Effectively and openly sharing their emotions is often times one of the most important aspects of maintaining a healthy marriage. But sometimes, keeping the lines of communication closed can ultimately be the most important thing in saving a marital union. That’s certainly the case for the husband and wife protagonists in the new sci-fi movie, ‘Shortwave.’ The tantalizing drama from versatile multi-hyphen filmmaker, writer-director-producer-editor, Ryan Gregory Phillips, is grippingly proving that instead of helping a relationship, openly connecting with other beings can ultimately be life-threatening. The dangers of open correspondence can now be explored by everyone, as the thriller is now available on DVD and VOD, courtesy of Vega Baby and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
‘Shortwave‘ follows married couple Josh and Isabel Harris (Cristobal Tapia Montt and Juanita Ringeling), who are still suffering from the loss of their only child. In their grief, they decide to relocate to a secluded hillside research facility, with the hopes of repairing their broken family.
While living in the facility, Josh and his research partner, Thomas (Kyle Davis), finally have a breakthrough in their work, after years of trying. The duo discovers a cryptic shortwave radio signal and its universal origins. But their initial celebrate progress doesn’t remain positive for long.
Something within the signal resonates with Isabel, and she begins experiencing seeming hallucinations and visions of distant memories. Upon further investigation into the phenomenon, the scientists fear for her health, while Isabel fears the signal has attracted something sinister to their new home.
Phillips generously took the time recently to talk about writing and directing ‘Shortwave’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he was inspired to pen the script for the thriller after one of his friends, who works as an audio technician, told him about the types of mysterious signals he would hear over shortwave radios. The scribe-helmer also praised the people he worked with on the drama, including Ringeling and Montt during the casting and filming processes, as well as the executives at Vega Baby and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, who supported promoting the movie on DVD and VOD.
The conversation began with Phillips explaining where he came up with the inspiration for the screenplay for the drama, and what the scribing process like for the film. “‘Shortwave’ was never really planned,” the writer admitted. “I have a friend who’s an audio technician, and works with all kinds of audio, including shortwaves. So he told me that he had a shortwave radio, and that he picked up really weird signals that sounded super creepy. So I started researching the phenomenon.”
The filmmaker added that “There are so many things that signals on shortwave radios can be. The frequencies can be left over from World War II. There are also people who believe that the shortwave signals can be from outer space. So there are all of these different things out there on the shortwave radios, which is very interesting to me.”
After he began doing his research into shortwave radios, Phillips had dinner with his lawyer. During their meeting, “I was telling him about the radios, and the idea for the film just hit me. There’s such a weird stigma behind the unknown.” He added that “when my buddy brought over his shortwave radio to show me, I heard some of the signals. Some of them sounded very extra-terrestrial, and some of the other ones sounded like there was a little girl reciting numbers in reverse.”
The writer added that “when I was talking to my lawyer, I was like, ‘How crazy would it be if there was a married couple who lost their child, and they then start to hear her over the radio?’ He was like, ‘That sounds interesting.’ So the project stemmed from there, and we started developing it .
“We then started putting pieces together from our research, particularly about the unknown. That really fueled me in creating ‘Shortwave.’ I added more and more elements into the story. But at its core, it’s really about a husband and wife, and how they function after losing a child. I then gave my lawyer the draft when I was done, and he loved it. We then got the financing for it,” Phillips further explained.
The filmmaker then delved into discussing his experience of then going on to direct the sci-fi movie, after he finished writing the script. “I wanted to do something interesting, in terms of how the film looks. A lot of people say it looks and feels like ‘Ex Machina,’ which is true. ‘Ex Machina’ was a huge influence on me going into this movie, because I love that film.”
‘Shortwave’s Director of Photography, Lucas Gath, and Phillips “really wanted to do something unique. Whether you classify this film as a thriller, horror or drama, we just really wanted to pay attention to the visuals.” The helmer added that he’s also influenced by Nicolas Winding Refn, who has directed such movies as ‘Drive‘ and ‘Neon Demon.’ I’m also a really big fan of Terrence Malick.
“So I wanted to create a visual directing style where everything is creepy and horrifying, but the frame was aesthetically beautiful, to the point of no mater what’s happening, you almost don’t want to turn away. But you’re thinking that the subject matter is really f*cked up!” the director added with a laugh.
