Following the film’s premiere at SXSW 2015, “Pod” filmmaker Mickey Keating sat down alongside co-stars Dean Cates (Ed) and Brian Morvant (Martin) to discuss the themes, sound, character designs, and exactly what it takes to keep a horror audience invested in the suspense of the movie’s mystery.
Culture Crypt: How has your SXSW experience been so far?
Mickey Keating: It’s been awesome! It’s been super fun. Have you guys been to other festivals before?
Brian Morvant: No, this is my first time at SXSW.
Dean Cates: I’ve been up to Sundance and some other festivals, but this is my first time in Austin. It’s awesome.
Brian Morvant: The streets kind of remind me of New Orleans. I’m from New Orleans. Just people on the streets drinking, having fun. It’s cool.
Culture Crypt: It seems like the movie is a real community effort where everyone involved knows each other well. How did the cast come together?
Dean Cates: I met Mickey through our friend Chelsea Peters. Chelsea had kind of referred me for Mickey’s previous project. Mickey was a first time writer/director and I was kind of like, “oh, I don’t know if I want to do that,” because people always have this kind of control over their material. But Mickey sent me some test shoots and I watched them and the sound on them was so cool! There was such a specific voice there that I thought, “oh man, I have to do this movie,” even just for that. I want to see what he does with the sound and with the whole picture.
Mickey Keating: I knew Dean because Dean was in my first movie, “Ritual.” And I met Brian through friends of our co-production company Illium Pictures based out of New York City. We were trying to find the right Martin because he is a very specific character. As soon as I asked around, they were like, “this is your guy.” So we met and completely hit it off.
Brian Morvant: Yeah, we geeked out right out of the gate.
Dean Cates: Mickey did a good job of assembling a really cool group of people. That was what was so much fun about “Ritual” too is we were all cramped in a little hotel room, everybody was awesome, and we had a great time making it. And this time we were cramped in a little house in Maine! But everybody was just so relaxed and chill.
Mickey Keating: It’s like summer camp almost, but in the dead of winter!
Culture Crypt: Why did you want to film in the wintertime?
Mickey Keating: I don’t know! I think it’s a challenge especially when you don’t have the most resources to shoot in elements like that. It’s pretty insane. But it’s the thrill of the hunt and being able to accomplish something that not a lot of people necessarily do in horror, or film in general.
Brian Morvant: And that atmosphere is cool. The shots of the lake, the winter, I think it sort of plays into the themes of the film. It’s so isolated, kind of like Martin’s character is, kind of like what happens with everybody else. It builds with everything.
Culture Crypt: You mentioned Ti West’s “The Roost” during the Q&A at the premiere. Two other movies that came to my mind while watching “Pod” were William Friedkin’s “Bug” and Joe Begos’ “Almost Human.” What were some of the other influences?
Mickey Keating: When I talk to the actors, I give them lists of just everything, all these different kinds of movies. Definitely “The Ninth Configuration” is a huge one because it’s that same returning home from war kind of theme and watching the fallout from that. “Taxi Driver” to a big extent. When I talked to Brian for the first time, I said, “it’s like Travis Bickle if he catches a monster in the woods!” What else? “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Andromeda Strain.” I wish our composer was here because basically we temped the entire movie with “The Andromeda Strain” soundtrack.
Brian Morvant: “Jacob’s Ladder.”
Mickey Keating: What else?
Dean Cates: “Straw Dogs.”
Mickey Keating: We had Dean dress like a combination of Dustin Hoffman and then Donald Sutherland in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
Culture Crypt: So Ed’s look was purposeful?
Mickey Keating: Oh definitely!
Dean Cates: We stole the coat from Donald Sutherland, everything else from Dustin Hoffman, and then the mustache and sideburns from Dustin Hoffman in “Straight Time.”
Mickey Keating: And of course “The Manchurian Candidate.” “Bug” is funny because “Bug” is basically “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” just in a cramped motel room. So yeah, it all goes back to Rod Serling I feel like.
Culture Crypt: So something Mickey did to tune the cast into his vision was to have everyone watch a lot of these movies?
Brian Morvant: Yeah. When Mickey and I were talking, and I’m sure it’s the same for Dean, our funny experience was we’d talk, and we’d talk enthusiastically about “Taxi Driver” and the connections that we kind of felt there. We’d talk about “Bug,” we’d talk about “Jacob’s Ladder,” we’d talk about “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” When we first started talking I was like, “cool, these are great references,” and then the references just kept coming! But it was all totally great source material for everything. For the feel of it, for the depth of how crazy things get for my character. It got me in the visceral space.
