By RICK HIPSON
Rue Morgue spoke with the director and two stars of home-invasion thriller BY NIGHT’S END (2020). Hear about their experiences developing and shooting the film, and see the poster and trailer for BY NIGHT’S END below!
WALKER WHITED (Writer/Director)
RH: What can you tell us about how the seeds for the script originally came about and how many versions it took to get all the layers of the story just right?
Walker Whited: We all know to make a movie, you have to have made a movie. Well, how the heck do you do that? I’ve been trying to find money for ideas I have for a few years, and I’m impatient, so I just decided to do something that we could achieve “easily.” (This was not easy.)
The idea came up when I was on a movie set camera operating, and I was seeing what they were doing and wondering why I wasn’t getting the chance to do it.
The house we shot in is my wife and I’s house, so one night in bed after work I just had the thought of “what if someone was under us in the crawlspace right now?” And, from there, I just started putting the beats together. I got up and wrote down the beats to most of the film. Then, every day at lunch and such I’d write, and in about 3 weeks I had a first draft. Then I realized this was an idea I thought we could do for fairly cheap; I own the location, I have a post-production company, we own cameras, etc, so I gathered the team and said, “Hey I’m gonna do this, you in or out?” Thankfully we’ve all worked together so much, and I had proved myself in the shorts arena, so everyone was in.
As for versions of the script, I think I went through maybe 4 or 5 official drafts, but it was always changing. There were a couple scenes we had to change on the day of shooting due to various reasons. The week before shooting, Philip [DP] and I were going through the shots and we’d come up with questions on various aspects of the script – like where the thing they’re looking for is hidden – and we’d discuss and I’d rewrite.
Not only do we get a great central story out of Moody and his fellow henchmen trying to retrieve a package from the unsuspecting couple who tries to find it first, but there are other layers of story at work here, too. The couple recently lost their young daughter and are struggling to cope with that as the holiday season approaches. Heather is back from fighting in the mid-East while warring inside about working for her father in a less than honorable business. Mark blames himself for the death of his child and is having a hard time picking up the pieces and moving on. Were all of these elements in place when you started shooting or was there improvising along the way?
Yes, all these elements were part of the characters from the script. I just wanted to give each of them somewhat believable lives filled with things that would actually tear at us from the inside out. For Heather especially, it all needed to come to a head when she and Mark finally learn how to communicate, and we get the powerful storytelling scene from her.
Considering how personal several elements of the story felt, were there any real-life points of reference you drew from while collaborating on the script?
Some of the stuff she talks about in the beginning with her job is a loose reference to some stuff in real life, minus the corruption, and how she’s afraid to talk about it. But it’s very loose. Most of it is just character stuff and me trying to figure out how to make these characters as impactful as possible as they’re jammed together living under this 1100 Sq/ft house’s roof.
I understand, when it comes to lighting, it can be tricky to get things looking just right any time you’re shooting outdoors, especially when you’re working with a smaller budget and tight timeline. BY NIGHTS END waffles between indoor and outdoor shooting, at night, and even has its own weather system in a few scenes. What sort of challenges were encountered while pulling off the various environments to look as slick as they did?
Philip Wages (DP) is extremely proficient. I love him and his work style because he’s all about the less the better, light the space not the face, and just practicality in general. He doesn’t need five flags and three bounces and ten lights to make one shot look great. He needs a light, some practicals in the scene, and a teaser hanging from the ceiling. Hayden [Gaffer] would hang the teaser up, essentially a piece of fabric (or whatever it was – I’m not a DP, haha) with a bounce side and a dark side to keep the light out, then they’d put a light somewhere and shoot it up into the teaser, then the light would bounce and fall into the space. So, then we could leave that most of the time and switch angles, switch characters, and have much less relighting to do so we could move faster.
Outside, we would use the tennis court lights back in the park to light the field, which made it look like we had a hefty lighting budget. We didn’t.
For rain, Philip had that idea maybe a week before production. The forecast said rain so he said we should embrace it and he got Ryan [Producer] on board, and then brought out these hoses with special nozzles. When we were outside we just had people whipping the hose around to make it looks like rain (laughs), no rain towers. I then beefed up some of the scenes with more rain in post. Rain was hard though, very cold and made everything muddy. We messed up the yard and always tracked the water inside with us. Not good when you have no money for locations, and it’s your location.
As I had mentioned to Michelle Rose, I found it fascinating that Heather was the ass-kicking badass in this one while Mark was the subdued nice guy. Considering Kurt Yue’s background in martial arts, how much did you have to resist letting him roundhouse at least one bad guy in the face?
Honestly, I didn’t even know he had a martial arts background until I read that question. I just never asked (laughs) It didn’t fit the script and didn’t fit the character dynamics I was going for, but now that I know, maybe he gets to do so if we make a sequel.
As interesting as it was to watch all the players in this film fighting for survival and dominance on both sides, it was intriguing to see the way they all interacted with each other and how the film was often driven by the reactions elicited by one another. How grueling of a process was it to find and gather a cast of characters that an audience would not only give a crap about, but ones who seemed to bounce off of each other in such an organic, believable fashion?
