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Exclusive Interview: Filmmaker John Rosman explores some of the secrets of his unique horror/drama “NEW LIFE”

Monday, May 13, 2024 | Exclusives, Featured Post (Fourth), Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

It’s hard to discuss too much of writer/director John Rosman’s gripping and frightening NEW LIFE without getting into some of the story’s surprises. So, now that the movie’s been out for a bit on VOD from Brainstorm Media (it’s coming to digital platforms in the UK June 3 from Vertigo Releasing), we present part of our chat with Rosman that gets into a few SPOILER areas. (You can read more of this interview, without any giveaways, in RUE MORGUE #218, now on sale.)

NEW LIFE is a feature-length pursuit in which Jess (Hayley Erin), a young woman on the run toward the Canadian border, is tracked by government agent Elsa (Sonya Walger). As Jess flees from one brief safe haven to the next, we learn around the movie’s halfway point that she’s carrying a virulent infection that has a grotesque effect on people she comes into contact with. As it segues from an intensely dramatic personal thriller to nerve-wracking all-out horror (see our review here), NEW LIFE is carried by Rosman’s unerring storytelling skills and the pair of strong performances at its center.

Your two leads are terrific; how did you wind up casting them? Was it a long process?

It was a little bit long. Emily Schweber was our casting director, and she’s incredible. With Sonya Walger, we made an offer; I’ve been aware of her career for a little while. Specifically, her work in FOR ALL MANKIND felt really in line with the character of Elsa, so we went out to her directly. For the Jess part, it was kind of an open casting call, and Emily brought the most talented actors to audition for that role. We ended up going through a lot of different people, all of whom were incredible, but when I came across Hayley, she felt like a natural fit for Jess in a way that was completely unique to her. She has these incredible chops, but there’s also something she brings with her presence that I felt truly aligned with the character I was picturing when I was writing the script.

During filming, did they keep separate from each other, to help maintain the onscreen distance and tension between their characters?

You know, I would have loved to do that. Since we were dealing with such a small budget, we were forced to create a schedule where we could get it done with the little amount of money we had, and because we were traveling a lot across the state. But the way it was written was that the two of them are separate, so it didn’t make sense to have both of them on the set at the same time. So because it was written that both these characters are kind of in isolation until the end, that’s how we ended up filming it as well. We started with Sonya, and then she was wrapping up as we were putting more focus on Hayley, until they kind of meet in the middle. It was less intentional and more logistical.

You also make great use of your isolated locations. Was the script written for settings you knew, or did you have to find them after you finished writing?

It was written for locations I knew. I’ve been working in Oregon for about 10 years as a journalist, and I got to travel around the state a little bit. One of the ways we tried to make the movie feel bigger was leaning into the natural diversity of Oregon, whether it was these claustrophobic forests or a city look, or the expansive, mountainous region in the east. That was written into the story as a way to level up, but also to give a sense of Jess’ progression, where it starts out so narrow, so claustrophobic; she’s in a car, she’s getting into the wilderness surrounded by trees. And then, by the end of the journey, it’s everything she wanted: it’s expansive with these mountains in the distance, and it’s everything she’s been trying to get to, but she’s still kind of trapped at that point. So visually, knowing that we were going to be shooting toward these locations, it was tied in closely to the narrative as well.

How did you find Christina Kortum, your makeup effects artist?

Well, Christina’s known in Portland. She’s incredible, one of the great special effects and practical makeup artists. I mean, she works in LA a ton as well, but she lives in Oregon, and to me that was so important, just as someone who loves horror movies, and having the opportunity to make the movie look bigger than its budget. It took very little research to find the one person I really wanted to work with in Portland, and that was Christina. She had a couple of assistants helping her a little, but everything you see on screen, Christina pretty much designed and executed it herself, and it’s a testament to her level of craft, what you see on screen. It was incredible watching her work.

What inspired the look of the infection?

I wanted something that didn’t look “zombie.” You know, we avoided saying the z-word on set. Not that I don’t like zombie movies–I love them–but I was actually inspired by CHERNOBYL, the HBO show, and Cronenberg’s THE FLY. The idea that you can lean into things that exist in the real world and create a visceral body-horror story was executed at such a high level in CHERNOBYL that it was very inspirational, and it serviced the story so well to talk about the horrors that can exist within that world, in a physical sense. And my favorite thing about THE FLY is that it’s about falling in love with someone who gets sick, and you being helpless. It’s gross and it’s body horror, but the whole crux of that movie is the Geena Davis/Jeff Goldblum romance. As Jeff Goldblum’s character is turning sicker and sicker, you as the audience member are grossed out, but you also feel for Geena Davis’ character and their relationship, and I wanted that in our movie, where you’re with Jess and even though she shouldn’t escape, you want her to escape.

How has the audience response been to NEW LIFE, given that it doesn’t have the same pacing and emphasis as a typical genre film?

It’s been great. You know, I wrote it and directed it and edited it, so by the time we released the film, I forgot that there’s even a twist in it [laughs], you know? Because I’m so close to it. So when you could hear gasps at the midpoint of a screening, or people were talking about how surprised they were, I re-remembered how the film was set up. So that was surprising, and I also have enjoyed people coming away with this weird optimism that exists in NEW LIFE. On a surface level, it can be described as nihilistic and dark and sad, but I feel like it’s actually a pretty hopeful film, so hearing that reflected back through people’s viewings has been great.

I was at Fantasia for the second showing and I was sitting behind two teenagers, and one, I could just see him slumping in his seat and getting so bored with the movie. Then at the middle point, I saw him perk up, and by the end, he was on the edge of his seat. I believe that’s a great win for this film; I don’t know what review he would give that on Letterboxd, but if it works as a thriller, as a horror movie by the end and the tension pays off, I think it succeeds. I do like the story, and I think caring about the characters makes those end beats bigger.

Do you have any projects in the works?

Yeah, I have a script for another thriller/horror film, and I’m really excited to dive in. I want to be filming it this summer; things are getting a little crazy and it’s coming up very soon, but the goal is to try to get another movie out there in the next year or so.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).