By MICHAEL GINGOLD
As a writer, producer and director, Roxanne Benjamin established herself on the horror scene in the anthology field, with movies like the V/H/S trio, SOUTHBOUND and XX. Now she’s made her feature debut with BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK, and discusses it with RUE MORGUE in this exclusive chat.
BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK, now in select theaters and on VOD from Magnet Releasing, stars Karina Fontes as Wendy, an enthusiastic but green young ranger who talks her way into an assignment that takes her up a mountain trail. When she discovers a dead, bloodied man lying at the base of a cliff, and no help is immediately forthcoming, she’s forced to stay with the corpse. As night falls, her situation becomes even more unnerving, and both her psyche and her survival skills are put to the test.
Where did the initial concept for BODY AT BRIGHTON ROCK come from?
I hike a lot with my dad, and we spend a lot of time in the national parks. There are these 10-, 12-, 15-mile trails people go on during the day, and they just wander out there with, like, a bottle of water and a windbreaker, not thinking about the fact that they’re out in the wilderness, automatically assuming this level of safety. That’s very much how Wendy’s character is built; she has this kind of naive worldview that if she just follows the path, everything will be fine. That’s how things are supposed to go—until the path changes, and then you look up and there’s no more path, and then what do you do?
That was the seed of the idea, and then I was also working in a park—not a national park but a city one, a pretty large one in Los Angeles—and we had rangers and things like that, but most of the people who worked there were part-time students or retirees—not really wilderness-trained, you know what I mean? And I was thinking about all the times I’ve been in the parks with my dad and it was the same situation: Most of the people working there were kids on summer break from college.
I went to a bunch of parks in California for research, and the rangers and people in the nature centers and so on told me, “Oh, yeah, people get lost and spend the night in the woods way more often than you’d think, and we also find dead bodies way more often than you’d think!” Just hikers who get stuck out in the elements, and you go off hiking all alone and don’t even think about it, you’re just out for a nice day—until you’re not.
Most films of this type are about a couple of a group of friends who get lost in the woods and run into trouble, and this one is about a young woman going through it alone. Can you talk about that dynamic?
I didn’t want to have the group of people getting lost, and then the arguments about which way to go and what they should be doing, because it really isn’t about that. It’s about Wendy, specifically, coming to terms with her own limitations and realizing that they’re self-imposed. She lets herself kind of drift along and not try anything too hard, and then when she does, she’s like, “Wait, I actually am not prepared for this.” And then it’s too late; she’s between a rock and a hard place and doesn’t have a choice, now she has to go through it. It’s the solo journey of a girl learning she can get through anything, despite what other people think and mostly despite what she thinks, and going through so much shit and having to just deal with it, even though she’s not equipped for it. I just hate movies where a person is set up as being somewhat incompetent, and by the middle of the second act, now they’re a bad-ass woodsman and they know how to do everything. It’s like, no you don’t, you’re the same person you were five hours ago. Why would that be the case? Wendy’s progress is psychological and emotional; it’s not that she learns how to be a woodsman overnight. Sometimes just surviving is the most heroic thing.
One thing I appreciated is that movies like this always have the cliché of the cell phone not working, and in BRIGHTON ROCK, Wendy sometimes can contact others, but it still doesn’t help.
Yeah, that’s the other thing that happens all the time when you’re out in the woods: You have cell reception and then you don’t, and then it’s back, but you can’t get the GPS to work. That to me felt much more like actual hiking, rather than, “Oh, there’s no reception out here!”
The movie hints at the possibility of something supernatural going on; can you tell us about that side of it?
RB: That was always the case; I didn’t want to make it cut-and-dried, because that would make it more of a surface-level story. I know that if I ran into a supernatural entity or a ghost in the woods, I would also question if it was just in my head, because that’s what your brain would tell you, to make you able to cope with it. So I wanted to explore how your mind might actually work if you were confronted with the unknown; you would look for every rational explanation, even if that explanation meant you were losing your mind.
