Cleverly leading film viewers through multiple states of being is one of the most vital actions a thriller must take in order to cunningly tell a unique story with a ingenious point-of-view. In his first take on the horror genre, versatile director-producer Phillip Guzman smartly brought legendary screenwriter and ‘Final Destination‘ creator Jeffrey Reddick‘s latest horror story to life with the enthralling new drama, ‘Dead Awake.’ The filmmakers formed a compelling working relationship as they collaborated to bring audiences on a poignant journey with relatable characters who are battling a frighteningly real medical phenomenon for the first time.
‘Dead Awake’ has played at several film festivals, including the San Antonio Film Festival and FEARnyc, where Shockya had the pleasure of viewing the film for the first time last October. FilmRise is now distributing the horror thriller in a wider release today, in select theaters and On Demand.
Starring in dual roles as twins in ‘Dead Awake,’ Jocelin Donahue is first shown on screen as Beth Bowman, a recovering addict who has been losing rest due to sleep paralysis. Her straight-laced sister, Kate, has found more personal and professional success in her life, as she’s working as a social worker. Beth doesn’t understand her new condition, but she worries about asking for help from her sister. Due to their estrangement, Beth fears Kate will be patronizing about her situation again.
Beth’s boyfriend, Evan (Jesse Bradford), supports her claims of seeing an old hag (Natalie Jones) in her sleep, which is leading to her sleep deprivation. After Evan invites Kate to a surprise party he’s throwing for his girlfriend on their birthday, Beth reluctantly agrees to tell her twin and the couple’s friends what’s going on. While Kate and their friends initially believe Beth’s worn out state might be due to a relapse, Kate soon begins to realize that something more may be occurring with her sister.
So Kate agrees to take Beth to see a sleep specialist, Dr. Sykes (Lori Petty), who explains that sleep paralysis afflicts a large percentage of the population at some point in their lives, and there’s nothing to worry about. After Kate also tries to assure her sister that she’ll recover, Kate finds herself immobilized in her sleep that night. She discovers the next day that Beth was killed in her sleep by her dreams.
Kate and Evan then begin working together to solve the mystery of the phenomenon. They contact another researcher, Hassan Davies (Jesse Borrego), who is more adamant about the need to fight back against the hag, who visits paralysis sufferers during their sleep. As the terrifying entity begins to also haunt Kate’s friends and loved ones, she must fight to stay awake to stop the nightmare she’s unleashed once and for all.
Guzman generously took the time recently to talk about directing and producing ‘Dead Awake’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how when he decided to direct a horror thriller, Reddick‘s script appealed to him, as the story is based in fact. The helmer also revealed that he offered many of the main actors, including Donahue and Bradford, their roles without auditioning them, as he instantly knew they would be perfect for their respective roles.
The conversation began with Guzman explaining what interested him in directing the new horror movie, and how he become involved in the project. “What interested me about it is that the story’s based on a real life affliction. I was searching for a subject for my next project, and I wanted to make a horror thriller. But I definitely didn’t want it to be completely based on a supernatural entity,” the filmmaker revealed. “I wanted it to feel real, and have dramatic moments in it. This script hit all of those marks for me.”
The helmer added that he read Reddick‘s screenplay “years ago. This movie took about five-and-a-half years to make, so I read the script about six years ago. But I immediately fell in love with it, and kept bringing it to producer after producer and investor after investor. I really fought to get this one made-it really took a long time.”
The drama’s subject matter was something that Guzman is familiar with, as “I’ve experienced sleep paralysis before, but I wasn’t quite sure what was going on,” he admitted. “So I did a ton of research to figure out what was going on with people when they experience sleep paralysis. You come to find out that there are a ton of different versions. The government and science actually attributes half of supposed alien abductions to sleep paralysis and out-of-body (experiences).
“So you have out-of-body, abduction, hag and shadowman experiences, and you can go anyway with this type of story. So we had to figure out which direction we wanted to go in,” Guzman further noted. He added that they didn’t want to just have a story that’s led by an abduction or out-of-body experience, “so we went with the hag. To us, that was more rooted in classic literature…It’s also more well-known, researched and documented within the sleep paralysis world.”
The director then discussed his collaboration with Reddick on the development of the movie’s story. “When I first received the script, Jeffrey already had it done for years, and he was trying to get it made. It had already been through tons of rewrites, and was really good. Jeffrey is a fantastic writer. I had a handful of tweaks, and we talked about a handful of things. We changed the creature up a bit. But it was such a solid script when I first read it,” Guzman shared as he praised the writer’s work. He added that “Jeffrey and I still have a great relationship, and we’re still working together. We just finished another one not to long ago.” (In addition to ‘Dead Awake,’ Guzman also directed the upcoming horror film, ‘200 Hours,’ on which Reddick served as an executive producer.)
