Genre as the Flesh of the Human Experience: An Interview With Rod Blackhurst of 'Here Alone'
Blackhurst reflects on his discovery of cinema, the need to rely on the conventions of cinema, and his ambitions to create a character study that will resonate.
Here AloneDirector: Rod Blackhurst
Cast: Lucy Walters, Gina Piersanti, Adam David Thompson
Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Release date: 2017-03-31
The apocalypse is an established preoccupation for storytellers that taps into our morbid curiosity of ‘the end’, Catholicism and the Book of Revelation seemingly unable to silence our curiosity. Dystopian visions of the future have come to populate genre cinema and one of the iconographic figureheads of the apocalypse emerges from horror in the form of the zombie or the undead. While George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) used this incarnation of the monstrous to critique consumerist America, director Rod Blackhurst’s Here Alone (2016) centres its attention on the human experience of the apocalypse.
The story of Ann (Lucy Walters), the film cuts between her past and present, journeying from a woman entrapped in a violent transformation of her world, to a survivalist in the harsh wilderness. Through his isolated protagonist the storyteller explores how the transformation of civilisation impacts the way we perceive our past, present and future, and our connection to the horrors that surround us.
In conversation with PopMatters, Blackhurst reflects on his discovery of cinema, the need to rely on the conventions of cinema, and his ambitions to create a character study that will resonate with his audience.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I grew up without a television in the mountains of upstate New York and the first couple of movies I saw I thought they were these strange documentaries, maybe these approximations of what was happening in the world that I couldn't access. So my parents and I lived in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road and I was watching these crazy, what I would call Hollywood action movies at my friend's house. I thought they looked awesome and I said to myself: I have no idea how these people make these things, but I too would like to make movies someday.
From there I started doing everything I could to understand how to be a good storyteller, and because we didn't have a TV growing up I read, and I read [excessively]. I started sneaking photographs and learning how to become a designer. I think I understood very early on the craft was just as important as the construction of a great narrative, and I knew that the two needed to go hand in hand. So while I didn't know how to put a movie together, I could understand aesthetic and creative value, and how to start building something that could be cohesive and coherent, both as a story and as a piece of art. Or as a visual thing in and of itself.
Have your experiences as a filmmaker influenced the way you watch films as a spectator?
Well, to answer your question in two ways, the first part is maybe not a direct answer to your question, but I will answer it.
Being a watcher of films I, of course, want to make films that reach audiences. I think there are a lot of people that make movies as these egotistical self-expressions, of what they want to exist in the world, but they make them without consideration for what somebody might want to watch. So it's very important that every filmmaker makes sure the film they are making is taking care of the creative side of things, as well as what I would call the business side.
I think that's exactly what we tried to do with Here Alone. We identified a genre and type of film that we thought could exist in the marketplace that we didn't see, and at the same time something we could make as a team of collaborators that would prove our creative acumen, so we could show people that we have earned the right to be making feature films.
Now, when it comes to watching movies or watching other people's work and art, I still find myself becoming lost in the magic of it when it's good. But if it’s not good, if the artifice of it becomes very apparent, then I can't watch it because I end up asking myself, which is way too often: How did this get made? I see so many movies that are poorly constructed with bad narratives. I read so many scripts that are poorly written, stories that aren't worth telling and I think: Why did these exist?
The films that are great that don't fall into that category are because someone looked at them and said: “How can I make something unique and original that is going to captivate and wow an audience?” They do so in an authoritative way and I think that's our responsibility as storytellers and filmmakers, not only to make something that other people want to watch but to give them something unique. Our responsibility is to give them the chance to escape, to stop thinking about all of the things that they normally think about when they are going about their everyday lives.
Ann (Lucy Walters) and Jason (Shane West)
In Here Alone, the zombies are secondary to the human drama of the apocalypse or dystopian vision. A common idea is that there are only a limited number of archetypal stories that are being retold time and again. As a filmmaker, how are you able to use the cinelitéracy of the audience to create this one part of the story while you focus on the human drama?
I think you hit the nail on the head in that Here Alone is a character study with a genre film layer. It's a dramatic film about relationships and the human experience of living in a fantastical time with this skin on top of it, that is both the apocalypse and then our iteration of this genre -- an infection where our ‘zombies’ are not the undead. They have a disease and can die, and we do rely on some of those conventions that come with this territory at times. But that's the way a film like ours that was made with next to no money, and in a very small amount of time by a very tight group of friends, could own that which has come before us.
But at the same time, we want to tell a story inside of that about love and pain, the fears of existing alone, the human condition of wondering about regret and the choices you've made. So again, we really tried to say as filmmakers and storytellers that we are interested in character driven pieces, whether it's a story like this set in the apocalypse with zombies lurking just outside the woods of our main protagonist, or whether this is a film that's set in the outback of Australia in the early 1800s, and the threat is an unidentified one. It's a narrative and an experience that can exist anywhere, and we just chose to use the post-apocalyptic landscape and zombies as a backdrop to our character study.
As a character study, one of the most powerful scenes is the exchange of ideas when Chris talks about moving on, and Ann retorts how there was a time you'd apologise, wait to screw up and say you were sorry again. It's a scene that looks to how we define ourselves, questioning the struggle of the apocalypse that deprives us of purpose and meaning. I'd argue it is an example of the withering or transformation of identity that looks to the metaphorical versus actual death.
That's very interesting and what Ann is speaking to in that moment of the film is what's the use of living if you are the only human left alive? Earlier, there's a scene between Ann and Chris where he tells her what has happened to them. He looks at the situation a little differently, in that even those with the infection were once human and maybe deserve some level of dignity. It's an approach that considers that humanity would stay lost because it wasn't something that they lost in and of themselves, it was something that happened to them -- it was not that they went out and tried to lose their humanity.
Ann, on the other hand, is maybe more of a fatalist and doesn't see any use in any of this, and that's because something else has happened to her in her past that has made her question why she's living at all. What I hope is in both of those characters everyone can see or consider a little bit of themselves, and how they might respond or react if they too were put in that situation. I don't think any of us would of course know, and none of us will ever know because we'll never find ourselves in a situation like this. But I hope that people can look at these characters and say: “Oh man, I too would feel that way.” So they can be watching a movie about a ‘zombie’ apocalypse, but again come back to the fact that these are very real people, situations and emotional problems, let alone there are zombies right around the corner.
Picking up on your point about us seeing an echo of ourselves in the characters, another important character in the film is the music. Yet it has a discreet presence and your use of music recalls film director Terence Davies’ words when I interviewed him for his film, Sunset Song: “Great music does not tell you what to feel; it merely prepares you for it, and that’s what’s really difficult. And when that is done, it’s just magic.”
You are absolutely right. There are a lot of elements of this film that don't call attention to themselves because they're there to support what I would say is the ‘A’ storyline. The music is one of those things that exists to carry you through those moments and to support the feelings that you might be experiencing. But it's not over the top and it's not trying to scream out loud: “Pay attention to me.”
There are a lot of things happening in this film that were designed that way. We actually have a lot of visual effects that most people can't pick out, and I think we knew that this needed to be a simple story designed around this one woman. We knew it needed to be her film, her character's story. So everything else exists to support and to not detract from that.
As a director, I always tell people that I think it's important to make choices for what your project needs, not what you and your ego want. A lot of times directors will say, “Well I want this and therefore this needs that”, and I think people need to take a step back and ask what the story needs to be told well. In our film, we have a quiet and beautiful, but bleak and dark world that is largely unoccupied, and we need all the "krass" elements around it to support that type of story.