Vertical Entertainment is set to release co-writer/director Brandon Christensen’s Still/Born in theaters and on VOD tomorrow, and in anticipation of the supernatural thriller, Daily Dead caught up with Christensen to chat about his feature directorial debut and what inspired the script that he co-penned with Colin Minihan (Extraterrestrial, It Stains the Sands Red). Christensen also discussed the challenges he faced while making Still/Born and his experiences collaborating with the film’s co-stars Christie Burke and genre favorite Jesse Moss.
Congratulations, Brandon. This movie subverted a lot of my expectations, and I thought it was really interesting that as much as the story is about Mary, it’s also this story about Jesse's character as he’s trying to save his wife and keep his family together. I'd love to hear about where the idea for the script came from and what your process was working with Colin, as I know you guys worked together on It Stains the Sands Red, which is another film I also really enjoyed. What was that back-and-forth like between you guys as you were putting this story together?
Brandon Christensen: Yeah, I was the producer on It Stains the Sands Red. It was the first time I ever worked on a feature film, and I'd been friends with Colin for a long time. When he sent me the script for that, and because I'm in Las Vegas and it's a script about Las Vegas, I was really adamant on helping out as much as I could.
So, Colin and Stuart [Ortiz] came out, and we just kind of scouted for a couple of days and found a bunch of little locations that we could shoot at, and immediately we went into pre-production and made that film. Then, as Colin was finishing up the film, he was thinking about the next one already. I had done some short films, and I'm a commercial guy, too—that's how I pay the bills—so he wanted to try and find something for me to direct. We looked around different script services to see if there was anything that we could option or something like that, but nothing felt really all that compelling for us at the time.
I randomly had this vision about a woman giving birth to two babies, and one of the babies dies and that information is communicated just through the looks between the mother and the nurse's eyes. Then, it would go to a smash cut of the mom in the nursery holding one baby, but there's two cribs on each side, so Colin and I started talking about that, and just developing it, looking more into postpartum depression, and ultimately postpartum psychosis.
The writing process was kind of interesting, just because we're long distance, too; he was in Toronto at the time, I'm in Las Vegas, so there were a lot of Skype calls and FaceTime calls, mostly pitching ideas, bad or good, and writing them down into Google documents and trying to format this script just how we needed it. It was super-fast. We had a really good rapport working. I know it was the first time we ever really worked together in that capacity, so it only took two or three weeks before we had a full treatment, and then maybe two or three weeks more we had a first draft. I tackled the first half of the film, and he tackled the second half, and then we would just go and read the script together, and make changes all the way through until we had a draft that we felt was good enough to send out to some of the producers that we wanted to work with.
You mentioned your commercial background and that you've done some shorts, but what were the challenges for you coming into this being your first narrative project? Considering this is mostly a one-location film, I’m guessing one of the biggest considerations you had to make was keeping the location visually interesting for viewers. You guys did a good job with that, though, because I thought the way you played up the shadows really heightened the atmosphere of the film.
Brandon Christensen: After we did It Stains the Sands Red, where we were in the desert with an hour or two-hour drive at four in the morning every day, when we were thinking about writing this script together, one of the main focuses was keeping it contained and comfortable because that was such a nightmare. So, like every writing decision, it was based on keeping it as small and cheap as possible, but it's funny because when we were scouting and everything, we were looking for a small, suburban, cookie-cutter home because this was a young family, it's their first house, and the script is written that way.
And we found this great house. It was empty, it was for sale, and the owner agreed to let us rent it for a month, and then when we were a week out of production, someone made an offer, a cash offer, and they couldn't turn it down. The possession was right at the beginning of the filming schedule, so we had to scramble. We looked all over for similar houses until we decided that my parents have this nice big house, maybe we can talk to them. So, the house in the film is actually my parents' house, and it's funny in some ways because this young couple has this huge, gorgeous lake house, and that's pretty improbable.
So, we wrote a couple lines in the film after we changed it, just to try and deflect from that, with the mom saying, "Aren't you a little too young to have kids?" and making Jack a partner in his firm at work and everything. But I think it was a blessing in disguise, ultimately, because the house is so ridiculously cinematic. Because Mary lost one of her kids, she doesn't feel whole, there's this fracture through her, and having this big house for them to be in, and even though it's a beautiful home and it's very well-decorated and everything, it's still very off-putting how small and alone she always feels, even when she's with the baby and her husband.
The house being the way it is definitely lent itself to just being able to dwarf her character and make her feel small and weak. It’s also scarier any time you've got this big space to look at, when you’re looking for something in the dark, because you never know what's going to be around the corner.
Can you talk about working with Christie and getting her into the fragile mindset of her character, Mary? You definitely put her through the wringer in this.
Brandon Christensen: Christie, in pre-production, started working with an acting teacher who had apparently gone through postpartum depression, so she was able to tap into that a little bit before we even went into production. She had a lot of ideas and thoughts about the places she could take Mary. And a lot of them were awesome and we were able to use a ton of them, but the nice thing is since it was an emergency move back to the house, I was actually living on set, and because the house has enough space, Christie was as well, so it was kind of a nice opportunity for us to be able to work together a lot during the day. If we were doing a night shoot, we would get up and talk about the day and go through all the things we were going to do that day, and some situations we'd be able to block them out fully before the crew even showed up, so it was a nice dynamic to have that because you don't typically have that much time.
It's a super tough role, obviously. It was her first time being the lead in a film, and she's on screen 95 percent of the time. Most of the time she's alone, so the movie lives and dies with her, and I think she did a great job, especially because we threw her into the gauntlet because of Jesse's schedule. He was only available for the second half of the shoot, so Christie was alone for six straight days before we started bringing in other actors. We started to film with all the big horror beats and stuff like that first, and then got into the other parts of the film later on.
You mentioned Jesse, who has been in a lot of films, and a lot of great genre movies as well. How much did his experience lend itself to the production itself, because he has been through this so many times in his career already?
Brandon Christensen: Jesse is just the most professional person I've ever worked with. It's hilarious because he's been a lifelong actor. I mean, he was on old episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? and he’s lived on camera his entire life. One of the things that excited me, because normally with this kind of a budget and this range of film, we wouldn't be able to get someone like him, but Colin Minihan, my partner on this, had worked with him on Extraterrestrial, so they had a friendship from that. There was really no casting process outside of me having a 30-minute Skype call with him and just talking about parenthood.
And because he has a kid, he was able to tap into that for the film, which I was happy about because even though it's a film about Mary, it's also about this dad that doesn't really relate to what his wife is going through. There's a disconnect between them, because she had two babies inside of her for nine months, and at the end of the day, his character still sees the product of that pregnancy whereas the character of Mary will never feel the entirety of what she went through for those nine months. He just got this character, and he always knew exactly how to handle his scenes. Jesse was awesome to work with on this.