In a spoiler-free interview, mere days before its November 19 release (on VOD and DVD), Animal Among Us director JOHN WOODRUFF discusses the unexpected impact the festival circuit had on the film, the significance of the movie’s two trailers, what distinguishes Animal Among Us from other films of the horror genre, and MUCH, MUCH MORE, including a top ten list of his favorite horror movies.
And stay tuned for Rabbit in Red’s advance review of the film, coming soon!
SCARLETT O’SCARA: So let’s talk about Animal Among Us. The film has enjoyed quite a bit of success since first hitting the film festival circuit, and has won numerous awards along the way. Do you think that kind of early success has raised people’s expectations for the film?
JOHN WOODRUFF: Super interesting question because when we made this film we actually had no intention of playing festivals. Our goal was to make something that had mass commercial appeal and go straight for sales and distribution. So we got a sales agent as opposed to pursuing festival play. He was shopping the film and getting a great response, but buyers were hesitating because it was “too different” from other stuff that was out there. So he recommended getting some festival play to help him demonstrate that there was an audience for the film and that buyers weren’t the only ones who liked it! So we started submitting and The Die Laughing Film Festival in LA was the first to jump on the opportunity to premier it in its finished form. They really put a show on for us. I can’t say enough about that festival. I give DLFF full credit for a lot of the early buzz we received and in opening the flood gates for us on the festival circuit. It’s really taken off since then and has had a great run. My hope is that more than raising people’s expectations for the film, it will just expose more people to it and make them want to see it. It is a little different than other films that are coming out right now, which we are very proud of, but that can be a double-edged sword as it might not quite be what people are expecting, so to me, the festival success and accolades offer a demonstration of artistic merit and critical success to support the positive response the film has been receiving… more-so than raising expectations.
Official Trailer #1
Official Trailer #2
SOS: The trailer does a great job of teasing the audience without actually revealing too much about the movie in the process. Aside from the premise of the movie, or at least what appears to be its premise, a brief glimpse of the interactions between the two leads, Anita and Roland, provides an unexpected and refreshing reveal of character, especially for the horror genre. Anita presents as calm, cool and collected, whereas Roland comes across as self-absorbed, delicate, hysterical and highly emotional. Was that deliberate when creating the trailer; one of the things you hope people will take away from watching it? A reminder that sometimes in horror, the weak damsel in distress isn’t always a woman?
JW: Keen eye! I like to think that the trailers actually offer a very accurate look at exactly what the film is. When we cut the first trailer, editor Will Gong and I talked a lot about what we look for in trailers, what we like and what we don’t, and we agreed that our favorite kind of trailers are the ones that give an accurate depiction of what the story and energy of the film is without being too vague or giving too much away. Will is an insanely talented storyteller and editor and said that he already had an idea in mind and just went for it. I’ll never forget when he showed me the first cut of that trailer. It was perfect. I felt like he set the story up so well and played perfectly to the atmosphere, the energy and the mystery of the film. We didn’t make a single change; which is rare, but also a testament to his talent and abilities. It was fun to share that trailer because tons of people were asking if there was a monster or not and trying to figure the film out, which is kind of the point, haha! So that trailer performed great and showed one side of the film. And then the distributor wanted to do their own cut, which focuses a lot more on the action and the horror elements and showcases the monster a lot more; which makes sense from a sales perspective… it’s fun because, between the two of them, I feel like you get a really good idea of who these characters are and what this world consists of. So that inversion of the male/female archetype in horror wasn’t necessarily intentional in the trailers, but just kind of bled through from the film because it is VERY deliberate in the film. When you watch the film (and as you noticed in the trailers), the female characters very much drive the narrative and the men are along for the ride…which obviously is the opposite of how it usually goes with more traditional tropes. It isn’t so apparent that it distracts from the film, because it feels so natural, much in thanks to Jonathan Murphy’s amazing script and how he positioned these characters within this circumstance. It’s fresh, it’s fun, it’s timely and it feels perfectly natural (as it should) in spite of being unique in that way.
