Dave catches up with director Ryan Brookhart to talk his debut shocker.
Here’s a trivia question for all you Charles Band fanatics:
Aside from the iconic producer, whose name is most frequently listed on all physical media releases from Full Moon Features?
Hands up who said Ryan Brookhart? Indeed, for the best part of a decade the native Ohioan has designed countless key art for the majority of Full Moon’s releases. But, like so many people who you pigeonhole into a certain skill bracket, Brookhart’s abilities stretch far beyond creating the latest Blu-ray cover for a new Evil Bong movie, a fact that’s underlined with the release of his directorial debut, Trace (2015), which hit UK shores this week as STRAIGHT FROM HELL.
“It’s funny, I’ve heard so often over the last few years that I’m just this key art guy” reflects Brookhart from his Los Angeles home, “It’s true to an extent, but the reality is I started as a writer and moved to LA from Ohio and began running an arthouse magazine called Provocateur, followed by a toy / entertainment publication titled Go Figure! The goal though was always to be a writer and director in the film industry.”
While the frequently wandered path of horror may have been a shoo-in for the theme of Brookhart’s debut, the subject of electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) presents a more unusual subject for exploration. EVP are of course sounds found on electronic recordings that are interpreted as spirit voices that have either been unintentionally recorded, or intentionally requested and recorded. Irrespective of its commonality among ghost hunting reality television shows, EVP-centric narratives are surprisingly scarce in the movies, with White Noise (2005) and its criminally underrated sequel White Noise: The Light (2007) still the benchmark for this eerie occurrence.
Ironically, the origins of Trace stretch all the way back to the release of the Michael Keaton film. “When it came out, I was actually briefly concerned that someone had beaten me to the punch” admits Brookhart, “My original intention, which goes back about fifteen years, was to write Trace as a book. Specifically, I was working the idea out in my head that EVP was perhaps a glimpse into parallel realities. Perhaps a version of quantum reality. So the idea that people who were hearing ghosts or demons on the other end of an EVP experiment might actually be hearing alternative versions of themselves, benevolent or otherwise.”
A staggeringly mind-bending notion, and one that underlines the amount time Brookhart invested into exploring the multiple facets of EVP, a journey that also took him to the house of the peerless William Peter Blatty. “We really connected over our fascination with EVP” remembers Brookhart, “Bill gave me an extensive reading list of material on the ‘science’ of EVP, and I was very happy to see that my own research and speculations were in keeping with the general concepts.”
By the time Trace came before the cameras, this long journey for the filmmaker had seen hundreds of pages of notes and seven drafts of a script before it was ready to shoot on what Brookhart readily admits was a very small budget. Given the gestation of the project, you can’t help but feel a pang of sadness that a film with such large-scale potential had to tighten the belt of frugality, but credit to Brookhart as he’s still managed to deliver a tense and well-crafted picture.
Following a Soviet Research Facility opening sequence, Trace lands us in present day Los Angeles where we find Nick (Nick Fink) and Duffy (August Roads) who spend a portion of their time studying EVP in the studio of the former between audio related assignments. With their closest friends round for a social in Nick’s apartment, the twilight hours bring a degree of bravado from group, keen to discover if this supernatural theory has any merit in practice. As Jarek (Jerod Meagher) heads into the booth in an attempt to summon something from the netherworld, it all seems like innocuous frivolity, but in reality they’ve unleashed a force of terrifying evil.
It would be easy for some to shrug Trace off as generic low budget horror fodder, but there are so many aspects to Brookhart’s movie that lift it far from the reaches of bottom shelf mediocrity. Nick Fink is a highlight for me, capturing the devastation, guilt and withdrawn nature of someone partially responsible for luring Abigor – the demon – out into the world. “Sam Valentine really impressed me too” adds Brookhart, “Maddie Maguire and Jesse Peppe as well, although to be honest everyone brought their A-game. I insisted we workshop the script, much like a series of theatre rehearsals, so we could play it loose and bring a level of surprise to the set. The script was pretty much chapter and verse, but I kept the mood as off-centre as possible to allow everyone to being their own unique energy to the process.”
The script is a real winner, oozing with an articulacy and depth that’s frequently absent from its peers, though some sassy one-liners ensure there’s an occasional lightening of its brooding tone; “He’s not going to look like some HP Lovecraft drawing in a cosplay nightmare” scowls Nick over the pending appearance of Abigor.
A tip of the hat must also go to the way Trace was shot. There’s a real fluidity there, and Brookhart admits that military-style preparation was the key to a successful shoot, with the opportunity to film the movie on sets paramount to a smooth production. “You can sculpt a scene with lights and have the latitude to really play with camera angles and movement. It was really important to me to get every shot that we could for the inevitable post-production jigsaw puzzle process. If you saw my shot list, I wrote it out like a football playlist! It was longer than the script!”
With a British release meaning that Trace is now available in over sixty territories around the world, Brookhart acknowledges the debt of gratitude he owes to the President of production company Terror Films, and one time Full Moon producer Joe Dain. “Joe always has been, and continues to be a champion of my work. I did a seventeen minute short of Trace at the very beginning. It played around town and I ended up showing it to Joe, who called me a few minutes after he saw it and wanted to talk about a feature possibility. In the end he decided that Trace would be the inaugural film for Terror Films. I felt like I’d won the lottery!”
Next up for Brookhart is Two Ways to Go West. “I’m in post-production on it now. It’s not a horror film, but it does deal with drug addiction in a pretty graphic way. It also has a genuinely funny and heartfelt script by the lead actor James Liddell, who’ll also be in The Spine Station, my next film.” With a decade and a half of research for Trace, not to mention its relative success around the globe, I wondered if there’s the potential to explore the theme of EVP further for Brookhart. “Well, Trace: Origin is one idea. It takes the first film and flips it in a way that’s pretty diabolical!”
“And that’s my happy place!”
STRAIGHT FROM HELL is out now on UK DVD, via 101 Films
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