Nightmarish Conjurings caught up with indie-director Jonathan “JJ” Perez to discuss his debut feature, BENEATH. At 25 years old, JJ is about as green as they come but audiences are loving his scrappy cave horror film. Every element of the film, from the final product to the history of how it came to be is a testament to JJ’s love of the horror genre and how that love is all the drive and expertise you really need.
In BENEATH, a group of cavern tour guides are intrigued by legends of occult activity in their local caves and sneak into the cave system on Halloween night as a prank. They are then pursued… and picked off… by an ancient evil. Check out our full film review here.
In his conversation with Nightmarish Conjurings, Jonathan “JJ” Perez discusses his lifelong love of horror, the unique challenges of filming in a Texas cave (a completely untouched location, never before used in this way), and the excitement of being a fresh young filmmaker enjoying success on the festival circuit.
BENEATH is a horror film, a very classically formatted horror film. Why choose a horror film for your directorial debut? What’s your relationship with the genre?
Jonathan “JJ” Perez: It really started when I was a little kid, I mean probably the age of 2. There’s a video of me sitting in front of the TV watching Interview With The Vampire. I was always locked into the screen and watching horror films, my parents thought it was weird and, personally, I think it’s weird they let me do it! I loved horror and by about first grade I knew that I wanted to make films although I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of movies. Around 2007, Adam Green’s Hatchet came out and I would get chore money every other week and go to Wal-Mart to buy movies. I saw Hatchet and I was just amazed by it and I knew then, “This is what I want to make!”
I’ve always loved any type of horror films but 80s slashers are my favorite. John Carpenter is another hero of mine. I love his directing and his scores.
Do you see yourself staying strictly within horror? Now that you’ve got one horror film under your belt, would you want to try anything different?
Jonathan “JJ” Perez: I think I will most likely stay in the horror genre. It’s funny, two nights ago I had this idea for a short film that I started to jot down that’s more of a family film than horror. So who knows but, as of now, I plan to stay in horror. It’s my love.
What’s maybe most impressive about the film is that you were working with kind of the bare necessities. You said in your Q&A that you were working with a Best Buy camera, limited (if any) professional filming equipment, a totally green cast, and a filming location that has never been used in this way. What was it like approaching your first film in these circumstances?
Jonathan “JJ” Perez: It was difficult. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no formal education, I just knew the films I had seen over and over as a kid. I had no clue how well it was going to work, I just knew that I wanted to try and I was very lucky to have my cast and crew totally on board. Once we were in the cave, I started to question whether or not this was a dumb idea! Filming in the cave, you get a sense of what you’re lacking. There are such small areas, the ceilings are low, the ground is slick, and it’s hot! People think caves are cold but no, it was very sweaty in there. The lack of power also really created a challenge when it came to lighting.
Casting-wise, I knew these guys weren’t actors but I wrote their roles for these individuals to make them more comfortable. However, these tour guides entertain people every single day. In a way, that is acting and I tried to make that work in many places in the film.
What was the major catalyst that pushed you from dreaming of being a filmmaker to actually making it a reality?
Jonathan “JJ” Perez: There’s actually a great story behind that. In high school, everybody knew that I wanted to be a filmmaker because I was always making short videos for fun. My nickname “JJ” actually comes from JJ Abrams. However, after high school, I sort of lost my drive and heard horror stories of how hard the film industry is and I wasn’t sure if I could make it.
In 2017, I saw a screening of Adam Green’s new film and spoke with him after the film. In that conversation, I learned that it was Adam Green’s lowest budget film and that he didn’t have much to work with. This really inspired me because I thought it was one of his most impressive films. I mentioned to him that I wanted to be a filmmaker and then he gave me advice on how to weather the industry. He said, “Most filmmakers are crazy, but we’re here because we love it.” That talk really pushed me, having encouragement from my hero to pursue this. I started writing BENEATH that next week.