Culture Crypt: Did you work out the visuals for your characters together with Mickey?
Dean Cates: Mickey is such a visual person that we usually start with, “I’m gonna do this movie and you get to have a mustache.” Done! For Ed, the mustache was key, but really it came down to the glasses that were tricky, right?
Mickey Keating: Mmm-hmm.
Dean Cates: We wanted the perfect glasses because we felt like Ed has a hard time seeing the forest for the trees. He is so certain that Martin is crazy and so certain that Lyla is just a drunk. I wanted to play with those glasses and have that be a personification of how he is just not seeing the situation clearly at all. Eventually when he does see the pod through the glasses, we wanted to break them. But we couldn’t find a sweet pair at a secondhand store that we could break and we don’t have the space age glass where you can break it and not shatter an eyeball!
Mickey Keating: We bought six different variations because originally I wanted the Dustin Hoffman from “Straw Dogs” glasses, but we couldn’t find ones that didn’t just blast off all the lights in the room. So we were testing two days beforehand, doing lighting setups, and Dean put on these other glasses. I go, “Dean, turn this way.” He looked over, there was no reflection, and I thought, those glasses are pretty cool! When the glasses come off, I wanted it to be like, “this is where you become a man, when you come back from the basement and just start bashing sh*t!”
Culture Crypt: How closely did you stick to the script? Brian specifically has a number of extended monologues. Was any of that dialogue improvised?
Dean Cates: Mickey has a very specific vision. If you look at his script, it looks like a graphic novel. He has seen every scene the way he wants. He is very clear on what he wants the final version to look like even before you go into it, which is amazing to me. It makes it really fun and easy to do a low budget, condensed shoot that way, because you know that somebody has thought it through. He has a clear idea of what he wants, and there’s not a lot of wasted time on set. The only thing we didn’t figure out was some stunts. I was falling on pool floaties and stuff when I got shot, which was hilarious! There are clips of me bouncing back up into frame like I had the wind knocked out of me! Other than that, it’s a pleasure. You can work, you’re done, your days are easy, and we can just listen to K-pop, J-pop, and get drunk and have fun. That’s what I like about working on our films.
Brian Morvant: Really, 99% of it was exactly the script. One of the things Mickey did for a lot of the long monologues I have, sometimes we would do a series on it and do it five times in a row without cutting. So little tiny changes would come out of however I naturally felt that resentment Martin has and that sort of manic energy. Like little, little, tiny things. But otherwise, it was really exactly what Mickey wrote. It was cool to find the voice because Mickey is so specific with the energy, themes, funky music, and style that we wanted to use those languages to represent that.
Culture Crypt: Speaking of music and sound, what were the conversations like regarding the audio design?
Mickey Keating: I do my sound design with my partner Shawn Duffy, who does the sound mix as well. I love noise and misdirection. So much of horror films is when the music goes soft, you know there’s going to be a jump scare. What really influences me is I love “Silent Hill” and I love the more abstract works of “Eraserhead” and even going back to “Tetsuo the Iron Man.” Just bizarre soundscapes where you can never really anticipate where anything is coming from. We went through 25 iterations of the mix just building and building and expanding and finding very, very bizarre tones and really uncomfortable sounds so that by the time the characters get down into the basement, you feel it through your gut, that pulsing bass that you can’t really shake or get rid of. We edit really quickly, my editor and me. We had a cut done in the first two months and then we spent the next eight months just going insane with the sound.
Culture Crypt: The premiere was last night (March 16, 2015) and I was told that was the anniversary of the wrap day.
Mickey Keating: Yes, we wrapped a year ago to the day!
Dean Cates: Oh yeah!
Brian Morvant: What? That’s insane!
Culture Crypt: Was the film specifically structured to have high energy beats timed to punctuate the gradual pacing?
Mickey Keating: Yes. That was very important to me because what was fascinating with watching my first film was I basically just wanted to create a relationship drama over a dead body and then a cult shows up. I wanted to create that same kind of structure of dialogue and tension through emotion and through character interaction. But if the midnight crowd zones out, it’s like, (claps hands) well here you go! That was a very conscious effort just to try that same kind of execution but really make sure that no one nodded off. It’s a hard balance to find, but by the time we get to the tooth-pulling scene, I hope everyone is still onboard!
