Interview: Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton of New England Backwoods Horror Film, ‘YellowBrickRoad’
During January’s Slamdance Film Festival I got the opportunity to interview Andy Mitton and Jesse Holland, writers and directors of the upcoming YellowBrickRoad. The film is a psychological horror film set deep in the woods of New Hampshire, on a mysterious trail called “YellowBrickRoad”. The legend tells that on one morning in 1940 the entire town of Friar, New Hampshire (572 men, women, and children) walked together up a mountain trail and disappeared into the wilderness with no explanation. Roughly half the bodies of these 572 were eventually found by the US Army, some of them having been brutally slaughtered.
As the years passed by the story became local lore and local lore became legend, twisting in the way stories do. The town rebuilt itself and the past was all but a faded memory until a new expedition curious about what really happened on that mountain finds the original trailhead and heads back up onto the mountain to discover the truth at the end of the YellowBrickRoad.
YellowBrickRoad recently played to not one, but two sold out audiences at Slamdance, and is still seeking distribution. Being that myself and both filmmakers are from New England we had a lot of good stuff to talk about.
Brutal As Hell: We’ve seen the trailer and this looks pretty incredible. What prompted you to write this story? Were there any particular inspirations?
Jesse: Thanks, we’d like to give a shout-out to J.D. Funari who cut our trailer and really did an amazing job.
Andy: Mostly we wanted to write about what scared us the most. The idea that within all of us is the desire and the ability to turn our backs on society, on our relationships and responsibilities and possessions, and just walk in the woods. We wanted to see a team a professionals be tested not only by a ‘presence’ in the forest, but by themselves and their own capacities for evil. The result, we hope, is something for the “Mindfuck” shelf (possibly in between Jacob’s Ladder and Se7en) and a totally new experience of a genre that can sometimes get pretty formulaic.
Brutal As Hell: You’re both from Massachuetts and you decided to set the film here and shoot the film here in New England. Why this choice? Did it present any particular set of challenges?
Andy: There was pressure along the way to shoot in other places where we could get better tax incentives (Michigan, Alaska) or places it would be easier to get everyone to (outside of LA, where we live), but these places wouldn’t have matched the particularities of the New England landscape. We wanted to have the experience of really living inside the main character of our movie, this untamed wilderness, and so we traveled to Pittsburg NH and found that the locals there had their arms open to us and for the most part seemed excited to have us.
Jesse: That makes all the difference in the world. Also, these woods had never been captured in a feature before, so we felt that gave us some extra production value and highly original visuals. And we’re lucky enough to have a producer, Eric Hungerford, who was crazy enough to support our wish and figure out the logistics of how to get everyone up there and make it happen. No easy feat.
Brutal As Hell: In terms of the actual shoot, I understand you actually shot this film in the middle of the woods. No electricity, or things that sort. In New Hampshire you could set up a shoot off the side of the road and look like you’re miles from nowhere. First – how true is this? How tough was this to pull off? And how was the cast with this?
Andy: We did shoot in the region in and around Pittsburg, NH. The locals call it “Moose Alley” and they do a great business in snowmobiling in the winters. Many scenes took place off in the woods with the equipment running on generators. That said, there were also times we did just as you say – found a place on the side of the road that looked far away in the camera’s eye and shot it there cause it worked.
Jesse: But many scenes involved more intricate steadicam moves that would rotate many degrees around so that you felt surrounded by the forest and that required us to lug the equipment out and just get out there in it. We knew we wouldn’t have cell phone reception up there going in, and since we were able to prepare for that reality, we really enjoyed that isolated aspect. The internet was slim to none most of the time, and that we WEREN’T expecting and definitely provided a challenge in communicating with the rest of the world.
Andy: But once we were really in it, we remembered why we’d come in the first place – there are some things you just can’t fake. The bugs are real, the rain is real, the physical discomfort is often real. We made sure, however, that in the off-hours we kept our cast warm and comfortable so that when we were working, they could appreciate and harness the experience of the wilderness.
Brutal As Hell: Speaking of the cast, how hard was it to convince them to fly across country to star in a film that was to be shot in the remote portions of New Hampshire? Any gripes once everyone was on set?
