Back in 2018, Patrick Bromley spoke with filmmaker Elle Callahan about her feature-length directorial debut, Head Count, after it premiered at the LA Film Festival. With Head Count out now in theaters and on digital platforms and On Demand from Samuel Goldwyn Films, we caught up with Callahan again for our latest Q&A feature to discuss the real-life inspirations behind the film, the movie's cinematic influences, how she kept the film's monster a secret from most of the cast, and the potential sequel and prequel to the film.
Thanks for taking the time to catch up with us, Elle, and congratulations on Head Count! When and how did you and writer Michael Nader come up with the idea for Head Count?
Elle Callahan: We came up with the idea about three years ago when we took a trip out to Joshua Tree to that exact same house that we used in the movie. We found the location so oddly terrifying in how isolated it was from the rest of the world. Being big horror fans ourselves, we took the events of that weekend that happened to us and plopped a monster down in there and went from there [laughs]. We pretty much lived that weekend, expect that we all made it out alive.
The isolated house and backdrop of Joshua Tree become characters unto themselves and really enhance the movie’s unsettling tone. How did you find that filming location and how long was your shooting schedule?
Elle Callahan: We found that location because the writer and I had stayed at that house a year prior with a group of our friends. When we wrote the film, we wrote it with that house in mind. We were fortunate enough to be able to actually shoot there. We knew that it had a shack, we knew that it had a hot tub and many rooms, so we really wrote the script with that location in mind. We shot for 15 days, so we were out in Joshua Tree for a total of three weeks.
You worked with a large cast of young actors, and all of their characters seem like very believable people. Nobody fits into a stereotypical character mold—everyone is unique in their own way. How important was it for you to make these characters as authentic as possible?
Elle Callahan: It was super important. I didn’t want to play into the stereotype of a horror movie and the stereotypes of your typical teenagers out for a weekend having fun. The writer and I tried to take inspiration from our own friend group and inject them into those characters. We found that it might be a little more believable that way.
The dialogue throughout the party and hangout scenes in Head Count is very organic and believable. Did you allow any improv on set, or did the actors mainly stick to what was on the page?
Elle Callahan: There wasn’t much room for improv, but I did allow them to do what they wanted between each line during the scene they were playing king's cup. They bounced from line to line filling it in with what they wanted to do in between, which gave us a really organic scene.
Were you influenced or inspired by any films, TV series, or books while making Head Count?
Elle Callahan: I was inspired by many different films—Hitchcock is a big influence for me. His movie Frenzy has a scene that inspired my climax where the camera leaves the scene.
I was also really inspired by the recent horror films at the time like It Follows and The Witch that had more of an atmospheric creep to them rather than jump scare or slasher films. Those two films in particular made me excited about the genre again because they took their time with the horror and made it more about the sense of dread you get while watching the film, rather than the things that pop out at you.
Looking back at your time on set, is there a favorite or memorable moment that stands out?
Elle Callahan: Oh man, so many favorite moments. I didn’t let any of the cast see the monster, expect for my main character Evan, who was played by Isaac Jay. It was a big, life-sized puppet and it looked terrifying. I didn’t tell him that it was going to be in the scene, so I put it in the shack and just had him walk in there and we got a pretty organic, horrifying reaction from him.
Similar to It Follows, Head Count seems perfect for repeat viewings, especially because some of the film’s creepiest scares are subtle and come from people being placed in the background of shots. Did you have a lot of fun coming up with different ways to keep viewers on their toes and coming back for more?
Elle Callahan: Yes, my goal of the film was to make it a film that people would want to watch twice. Once to enjoy it and be startled and scared and the second time to go back and search for things that they missed the first time. It was really fun, like a game, and we leaned into production design pretty heavily. In regards to that, the house changes a lot during the film because we were off rearranging things off screen. It just made it more like a puzzle for us, and it was quite an enjoyable one.
Head Count tells a complete story, but it also leaves things open for what could be a very fun sequel, and I can’t help thinking what might happen next. Would you ever consider revisiting the world of Head Count in a follow-up film? Do you know where you would want to take the story next?
Elle Callahan: I do. When we wrote Head Count, we also planned out a potential prequel and sequel, so we know where it would go and we also know where it began. I can’t really say what those are now, but I would be very open to expanding this universe.
Ultimately, what do you hope viewers take away from Head Count?
Elle Callahan: I hope that they’re really scared! I made the film because I was trying to get across that you might want to spend time with these fair-weather friends, but there are relationships that you should prioritize, which are those longterm relationships like family. I hope that people learn from Evan’s mistake in choosing to pursue this fling rather than spending time with his brother, who really cares about him. Also, don’t chant online from the internet when you’re out in Joshua Tree [laughs].
With Head Count now in theaters, digital, and On Demand, what other projects do you have coming up that you’re excited about, and where can our readers follow your work online?
Elle Callahan: I am about to shoot my second film in six days. It’s called Witch Hunt and it’s about a modern-day witch hunt. That will be happening and coming out within the next few years. You can keep up to date with that on IMDb and my Instagram—I post all about what I’m doing. My Instagram is just my name: Elle Callahan.
[Photo Credit: Above photo is from IMDb.]