The title “Happy Camp” conjures feelings of a comedy — either an ironically named satire, or perhaps some “Pitch Perfect”-type summer-getaway ensemble where “Glee” fans labor to upstage one another against a competitive backdrop. In actuality, though, the found-footage-framed psychological horror film takes its name from the (real-life) small town, nestled just up against the California-Oregon border, that lends it its setting. Twenty years after his step brother went missing, in a mountainous region rife with missing persons cases, a still-frazzled guy (Michael Barbuto) returns with some filmmaker friends, looking for answers. For ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance yesterday to speak to multi-hyphenate collaborators Josh Anthony and Anne Taylor one-on-one (well, one-on-two), about the film and its inspiration, their work together and the involvement of Drew Barrymore as an executive producer. The conversation — which, as a note, is slightly spoilerish as to the cause of its missing persons — is excerpted below (catch the movie first on VOD if you want to remain surprised):
ShockYa: You guys are an off-screen couple, right? And here you’re co-writers, and also appearing on screen. In regards to the perils of working together — in the arts it’s pretty common, in other industries less so. But had you worked together before, and was there any trepidation attached to it?
Anne Taylor: We’d been developing projects together for a while, and still are. From day one we’ve always really had a working relationship, so we don’t really know anything different. I think we were both really excited. I mean, I can’t speak for Josh, but I was. (laughs)
Josh Anthony: “Well, Brent, the thing is…” (laughs) No, as she says, from the moment we met pretty much, we just started talking about films that we enjoyed and liked, and hit it off. The cool thing about Annie and I is that we’re actually very different — which is great, and challenges both of us to actually do better. It seems like a good combination. And for me the process has been great because we get to lean on each other in other ways that you probably couldn’t do with other people. Not to say that every film after this will be that way, but in this particular one I think it was a really great dynamic.
ShockYa: What was the process of selection like for the film’s setting, of actually finding Happy Camp, California?
AT: If you Google Happy Camp — and I think Josh was actually the one who initially discovered the town when he was interested in making a film about Bigfoot — it has some of the most Bigfoot sightings in Northern California, it’s kind of a hot spot for that sort of thing. That’s initially what attracted us to the town, and then going up there and meeting everyone was where I think the story started to develop.
JA: We took a virtual talk through Happy Camp on Google, and in the center of town there’s that big statue. Now, granted, we wanted to keep that as a bit of a reveal in the film… but we said, “Oh my God, look at this place, that’s a great place for a movie.” We showed some people at Flower (Films) and they said, “Okay, we get it,” so we went up for a drive and it really seemed like the spot.
ShockYa: The film reminded me some of “Darwin: No Services Ahead,” a documentary from a couple years back about small town in the Death Valley region of California, and the crazy characters of this dried-up, out-of-the-way place with (only) three or four dozen people.
JT: That’s interesting. The Harmony Korine movie “Gummo” was one that we had just seen before heading up to Happy Camp, [and] that was something that helped us out and pointed us in the right direction.
ShockYa: You have a rough outline in your mind, no doubt, before heading up there, but how much of (the story)… was specifically tailored to surroundings, since you do make use of some non-professional actors?
AT: Josh had been up there a few times and then we all went up as a group to scout a few weeks before we actually went to shoot. We just tried to meet as many people as we could. We went to the bar and met “Rattlesnake Frank” (one of several real-life townspeople who appear briefly in the movie) who could have a documentary all on his own — he’s one of the most interesting human beings I’ve ever met in my life. He’s had a crazy life. But we wanted first to make a character piece — we wanted it to be about this guy going through this journey, and then we also wanted it to be this cool Bigfoot movie. But the town is also a character in and of itself, and we really wanted to show that — to put the people on screen and let them do their thing. They were amazing, they were great.
ShockYa: And did you meet folks who claimed to have seen Bigfoot?
AT: Oh yes, lots.
