Known for directing action films within the Universal Soldier series, director John Hyams has officially made the jump into thriller terrain in his latest film, ALONE. The movie centers around Jessica (Jules Willcox), a grief-stricken widow who flees the city in an attempt to cope with the loss of her husband. When Jessica is kidnapped by a mysterious man (Marc Menchaca) and locked in a cabin in the Pacific Northwest, she escapes into the wilderness and is pursued by her captor.
For the upcoming release of ALONE, I had the opportunity to chat with John Hyams about the film where he discussed everything from his love of the genre, working with Jules Willcox and Marc Menchaca, as well as the challenges presented when shooting in the wilderness.
What was it about Mattias Olsson’s script that made you want to be involved in this project?
John Hyams: Originally what attracted me to Mattias’ script was I was very interested in doing things that were falling more in action; however, more and more I was interested in thrillers and creating suspense and exploring that, cinematically. Most of my favorite movies, or many of them, have been in the thriller genre. I wanted to do something that reminded me of some of my favorite ones. When I read Mattias’ script, the first several pages had me thinking about Duel (1971) and then I’m thinking of The Vanishing (1988) and then I’m thinking of Deliverance (1972). What I loved so much about the script was it was just kind of boiling it down to its essence. I loved it’s minimalism, I loved how spare it was with exposition and dialogue. I loved that it was a two-hander, I loved that it was woman vs. man, woman vs. nature. I loved that there was also an internal story going on with our protagonist that was a mirror image or parallel story to what’s happening externally. I loved all those elements of his script and those were really there on the page. I think that was kind of my “in” with the material – its minimalism.
Jules Willcox and Marc Menchaca do a phenomenal job of carrying this film. Did you have them spend a lot of time together prior to filming or did you try to keep them separated?
John Hyams: On one hand, you can imagine that you’d want to separate the actors and keep the tension alive off camera but the reality is it’s a very arduous thing as an actor going through what Jules and Marc are going through. I think more important than creating that tension between them in real life, it was much more important that we created an incredible bond of trust between them. I thought it was really important that they spend time socially together and that we all kind of could decompress and laugh when we weren’t filming so that Jules and Marc felt like they were taking care of each other through this. They’re really going through some heavy stuff, not just physically but also they are laying a lot of darkness on each other. To know that there is trust behind that, to me, was really important and they developed that instantly. That’s the kind of people they are. Marc is a very fun loving guy, really, he’s the life of the party and Jules, unlike her character, is very quick to laugh. We had a lot of laughs together. To me, that’s really the important thing.
The majority of the film takes place outdoors within nature, which I’m assuming was not easy to film. Can you elaborate on finding the locations and the challenges that they presented?
John Hyams: We all see these incredible locations if we are hiking or something but then you have to imagine – can I get an entire film crew there and can I get a camera through this? Your challenges become two-fold: You need permission but you also have to find a place that looks exactly the way you want and looks completely isolated but there’s actually access to it. We worked very closely with our locations department and we shot in and out of Portland; we went there specifically for the landscape. When I read the script the first thing I thought was this should be in the Pacific Northwest, it felt like Oregon or Washington State. We ended up feeling like Portland had what we were looking for. It was in the fall, short days, it was damp days but you get that rain forest climate, these massive trees that are hundreds of years old as well as the moss on the trees and the rocks in the mountains. Choosing these locations…at first you pick the places that you love and then it’s like, how do we actually get there and how do we find a river that we can actually put a person in? We all spent a day in the river in wet suits standing in freezing water and it was pretty wild. Not only with Jules getting in there but her stunt double, Michelle Damis, as well. We needed someone to go flying down rapids in the river and that’s basically what she did. Of course we had water safety people there but she had to do it multiple times. It was a lot of physically challenging things, but the truth is that’s part of why we do this. How do we create something that looks impossible, how do we shoot that? We want to put the viewer through something visceral. Mattias’ script had all these ideas in it so I remember just reading it thinking: How are we going to stage that? Our DP, Federico Verardi, did a beautiful job of capturing that and not just in an easy way. There’s an easy way of just running around with cameras and there’s a way of trying to actually capture the beauty and the scope and the majesty of these locations. There was a lot of attention paid to these natural surroundings and the details of it, the sights, sounds, and what it would be like to be in the middle of that.
The car in which Marc drives ends up being a character in and of itself throughout the film. Can you elaborate on the type of car you used and its importance to our antagonist?
John Hyams: I think in the script it was a Jeep if I’m not mistaken, but it was really important. We all think of the semi-truck in Duel and how that truck was it’s own character. Now, in this, we didn’t want the truck to be instantly like a menacing Mad Max-like battle Hell truck, it had to ride this line where on one hand it could just be suburban and non-threatening and then on the other hand there was something very dark and off-putting about it. The details covering the license plate with just the right amount of mud on it, there definitely was consideration put into it. The character, as well as his car, always had to ride that line. He couldn’t be an obvious villain and that’s why I loved the way Marc played him. Even in his physical look, at times he almost has this Ned Flanders thing going on but then in other times he’s got Jeffrey Dahmer-inspired glasses on (laughs). That is the beauty of Marc, he can lean into it so he can play the almost goofy suburban guy but also seem dangerous, too. He’s great at letting the tension hang in the air. He’s a fun guy, quite frankly, and he had fun with the character. The audience has to have fun with him, he can’t just be creepy. He has to have his own strange brand of charisma and Marc has a lot of charisma as a human.
ALONE is an edge of your seat thriller but it also speaks on the topic of grief. Aside from having an entertaining viewing experience, what do you hope viewers take away from the overall message?
John Hyams: The part of the script that attracted me most was that the whole thing is about someone dealing with grief. The villain could simply just be a metaphor for grief and someone dealing with it and someone trying to suppress it and run from it and hide from it and ultimately having to confront it. Everyone experiences that in their life and there was some of that even going on in our lives at that time when I first got that script. Hopefully movies are cathartic for the audience as well as an experience. Seeing what Jules character is dealing with, the hardship that she goes through that at times feels utterly hopeless, and how she confronts and prevails is something that, hopefully, can be inspiring to anyone who watches it and can internalize it with whatever they are going through in their life. I think movies, even thrillers, can do that.
For more on ALONE, check out our review here. ALONE will arrive in theaters and On Demand September 18th, 2020.