‘Southbound’ Filmmakers Talk About the Benefits of Anthology Horror
Back in 2012, the anthology horror subgenre got a nice shot in the arm thanks to the arrival of V/H/S, a collection of found footage shorts that spawned two sequels and a renewed interest in short-form horror. Now, four years later, the same people behind V/H/S return with Southbound, a new anthology that takes a far more ambitious approach. Comprised of five short stories, Southbound shares both a location and narrative, taking place on a desert highway where poor souls meet terrible fates through interlocking tales. The cohesiveness of Southbound turns out to be the glue that keeps it together, exchanging the hit and miss quality of most anthologies with a narrative and thematic consistency. Much like V/H/S, Southbound is an entertaining collection of shorts that helps expand the storytelling possibilities of the anthology format.
The best stretch of Southbound happens early on with its second and third shorts Siren and The Accident. Directed by Roxanne Benjamin (her directorial debut, although she was a producer on the V/H/S series), Siren follows a small band whose van breaks down on the way to their next gig, but when a seemingly nice couple drives by offering to help, one band member suspects these good Samaritans might be hiding something. Benjamin’s short is a lot of sinister fun, and it’s a great lead-in to David Bruckner’s The Accident. Bruckner’s film is by far the highlight of Southbound, a small-scale piece that follows one man (Mather Zickel) trying to do the right thing after causing a tragic accident. The less said about the twists and turns throughout Southbound the better, since a large part of what makes Siren and The Accident so entertaining is trying to figure out where they’ll end up.
After Southbound’s World Premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, I talked with Roxanne Benjamin and David Bruckner about their contributions to Southbound along with the film’s tight-knit collaborative process.
Southbound comes out in theaters on Friday, February 5th before a VOD release on Tuesday, February 9th.
What do you think anthologies bring to horror that a more conventional narrative doesn’t?
David: I think you can kind of do anything in 25 minutes. You have the ability to go nuts or take risks that you wouldn’t normally take when you have to support three acts. You also get to kind of experiment with a lot of different ideas, like maybe you have a creative impulse to do something and you don’t know if it’ll hold the audience’s attention for an entire movie. The short form campfire tale has a place. When you get into cautionary formats or these kinds of morality tales, you don’t need a lot more time to explore that idea.
Roxanne: Multiple viewpoints, too. You’re getting to work with a lot of people in a short amount of time, and making something together in a more collaborative environment. I think it’s really nice.
Before you decided to make another anthology, did you always intend to go in and change the format from your previous films?
Roxanne: Absolutely. I think with the V/H/S movies we wanted to challenge everyone with the idea of making found footage interesting. With this one, [it’s] “How do we reinvigorate that idea and try to take it to a next level?”
David: And on that note, what would we want to see? If we were going to see a bunch of shorts strung together as an anthology, maybe that wouldn’t be as fulfilling as something that winds together and has a purpose, a certain order or intuitive sensibility for why these things should come together. We were sort of searching for that.
Roxanne: And how to live in one world and make the stories within that world, rather than dropping the audience into a new world every 20 minutes.
David: I was always talking about the idea of a night at the movies where you hear several different voices on a similar topic or idea, so you’re kind of hitting it on different sides. That always seemed like a good night at the movies.
It’s surprising to me that, with so many anthology films coming out after V/H/S, none of these other recent anthologies have tried what you guys do here.
Roxanne: It just happened organically. I can’t speak to the other ones that are out there, but it was something we had done before, so we didn’t want to do the same thing.
David: I think we were interested in finding some sort of connective force to put these things together. I think we also just spent a lot more time on the front end than V/H/S. We were out location scouting together, we landed on the idea that there should be a location, something that ties these things together geographically. That led to a lot of afternoon and evening drives out into the California desert exploring our options. We had a very small budget, and had to figure out what to do to make these things come to life, and just being out on those desert highways together [makes] ideas come about.
Roxanne: And there are easter eggs all over the movie a lot of people don’t know that are tying them together. Little crossovers that…
David: Some of them are excruciatingly subtle.
Roxanne: Yeah. [Laughs]
David: I don’t know if anyone will ever discover them.
Roxanne: But we know they’re there!
So what made you decide on using the desert as your location?
David: It’s awesome.
Roxanne: It’s vast, it’s empty, it’s an ethereal plane of existence. You feel like you’re not quite in reality. Both day and night out in the desert, there’s just so much nothing, and so much opportunity for horror to emerge out of that nothing.