“So Lucas and I worked on really playing with a lot of negative space. We did a lot of wide shots and lens distortion in unique ways…I’ve never really talked about this, but there’s a uniqueness in some of the frames, including why things are out of focus, and there’s a meaning behind it. I always let the audience decide what the meanings are,” Phillips divulged.
“Those shots are there for a reason, and if you pay attention to the dialogue and the scenes, and why we’re using it, it’s not hard to figure out why we actually use the shots. We wanted to create this interactive experience for the viewers, so that they can figure out what it all means,” the filmmaker explained.
In addition to the visuals, the music is just as important in creating the atmosphere for a genre movie like ‘Shortwave.’ Phillips then shared what the process of on creating the score for the sci-fi thriller. “The sound was created by this company, Studio Unknown, and they’re fantastic. We also worked with a composer, Dominic Fallacaro. So it was a really interesting mix of the sound design and composition.”
The helmer then ointed out that “Horror films are mainly just jump scares the whole time. But I wanted to create something that wasn’t necessarily jump scares; I instead wanted to mesh together the sound design with the composition, so there really wasn’t a moment where there was just silence.
“I always wanted something there, whether it was the radio in the background, or a drone hum. I also always wanted there to be tension throughout the film, because I felt like it was appropriate for the characters. They’re going through this insane time in their lives…and there’s always a haunting presence there with them, because they’re always thinking about their daughter,” Phillips also shared.
“As the film progressed…you don’t really know if they’re crazy, and what’s real and fake. Everything starts to blend together in a way that’s almost overpowering,” the filmmaker explained. “I wanted to create moments that are intense. But the reason for that is because that’s what the characters are going through. I think the best way for viewers to be involved in those intense moments is to create a justification through the score and sound effects.”
Phillips added that “working with Dominic and Studio Unknown was fantastic, because they riffed off of each other. I would tell them what I wanted in each scene, and they would just run with it. They came up with stuff than what was in my wildest dreams,” he noted with a laugh.
The director then delved into what the casting process was like for ‘Shortwave,’ particularly when he decided to hire Ringeling and Montt for their roles of Isabel and Josh. “You’re the first person who’s ever asked me that, and it’s actually a funny story! Originally, Isabel was named Madison, and she was completely different than what she turned out to be,” he revealed.
“We looked at so many people for the casting. Every time we had someone read, they just weren’t fitting into what I had seen in my head. It felt like a generic horror thriller, but I wanted it to feel like ‘Ex Machina.’ There’s something in that movie that feels so organic…As soon as it started, it felt like danger to me,” Phillips shared.
“So when we did the casting for this film, I couldn’t find anyone who I felt fit the roles, until I came across Cristobal and Juanita. Cristobal had just been in (producer) Eli Roth’s ‘The Stranger.’ I had seen it in the theater, and loved it. I always felt like he was Josh, but I didn’t know how to get to him,” the filmmaker admitted with a laugh.
“But my DP, Lucas, knew Juanita, and she was in town, visiting from Chile. We met, and she had read pieces of the script and loved it. I told her that I was looking to cast the character of Josh, and she said, ‘You have to meet my friend, Cristobal.’ I said, ‘Cristobal Tapia Montt?!?’ She said yes, so I said, ‘Please introduce me!,'” Phillips divulged with a laugh.
“We also already had someone else who was going to play Madison, who became the Isabel character. We were having issues with scheduling, and thought we would have to move the shooting schedule,” the helmer disclosed. “Then Cristobal visited me at my house, because I wanted to hear some of the lines, to see if it would be like how I envisioned it.”
Phillips added that “When Juanita also came over to help us out by reading the lines for the Madison character with Cristobal, their chemistry was off the charts. I knew instantly that she wasn’t a Madison, and the character had to be renamed to something like Isabel. That’s where the name change came from.
“All of the pieces for the casting then fell together. Juanita and Cristobal had previously worked together, and knew each other for a long time, because he’s from Chile, as well. I think that’s why their on-screen relationship feels so real,” the filmmaker also shared. He added with a laugh that before he cast Ringeling and Montt as the married couple, “I never imagined Josh and Isabel being from Chile! But when we then rehearsed, I thought they were better than I ever could have imagined in my mind!”
