Jennifer Conrad is a small-town girl starting over in the big city. Fleeing an abusive relationship, all she wants is a chance to begin again. But it is hard to start over when something is eating you while you sleep . . . one painful bite at a time.
Interview with Co-Writer/Producer Jim Brennan
Image: Jennifer (Penelope Mitchell) getting ready to start her new life….before the unspeakable happens.
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
Thank you! Much of the core team was together for our last film, An American Terror. Based on the success of that project we were anxious to go again. We had that opportunity when Michael Haskins introduced us to the folks at Unreal Media. Unreal was looking to back a horror film and Michael asked us at RumblePack what we had available. We pitched Gnaw and they liked it. Creatively, we made THIS film as an opportunity to tell a story of someone finding the core of their personal courage against horrifying circumstances using the allegory of a horror film.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
Well, if you like horror, it will scare the crap out of you. So that’s a great start. But beyond that it really takes you on a journey with Jennifer, who has taken her first steps away from an abusive relationship, towards realizing who she once was, and could be again. That journey is thick with terrifying obstacles that are both supernatural and personal. She has to go to a place in herself that most people never have to get to in order to combat both the evil that is attacking her, as well as her own inner demons.
I also have to give kudos to the performances. These characters fit together in a precise dynamic that the actors took and made their own. It’s a story that relied so heavily on believing in Jennifer and the people around her. One false note would have collapsed the entire thing and they exceeded all of our hopes. Amazing performances all around.
And the monster. I don’t want to say more than that. The relentless evil that drives this thing is so evident in the work done by our creative team, from Ben Hibon’s design right through to our effects partner Entropy’s execution. This thing is chilling. The stuff of nighmares.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
One of the things we love about horror is how effectively it can be used as allegory for the trials of the human condition. When it is done well, as we attempt to do with Gnaw, it gives an audience a glimpse into their own lives without being preachy or on the nose.
This film is really about looking your fears head on. We spend so much of our lives trying to avoid and even actively hide from the things we fear. In this story Jennifer must literally and metaphorically face that which is attacking her in order to have a chance to survive.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development?
We only had a treatment when we pitched Unreal, so we had to write the script very quickly. Luckily, Haylar Garcia (who also directed and edited the film), Kathryn Gould, and myself have been working together for a while. We were able to divide the story up and get the initial draft of the script ready in a few weeks. It was also helpful that we knew what kind of story we wanted to tell. This woman is trying to get a second chance on life and there are so many forces working against her. In the end all she has is herself and she has to stand her ground despite all of that. So any evolution that came was about enhancing that journey, since everything else had to support telling that story.
In production and post you always have to be objective about what you have versus what you thought you were going to have. But luckily that provided us far more opportunities than challenges. We were able to make this into a very scary, yet personal and cathartic story.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
We have had a great reaction to the film. Whenever you deal with allegory in a genre film you have to walk a very fine line between giving the genre audience the satisfaction of what they hope to see, with sometimes a more nuanced approach to plot and character. In our case we knew that first and foremost we had to deliver on that unwritten contract with the horror audience that we will scare them. We had great success there. In addition we wanted to underpin that with a human story that could theoretically be relevant outside of the horror genre. That was the gamble.
But it paid off. People have overwhelmingly embraced that element with many telling us that the human story made the horror elements both scarier and more satisfying. The film doesn’t just have scary things happening. It has scary things happening to people we know and care about.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
It validated what we think can be achieved in a genre film. Memorable horror films like the Exorcist, Poltergeist, Night of the Living Dead and Halloween have stood the test of time because they tell really good stories. They are scary, but they expand their impact and relevance beyond genre tropes because of the narrative human elements that invest us in storytelling in the first place. We want to see interesting but flawed people discover; we want to see them be challenged but grow through those challenges. That’s the catharsis that a genre like horror can provide, but often doesn’t.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
As indie filmmakers we value community. It is so hard to get projects developed and off the ground. Even when we are successful we don’t have the assets that the big players do. So we rely on community to both execute and connect our projects to the people who want to see them. And to be honest, as much as we would all love to have more money at our disposal to realize our vision, the idea of helping connect individual films and filmmakers to an audience is really gratifying. This isn’t just about some commercial transaction. It’s about that tapestry of people who understand that storytelling challenges and unites people. It calls to what is most common among us: the human experience. Your site fosters that approach and value in storytelling. We appreciate the chance to be part of what you are doing.
