The upcoming film Devil’s Mile is an amalgamation of a crime thriller, road movie, and a pretty damned spooky horror flick, all wrapped up in a nice, surreal package (you can check out my review here). Recently, I had the chance to chat a bit with the writer/director (and several other responsibilities, see below) of the film, Joseph O’Brien, to gain some insights.
LEGLESSCORPSE: You obviously have a love and respect for both Asian horror and crime thrillers; the way you structured your story and scenes was both surreal and exciting. What were some of your inspirations, both for story and filming style?
JOSEPH O’BRIEN: It’s funny, the Asian horror thing was…not exactly an accident, but not really on purpose either. In the original draft of the script they had kidnapped a rich socialite, sort of a Paris Hilton figure, and when she came back from the dead it was going to be a sort of demonic debutante – conceptually it was a little more over-the-top than what we eventually came up with. But as we developed it, I had a notion that the kidnap victims could be Japanese. It opened up a bunch of story possibilities and reveals, like the language issues and other things that come up, but it wasn’t really until we got to set that I realized we had kind of backed into making a sort of J-horror homage without really meaning to. I’m really glad we did it, though, because Amanda brought some wonderful layers to Kanako in both her human and ghostly form.
The nucleus of the original story came out of a real experience I had driving cross-country from Toronto to Los Angeles in February of 1997. I was delivering a vehicle to my then-boss, this gargantuan Chevy Suburban that legend had it had once belonged to John Candy. I recruited a couple of friends for what was supposed to be a fairly fun trip, and it quickly devolved into a real nightmare for all of us. The truck kept breaking down, stranding us in increasingly desolate areas of the American Southwest, getting short on funds and shorter on temper as it went on, finally culminating in this terrifying non-stop no-sleep journey through torrential rainstorms, bridges washing out just behind us, towns being flattened by tornadoes right after we’d driven through them.
It was crazy. And finally I wound up driving through the Arizona desert in the middle of the night, having not slept in more than a day, drifting in and out of a waking dream state, convinced that if the truck broke down we were all going to die, and just trying to push on into dawn…which was a very long time coming. And we finally arrived in LA on the day the North Hollywood shootout went down between the LAPD and these two crazy bank robbers kitted out with body armour and assault rifles. So the combination of hallucinatory road horror and violent crime were burned into my psyche.
LC: The interaction and relationships of your principals was a big part of the enjoyment of the film for me…did you have a backstory for them in place, or was that just excellent acting on your directorial instruction?
JO: It was a combination of elements. The characters had a history that was dictated by the screenplay. But I have to give a lot of credit to the cast for really digging into the material. The actors, being good at their jobs, all took those points as a launchpad to further develop their own histories and deepen their relationships with each other, and whenever possible I tried to incorporate those discoveries into the body of the film. For example, David Hayter, who plays Toby, has no scenes with Mr. Arkadi (played by Frank Moore), but he imagined a whole relationship between the two characters that informed a lot of his decisions as an actor, and we managed to get a little bit of it into the dialogue on the day. I think it added another layer to his character and to the story.
Casey Hudecki was always bombarding me with questions about Jacinta’s life and choices that helped her zero in on the character. Amanda Joy Lim, who plays Kanako, likewise had very detailed ideas of why her character behaved in certain ways in both human and ghostly form, and I think she added a lot of subtlety and nuance to a character who could have, in lesser hands, essentially reduced to “scary ghost girl”. So I’m very grateful to all of them.
LC: Having really enjoyed the film as much as I did, I’ll bet that you, the cast, and crew all had a blast working on it. Any particular on-set memories or anecdotes you’d like to share?
JO: After we wrapped our first day on the road location, which was actually a private airfield situated on a massive estate, myself and a couple of other crewmembers were accidentally locked out of the hangar we were using as home base. Our car keys were in there and everyone else had gone home, so we were basically stranded. The only person who had a key to the hangar was the owner, this very nice but very eccentric guy who had had a log cabin built in the middle of the woods somewhere on the property. So there we were, creeping through the very dark woods at two in the morning, looking for a crazy old man in a cabin in the woods, and we realized in that moment not only were we making a horror movie, we were actually behaving like we were in one…specifically during one of those scenes where the audience is yelling at the characters for being so stupid.
LC: Your cast was outstanding; all of them really seemed perfect for their roles. Was this your dream cast for Devil’s Mile, or was it just good fortune with auditions?
JO: It’s not so much a dream cast as a gift from The Movie Gods. They came to us from many places. Maria Del Mar read the script and committed a full year before we went to camera – I had worked with her several years before and thought of her immediately for this. Casey was someone I knew socially and knew she was a terrific stage actor and stuntperson, but she hadn’t been in a movie before. We screen-tested her and after that it wasn’t even a question of looking at anyone else, we knew we had our Jacinta. Sam (Samantha Wan) and Amanda came in very late during the Suki and Kanako auditions – for a while there I thought we weren’t going to find anyone who was appropriate — and then they walked in and were absolutely as I had envisioned them. It was like they jumped off the page. And of course we were tremendously fortunate to get David, who responded so strongly to the script and to the Toby character.
LC: You blended CGI with very nice practical makeup effects; what kind of challenges did you face meshing this together so well?
JO: Thank you very much for saying so. There’s actually no CGI per se in the movie. 95% of what you see with the creature effects is the work of Allan Cooke, our makeup effects designer, and Shara Kim, who plays the Demon. I’m a big believer in practical effects, but I also wanted to give Kanako’s demon form a slightly unreal quality, so there was some augmenting of what we shot to give her an inconstant, flowing, almost liquid quality. And all of those augmentations were achieved using material we had photographed on location. So it’s more a case of computer enhanced images, not computer generated ones.
We’ve had some people grouse about the use of CGI in the movie, and all I can say is “Dude, that’s not CGI, it’s a real person on set.”
LC: You’ve worked in a lot of capacities in the film business; on Devil’s Mile, you wore most of the hats; how difficult was this on you? Which aspect is your favorite?
JO: I’m a writer first and foremost, and that’s still the part that gets me out of bed in the morning. But on this film I was writer, director, one of the producers, one of the editors, the special effects designer … it was a lot of work, and it was hard juggling those responsibilities. I had to be able to communicate with the cast and crew as writer, director and producer, and had to be clear about which hat I was wearing in any given situation. Being on set is very chaotic and very draining; I’m much happier when it’s just me in a room alone working with the material. So that was the writing at the beginning and then the editing at the end, which was a process I also immensely enjoy – they seem like very different jobs, but they light up the same parts of my brain.
LC: Now that you’ve completed Devil’s Mile, what other projects are currently in the works for you?
JO: That’s a good question. I have a couple of projects cooking, and I’m really pleased to just be writing a new script again, which I haven’t had time to do because I was working on Devil’s Mile. But it’s early days on all of those. I’m curious and excited to see where the road leads next …
LC: And if I remember correctly…”the road will never let you go”!
I’d like to thank Joseph one last time for such a great film and for taking the time to talk with us, and wish him the very best of luck with that script and whatever else the future holds for him; I know I’ll be watching!
DEVIL’S MILE will release in the U.S. and Canada on August 12th!
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