Director Ben Wagner recently released his brand new horror film “Dead Within” to audiences all over the world. This is a very unique film as it revolves around two people stuck inside a cabin in what we can assume is a zombie apocalypse. I had a lot of questions about the film for the young director and here is what he had to say.
Nick Leyland from The Movie Network: Ben, how are you?
Ben Wagner: I’m wonderful. I’m excited for finally seeing my movie get out there.
TMN: Has it been a long time coming?
Ben Wagner: Well it’s an adventure, you invest a lot of time and effort into something and it’s something that starts small. It’s something you think, “Yeah, let’s just do this experiment,” and it grows and becomes something bigger that people seem to be responding to which is probably the most exciting part about it.
TMN: And it came out on the 9th on DVD, right?
Ben Wagner: Yes. DVD and digital platforms.
TMN: Well, congratulations. I got to watch the film and it was very intriguing. It’s a very intriguing film and I wonder if you could tell our audience, because horror is a kind of a weird… There’s sub-genres of it. Is it more of a psychological or paranormal or slasher kinda film?
Ben Wagner: It’s all of the above. No, I mean it’s definitely more of a psychological thriller, more of like an invasion. It touches on, not a haunting, not necessarily paranormal but it definitely is much more the suspense-driven Italian horror model, but I think it definitely starts out seeming like an infection zombie outbreak story and ultimately, it is. But later in the story, you sort of see what this trauma has done to these people. You realize that their mental faculties aren’t as strong as they once were, so they can no longer rely on their memories, their thoughts, and there’s this sort of split between reality and what their interpretation of reality is.
TMN: Now, there’s like three of you or four of you guys that wrote it, what was going through your mind when you were writing this thing?
Ben Wagner: Yeah, well, so a lot of it, it started, my writing partner, Matt, and I sort of came up with the core idea and the central premise is that it’s about a toxic relationship between two people who otherwise wouldn’t be together except for extenuating circumstances, being that they’re survivors of an apocalypse and so it’s really sort of looking at this relationship that’s falling apart with real heightened stakes, that there are life and death consequences to the decisions they’re making, that they can’t just break up and go separate directions, potentially causing each other’s death. So that was sort of the ideas that we were playing with. And the reason that there are four writers credited is because Amy and Dean, the lead actor and actress… Part of the process making this film was that we decided we were gonna improvise part of it, and I locked them in my kitchen, which is a cabin in the mountains of Los Angeles for three days, and we shot them for three days straight almost 24 hours a day.
And because we were gonna put them in these extreme circumstances, the concept was that all the four of us had a very strong idea of where this story was gonna start when we put them in that room. So we developed their back stories, we defined who their relationships were, their characters, all the events that happened up to the point of the start of the film and then from there on out, it was going to be largely improvised. And the reason we did it that way is I wanted to get the real visceral reactions of something banging on a window in the middle of the night, or worms crawling under a door, or something flying at them, all these sort of haunted house sort of elements that we set up, so that we could knock them on their heels, get them scared, get them tense, get them really feeling the moment, and then see what they did with their characters going from there. It was just showing them respect for the effort that they were going to do in creating these characters, and potentially the dialogue.
That being said though, we had a very clear roadmap of where we needed this story to go during that three-day period, so Matt and I knew what needed to happen when and from a production standpoint, everyone was aware of it. So the camera operators knew when something was gonna happen, so we could position the camera operators so you get the right reaction shots from the actors at the time. And also to sort of see narratively how things would be put forth. So you know there’s one key point where they lose one of the things that’s been keeping them going and when that point happens, we shot one of the actors reacting to it the moment it happened, the other actor was not aware of it, so when they come back in, they had to sort of improvise that beat, and so we move through these moments and see where the narrative will go. It will be a gut check, it would be great because you’d get to the end of their improvisation, and if they had not reached the point that we needed to, we knew that there was a shortcoming in the script less though in their performance and thankfully, the vast majority of time, they ended up going from point A to point B on their own naturally, and the story was really great. We sort of checked the logic of the story moving forward and it all sort of worked out in the end. And ultimately, after that three-day shoot, we’d go back and we’d fill in the spaces that we couldn’t get during that sort of that marathon and needed emotional beats, or reaction shots to some of the scares that we got. So you’ll see, there are some VFX shots in there that, obviously, we didn’t shoot while they were in that three-day marathon, but we did make sure it matched what did happen during that period so that it would sort of edit seamlessly together.
TMN: It almost reminded me, I’ve been watching a lot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents lately, and I got a little bit of that vibe from this film because it’s obviously a super small cast. It’s two actors and it’s in one space, do you feel that, too?