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
Everyone! Seriously. The team approach to connecting an indie film to its audience is key. Once the film reaches the audience then it's up to the work we have already done in making the film to take the final step. But as you know, there is a vast ocean of content out there for people to choose from. Just getting noticed can be a huge challenge. We have already had great success on the festival circuit and are in distribution discussions, which is great. But that’s just the beginning. The more people we can get on board with promoting the assets of the film the better chance we have of someone taking a chance on picking our film for that 90 minutes or so.
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
We would love to see the early reviews and reception continue. As a creative force you always hope that an audience gets the underlying themes of a piece. But this is the entertainment industry and we have to honor that. So to that end we hope people just enjoy the film. We also try to remember that we don’t get to choose how something is received, only how it is presented. The rest is a unique experience that happens between the film and the individual viewer. We facilitate the process, but once the room goes dark and those opening credits roll, the film is no longer ours. It belongs to the people who put aside time and money to watch it.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
We would all like to think that most people are on the right side of the domestic violence/abuse issue, but the idea of how far you would go if you felt threatened, or the paradox of something feeling safe because it’s familiar even though it’s unhealthy is worthy of deeper discussion. That point is going to be different for everyone, and people can have very strong opinions on that, so I wouldn’t mind eavesdropping on some of those conversations.
Would you like to add anything else?
We are just so grateful to our investors, cast and crew for the incredible amount of work they put into this project. As you know at this budget level, this is not just a job that you show up for. It requires a tremendous amount of trust to invest yourself, your time, skill and money into an independent film. We are also grateful to the indie film community and the genre community within those ranks for the support and enthusiasm we have been shown. You hope a film will be well received, but we have been treated exceedingly well.
What other projects are the key creatives developing or working on now?
Indie Films are kind of like a carnival. People gather on a project for a brief period and then often go their separate ways when it wraps. We certainly hope to work with this team again soon, but in the meantime they have gone on to further their careers.
Star Penelope Mitchell has been in a number of films since Gnaw, most notably in the new Hellboy film. Sally Kirkland has added about ten titles to her resume since we wrapped. I swear she never stops working. Chris Johnson has had great success with 47 Meters Down, and Kyle Gass talked off the record recently about a pretty spectacular project that we hope to hear a public announcement for soon. We were so thrilled to have these actors on Gnaw. They all did fantastic work so it’s no surprise they are in such demand.
Our DP Anton Fresco could have had his pick of projects but instead decided to accept an invitation to go to AFI in Los Angeles to elevate his craft even further.
Production Designer Jhené Chase has been shuttling back and forth between L.A. and Denver just trying to keep up with the demand for her services. I honestly stopped keeping track of the projects she has been working on, but one of them is actually a film she wrote and directed.
Richard Turner, Betsy Leighton and Stephan Shelanski, who are the producers from Unreal Media, have been vetting their next project. They have had a few good ones come their way and I think they are almost ready to move forward, so look out for that.
Producer Michael Haskins has a bunch of projects happening, and I have no doubt they will be successful.
Kathryn, Haylar and myself continue to keep writing. Some of those scripts are being packaged for sale, but others we are developing ourselves for Haylar to direct. We love the horror genre, but the next one we hope to do will actually take us back into the real world….with just a touch of magic. ;-)
Interview: November 2017
We Are Moving Stories embraces new voices in drama, documentary, animation, TV, web series and music video. If you have just made a film - we'd love to hear from you. Or if you know a filmmaker - can you recommend us? More info: Carmela
It's hard to start over when something won't stop eating at you.
Director: Haylar Garcia
Producer: Betsy Leighton, Stephan Shelanski, Richard Turner, Jim Brennan, Haylar Garcia, Michael Haskins
Writer: Kathryn Gould, Jim Brennan, Haylar Garcia
Key cast: Penelope Mitchell as Jennifer Conrad, Sally Kirkland as Claudette Grim, Chris Johnson as Boyd McFarland, Kyle Gass as Terry Lumley
Looking for (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists): Mostly reviews and buzz
Social media handles: #gnawmovie
Made in association with: Unreal Media and Wrecking Ball Pictures in association with Dilettante Productions and Entropy Studio
Where will the film screen in the next month? Other Worlds Austin on 12/9, Macabre Faire in NY the weekend of Jan 12-14