Struggling to find an audience and believers who faithfully follow your cause can be a challenging task for many people striving to prove their talent. That endless battle is skillfully demonstrated by helmer Devin McGinn in his feature film directorial debut, the horror sci-fi thriller, ‘Skinwalker Ranch,’ which is now playing in select theaters and on VOD. Not only does the director proficiently prove his visual filmmaking skills to viewers through his clever use of the found footage genre of horror, but also effortlessly raises belief that the paranormal is real, through a captivating style of narrative storytelling.
‘Skinwalker Ranch,’ which is based on true events, follows the notable disappearance of ranch owner Hoyt Miller’s eight-year-old son, Cody (Nash Lucas), on November 11, 2010, after the ranch gained media attention for experiencing a wide range of unexplained phenomena, including UFO sightings. Almost a year later, Modern defense Enterprises (MDE) sends a team of experts to document and investigate the mysterious occurrences, which only escalate upon their arrival.
The team’s skepticism quickly vanishes when they begin to experience inexplicable incidents on their first night on the ranch. The next day, they discover a dead calf drained of all blood with almost surgical precision. Before having the time to digest the occurrences, MDE discovers an image bearing the likeness of Cody on security tapes they’re reviewing. The likeness is running through the same section of the house at the same each night.
The incidents continue to escalate and become more violent, causing tension to rise as MDE must decide how far they should should go to unlock the mysterious of Skinwalker Ranch. The group debates whether the answers are worth risking their lives for, or if they should leave the ranch all together.
McGinn generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Skinwalker Ranch’ over the phone. Among other things, the helmer discussed how he was drawn to directing the thriller because a friend approached him with the idea, and he was familiar with the real Skinwalker Ranch and has always been curious about the supernatural; how he feels using the found footage genre, which has received negative attention from horror fans in recent years, actually enhanced the story, because the MDE team is experienced in using cameras and capturing shots; and how he learned so many aspects of filmmaking being a producer, actor and the director on the movie, as he was heavily involved in so many aspects of the film shoot, but also how being so involved can also be a challenge on the set.
ShockYa (SY): You directed the new horror-sci-fi-thriller, ‘Skinwalker Ranch.’ How did you become involved in the film, and what interested you about the storyline?
Devin McGinn (DM): Well, I had read about the ranch a long time ago, just because I’ve been fascinated with all things paranormal since I was a kid. But it wasn’t until a couple years ago that a friend of mine, who’s also one of my partners on the film, said he was reading about the ranch. It struck me all of a sudden that no one’s made a movie about that place.
Also, at the same time, it hit me that it’s a good fit for the found footage genre. I know it’s the genre that everybody loves to hate, but it’s a great fit-there’s a reason for the cameraman to know what he was doing. You could have some really nice shots, instead of having shaky shots the whole time. So that was really appealing to me.
Also, I was attracted to the fact that this was a real place, that according to a lot of people, has all this different type of phenomenon happening, from UFOs to possessions to the Bermuda Triangle of the unknown. It seemed to fun to pass up. That was kind of the birth of doing the film.
SY: Speaking of the fact that the film is inspired by true-events and unexplainable phenomena surrounding Skinwalker Ranch in Utah, how much knowledge did you have on the ranch before you signed up to direct the movie? What kind of research did you do into the ranch as you were making the film?
DM: Again, I had some knowledge of the ranch, but not a ton; I just had the basic knowledge. We started doing some basic research before we began shooting the film. What was interesting was that we found that there were other ranches that were purporting to be experiencing similar things; it wasn’t just happening at Skinwalker Ranch. It was occurring at several other ranches across the country. Of course, Skinwalker was the most famous or notorious, whichever way you want to look at it.
We did a lot of research. The actual story of Skinwalker Ranch is interesting, but very scientific. So what we did was take all the phenomenon, like the big black wolf and the orbs and the UFOs and disembodied sounds, and incorporated them into the story. We wanted to be accurate to that.
But of course, it is a movie, so we needed some kind of narrative. There was a family on that ranch who was terrorized, but they did not have their son abducted. So that was something that we added. So hopefully we made an entertaining movie that has an emotional tie that had a grounded point in some of the characters, even though it is a found footage film.
SY: Speaking of the fact that you shot the film in the found footage genre, why did you decide to shoot the movie in that style? How does ‘Skinwalker Ranch’ differentiate itself from other found footage films?
DM: That’s a good question. Again, I loved the idea of the story being this group of specialists, and it wasn’t this group of kids lost in the woods with just a camcorder running around. It made sense to have really nice shots. The idea was that the guy behind the camera knew what he was doing, and that’s why he was hired.
