As heartfelt as it is unsettling, the "Father's Day" segment of the horror anthology Holidays is not only my favorite short of the film, it's also one of the most enthralling things I've seen this year. For most of its runtime, the segment solely stars Jocelin Donahue as Carol, a woman listening to the instructions of her supposedly dead father (voiced by Michael Gross) on a tape player, leading her to a final destination of either hope or horror.
With Holidays now out in theaters and on VOD courtesy of Vertical Entertainment and XYZ Films, I had a chance to speak with Donahue, who discussed her powerful performance in "Father's Day" as well as her improvised scene with Christian Bale and Antonio Banderas in Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups.
What attracted you to this story by Anthony Scott Burns and the role of Carol in particular?
Jocelin Donahue: Meeting Anthony, it was clear that he's a really, really talented guy—very smart and thoughtful. At our meeting I was really impressed with him and then I saw his earlier short film, Manifold, in which he also does a lot with minimal plot. He knows how to create this haunting atmosphere in a very minimalist way, which I love. I like that it ["Father's Day"] almost feels like a fable. There's not so much action or plot, but it's something that's really deep and powerful about relationships, parents, the afterlife, and how far you're willing to go to see someone that you think is dead. For a short film, it takes on these really big themes in a brilliant way.
Did you and Anthony discuss and expand Carol's backstory and what happens to her beyond what we see in the segment?
Jocelin Donahue: It really was just what was on the page. We don't know too much about her. We just know that she will do anything to see her dad again. We don't really have a definite answer for exactly what her dad did, what he traded to be able to draw her to the afterlife or exactly what is going on there, and that's something that's great, too. I don't like that it's fully resolved, that it's up to the audience to figure out. Ultimately we don't know what happens after we pass, so we don't know what the metaphysical dynamics are there.
The desolate beach town setting of "Father's Day" really amplifies the dread and loneliness of this story. Where did filming take place and what was your experience shooting there?
Jocelin Donahue: We shot out at the Salton Sea. It's about two hours from L.A. It's out in the Imperial Valley. It was an engineered lake to be used for agriculture, but since there was no more water being pumped into it and all the agricultural runoffs starting coming into it, it became very toxic. It used to be a place where the Rat Pack used to hang out, it used to be a resort town, and then the water started evaporating, the salinity started rising and it had a very strong pH level, so all the fish started dying. There are dead fish bones everywhere. It's a really creepy, gross, scary location.
There are still some people who live out there, but there are a lot of abandoned buildings and it's definitely a perfect setting to shoot a horror movie. It was really wild—a crazy place.
Definitely. That whole building that I walked into at the end, that used to be an old bank. There's just a lot of character out there. It feels like the place has been lost to time and the elements.
The great Michael Gross plays the voice of Carol's father on the tape player—Carol's only companion for most of the segment. Was his voice actually on the tape player when you were filming?
Jocelin Donahue: Actually no, I wasn't listening to anything. They hadn't recorded his voiceover until after we shot, so any opening scenes where I'm first listening to the tape at the table—Anthony did record his dialogue there and then played it through a distorted loop, so I was listening to something creepy. It wasn't Michael's voice, but when we got out to the Salton Sea, we didn't have that part of the dialogue yet, so I was just using my imagination or Anthony would call out what part of the script we were in and I would just go from there.
What was your reaction when you saw the final cut of that segment with Michael's voice added in. Was it a completely different experience for you?
Jocelin Donahue: For sure, it really just added that extra dimension. It's so haunting and so creepy and it really just elevated the whole film. His performance is incredible.
Similar to your role in The House of the Devil, you have a lot of solo time on-screen in this short film. Was it somewhat daunting to come into this project knowing you would mostly be acting alone, or were you comfortable with that from your previous experiences?
Jocelin Donahue: It's both. It's a huge opportunity to have a lead role like that and of course there is a little more pressure since you're not playing off of anybody. Anthony and I did talk about that. He said, "This whole movie is going to be told through your face because there's not much else going on," so I relished that opportunity. It was a chance to make it a really personal performance and draw on my own feelings for my parents and what it would feel like to lose someone and what I would do to see them again.
You and Anthony were really on the same page creatively throughout this project. Is he someone you'd like to work with again in the future?
Jocelin Donahue: Definitely. I can tell he's going to do really well in this business because not only does he have the skills of the writer and director, but he comes from a world of VFX, and he does all the music. He scored and composed all the music for this movie, so he's a self-taught, really brilliant guy who's got great style, loves cinema and knows so much about cinematic history and really just wants to make great films.
It sounds like "Father's Day" was truly an independent project.
Jocelin Donahue: It was a really tiny crew. His wife was the makeup artist. His good friend is the producer, who he's worked with on many things. Really it was just the wonderful cinematographers—the husband and wife team of Kevin and Rebecca Joelson, who are so, so talented. I loved what they did with the film. It was a really tiny crew and it allowed us all to do our best work and pull it together and make something great.
In addition to Holidays, you also recently appeared in Knight of Cups. What was it like working with the legendary Terrence Malick?
Jocelin Donahue: It was an unforgettable experience. I was on set one day for a very crazy, surreal party scene. Just being on set was so interesting because none of us, as far as I know, had any script. I didn't have a script. I just had a vague idea of what I was supposed to be representing at the party, which was innocence and pure love, and I would be standing next to Terrence and he would push me in to go. They call it "torpedoing", when an actor comes in and interrupts the lead actor and gives them something to think about or talk about. It was all improvised, which was wild because I was in a scene with Christian Bale and Antonio Banderas. It was crazy. It was a wonderful, artistic experience and Terrence had this very spiritual grandfather vibe. He's a very gentle soul and really smart and obviously a true artist, so it was such an honor to just be on set with him.
With Holidays now out in theaters and on VOD, do you have any upcoming projects that you can tease?
Jocelin Donahue: Yeah, I'm very excited about another horror project that I shot in Texas last summer called Dead Awake that was written by Jeffrey Reddick, creator of the Final Destination series, and directed by a great indie filmmaker, Phillip Guzman. He's done a lot of indie crime stories and this is his first real, true horror film. It's about the real world phenomena of sleep paralysis. It's a terrifying subject matter and I actually play twins in this movie, so that was a really unique and cool opportunity.