By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Practical creatures and atmospheric sets were part of the strategy behind DEVIL’S GATE, the IFC Midnight horror film opening today in select theaters and on VOD. RUE MORGUE got an exclusive sit-down with director Clay Staub and star Shawn Ashmore to discuss the movie’s creation.
Written by Staub and Peter Aperlo, DEVIL’S GATE casts Ashmore (from the X-MEN films) as a small-town deputy who joins FBI agent Daria Francis (Amanda Schull) to investigate the disappearances of a mother and her son in Devil’s Gate, North Dakota. The search leads them to the isolated farm of the missing persons’ husband and father, a religious fanatic named Jackson (Milo Ventimiglia) who has booby-trapped the house—and has an unearthly creature imprisoned in the basement. Staub, making his directorial debut after helming the 2nd units of 300 and the DAWN OF THE DEAD and THE THING remakes, employed Oscar-nominated makeup effects designer Adrien Morot (mother!, CULT OF CHUCKY) and veteran creature performer Javier Botet ([REC], MAMA, INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY) while aiming to make the human side resonate as well. RM spoke to him and Ashmore following DEVIL’S GATE’s world premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Was DEVIL’S GATE a project you’d been mulling for a while as your first feature?
CLAY STAUB: Yeah—Peter and I are longtime collaborators, and he’s worked on many treatments with me, and we got to the point of saying, “We’ve got to just commit 100 percent to one of our projects.” I started going through what I felt strongly about, and what made a movie great. I was thinking about an ensemble cast, something like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, because then I would be able to showcase my actors and concentrate on how to utilize them to tell the story, and not have the story push them along.
Then Peter came on board, and we started inventing the characters. We knew we wanted an outsider, which would be Amanda’s character, who comes into the town, and everybody had to have an attribute of their own that made the pieces of the puzzle all come together. There could not be a fifth wheel in this story; everybody had to have a purpose. I said to Peter at one point that this had to be like the third act of JAWS; that was our mindset. The challenge was getting great talent, and the byproduct of that is it’s a genre film. Not to say I don’t love genre films, but it didn’t start with the idea to make one.
How did you approach the combination of the character and creature sides of the story?
CS: Well, I put myself in the position of, what would I do if I was in this situation? You would do your best to try to protect your family. And the next thing you’d do is grab one of whatever these things are, and hold onto it in hopes of getting your family back. And so that structure was so juicy, because once you’ve captured it, what do you do to it? And then you ask the bigger question, why is this happening? It’s like an onion, with layers that just keep opening, and I love the fact that people came up to me after the screening and said, “Just when I thought I knew the story, you changed it, and you changed it, and you changed it.”
I’m also a big designer—I love to draw and paint, and to say, “How do I speak with my sets?” If you look at Milo’s character when he’s looking out the window, he’s backlit and silhouetted, with the wood planks across the window. He’s created his own cage, right? We all create our own traps, and that’s what happens in this movie. Even at the beginning, with the guy who shows up and knocks at the door, he looks around and there’s a birdcage. There are cages all around. There are all those sorts of metaphoric values in the movie, and that excites me, because you can exploit those more in a genre film.
How was the experience of shooting the film? Was it as intense and claustrophobic as it looks on screen?
SHAWN ASHMORE: Yeah, a lot of it was. Usually, sets are built with open tops so you can light them, and bring cameras and the rigging in. But in the basement, there was actually a physical roof on that set. There’s usually one wide-open wall, but once we were in that room, all of the walls would close in, and now we were in there with four actors, a small crew—the camera guys—and one little lantern, and, a lot of the time, something in the cage. That helped us as actors. When I looked up, or was distracted between takes, I wasn’t seeing the warehouse ceiling above me, I was seeing wood planks, and that helped me get into that space.
So the film was very intense; we shot it quickly, in 28 days, but it was a fun movie to make. It’s always great when you know that the story you’re telling is going to hit the audience in all the right ways. What’s also exciting is when you get to work with guys who have been thinking about this for years. Obviously, as an actor, you come in and you’re only part of it for a month or two, but you’re collaborating with people who have been developing these ideas and distilling them to their best possible form for a long time.
Within that strong vision, were you able to bring your own ideas and contributions to the project?
SA: Absolutely. I’ve never played a guy like Colt specifically, but there’s a lot of me in every character I play. There’s a sensibility to Colt that I really liked. It was challenging for me at first not to swear, because Colt would never do that; he’s a moral man, he comes from a small town, he’s a religious guy. Not necessarily a die-hard, but he has faith, and that faith is challenged in the film—a lot of things that he doesn’t think are possible are becoming very possible. If I was put in this situation, I would be swearing my face off! So we talked about finding ways to use “heck” and “hell,” and it stopped being a challenge once I got into it, because that’s who Colt is. That’s not how he communicates.
What inspired the decision to go with practical creatures, and how was it working with them on set?
CS: I knew I wanted to do that from day one. There’s a whole movement where people want to go back and reassess practical effects, and replace them with CGI [as was done on THE THING], and it’ll be just fine. And I feel like, no, it won’t. From my experience, the way for practical creatures to survive in today’s world is that you need to think of them as hybrid effects. Get as much as you can practically: Get that suit made, get that creature as movable as possible, but know at the end of the day that there’s probably going to be some cleanup and enhancement work necessary. We live in a world where CG is all about making every single muscle move, and every vein pop out and all that craziness, and the fault of CGI is that some people don’t know the cutoff point where it’s so hyper-real, it looks synthetic.
Knowing how to use digital in conjunction with practical effects is the key to these sorts of independent films, because you get the best of both worlds. I couldn’t even imagine, in that third-act scene, doing it with CGI. It never would have looked real—on our budget, to light it that way, to get it to that level of detail, never would have happened. But if you do it as a hybrid, there’s your answer right there. Ninety percent of it is Javier. I’d love to tell his life story; I won’t get into details, I’ll just say that he told me that one of the reasons he wanted to do the film is that it affected him on a personal level, and he told me the story of what made him so affected by it, and I was blown away. He’s just great.
SA: Having been a part of stuff like the X-MEN films, where, for example, in DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, the Sentinels were never there—there were mockups so we knew what they would look like, and animatics so we could see how they would move—and there was a lot of imagination involved. And that’s fine, that’s something a lot of actors are used to doing. But when the creature was actually in that cage, with the real texture, the real look, the real size, you didn’t have to act, you didn’t have to pretend. It was there, you were looking at it and interacting with it, it was gross, it turned your stomach a little bit, it was abstract, it was bizarre—what it this? Because the design was so interesting, not quite like anything I’d seen before, I found myself looking at it; like, where are the eyes? It just brings an authenticity, and as an actor, if you don’t have to pretend, if you just react and are experiencing it, it’s always going to be better.