Hey friends! Barbarella here, and I’m really stoked to share my interview with Braden R. Duemmler, whose first feature film, WHAT LIES BELOW, comes out Friday, December 4 On Demand and Digital.
When socially awkward teenager Liberty returns from camp, she is blindsided by the new man in her mom’s life. His charm, intelligence, and beauty paint the picture of a man too perfect to be human.
From the aesthetics to the characters to the weirdness and the tension, this sci-fi thriller hits so many of my buttons, I almost feel as though it were made specifically for me. Because of this, WHAT LIES BELOW emerges as one of my favorite films of the year. I relished the opportunity to speak with the man behind the film, Braden Duemmler, and I appreciated his candid responses to my questions.
My understanding is that WHAT LIES BELOW is your first feature film. Was it everything you thought it would be? In what ways was it different from your expectations?
“Man, I never realized how much of a battle feature films can be until I made this film. You're in the trenches. It's a short shoot schedule. You know, we had to shoot eleven pages on one day at one point. We were just moving so fast that it really was a wake-up call to the process and just how intense it is.”
What inspired the story?
“The story actually is the synthesis of two ideas. The first one was I had this image in my head of a person, a man in the middle of the woods and this beam of light coming down from the sky and hitting his chest. I'm sure it's stolen from some poster or some movie or something so lodged in the recesses of my mind that I can't even recall it at this point, but for whatever reason, I was obsessed with this image. And then I started to think, "Does anyone see him? Who are they that see them? What is their relationship to him?" And once I came on that last question, that's when I reflected on a part of my past, when I was actually five years old. My first ever crush was on my stepmother.
“She still loves to regale strangers with the times I used to come over to our little apartment, and I would go up to her, pull her on the arm and say, "Hey, you should chase me around and try to tickle me." And Sandy would oblige, and she would run around, and she would tickle me. And it's a cute, adorable story. But then all of a sudden, you take a step back and go, "What if the roles are reversed? What if she's a man, and I'm a five-year-old girl." Then it gets into this gray area of appropriateness. I took that, and I kind of synthesized it with the light idea, and it evolved to what it was.”
Are any of the characters similar to you in any way?
“I think the characters might not be similar, but the relationships are. I understand what it's like to love someone who could be so bipolar, to be so up and down, which is the way I saw Michelle. I know what it's like to live with that, to experience that where one day they're just top of the moon. They want to sing every song on the radio. They want to go get ice cream. They just want to have a great day. And the next day they're in the bed, and they don't want to see anyone or talk to anyone. I've experienced that, and I think I relate to that very well.
“I also think I felt a great responsibility for writing a female character. I'd never done that before. I was a little intimidated by it, so I did a lot of research on young women in their psychological development through their teenage years. And one of the many things I found fascinating was the way they think about everything. They analyze everything. They see five steps ahead to every decision they'll ever make as young women. And I also found it interesting how they have this constant push and pull with usually their mother, where at one minute they want to run away from their mom and just be away and be independent, and the next minute, they want to hang on to them and cuddle with them and be loved.
“I can relate to that because I have this rebellious streak in me. I always have, but I am an empath, and I love my parents. I still, to this day, enjoy the times when we can just be. At this point the intimacy is more conversational, but I just love when we do have that opportunity to share and to love one another.”
What do you think is the key to writing a great character?
“I did this exercise called the character diamonds, which is basically what you have to think of first is what is this character's worst fear? And you're not talking about how they're scared of the dark. You're talking about the unconscious fear that makes them scared of the dark, the fear underneath that fear of the dark. You kind of start at that fear, and then you branch out the character from there.
“For instance, with Michelle, from her backstory with her father, I saw her fear as abandonment. As a result, when she loves, she loves completely. She also latches on, and she's scared of losing someone. That insecurity, that need to grab, to hold on to, to not let go is what perpetuates the horror of the film, because Michelle is so wrapped up into John Smith, and so unwilling to see some of the faults, Libby doesn't know what to do. She's in a situation, as her daughter, where she feels powerless, because she can't bring it to her [mom’s] attention. So yeah, I guess that's the best way I could describe how I try to write the best characters I can.”
Do you listen to music when you write, or do you prefer silence when you're writing?
“Oh, silence, 100%. I feel like the music will influence me one way or the other, whereas the void of my mind is probably a lot more boring, but at the same time it allows me to go in different directions, you know?”
A lot of things can go wrong on set. Was this a smooth shoot for you? And if not, what happened and how did you deal with it?