How did you find an actress who could handle not only the emotional arc of the character, but the rigors of shooting in the mountains?
It’s funny—I actually wrote the part for Karina, but she didn’t know it [laughs]. She still had to go through the whole audition process and go on tape and everything, because she’d never been in a feature before. She’s a professional model; she does commercial campaigns, fashion campaigns, that’s her profession, so I had to convince the financiers and producers that this was our actress. I had worked with her on SOUTHBOUND; she was the girl who wasn’t there, the dead bandmate, and Sadie [Fabienne Therese], the lead character in my section of SOUTHBOUND, is dealing with guilt over her death. So she’s in all the photos, and she’s the ghost that Sadie sees on the road at night, and the one in the barn when she runs away from the ceremony in the desert. I love how Karina looks on camera; she’s got a very unique face that kind of reminds me of French New Wave cinema actresses. She looks like she should be in a Godard film from the ’60s or something. She says nothing in SOUTHBOUND, but she has this great presence.
I was doing a table read for another movie I had written a couple of months before I wrote BRIGHTON ROCK, and I had Karina come and play one of the characters just at the table read, and it was one of the leads. She was so amazing at it that I was like, “What the hell, dude? This whole time you’ve been an actress?” She said, “Yeah, this is what I really want to do,” and I had no idea. She has a very delicate vulnerability but also a strength her, and I thought that dichotomy was very interesting, and that’s what I wrote into the character. I felt she could pull it off basically from that table read.
It was an extremely demanding role both physically and emotionally, and she had to carry the entire movie on her shoulders, and we have to be along on this journey with her. There’s nothing that makes me happier than when she falls—in the morning, after you think, “She’s doing it, she made it through!”—and everyone in the audience is so upset that she’s fallen and knocked herself out; they’re all like, “Boooooo!” That’s my favorite reaction in the entire movie, because it means that they’re with her, they’re rooting for her, they’re on her side at that point, and to see her fail then, people get mad! It’s like, no, you think you’ve made it through, but there’s one more hill to climb—there’s always one more hill to climb, you’ve just got to climb that one too—and she does, and then goes through something even worse and faces it down. No matter what trials she goes through, it’s her realizing that she can deal with it that helps her actually deal with it.
Were you as isolated from civilization while shooting BRIGHTON ROCK as it looks on screen?
We were and we weren’t. We were up in Idlewild, California, in a major park there, and we were filming all over, up and down that mountain. But that meant we were hiking up and down it multiple times a day, at an elevation of 6,500 or 7,000 feet, in winter. It looks very sunny and warm and happy, and it wasn’t; it was freezing. It’s funny, because at night, I thought maybe Karina might be worried about being to close to the fire or something, and I had to get her to move away from it, because she was practically sitting on top of it, it was so cold up there! We were also shooting on rocks in the dark, and it’s always a safety concern when you’re out at night like that. I refuse to shoot any day without medics on set, and it was especially important on this movie that we have medics and firemen on hand.
We also ended up in a windstorm, which was the worst one that had ever occurred in Idlewild; they created a new category of windstorm to describe it on the Weather Channel. Trees were coming down, the power was out in the entire town for two days. I had just an 11-day shooting schedule, and when the power went down, we ended up with about nine and a half of those days, and then we went back a couple of months later and shot another day and a half.
It’s interesting that right around the time you were making a movie with a ranger as the heroine, Jenn Wexler was making THE RANGER, in which he’s the villain.
Yeah, that was really funny, because we had both been at the Frontières Market at Fantasia in Montreal with different movies the same year. She was there with THE RANGER, trying to get that financed, and I was there with this other film that I ended up not being a part of called WE SUMMON THE DARKNESS. I remember seeing their booth, and talking with Jenn about her movie, so I knew it was coming out, but I didn’t think about it when I was writing BRIGHTON ROCK. Mine is such a different kind of story, and it only occurred to me later: “Oh my God, we both have ranger movies. This is hilarious!”