By RACHEL REEVES
When Rue Morgue first caught Patrick R. Young and Powell Robinson’s film THRESHOLD, it was making its North American premiere at the 2020 Salem Horror Fest. Co-directed by the pair and written by Young, THRESHOLD is an emotionally tense and captivating road-trip story. The film’s blend of indie-filmmaking prowess, relatable themes and heartfelt performances quickly made it an easy festival favorite. As the film follows the literal journey of Leo (Joey Millin) and Virginia (Madison West), the estranged siblings soon discover that the mysterious curse plaguing Virginia is only one of the many issues the pair need to unpack.
Since the film’s successful festival run, THRESHOLD’s journey has only continued to gain momentum. It was recently announced that the UK-based distributor Arrow Films had secured distribution rights to the film in the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, Eire, New Zealand and South Africa. In celebration of this news, Rue Morgue sat down (virtually) with both Young and Robinson to talk all about THRESHOLD, the interesting ways they made the most of their limited resources and how their co-director and writing partnership benefits them both.
Tell us a little bit about how THRESHOLD originated and why it was a story you wanted to tell.
PATRICK R. YOUNG: The story has been something that’s kicked around in my head for a good long time. It was literally a short story idea that I had in high school. That’s the cool thing about ideas is that you can pocket them until they’re ready to go. Us wanting to make any movie came up in the years following our first film, Bastard. We had a lot of stops and starts and we missed just being able to pick up a camera with some friends and just make something.
POWELL ROBINSON: Bastard was pretty much exactly that. (Laughs) We had just graduated college, we rented one camera and took all of the people that we knew from film school and all lived in a cabin together. We just figured it out as we went.
PY: We just like making stuff. And we didn’t really have that opportunity for three years. So, we got a little frustrated. Finally it was like, ‘Ok. What can we make with the little money we have and the equipment we have? What can we make?’ And, the idea for THRESHOLD was one of them.
This film was shot on two iPhones with no script, a small crew, and two cars over the course of twelve days. From story to equipment choices, how did you navigate the early planning stages for the production and how were your choices affected by pure necessity?
PR: Since Bastard, even though we hadn’t directed another feature, we had all been working in different capacities in film that whole time. Lauren [Bates], THRESHOLD’s producer, has produced upwards of 10 independent features with budgets ranging from $25k to $1-3 million. So she’s definitely worked on a big range of films. And then I’ve worked commercially and have worked as a DP on a bunch of other features. And Patrick has also written a bunch of other features. So planning wise, we knew what it would take to pull off a movie. Then, we just scaled back from our experience in the years following Bastard to what we knew we could do to actually pull this one off. We knew we had to have the road map planned. Not only the road map for where we were going to drive and where we were going to shoot what we were going to shoot, but also where the characters were coming from and going to in movie space. We had a 23-ish page outline that Patrick had written that was fairly dialogue free, but it had the plotting done. Generally, we knew where to get to and how we were going to get there. Except for the final third of the movie. We had just two words in the outline: They arrive. From the house to the credits, it’s just based on the words ‘They arrive.’ So that’s a good 8-10 minutes of screen time that was just two words.
PY: We knew the basic beats that we wanted to hit and we knew the main arcs we wanted to take care of. We knew at which points in the film they were getting closer or further apart as they were feeling more and more brother and sister. And mapping out whether or not he believed her. And also, whether or not we believed her. Whether or not we believed this was just another drug relapse or whether there’s actually something culty going on.
PR: As far as the decision to shoot with the iPhones and produce it the way we did, it was purely just…we had a couple movies that were bigger budget on the table for us, but they were taking too long to get off the ground. So, we literally just took whatever money we had to spare from our bank accounts and I don’t own a camera. Patrick doesn’t own a camera. Lauren doesn’t own a camera. But we had phones and [Steven Soderbergh’s] Unsane was cool so, I guess phones work for movies! That was kind of our logic. We’re just going to make it with what we can and we trust that our actors are really good and we trust that we’ve made enough stuff at this point that we can probably improvise our way through a new experience using phones.
PY: We traveled in two cars. We didn’t have official cameramen or anything. We also knew we were going to be limited on time so we weren’t going to be able to do multiple set-ups. We literally couldn’t use any other camera.
The brother-sister dynamic between Joey Millin and Madison West feels so truly authentic. Since there was no dialogue-heavy script, how did you work with them to cultivate such a natural, organic, familial relationship?
