This past weekend, the 2017 Dances With Films festival wrapped up here in Los Angeles, and before we said goodbye to the fest’s impressive slate of indie genre projects, we had the opportunity to check out the stellar short film, Alfred J. Hemlock, from co-writer/director Edward Lyons and co-writer/producer Melissa Lyons. It stars Tristan McKinnon as the titular character who stalks a young woman named Emily (Renaye Loryman) one night down a darkened alley and terrorizes her, only to have Emily push back against her supernatural antagonizer in some unexpected ways.
Daily Dead had the pleasure of chatting with those involved with Alfred J. Hemlock during the festival, where they discussed how the project came to be, collaborating with each other, paying homage to the horror genre, and much more. And for more information on Lyons’ short film, be sure to check out their website HERE.
Fantastic job, everyone. Edward, I’d love to hear what inspired this story and what made you decide that this character would make for a great short film subject.
Edward Lyons: Well, it's interesting. It started off as a really simple idea because the previous film that I had done was called A Man on the Edge, which was about a guy on a cliff top about to commit suicide. It had a lot of memory flashbacks for him whilst he was there. Consequently in shooting it, it meant a lot of locations. So I just thought that I wanted the next shoot to be more concentrated on performances and that we should just keep it in the one place. I had this idea that was needling away at me about a girl walking down an alleyway, and some person or entity, who might try to mug her or something like that. It was not going to be supernatural at all.
Then, somewhat, it was inspired by a story my mother told me when I was a little kid, when she lived in the inner city parts of Sydney and she was walking home one night. She was walking down this alleyway, and she could hear these footsteps behind her, and as she sped up, so too did the footsteps. She broke out into a run to get out of this alleyway back into the main street where the lights were, and the footsteps behind her were running, too. I asked her, "Did you ever turn around and see who it was?" She said, "No. I never once turned back until I hit the front door of the home."
That idea had sat with me, so it kind of came together with the fact that I wanted to keep it simple, one location, and that idea, that story that I'd grown up with. It developed from that, and it ended up becoming the most difficult film I've ever shot in my life. And as I was working on the concept, I thought if we went with a more straightforward route, this could be quite unpalatable for certain members of the audience. It became something that didn't interest me. I didn't want to go into those dark territories and be completely literal.
As I was working with Mel, who is a big horror fan, she suggested that we should push it into the realm of the supernatural, because then it becomes metaphorical, and allows an audience to make a connection to that character in that situation. At first, the film was originally called The Alleyway, and it wasn't really centered around the character which Tristan plays. But the first shoot was a disaster because it was raining. Sydney's heavens just opened up, and a torrential rain was coming. The first AD [assistant director] came up and said, "Here's the weather report on the app, and it showed even more clouds coming in, and more rain." So we just had to call it. Then, the second night we didn't get through the shoot because we had same problem with the weather.
Then we regrouped a few weeks later and said, "Okay, we'll go back out." I had to get a new cinematographer and a new gaffer, because we were working with people in the industry who do this work for a living, so they had gigs now, which meant we had to get some new people in. But we had a technical fault with the cameras, so everything that we shot that weekend was just a bust. It was something wrong with the camera and everything—it didn't capture the media properly. It was really underexposed for some reason.
We then had to regroup again, and I found a producer who had really good connections, and he knew a guy who was a cinematographer named Simon Harding. He'd shot things like King Kong (2005), Where the Wild Things Are, and he shot on Star Wars [Episode III – Revenge of the Sith), too. Having to delay things actually gave me and Mel some time, so the first two shoots were kind of like very elaborate dress rehearsals for us, and it gave us time to be able to germinate on the ideas and how to develop the story.
We wanted to do an homage to certain horror films, and we were trying to work in how we could create that. I was very inspired at the time by Stanley Kubrick, and particularly The Shining. You know how creepy those scenes are, when Jack Nicholson goes into the men's room, and there’s a mysterious man who says to him, "How are you, sir? Danny’s a very naughty boy, if I may be so bold, sir." And that's just so weird, and it's like, "Is he talking, is that person really there, or is he an unreliable narrator, and is it all in his head?"
So we set that up with Renaye [Loryman's] character. We planted seeds that she may be an unreliable narrator, and this all could be in her head, and maybe it's not, and maybe it's a manifestation of something inside her, too. Something else that was important to us was that I believe that characters should be different from the beginning as they are at the end of story. If they're not and nobody changes, then you're kind of left at the end thinking, "Yeah, but so what? If the characters on the screen didn't care enough to be affected by it, why should I be affected by it?" So that was a big part of this story.