JA: Yeah, we shot about 100 hours of footage, and I would argue that about 50 of it is folks telling Bigfoot stories. The woods are huge. For me, I don’t doubt that there’s something out there. I mean, we’ve seen some home video footage that people shot and showed us, and we said, “Yep, that’s scary.” It’s stuff that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
AT: We even had an incident one night where we were shooting out all night, and for some reason our brand new generator just kept turning off randomly. So all of a sudden we would go from this fairly well-lit wooded area to pitch black, and we’d have to go back to the car, and you’d start hearing things. Then we’d come back to the set and some of our props would be missing. Now it could be anything, but when you’re already in that mindset it’s the scariest thing ever. It was terrifying.
JA: It’s crazy how dark it gets out there — miles and miles and miles away from anything. After that night that she’s talking about, I think it will be a long time before we go camping again.
AT: It will be. It was pretty intimidating, to be honest. We’re both from pretty small towns and have been camping and all that, and it was still scary.
ShockYa: How did Flower Films, Drew Barrymore’s production company, come to be involved?
JA: I’ve been working with Flower Films over the past 12 years, just on and off, professionally. I’m really close with Chris Miller, the president at Flower Films — I met him 12 years ago on the set of “Charlie’s Angels 2” and we just developed a good relationship. I knew that they were looking to get back into some horror/thriller stuff — you know, they’d done “Donnie Darko” — and so I was kicking around some ideas with them. We circled around this, and that’s when I met Annie and we put our heads together, we put together a little rough outline of what we wanted to do, we found Happy Camp and sent it to Flower, in a pitch to Drew and Nancy (Juvonen) and Chris and they got behind us from the beginning. …At the end of the day, we knew we didn’t have a ton of money, and Annie and I come from a background of finance so we knew we had to stay within the restraints of a budget, so that also came into play too. But we worked really hard at making it a really professional environment even on a smaller budget.
ShockYa: The advantage of the horror genre and in particular the found footage format is that you can control a lot of costs… yet you did have a director of photography, Matt Sanders, and a very defined visual scheme. How much extra mental effort went into that planning?
JA: Even from the earliest development, Annie and I were thinking about documentary-style films, and we wanted to evolve (the look of the movie) even more. So what we came up with, in talking with Matt — and (co-writer and fellow actor) Michael Barbuto too, who had a huge part in this as well — was starting off the film very wide. You see everything, and get a great (sense of) landscape. That’s why you see long cutaways and stuff. We expressed that desire from day one, and Matt is phenomenal — he’s going to have a nice career, for sure. So we started off wide and then at the end of the movie we wanted to make it more claustrophobic, and so things get smaller and shots are a little tighter.
AT: And of course it has to make sense — all the camera angles that we used had to come from somewhere logical. The challenge before you just go and shoot something like this is that all the angles are explained — whose camera is it, where are [they facing], it was a very dimensional process.
ShockYa: You each have other on-screen credits, but given the background that you mentioned, given your druthers, where do you see your careers — both independently and jointly — developing? Would you like to continue acting as well, or are you more interested in behind-the-camera careers?
AT: For me, I’m a classically trained actor, I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and [appeared in] theater in Minneapolis, so I love being on screen, and this is one of my first forays. I’d been writing for a little while, but to write something, produce it, act it — kind of do the whole thing, from concept to release — has been a really cool journey that I never really expected to go on. I think that producing is something that I’m interested in.
JA: For me, I’d been acting for 10 years and had a few credits, nothing crazy, but it just wasn’t going the way I really wanted it to. It’s tough — a lot of people don’t really make it as actors. And that’s why I wanted to do something like this. I love writing as well, and some of the guys that I look up to, like Mark Duplass and Seth Rogen, those guys do a lot of things. I would love to act again, but I think my main focus is writing and directing. Through this process I think we’ve both learned so much more than we wanted to, which is a great thing, and I want to produce some more stuff. In the next month or so we’re going to launch our own production company to try to make some more films.
NOTE: “Happy Camp” is available on VOD and across all other digital platforms via Gravitas Ventures.
Written by: Brent Simon