By ROCCO THOMPSON
David Del Rio, who made the transition from acting to feature film directing with 2018’s Sick for Toys, is back with his follow-up: a wild, weird, decidedly queer horror-comedy titled ROAD HEAD. Starring Elizabeth Grullon, Damian Joseph Quinn, and Clayton Farris as three friends who, during a trip to a remote desert locale, run afoul of a murderous cult, Chloe Skye’s script offers violent thrills, witty dialogue, and hilarious potshots at patriarchal “alpha” males. Rue Morgue caught up with the director and Belko Experiment star to chat about the film, which is now available on streaming services.
This is your second directorial feature after SICK FOR TOYS, which was also a genre effort. What do you enjoy about working in the horror genre? Do you hope to be known as a horror director?
I try to not label a film that I’m doing as a certain genre. I think when your job is storytelling, you have to be at the seat of an audience member first and ask yourself “what would I do in this situation?” Now, that’s a really important question, because it taps into your personal identity and you role-play yourself into that scenario. The horror themes and approach to ROAD HEAD was to find the reality of what any of us would do if we were being hunted by a serial killer dressed as a medieval executioner or told that you’re going to be the sole provider of children for a cult. I enjoy working on those types of stories because your imagination can run wild and you get to hone in on the “how.” How can we tell this story in a visual manner that would make the audience uncomfortable or engaged? That’s the approach always, it doesn’t matter the genre. I just want to be known as a director people can count on to tell engaging stories.
The most notable thing about ROAD HEAD upfront is its lead cast of POC/Queer characters. Was this important to you and was it built into the script from the start?
Chloe Skye is a talented screenwriter. She gave us a nice blueprint to work from. It was built into the script and I remember enjoying how these characters were placed in roles you don’t usually see in other films of this genre. But we never moved forward with the idea of making an LGBTQ story, for me and everyone else, it was a human story of survival. That’s where our focus was.
The film has an infectious, anarchic tone that makes it unique, but were you drawing from any other filmmakers/movies while shooting?
I appreciate that. We wanted to give this off-the-cuff, no control or rules vibe to it. So I turned to other filmmakers such as Robert Rodriguez or Shane Black films to inspire me of what those elements feel or look like. I’m an avid cinephile, so there’s inspiration and influences in any piece of art that I witness or watch. However, I always invite and open myself up to be influenced by the crew and cast of any project I’m in. Those are your brothers and sister at arms, so I always want to listen to their perception of the world and of storytelling and that helps me make decisions and present avenues of how to achieve certain scenes.
Your three leads and supporting cast are awesome. Can you tell us a bit about the casting process?
Anthony Kraus was our casting director and did a phenomenal job bringing in outstanding actors. I was afraid that the casting process was going to be difficult with all the quality that was coming into the room. For [the character of] Stephanie, I’d always thought of Elizabeth Grullon. I got to witness her power as an actor in acting class and I knew she would bring it, but I didn’t expect to be absolutely floored by her performance in this. Clayton Farris walked into the room with an air of positivity and his humor is so subtle and real. We were incredibly lucky to have him on board. Damian Joseph Quinn just gave and gave and gave in his auditions. Every direction I was giving him, he had a good understanding of camera technique, he knows when to give that smile, that scowl, the delivery, he is a total pro. We were trying to find people who were willing to play and not give a shit about themselves or how they look. The supporting cast brought that sort of authenticity in the audition tapes and in the room, I cast them based on how fun it would be to work with them, because the supporting characters are strange and uncaring, so we were looking for that freedom and our cult leaders and our imaginary ex-boyfriend definitely brought that.
The film was shot largely near Barstow, California. Did the desert setting present any unique challenges?
When you think you’ve had enough H20, you haven’t. I drank so much water during the day and when I get back to the hotel, I was still dying of thirst.
It feels as if there’s a subtle (or maybe not so subtle) political jab considering your villains are a band of incel cultists. What’s the biggest message you’re hoping to get across with ROAD HEAD?
In order to survive, you can’t be surprised. You’ve got to know that evil exists in the world. So when you see it, when you come across evil and hatred, your survival depends on your strength of awareness and never forgetting who you are and where you come from. That’s Stephanie’s beacon to survive.
ROAD HEAD is available now on digital platforms and DVD from Terror Films.