By: Ryan Coleman
Is there any genre of film as challenging to pull off for filmmakers, as entertaining for audiences, and as overlooked by critics as low-budget indie horror? Under this complex set of stresses and stimuli, creative storms flare up and result in hard-weathered cinematic gems that gather to them some of the industry’s most devoted fan bases. It might be the primal state that the alternating modes of fear and relief produce in viewers. It might be the knowledge that such an effect was achieved with considerable limitations in place. It might be that audiences, awash in a flood of billion dollar budget CGI studio franchises, actually crave the simplicity that those limits demand.
Elle Callahan’s Head Count is one of those lean, mean thrillers whose flawless execution makes it all look easy. It was anything but for Callahan, who utilized every aspect of her diverse industry background to achieve the perfect atmosphere for her debut feature—from visual effects to sound design and producing. Head Count follows a group of college-aged kids who must fight for their lives against an elusive, supernatural entity in the vast desert outside Joshua Tree. The ensemble cast of fresh faces and relative newcomers is anchored by Isaac Jay and Ashleigh Morghan, who won the LA Film Festival’s Lead Actor prize for her performance. Callahan caught up with us the week of Head Count’s Los Angeles premiere about the film and all things horror.
As specifically as you can recall, could you say when you conceived the idea, how long pre-production ran, when you started on production, and when the movie wrapped?
Let me think about this. I conceived the idea about a year and a half before we started shooting. I went out to Joshua Tree with some friends and thought it was the weirdest, scariest place and thought, we should make a movie about this. Me and my writer Michael Nader wrote the movie, then we spent about a year pitching it. Once we got financed pre-production immediately started and we only had three or four weeks, then we started shooting and we shot for fifteen days. Which is a very small amount of time! Then we spent I think three months in post and then we completed it. Then we spent a year doing the festival route and it’s been a year since then before it is now finally coming out. It was in total about a three year process.
Does that feel like a long time?
It does feel really long. In my mind at least it feels like we finished the film so long ago, though it’s only been a year. Or two at this point. Time is a little off for me because I’m filming another movie right now. So I’m like, what day is it? I think the worst part after finishing it is the waiting, because I want to share it with people. But distribution takes time. You want to find the right home for it. That was something I wasn’t expecting. You finish something and want to show it to the world, but you need to wait and be strategic about it. The waiting has been the hardest part for me. Once we started shooting though time flew by.
You wore so many hats during production. You directed, you did sound design, the visual effects, and executive produced. Is that the complete list?
[Laughs] Yes. Well I helped with the story. Michael wrote the screenplay but it was a story collaboration. But yeah, it was a lot of hats. I think that is something that happens on your first film. It’s a lot to juggle. It’s hard to direct and also produce. The directing mindset needs to be creative but the producing mindset needs to be practical. Finding a balance between those two was definitely the biggest challenge. I come from a post production background before I come to directing, so I am a sound designer by trade. Theres so much of horror that lives in the sound. I was able to really hone in the movie when I was sound designing it. When you watch a horror movie, if you mute it it’s not scary anymore. So much of that comes from sound. Approaching my first film I felt comfortable directing knowing I had so much control of the world when it comes to sound.
What is your relationship with horror, not just as a filmmaker but as an audience member?
I have a love/hate relationship with horror. Love because I love it so much, hate because I am very easily startled. I like to make movies that I think I would love to hate. I try to build my scares to scare myself. I’m not easily scared, it takes a lot to scare me, but I am very easily startled. I’m a big folklore enthusiast. I love myths, legends, monsters. The plots of horror movies really intrigue me because anything can happen. It’s a world where there are ghosts and monsters and you can sort of bend the rules. So I get really excited about horror movies but they also stress me out. It’s fun for me to take control back and make my own scary movies, to scare other people.
Horror is all about the subgenres, and your film plays with genre tropes in an interesting way. Your “bad guy” is supernatural, but the film plays out a bit like a slasher. Were you intentionally playing with genre?
It kind of fell by itself into that form. I wasn’t trying to make it that slasher-y because to be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the slasher as an audience member. I like atmospheric horror. I like the creep rather than the scare. The scariest movies to me are the ones that are unsettling, rather than ones where I’m jumping and then immediately recovering from those little moments. So I went in with a tone of atmospheric unease in mind. You set out with intention however and it starts to adapt and become its own things. I think it started to meld into different subgenres all on its own and I didn’t fight it. I let it become the lovely monster it grew into.
There’s a terrifying scene where your leads are in a hot tub and sense something watching them out in the desert darkness. Once they turn their backs the perspective shifts to whatever’s out there, and the camera lurches toward them. Could you break down what went into that?
I did that scene very intentionally. I wanted the audience not to know the point of view had shifted into something that is living and breathing, to think it was just another camera angle. That little shift is unsettling, it’s this idea of fear in hindsight. It’s unsettling to realize something didn’t happen the way you had believed. That false sense of security that can be subverted through camera angles. When that camera moves you think “Oh! Something is happening, something is moving and we are not safe!” That goes a long way in establishing an atmosphere of dread, or of foreboding.
The film is so economically scripted and your execution gives it a sleek feel. Was that something a small budget and lack of resources demanded, or did you design it that way from the beginning?
It was a little bit of both. I went into pre-production knowing I had only so much time. The restrictions force you to be more creative. The limits of resources, location, budget, and time force you to think outside the box, so I saw it as a blessing honestly. If I had more money and more time maybe it would have turned out a much more traditional film. But when you’re in crunch time and you need to get a scare with a certain set of restrictions you think of more unique things. It’s really 50/50. Because there were certainly things we knew we wanted going in and did them to the best of our ability. But other things we’d realize we only had so much time so we’d say scratch that, it could be cool to do this instead, and it saves us that much time. I normally love being in control, and having to react to things quickly was definitely a new skill I gained in making this movie. It was a challenge to adapt to conditions like that but by the end I started to enjoy it. It was like, hit me with new stuff, I can take it.