Do you ever really know the person you love? That’s the unfortunate and deadly question that is asked in Colin Minihan’s latest film WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE. For the release of this smartly written and expertly performed thriller, Shannon had the chance to speak with both writer/director Colin Minihan and actress Brittany Allen. During their chat they discussed everything from working together on their third film, the inspiration for the story, and what it was like to compose the music for the movie.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Thank you both so much for speaking with me about WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE. To start things off, for those who may not be familiar with the film, can you tell them a little bit about it?
Colin Minihan: Sure, it’s about a same sex couple on their one-year anniversary and one of them reveals that they are not who they have claimed to be in basically the worst possible way.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Nothing about that sounds ominous (laughs). Brittany, can you tell us a little bit about your character Jules?
Brittany Allen: Jules is the unassuming, deeply in love, tragic character who is thrown a real curve-ball.
Nightmarish Conjurings: This is the third film that you have both worked on together. What is that experience like?
CM: It sucked, I don’t know why I keep doing it! (laughs)
BA: The worst! (laughs). It’s many things, but I do feel like we’ve worked out a lot of the kinks. The first film we met on was Extraterrestrial and we fell in love during that film, which was easy because that’s always easy at first. The second film was It Stains the Sands Red and that was definitely where we worked out a lot of the kinks of collaborating as a couple. That was definitely challenging but I think surviving that really strengthened our relationship, ultimately. We knew what pitfalls to look out for coming into WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE, we knew what boundaries needed to be set, we knew that we wanted to have a good time making this film and make the best film possible. We talked about what each of us needed in order to facilitate that in the ways that we needed to support each other and be patient with one another. It’s a pretty awesome thing, I love collaborating with Colin, he pushes me to be the best version of myself in a lot of ways and in particular, creatively. Sometimes it can be frustrating because he’s not one to say something is good when it isn’t, but I really value that in him and I’m so proud of the work that I’ve done because of working with him. And I push him to be the best too (laughs).
Nightmarish Conjurings: It’s great to hear that you’ve both been able to work through all the kinks to make the collaborative experience that much better outside of your relationship.
CM: Yeah, there wasn’t any ‘couples fights’ or anything like that, but on It Stains the Sands Red it was more challenging just cause we were living in a tight space with a bunch of other people we were all kind of housing. I think the filmmaking process is such a delicate one, emotionally, when you are so invested in the perspective of the character. From my perspective, holding on to the idea and trying to translate it on screen, there can be a tendency to be needy, especially when you’re a couple working on something together, but that’s just ends up being a recipe for disaster. On WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE we opted not to live together while we made the movie and just see each other on-set which allowed us to be more professional about it, ultimately.
Nightmarish Conjurings: I absolutely loved WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE and it’s up there as one of my favorites of this year. Where did the inspiration for the story come from and was there any specific research that was done for Brittany’s character?
CM: In broad strokes the idea came from a few things. One came from wanting to make a genre film that wasn’t a supernatural film, where the darkness came from a person as opposed to a ghost or a zombie or whatever. I wanted to make something more human on that level, but we can almost empathize with the villain as well, so that was definitely something that I wanted to do for awhile. I’ve written many scripts before this one where that was the case but those were never the movies that got made. I also wanted to make a dark film about a sociopath and I was inspired by a lot of different nasty articles online about men who had killed their wives and gotten away with it, but then actually gone on to kill a second and third wife as well and how they became addicted to the rush of getting away with it. So I figured, what type of person would do that and ultimately the story came together in a pretty organic way because my style is to write what I can shoot and what I can put together without needing to pitch for five years in order to get financing. So I wrote a very tight knit, two-hander that played with those ideas.
BA: I didn’t do any research [on my character], it was mostly just about connecting emotionally to who she was and understanding the relationship and what that meant to her and then throwing myself into the situation and just committing wholeheartedly. There wasn’t actually a ton of time to prep for this one as I was working on something else up until the week before shooting. Then I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off to help out with other things like wardrobe and props and production. It was a lot about trusting my impulses on the day and connecting with Hannah and understanding what was going on in each moment and then just diving in.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Brittany, if I’m not mistaken, you also composed the music for the film, correct?
BA: Yes, I did.
Nightmarish Conjurings: What was that process like? I had no idea that you were a composer!
BA: Neither did I (laughs). Music has been a part of my life forever but it has only been in the last few years that I had set my mind to writing a lot of it again and to learning music production and growing in that way. While we were shooting, Colin and I loosely discussed me scoring this. It seemed like a bit of a pipe dream but it was something we kept saying until it became a reality. I did a couple of trial scenes, I wanted to make sure I could do it, Colin wanted to make sure I could do it, and so he gave me about a week to see what I could come up with. Interestingly, the pivotal scene near the end of the film was one of the first things I scored and nothing about what I scored for that really changed from the first night to the final cut of the film. There were a lot of challenges, especially that scene for the first time, but I think that there will always be challenges in scoring a film, it’s a pretty big monster of a task to take on. It was so challenging, but also so much fun, and I worked mostly in the box, in my computer, but I would build a lot of the scenes on a piano and then I would bring in darker, distorted electronic vibes with some synth I had on my computer.
Nightmarish Conjurings: What makes this film work so well is the relationship between your character Jules, and that of Hannah Emily Anderson’s (who plays Jackie). What was the casting process like to find Jackie and how was it working so closely with Hannah?
BA: The casting process was a bit of a panic. Colin had initially written that role to be played by a male actor. The film, when it was initially conceived a year prior to shooting, Colin wrote a role for me and a role for the male actor. About a month prior to shooting, the actor booked a series lead on a TV show and since that is something that pays a lot of money, he had to take it. Suddenly we were scrambling to fill his shoes and we spoke with a couple other male actors but then Colin had been considering for awhile that it might be more interesting as a same sex couple. There aren’t many female iconic psychopath characters in that genre, so he thought would it be cool to add one.
CM: It was definitely something that I put aside as I was writing the film because I set out to write a movie for the actor who ultimately had to bail. The casting was challenging because we were kind of left a month before shooting to figure out who was going to do it. Since it’s a two-hander, and I already had the two leads in mind, we didn’t bring on a casting director, so it was more about the relationship. It’s obviously helpful having Brittany as an executive producer and star of the film as she knows practically every actor that could play this role in Canada because it’s a tight-knit community, so we pulled together some names and went down the list. It was actually when she was on-set in Montreal that a makeup artists suggested Hannah Emily Anderson to her. Brittany and Hannah were in Jigsaw together but they never had any scenes together. There was something about Hannah’s essence that Brittany noticed when she met her. Often times it’s not necessarily an audition that helps the director gauge whether or not the actor’s right, it’s just sitting down and having a conversation with them. In the case of Hannah, I ultimately just had a conversation with her and kind of made a decision based on that.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Last but not least, do either of you have any upcoming projects that we should be keeping our eyes out for in the future?
CM: I just wrapped a movie that I co-wrote and produced through my production company Digital Interference called Z. It’s about an 8 year-old-boy who gets an imaginary friend and things start to happen that make his mother believe that maybe the imaginary friend isn’t so imaginary after all. We literally wrapped that two days ago after 20 days of shooting and I’m very excited with how it looks thus far. Brittany has been shooting a really cool TV show for Amazon in Toronto that is produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg called The Boys, which is based on a dark iconic superhero comic and she’s gotten to play a pretty fun character.
BA: I was also just in the next movie coming out from Nicholas McCarthy, who directed The Pactand At the Devil’s Door, which is called The Prodigy. The film also stars Taylor Schilling and I have a pretty fun role in that film too!
WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE opens in select theaters and VOD on August 24.