A lot of people say, “Yeah, but when you’re running for your life, do you really get good shots?” I know a reviewer who didn’t love the film. One of his things was, why do these guys have nice shots in this movie?
I would say, look at those guys who went into film during the Vietnam War, and all those guys who were embedded with troops. If you watch some of that footage, it’s amazing how chaotic and life-threatening everything was that was going on, but these guys still managed to get these amazing shots.
With that, we were a little different, as we have some nice shots in the movie, because it makes sense to have them. There’s this guy who knows how to operate a camera, and that he’s hopefully going to film some pretty crazy things. So it makes sense that he could perhaps keep his composure in these unusual, paranormal situations.
SY: You grew up a fan of genre movies, and you included everything from alien abduction to lake monsters in ‘Skinwalker Ranch.’ What is it about the genre that you enjoy so much?
DM: As a kid, I loved it so much. My two greatest fears were alien abduction and flesh-eating slime, between ‘Close Encounters (of the Third Kind) and ‘The Blob.’ That’s a lot of what kept me awake at night.
It’s one of those things that I love and was fascinated by, and that’s what scared me the most. For whatever reason, that never changed. From ‘Godzilla’ to one of my favorite movies ever, ‘Alien,’ I just love that genre.
Why did I do a found footage movie? I had a budget, and for this story, I really do believe that it makes sense. One of the things about found footage is that you don’t get to see very much, as everything’s in the shadows. I wanted to take it a step further, and really let the audience see something. We put a year into the special effects.
I think we did a fairly good job, if you watch the big black wolf walking in front of the car, for example. I think it really holds up. With a found footage movie that you’re trying to have a documentary feel with, I think it’s really important to make it feel as real as possible. Hopefully we got close to that, even though we did use a lot of CGI.
SY: ‘Skinwalker Ranch’ is now playing in select theaters, as well as on VOD. Are you personally a fan of watching films On Demand, and why do you think VOD is an important platform for smaller films like this one?
DM: I do enjoy watching films on iTunes. But really as a filmmaker, dealing with independent films, it’s really hard to make money. I’ll tell you first-hand, the first film that I wrote and acted in, which I sold out of Slamdance, was ‘The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu.’ When you sell your movie, a lot of people are going to see it.
But the truth is, you’re really not going to make any money. It doesn’t matter if 20th Century Fox or a smaller company buys your movie; the reality is, you just don’t tend to get checks after that. I think any independent filmmaker would tell you that.
What’s really unique about day-and-date is that it’s an opportunity for the filmmaker to control their own film. You don’t have to work so hard for so many years on something, and then just hand it over, and say, “I’m happy that people are going to see it, even though I’m never going to see a dollar from all this blood and sweat.”
The day-and-date release with VOD is that it’s opening up doors for filmmakers who otherwise basically would have had to just give away their movie. It’s an opportunity to make a little money back from all that hard work. Regardless of whether or not people like a movie, most independent filmmakers will tell you that they’re all into it. So it’s great that maybe they can see some of that money back.
SY: Skinwalker Ranch’ is the first feature film that you directed. How did being a first-time filmmaker influence the way you shot the movie overall, and what was your overall experience like on the set?
DM: Honestly, it was difficult, as I act in the movie as well. When we got up there, I quickly realized we didn’t have playback because of the camera we were using, which is one of the new Epic. So it would be very difficult. I would be in a scene, and then quickly figure out what was and wasn’t working without being able to watch it. Then we would have to run back and have an extended viewing of it 20 minutes later. Then we would try to go back to that scene and get back into it.
It wasn’t the easiest thing. If I were to direct again, unless I had a huge studio behind me, I probably wouldn’t do that. On independent films, it’s a difficult run. If you don’t have the right people behind you, it’s hard. Everyone on the film was great, but we just didn’t have that large of a crew, and that many eyes and opinions of what was and wasn’t working.
But I wouldn’t change anything on this one. I learned a ton, and some of it was the hard way. But sometimes that’s the best way. So overall, I’m glad it was done the way hat we did it.
SY: Like you mentioned, besides directing the film, you also starred as Cameron Murphy in ‘Skinwalker Ranch.’ Why did you decide to also appear as Cameron in the movie?
DM: It was difficult, like I said. But I was close with everyone in the film, like Jon Gries and Steven Berg and Kyle Davis. These are all guys who I hang out with in L.A. I met Jon doing a film called ‘Unicorn City’ for Deep Studios. At that time, I wasn’t part of the studio, and I was just an actor out of L.A. But I became good friends with Jon.
