Struggling to find a gratifying balance between an estranged group as they strive to overcome their differences in an effort to better themselves and their lives can be a harrowing struggle for everyone involved. That’s certainly the case in the electrifying new horror thriller, ‘Pod,’ which had its World Premiere at this year’s SXSW, during the festival’s Midnighters Section on March 16, at the Alamo Ritz theater in Austin, Texas. While the family in writer-director-executive producer Mickey Keating’s mystery film often relatably clash over their ideas on how to best lead their respective lives, the filmmaker and his cast and crew embraced closely collaborating together to make an emotionally exhiliratingly and terrifying film about the trials of helping those in need.
‘Pod’ follows Ed (Dean Cates) and his younger estranged sister, Lyla (Lauren Ashley Carter), a possible addict who begrudgingly agrees to accompany him to check on their brother Martin (Brian Morvant), a veteran who’s struggling with a history of mental instability. When his brother and sister arrive at the family’s remote cabin, where he has isolated himself and warned them not to visit for their own safety, his two siblings are shocked to discover that Martin is harrowingly contending with his paranoia. He’s ranting about a military conspiracy that’s threatening his life, and he’s also holding a “pod” he’s captured in the basement.
While Ed initially doesn’t believe his brother’s tale, he and Lyla struggle with the idea that either Martin’s mental health has relapsed, he’s the victim of a government conspiracy or both. While Martin supports his stance of being a victim of a government scheme by showing off a set of scratches that show he was involved in a struggle, and Lyla also begins to emotionally break down during their reunion, Ed acts as the anchor of the siblings. As the family continues to face the tensions plaguing them, they decide that checking the basement to see if the inhabitant Martin insists is down there is real is the only way to help them start combating their problems. But in the process, Lyla and Ed must ponder if they’re truly ready to face the horrifying truth and possibilities that Martin is so desperately trying to protect them from.
Keating, Cates, Morvant and composer Giona Ostinelli generously sat down to talk about ‘Pod’ during an exclusive interview during SXSW at the Hilton Austin Downtown Hotel, the afternoon after the horror thriller’s World Premiere. Among other things, the writer-director-executive producer, the actors and the composer discussed how after Keating spoke with the film’s cast about their characters and the story, he happily changed aspects of the script to better serve the plot; how the actors immediately connected with their respective characters’ motivations and physical attributes, and were eager to speak with the filmmaker on the siblings’ developments and relationships; and how they were humbled and ecstatic to have the movie premiere at SXSW, and how they were also thrilled so many movie fans embraced the horror film during its showings in Austin.
ShockYa (SY): Mickey, you wrote the script for the new horror thriller, ‘Pod.’ What was your inspiration in writing the story for the film, which focuses on estranged siblings contending with their war veteran brother’s elaborate and horrifying conspiracy theory surrounding a sinister entity that he believes he has trapped in the basement of their family’s vacation home?
Mickey Keating (MK): I think it just came down to the fact that I really wanted to make a family intervention movie with overall themes that were similiar to films like ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ I wanted to create a tiny, intimate drama that also has this cloud of overwhelming government conspiracies to it.
I found out that we could shoot the film in this house in the middle of nowhere up in Maine. Then the project developed pretty quickly from there. We had the perfect combination of energy and my dire need to make the film. (laughs)
SY: Besides writing the script for ‘Pod,’ you also directed the mystery film. Having served as the scribe and helmer on all of your movies, how does writing the screenplay influence the way you approach directing?
MK: Well, it’s wonderful because I feel like as a writer-director, I can take my initial ideas and then throw them out, based on what we come up with on set, or whenever I’m talking to the actors. So as soon as I started speaking to Brian about the character (of Martin), even the first time I spoke to him on the phone, he was like, “Yeah, I’ll shave my head for the role.” (laughs) That wasn’t even in the original script!
Brian Morvant (BM): Yeah, we geeked out over that together.
MK: It was great! I was like, okay, that’s going in. (laughs) Whether or not he really wanted to do it didn’t matter-it went in the script.