I mean you never know if it’s truly going to work until you’re cutting the scene, or at least I don’t because I’m a pessimist. I love all these guys and I knew what kind of acting chops they all had so I just had faith they’d be able to do what I was asking of them. But, it was stressful wondering if what I was trying to do would work. Especially for this type of movie. How do you keep things interesting in this small house? How do you make it evident that these guys can’t just waltz in and do what they need to do? How do you make it clear the couple can’t just walk out and leave? So, it all came down to character motivation. Moody, for example, he’s pretty ruthless and scary, but also I don’t think he’d actually pull the trigger. I think the big silver gun is just for looks. Why else would he keep Tom around? Now let’s put that into the character and make it evident that he’s afraid to come in because he’s actually afraid of Heather, now we’ve got a chess game going.
For me personally, the attic scene was one of my favourites. It’s where the couple truly came together, and we truly get inside their heads up until it comes to a shocking finale as we transition to the next scene. It was shot in such a tight looking space, but the whole scene was set up so beautifully I have to ask you to walk us through that one. Were there any unique challenges in filming a scene like that in a space as confined as the attic?
The scene in the attic was actually filmed in the attic, we threw around an idea of building it, but guess what? We didn’t have the money. So, we just crammed everyone up there. When we’re inside, it’s daylight outside while we’re shooting. We’d just tent in windows and put lights in the tents so it looks like the street lamps are on outside – so for the attic, it’s daytime outside. There’s not sound dampening up there, so we heard birds all the time that we’d have to shut up by scaring away, we hear loud cars and ambulances going by, so it was tough getting Michelle into that place with all that distraction outside, but she – of course – nailed it.
It was cramped though too. Philip was tucked into the rafters trying not to fall through the ceiling, I was up there, the actors of course, then Conrad our audio mixer had to find a place, and it was cold because it was winter… As for Philip’s lighting up there, it looks great and it really sets the scene. I think a lot of people who see it would be surprised to know that he lit the space with one light, the actual light, but in the attic. It just worked. Less is more sometimes.
Last thought, for the scene in general, as you said it’s intimate and they come together; I really wanted it to be a scene where we can tell a story and see if the actors chops can keep us engaged without having to throw flashbacks in and show it all. I know normally they say “show don’t tell” but James Spader does it in every episode of the Blacklist and it works, so I wanted to see what that was all about, but also we had no money to shoot anything else (laughs). We actually do have some of the flashbacks of the story, but it’s all in the audio track. If you listen deep in the bass you’ll hear explosions and helicopters and such as she tells the story which is a nice little touch I love that we came up with early on.
What would you pinpoint as the most rewarding aspect for you during the entire process?
Completion. When we called cut on the last day, last scene, last take, and I realized I’m no longer a “first time director.” But, I’m also extremely proud that I directed this movie in early 2019 when I was 25. I always said I wanted to make my first movie before I turned twenty-six, so I did it after all. This industry is full of ageism so I just wanted to prove young people can have good ideas and can actually get the job done well.
And finally, what do you hope becomes the final impact of this film for those who get to watch it?
I just hope they can enjoy it, enjoy the handwork we put into it, enjoy the simple story yet intricate characters, enjoy the beautiful cinematography, enjoy the beautiful score by Tyler Kitchens, enjoy all the hard work Sean and I put into all of the post-production, and after all that, have the desire to see whatever I might get to make next.
MICHELLE ROSE (Actor)
RH: Heather definitely has the toughest job in the film between balancing her inner turmoil, protecting her home, and dealing with a hubby who demands more than she might be willing to give of herself. I love how stereotypes get knocked on their head with the portrayal of a strong woman who unleashes her inner terminator to protect her home. What was your initial reaction when you first learned about and read the script?
Michelle Rose: I have to admit, I pretty much knew I wanted to do the film before having read the script! Walker and I had worked on some smaller projects previously and had even shot a concept trailer for a different feature he had written which never came to fruition. So, we knew we wanted to work together. I like his directing style and ideas, so I was excited to be asked to be a part of this creative journey! That being said, I was definitely hooked once I read the script! On the surface, it is an action thriller and home invasion story, but I was drawn to the human component in the script. Yes, these characters find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, but it isn’t necessarily about that. There is a family drama at the heart of this film. There is a sense of real loss and distance between this couple and a reconciliation with each other and within themselves that needs to happen. And we discover that over the course of the film.
I can only assume your stunt experience came in handy for this role, which is clearly a very physical one, to say the least. Exactly how much of your stunt experience played a factor, and what was it like for you to balance acting with the physical burden Heather endured throughout the filming process?
Yes, I do have a stunt background and I did perform my own action in the film. Fortunately, the action sequences and more emotional scenes were shot on different days, so I was able to compartmentalize and better focus on the tasks at hand for those particular scenes. I would say the biggest challenge was the tight spaces. Fighting in an actual crawl space underneath the home, for example, was a fun challenge! It’s hard to move around but it ended up working out as I think it lends to the claustrophobic feeling in the film that these characters can’t seem to escape.