With Donahue and Bradford leading the cast of ‘Dead Awake,’ which also stars Petty, Borrego, Brea Grant and James Eckhouse in supporting roles, Guzman then chronicled the casting process for the thriller. “The casting process was a little different for this film,” the filmmaker admitted. “We didn’t really do auditions for certain roles. I knew I wanted Jocelin to play Kate and Beth, so we sent her offers. We prayed that she would say yes, and she did. That was the same for Jesse Bradford, Lori Petty and a lot of the core cast.
“We were lucky with Jesse Bradford, because he actually experienced sleep paralysis all through college. So he said, ‘That sounds cool, let’s do it.’ We were hoping that people had experienced it if they said yes to star in the movie,” Guzman confessed.
Once Donahue and the rest of the actors were cast, the helmer mainly spoke with them on the phone and through email as they worked on building their characters and story. “When you make a low-budget movie in a place that’s not L.A., New York or another major hub for actors, it becomes cost preventative to have people fly in just for rehearsals. So everyone flew in two days before principal photography began. But we spoke beforehand to figure out how things would go,” the helmer shared.
“But that’s a great thing about working with professionals-if you hire the right person, they just do their job, and I do my job. Then we just meet in the middle. That was one of the great parts about working with such great actors,” Guzman declared.
In addition to working with the actors on their characters’ emotional arcs, the filmmaker then went on to speak about the process of also collaborating with the cast on their physicalities. “What was really interesting was that the hag was played by an actress named Natalie Jones, who’s one of my good friends,” Guzman shared.
The helmer added that he initially didn’t trust make-up to make a younger actress look older. So he wanted to cast an older actress in the role of the hag. But when he started discussing the idea with the thriller’s make-up team, they told him that “‘there’s no way an older person is going to be able to climb down these stairs and do what you want them to do. Trust us to do what we can do.’ So I trusted them, and they did an amazing job…They probably saved me a lot of heartache! So Natalie got the job, and our working relationship was also great.”
Further speaking about how the horror film was shot on location, filming occurred in San Antonio, Texas, which was experience that the filmmaker described as being fun. “I love San Antonio-it’s a great city, and there’s great people there. I lived there for a good chunk of my life, so it was cool to go back to my old stomping grounds and see old friends,” the director disclosed.
Also discussing the process of shooting ‘Dead Awake’ independently, Guzman divulged that he has only ever made indie movies as a filmmaker. “I’ve directed seven of them, and I feel like it’s the only way I know how to work right now,” the helmer conceded. “I think everyone’s limited, though, no matter what their budget is. I think this process is all about managing compromises. You realize, if I tweak this, I can make that work…It’s all about making the best product with the resources I have.”
In addition to speaking about the process of directing the drama, Guzman also commented on serving as one of the producers. “On the indie films I direct, I feel like I have to also produce out of necessity. In order to get across what your vision is, you really have to be in the room for everything. There just isn’t enough people around who are going to work as hard as you do to get things done the right way. Yes, all of my other producers work really hard, and are great people,” the producer acknowledged. “But when the budget is so small, I feel like the director has to be more involved…you have to be the one out there, making sure things are right.”
The helmer also spoke about the experience of bringing ‘Dead Awake’ on the film festival circuit, and how he appreciated that so many supported the thriller during that process. “Being able to screen the movie at the San Antonio Film Festival was really cool and special. A lot of people who were involved attended the festival screenings. A lot of families attended,” Guzman shared.
“But I like all festivals, as well as all fans of the genre. They really support the movies, directors and cast of this genre. So whenever I get to show this horror movie, I always relish the experience, no matter what city (the screening’s) in,” the filmmaker added.
Now that the horror thriller’s festival circuit run is complete, FilmRise decided to distribute the movie both in select theaters and On Demand, which is a common practice for many indie movies. Guzman revealed that he feels that the VOD platform is a beneficial one for independent films like ‘Dead Awake.’ He pointed out that “We’re a small movie. To be shown on 2,000 screens, you need to spend millions of dollars, which is several times more than our budget.
“So VOD offers us a platform to share the movie with people who want to see it, but live in a small town, and the film’s not going to play at their local theater. Right now, we’re only playing in theaters in the major markets, and that’s not fair to people who live in small town Texas or small town anywhere. So VOD allows people to watch this movie at home. Also, people don’t have to worry about hiring a babysitter so they can watch the film in a theater-they can just watch it at home after they put the kids to bed,” the director noted.
“The internet has really changed the way we get distribution and the way people watch and experience things. It’s making life easier for us, and is making us better filmmakers,” Guzman also conceded.