David: I’m from Atlanta, I’m a forest creature. So for me to have that much of a spectrum in my point of view was a little unnerving. [To Roxanne] You actually taught me a lot about the desert because you knew all these locations. You were in some ways my ambassador to California. It was a fun exploration.
How different was the collaborative process on Southbound compared to V/H/S?
Roxanne: Writer’s room.
You all got in one room together and hashed it out?
Roxanne: All the time. For the V/H/S films, our filmmakers were kind of their own entities, and then we brought them together in post. On V/H/S/2 we connected everybody a little bit more by starting earlier, swapping cuts and that kind of thing. On this one it was very much through design, starting with Radio Silence kind of developing the world, [then] everyone getting together and finding their stories within that world and how they’re connected. It’s more like a TV model.
Did you come up with the themes first and find ways to explore that, or did you come up with the ideas and then realize how they tied together?
Roxanne: It’s kind of chicken-egg.
David: It is kind of hard to say. Early on we settled into different things. We knew Radio Silence were going to handle the bookends. I fell into the middle. Patrick’s piece made sense later on because he had a protagonist who knew more about what was going on, and that was a really satisfying turn at that point in the movie. We were conscious of avoiding certain pitfalls like having five act ones in a row. Every time you start a new movie, the momentum dies down a little bit, so we were trying to contradict all of that. You can swing back and forth between having an individual take on something and seeing the bigger picture, and wanting to do something in service of that.
How did you each come up with the ideas for your films?
Roxanne: For Siren, I was working with my co-writer Susan Burke, who’s awesome. I’ve known her for a long time and we have similar sensibilities of this eerie surrealism where comedy meets horror and what those lines are. We were talking about how we both have friends in traveling bands and that kind of era of your life where you’re irresponsible, and you think everything’s an adventure until it’s not. That’s kind of what sparked the idea.
David: For some reason, I really wanted to do a piece with one guy on the phone for most of it. I got attached to that early on. I wanted to focus on a single performance, to have a guy walk into a creepy place and have to act quickly. It really was that vague, and I didn’t know where to go with it from there. There were several iterations of it, and then through the process of talking about where to go, we found a way to make these pieces fit in an event that would hold them together in a unique way.
I really enjoyed seeing Mather Zickel in The Accident since I’m used to seeing him in comedies like Newsreaders.
David: Mather came in to read and blew me away in the room. We had a lot of great reads, and the night after we did those reads Roxanne and I hopped in a car to scout a potential location. I just took all the reads, particularly of the 911 calls, and we listened in the car to actual 911 calls off of YouTube, and then I would just play the auditions. And Mather’s just got us. We believed it, and he took it to a really fascinating place. The piece required a lot of very fast internal transitions, the character has like 5 plates spinning at once. And just from a technical perspective, I don’t know if it’s his comedy background or where he came from, Mather could just move through all of those things in such a fantastic way that could keep the pace of the movie up.
How did you handle approaching the mythological aspect of the film? It feels like you wanted to make sure you didn’t give away too much.
Roxanne: You never want to beat people over the head with that because it takes away that sense of discovery. The fun part for me in early screenings was seeing people arguing over what they thought the mythology was, or when they realized what the mythology was. That’s the most fun part.
David: I think part of it too is that it’s just a fun way to string together these kinds of tales. When we landed on the idea of some kind of hellish haunted highway or however you want to describe it, you kind of come across what you need to come across. So to some degree, the mythology owes itself to each individual character and what their story is. We kind of collected elements together, but I think we never wanted to lose sight of that. We never wanted to be so explicit that we were world building something that could be understood outside the confines of this movie.
I’ve always wondered if filmmakers get competitive with each other when making their own segments in an anthology film.
Roxanne: I don’t think it’s competitive so much as wanting to bring your A-game, because you got a team you can’t let down on top of wanting to make your best thing.
David: I think you get in the mindset of just celebrating something that’s awesome no matter what it is. Wherever it happens, you’re excited to be a part of that. And it’s also being a fan of the people you’re working with and getting to see what they’re doing unfold. Sometimes there’s a thing someone is fighting for in the script that you maybe don’t recognize or don’t understand, and when you see it unfold on set or in the cut you’re constantly going “Oh, that’s what you were doing there.” The medium is so simple, a script is not a finished product, it’s a blueprint for an idea, and it’s not until those elements come across that you really understand what somebody meant. So half the time we’re just listening to each other. Even now, when we screen the film we’ll come out of the film often and go, “I finally heard that moment, I finally heard what you were talking about.”