With the drama following Isabel and Josh living and working in a secluded hillside research facility, Phillips decided to film it in real locations. “I think you’re the only one I’ve told this too, but I’ll reveal the secret now! The house is actually my house in the Hollywood Hills. At the time I was staying there, I was renting it. Again, with ‘Ex Machina’ being such an influence on my, when I saw the house, I thought, wow. What an amazingly scary place to have!” the director divulged with a laugh. “The whole house is nothing but glass, and has big windows that drop into the ground.
“Touching back on where I came up with the concept for the film, one of the main things I talked about with the financiers was that I wanted to make a story that was terrifying, in a claustrophobic sense,” Phillips revealed. “I thought, what would happen if you’re trapped in a glass case of emotion, and you couldn’t get out of it? But you could see the whole world outside. To add to the fact that you can’t escape, there’s something in the house with you, and you’re questioning if your daughter’s with you. You don’t know what’s real or fake.”
The filmmaker added that when he was looking for a new place to live, “I walked into the house in the Hills, and immediately got this terrified feeling. I was scared of it, because it was so wide open, but at the same time, it was so claustrophobic…So our shooting location was my house here in Hollywood, which was covered by trees.”
While interiors of the couple’s home were shot in Phillips’ home in Hollywood, the exteriors in ‘Shortwave’ were filmed in New York. “I was raised on a dairy farm in Upstate New York. All of the flashbacks and hallucinations were shot on my dad’s farm, so we went out there for the second half of the film. We made sure to get enough footage, and comped it in with the effects, because I didn’t want it to feel like L.A. So we also used a lot of green screen and comps around the house, to make it feel as though” the story’s set in a remote location near Seattle or overseas, the helmer shared.
The sci-fi movie has played at several film festivals, including Sitges, Dances With Films and the Raindance Film Festival. Phillips then delved into what the experience of bringing the horror movie on the film festival circuit was like. “Right after we finished making the movie, we submitted it to Dances With Films. It’s always been a dream of mine to go to that festival. I’ve been to it a million times, and I love it. The festival plays at the Chinese Theater, and it’s always been a dream of mine to play my movie on Hollywood Blvd,” the filmmaker shared with a laugh. “We ended up getting accepted, and it was our first festival. It was amazing, and everything I dreamed of. We had a sold-out crowd, which was very interactive.”
Then within the next six months of playing at Dances With Films, “we were accepted into 23 other festivals, and we won 18 out of the 23. I thought, this is cool, and better than what I thought it could be!,” Phillips added with a laugh. “The audience liked the thriller and scary aspects, as well as the aesthetic.”
The director also expressed his appreciation over ‘Shortwave’ being accepted into Sitges. “It’s held right outside of Barcelona, and it’s the biggest horror film festival in the world. The whole town shuts down, and there’s nothing but genre movies. I think when we were there, the new ‘Blair Witch’ was opening. The festival is the mecca of horror movies, and where you want to go” if you’re a filmmaker in, or a fan of, the genre. Phillips also admitted with a laugh that he never thought going to Sitges with ‘Shortwave’ was an option. “When got the letter in the mail that said, congratulations, you’re going to Sitges, I thought it was really something.”
After attending the horror film festival in Spain, the filmmaker and his fellow producers “began talking to our sales rep, Blue Fox Entertainment, who saw the movie at Dances With Film…After playing at a few of the other festivals, we met with a couple executives at Blue Fox, and they said they wanted to get the movie out in the world, and they started shopping it around…I think hearing that after Sitges, it gave us the validity that people are enjoying the film.”
With ‘Shortwave’ having just been released on DVD and VOD, Phillips also praised the executives at Vega Baby and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, and the way they handled the sci-fi drama’s home distribution. “As soon as I met the guys at Vega and Sony, there was no question that we would work them. Collaborating with them felt right, and these companies were where the film belonged.”
The helmer added that he knew the companies would properly handle the thriller’s distribution He also appreciated that “They also suggested that we should go wide domestically with the DVD, as well as a couple of select theaters and Amazon and iTunes. The plan really seems to be working out…It’s a cool and unique experience, and I’ve enjoyed it so much.”