Head Count, the debut feature from co-writer and director Elle Callahan, recently premiered at the LA Film Festival. The movie, about a group of young people who take a trip out to Joshua Tree and accidentally summon a monster, finds its roots in paranoid horror films like John Carpenter’s The Thing, only revealing some of its secrets upon a second viewing. Daily Dead spoke to Callahan about making her first movie, creating a brand new monster, and more.
This being your first feature, what was it about this particular story that made you know that you wanted to tell it as your first feature film?
Elle Callahan: I love Joshua Tree and I love folklore. The story is a monster movie at the end of the day, and I really wanted to build a creature that had its own lore. I have a lot of monsters in my own life, and I wanted to make a physical one that people could be scared of.
Anytime you’re making a horror movie—particularly an original horror movie like this one—you have to serve both the situation the characters are in as well as the mythology you’re creating. Did you approach it from the angle of the mythology first, or the situation?
Elle Callahan: The mythology first. I conjured up this monster in my mind, gave it background and powers and a personality and emotions and motivations. Outside of that, I picked a creepy location and things that were really important to me. The film really revolves around a brother dynamic: one brother choosing his newfound friends over his family ties. I was looking back on my life and the relationships that I’ve had with friends and family, and I’ve kind of chosen fair-weather friends. In hindsight, I wish I had prioritized family. I want that to be the heart of it, and then let’s throw a monster in there because that’s the stuff I like.
The movie is about these two outsiders, because you have the main character, who’s the outsider to this new group of friends, and then you have the monster, who’s the outsider to the whole human race. Was that a deliberate parallel you wanted to draw?
Elle Callahan: Yes, it is. My monster is very lonely, and at the end of the day just wants to be included. Unfortunately, it comes with a curse. The monster is kind of like my baby. I always sympathize with it. At the end of the day, its intentions, while they might have been kind, end up being quite deadly.
How do you go about creating an entirely new monster? It’s one we’ve never seen in a movie before.
Elle Callahan: I took my favorite monsters and blended them all together. The "hisji," which is the monster in Head Count, is a culmination of a skin walker, a wendigo, and witchcraft. I grew up in New England, and there’s a lot of lore that exists in that part of the country. I did a lot of research and pulled from stories I had heard growing up. The internet is a great place now for scary stories, so I did a lot of research in forums and took a lot of inspiration from people’s personal experiences and creepy happenings.
For me, the movie focuses a lot on space—inside spaces and outside spaces, and what can happen either inside or outside those places. Can you speak to that at all?
Elle Callahan: What was important to me was creating an environment that always had the possibility of being dangerous, day or night. A lot of horror movies focus on the nighttime scares. For me, it was really important to create this creeping terror during the day as well. Growing up, most of the movies that terrified me took place mostly at night, and I was fascinated in crafting this kind of “daytime horror.” You don’t get any relief if you’re scared of the day and the night.
When you’re telling an original story and creating an original mythology like you do in the film, how do you navigate the question of how long you leave the audience in the dark? How do you decide when to let them know what’s going on?
Elle Callahan: If it were up to me, I would never tell them. Confusion is scary. You’re trying to put the pieces together and you know they will fit, but you’re just missing something. I think that makes for a more engaging movie, if you’re actively trying to figure it out.
You’ve worked in a number of different capacities on a lot of different films. Was there one role you’ve had in the past that you feel best prepared you to direct your own feature?
Elle Callahan: I worked as a post-production PA on a film called Krampus, directed by Michael Dougherty. He is an amazing horror film director. It was the first horror movie I’d worked on, and he just loved scaring people. I was amazed at the joy that it brought him, and I started to fall into this love for it as well. He would use a lot of practical monsters and he knew every horror film. He was so in love with the genre, and that kind of love rubbed off on me. When I was making [Head Count], we did a lot of things practically. The monster was a giant puppet that we built that we then enhanced with VFX. So I took a lot of inspiration from his style, because he really held on to a lot of those genre gems and kept it classy. I tried to emulate that in my film.
This is clearly a very personal film. Do you approach from that personal place, meaning if you can scare yourself, you can scare your audience?
Elle Callahan: Yes. Yes. Everything that I do, I ask, “Would I find this terrifying?” And if the answer is "yes" and I shudder at it, I think, “We should do that.” I picked out all of my favorite scary moments from film and tried to figure out what the essence of that scare was, then create a scare that was my own version of it.
Was it ever a challenge in either the shooting or the editing to make sure that the movie is always playing fair? You’ve said this is a movie that’s meant to be viewed twice, meaning the second time the audience knows what to look for. You have to be especially conscious of playing fair and adhering to the rules you set up. Was that at all challenging?
Elle Callahan: It wasn’t really challenging. It was fun. The monster is doing a lot of things off-screen and the house slowly changes with the monster’s presence, so as creatives, it was really fun. It’s basically like hiding Easter eggs. When we were making it, we would say, “Okay, let’s focus on the plot,” and then we would go back and say, “And now if [the audience] is watching it again, maybe they’ll notice this and maybe they’ll notice that. Let’s just scatter these things within the film and see if people pick them up." And sometimes they notice them on the first watch, and sometimes on the second or third. That makes it more exciting, and I hope people want to watch it again for different reasons. It was more of a blessing, really, kind of like making two films.
Was there one big lesson that you’ll take away from the experience of making your first feature-length movie that you feel like you’ll carry into the rest of your career?
Elle Callahan: The lesson for me was… I hope my next film will have fewer characters. That was a challenge, having that many people in almost every scene. As a first-time director, there’s a lot going through your head, and managing ten actors at the same time was difficult, but it was very rewarding. It was kind of a crash course in directing.
I want to grow as a horror director. This is the first sliver of my brain that’s going out there, and with every film I’m going to grow. But I’m glad to be starting here. This is an accurate window into my mind.