BM: It was too late.
MK: Yes, it was way too late. (laughs) The overall process was nice. As it was my second feature film, so I was able to adjust accordingly, and hopefully make something that really terrified people.
SY: Dean and Brian, you play estranged siblings Ed and Martin in the movie. What was it about your characters, as well as Mickey’s script overall, that convinced you to take on the roles?
Dean Cates (DC): Well, I worked with Mickey on his previous film, ‘Ritual,’ so when we sat down to talk about this movie, I knew what to expect with him. He has a very clear and specific vision of everything. It’s amazing how fast he creates these things, and how he really hones in on what he wants.
We were thinking that since the film’s a family drama, Ed would be the eldest family member. Since the story focuses on an intervention, he goes up to help Martin, who may be having a psychotic episode, but we’re not sure. Lyla, who’s played by Lauren Ashley Carter, is sort of an alcoholic and may be doing drugs, but we’re not sure. She’s not doing what she should be doing with her life. So Ed orchestrates the whole intervention that kicks the movie off.
So we tried to make Ed a paternal character in the film, so I had a mustache and big sideburns while we were shooting. My outfits were inspired by Donald Sutherland’s character in ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’-I had a similar coat as his-as well as Dustin Hoffman’s character in ‘Straw Dogs.’ So I pulled influences from those two characters, including how they carried themselves. My character’s mustache was also influenced by Dustin Hoffman’s character in ‘Straight Time.’ (laughs) So I was basically pulling elements from Dustin Hoffman and Donald Sutherland, who are both amazing actors.
For Ed, the final piece of his look was with his glasses. I took a heavy visual approach to this film overall. Ed has trouble seeing, like the trees in the forest, for example. So he has this idea of what the world looks like, and who Martin and Lyla are, which all crumble apart. So we thought, we have to break his glasses, to show that his world is breaking, and his world view is crumbling. So it was very much about the glasses for me.
MK: It’s all about the glasses.
BM: It’s all about the mustache, too. #Spoilers.
MK: It’s also about Martin being a judgmental asshole to Brian’s character. (laughs)
BM: I got connected to Mickey because the film was co-produced by Illium Pictures, which is a production company in New York, and I’m really good friends with them. I think (the film’s producer) Tim Wu and (executive producer) Lauren Conoscenti passed my name over to Mickey, who then sent me the script. I really dug it, and I knew I would be considered for Martin, who’s an unhinged war veteran who thrives on this conspiracy.
His siblings go to have an intervention with him, and they find out he’s in the most extreme state. He believes he has found something, which he has trapped in the basement. The story explores whether or not it’s real, and if he’s sane.
It’s cool because I instantly related to Martin, and was so eager to speak with Mickey. Then when we talked and became great buds. Mickey has such a great love of films, and we automatically geeked out about ‘Taxi Driver,’ and some parallels to Travis Bickle. In our first conversation, we came up with the idea to have Martin have a shaved Mohawk head. We wanted to immediately visually clarify that he was in such a raw, primal warrior state.
Then Mickey took us through the process, and kept reinforcing that this was a family drama. In the end, you question if it’s horror, sci-fi or a thriller. What I loved, and was exciting for all of us, was that Mickey said the first two acts are like a play and a family drama. It’s less about Martin preaching about a monster, and more about him being the middle brother who feels absolutely judged and beaten up by his older brother, who he hates for doing that. But Martin also needs Ed and Lyla’s approval.
He’s at the state where he’s the most validated he’s ever been in his life because he has found this thing in the basement, and it proves he’s not crazy. But he’s also the most scared for his life, as well as his siblings’ lives, who come to this house when he told them not to go.
SY: Were you able to have any rehearsal time with each other, as well as with Lauren? How did you build your working relationships with each other and the rest of the cast, before, and while, you were filming the horror movie
MK: Well, we just talked it through, and rehearsed a lot together. We basically built backstories for everybody. So when we showed up on the (set every) day, we would just let things happen. What’s very important for me is for the actors to know why they’re saying the things they are, which aren’t necessarily meant to move the plot along.
