid watching all these movies, I remember seeing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time as a kid, and I was blown away. Still to this day, after seeing that film a hundred times, I’m still blown away. I’m also a big fan of John Carpenter’s [TV movie] Someone’s Watching Me and of course The Devils Rejects. The feeling and mood these films gave at times inspired me greatly with this film regarding shots, colour and pacing within scenes. I’m just a fan. This movie was made by fans for fans of a very specific genre horror film of that 70′s type vibe.
If A Tree Falls takes place in Canada. How conscious were you of setting this film in Canada?
I love filming in Canada; there are some amazing hidden gems. Not to mention there are barely any serious “toned” horror movies that take place in Canada. All the names used in the film are actual locations one would see on a road trip out east. Everything in the film had a touch of Canadian identity, including some of the dialogue; one of the villains is seen earlier, he uses the word “eh” a lot. Simply, we’re Canadian horror filmmakers; why not just use Canada eh?
The villains in this film are my favourite. We really want this film to be about them, their image, their look and what they represent. We went into great detail with them, even gave them names in the script. Each one has a purpose. On set, none of the actors saw the actor’s real faces before we shot, we kept both groups separate. Imagine you’re a 7-year old looking down upon four ants on the ground in an isolated area. You know exactly what to do to control or move them. You could crush one at any moment. You can save your power and play with them first. You can test them, see how far you can drive and annoy them, then when you get bored, kill them all or just pick one to live. This is without reason. Now inject reasoning behind this, a reason that is more unconscious of itself but part of the mood you are in. What got you to be in that mood? Did something happen to you earlier that day? We wanted the villains to act as if there was something “bigger” behind all this. They wear stockings over their faces, revealing the random “deformity” that everyone has. It was not a mask that seems manufactured like you see in a lot of horror films. Since this film takes place outside in the wilderness, we wanted the masks to be as natural as possible; we wanted it to be organic looking. Some people will be left puzzled about whom the villains are, but it was never about that. It was about the process the villains put these victims through. I loved the villains so much in this film, I wish I could have had more villain storyline, but that would have ruined them. We are saving that for the high budget sequel, wink.
If A Tree Falls is screening at the Festival of Fear. How important are horror festivals like this to spreading the word about your film?
We can’t wait for IF A TREE FALLS to play at the Festival of Fear! We’ve been coming to this festival since it started; we are HUGE fans of Rue Morgue magazine. When we had our world premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, it was like being with a bunch of people you knew for years. Festival of Fear will be like being back home again. Horror/genre festivals are so important to films like this, because of the support behind them. Who else do you think we made this film for? We are horror fans first. We made a film we’d think some of our fellow horror fans would like too, not all, but some. Us horror fans, we sometimes forgive the budget and constraints that go into making a horror film. I noticed that horror film festival audiences usually look for the heart of the film more so then others. You can tell when the filmmakers were having fun making it. We want to get a “nylon head” following for this film, so when we do a sequel, we can really go nuts and crazy with the bad guys. Horror festivals also play more off-beat horror films, which gives our little film a chance to gain a fan or two because it is not your typical run-kill-run-kill horror movie.
Are you afraid of the outdoors? If so, why?
I’m not afraid of the outdoors, but at the same time, more specifically, sometimes trees in the fall season give me the willies. I remember one dark cloudy fall day when I was a kid, around Halloween; I found hoove prints in the mud in my front yard. I followed them to my tree house. They were also printed on bottom of the tree house floor. Were they hoove prints or just my imagination?….still to this day, I swear what I saw was real. There is something scary about trees in the fall. From the shadows they make to the noise. I don’t know, it’s just scary to me.
IF A TREE FALLS presented by PHILIP CARRER and others screens this Saturday, Aug. 28, at 3 pm in Room 206B of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.