Devotedly committing to taking whatever means necessary to fulfill your dreams in life can be a terrifying prospect in life. The process can be even more daunting when your emotions are easily manipulated by the intimidating physical challenges that you’re forced to face along every step of the journey. That frightening situation of trying to overcome your fears as you try to achieve your goals is captivatingly presented in the new horror thriller, ‘The Abandoned.’ The film, which was released in select theaters and on VOD by IFC Midnight this weekend, marks the feature film directorial debut of filmmaker Eytan Rockaway. The movie not only intriguingly presents the horrifying obstacles the protagonist is forced to overcome, but also enthralling proves the helmer’s courage in telling such an emotionally and physically-driven horror movie independently.
‘The Abandoned’ follows Julia (Louisa Krause), a young single mother who’s determined to cope with her emotional struggles, and is desperate to retain custody of her daughter. Resolute to prove she’s perfectly capable of caring for her child, Julia, who prefers to be called Streak, takes a job as an overnight security guard. She’s set to patrol a luxurious building that was once set to house tenants, until an economic downturn left it abandoned.
On her first night on the job, Streak quickly becomes uncomfortable, as the once upscale structure’s electricity continuously fluctuates, in an effort to save power. As Streak makes her rounds around the now abandoned apartment complex, she also begins to experience terrifying visions, and feels a horrifying presence, particularly near a section of the building that has been locked off. As she continues to patrol the building, and struggles to keep a grip on her sanity, her sole co-worker, the standoffish Cooper (Jason Patric), monitors the site’s extensive closed-circuit camera system.
Besides going against Cooper’s orders not to enter the unfinished and mysterious section of the complex, Streak further ignores her new co-worker’s concerns when she agrees to give a homeless man, Jim (Mark Margolis), shelter from a rainstorm in the building. As the two colleagues begin fighting over allowing Jim inside, they quickly learn they have bigger problems when Streak decides to search for history on the building online. After discovering the supernatural connection to the complex’s haunting past, and Cooper learning that Streak is taking anti-psychotic drugs, in an effort to improve her life for her daughter, the two guards are forced to do whatever it takes to protect themselves the danger they perceive to be haunting them.
Rockaway generously took the time recently to talk about directing ‘The Abandoned’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he and the film’s screenwriter, Ido Fluk, each created ideas for a horror movie, and subsequently combined their thoughts to craft the story for the film. Rockaway also discussed how he decided to cast Patric because he’s a fan of his previous acting work. The director also thought Krause proved she has the perfect relatablity and vulnerability for the role of Streak during her audition, as well as in her previous work.
ShockYa (SY): You directed the new mystery horror film, ‘The Abandoned,’ which follows a young woman, Streak, who takes a job as a security guard at an abandoned apartment complex, as she tries to get her life back on track. What interested you in helming this type of thriller for your feature film directorial debut?
Eytan Rockaway (ER): Well, ever since I was a kid, I have always wanted to be a director. After I finished my military service, I went to Tisch at NYU to study filmmaking. After I finished college, I started making short movies, music videos and commercials, until I felt ready to take on feature films, and this is my first one.
SY: Besides helming the horror film, you also worked on its story with Ido Fluk, who’s credited as writing the screenplay. What was your collaboration process with him as you worked on the movie’s plot?
ER: Well, I had an idea for the story, and my screenwriter also had for the story, so we combined them. We went to NYU together, and we’re friends. We have also collaborated on many projects. So when we combined our stories, they turned into ‘The Abandoned.’ He then went on and wrote the screenplay. The development process, which went from creating the story to having a finished screenplay and going into production, took about three years.
SY: Since ‘The Abandoned’ main focuses on the developing relationship between Streak, who was portrayed by Louisa Krause, and her new co-worker, Cooper, who was played by Jason Patric, what was the casting process like for them in particular?
ER: Well, I have always been a fan of Jason’s work. He fit perfectly into the vision I had of the character. When it came to the character of Streak, we also had a vision of who we wanted to play the role. I loved Louisa’s work when she came into the first audition, as well as her performance in ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene.’ I liked that she has a vulnerability and sweetness that would make anyone watching the film instantly fall in love with her and the character. I also like that there’s something approachable about her. I wanted to showcase that part of her because I was trying to create a specific mood in the film. So I thought she would be perfect for the role overall.
SY: Once Louisa and Jason were cast in their respective roles, where you able to have any rehearsal time with them before you began filming? Or did you want their characters’ relationship to develop on screen, since they first met when the movie begins?
ER: I had a little bit more time with Louisa on set. But I had more discussions with Jason throughout the process of making the film. He had some input on the development of his character. Jason’s a great actor. So not only did we build the character together, but he also naturally knew how to build the chemistry between the two of them. Louisa was good in working off of that chemistry.
But I would say that most of the chemistry between them happened on set. They didn’t really have time to work out their chemistry before we went on set. So we had a lot of improvisation while we were filming, and most of the magic happened naturally on set.
SY: Since Streak and Cooper are often contending with their physicality during the action scenes in ‘The Abandoned,’ what was your working with Louisa and Jason on their stunts?
ER: Louisa was a trooper, because Jason had a bit more experience. We had a lot of action sequences, like the underwater scene, so it was a rigorous shoot. It was challenging, but she was a trooper. Even though it was tough for her, she kept doing the physical aspects of the role.