Jesse: There were never any serious gripes with the conditions from the cast. Sure, we all had days where we felt we might go crazy if another swarm of black flies descended on our heads, but we always stuck together and got through our days. We made sure in the casting process that everyone was truly excited to go into an environment like this and give themselves over. We’re both amazed at our actors’ ability to do this and the strength of our ensemble saved our butts on a regular basis.
Andy: They’re awesome, we’re not just blowing smoke. We expect all of them to continue doing incredible things and we can’t wait.
Brutal As Hell: What’s the significance of naming the trail “The YellowBrickRoad”?
Andy: In our legend, it is rumored that the townspeople who walked north up this trail became obsessed with their print of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. Like much of the country during and following the Great Depression, movies were their great escape and this movie was their favorite.
Jesse: When they left Friar to meet their unknown fates, they scrawled “YELLOWBRICKROAD” into a stone marker at the trailhead. That’s the legend, anyway.
Brutal As Hell: The film is based on a fictional town, but the way it plays out, there is a heavy nod to local legend and lore. It’s also emanates a very classic New England style of psychological horror present in campfire tales. Even though the town and the events are fictional, was there any real events that this was based on?
Jesse: There were a few stories we heard about after we had outlined our own story that seemed along the same lines and inspired us when we got around to drafting scenes. One in particular about an Eskimo village that was found completely abandoned with all essentials left behind. The detail that really got us was the dogs tied to posts, left to starve. Scary stuff, and never resolved.
Brutal As Hell: Were there any particular horror films that you turned to for inspiration, in terms of what you wanted the film to look, or sound like?
Andy: We were inspired by the slow-burn horror classics of the 70s: The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, Deliverance. Our favorite movie of all time is The Exorcist. These are all beautiful horror films, and most importantly they all reach you to your core.
Jesse: I ride in an elevator after watching Rosemary’s Baby and I feel Mia Farrow’s sense of psychological imprisonment. I walk by a stone staircase after The Exorcist and I’m filled with a sense of spiritual terror. We love films that are more than distractions, films that leave an imprint and allow you to alter your perspective on things.
Brutal As Hell: On a personal note, I’m a pretty avid outdoorsman. I’ve camped and hiked in some fairly remote places, and have spent a lot of time in the rugged wilderness of New England. I personally know how useless technology is when you get in trouble in the backwoods. If you are lucky enough to get cell coverage it doesn’t much matter because it could take rescuers hours, if not a full day or more to get to you. And a lot can go down in that time. Not only this, but it’s a published fact that the number one killer in the backwoods is panic. And as a horror enthusiast I find that very fascinating. From the outset YellowBrickRoad is one of the rare films that looks like it will dip into this territory. So the question would be – how much did you utilize these aspects that are presented to us naturally in this environment – the disconnect, the hysteria and disorientation that can set in while in the backwoods?
Jesse: The characters are, for the most part, experienced at surviving in the outdoors. They come in fairly prepared. When things start to go bad, resources do become finite and, like you say, technology breaks down. The Woods becomes a source of danger, and the dwindling supplies provide a sort of ticking clock.
Andy: However, the real danger in this film comes not from the woods, but from within the characters themselves. To say more would be giving too much away.
Brutal As Hell: I read in an interview recently that you’ve intentionally avoided submitting your film to horror film fests. Can you tell us why this choice?
Andy: Sounds like maybe this point was exaggerated wherever it appeared, but we have always maintained that we didn’t want to show it at JUST horror fests. The reason is because our movie is a slow-burn suspense film as well as a horror film and there are some audiences who like their horror fast, hard, and guts-covered. We can get into that, too, to be honest – we love all kinds of horror movies. But the one we’ve made is a little different and we wanted a wider audience of independent film-lovers to get scared in a way that won’t rely on grossing them out.
Jesse: We have our moments, don’t get us wrong, but we go for quality over quantity. That said, I think there are horror festivals we’d still love to play because ultimately those people are hungry for new ways to get scared and that’s exactly what we’ve tried to build.
Brutal As Hell: The film opens at Slamdance, to an already sold out audience. What’s next? Any possible distribution deals?
Andy: Our sales agency Traction is handling negotiations. In the meantime, we’re writing our next script. It’s a thriller set in a high school.
Brutal As Hell: Anything else we should know?
Andy: Thanks for the great questions!
Brutal As Hell: And thank you guys. We can’t wait to get a look at the film!