Body at Brighton Rock

With Body of Brighton Rock, writer/director Roxanne Benjamin establishes a clear woman versus nature scenario as a young Park Ranger takes a wrong turn during her rounds and stumbles across a body deep in the woods. She is told via walkie talkie she has to stay with it until help comes, but the question of who this guy was and how he died starts gnawing at her as the feeling of isolation starts to close in.

Benjamin has been in and around the genre scene for years, producing horror favorites V/H/S, V/H/S/2 and The Devil’s Candy and then moving on to directing parts of two anthology films (Southbound and XX). Now she has her first feature under her belt and the long road to this movie is where we begin our conversation.

At the time of the chat, Benjamin was newly returned from her big premiere at SXSW, hard at work editing her episode for the upcoming Shudder resurrection of Creepshow while under the influence of a solid bottle of DayQuil after catching the dreaded “South By Flu,” which was particularly brutal this year for some reason. Our chat covers the perils of low budget filmmaking on a random mountaintop and the childhood books that influenced her for this project.

You’ve been producing and directing anthology segments for a few years, but this is your first feature. What all had to line up to get Body at Brighton Rock made?

It’s been about a decade. I started producing and it wasn’t until Southbound that I started directing. Basically it was like I went to a rich kid’s school and wasn’t a rich kid. I couldn’t really dive into directing. When you’re freelancing you’re living moment to moment, week to week and I was doing that with a massive amount of student loan debt.

The month that I paid my student loan debt off is when Brad (Miska) came to be about Southbound and I told him I only wanted to be involved if I could write and direct and he was like, “Okay.” I was like, “Great! That was easy.”

From there I did a couple of the anthology things and then spent a year trying to get another script I had written made with Shari Davani producing, so it was two women running around trying to get this witch movie made. That was a much higher budget. It was around $2 million and we couldn’t get financing. It took up a whole year and I’ve made a movie a year for the last nine years, so I was losing my mind by the end of it.

So, towards the end of the year I wrote Body because I was going to lose it if I didn’t make something. I think in August I started writing it. In September I sent it to Chris (Alender) and Dave (Smith) at Soapbox, who were my producers, and they were like “We’re down for some low budget fun in the woods.” Then in October they sold it to Magnolia.

That sounds like everything kind of lined up surprisingly well… it just took ten years.

Yeah, it just took ten years to get to a very low budget first feature. But I think that’s the case for a lot of people. I don’t think there are many people that escape that, having an ultra low budget feature be their first rodeo.

So the movie is set mostly outdoors. Was that a conscious decision for you when coming up with the story, knowing you were going to have a limited budget and that would give you instant production value?

That was always the idea. Outside of the movie being mostly just one person… There are many low budget genre movies that are just one person in a house and that’s never been interesting to me. It’s weird, everything I’ve done has been outside. You get so much more production value for it and the big wide world is just terrifying to me, so anything out in nature is inherently scary. We’re just one small thing in a giant cosmos. Existential dread is a big part of this movie.

You also play a lot with perception in the movie. What is real, what isn’t real, what’s in your main character’s head, etc.

I was trying to make a fable more than anything. I studied Irish mythology and folklore in college. Any sort of mythology has been fascinating to me. They’re all very archetypical stories and I feel that’s very much what the movie is. It’s almost a children’s story. Don’t do these things or bad things will happen to you. Someone has to go through something and deal with their own inner demons before they can face the outer world and the big bad wolf, or in this case the big bad bear.

Wendy would have just curled up into a ball and wouldn’t have been able to handle it had this happened one day earlier, but she’s been through this experience now. She had to prove to herself that she was capable before she could prove to anyone else.

The character aspect of it is way more interesting to me. I looked at a lot of other films that are one person against the elements and they all have something else to cut to. Castaway has a volleyball he talks to the whole time and 127 Hours he’s talking to the camera. The only one that doesn’t really cut away is All Is Lost and every moment of that he’s doing something ensure survival. There’s another obstacle he’s facing.

