Interview: Zachary Donohue from "The Den"
Director Zach Donohue has taken a leap of faith with his new horror film “The Den” as it is shot completely from the perspective of a young woman's computer screen. These sort of found footage horror films have really made an impact on the genre over the past several years, and now the Internet is the playing field. Zach was kind enough to sit down with us here at Movie Room Reviews and talk all about his new film “The Den” which is now out on VOD.
Nick Leyland from Movie Room Reviews: Congratulations on your film coming out soon.
Zach Donohue: Thanks a lot, man.
MRR: It's a long time in the works, huh?
Zach Donohue: Yeah, about three years. I'm excited to get it out there.
MRR: Well, it came out March 14th and t's a unique movie in a lot of ways. We'll talk about that in a minute. But can you first tell our audience a little bit about what the film is and the story of it?
Zach Donohue: Yep. The movie is a found footage thriller all told from the perspective of a young woman's computer screen. She goes on a Chat roulette-esque website and witnesses a murder. And from there the killers basically target her and her loved ones, and it turns into a sort of game of cat and mouse. And so, I usually pitch it as "Paranormal Activity" meets "Friday the 13th".
MRR: It reminded me a little bit like the "Blair Witch Project". Do you think movies like the "Blair Witch Project" started films like this or what?
Zach Donohue: Yeah, certainly. And I think, Blair Witch did it, and then for some reason found footage movies didn't quite take, right after that. You would have thought that there would have been a renaissance of them, but then, it wasn't until "Paranormal Activity", which was like the game-changer. I remember seeing that in the theater and just being blown away. And I wanted to take the realism that was in "Paranormal Activity" and instead of ghosts, replace it with a human threat and just kind of take that and run with it.
MRR: Now, for people that haven't seen it yet, you shot it in a very unique way. It seems like it'd be tough to get all the shots that you wanted because it was basically... Well, you can explain it to us. How did you shoot the film?
Zach Donohue: Yeah, it was a challenging movie. A lot of times you're seeing two things at once. You're seeing her, Melanie, our lead actress on one side of the screen, and then you're seeing another person. And yeah, it felt like we were shooting two movies at once essentially, because we were constantly going around to different locations and grabbing these web chat simulations. And the third component to the movie is the desktop screen. And just the mouse is a character in the movie, her email is a character, and it all just kinda came together in the end with the VFX.
MRR: Now, you co-wrote the film?
Zach Donohue: I wrote it with my writing partner, Lauren.
MRR: Now, did you have the basic story written down? How'd you go about that? Did you let the actors kind of improv some? Is that how horror movies usually work or is it mainly what's on the page is what's said?
Zach Donohue: Well, with this movie we weren't really allowed to do a lot of improv because of the way we shot it. A lot of scenes would be Melanie reacting and acting to a pre-recorded video of what you're seeing on the other side of the screen. So, we had to basically shoot that person first, film that, edit that while we were making a movie, give that to Melanie and then she would act off of that and there really wasn't a whole lot of room for her to improv because she was acting off of a pre-recorded performance, and if she improv'd, it wouldn't have worked properly.
MRR: Since you filmed it a little bit differently, what aspects of film making were you able to cut out and what ones did you have to kind of spend more money and time on?
Zach Donohue: The stunts and the scares are always kind of like a little bit more of a costly element and also locations. Some of our scarier locations also are costly. And, with a movie where you can't cut away to a separate angle, it sort of makes the gag of the violence, it makes it trickier to pull off and a little bit more expensive. So, we found creative ways to work around it but I think, because we couldn't cut away, we had to definitely make sure that our gore effects worked, essentially.
MRR: I didn't even think about that. When I was thinking about that question, I was wondering what you'd say. And now it totally hits, like an old Hitchcock movie or something where the camera pans away and the person gets murdered, where you don't even see it.
Zach Donohue: Yeah. Well, it's really funny because I was watching a lot of movies when we were doing it and we were referencing throat slitting scenes or scenes where people get hit in the head with a hammer. And a lot of movies it's just sound design, and I was actually surprised to see it when I was looking for movies for inspiration as far as how the effects were pulled off. It's just amazing how far sound design can trick you, but really you're always editing away from the gag, and in this movie we couldn't edit away from the gag. We had to make sure that the gag lurked, and that was a fun challenge.
MRR: Now besides the horror with the violence in the film, what kind of psychological horror do you think lies in this film?
Zach Donohue: Well, a lot of this movie was inspired by the YouTube message boards or just message boards in general, and how there's just like a nastiness that trolling inspires. And we really wanted to tap into that idea of just what it is to be on the Internet these days and while we are connected and all that, there is still very much just like a nastiness to the Internet more than ever. And we wanted to expose some funny things about the Internet and memes and just going off with those kind of funny, over-the-top ideas. But at the end of the day, yeah, that's that.
MRR: As I was watching it, especially 'cause it involves a chat room, what would normally seem funny like when you see these people and what they're doing, it just seems so creepy in this film.
Zach Donohue: Yeah, it's funny 'cause when I've watched the movie with other people I always laugh at certain moments that are meant to be funny, but because it's presented in such a voyeuristic way, it does really play pretty creepily, and a lot of times people are pretty nervous to laugh, which I think is kind of interesting, that I didn't really think about. But yeah, the movie is meant to be like as much it is like a scary kind of fun house thrill ride, it's also meant to have a thought provoking theme, but it's also meant to have some funniness in it, and it's okay to laugh. 'Cause Internet is absurd. So we really just wanted to have a conversation about all of that.
MRR: Well, Elizabeth in the film, how did you want to portray her? Did you want her to be this helpless hot chick or where you trying for something more?
Zach Donohue: Well, we were going for realism. That was the goal from the get go. We really wanted a character that the audience would identify with, but we didn't want it to feel like a stereotypical Hollywood horror movie. We wanted someone who had personality and who was interesting even when she wasn't doing that much. Someone you could watch, which sounds so creepy, but yeah someone who just brings a presence to the role. She had like a real energy to her, towards the end and she makes a lot of those scenes really intense in my opinion. She's got that final girl energy about her that I like.
MRR: That was probably a lot of pressure on Melanie huh, 'cause she was the make or break for the film.
Zach Donohue: Yeah. I mean she's in pretty much 95% of the movie and it was definitely a unique experience, and like I said there was a lot of scenes were she was very close to the camera and it's kind of like a very vulnerable position to be in, but she trusted the vision that I had, and I think we got something pretty unique out of her performance, and I'm excited for people to see it.
MRR: Well, this is your biggest film to date now, coming out. Tell me about what you've learned as a director from doing this and a little bit of how you got into film.
Zach Donohue: There was a lot of trial and error, and I guess I've always loved horror movies as a kid and making this movie just kind of reaffirmed that I want to continue making more movies. You know, not necessarily found footage horror movies, but just whatever the story calls for. As far as like my background in horror I was exposed to a lot of great horror movies from my father as a kid. He showed me Dario Argento and all the great slashers. I have a pretty broad taste in terms of horror movies. I'll watch "Critters" one day, and then I'll watch "The Shining" or something the next day. I'm down for any kind of horror movie.
MRR: Well thanks so much for talking with me today. The film, "The Den" is out now for people to see.
Zach Donohue: Yeah, on VOD and most Internet platforms and limited theatrical.
MRR: Cool. Well thanks so much, man. I really appreciate you talking with me.
Zach Donohue: Thanks a lot for having me, man.