Tristan, how was it for you, getting into the head of this character?
Tristan McKinnon: The important thing was to think about if Alfred J Hemlock was a spiritual animal, then where is that from? And I have got a Christian background, so I kind of used my own understanding of that theology, to basically set up the premise of darkness, and good and evil. I used the Judeo-Christian setup to be able to place Hemlock. As I started to explore, what struck me was that Hemlock was trying to not expose his cracks, and I felt that his sense of evil, his nature wants to overflow out because he's so hungry. He has this desperate desire, this insatiable desire to feed, because that's his life source.
I thought I could imagine if I was, say, an angel that was close to God in heaven, close to light, and source, and love, and all of that. Then I decided I was now separate from it, and I no longer wanted a part of it, I was now darkness. Yet the only sustenance I can get is to have life. I imagined just being hungry, insatiably hungry for all of eternity, and how that would just drive you mad. That's why I wanted to tie myself up in a stretchy rope, to sort of feel what it would be like to want to burst out all the time. Hemlock is a veneer and his nature at any moment wants to crack through, and so he's using a lot of strength to actually hold himself back, because he's a wolf in sheep's clothing.
We did prep a lot, but there was so much to explore. That's why having three goes at it was amazing because we were given three goes in front of a camera, and I was able to go deep. There’s a lot to absorb about a character like this, and a lot of exploration work I wanted to do just getting into the physicality of a creature that is containing himself. It was just playing around with different ideas, and a lot of things developed when we reeled it in, and as soon as I got into costume, too, almost in an instinctual way. It just felt right.
Renaye, so much of this short is about Emily’s arc and finding her inner strength. Can you discuss your approach to the character? I think she’s very relatable on a lot of levels.
Renaye Loryman: Yeah, very much so. I remember reading something once that said the greatest threat most women face is that we're born female. That's unfortunately how it is, and I do want to see that change in my lifetime. Emily was like a memory, very much a memory of an experience that I had had. Being quite young, I grew up in a country town and moved to Sydney, which is a big city in Australia, with a boy. He was terribly unpleasant to me, and it was just a really awful time. To the point where he actually left me. I didn't even break it up with him. He left me. I'm in this big city alone and feeling very vulnerable. Then, the second he left, I was able to get stronger.
A lot of the scenes where Emily is struggling emotionally was me just remembering that time in my life, and being treated so awfully for no reason. And looking at the character Emily, I was like, "You don't deserve this. You haven't done anything. You don't deserve this.” But I understood how she felt, And some of her lines where she says, "I'll do better next time, I promise." Even saying that now, I still feel choked up, because it’s a hard memory. But all of us, and that includes myself, have a 100 percent success rate of being able to survive these awful situations, so I really related to that aspect of Emily.
Ed wanted to do this film and he said to me, "I want to do a film with you." We worked together in another place, as our day job, and he told me this idea about a girl getting terrorized in an alleyway. He said, "I want you to do that,” because I guess he and Melissa knew my triggers when it came to what would really bring all of this out in me.
Also, too, this was the first short film I'd ever worked on to this quality. Part of it was, I felt very out of my element and afraid of the whole process of filming. I remember sitting in the car and just thinking, "I can't do this." I don’t know, I guess it was this fear of, "I can't do this! I'm not an actor! What am I doing?" I'd done a few plays in community theater, but I never thought of myself as an actor. Ed said something to me that really brought it all forward, "You're doing what you're meant to be doing," and that really helped me.
Have you guys thought about taking this story further and making it into a feature? It seems like the Alfred Hemlock character could really have some fun during a 90-minute runtime.
Edward Lyons: We hadn't even conceived it that way; we weren't trying to do a proof of concept piece or anything with this short. When Mel and I were writing it, we wanted to write something that was really powerful in the short film form. We were trying to say, "Okay, this is an art form unto itself, and we want to be able to tell a great story in 14 minutes or less. It also had to have a great, strong beginning, and a middle, and an end. That was our goal, to be able to not write a novel, but to write something strong in the short form. But in doing so, now we have had quite a few people now saying to us, "Wow, I want more of this world." One person even said to me, "My biggest criticism of the film is I want more." I think that's because everybody put so much work into it. It has become something bigger than we thought it could be, and that's been exciting to us and other people, too.