The thing that I felt very fascinating as I started getting into this one was the obstacle was herself and her action was to do nothing. The action was NOT to run away. It’s to stay, to go through something, which is pretty hard. It would have been much easier if I had given her more action to do, but going with this inner-turmoil route was a fun challenge once I got into it.

You do something interesting here in that you’re not afraid to let your lead character fail. She gets a lot of stuff wrong, but she’s always proactive. She’s trapped in one spot, but she’s not helpless in that one spot.

I feel like in a lot of movies people want their protagonist to have flaws, but still be better than them so they can put themselves in their shoes and feel like they’re in better shoes than they actually are. You want them to be able to kick ass mid-way into the movie and that’s not real life.

In this there’s a series of misfortunes or her own mistakes that lead her into this scenario, but once she’s committed to it, as soon as it gets real, she’s like “I quit, I give up, I’m not prepared for this.” But by then she can’t go anywhere. She has to stay. “I was not prepared for this. I was bluffing and you called my bluff and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

It’s funny. I have gotten the criticism that she makes too many mistakes, too many dumb decisions, and the thing is everything in the movie is something I’ve done… besides find a dead body. I have poked the bear bag in the tree and was like “What’s this do?” She did even more dumb things in earlier cuts, but I got so much negative feedback on that that I actually cut some of it back because people thought she was too bumbling. I was like “I wonder how many people realize this is actually just my life, things I’ve done in the woods.” I’ve fallen down because I thought something was behind me. The throwing the rock into the cave? Why would anybody do that? I did it.

When you wrote the script did you have the specific location in mind or was it something you wrote and hoped you could find on a location scout?

It was something I had to find. My DP and I went all over the place in California looking for a good spot. Of course the first spot we picked had no cell service and no accommodations and was completely remote. We put ourselves into a horror movie while trying to make a horror movie.

We looked up in Big Bear and places like that, but we ended up in Idylwild. It’s funny. It’s so sunny in the movie, but we were so worried about snow. We were filming in December and it snows up there. It was actually freezing. For as sunny as it is it was freezing out. She has a jacket on because she really needs the jacket. I had to keep telling Karina (Fontes) to back away from the campfire because she was on top of it because it was so cold.

We ended up in a windstorm, actually. There was a lot of wildfires at the time. This is the end of 2017. Wildfires were a huge concern out there, so when the wind kicked up they shut the power off to keep from having downed powerlines that would cause wildfires.

We ended up a windstorm that they created a new weather category for, which was Category Purple. That’s how bad it was. Trees were coming down. Firemen had to come up and get our equipment off the mountain with us and there was no power in the town for two days. We lost a day and a half of shooting, so my eleven day shoot turned into nine and a half days. I had a bear day scheduled for February. I had already planned to shoot that later, so we just added another day onto that weekend, but anytime you lose shooting time is bad. We ended up with about twelve days to shoot the entire movie.

So the next one you’re going to write is going to be in the parking lot of your favorite grocery store or something, right?

Benjamin: Oh, it’s going to be in a pool in a nice, warm, tropical area. A beach house, maybe. Probably not. Knowing me it’ll be in a volcano or some shit.

The next one I write will probably be geared towards a slightly older audience. That’s the one thing about Body (at Brighton Rock). I think it’s geared more towards a YA audience. Christopher Pike books are a big influence for me for this. I keep calling it a movie for girls who fall down and say “fuck” a lot. That and Hatchet. Did you read Hatchet in middle school?

I don’t think so.

I feel like it’s a touchstone book for so many people. So many people have been like “Oh, my God. I haven’t thought about that book in years!” It’s this kid whose plane goes down in the woods and he only has a hatchet with him and he has to survive and deal with all these inner battles.

Now that you mention it, I do remember reading that book.

Right? There’s that and Jack London books that I read when I was a kid, but none of them ever had any female protagonists. I always saw myself as a tomboy because I wanted to be in those stories, so I wanted to make something that were what I wish I had seen or if it had been a novel that I read when I was eleven.

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Body at Brighton Rock opens in select theaters this weekend.

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