When you’re trying to make an independent movie that has special effects and underground shoots, as well as children and dogs, it can be difficult. We had everything you’re not supposed to have in your first feature, especially a small one.
We figured out a lot of things as we moved along. If the special effects didn’t work, we had to think of things as we moved along. But I think we achieved the physical challenges overall.
A lot of independent filmmaking involves overcoming all kinds of obstacles that you didn’t anticipate, especially since you have a tight schedule and budget. Luckily, I had some good people with me, especially the DP (director of photography, Zack Galler) and the production designer (Akin McKenzie). So we managed to pull everything together. A lot of the special effects were done by the production design team, which shows how far we had to pull a lot of the things we did.
SY: Besides directing the thriller, you also served as one of its producers. Why did you decide to also produce the film? Did your duties as a producer and helmer influence each other at all?
ER: It was a tough shoot at times. It was my first feature, and sometimes, I was filming 25 to 30 set-ups a day, and then I had to deal with production.
The budget was about $1.5 million, and we started shooting the first week of production with $150,000 in the bank. We were raising an additional $200,000 during each week of production, while we were shooting. We didn’t plan on doing that, but one of our big investors pulled out at the last minute before we went into production.
So I definitely learned a lot while making the film. It was hectic to produce with my co-producers and direct the movie at the same time, but we pulled it off. We did something right, as people liked the film at the festivals it has played at, as well as at IFC.
But I would never want to put on two hats again, especially on just a small movie. I’d rather just focus on directing. It was difficult to be worrying about both directing and producing while I was on the set. But I’m happy that we pulled it off.
SY: Speaking of showing the film at the festivals, ‘The Abandoned’ was an Official Selection at such festivals as the Chicago International Film Festival and the Los Angeles Film Festival. What was your experience of bringing the thriller to the film festivals?
ER: Well, we screened in L.A. and Chicago, and I would say they’re two very different festivals. But they’re both great festivals with great audiences. Attending the festivals allowed me to really go into depth and explain what I tried doing in this movie.
For me, this movie is about the protagonist learning to accept the way she looks. Once she does accept herself, she’s released. What I tried to say in the movie is that we all have imperfections, and if we don’t try to deal with them, we’ll be in a constant nightmare with our self.
So the festivals allowed me to talk about that message, and see if the audiences understood and accepted that. The reviews that we received while we were playing at the festivals were very good. So that gave me a confidence that the people who like horror are really perceiving the film the way that I see it.
This is a different kind of horror movie; it’s more of a ‘Twilight Zone’ kind of thriller. I wanted to make a scary movie that reminded me of the movies that I grew up watching from the ’70s and ’80s. Hitchcock once said that the terror is not in the bang, but in the anticipation of it. If you look at my lookbook for the film, you would see that that line took me through the creative and production processes, as that’s what I tried to achieve.
SY: Since the horror thriller mainly takes place in the abandoned apartment complex where Louisa and Cooper work, what was the process of finding the location where you shot the film?
ER: Well, I had a vision in my head of how I wanted the building to look, both with the top floors and the catacombs. I had the option of filming the entire building, which was very beautiful, or shoot in a bunch of buildings, at the risk of the rooms looking like they’re not in the same building.
Since there wasn’t a building that looked like I had envisioned in all areas, I took the risk of shooting in several locations throughout New York City. Believe it or not, we shot in a lot of court houses, and put them together to make them look like one continuous building.
Then we shot everything that was set in the lower levels of the building in the film in an old fort from the Civil War; we filmed in Fort Totten in Queens. That was a huge location, so we filmed in several locations there.
SY: IFC Midnight released ‘The Abandoned’ in select theaters and On Demand (yesterday). Do you feel the VOD platform is beneficial for independent films like this one?
ER: Yes, it’s definitely helpful, as it allows us to get to a bigger audience. Having the theatrical release allows us to be reviewed by some bigger outlets, and also helps us with the marketing. I think that’s very beneficial for limited arthouse and independent releases, as it helps give them a much needed buzz. Smaller, independent movies can’t compete with the bigger studio movies.
So having this movie play in a few theaters garners it some buzz, and drives more people to watch it on VOD. In today’s internet age, it’s great to have that buzz to drive people to the On Demand platform. Things have changed since I was in college, so teaming up with IFC to distribute the movie on VOD has really been helpful.
I posted the trailer on YouTube, and it got 70,000 views within four days. Who knows how much money I would have had to pay five or ten years ago to get 70,000 people to watch the trailer.
SY: Besides ‘The Abandoned,’ do you have any other upcoming projects, whether writing and/or directing, lined up that you can discuss? Are you interested in making more films in the horror genre?
ER: Well, with this movie, I think I told a story that’s really based on a statement that I had. I think I may go back to the genre for my fourth or fifth movie. But my next movie is a crime drama, and I’m shooting it with Harvey Keitel. It’s about a gangster in the 1930s and ’40s. The next movie I want to shoot after that is a screenplay that I wrote, and it’s a fantasy action film.
So I don’t see myself staying in one genre. I think it’s very hard to make a quality horror or thriller film. I think I did that with this film (laughs), or at least did my best. So my next few films will be different, but I think I will go back to the genre, because I do like it. It allows you to do a lot of things you can’t do in a straight drama.
Written by: Karen Benardello