Actor Don Frye and Director John Woodruff
SOS: Masks, the wearing and removing of them, both literally and figuratively, play a big role in the film. How would you describe that role?
JW: To me, the masks are the physical representation of the central theme of the film. We all wear masks in a figurative sense due to social norms and constructs, and exploring this idea isn’t new, but it also isn’t something that has been thoroughly explored in horror; which is ironic given that most killers in horror movies wear masks. I think Murphy really tapped into an interesting exploration of that idea in this script and showcased it in a more literal way than you normally see, especially in exploring the figurative aspect of it through literally using masks to show the metaphor. If we did our jobs right, you should be questioning who the Animal really is in this film the entire time you’re watching it due to the constant changing of “masks.”
SOS: I believe Animal Among Us is your first feature film. How did this experience compare to that of the 3 shorts you’ve directed? Did one prepare you for the other?
JW: From the time I made the first short, I knew that I eventually wanted to see if I could make a feature, so each subsequent project was designed with that in mind. Of course, I thought I could make a feature, but I didn’t KNOW if I could, so in a way, I was kind of trying to prove that to myself and to my potential future team members should I get the opportunity to make a feature. So in reality, each film opened the door and prepared me for the next film and let the next film become a reality, eventually leading to Animal Among Us. I had a lot of people tell me that making your first feature is an incredibly challenging endeavour and that you can’t really gauge just how much work it actually is until you get in there and start doing it, and I found out first hand that that is completely true! I naively thought that it would just be like making a few shorts all at the same time, but it is not! It’s so much more. So much so that I would frequently find myself wondering why I did this to myself, haha! I think if I would’ve known then what I know now, I wouldn’t even have tried, but now I can’t stop thinking about the next one, so maybe not?
Director John Woodruff with actors Larisa Oleynik and Don Frye
SOS: Why a horror film for your first feature? Is it a challenging genre to direct? How did Jonathan Murphy’s screenplay come to your attention? And what about it attracted you to it?
JW: Horror has always been very near and dear to my heart. I grew up watching horror movies with my mom and my friends and reading horror, so naturally, I think it is the genre that I’m the most well versed in. It also makes sense from a business perspective; there is always a market for horror films and it translates incredibly well overseas. Fear knows no social or political boundaries; it is something that everyone can relate to regardless of your background or where you’re from. So it made a lot of sense to me from a personal level and from a business perspective.
There are challenges that come with every genre, but with horror, I think one of the biggest challenges is differentiating yourself from the negative stigmas associated with the genre, like low budget, exploitation and clichés. You’re kind of fighting an uphill battle in that regard because of many people’s definitions of the genre, and there IS an audience for those types of horror films, so while you don’t want to necessarily embrace those clichés, there are certain expectations that you need to meet. So from a directorial perspective, it can be tricky to find the balance between those things.
I was first introduced to Animal Among Us by Cara Kidwell through a great mutual friend of ours, Bart Clemmer. She saw a short Jonathan did at a film festival and was impressed, so she asked him if he had any features he was working on and he gave her Animal Among Us. It was an early draft and she wanted some additional feedback on it, so Bart recommended her having me give it a read.
There was a lot to like, a great self-contained location with a lot of movement in it, memorable characters, a nice balance between comedy and horror. It was unique enough to be memorable but familiar enough to be marketable, so the three of us started going back and forth on the script and how to get it made and well, here we are!
SOS: Animal Among Us really is a film that demands to be seen more than once. While the movie does contain clues, they’re presented with such subtlety that you won’t think twice about some things until forced to much later in the film, and/or afterwards. Watching it a second time, I was amazed at how many of these subtle clues I had completely overlooked with my first viewing. Was there ever a concern that these clues would reveal too much, too soon to the audience?