We talked earlier about how filming within the confines of the cave was quite difficult. Do you have any war stories or fond memories from filming?
Jonathan “JJ” Perez: There are certain shots in the movie where the cast is running; which, FYI, running in a cave is never a good idea. Well, in one of those scenes, our cast member Sarah is running towards the camera so I’m running backwards down this long skinny hallway. The ceiling is low and I’m filming. So, I’m running backwards down this hallway and two of my crew members are running behind me. One is holding the light the other is holding the camping generator that is powering everything. So there are three of us running backwards down this cave corridor. We misjudged a turn in the passageway and we went crashing into the wall. I scraped up my entire side but I did NOT drop the camera!
Another crazy story involves our leading man, Enzo. We were doing a simple walking shot and he’s just saying his lines and then out of nowhere, he walks right into the low ceiling of the cave. It sounded like when you slap a watermelon to test it, at the grocery store. It was bad, he said he saw stars and he may have given himself a concussion!
This story and screenplay are original to you, as well as your directing credit. When you were writing BENEATH were you writing it specifically for the setting of Inner Space Caverns or was this an idea that you tinkered with to fit what you had to work with?
Jonathan “JJ” Perez: It’s a mix. When I started brainstorming, I did think of my access to the cave location and just started creating ideas off of that. There is an actual legend, surrounding Inner Space Caverns, that Freemasons would hold meetings in the cave and there are concrete slabs deep in the cave that they apparently left behind. So that gave me the idea to put cult activity at the center of my movie, loosely inspired by that legend. We did use the concrete slabs in filming. I also wrote a script, long ago, that was based on the Slenderman character. So I reworked that old story and that’s why our monster, Arkyn, loosely resembles Slenderman.
I know the cave so well, that when I was writing I could picture very clearly where I wanted to film certain scenes. So, in that sense, I did adapt the film specifically to the space.
You’ve been making the rounds on the smaller festival circuit and have even brought home some awards and recognition for yourself and your cast. What has that been like, as a first-time filmmaker?
Jonathan “JJ” Perez: I have had so much fun doing this. I never imagined that I would get into one festival, so the fact that it has made it to 19 festivals in 13 states just blows my mind. The first film festival I ever took BENEATH to was the Prison City Film Festival in Huntsville, TX. It was the best first experience you could hope for. Being there made me want to go out and make another film!
They treat you like royalty, everyone is so nice, and the red carpet was just the coolest. I would love to attend as many festivals as possible and meet as many filmmakers as I can. So far, we’ve won Best Music at Prison City Film Festival, Best Horror Film at Sunny Side Up Film Festival in Oklahoma, and Best Texas Film at the GTX Film Festival in my hometown of Georgetown, TX. Most recently we won a Best Acting Ensemble award and we’ve won quite a few Best Actor and Best Actress awards. We were even nominated against Adam Brody and Barbara Crampton!
I am especially grateful to the folks at GTX Film Festival, who were so kind to us and so supportive of the film and the fact that we filmed it in Georgetown, TX. It was really great to be supported by the community in that way.
What projects do you have coming up that you’re especially excited about?
Jonathan “JJ” Perez: There’s nothing officially on the books but I would love to make a sequel to BENEATH. I do have some ideas that I want to build on. I’ve also thought about pursuing that short film I mentioned earlier.
Outside of directing I met another filmmaker at the Prison City Film Festival, Will Boothman. He’s directing his first feature, a road trip comedy/crime drama, and he asked me to perform! He loved BENEATH so much that he has brought on my lead actor, Enzo, to lead in his film. The film is called Bury a Lover and we start filming in December.
You can learn more about the film on Facebook and Instagram at @beneathcavefilm and follow JJ himself on Instagram @jjperez94.
BENEATH is still going strong on the film festival circuit and will be appearing at the South Texas Underground Film Festival in Corpus Christi, TX on January 23. The film has also been selected for the 2020 Monsters of Horror Film Festival and Convention in Tulsa, OK on February 14-17.