SUNDANCE Film Festival | 2019
Shorts Program 4
It's Halloween night, 1984, and 18-year-old Renee is madly in love with her boyfriend Jim. They've made plans to go to a frat party, but after he picks her up -- late again, but affectionate -- he takes a detour, driving off the beaten path to a haunted house. Here, Renee is forced to confront a terrifying situation and come face to face with the thing that, deep down, she's most afraid of.
Hi Carlen thanks for talking to TNC, you all set for the Sundance?
Definitely! I just need to dig up my snow boots and finish packing.
Do you ever get any nerves ahead of a festival screening?
This is actually my first major festival screening, and I would say I’m pretty nervous! But I’m also incredibly excited -- there’s truly nothing akin to seeing your work played for an audience, especially when it comes to horror, where audience reaction is so crucial.
How does it mean for you to be premiering The Rat at Sundance?
It still feels totally surreal to be premiering this film at Sundance. After years of hard work, this sort of recognition is incredibly affirming of both my career and the film itself. I’m so excited to be able to attend the festival and share this experience with many members of my wonderful cast and crew.
Tell me a little bit about The Rat, how did the film come about?
THE RAT was conceived as a loose proof of concept for a feature that I’ve been writing with producer Beck Kitsis, entitled STRAWBERRY SUMMER. I wanted to create something that expressed my directorial ethos and reflected the genre, tone, and visual style of the feature, but that told its own story and stood on its own merits.
I was really inspired by horror itself as I set out to experiment with the conventions of the genre to tell a story about the realities of fear. I was drawn to the iconic imagery of a haunted house -- a space that’s full of eerie potential and unknowable terror. Working within this tradition I aimed to both embrace and subvert the conventions of horror, and to find that terror that comes both from within the house and within the relationship at the centre of the film.
What was the most challenge scene for you to make?
The scenes in the haunted house were certainly challenging. We shot them all in one night, with some of the most complicated camera and lighting setups. However, it was actually one of the more simple scenes that provided the biggest obstacles. On the second day, we had planned to start our day by shooting a short scene where Renee wakes up alone in her bedroom. However, when we got to the location the morning of, we found that the bedroom we were going to use was tiny, on the 5th floor of the building, and we weren’t going to be able to take anything on or off of the walls. After trying to troubleshoot for a few minutes, we realized it just wasn’t going to work, and I’ll admit I started to panic. But thinking on our feet, we were able to finagle a mattress and production designer Lance Mitchell magically whipped up an impeccable bedroom set in a corner of a living room, using apple boxes and lighting crates as a makeshift bed frame and furniture. I think I turned my back for 5 minutes, and when I came back the set had bloomed into existence. From there on out the scene was smooth sailing.
Looking back is there anything you would do differently on this film?
Immediately after any shoot, I find that there are a million things I wish I had done differently. Over the course of production on THE RAT, I learned so much about planning, simplifying, and the process of directing itself, and I will carry all of this into my next project. But ultimately I was able to make the film that I wanted to make in spite of the mistakes I made and the difficulties that came up along the way, and I’m incredibly proud.
"Listen to, respect, and internalize the criticism and feedback you receive..."
Have you always been interested in filmmaking?
I’ve been interested in film for as long as I can remember, and I’ve known I wanted to make films since I was 14. I came to filmmaking through screenwriting -- I went to an arts high school to study creative writing, and when I took my first screenwriting class in freshman year something clicked. I started going to more movies, thinking about the film more analytically, and just kept writing. I had probably written at least a dozen short scripts before I made my first film in college, and I’ve been directing and writing ever since. I’m so lucky to have grown up with an incredible support system and access to the resources that allowed me to follow my dreams.
As a filmmaker how important is the collaborative process for you?
The collaboration that must happen to make a film is completely unique and incredibly powerful. In order to bring my vision to life, I need to put so much trust in each and every member of my team, and they must do the same in return. It’s a joy to be on a film set where everyone is truly working in tandem, everyone’s work fitting together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
I was so lucky to have so many fabulous collaborators for THE RAT, some of whom I’ve been working with for years and some of whom I had just met. Filmmaking simply cannot be done alone, and the creative and personal relationships I have with my collaborators are incredibly special to me.
How much has your approach to your work changed since your debut film?
Since I started making films, my work has centred around the troubled inner lives of young women and girls, and I continue to explore this topic with THE RAT. I think the main way that my approach to my work has changed is that I’ve become more adept at knowing when to take a narrative or visual risk and when to simplify for the sake of storytelling. When I was starting out, I wanted to fit every single idea I had into a film and would wear myself to the ground trying to get a shot that ultimately didn’t add much to the film. When I found that wasn’t working, I tried simplifying to the point of losing much of what I was excited about. Now, I strive to prioritize my favourite ideas, but weigh them realistically against the reality of a shoot or an editing session, and find a balance that supports the story I am trying to tell.
Do you have any advice or tips for a fellow filmmaker?
It’s been so important to me to find people to work with who uplift me and believe in me, and I would advise anyone who wants to make a film to actively seek out people who share your artistic perspective and work ethic. Otherwise, it may sound cliche, but trust your gut and make your own choices. Listen to, respect, and internalize the criticism and feedback you receive, but work towards knowing when to follow your instincts.
What are you currently working on?
For the past few years, producer Beck Kitsis and I have been collaborating as co-writers on STRAWBERRY SUMMER, a horror film about a young girl’s coming of age as she contends with increasingly violent attention from the men in her life. With the support of the incredible folks at Cinereach and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and with several crew members already signed on, we’re hoping to go into pre-production sooner rather than later.
I’m also in the early stages of developing a new feature screenplay. Tentatively titled THE PENTHOUSE, it’s a sci-fi drama that examines the intricacies of romantic and platonic relationships between queer femmes. In the coming year, I will continue to grow my film and media collective NITE SHIFT and direct music videos and other various short projects.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from this film?
Perhaps most importantly, I hope that people will be scared! That’s how I’ll know that the film is working. The ability to scare people is so powerful -- it requires an audience to be incredibly vulnerable and I don’t take that lightly. Therefore, I hope that if the audience is scared by the film, that they will be compelled to think deeply about that fear, and how fear is often used in real life to control and denigrate the marginalized.