JW: Thank you! I take that as a huge compliment because we set out to make the most fun scary movie we possibly could, something that would become a fan favorite that people would want to revisit again and again! It was definitely a delicate balance in regard to your question, so we actually tested it before completion, A LOT, so that we could adjust where necessary. We started out by showing the film to 20 individuals that we selected to create as diverse of a grouping as possible. We made them watch the film in small groups, never more than 2 or 3 at a time, so that their opinions wouldn’t be swayed by others’ comments. We picked friends, strangers, industry pros and people completely outside of the industry, all different ages. It was super fun and educational to see how they responded and talk to them about the film. Of course, I creepily watched them watch the film, looking for them to zone out, or check their phone, all kinds of stuff, and then grilled them about it afterwards, haha! We then compiled the feedback and adjusted the edit accordingly. After that, we had the opportunity to take the film to the HORRORHOUND Film Festival and test it in front of a Friday night audience. Again, and to your point, we absolutely had to make sure it worked. It KILLED at that screening and that’s when I knew we could lock picture and finish the film. I don’t think most audience members even knew that I was in the room and it was so fun to see them laugh, jump, and hear their comments…people whispering to their neighbour, trying to figure it out, it was so fun. That audience was WILD, I mean, a dude in a kilt working security yelled “SHAZAAM” at one point and someone else blurted out a huge “F*@K YEAH” from the back of the room at a critical moment, so I knew we were there, haha! Any changes to the edit at that point would be trivial; we just needed to finish the film and we’d be good to go. So that’s what we did and that’s how we knew we had found the right balance!
SOS: What are some of your favorite horror films; and why?
JW: Oh man, the answer to this question could go on forever…
JAWS – One of the most important and prolific films of all time, it changed the way the industry works and challenged the genre while being one of the most commercially successful films of all times- not to mention how deeply it resonates with people- I mean can you get near water without thinking of JAWS?
SCREAM – Deconstructive masterpiece that is the perfect balance between horror and comedy and in my opinion Wes Craven’s best work, a perfect representation of the late ’90s and a film that shifted the entire genre and at the time, so fresh and original and unique.
THE THING (1982) – So far ahead of its time, so influential, try to find a “best of” horror list that doesn’t list The Thing or a horror director that doesn’t reference it.
ALIEN – A master class in building suspense and exploring the unknown. So simple and elegant and horrifyingly beautiful.
THE SHINING – Sorry, Stephen King, I know you hate this film, but Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance? Kubrick with his insanely elegant and understated wide shots and long takes that are so natural and not contrived in the least that illicit so much emotion? The sound design in that freaking movie? Cinematography? The movement? The symmetry? Ugh. I can’t even.
TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) – You think it’s so gory and yet it shows virtually nothing, it is so visceral and real and the performances are so authentic and it elicits such strong emotional reactions with such simple devices; arguably one of the finest examples of pure horror ever made… not to mention that it basically sparked the horror icon movement.
And then there is THE LOST BOYS, TREMORS, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984), FRIDAY the 13th (1980)… is 10 enough or should I go on? Haha!
SOS: What about Animal Among Us makes it a horror film? Why should people see it?
JW: Everything about it screams horror. From the opening frame to the final frame, and that was very calculated. From the references contained within the film to the films, we referenced when making the film. The circumstance, scenario, setting, exploration of the unknown, the metaphor, the theme… it is very much set up in the guise of a campy horror flick full of twists and turns to keep the viewer guessing. This film was designed to be the most fun, colorful, fast-paced, funny, non-exploitational scary movie that we could possibly make. It sets up all of the tropes of the genre to lead the viewer into a cliché only to then break that perceived cliché at the last possible moment, causing the viewer to constantly question everything. My hope is to keep the audience guessing throughout the film, constantly changing their perspective on who or what the monster is and who the good guy is or isn’t right up until the last frame; much like in life. Are we monsters or are we victims? Are we heroes or are we villains? Or, is the choice up to you, the viewer?
And I think those are some pretty good reasons to watch it 😉
Animal Among Us is available on VOD and DVD November 19