Jeffrey Brown’s debut film The Beach House is the perfect quarantine horror film
Today, the new art-house sci-fi horror flick The Beach House hits video-on-demand services. Our review of the film ran earlier in the week.
Here’s our interview with director Jeffrey Brown about his bold new vision and the journey of his first feature film from script to screen.
I guess the first question around The Beach House is: what the fuck is wrong with you?
Jeffrey Brown: Ooh, nothing. [laughter] I think it’s a fine movie, I think it’s totally nice, my parents like it.
Oh no, I love the movie, I just want to know what’s broken inside of you—where this came from.
A mixture of anxiety and self-doubt, I would say. But also, I think there’s a masochistic aspect of horror films that I like as a viewer.
I didn’t really think about that when I was making it until I saw it with an audience—they reacted to some scenes and I was like, “Oh, I guess that works.” I guess there’s a whole S&M aspect to horror films. The thing that pops in mind is that I saw Antichrist in the theater, I think it was an early screening with a packed house. The whole time, it’s like, “Oh, Lars Von Trier, you are so cruel.” It’s just unbearable but at the same time, I like that. My wife seems to think that it’s because my upbringing was so calm and normal that I turned to horror to exorcise some demons that are not calm and normal. I kind of wonder when people don’t like horror movies, I’m like “Really? I think everyone does. Just a little bit.”
There’s so much about this movie; there’s half of it that’s just this dreamlike anxiety, and then there’s the half of it that becomes a nightmare. There’s a fascinating sort of horror experience to keep the audience on their toes from start to finish because there aren’t any rules here.
That’s one of the appeals, I think, about horror: you can get away with just about anything. The audience is very forgiving because—the goal of most horror films is the grotesque. You take your pick as to how classy or not classy you want to be. One of the things I love about the genre is that we can go pretty much anywhere with it, and that’s something as a viewer that—as a whole movie, that’s something that I wanted to see. I talk with my friends about it: if you were having insomnia during this pandemic and you were putting on a movie at one o clock in the morning, there are certain movies that work better really late at night. Sometimes they break rules out of mishaps, they have production problems, and the narrative becomes this really fractured thing late at night but your brain, when you’re not sleeping, accepts those types of leaps in logic better. I really did want it to be a dream that lulls someone to sleep and then re-wake you up really fast.
And you do that here; everything about the color palette almost inverts, you have the sound design—yes, you have two movies here.
Yeah, they’re mirror images of each other. You can do parallels to what happened at both breaks, and in a weird way, they’re kind of the same film but just totally skewed. A couple goes to a house and there’s another couple already in both houses. One is just dreaming logic and one is nightmare logic. Thankfully, our producers were on board with that from the get-go. We did a lot of rewrites, but that was something that all the producers were really on board with, trying to make a surprising horror film where the perfect viewer stumbles upon it and is patient with it at first, like, “What is this movie?” and it just becomes something—we slap you around a little bit.
That sounds horrible—we wake you up with a bucket of water over your head.
The music too; when I go see a show, a concert, I want it to be loud and I want to be knocked out of my shoes. I don’t want to have anything timid. So I took a lot of what I like about live music and I tried to—I don’t play music, but when I go to a show, I try to approach the movie as a concert as well. Roly Porter, who did the score, one of the first times I met him, I asked, “How loud do your shows get?” He’s like, “Oh, we get into the 130, 140…” That’s like an airplane. It’s good noise.
So you mentioned earlier a horror and cruelty, and one of the things I really want to ask somebody when they’ve made something that has a body horror aspect is: how did you settle on the exact degree of what you did? How you chose what to show, how much blood you chose to use, these all seem like very strong choices and you picked your level of, “Am I going to try to make the audience throw up, or is this in service to the story as small as I can make it?” How did you pick your level for this movie?
I’ve been a David Cronenberg fan for a very long time. He shows the audience things that, if you didn’t show it, they wouldn’t know what it is. In Videodrome, where he sticks his hand into his own chest, if you didn’t show that, then you’d have no idea what—he’d be looking down at something and you have no idea what that could be. That was kind of the fine line with us—to show enough.
In Alien, the very gory scenes were quickly shot but you get enough of the impression, which I think is a stronger thing. It is in service to the film, some films go too far. A film like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, which is way, way over the top—but they diffuse that a little bit because it’s very funny. Evil Dead 2 is like that. They’re over the top gory but then they pull it back. Or something like The Thing which is very gory but it pushes into almost surreal—they allow those makeup artists to do something unique and special with that.
On our (set) where you have zero time to do anything, I actually liked the shooting effects more than I did some of the more mundane—for me, we can feature an effect and then focus on the color palette as opposed to something more amorphous with vague emotions or something like that. When you do quick cuts of gore, you have options in the edit, where you can do the NC-17 version or you can do the PG-13 version.
I think one of my favorite things about Beach House is that some of my favorite plot point scenes that are horror-centric occur off-camera, and what it leads too is you leaving the movie pretty open for what the mythology is. You have so many fun little red herrings or loose ends that the next day, I was like, “Did this mean this? Did this go there?” That’s what I find so fascinating about The Beach House.
