"Two strangers are about to meet. In one hour, one of them will be dead." Ripe with paranoia, the new thriller If There's a Hell Below comes out on Digital HD and DVD today from Dark Sky Films, and we had the chance to catch up with writer/director Nathan Williams to discuss the making of his first feature film, including shooting in seclusion, cinematic influences, and a bean bag chair named Joe.
Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for us, Nathan. When and how did you originally come up with the story for If There’s a Hell Below?
Nathan Williams: I conceived the film with my brother in the summer of 2013. We had talked for years about a chamber piece thriller set entirely in a single car. We didn't end up precisely there, but we used that impulse and gave ourselves hard restrictions (two vehicles, daytime exteriors, five characters max). After a few days' discussions, we had the backbone of If There's a Hell Below. The Edward Snowden story was very prominent at the time, and while we never overtly intended to comment on it, I'm sure it influenced our choice to make surveillance, information, and trust the core themes of the film.
Over the next several months I wrote the screenplay, fleshing out the characters and themes and receiving valuable notes from friends and collaborators.
Where did filming take place and what did that environment add aesthetically and atmospherically to your movie?
Nathan Williams: We filmed the movie entirely in central Washington state, the arid region of the Pacific Northwest east of the Cascade Mountains. I had long been in love with this landscape, and we felt the wide rolling terrain was a perfect fit for our story, which combines claustrophobia and agoraphobia.
The abandoned farms of the area contrasted with the new high-tech wind turbines were another aesthetic benefit. Our ethos was always "striking, but not pretty." We wanted to avoid perfect postcard images and let the landscape reflect how the audience was feeling.
As we were shooting the film, my DP Christopher Messina and I talked about making the landscape another character in the film, and—largely to his credit—I think we succeeded.
What was the shooting schedule like for this film?
Nathan Williams: Principal photography took 13 days. We had two days of pick-ups about a month later. It was a very fast shoot, and only possible with the small, talented, tight-knit crew that had worked together on several of my shorts. Also, detailed planning of every setup was essential to getting our days.
What were the challenges and triumphs you experienced while directing your first feature film?
Nathan Williams: Shooting on location in fast-moving cars (often on gravel) was even harder than anticipated (and we knew it would be hard). We learned a lot about the best way to film this way over the course of the shoot.
There were a lot of physical hurdles to overcome—extreme heat (made even harder when you're shooting long takes in cars with the windows rolled up and no AC), multiple flat tires, gear failing, our RV (and sole mobile restroom) breaking down, etc.—but our deeply committed cast and crew got us through them.
The great joy of indie filmmaking is working on a project that you deeply believe in with a group of talented collaborators who care about the project.
If There’s a Hell Below features tension of the psychological and physical varieties. Did you set out to incorporate both of those elements in your story?
Nathan Williams: We did. We wanted to create a story in which our characters were imperiled by not just physical danger, but potentially fatal mistrust. Our greatest threats are inside our fellow human beings—and inside ourselves.
When you look back at your time on set, is there a particularly funny or memorable moment that stands out?
Nathan Williams: The main picture vehicle (our blue Ford Explorer) was always something of a clown car—with two actors, camera plus gear, and typically three crew members (me, DP, sound) all crammed in. So on long drives we'd start to lose our minds a little bit. Our DP used a child's bean bag chair for stability for handheld shots—he named the chair "Joe" and Joe grew to take on a persona in our deranged states.
Were there any films that inspired or influenced you while making If There’s a Hell Below?
Nathan Williams: While we wanted to make something completely new, old influences are always there with you. A handful that were particular touchstones for this film:
The Conversation (Coppola)
The Passenger (Antonioni)
Parallex View (Pakula)
Army of Shadows (Melville)
No Country for Old Men (Coens)
Certified Copy (Kiarostami)
The White Ribbon (Haneke)
With If There’s a Hell Below coming out on Digital HD and DVD beginning December 6th, what projects do you have on deck that you can tease, and where can our readers find you on social media?
I always have a few different potential projects simmering, but the one I'm putting the most energy behind right now is a supernatural/psychological thriller about a group of Mormon missionaries in Japan. Fingers crossed to be discussing it with you about this time in 2018...
In case you missed it, check out our exclusive clip from If There's a Hell Below, and watch the film's full trailer below.