PY: There’s two steps to that. One, they – and all of us – already knew each other. We all trusted each other and we all went to the same college. We’re also all friends. Even though Madison and Joey both went through auditions, we limited it to people that we knew we would be comfortable going on a 12 day trip with. Spending that much time in the car together and most of the time sleeping in the same room.
PR: Occasionally on the same floor space.
PY: Shooting in public, you also need that level of trust with each other. And the second part of that was, the biggest prep day we had was the day, two days before we started shooting we all sat down – Lauren, Joey, Madison, Powell and I – in a diner and mapped out their entire life and relationship with each other. All these major benchmarks; this is when dad died, this is when we had that big fight, this is when you pushed me off the sled that one time. We ran through all these different things and got them really used to what their relationship was like at different points in time. And also, what it was like when they didn’t know each other.
PR: From there, on set we would basically…because there wasn’t a lot of dialogue, it was a lot of just letting them talk. We’d give them where the scene needed to start and where the scene needed to end. And maybe, we’d sprinkle in a few bits of history from that history planning day. So, we’d just sit with them for upwards of an hour and they’d just talk through the scene, while in character. We’d then give them a few notes, if it was running too long or if we needed to pace it a little differently, if it was missing the story beat. They’d talk through it again and then we’d just set up a wide [shot] and start shooting the wides until it was slimmed down from 20 minutes to 18, to 12, to 10, to an 8 minute finished scene. Then it was, cool: now we can go in for coverage. We called it a writing rehearsal. It was a writing rehearsal period and while it was all improv, by the time they were done with the writing rehearsal, the scene may as well have been scripted. They did such a good job remembering exactly each piece as they went.
One of the many notable things about THRESHOLD is the way it sounds. Not only is Nick Chuba’s score great, but the sound design and mixing is really well done. Now, you’ve talked very openly about the limited resources you had to work with. So my question to you is, why was sound something you chose to invest in?
PY: I’ve watched a lot of movies. And I’ve intentionally watched a lot of shitty movies. I can get through a movie that looks bad, but I cannot get through a movie that sounds bad. It’ll take you out of it and you can just tell an unprofessional production purely by the sound. So, we knew going in that almost half of our budget was going to have to go towards sound.
PR: And, basically, we lucked out in some ways. From production to getting to post sound, it was almost a year and half. We had time to financially recover from shooting it, to then be able to put more money into post. We knew that we were going to have to dump a lot into sound to make up for the fact that it was largely on set. I had a little Zoom recorder on the handheld phone rig and Patrick was holding a boom pole in one hand with a phone in the other. The audio was a mix of that boom, a single lavalier mic, a little two-pronged Zoom mic and I’d say more than 50% was phone audio. I think we used iPhone audio for all of it and in the end, like Patrick said too, 45-50% of the movie is ADR now.
We had a great sound designer whose name is Charles Moody. It was incredible timing. I had just done two short films with him back to back, right as we hit THRESHOLD’s post sound. So I was like, ‘Hey man. I’ve got this tiny movie. I can probably pay you half of what they’re paying on the short, but I think you’ll have fun with it.’ And he did. We were actually going through the Stem’s today and I would say that we could probably release a sound only, no dialogue cut of this and people would be shocked. Pretty much front to back, almost everything you hear, Charlie designed. Clothing rustle, tapping on the phone, every single footstep, every ambiance. We didn’t have production sound, more or less. We had a production sound skeleton and he shaped it out.
PY: It’s interesting looking back. The foley session that Powell, Charles and I did was the last non-masked group event that I did before the pandemic hit. The three of us alone in a room munching on chips, crunching bags and clomping boots.
You’ve also spoken publicly about how important THRESHOLD’s colorist was in helping the film not look like a traditional ‘phone film.’ Talk a little bit about that and how the process ultimately affected the final product.
PR: So, Kinan Chabani, who did the color, he had actually worked on another feature that I shot and that Patrick had written called Greenlight. And I had worked with him on a bunch of music videos and commercials in the meantime. He’s just got a really good eye for dirtying up digital clean images and kind of roughing them up in a way that feels more analog. He can also make things very polished and pretty, but I like it when he tears my work a new one. Turns them grunge.
