For the release of the trippy horror film HEAD COUNT, which centers around a group of friends who accidentally summon a malevolent creature, Shannon had the chance to speak with writer/director Elle Callahan during the LA Film Festival. During their chat they discussed everything from folklore, to the horror genre, and the process of building up an effective slow-burn scare.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Hi Elle, thank you so much for speaking with us today! To start things off, could you tell us a little bit about your film HEAD COUNT?
Elle Callahan: It’s a story about a group of kids who go out to Joshua Tree and accidentally summon a paranormal presence that gets among them by mimicking their appearances while seeking to ritualistically murder them all. My film really plays on the idea of fear in hindsight which is a horror concept that is the scariest to me. Just the idea that you think you know what’s going on and then when you look back on certain situations you realize you were actually in danger that whole time.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Where did the inspiration for the come from and how did you come up with the urban legend of the Hisji?
EC: I took a trip to Joshua Tree a few years ago and being from New England originally, the desert landscape was pretty foreign and scary to me. I just had never encountered anything like the Joshua Tree’s and the rocks. When you stay out there it’s very quiet at night and I thought that this would be an amazing place to tell a scary story because I felt so scared (laughs).
As for the creation of the Hisji, I’m a big fan of folklore and monsters in general, so I kind of meshed together some of my favorite creatures to create a Hisji. Then I threw that into the desert with some characters that were hunted by it.
Nightmarish Conjuring: One of my favorite aspects of this film were the subtle scares that allowed the audience to use their imagination to fill in the blanks. Was this always the intention?
EC: Yes, very much my intention. Sometimes I find that my mind imagines scarier situations – almost as if I’m overthinking something. Usually it’s fine, but the brain can totally just spin out, so I tried to play with that in my film, especially with the climax. I wanted to leave it up to the audience’s imagination because I feel like they are going to tailor that to whatever is the scariest to them personally, and I feel like that might have a more lasting effect. I love horror because all the horror films that I have seen that have really scared me are the ones that stayed with me the longest. The first time I saw the RING I couldn’t be alone in a room with a TV for a year – I was so afraid it was going to turn on (laughs). When I approached my first film I knew it had to be horror because those films have the most lasting effect on me. Whenever you make art you want it to stick with people, so unfortunately with my viewers, it’s going to be the scares (laughs).
Nightmarish Conjurings: Having only been to Joshua Tree once, the film reminded me of how quiet and desolate it is. What was it like to shoot the film there?
EC: It was great because we were able to fully commit to the film because all that outside noise, like social media and cell phone reception, were just not really on the table. This allowed us to really focus on the craft of making a good film and allowed my actors to really bond with each other because they kind of had to. It was very reminiscent of growing up when we didn’t have cell phones and we would just go outside and play. That’s what we did – we went out to the desert and we just played and made a scary film.
Nightmarish Conjurings: With this being your first feature film what was it like going from filming shorts film to this? What challenges did you face?
EC: Endurance (laughs). I think features are so amazing because you’re really getting that full time to develop your characters more. I’m a very patient director, I like to move very slowly with my scares and build that tension. In short films, you only have a few minutes to establish that but with feature films you can really build that tension over the course of an hour and a half and chip away at the anxiety of the audience. I’m a big fan of the slow creep of the atmospheric haunt rather than jump-scares – probably because jump-scares are very effective in scaring me (laughs). I’m in it for more of the haunt and when you have more time to do that it’s easier to establish that.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Last, but not least, are you working on any upcoming projects that we should be keeping an eye out for in the future?
EC: Yes! I have a few things in the works – a lot of it has to do with witchcraft, that’s where I’m heading next. I want to stay in the horror realm cause folkore is really special to me. I can’t announce anything yet but I’m definitely staying within the horror genre. I love horror!