The AFI FEST Interview: SOUTHBOUND Director Roxanne Benjamin
SOUTHBOUND, from the producers of the V/H/S films, centers on a series of characters that all encounter sinister forces while on an isolated desert road. It screens in the Midnight section at AFI FEST 2015 presented by Audi. AFI spoke with director/producer Roxanne Benjamin about this fresh new take on the horror anthology.
AFI: You were a producer on both V/H/S and V/H/S/2, which in many ways started the horror anthology boom. This film sticks to that model while also reinventing it. What was the thinking behind that?
Roxanne Benjamin: We wanted to make something that felt more cohesive, that you might not even know was written and directed by different filmmakers if you didn’t know anything about the film going in.
We wanted the connective thread to feel inherent to the overall picture — this world we built and the concept of this desert road, where all the stories take place. [We also wanted] to avoid the problem of having five first acts, like we had with V/H/S, where we were really in completely different short films, though they’re thematically linked.
Also, with V/H/S, the challenge to the filmmakers and the overall concept came out of the idea that found footage was played out. “How do we make it interesting and new again?” And now, a few years later, it feels like the idea of the “horror anthology” itself is played out. So it was the same challenge: how do we make the form feel interesting and new again? The idea was, well, as much as possible to make it feel like it’s not really an anthology at all.
Without giving away too much, the five segments in this film are linked in a very clever way. Can you discuss the challenges of coordinating with the various filmmakers, so that each part connected cohesively?
This really started from the very beginning. Brad Miska and directors Radio Silence had been discussing the idea, and then Bruckner and I came onboard, so we had a lot of the original V/H/S team who had already been through this. We’ve worked with each other a few times now, so we’re all pretty comfortable being brutally honest throughout the whole process, which I think I makes for a better film in the end. We’re all trying to make the best film together as a whole, rather than just our own individual pieces of the film.
We treated it almost like an episodic TV show, both in terms of development and production. We’d all meet at my house once a week, along with Dallas Hallam and Susan Burke (our other writers), and hash through what this world was — the road, the valley, how you end up here — and how these individual stories fit within this world. It was basically a writer’s room.
Radio Silence had come up with this idea of the “zipper transitions” that would take us seamlessly between the stories. The links between the sections really came about pretty naturally in developing the stories. Then in production it was just a matter of scheduling the crossover points and both directors being onset for those. And once we got into editing it was the same thing. We’d meet at my place about once a week and hash through the current cut of the entire film until we all felt happy with it.
You made your directorial debut with the second tale in SOUTHBOUND, centering on an all-female rock group who encounters a sinister community while stranded in the desert. What experiences as a producer did you bring to your new role as director?
Ha — all of them, I guess? Every film I’ve ever been involved in has taught me something new about the process on both the artistic and the logistics side. I think I’m lucky that I’ve gotten to work with so many insanely talented filmmakers (and producers!) in such a short amount of time on these anthology projects. I’ve learned a ton just from working with them and watching how they approach directing. I think that the anthology process just made directing the next logical step for me. It was always something I wanted to do. And I love working with actors. I used to direct theater, and it’s something I sorely missed.
For “Siren” — my section of SOUTHBOUND — I definitely took off the “producing hat” for the time I was actually directing to give that one-hundred-percent of my attention.
And it was really the best atmosphere to be directing in for the first time. I had the support of all of the other filmmakers on the project, and another filmmaker I’d worked with and whose films I love, editing the piece. I’d definitely say I have the directing bug now.
When conceptualizing SOUTHBOUND, what about the open road and desert appealed to you and the other filmmakers as a universal setting for the different stories?
There’s something timeless about the desert and the concept of being out on the road out west that really lent itself to what we were trying to create. A few of us had done the cross country road trips to LA at some point in our lives; it is its own rite of passage. There’s a vast nothingness in the middle of the country that you end up driving through. And when you’re on those long journeys out in the middle of nowhere, where you lose radio signal and cell service and are stuck with one country station and one religious station and haven’t seen another car for two hours and it’s dark as hell outside, there’s an introspectiveness that overtakes you and you start to feel like you’re suspended in time in a way.
When we first started, we went up to Lone Pine (where Radio Silence had shot before, and also where TREMORS was shot), location scouting, and drove out into the desert. That was a big inspiration for the idea of the town, or the types of places that our characters would encounter out on the road.
What do you see as the future of horror anthologies — ways they could evolve?
It’s always fun to see what other groups of filmmakers are doing together with the anthology. That’s the best part about working in this format. You get to creatively collaborate with a lot of other filmmakers in a way that you normally wouldn’t on a feature. I think with every one that I’ve been involved with, we’ve made them more and more connected between the creative voices at earlier and earlier stages. I’d say that’s been the evolution for us.
I’d love to bring this format to TV, honestly, with the horror filmmakers of today. Not that that would be anything new — there’s a long history of genre anthologies on TV like THE OUTER LIMITS, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE RAY BRADBURY THEATER, AMAZING STORIES, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, MASTERS OF HORROR…the list goes on and on.
In the current day we have shows like BLACK MIRROR doing something like this already, but that feels more focused on sci-fi and societal morality or parable stories. I’d love to do a straight horror/thriller TV anthology, like the old-school ones that I grew up watching.
SOUTHBOUND screens at AFI FEST 2015 on November 6 and 8.