Hitting theaters this weekend is Countdown, from writer/director Justin Dec. The film’s story is centered around a nurse (Elizabeth Lail) who comes across a mysterious app that can somehow predict your death, and when she realizes that her time is almost up, it’s a race against the clock to find a way to stop death from claiming her as its latest victim.
Daily Dead had the chance to speak with the first-time feature filmmaker this week, and Dec discussed what inspired the story to Countdown and how he transitioned from making shorts to features, and why he feels like it’s important for any aspiring directors out there to continue to better themselves as storytellers through short-form filmmaking. Dec also talked about the cast of Countdown and his experiences collaborating with Howard Berger and the team at KNB EFX Group when it came time to create the movie’s monstrous being.
Look for Countdown on the big screen this Friday, courtesy of STX Films.
I think you guys did a really great job on Countdown, and it really surprised me in the best possible way. There are a lot of Final Destination vibes to this, but I think you guys found a really clever way to update it for where we are now, in terms of the things that we're obsessed with as a society these days.
Justin Dec: Wait a minute, are you saying we're obsessed with our phones? We're definitely not obsessed with our phones [laughs].
Oh yeah, we're definitely obsessed with our phones and probably ultimately, the way the world feels like it’s just going to hell, maybe we’re a bit obsessed with when our time will be up. Maybe, as a society, we're just waiting for the other shoe to fall.
Justin Dec: Oh yeah.
But I do think Countdown taps into some really interesting stuff that's going on today.
Justin Dec: Our phones are killing us, that's for sure. Dramatically, I was trying to say, "Put down your phones." If you found out you only had a few days to live, put down your phones. Spend time with the people that you love, and focus on being present and in the moment. We're so hooked on these things, it's insane. The truth is, we all just blatantly agree to every single thing for these "free apps," but we have no idea of what we're agreeing to.
Absolutely. So, what was the genesis for turning this idea of our obsession with apps and technology and things like that into a horror movie? It seems so logical and I'm not sure why nobody has done it yet.
Justin Dec: I was super nervous every step of the way that somebody was going to beat us out of the gate. I was like, "Guys, we've got to move faster." This was a three-year process since I made the short. The idea basically was me looking at a timer on my phone that I set, watching it tick down, and it just popped in there: what if it was ticking down to when I was going to die? It started there, and then I turned it into a little five-minute proof of concept short film that I started sending out to film festivals. Then, I crossed my fingers that the right producer would see it.
Our producers, Sean Anders and John Morris, I've known them for well over a decade. They do comedies, big comedies, and I was making comedy shorts for years that I was always sending them constantly. They just told me to keep at it. But when I sent them the horror short, their reaction was, "Stop sending this to film festivals, and let's go and make this," and we got to work. It was just insane.
At that time it was just the concept, we didn't have the script yet. We talked and talked and talked about the themes of the movie, and what story we wanted to tell, and what would be the movie without the supernatural elements. We always knew that we wanted it to be fun. We wanted to tap back into the time of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, where horror was a little more kitsch and it let the audience have some fun with it, too. That’s what we focused on, that kind of tone, until we were happy with where the script was, and off we went.
Well, I think it's really interesting for aspiring filmmakers out there, because a lot of people have said, "Oh, you're wasting your time making short films or this or that." Obviously, this is another great instance where short films can really make a difference. Initially, when you set out to do the short, did you know that you were going to want to turn this into a feature, or was it just serendipitous?
Justin Dec: At the time, it existed only to itself, because for me, it was an exercise. I had done all of these comedy shorts, which I directed, edited, so I wore all the hats. With comedy, you don't have to get too fancy, because if the joke is funny, it's funny. You just have to cover it and get the timing right. With any other genre like horror or sci-fi, it's all about pacing. Can you build the scare, can you build the suspense?
I wanted that challenge. I really wanted to see if I could do it as a filmmaker and I shot it over two nights in my apartment, and I edited it, and I was really, really happy with the result. I got to say as an aspiring director, it's all I ever wanted to do since I was a kid. Making shorts has always led to something else for me. One door always leads to another door, and any other filmmaker who is out reading this article right now, keep making shorts. Because I feel like I won the lottery with this, and honestly, with every single short that you do, you're going to get better. It's not a waste of time. It's so important to just keep working on your craft, and we have all of these tools now at our disposal, where you can pretty much make a movie for free.
I would love to talk about the cast for Countdown, because I think Elizabeth [Lail] is really fantastic in this, in terms of being the emotional anchor to the story. But I honestly think everybody in this movie is a lot of fun to watch, especially, Tom [Segura] and P.J. [Byrne]. There's a lot of really fun energy on the screen here.
Justin Dec: How lucky were we? Peter [Facinelli] was fun because he always plays such a likable character. I always loved him in Nurse Jackie as the bumbling doctor. I didn't know about Twilight, but I know people love him from Twilight. So to get to flip that, and make him into the most hatable character in the movie, that was great. Elizabeth, I watched the show You with my wife, and I turned to her and I just said, "That's Quinn." She is all heart and soul, and that's what this movie needed. You needed somebody that you were going to really care about, so that when we find out that she only has three days left, you are immediately rooting for her to figure out how to stop it. She just brings so much heart and soul to the character, and as a professional, she's just so lovely to work with, too. It's just amazing.
And Jordan Calloway, who plays Matt, I knew with his character, we needed somebody that audiences were going to love, and they were going to hate us for putting him in danger. Jordan was so likable in the room and in the chemistry test. He's a wonderful human being and a great actor, and it was a no-brainer to cast him as Matt. Tom Segura, we actually worked with him on Instant Family. I told him, "I have this role that you'd be perfect for." He didn't even blink, he was like, "I'll do it."
Believe it or not, P.J., we could not find the right person to play Father John because they were either playing the comedy up too much, or they were playing it too seriously. P.J., he just got it. We cast him on a Friday and we shot him the following Monday, and he just absorbed it like a sponge. He came in and he just knew who the character was. He understood exactly what we were looking for, and he nailed it.
Before we set to wrap up, I wanted to talk about the creature design in this, because it's really awesome and it adds a lot to the film. Did you work with KNB?
Justin Dec: We worked with KNB, and Howard Berger, the genius. It started off as a cloaked figure, and it felt boring to me. So, we started peeling pieces of the cloak away. First, we started with the mouth, and instead of just ripping it away, conceptually we were talking about, "Well, what if it's just been feasting on souls for so long and its teeth should look like they’ve been feasting forever." And with his cloak, there was a whole layer covered in blood, in decades and centuries of blood, and then we talked about the horns. What if the cloak was there before the horns grew out, so they fused to it?
The last thing we worked on were the eyes. We were really on the fence about the eyes. Should we show the eyes or not show the eyes? Howard came in with a mock-up of it with these eyes and that was a no-brainer. Howard has this great group of people that he turns to at his own shop, to play all the monsters, and he brought in this great actor named Dirk [Rogers]. He's like 6'5" and the sweetest guy ever. You'd see him in full costume just walking towards Elizabeth, and he made that character so fun.
I love makeup effects. I was saying right from the early stages and the making of this movie, we had to go practical, practical, practical. With CG, when you rely on it too much, it takes you out of the movie. I grew up on Spielberg, I grew up on Peter Jackson, and the old Peter Jackson movies used to have the perfect balance of all types of effects. I really wanted to bring back that feeling—it was really important to me for Countdown.
[Photo Credit: Above photo by Hopper Stone / STX Films.]