“I wonder if there is such thing as a smooth shoot. As much as people tell you, “Film is a battle, and it's one of the most challenging things in the world,” I don't think you fully realize it until each time you make a new film. We had a lot of different obstacles that we had to overcome as a group. For example, the lake scene, where John Smith walks towards that light in the lake, Jimmy, the cinematographer, and I debated a long time about how bright the lights should be. We eventually went with a 4k. One of the things that happened was the screw that holds the casing together on the light broke. We didn't have a backup because it's a very expensive light to rent, and as a result, the light kept falling over in the water and wouldn't stand up straight and wouldn't stay lit. We spent almost three hours on set that day between the gaffer and the grip and the stuntman trying to figure out how to fix this light so it could work. It was a real struggle. And so that little screw, that tiny screw that could fit in your pinky finger, held up an entire film crew of twenty to twenty-five people for three hours. It just shows you how important the details are in filmmaking, because if one little thing can go wrong, it costs you time and money, you know?”
What is your biggest complaint about filmmaking as a career?
“I feel like a lot of the problems with film are the problems everywhere. There's a lot of cronyism and nepotism, and obviously there's not a lot of diversity in film. I wish that the entire industry had a better way of finding and cultivating talent. It seems like there's maybe one or two outlets, like Sundance Writers Labs that can do that, but if you're into horror, Sundance isn't really the place for you. I just wish more experienced, successful filmmakers would mentor their young counterparts, take them under their wing, maybe help them get in a door somewhere. I think that could go a long way.”
Do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist and why?
“I think I vary; I think I range. I think I'm more cynical in nature. I guess it depends on who I'm around. If I'm around my friends, I'm the most upbeat, positive person in the world. If I'm entering a situation meeting someone for the first time, I'm super nice, but I'm obviously keeping a little bit of a distance reading people, learning them. I am a student of human nature, so I love to learn about people and find out about them in the most non-judgmental way possible. I think that in society, I tend to be more cynical, but person-to-person, I tend to be more optimistic.”
How hard are you on yourself?
“So hard. Yeah. I'm definitely a perfectionist. I don't think there's a filmmaker out there that isn't. I feel that filmmaking is 98% pain and 2% joy, but that 2% is worth all the pain. It's like chasing the carrot on the stick and you not knowing if you're ever going to catch it, but if you ever do, it's a feast. And there's moments on a film set, for instance, in WHAT LIES BELOW, it was when we were shooting the big argument scene between Michelle and Libby. It was the end of an eleven-page day. We had three hours to shoot it. It was three-person coverage. It was crazy. Everyone was stressed, and then we started doing the scene. They started performing, and everyone just dialed in. Everyone was silent on set because they felt like something was working. Those are the moments that you're always chasing as a filmmaker and what makes it worthwhile.”
What's one valuable lesson you have learned?
“I think I learned that the only thing that you can rely on is yourself. I think for a long time I got caught up in thinking that I needed somebody in Hollywood's permission to make a movie. Then at a certain point, I said, "I'm going to write something that I can just make myself, like even if I have to go broke doing it or take out credit cards." I think learning that you just can't wait around for everyone else, you have to just go. I think that was one of the biggest lessons I learned in film. For sure.”
If you could change anything about yourself, what would you change?
“Oh my God. I wish I was a more positive person. I don't enjoy being cynical. I struggle with depression too a little bit, and it's not a great place to be. I wish I could just click that off, but anybody that's with depression could tell you, it's not something you can switch off. It comes, and it goes, and you deal with it, and you try to fight through it, and you put one step in front of the other and try to move on. So, I think if I could do one thing, I would try to lower my depression and my anxiety. For sure.”
What's your fondest memory of shooting WHAT LIES BELOW?
“I think it was the end of that eleven-page day when we finished that scene in the living room, the big fight scene between Libby and Michelle, and we got it. And I was just going around giving everyone high fives. I was so pumped. I was so excited, and it was just such a great feeling because it was a Friday going into the weekend, even though Jimmy and I were shooting on the weekends for B-roll, but it just felt great to have done that, to have faced such a difficult day and to overcome it, you know?”
What first inspired you to go into filmmaking?
“Growing up I was actually a hockey player, and I loved sports. And then the sports thing didn't work out going into college, but I took a film theory class my freshman year. And the professor Todd McGowan was so passionate and so charismatic that I fell in love. I spent the next four years just studying film, watching films from all different countries, from all different histories, from all different cultures, learning so much.
“And then my senior year, I went abroad to study in China because I had been taking Mandarin. I saw a man on a bench singing in a park, just singing, not to anyone, not for money, just singing. And I thought to myself, "Who is he singing to? Why is he doing that? How long has he been doing it? What is he saying?" Because it was in Mandarin, I didn't quite understand. And I realized I wanted to tell that story, and ever since then, I wanted to be a storyteller.”
I hope to see more of Braden’s stories on the big screen, but for now, I’m happy to have had the opportunity to watch WHAT LIES BELOW. Starring Ema Horvath, Trey Tucker, and Mena Suvari, it comes to Digital and On Demand Friday, December 4.