If an app had the ability to tell you the moment, down to the last second, of when you were going to die, would you download it? That’s the concept that Justin Dec explores in his feature film directorial debut, COUNTDOWN. The film, which centers around a nurse who downloads the app only to find out she has three days to live, is a fast-paced thriller that is both fun and terrifying, reminiscent of the supernatural slasher movies I grew up on. For the release of the film, I had the chance to speak with writer/director Justin Dec, where I learned that he also hailed from the Boston area, similar to myself, and had started his career in film by focusing on comedy shorts. During our chat, Justin and I talked about how the inspiration for COUNTDOWN came to be, the use of practical sets, and the process used in creating such an iconic demon.
Can you talk a bit about how the concept of an app that counts down to your death came about?
Justin Dec: Of course! It’s so funny, I was setting a timer one day on my phone and I was watching it count down and the idea just popped in there: what if this was counting down to my death? Totally normal thought, of course (laughs). I had done a bunch of comedy shorts up until that point and I really wanted to do a suspenseful horror short and that was the concept that I wanted to run with. I turned it into a little short film which I shot over two nights in my apartment. I then sent it out to bunch of film festivals and was really excited, hoping to catch the attention of some producers. I also sent it to my producers Sean Anders and John Morris, who also do big comedy movies, and I’ve been sending them comedy shorts forever. They watched the COUNTDOWN short and called me and said, “Stop sending this to festivals, we are going to make this,” and off we went!
The film takes place primarily in a hospital as well as other practical locations. Can you discuss that process?
Justin Dec: We got really lucky because we didn’t have a lot of money to make this movie. You saw how many rotations are in it – hospital, some houses, the cell phone store – we kept it pretty minimal and only went out in the world a few times. The actual functioning, real hospital was a sound stage that I went to scout with our team. It’s this amazing place that has about 20 standing sets and you can rent it out whenever you want and they happen to have a hospital, a house, etc. They had all these different areas – there was a high school that they shot Teen Wolf in, that’s what we converted into our abandon hospital. We shot almost the entire movie under this one roof, except for the first time you see the abandoned hospital. That scene with Evan sitting by the hospital window where Quinn sits down to talk to him, we established that in Pasadena. That was a real abandoned hospital and we shot pieces there and connected all the tissue, the magic of indie filmmaking!
I think the casting choices for this film were perfect but most surprising was I was not expecting Peter Facinelli to play such a despicable character.
Justin Dec: Peter Facinelli is so likable! He’s just such a sweet guy and was very passionate about playing this role but we knew he was going to be an important villain to play. He was so perfect for it. The first person [we cast] was Elizabeth Lail. Me and my wife were watching that show YOU on Netflix and I just knew, as soon as I saw her, that she was going to be a movie star. She just has so much heart and soul and that’s what the role needed, so she was my first choice. We sent her the script, she read it, we Skyped, and then I never heard from her again (laughs). It was four weeks that went by before the studio called and told us they had closed Elizabeth’s deal and she was in the movie. I called her and was like, “I’ve been dying to talk to you since that Skype” and she was like, “Me, too!” (laughs). She was a no-brainer and as soon as she we had her on board I think anyone that knew her work, and saw her on YOU, knew the kind of movie we were going to make. Tom Segura, we actually worked with on Instant Family, he was played Mark Wahlberg’s brother-in-law. I had turned to him and told him I had a role in my movie that I thought would be great for him, without blinking, said he would do it. I don’t think at that time he knew I was serious, and then a month later I called him and told him we were doing it. P.J. Byrne, believe it or not, we could not find the right actor to play Father John because it’s a tough role. You can’t be too funny and you can’t be too serious, it has to be right in the middle and P.J. just got it. He understood exactly what we were looking for. He was hysterical and all that jewelry and those tattoos – that was all P.J.
Being such a huge fan of the genre, one of the things that I loved so much about your film was how the demon was subtle. It allowed for a build-up to the scares and kept the audience intrigued as to what exactly the demon was. How much of that design was practical as opposed to digital?
Justin Dec: Jaws is my favorite film of all time and the way that they tease the shark from the very beginning, you only see it in glimpses, was something Spielberg didn’t do on purpose but learned the value of keeping it a mystery. I wanted to do the same thing with our demon, I wanted it to feel like we sprinkled him in – you get a little glimpse of the hand, the shadow. It had to also feel real, it had to feel tangible and I was always ringing the bell for practical, practical, practical, we have to go practical. Honestly, he’s like 99% practical in the movie because we had an amazing effects team, KNB, who have won Academy Awards, and Howard Berger helped design the demon and bring him to life. We had to augment a little bit around the eyes and stuff like that but he’s almost completely practical. Originally, he was just supposed to be a cloaked figure and I had always had this vision of him looking like an alien that didn’t have eyes but it could still see you – this cloaked figure that could just see right through you. Once we saw it we were like eh, it’s cool but we wanted to start peeling some of the pieces away (laughs). We took away the mouth and we covered it with blood and then we had the horns poking through and then the last thing was the eyes. I wasn’t quite sure about that but then Howard showed me a render of it and I was sold. It was a pretty organic process and where we landed [on the design] was literally the week before we started filming.
The thought of an app that could countdown the exact time of death terrifies me. That said, if there was such an app, would you download it?
Justin Dec: Absolutely not, ignorance is bliss (laughs).