What at first seems like an ordinary online dating experience spirals into a stolen identity crisis and increasing paranoia for a reclusive man (Lukas Haas) in the new thriller Browse, and with the film out now on VOD from FilmRise, we caught up with director Mike Testin to discuss the film's psychological thrills, utilization of modern-day technology, and working with a cast that includes Haas and Jocelin Donahue.
Thanks for taking the time to catch up with us, and congratulations on Browse! When did you first read Mario Carvalhal’s screenplay for Browse, and what made you want to bring it to life on screen?
Mike Testin: Thank you! I first read Mario’s script about three months before we went into production. The guys at Boulderlight sent it to me knowing it aligned well with my sensibilities. I love the subjective psycho thriller/paranoia movies of the late ’60s, early ’70s like The Swimmer, Seconds, The Conversation, etc. When I met with Mario, I was very happy to find that we were on the same page and talked a bit about where to take it now that I was on board. My interest was in finding ways to dig into Richard’s character a bit and how we could make him specifically susceptible to what’s in store for him. We’re dealing with what’s essentially an anonymous or at least faceless enemy, and our protagonist is a fairly passive guy, rather than simply making him a reactionary character, I liked the idea of making him instrumental in his own demise and/or resolution, as is the case with all of the protagonists in the movies listed above, and usually life itself in my experience.
Where did filming take place, and how many days did you have in your shooting schedule?
Mike Testin: We shot in and around Los Angeles for 17 days with a pick-up day or two, then we did some additional shooting with Jocelin [Donahue] a bit later, more run ’n gun style. The apartments were sets with Translights we built to avoid the headache of attempting a real location nightmare of downtown Los Angeles overnights.
You work with an amazing cast in Browse, including Lukas Haas, who plays the main character, Richard Coleman. Haas has been a fixture in the horror genre for decades, going back to his roles in Lady in White and The Twilight Zone TV series. What made Haas the perfect fit to play Coleman, who is grappling with increasing paranoia?
Mike Testin: Lukas was a great fit for Richard Coleman in that he was able to really relate to the character’s sort of undefined milieu and find elements from his own personal experiences that he could connect to Richard’s and run with. We had a few conversations before the shoot about how to consider Richard's emptiness or mental paralysis, meaning what it was that put him in that mindset and how he could’ve slipped into that without even having necessarily realized it. We never wanted to be upfront with any of that information, it was more of the idea that you often never truly know the depths of someone’s despair when they’re experiencing it, there’s typically a façade that keeps people at arm's length.
Browse taps into the very real modern fears of technology being used against us. Do you hope viewers take away any societal messages about how we use technology from this film?
Mike Testin: A lot of the trouble that happens with social media and other technical aspects of modern life is the access to constant connection, whether desired or not, to various people from your life. It can make letting go a difficult process and obviously can stunt the process of moving on, which in turn can be a setup for mental instability. I’m sure that’s something a lot of people can relate to at some level.
Looking back at your time on set, is there a favorite or memorable moment that stands out?
Mike Testin: This doesn’t necessarily qualify as “favorite,” but during the process of shooting I was also going through some personal problems of my own. I specifically remember a day shooting Richard coming back home after work only to find his apartment emptied, this was just days after having my own experience of coming home after a shoot day and finding my own apartment nearly emptied. It cemented a real connection for me with poor Richard. After that, I took pleasure in any scene that made me laugh, we always need more of that.
In addition to directing, you have extensive experience as a cinematographer. Has that experience informed how you approach directing?
Mike Testin: Definitely. Having the opportunity to observe various styles of directing is a big advantage. I would imagine it would be extremely helpful for any director to have experience elsewhere on a set in order to understand the processes of various departments and know what they’re responsible for and what effort it typically takes to get their department ready to shoot.
What has it been like to partner with FilmRise to bring Browse to the masses?
Mike Testin: FilmRise has been great. They’ve been very open to our ideas and they believe in the film as it is, which is refreshing, as it’s not an easy one to genre tag. Ultimately, it’s a very difficult time to release an indie film, and it’s especially difficult to promote things like this when it can seem so trivial in light of current events.
With Browse now on VOD, what other projects do you have coming up that you’re excited about, and where can our readers follow your work online?
Mike Testin: I have a few projects that I’m in the process of writing/developing and will hopefully be able to make something happen once this plague has subsided. Aside from that, there’s a horror series I shot which should see the light of day on Facebook in the fall I’d guess, and a few other potential shooting projects in the works that are a bit up in the air due to the circumstances.