I’m very fascinated by the beats and the characters that exist between the horror elements, because that’s where true humanity thrives. I’m interested in making things that are closer to reality. So we talked and decided on things, including how they were going to say things. It’s very important to me that everyone’s on the same page before we start shooting, so once we do begin filming, we’re not figuring things out in the space.
BM: That helped us out a lot, because we had to jump right into some intense things right at the beginning of each scene. I felt like we had all done our own research, had Skype sessions with Mickey and had all met each other before we began shooting. So that emotional information was compounded in our heads. Then we were able to let it out on each other, and learn more as we were filming.
DC: For me, it’s much easier when I get to work off of people like Lauren or Brian, so I don’t have to do any work. I let you guys do all the work. (laughs)
BM: Oh, that’s why you were smoking a cigarette the entire time-so you wouldn’t have to do anything. (laughs)
DC: Everyone on this crew, down to craft services, was really invested in the film, and super talented. It’s nice when you can go into a situation where you can do your preparation, and then let things go. I know what a Mickey Keating set is like-it’s relaxed, so that we can do our work and then have fun.
BM: Mickey’s super enthusiastic and supportive. So all throughout the shoot, he kept us posted on what works, and what we need to do more of in each scene. He pushed us until we got what we needed, and sometimes we would do multiple takes in a row, so we could shake things up and really drive up the energy.
DC: But it’s really cool at the end when Giona added the sound and the score to the final cut of the film. Everything came together in the end during the editing, from the sound to the score to the cinematography, to build all of the film’s emotions.
Giona Ostinelli (GO): Mickey was such a big help to me, because he was so enthusiastic with everyone, from the actors to the editor to me with the score. He pushed everyone to the top, and encouraged them to keep going, which helped us create something very special. Dean and Brian’s performances are great.
BM: We were able to make the film in such a compacted time frame-how long did we take to make the movie again?
MK: We shot the entire film in 14 days.
BM: Originally we shot in what?
MK: 12 days. (laughs)
DC: So when you have someone like Mickey who knows exactly what he wants, and you’re able to go into each day and get everything on time, that’s amazing. I’ve been on sets where we had 17 hours of shooting, and someone’s prosthetic still isn’t functioning correctly. But that’s what was nice on this film-all the pieces, even for a low-budget indie film, just clicked and worked.
SY: ‘Pod’ had its World Premiere here at SXSW, during the festival’s Midnighters Section. What does it mean to all of you that the film is debuting during the festival? How did audiences react to the film overall?
MK: It was terrifying until it happened, and then it was the greatest thing in the entire world. I think SXSW is the best, and I’m so happy and honored. It’s such a privilege to be here, so it’s exhilarating and humbling. I’m very ecstatic to have my movie premiere here.
BM: It is totally humbling. It’s so cool to see the streets packed with film geeks. People are coming here to see the Midnighters, and everyone’s excited about the festival. These audiences aren’t people who are being dragged to the theater-these are people who want to celebrate film.
GO: You can feel that vibe in the theaters here, which is totally different than the vibes during regular screenings once movies are officially released.
DC: It was great walking around the corner, as I was going to the premiere. I knew no one was going to recognize me without the mustache. (laughs) I was asking people if they were going to see ‘Pod,’ and it was fun. I then turned to Brian and asked him, “Do you know how many people are waiting outside to see the movie?”
MK: It’s crazy and incredible. We basically edited the movie and initially showed everybody in our living room, and now we had a line around the block of people who actively went out and wanted to see the film. I can’t describe my joy and glee.
DC: At the end of the day, just getting into SXSW, and getting the film to premiere here, was enough for me. I enjoy the film and this whole process, so I know there’s at least some other people out there who also enjoy it. Mickey’s also a huge fan of it. The love we all have, and the community we have, made displaying the film worthwhile, so thank you SXSW for accepting the movie.
Written by: Karen Benardello