I think that there’s—upon a second viewing, you’ll start to see that the schematic cohesion is stronger than some of the narrative questions. Some of it, to be completely frank—we always knew from the get-go that our movie was going to be small. There was never the hope that we’d get $20 million. That was never in consideration.
The DNA of the movie was always going to be more impressionistic, to leave the audience curious. Not to keep bringing up Alien, but that movie is so strong with not explaining all of these things. They did eventually with Prometheus, but when the first movie came out, there was a great sense of mystery: we don’t know where the alien came from, we don’t know about these things, and they’re ultimately not that important. There was also talk about stuff like the radio; I wanted to give the audience less. The movie, to me, is an experiential film, I want you to experience the sensation of being patient zero, as our producer said. In other movies, people would discover the bodies. In Jaws, they find the bodies of the fishermen that were killed; well, this is a movie about the fishermen– before you know anything before a scientist can explain what’s going on, which is your third act twist in most movies. Here comes the sage to tell us what’s going on.
There was a specific decision to not do that.
Part of it was budgetary because it’s like, once you bring the Army in, the Army is a force. It wouldn’t work if it was some woman experimenting in her house on primordial forms, “Actually, I went deep-sea diving, and let me tell you about what this is.” We made conscious decisions that were tied to the DNA of the project from the get-go. Again, thankfully we had producers who were more intrigued by that kind of thing instead of a more conventional horror film. When you have a bigger budget, then conventions come into play as it becomes a more commercial enterprise. But we could just go for it, so we did.
I want to know what excellent producers—this is your feature film debut. Who was like, “Yeah, that should be that guy’s first movie.” It’s wonderful, but I want to know who took that chance on you with something this close to experimental.
It is an experimental movie as far as I’m concerned. There were three main producer forces, and if you look back through their resumes, Tyler Davidson did The Signal and Take Shelter, which are very strong movies. Andrew Corkin was one of our producers, and he did We Are What We Are and After School. They’ve all done these similar types of films. The producer we had from the get-go was Sophia Lin, and she produced Compliance and Take Shelter with Tyler. Even though she’s not a horror fan, Take Shelter and Compliance are like horror movies, they’re a step away from it. In one of the early scripts—in terms of notes, she’s very logical with characters, like, “Why are they going down there? Why are they doing that? The audience has to be sympathetic to the decisions they’re making.”
In an earlier draft, I was pulling more towards convention because you pitch it to a couple of people and they reject it, it’s like, “Well shit, maybe I should just make it into a conventional horror film.” She was just like, “No, don’t do that, make it weird, we’ll find the pieces to put it together.”
This was always going to be a small budgeted movie, and that’s the DNA of the film. It was always going to be small and weird. If not, then what are you doing? Go to Hollywood and pitch it to studios. Thankfully, she and Andrew Corkin and Tyler Davidson liked seeing movies that were surprising to them. You go back through their history and the films they make, there a through-line to what they’re doing. I’m very thankful that they were willing to take a risk with me.
You’ve talked about how this is sort of set up to be a good quarantine film for people stuck inside and feeling a little loopy. Are there pros and cons here for this going VOD instead of to theaters at a time when everyone’s stuck inside and a little on edge? Is there a financial benefit? Do you feel good about people maybe watching this on their computer instead of in a theater, since it is such an experiential thing?
Yes and no; I’ve been with this project for a long time, and it’s a marathon, not a sprint. The bottom line for me is that people can see it. You’re shooting a film, you’ve accomplished one thing, playing at a festival is another. If people can actually pay money to see a film of yours, you’ve won.
There’s a horrible opportunism to releasing a movie during a pandemic, which we had intended to release it this summer anyway, and this is the world we live in. I would rather people be alive. I can’t change the way that the world is, and I think that ultimately, people being at home will allow them to see it. At this point, that’s the most important thing, that people see it. I think that, at home, I would of course love them to turn off all the lights, turn it as loud as they can make it, put it on the biggest screen tv they have. It did play at some festivals, so I did have the opportunity to see it with a full audience. In this day and age, I thought that that was gravy, I never expected it to have a theatrical release, actually. Even if it did, it’s not going to be a Hereditary or a film of that scope. We were never going to release in two thousand theaters or anything like that.
The fact that Shudder—I had subscribed to Shudder before they picked it up, so I was very familiar before they put it out. I loved Mandy, that was my favorite film of the year, so just the fact that they liked that and they liked our movie was awesome.
Right now, this is a film in a very strange place. One of the things the movie is about is adjusting to change, and the industry is changing. The fact that they’ve just pushed Tenet again—there are no new movies coming out, so I hope that other filmmakers who make small movies that can warp the brains of America a bit, I hope this gives them the opportunity.
We all are very weird and I hope that this satisfies some sort of deep-seated creative thing in the viewer. Also, I think there is a meditative quality to the film in the end; I would hope that people who are in the situation we have in this country reflect upon who they are as individuals.
We spend so much time inside, I hope that you watch it and think about it; it’s not supposed to change your mind or do anything like that, but it’s something for you to think about yourself and your place in the world. If one person can do that, then we’ve basically won. That’s all you can ask for.