Ben Wagner: It’s funny you say that, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, I have the DVDs, I watch them all the time. I mean, that must be some sort of influence on me because I love those. This was a very theatrical experience. And I don’t mean to say it’s not cinematic, but it really was like a black box theater where we’re working with actors in, essentially, a set and giving them props and letting them explore ideas. And so I think there is that sort of the stagecraft element going on there. I like to think that we sort of do take advantage of the cinematic medium. It’s well-shot, there are some real things you can only see in a film, but it really is rooted in character and performance. And I think, also to your point, that’s largely why you love those Albert Hitchcock Presents things.
Ben Wagner: You watch those and it’s for 22 minutes, you can see, well, I guess those were half an hour at that time. These characters just exploring, doing it all verbally, communicating with their voices and their eyes and their body language, which we don’t necessarily see as much of in films.
TMN: Yeah. And the same with those Alfred Hitchcock Presents, you’re watching, a lot of times, you’re watching two people where one looks obviously insane, but the other one could also be, but you don’t really know it yet. And that’s the vibe I got from yours. Because obviously, it seems like Kim is a lot more distressed than Mike.
Ben Wagner: Right. And that’s one of the things that we really tried to play out in this film. I mean, I know what the answer is, but I intentionally left things ambiguous. There are lots of ways to cut this film, and you can make one character the clear villain and you can make the other character the clear villain, but we made a concerted effort to sort of leave it as sort of a Rorschach check, they can look at it. And different audiences interpret it in different ways. I think it’s one of the most fun things about this movie because of the ambiguity that’s purposely built into it. Every time I’ve shown it for a group of people, they instantly go into a debate of who did this, who did that, why did this happen, who was crazy, who wasn’t crazy?
And often, it really comes down to where you are in relationships with other people in terms of… Because again, it comes down to its exploration of a relationship between two characters and it’s all about assigning guilt. And I think when we’re all in a certain situation, we wanna assign the guilt to a person and sometimes we ignore the fact that we’re the one who’s at fault.
TMN: I really enjoyed the hallucinogenic scenes, the one where she were to see shapes and forms and things moving. Was that what you were imagining when you shot the scenes?
Ben Wagner: Yeah. Jamie, my effects guy, Jamey Clouse did a really good job creating those. That was one of the scenes where, I mean, we really had to go at it. We’re shooting the specific thing, there was no improvisation. You’re doing map work, essentially. I think she had a lot to draw. For one, she is a very fine actress. But two, having gone through the shoot, I think she’s still the draw for that exhaustion and that sort of fogginess. But I think she was still sort of suffering through. But yeah, that was the vision from the beginning when we painted those murals, and that’s why we picked those bright colors and the shapes. It was specifically to enter that sort of child-like turning state.
TMN: Well, it’s awesome. I really enjoyed the film and I imagine you guys are ready to get out of that cabin after a couple of days of being in there filming for 24 hours a day.
Ben Wagner: Yeah. For sure.
TMN: It’s almost like a new kind of horror. It’s like claustrophobic or something as you’re watching it.
Ben Wagner: What we’re trying to do is play half of claustrophobia in a way that would make people appreciate what it’s like to be stuck in that place without it getting visually boring. That was one of the challenges, but I think that that’s one of the things that makes the film work is because we were challenged with that. We’re constantly trying to think, “Okay, how can we make this visually interesting? How can we do something slightly different here?” And I think that that helped us creatively.
TMN: It did and I didn’t get bored watching, I’ll tell you that. It was really, really beautiful to watch because sometimes you’d expect to get a little bored watching it but you have all this stuff going on and what it would actually be like in there which made it enjoyable to watch.
Ben Wagner: Thank you. Like I say, it was a labor of love and some of the things you need is hope, when you stage something that it’s gonna look right. That’s probably the thing about making a horror film is so much of it is about execution. The scares have to work. The performances, obviously those have to work too, but you’re not worried because you know what you’re doing and whether or not it’s working.
But then when you go to do a scare and the blood isn’t squirting right, you get frustrated because there are certain things you have to do right to make something that works. There were a few situations where things didn’t quite work as well as they should’ve, but they bother me more than anyone else involved in the production, ’cause I’m the director.
TMN: What can we see from you now in the future? What’s going on with you?
Ben Wagner: From here, I have a couple of projects that we’re setting up and I’m hoping to do one of the two or three of them in the next year, so, but the one… I have a thriller, they’re all thrillers, but one’s more of sort of high-octane thriller that I hope to do next.
TMN: Alright, man. Well, I look forward to seeing all your work.
Ben Wagner: Looking forward to having something else.
TMN: Well, hey, man. Thanks a lot. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me and hopefully, everyone will go check this film and we look forward to see your stuff in the future.
Ben Wagner: I appreciate it, man. Thank you so much. I’m so happy that you responded to it, and thank you for your time. It was really good talking with you.
TMN: You too, man. I’ll talk to you again sometime.