No doubt, bruises and scrapes are part and parcel for most of the work you do. How much did you have to get beat up for this particular role?
Yes, there are always bumps and bruises. Shooting action is like being a part of a sports team. It’s a choreographed dance, but you are still in close contact fighting with energy, so I definitely woke up feeling sore the next day (laughs)!
Heather is such an empowering character who effectively instills the image of a strong woman who knows how to survive when backed against the wall. She also has a soft spot which Mark helps to balance out with his contrasting, lighter demeanor. What do you think are the most valuable lessons Heather can offer by way of her unfolding nightmare?
I would say the biggest take-away for Heather is communication and finding the ability to open up, forgive, and let go of the past. That’s what allows her to move forward and bridge the gap with her husband. And then, of course, I loved that Heather is a badass. So, there’s that as well. I’ll take any chance to play a strong female lead. I think we need more of that!
With how well you pulled off balancing your staring role with physical grit honed from years as a stunt woman, is this sort of balance something we can expect more of from you in your onscreen future?
I do enjoy both the physicality of stunt work as well as acting and love that this project gave me the opportunity to explore both avenues. Hopefully, I get to do more of that onscreen in the future!
KURT YUE (Starring Actor)
RH: After enjoying your roles in both The Haunting Of Hill House and Cobra Kai, it was nice to see you being able to stretch your acting chops in a feature film such as this. Was it much of a stretch for you, both personally and professionally, to go from stealing a few scenes in your previous work to staring in most scenes for BY NIGHT’S END?
Kurt Yue: I think all roles, big or small, present their own unique challenges. BY NIGHT’S END was my first time taking on a lead role in a feature-length film, and I definitely had to learn some things on the fly. One of the hardest things – and I’ve heard celebrity actors talk about this – is being able to match your performance in back to back scenes when they are shot out of order. So we might shoot a scene in the bedroom one day that ends with us walking out of the room but the following shot that picks us up in the hallway may not happen until a couple days or even a couple weeks later. The challenge for the actor is to be able to match the emotional state they were in days or weeks ago so that the two scenes look believable when cut together.
Considering your martial arts background in BJJ and Tai Kwon Do, I found it interesting that your character, Mark, was the beta to his wife’s alpha in this film as far as kicking bad guy ass goes. What are your thoughts on that, and did you at least get to tap into your training to help with the choreography or offer advice during any of the fight scenes?
Well, it’s been over ten years since I’ve practiced either BJJ (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) or TKD (Tai Kwon Do) so it’s not like I’m at the top of my game in either discipline (laughs). I was more than happy to take a back seat in the action department and let Michelle and the rest of the cast do all of the big fights and stunts. Making action look realistic in movies is an art form in itself and our stunt coordinator, Keith Davis, and all of the other actors with stunt experience did an incredible job. They are the professionals in that department, and they showed it on screen.
After a convincing performance bringing to life a man who’s barely coping with the death of his daughter when his home is invaded and he must rely on his wife to protect their domain, what do you hope folks take away from Mark’s experience, and the troubles he struggles with throughout?
Walker [Writer/Director] did an amazing job of weaving together multiple storylines to give our characters a tremendous amount of depth. It would be easy to look at Mark’s early decision of trying to find the buried treasure as nothing but greed. But as the story progresses, you find out that he is carrying a ton of guilt from both the loss of his daughter and the loss of his job. He feels like he’s letting down Heather in every possible way. So, the initial motivation is more of a desperate attempt to right some wrongs and do something positive for their relationship.
Although Mark may have been portrayed as the one who needed saving in this film, that’s not to say he’s not without his own strengths. He certainly has a determination to acknowledge his pain head-on, and to hold on to his feelings despite the turmoil it causes. What can you tell us about the challenge of creating a character who embodies vulnerability while still managing to dig deep in order to push on to do what he feels must be done, regardless of fear or probability of success?
Mark definitely has determination and a willingness to take action when he thinks he can get something done. I think his tragic flaw might be that he settles on his decisions too quickly without really thinking through the consequences. But you have to give him a little bit of a pass because he did just watch his wife kill a guy in the middle of their bedroom; I don’t know how many of us would be thinking clearly immediately after an incident like that. I think the desperation that I talked about earlier is both the cause of his vulnerability and what drives him to keep pushing forward.
Is it fair to assume your starring role here will help open up more options for you moving forward? Do you know what’s next for you as an actor?
As actors, we’ve learned to not make any assumptions in this industry (laughs). Whether or not it opens any doors is completely out of my control. But I can say that the experience I gained from working with this incredible cast and crew was invaluable and that in itself will have a significant impact on my career going forward. I’m very grateful to Walker for trusting me to help bring his first feature film to life and also grateful to my castmates and the crew for making this one of the best on-set experiences I’ve ever had. We are all so proud of all the hard work that was put into BY NIGHT’S END and are so excited to finally be able to share it with the world!