Pictured: Andy Mitton
The other week I wrote about how YellowBrickRoad, an independent horror film written and directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton, did a number on me. I seriously hadn’t been that emotionally and psychologically worked over by a piece of fiction in a while. Though my essay on the movie helped me come to terms with how and why it had affected me as much as it did, I was still intrigued by this harrowing puzzle of a film. So I reached out to Mitton, a Los Angeles filmmaker originally from New England, and he was kind enough to answer my questions about YellowBrickRoad.
Daniel Link: What's the genesis of your and Jesse's premise behind YellowBrickRoad, and how does House of Leaves come into play?
Andy Mitton: At the start, we just thought the idea of hearing music from an unknown source in the forest was a fresh way to portray a ghostly presence. It was our favorite kind of scary—the uncanny, the thing that cannot be there, but is anyway. Just like that door upstairs in Navidson’s house in House of Leaves, which is among my and Jesse’s favorite books. Lynch and Kubrick also became references as masters of the uncanny and squeezing it for all its wrongness. The story within was both around maximizing the potential of that idea, and also telling a cautionary tale about the nature of ambition—something we were exploring on a personal level, anyway, just by uprooting our lives to try and make a movie. We put some of our own dream-following fears and misgivings into the emerging story of Teddy Barnes’ obsession.
AM: I’m a bit familiar with New Hampshire, having grown up in New England—and Jesse and I both went to college together in Vermont. In the writing process, the fictional town of Friar was placed on the northern tip of New Hampshire because it had the kind of logging towns we need for our backstory. When we went to shoot, we were naïve and thought ‘hey, let’s just go shoot it where we set it.’ And we did, which was crazy because it was remote, without cell reception, barely any internet. We went early, found all our favorite locations, and then in the first week of production we lost most of those spots due to a flaw in our permitting. We were saved by one of our hired on-set EMTs, who brought up to her family farm nearby, where we ended up shooting much of the film since it had a variety of looks. So, nothing was ideal—but lucky for us, the wilderness up there is unique, and everywhere we turned was interesting and different. We leaned on the fact that those woods had never appeared in a fictional feature before, so already it was distinct, and had production value.
DL: How did you go about finding the cast? i.e. Was it an open call or were some friends and associates?
AM: We come from theater, Jesse and I, and we put actors as the highest priority and take pride in how we work and communicate with them. So we knew a lot of talented folks already and were friends, so yes we brought them aboard ourselves, no casting director. Michael Laurino (Teddy) had been a long-time collaborator in L.A. Clark and Cassidy Freeman (Daryl and Erin) who also executive produced) are long-time friends since college who I’m also in a band with. Sam Elmore, Tara Giordano, and Alex Draper were friends, classmates, colleagues. The amazing Lee Wilkof was a friend of Alex’s, so we got lucky. We didn’t know Anessa Ramsey, though—we were fans of her film The Signal and took a chance on reaching out—luckily she said yes and fit in seamlessly our little family. And Laura Heisler (Liv) was totally new to us as an N.Y.C. theater favorite who we cast off a Quicktime video—and she also couldn’t have fit in better. In fact, she and I are getting married this spring!
Pictured: Laura Heisler in character as Liv McCann
DL: What about the film, during writing or directing it, affected you the most?
AM: The environment during shooting. Definitely. We knew it would be a challenge to go on location, but we didn’t realize the extent. It was blackfly season, and we were being eaten alive. And then there were the moose. There are tons of accidents and deaths up there every year with people hitting moose with their cars. And there was just a feeling in the place—not to disparage it, because the people in town were mostly incredible and on our side. But it was truly unsettling and unforgiving for what we were trying to accomplish, and I’ll never forget the feeling when I realized there were really two missions: one to get the movie in the can, and a second one to get everyone out alive and make sure the story of making the movie didn’t become scarier than the movie itself.
DL: I spoke about how the movie's oppressive atmosphere can be attributed to the ways in which the characters start to turn against each other. Was this arguably misanthropic element intentional in writing the script?
AM: Yes, quite. The walk up YellowBrickRoad is personal—the further you go, the further you go into your own dark side. What we told the actors is with every step, they’re each more and more alone—even if they’re still walking side by side with someone.
DL: Can you think of a work of horror that has unsettled you similar to how YellowBrickRoad disturbed me? If so, what and in which way?
AM: We have a list of films that we think really reach inside, twist the gut, and leave a mark, both the kind where you’re not right again until you’ve slept it off, and the kind where you don’t forget your experience, hopefully ever. Those are the kind of films we want to make, so if we hit anywhere near that mark with you despite our first-timers’ mistakes—well, it’s extremely rewarding. Some of our own favorites in that arena are The Shining, Se7en, Deliverance, and The Exorcist (our favorite).
Pictured: Jesse Holland
DL: What about the film—its story, theme, characters, etc.—grabs at you the most looking back?
AM: Hmmm. Some things grab in the good way—I think that’s what you mean?—and some grab at me cause I want to go back and do it again. But that’s the nature of a first film. I know Jesse feels the same. What’s most successful to me is the element of surprise. That’s part of why the movie got a lot more exposed than we expected. These movies have all become pretty formulaic, designed to take the formula, tweak it, and deliver the meal audiences expect. We bucked that totally, and I remain proud. There are events in the movie that I don’t think anyone sees coming. There’s risk there, and some people will be pissed ’cause they’re not getting the meal they ordered. But the experience becomes new—if we’ve earned your imagination by that point, then you know we’re leading you somewhere unknown, and that’s the feeling I’m most proud of, and want to keep exploring going forward.
DL: YellowBrickRoad was filmed for $380,000, according to Wikipedia. In what way do you think a larger budget could have added to the movie?
AM: Jesse and I could go on and on with that one! It would have changed everything, honestly, because more money means more resources in all the priority departments, who all would have had more flexibility to be successful. Better looks and locales, more time in post on VFX and sound, the list could go on and on. That said, working with restrictions also breeds creativity—forces, it really. And some amazing choices come out of that, so who knows. But who are we kidding; we’ll take the bigger budget.
DL: Can we expect a Blu Ray release in the near future?
AM: Not so far as we know, but boy would we love to see that. If there’s demand down the line, who knows. Clearly, everyone should be calling and writing The Collective, our excellent distributors, and demanding they make one!
DL: What's your next project?
AM: We have several new scripts we’re gearing up to shoot, in many corners of the genre, but next is a ghost story called We Go On that we’re shooting this summer, about a Los Angeles man paralyzed with his fear of dying decides to offer reward money in The Times to the first person who can show him a ghost, an angel, a demon—anything to prove to him that we go on after our deaths. He goes on an adventure that becomes a nightmare when his search awakens an unthinkable horror.
Much thanks to Andy for responding to my inquiry, and I wish him and Laura well on their impending nuptials!