So there was a lot of support there, and it was a really friendly environment. There wasn’t a lot of judging, and we were just working together. We didn’t have a lot of time, so we would have to come up with things on the fly. That part of it was great. All of us were in it together, even when things got tough. We thought, how can we make this work? So in that sense, it was great. It was a really close-knit environment, which was a treat.
When I do a show out in L.A. as a guest star, or another film as just an actor, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes you go out there and you’re a little alienated because you’re not there everyday. So it was nice to work with a group of people you completely trusted.
SY: Speaking of your co-stars on ‘Skinwalker Ranch,’ the movie features a diverse cast, including Jon, Kyle, Steve and Matthew Rocheleau. What were your working relationships with your co-stars like overall, as both co-stars and a director-actors? Were you able to have a rehearsal period with your co-stars before you began shooting?
DM: We didn’t have a lot of rehearsal, as we were really tight on time. Luckily, everyone really brought their game. It was great, because we would come to a point where we all realized that something wasn’t working. So sometimes people would just improvise. I knew that I had people who could do that, and maybe switch something up on the fly.
As far as having Jon Gries, it was an honor. Some reviews have been a little hard on that, saying “Right when I saw Jon Gries, I knew it wasn’t real.” But it was such an honor to watch him work in the genre. The guy can really do whatever he wants.
People know that these movies aren’t real anymore, and I think it’s just a given. To have a really fantastic actor like Jon is great. That was one of the things in the review of the film on RogerEbert.com; it’s a found footage movie that won some points for the emotional stakes in it. I think Jon had a lot to do with that, just being the talent that he is.
SY: Besides starring in and directing ‘Skinwalker Ranch,’ you also served as a producer on the film. How did become involved in producing the movie? Do you feel that your jobs as the helmer, producer and star in the movie influenced each other while you were on the set?
DM: I think it did influence my directing and acting. Producing a film, and starting with it in it’s early stage of just having an idea, and following through on that all the way to actually having a movie, can be challenging. When you surround yourself with people you’re friends with, and you put yourselves out on the line, is never easy with an indie. You really have your hands in everything, and it’s not like you can just direct.
If we needed to drag a bathroom out into the middle of a field, believe me, I would be there, pulling wires. You really have to be everywhere, which is great, because you’re really hands-on with your production.
But it’s also difficult, because you’re wearing a lot of hats, as you’re trying to direct and act and all these things. It’s one of those cases where I learned so much. Is it the ideal way to do it? I’m not so sure, but I’m glad that I did. You really get in there, every step of the way, and see how it’s coming together, from concept art to what we’re having for breakfast. (laughs) So it’s good, and makes you be a part of everything. Hopefully that reflects in the film in a positive way. (laughs)
SY: Adam Ohler wrote the script for the movie. What was your working relationship with Adam like while you were preparing, and shooting, the thriller? Did you work with him at all to develop the story?
DM: I did work with Adam in the sense of writing a skeleton treatment of the thoughts I had, and what elements I wanted to make sure to have. But it was really Adam who got in there and brought the characters to life, and gave them their own identities. He was really responsible for the dialogue and a lot of the mythology, and he came up with some nice things. He was great to work with, and was very open and easy.
Writing found footage is a tricky thing, as it’s not a standard narrative. It’s a survival story, so I appreciated him jumping on board. I think in the end, he did a great job. I know he’s going to move on to much bigger things. So it was a pleasure to work with him, and I’ve remained friends with him. He’s a great guy.
SY: Do you have any upcoming films lined up, whether writing, directing or both, that you can discuss?
DM: It’s not film related, but I just did a couple music videos that I wrote and directed for an up-and-coming band that’s currently touring with Imagine Dragons, called The Moth & The Flame. I’m really proud of those, which are going to come out in about a month.
Aside from that, we do have a couple bigger ideas that we’re working on, but it’s probably a little premature to talk about them yet. But I can tell you that if we have any success with ‘Skinwalker Ranch,’ there is so much mythology there, dating so far back, to even the Buffalo soldiers, and the things they experienced. Back then, that property was called Skinwalker Trail by the natives. Aside from a sequel, I would love to explore that darker history of the property, because I think there’s a lot to dive into.
I think if we do something again with Skinwalker, it would be in a narrative fashion. With everything that we’ve learned, we would tackle it more as a standard narrative feature. But we’ll see how we do. It’s a tough run, but fingers crossed.
Written by: Karen Benardello