We knew that what was coming out of the phones, while we could shoot in a sort of flat mode to give him some flexibility, it was going to take someone who really understood the tone of the movie and how to work with digital footage to make it feel less so. There’s a lot of issues when you shoot with a phone like, it can’t handle highlights. The sky gets blown out in a way that cinema cameras might not. There’s no shadow information in the way that an Alexa might have. And he was sort of able to use that to his advantage. He took the lack of shadow information and made it look like an older film. 16mm film and older film doesn’t retain those shadows and he really played into that. I think that’s why this doesn’t have the same look that a lot of phone movies do where they might just try to make it look like a more saturated, pretty version of the image. Kinan went in and really tore it all down and rebuilt it from the ground up.
The debate about whether or not you can make a movie with a cell phone never seems to die and yet, this film really stands as a testament to the fact that you can.
PY: It’s all to scale. I mean, you look at the careers of Adam Wingard and Joe Swanberg. They’re not making Lawrence of Arabia with their friends. And we didn’t make Lawrence of Arabia with our friends. We found actors and a story we really loved and themes that hopefully resonate right now: loss of control, struggling with drugs, maintaining relationships after a long break. We hope they resonate with people and they were really personal to us. How we made it and everything is a cool cherry on top, but having the story and talent in front of the camera, we’d be nowhere without it. So if you have that, you can do whatever with whatever.
You two share directing credit on this film, as well as several others. What is it that you like about working as a directing team? How do you divvy up the labor?
PR: When one of us is tired, the other just takes over. (Laughs) But seriously, a lot of people assume that I just handle the camera stuff and Patrick handles the writing stuff. It happens a lot, even with our friends. And what happens is kind of the opposite occasionally. I don’t like to think about the camera work when I’m on set directing because I find it a distraction to the directing work. And I think Patrick spends so much time writing that he wants to get invested in the camera side of things when we’re on set. Because we have very similar tastes and often see things very much the same way, even when I say wide shot, I may see it from one side of the room and he might see it from the other, but there’s value to both. Then we can decide why one works better for the story. As far as the actors, we’ve found that it works better if we talk about our notes beforehand. We’ll talk about what didn’t work about the scene or what didn’t work for each character, but we won’t talk to the same actor at the end of each scene. We don’t want to overwhelm a person with two brains worth of thoughts. So, we’ll often split up and each talk to an actor per take and then the next take might switch.
PY: We’ve been working together long enough now at this point that I can trust that Powell isn’t going to fuck it up for her. Or, I’m not going to fuck it up for this person.
PR: It’s a thing where, left to our own devices, yes – each of us could probably have directed one of these scenes and it would have been generally the same, but we each will have a spark or something that resonates with us that ultimately makes it all better just because we’re there doing it together.
PY: Because we’re so close as friends too, we know each other and know each other’s worst impulses as well. If I were to go off and do my own thing it might end up looking more like Southland Tales than THRESHOLD. And Powell is always there to kind of put the cap on and make sure things don’t get “too Patrick.” (Laughs) And vice versa.
PR: I do love Southland Tales, but yes. I think we do keep each other’s worst impulses in check as well. I think I would go a little too sad and dark if I was left alone. (Laughs)
You’ve recently partnered with Arrow Video to handle distribution for THRESHOLD. Which honestly, is pretty awesome. How did that relationship come about?
PR: Oddly similar to Bastard. We kind of expected after Bastard that our next movie would have a more traditional distribution route where we go to festivals, get a sales agent and hopefully they’d pick up that way. Where we weren’t doing the legwork. And we tried. We got a connection to a really great sales agency, but we got to them too late. The movie had already been released at festivals which made it a bit too late for them to help us. But, they gave us some spots to check out and one of them was Arrow. So, we blindly cold-emailed 20 something places and hoped for the best. And Arrow, I think Patrick you might be able to remember where they saw us, I think they saw us at Salem or Soho Horror Fest? Or both? I don’t remember, but some of the team had already seen it, and they were excited to hear from us which was cool!
Will there be a physical release as well?
PY: Yes. This summer we will have a physical Blu-ray release coming out at the same time it expands to iTunes, Amazon and everything. So, we are in the process of putting together all the extras actually right now.
That’s so cool you guys.
PR: I know! We’re freaking out.
PY: Who knew, in the middle of it, with all five of us sleeping on the floor of a $50 hotel in Vegas, this would be getting a premiere Blu-ray release in multiple countries?