Filmmaker Ben Wagner and his wife bought a 1930s hunting cabin in Topanga Canyon in 2008 that was a fixer-upper. While mostly in good shape, one room had a fractured window and other needed repairs. When Wagner took a hammer to the cracked window, he had an epiphany.
“I thought, ‘I should put this in a movie,’ ” Wagner recalled. “That planted a seed … this could be something bigger. What can we do with this?”
Wagner initially thought he’d run with a storyline of the zombie film genre, but decided to expand the idea to “more of a psychological thriller about a relationship in peril.”
The seed grew to become Wagner’s second feature film “Dead Within,” which had its world premiere at FrightFest in London on Aug. 23 and its U.S. premiere at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, on Thursday. The film will be available on DVD and digital platforms Tuesday.
In “Dead Within,” a couple, played by Amy Cale Peterson of Los Feliz and Dean Chekvala of Los Angeles, survive a pandemic by boarding themselves in a cabin for months until an outside threat compounds the inner turmoil bubbling over due to dwindling resources and cabin fever.
Wagner and his writing partner, Matthew Bradford, wanted an immersive and visceral filmmaking process so for three days, the two lead actors were locked in Wagner’s kitchen with two camera operators, shooting almost documentary style. While the filmmakers had a script, the actors were left in the dark on many of the plot twists so Wagner could get natural reactions.
“We started with a 60-page script, which the actors only saw the beginning of, because we didn’t want to spoil too much of what came, so we can get those natural scares,” Bradford said.
As a result, much of the dialogue is improvised — so much so, Peterson and Chekvala were given co-writing credit on the script.
“It kept us so honest as filmmakers because by giving the flexibility to explore these characters and try to do it on their own, they had to come to genuine discoveries and make true choices that their characters would make,” Wagner said.
The idea was a tough one for Chekvala to wrap his head around. His initial reaction was, “What is exactly expected of me?”
“The pitch wasn’t the story of the film, it was the style of how it was going to be filmed,” Chekvala said. “It was basically, we wouldn’t know much, you just have to create these characters. We would show up and he would kind of lead us through stuff, but wouldn’t tell us how it ended … It was like, ‘I know what it is, but I can’t tell you.’ ”
For Peterson, who starred in Wagner’s first feature film, “Southbounders” (2005), a story of a woman’s 2,170-mile journey along the Appalachian Trail, it was an exciting challenge — though incredibly tough at times.
For instance, while the actors slept, Wagner would bang on the wall or have a fake decapitated head fall on someone’s stomach, among other frightful things. One particular incident nearly put Peterson over the edge.
In the film, Chekvala’s character leaves to scavenge for food, but Chekvala didn’t come back to the set for nearly 24 hours. The filmmakers kept shooting around the clock and Peterson was feeling “extreme exhaustion.”
“We had been shooting all night, and there was a scene where Dean came back, which I didn’t necessarily know that was going to happen,” Peterson recalled. “It was this great, fun, human moment of ‘Where have you been? What has been going on?’ I thought, ‘Do I let you back in the cabin?’
“We shot that scene and it was very clear that Ben wasn’t getting what he needed for me so he kept giving me direction … but after shooting for 30 hours straight and he wasn’t getting what he wanted, finally I was like, ‘Can you just tell me want you want? I’m an actor, I can do this.’ ”
Wagner said at that point he knew “She was over it.”
“She shot me this laser from her eyes like, ‘I’m done.’ I said, ‘That’s a wrap.’ As soon as I said that, her look went from ‘I’m going to kill you’ to just pure elation,” Wagner said, with a laugh.
The filmmakers worked on a shoestring budget, but Bradford feels some of the great horror films, from Italian director Mario Bava’s classics to Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead,” were created through those limitations.
“It’s inspiring to look back at the long tradition of horror dictated by budget and tradition,” Bradford said. “It tends to produce excellent results in ways the genre lends itself to.”
Wagner emphasized they weren’t looking to save money and cut corners by producing the film the way they did, “But it was one of those situations where how can we take advantage of the limitations of our budget and our faith to actually have that support and make the story better.
“If you want your characters shell-shocked and just beyond their limits, that’s a great opportunity where you can create that situation where you have the actors on edge and save tons of cash in the process,” Wagner said.
In Wagner’s previous films, location always is a character. This was no different. He said using his home-turned-movie set lent to the cinema verite style of filming.
“Locations drive a lot of the creative decisions,” Wagner said.
In the end, the shoot became an “incredibly collaborative” process that was also a “freeing experience,” Peterson and Chekvala said. It also produced more than 100 hours of footage, which Wagner and Bradford expanded to a comic book as well as Web series at deadwithin.com.
“If you can give visceral experiences, things that feel natural … you feel that emphatic connection better,” Wagner said, “and I think audiences are more willing to go along for the ride.”
Michael Hixon is the entertainment editor for The Beach Reporter.