Crafting a film within the rapidly growing “found footage” subgenre of horror has already grown into something of a difficult task. How does one make something filmed in a crude and stripped down manner scary or suspenseful. The answer for writer and director Randall Cole with his latest film 388 Arletta Avenue was to take a page out of the Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Haneke playbooks.
Told entirely from the point of surveillance cameras designed to spy on an unsuspecting couple (Nick Stahl and Mia Kirshner), Cole builds a sense of tension by never letting the characters know they are being filmed at first and by purposely obscuring key details from the audience as they watch the husband slowly unravel as he begins to realize that he’s a pawn in a madman’s game.
Speaking to Criticize This! back during TIFF last year when the Vincenzo Natali co-produced film debuted (and well prior to lead actor Nick Stahl’s brief disappearance earlier this month), Cole talked about the challenges of coming up with creative methods of shooting within a confined space and with specific parameters, his cast, and the potential franchise opportunities the film ultimately brings.
Criticize This!: I noticed in the press notes that you said you were influenced at first by America’s Funniest Videos, which both feels strange and oddly appropriate because there’s this almost darkly comedic aspect to what’s going on in the movie if you think about it. It makes it a bit more sinister. How did you first think you could pull off a film using nothing but surveillance cameras?
Randall Cole: It was just kind of an evolution. It was originally before I even got to the screenwriting process intended to almost be taken as a comedy, if you can believe it. It’s the story of someone who’s messing with another person’s life and they’re kind of trying to figure out who they’ve offended and then looking back into the past. The reason it strayed away from comedy was having a bit of personal experience where something like this really happens.
CT: What exactly happened to make you want to go in this darker, more personal direction with the film?
RC: It never really amounted to anything too serious, thankfully. What happened to me never really went beyond some flat tires, some threatening calls – something like six in six weeks – and some threatening mail. People messing with my computers. In the movie there’s a part where Nick gets in his car and starts it up and there’s a CD playing and he never put it there. That was something that happened to me, too, that I just put in the film. And, you know, just like the character in the film, I have a lot of music and I have a lot of mix CDs and I may have accidentally made something that I didn’t mean to make, but still, at the time where everything else it made me at that exact point go from thinking this was a comic idea to thinking that what was happening wasn’t so funny to the people it was happening to and that it was only amusing the person or force that was doing it to them.
CT: To an outward observer in real life, though, something like the music thing could be seen as humourous. How exactly did you choose the songs that you used in the film, because they seem to be chosen by how they can subvert the mood and tension of a scene.
RC: A lot of the songs… well, most of the songs, actually, were there at the script level from the start. Some of them were too expensive, as is always the case when making any film like this, but I just wanted them to reflect the personality of the person behind everything. Not necessarily my own taste, which can be a tough distinction to make, but of the person doing this and imagining the sense of humour of this person to make a connection to a lyric and make it think its appropriate for what they’re trying to ultimately accomplish.
CT: You have quite the cast for such a small production. You have three main leads that all have a bit of notoriety to them. How hard was it to get them on board for this film and were they the choices you always had in mind from the start?
RC: Well, they were all people who were certainly talked about right from the get-go. Nick wasn’t even brought up right away because of his role in Bully, because this could be seen sort of as a “ten years later” follow up to that movie if you look at it in the wrong context. I think you could still look into this character’s backstory and think that someone’s finally getting revenge on him after years of being a total prick, because he still has this edge to him where you aren’t quite sure if he’s really as good of a guy as he says he is. It became a natural choice when you look at Nick and what he’s done in other films like In the Bedroom. Mia was the perfect choice for her role because she really does come across as this sort of sexy intellectual. Then we got Devon Sawa, who we had thought about but he had just kind of disappeared from acting for a while and we just heard he was back in acting and he just sort of became the perfect wild card for us.
CT: Logistically speaking it can’t be easy to film something using this premise. Was there ever anything that stuck out to you that was particularly hard to film or that you couldn’t do?
RC: The biggest part of setting this up was finding the right location. I had the movie on the page and in my head in a way that I felt worked, but then you have to actually find that space that can offer all of that to you and it’s easier said than done because there’s only so many homes available. We looked at a lot of places, but once we saw this place we could just walk in there and point to different places we could set up the cameras and realize that it was ultimately going to work. That was the key thing that everything hinged on, because the stuff that takes place in cars, and offices and outside the house I knew I could make work regardless of where we shot, but the hardest part was always finding the right location so I could get the actual story out. I can’t really recall anything from the final script that we couldn’t shoot because most of the ideas that weren’t going to work were excised before the final script was submitted. Then again, that was all lesser stuff that wasn’t really going to serve the story, anyway.
CT: It’s hard sometimes when making a quieter suspense film to keep that tension up in the editing room. How hard is that to sustain the rawness you wanted the film to have?
RC: It’s a whole lot of trial and error sometimes. There are times when you can really lose perspective and it’s nice to have a fresh set of eyes on things. You know it’s there, and that’s really a small thing. It’s just a matter of finding it. Editing is a visual and auditory thing, but pace is something that takes time to craft, especially something like this where we can’t always resort to something like a montage or any sort of tricks. A lot of that is gone, and again, we threw a couple of little story elements out just to keep things moving along. That was really the only option we had.
CT: Was the movie actually filmed at 388 Arletta Avenue?
RC: [Laughs] Hell no! Oh man, that would be so illegal. Even if it were a comedy we wouldn’t be able to do that. I wanted it to seem as ordinary as possible, not perky or urban.
CT: The film seems like something that a franchise could potentially spark from. Any plans for a follow up?
RC: [Laughs] Yeah, and next time we can make it a real comedy and not some psycho’s idea of comedy. But, I think that it’s possible. When we first talked about it we knew there would be potential for it, but we just finished not too long ago, so we will see how people feel about this one.
388 Arletta Avenue opens in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver on June 15.