Brian Morvant: One of the things Mickey specifically kept saying was he wanted to treat at least the first two acts like a family drama, like a really character focused play. That’s one of the things that excites me the most. That also sets a lot of the pace. Like in the very first scene where Dean and Lauren Ashley Carter are talking, it’s got this pace of two siblings who haven’t seen each other in a while who have a sort of tense relationship. It’s kind of slow, it’s kind of tentative, it’s heavily judgmental. Then it gets bickering (snapping fingers) really fast in that same scene. And then the rest of the movie keeps doing that. Obviously, the music and the editing amps that up tenfold.
Dean Cates: That’s one of the things that you really strive to do is to create characters that step into the movie with some kind of backstory.
Mickey Keating: Right.
Dean Cates: It’s not like, “why is this character here?” There’s a reason for us to be there. The siblings being tied to Martin and his mental illness, Ed having this guilt or this obligation to repair this thing that he did last time, which is just abandon his brother in his time of need. The same with Lyla. There’s something keeping him in those relationships even though they are clearly dysfunctional. Anybody in their right mind would have been like, “he’s got a gun. I’m just gonna leave you to it, see you later!”
Brian Morvant: Whether there’s a creature in the film or not or whether there is something else, there’s this sort of mystery. To me, my character’s main interest was Ed, because that’s his brother and he just needed approval from Ed, who has always been this sort of judging alpha male. My character has this variety of mental illnesses and insecurity problems, but to me it’s just about getting Ed’s approval, which he never really gets.
Culture Crypt: It is a bit of a sudden surprise when Martin slits his throat.
Brian Morvant: Good, good!
Mickey Keating: It’s definitely a cache moment!
Brian Morvant: We were joking about that earlier. It feels like victory in the sense of Martin being like, “now you deal with this!”
(Composer Giona Ostinelli enters the room and joins the conversation.)
Culture Crypt: I asked Mickey earlier about what the discussions were like that went into sound design and what you talked about to get the mood right.
Giona Ostinelli: Mickey is always very descriptive with everybody. When we started talking very early on, he sent me a script with tons of ideas. He sends me a lot of scores. We talk about the vibe of the movie, how the actors act, the lighting, everything, and then we go from there. Especially with “Pod,” we were talking about “Silent Hill” and those movies that are very ambient and we start working on it. I might suggest, “Mickey, I’m thinking it’s too ambient, we need a more traditional type of score.” That’s why we have a lot of electronics, but also a lot of strings and those types of traditional elements.
Giona Ostinelli: And with Dean’s character Ed dressed up in that mustache and that coat, we were like, we need to throw in a bit more seventies type of sound. That’s why when Ed has that coffee conversation with Lyla we hear that kind of “ping ping” weird effect. It also worked great with Larry Fessenden’s character, Agent Smith.
Mickey Keating: The old school “Twilight Zone” sounds.
Giona Ostinelli: Right! It was just working great because at the end when it’s like, “there’s the pod,” we hear this kind of cheesy, synth-y, seventies type of score. It was just great!
Culture Crypt: What’s a question that you expected everyone would ask about this movie?
Mickey Keating: Oh, I expected everyone to ask, what is a pod?
Culture Crypt: Why is the monster called a pod?
Mickey Keating: So much of the fun is the nice, enjoyable antagonizing of horror audiences! To me it’s like, everyone is going to go into this movie thinking it’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Everyone is going to assume that somebody is going to get possessed. That’s just my fun little nod to that because I think that if half the audience assumes that going into the basement the characters are going to find a pod person, then I’ve kind of done my job because then there’s that misdirection that no one expects.
Dean Cates: In “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” you have this nice thing where it’s, “are you one of them or are you normal?”
Mickey Keating: Right.
Dean Cates: Are you human? Is the mailman in the basement? Is it an alien?
Brian Morvant: And Martin also kind of coins the term “pod.” Perhaps questionable judgment! But it’s him having thought he saw something when he was in training and he has named it a pod.
Dean Cates: Martin has like six copies of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
Brian Morvant: He is clearly a horror buff! He’s watching it on the TV when Ed and Lyla come in.
Giona Ostinelli: The woman next to me asked, what is a pod? I said, just watch the movie!
Culture Crypt: I didn’t know it was a monster movie going into the film.
Brian Morvant: I think that’s what we hoped. Because you have to figure out the validity of what Martin is saying. I feel like someone is going, is there a human down there? Is there no one down there? Is there actually a thing down there?
Giona Ostinelli: To me it’s a beautiful movie because for the first 40 minutes, you don’t know. I kept thinking it’s just the mailman, it’s just Martin going crazy, and you don’t know! Finally, Ed goes down and you’re like, “oh sh*t!”
Brian Morvant: Hopefully that is a thing that will come as a surprise!